IPad: What’s in a Name for Steve?

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Steve Jobs with the iPad

The Row over the Newly Unveiled Tablet’s Name Provides the Right Peg to Analyse the Singular Ways of the Tech Company’s Iconic Leader

By Georgy S Thomas

For any other company this would have been a disaster. From the moment Steve Jobs announced on January 27 at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts that ‘we call it the iPad’, Apple’s new tablet has been at the receiving end of loud complaints by people who thought the name triggered thoughts about feminine hygiene products.

The Web 2.0 space was suddenly teeming with chatter and links to a hilarious 2006 spoof by comedy television series MADtv on the same theme. As if all that was not enough, we learn from The New York Times that there are at least three other products out there sporting the same iPad name: Fujitsu’s hand-held device aimed at shop clerks to tally inventory; a portable magnetic card reader by California company MagTek, and a European trademark ownership by chip company STMicroelectronics. Enough ingredients for a B-school case study on ‘How Not to Name a Product’. But with a track record of getting what it wants, it’s not Apple’s wont to pay heed to any such concerns. The noise over semantics is likely to blow over. And firms vying for the same trademark are likely to be blown away! End of story.

History is our guide. When the Silicon Valley bellwether brought out its iPhone a few years ago, none other than networking gear giant Cisco already had a VoIP phone out in the market called, well, the iPhone. Let’s hear it from The New York Times about what happened next: ‘‘Steven P Jobs, Apple’s chief executive, led the negotiation for the name, peppering Cisco executives with calls at all hours, and telling them he was prepared to claim that Cisco was underutilizing the trademark. Mr. Jobs finally persuaded Cisco to surrender the trademark with a vague promise to market their products jointly — a partnership that never materialized. ‘He’s a very tough businessman and tough negotiator’, said Charles Giancarlo, a former Cisco executive who dealt directly with Mr. Jobs on the issue. ‘I feel sorry for the poor guy at Fujitsu who is going to be negotiating with Steve directly’.’’ Got it?

The Naming of iMac: A Magical Mystery Tour

Let’s now move away from the iPad a bit and look at the larger question of how Apple names its cult products. Leander Kahney, longtime Apple watcher and editor of the website, Cult of Mac, last year posted an interview with advertising veteran Ken Segall who claimed to have been the force behind Apple’s ‘Think Different’ campaign and the naming of ‘iMac’, which kicked off the tradition of prefixing an ‘i’ before Apple products. After a hush-hush visit to Cupertino, where a Bondi-Blue Macintosh was revealed to the TBWA team with a flourish, Jobs met them. Let’s hear it from Cult of Mac:

Jobs told them he was betting the company on the machine and so it needed a great name. He suggested one at the meeting, Segall says, but it was terrible. It would ‘‘curdle your blood’’. Segall declined to say what Jobs wanted to call it. Jobs said the new computer was a Mac, so the name had to reference the Macintosh brand. The name had to make it clear the machine was designed for the internet. It also had to be applicable to several other upcoming products. And it had to be quick: the packaging needed to be ready in a week. Segall says he came back with five names. Four were ringers, sacrificial lambs for the name he loved — iMac. It referenced the Mac, and the ‘i’ meant internet, Segall says. But it also meant individual, imaginative and all the other things it came to stand for. It (the ‘i’ prefix) could also be applied to whatever other internet products Apple was working on. Jobs rejected them all, including iMac. ‘‘He didn’t like iMac when he saw it,’’ Segall says. ‘‘I personally liked it, so I went back again with three or four new names, but I said we still like iMac.’’ He said: ‘‘I don’t hate it this week, but I still don’t like it.’’ Segall didn’t hear any more about the name from Jobs personally, but friends told him that Jobs was silk-screening the name on prototypes of the new computer. He was testing it out to see if it looked good. ‘‘He rejected it twice but then it just appeared on the machine,’’ Segall says, laughing. ‘‘He never formally accepted it.’’

So if you go by Segall’s story, Jobs never formally accepted the name iMac, but as if by magic, it appeared on the machine. But because he never accepted it, perhaps he didn’t have to thank anybody or acknowledge anybody’s contribution towards the choice of the name.

The Naming of the iPod: an Eerily Similar Tale

An eerily similar story is told by Kahney in his book Inside Steve’s Brain about the naming of the iPod. Kahney credits Vinnie Chieco, a San Francisco-based freelance copywriter who consulted with Apple, for coining the name, a process which like in the story narrated by Segall, involved Chieco presenting the name, along with several other ringers, to Jobs. Let’s hear the narrative directly from Leander Kahney:

 

The iPod name was offered up by Vinnie Chieco, a freelancer who lives in San Francisco, and Jobs initially rejected it. Chieco was recruited by Apple to be part of a small team tasked with helping to figure out how to introduce the new MP3 player to the general public, not just to computer geeks. The task involved finding a name for the device, as well as creating marketing and display material to explain what it could do.

Chieco consulted with Apple for several months, sometimes meeting Jobs two or three times a week while working on the iPod. The four-man team worked in strict secrecy, meeting in a small, windowless office at the top of the building that houses Apple’s graphic design department. The room was locked electronically, and only four people had access keys, including Jobs. The room had a big meeting table and a couple of computers. Some of their ideas were posted up on the walls. The graphic design department is charged with designing Apple’s product packaging, brochures, trade-show banners, and store signage, among many other things. The graphics department has a privileged position within Apple’s organization: it often finds out about Apple’s secret products well in advance of launch. To preserve secrecy, Apple is highly compartmentalized. Like a covert government agency, employees are given information on a strictly need-to-know-basis. Various departments know bits and pieces about new products, but only the executive team is furnished with all the details.

