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An App, By Any Other Name

Programmers must learn that product names are not a joke

By Adam R. Gold

All too often, a great idea for an application can’t shake the burden of an awful name. The company SimulScribe, for instance, which converted voicemail messages into emails, was doing a steady business, but the founders felt their name was holding them back. People couldn’t remember it or even spell it, which made it impossible for them to sign up online. When co-founder James Siminoff heard a friend say he was tired of “phone tag” after a series of missed messages, Siminoff called his chief marketing officer at 6:30 a.m. and tried to buy the domain It was already taken, so the company spent $30,000 to buy the rights from the previous owner. Though pricy, the rebranding may have paid off: Despite charging users, PhoneTag continues to hold its own, even against free competitor Google Voice.

Names are a crucial factor in the success of any company, yet far too often startup software companies give themselves or their products hastily picked names that don’t do them justice. Web 2.0 companies in particular have silly, nonsensical-sounding names with doubled o’s and e’s that are either made up or taken from a foreign language. No one wants to do business with a company named Oyogi or Qoop. Bad names are hardly a new phenomenon, but product names have likely taken a turn for the worse in the information age because computer scientists tend to be really bad at naming things.

Scientists in most other fields have come up with standards to keep names simple and professional-sounding. Biologists give species Latin names, physicists name things after famous physicists, while chemists have schemes to generate names that are highly descriptive. But more often than not, names in the world of software tend to involve nerdy references, inside jokes, and, most commonly, puns. If a byte is eight bits, what do you call four bits? A nybble. Are you laughing yet?

Open source software, a set of applications built by programmers for programmers, is particularly plagued by an epidemic of bizarre and even offensive names. The most popular image-editing program for Unix is called the GIMP, which purports to be an acronym, but it is either a pejorative term for a disabled person or a submissive sexual role in BDSM (à la “Pulp Fiction”). The popular audio compression codec Ogg Vorbis sounds like it was named after a troll in the Harry Potter series, and the Linux installer Kororaa, whose name is based on the Maori word for little penguin, is downright unpronounceable.

The developers of Ubuntu, the popular flavor of Linux that is installed on the computers in the Science Center, showed questionable judgment by picking a name that is a pretentious reference to an African philosophy. But to make matters worse, Ubuntu developers mucked up their clever release dating system with a completely ludicrous set of nicknames. Each release of Ubuntu is dated by the year and the month—9.10, for instance, came out last October—but the numbers are also paired with an alliterative combination of an obscure adjective and a rare animal, yielding such gems as Edgy Eft, Intrepid Ibex, and Jaunty Jackalope. It makes pompous names like Mac OS X Snow Leopard seem almost reasonable by comparison.

In the pantheon of bad programmer names, recursive acronyms must sit near the top. It’s a perverse concept popular with MIT alums in which one of the letters in the acronym stands for the acronym itself. A relatively benign example is the web scripting language PHP, which stands for PHP: Hyptertext Preprocessor. Older, stranger examples are the free operating system GNU (GNU’s not Unix) and related spinoffs: Cygnus (Cygnus—Your GNU Support), a now-defunct company which provided support for free software, and Wine (Wine is Not an Emulator), software which helps run windows applications on Unix.

The strangest names seem relegated to products only other programmers use, so it may be that programmers are smart enough to pick good names when they know it matters. More likely, names help determine the success of a brand, and bad names just don’t make the cut.

One big exception, as it is in many things, is Google. The name comes from a deliberate misspelling of googol, an obscure term for the number one followed by 100 zeroes. Google adheres to several tricks in the bad name playbook by combining an obscure, nerdy reference with a dorky misspelling. Yet the name has become one of the company’s biggest assets, and is even included in the OED as a verb.

Google may be the exception that proves the rule. While Google could overcome its quirky name and lack of advertising by providing the best product in the industry, many recent web startups don’t have quite so much to offer. Hopefully the next generation of entrepreneurs will realize that a good, sturdy name can make a huge difference for their product. If anything, there will be a lot fewer superfluous o’s and e’s cluttering up the internet.

Adam R. Gold ’11, a Crimson editorial writer, is a physics concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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