The “What’s in a Name” Report

January 20th, 2016

In marketing, branding may be as important or more important than the product itself. Sometimes a brand name becomes a verb for an entire product category. For years I referred to a bandage as a “Band-Aid” until I realized I was giving Johnson & Johnson free publicity. My mother would always refer to a certain kitchen appliance as “Frigidaire” even though the refrigerator’s brand name may be something else entirely.

When it comes to a personal computer, it’s technically a PC even if it’s a Mac, although most of you separate the two since they are so different in so many ways. But I do hear some refer to their smartphones as iPhones, their tablets as iPads, and their digital music players as iPods even if they are products from other makers with different model names. Then again, how does “pod” imply music player? But most product names from other companies are so incomprehensible they can be most anything. What message does Samsung Galaxy convey about the product it represents?

In short, most members of the tech industry may well be clueless about product naming. But what do I know of marketing anyway?

Other than iPod, Apple seems to have a problem with operating system branding for its personal computers. At one time, Macs were powered by the Mac OS. When the new generation operating system was introduced in 2000, with a public beta, it was Mac OS X. But one fine day it was simply OS X. Perhaps it was meant for the operating system to support products other than Macs, but it hasn’t worked out that way.

So iOS is for iPhones, iPads and the iPod touch, even though it is based on the guts of OS X. The Apple Watch is powered by watchOS and Apple TV, beginning with the fourth generation, is powered by tvOS. So iOS is for certain “i” products and the other operating systems clearly indicate which products they represent. Except for OS X.

Now once upon a time, Apple might actually have planned to spread the joy, but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards, particularly since its other operating systems more or less clearly indicate in their labeling what sort of products they are designed for. Indeed, I expect the Apple Car to be powered by carOS, so where does that leave OS X?

One online commentator, a former tech magazine editor, is clearly in the Mac OS or Mac OS X camp. I would presume the latter would make more sense since it’s quite different from the original. But is there any reason for such a change? What point would it serve at this point in time?

Sure, I understand why Apple Computer became Apple Inc., since the focus expanded so much, but would it make any difference at all what naming conventions are used for its oldest operating system? So far as I’m concerned, it really doesn’t matter. It’s not that marketing messages must be consistent, so long as they deliver a message that gains traction with customers and, at the end of the day, helps to sell a product or a service. Or at least doesn’t get in the way.

So this all is probably a case of talking about nonsense, since Apple is not about to care one way or the other at this point. Indeed, there may be some future product, a successor to the Mac, that might bear a different name and still use OS X. So we’re all whistling in the dark anyway.

Regardless of what choices Apple makes in future products or services, you can bet it will be simple, direct, memorable. Product distinctions will be fairly simple and more or less easily understood. It’s a simple message that began with the Apple computer and continued through generations of LaserWriters, MessagePads all the way to the present day.

This remains a message mostly lost on other companies. So does a Roku imply a media streamer? Certainly an Amazon Fire TV might, if only for the third name. So where does Fire enter the picture anyway?

But I fail to see where Dell Inspiron or Dell XPS conveys personal computer without a word or two to further define the product, such as Dell Inspiron Micro Desktop. That falls easily from the tongue — not.

At least Microsoft Windows was meant to imply a windowing operating system, but I’m not so sure about Android. The original definition refers to a robot with a human appearance, but it was distorted in referring to a mobile operating system. Why Android? Well, it’s the name of the company that Google acquired to gain the technology. But where does that leave Chrome?

Yes, I realize that the public has accepted Android as the world’s popular mobile operating system, although Chrome, outside of educators who want the cheapest gear for their students, hasn’t gone anywhere. But if you asked people who never heard of a smartphone what an Android might be, what would you expect them to say?

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