To prepare packaging and signage materials, artists and designers in the graphics department are often the first to learn new product details, after the executive team. The graphics department, for example, was one of the first groups inside Apple to learn the iPod’s name, so that it could prepare the packaging. The other groups working on the iPod — including the hardware and the software teams —knew the device only by its codename, ‘Dulcimer’. Even within the graphics department, information was strictly rationed. The department has about one hundred staff, but only a small subset — about twenty or thirty people — knew of the iPod’s existence at all, let alone all of its details. The rest of the department found out about the iPod when Jobs unveiled it publicly to the press in October 2001.

During the process of finding a name, Jobs settled on the player’s descriptive tag line: ‘‘1,000 songs in your pocket.’’ This descriptive tag line freed up the name from having to be explanatory; it didn’t have to reference music or songs. While describing the player, Jobs constantly referred to Apple’s digital hub strategy: the Mac is a hub, or central connection point, for a host of gadgets, which prompted Chieco to start thinking about hubs: objects to which other things connect.

The ultimate hub, Chieco figured, would be a spaceship. You could leave the spaceship in a smaller vessel, a pod, but you’d have to return to the mother ship to refuel and get food. Then Chieco was shown a prototype iPod, with its stark white plastic front. ‘‘As soon as I saw the white iPod, I thought 20011,’’ said Chieco. ‘‘Open the pod bay door, HAL!’’

 

Then it was just a matter of adding the ‘i’ prefix, like the iMac….Chieco presented the name to Jobs along with several dozen alternatives written on index cards. He declined to mention any of the alternative names that were considered. As he examined the index cards one by one, Jobs sorted them into piles: one for candidates, the other for rejects. The iPod went into the reject pile. But at the end of the meeting, Jobs asked the four people present for their opinions. Chieco reached across the table and pulled the ‘iPod’ card from reject pile. ‘‘The way Steve had been explaining this, it made sense to me,’’ said Chieco. ‘‘It was the perfect analogy. It was very logical. Plus, it was a good name.’’ Jobs told Chieco he’d think about it.

 

After the meeting, Jobs began market testing several native names on people inside and outside the company whom he trusted. ‘‘He was throwing out a whole lot of names,’’ said Chieco. ‘‘He had a lot. He started to ask around.’’ A few days later, Jobs informed Chieco that he’d made a decision in favour of iPod. He didn’t offer an explanation. He simply told Chieco: ‘‘I’ve been thinking about that name. I like it. It’s a good name.’’ A source at Apple, who asked not be to be named (because he doesn’t want to be fired), confirmed Chieco’s story.

Athol Foden, a naming expert and president of Brighter Naming of Mountain View, California, noted that Apple had already trademarked the iPod name on July 24, 2000, for an internet kiosk, a project that never saw the light of day. Apple registered the iPod name for ‘‘a public internet kiosk containing computer equipment’’, according to the filing….

Chieco was puzzled when I told him that Apple had already registered the iPod name. He wasn’t aware of it, and neither, apparently, was Steve Jobs. Chieco said the internet kiosk must be a coincidence. He suggested that maybe another team at Apple registered the name for a different project, but because of the company’s penchant for secrecy, no one was aware that it was already one of their trademarks.

Can Chieco then crow about having named the iPod? Legitimate question. For one, Kahney says he could confirm the story only after he assured a source at Apple that his name wouldn’t be revealed (apparently he didn’t want to be fired). So we are unlikely to get a better response from Apple. Second, Steven Levy, another authority on Apple, gives a totally different take about the naming of iPod in his book The Perfect Thing. It seems Jobs told Levy that the name emerged out of a back and forth among him, his marketing people, and advertising agency Chiat Day. Here’s how Levy narrates the process:

It was Jobs who told everyone what the device would be called. ‘‘He just came in and went, ‘iPod’,’’ says one team member. ‘‘We all looked around the room, and that was it. iPod. And we’re like, ‘Where did that come from?’ ’’ (Excellent question, and one that proved increasingly elusive the more I pressed people at Apple about it. Finally, I was able to corner Jobs on it and he said that to the best of his knowledge the name sort of emerged, not exactly in a form of immaculate conception but in a lengthy back and forth among him, his marketing people, and ChiatDay. ‘‘The ad agency loved it,’’ he told me. But I get the distinct impression that the iPod moniker won out not because of its brilliance but because Jobs had had enough of the naming process and the hour was getting late.)

Has the penny dropped now? So then let’s come back to the iPad. Who came out with the name for the just unveiled Apple tablet device? Do we even want to know? The ways of Steve Jobs are indeed mysterious.

Notes:

1 The reference is to the 1968 cult sci-fi movie 2001: A Space Odyssey

 

 Further reading and viewing:

 

 

The MADtv spoof on the iPad from You Tube

CultofMac.com interview with Ken Segall

The New York Times story on the iPad name controversy

Inside Steve’s Brain by Leander Kahney, Atlantic Books, 2008

The Perfect Thing by Steven Levy, Simon and Schuster, 2007

About the Author

Georgy S Thomas did his Masters in Sociology from Bangalore University and his MPhil in International Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. During a 15-year journalism stint, among others, he served The Indian Express and The Economic Times, Bangalore, where he was Assistant News Editor. He’s now a tech entrepreneur, and heads Proseperity, a start-up which hopes to emerge as a central hangout place for consumers of eBooks and eReaders. His email is [email protected]

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