Even a chimp can write code

Sunday, September 17, 2006

What's in a name?

This past week it was announced that "Atlas", the cross-browser, cross-platform, web development technology will be have a few new official names as part of it's release:

  1. Microsoft AJAX Library: the client-side "Atlas" javascript library
  2. ASP.NET 2.0 AJAX Extensions: the server-side functionality
  3. ASP.NET AJAX Control Toolkit: formerly the "Atlas" Control Toolkit

When I first heard this, I almost cried out "Why? Why? Why?". I thought Atlas was a cool name. Easy to pronounce, memorize and recall, and not offensive either. It was totally in the vein of "SmallTalk" and "Java". No, this was "Avalon" revisited!

Just as I sometimes jump headlong to conclusions, I am also capable of calm calculation. And I proceeded to do just that. I may be oversimplifying the problem, but I will say that the mechanics behind choosing a good product name are different for consumer products than for platforms and frameworks. You are not going to sell a technology to astute developers and decision makers based merely on its name. "Atlas" by itself wasn't very informative.  But the terms "ASP.NET" and "AJAX" are more widely known, and tagging them along gives the audience clarity on what "Atlas" actually is. Although, one could argue there's one too many buzzword in there (and herein my bias against the term "AJAX" rears it's ugly head again!).

A name may be used be to inform the product's audience about it's function. For example, the "No Child Left Behind Act". However, this isn't a necessary condition for a name, and may sometimes even backfire on you as aforementioned piece of legislation allegedly has. On the other hand, using sterile, non sequitur names have proven to be very successful for some people. Take for example Toyota Camry. To a potential customer, the name does not hold any special sway. It does not highlight the virtues of the car or even how Toyota engineering places this car high among the most popular in the world. I doubt the car would be any less or more successful had it been given a different name.  [Ref: my post on bad car names]

A cool name does not a cool product make. Prefixing an i to an everyday word does not automatically get you a fanatical following. You need to back it up with functionality and make it relevant to your audience. "Atlas" has seen over 250,000 downloads this year. That is a big deal for beta software. The number of people who downloaded this software mistaking it for content on Greek legends is likely statistically insignificant.

I won't lose sleep over developers running away in droves just because the new names are a tad, well, boring. Developers and decision makers care about breadth and depth of functionality, quality of APIs, extensibility, ease of use, performance and sundry other things. With Microsoft AJAX Library, ASP.NET AJAX Extensions and ASP.NET AJAX Control Toolkit, that remains unchanged despite the million more syllables added to the name.

But there are downsides too. There can be no advantage in making a name a mouthful for people to utter. The phrase spreading the word now no longer applies. People will soon seek acronyms and abbreviated forms to refer to the name. Case in point: WPF. And that just negates your branding efforts; plus your argument of making the name meaningful no longer holds. 

I'm sitting on the fence on this one. 

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