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What's In a Name?

HAL: I've been trying to figure something out, Mark. Maybe you can help me. What's an "Accelis"? I thought it was a misspelling of "Acela"--which is Amtrak's new high-speed train between New York and Boston.

MARK: Well, they both have wheels, but actually, "Acellis" is one of the two new Linear Tape Open formats from IBM, Seagate, HP, and Fujitsu. It's optimized for high speed--high transfer rates and fast data access, that is, hence, the "ac" root in the name, which, I suppose, they picked to suggest "acceleration," only without the extra "c."

HAL: The Linear Tape Open--now that sounds like a golf tournament. Have you noticed? There's a glut of new product and company names nowadays that have no real-world antecedents. They're not abbreviations like Nabisco; they're not trademarked initials, like MCI, or descriptive conjunctions like "@Home," or even common words for states of consciousness, like "Excite."

MARK: The other LTO format is called Ultrium. I guess they want people to think it's some kind of "ultimate element," like Uranium.

HAL: Names like that don't evolve naturally--they emerge from a company's core business. High-priced image consultants concoct them and, as a result, they're almost never memorable. The last one of those that really worked was when Standard Oil of New Jersey became "Exxon" in the 1970s.

MARK: That only worked because it was fairly unique among stupid company names and Exxon was arguably slightly better than ENCO, the name it replaced. At the time, I commented that, for all the money they paid to find a new name, they should have called it Excess, instead of Exxon. Before Exxon, the only name that everybody remembers is "Kodak," which George Eastman coined because he wanted a short name that was memorable. That word was coined 100 years ago, but I'll bet none of these new names are going to be meaningful in 2099. These things almost never work as planned, but people keep thinking them up--and getting rich from the exercise. HP is spinning off its test equipment division into a new company that's officially called "Agilent." I assume it's supposed to mean both "agile" and "intelligent."

HAL: Not necessarily, although that's the official derivation. The reality is disconcerting. I met a guy from that division at the Replitech show and he said there was a lot of internal opposition to the new name because it doesn't say anything. HP's test equipment has a first-rate track record, going all the way back to Hewlett and Packard's first oscilloscope in the 1940s. Apparently, the engineers wanted the name to reference "HP" or, at least, to have "test" in it somewhere, to capitalize on that reputation, but the top brass didn't listen to their own people. Instead, they bought into a meaningless word--a word that their sales people will have to explain to customers and prospects before they can even talk about test equipment!

MARK: "Agilent" is worse than just meaningless. It's downright confusing. While you were talking, I fired up my browser and went to I found HP's test equipment there, all right, but I also found a small area on their page pointing to "Agile Enterprise"--an utterly unrelated company that doesn't like being confused with "Agilent." Apparently, they were able to exert enough leverage on HP to get this item onto the Agilent site. Talk about confusion!

HAL: I don't know how much HP paid its consultants to come up with the name "Agilent," but you'd think somebody involved would have done a careful search before they registered that name and, in any case, it's an awful lot like "Taligent."

MARK: "Taligent." That sounds familiar, but I can't place it.

HAL: "Taligent" and "Kaleida" were the children of a doomed romance between Apple and IBM in the late 1980s. They were corporate spin-offs: "Taligent" for R&D and "Kaleida" for educational software. The consultants coined "Taligent," I suppose, to show how "intelligent" they were.

MARK: And what bad spellers, too!

HAL: Personally, I always thought "Kaleida" came up after they all got high and sat around playing with a kaleidoscope.

MARK: High tech companies aren't the only ones who make mistakes with their naming conventions. The Lexis/Nexus research service was doing all right for years before an automobile maker came out with a car called Lexus. Now, I'm sure, in the early days of Lexus, the car, there was a lot of confusion.

HAL: Why don't companies like HP build on the strengths of their own names? Why does a great research outfit like Bell Labs have to call its commercial spin-off "Lucent"? They swore up and down that the name was based on the Latin word for "light" and, I guess, it was; but what does "light" have to do with building custom-integrated circuits--ASICs? That's their core business, not light bulbs.

MARK: Of course, Lucent is also in the fibre optic business, so one out of two isn't bad. My latest entry in the stupid-name derby is Ravisent.

HAL: Okay. What does it mean? E-mail from Ravi Shankar?

MARK: When I first heard the name, I thought of "rabbit scent"--not exactly what the company expected. I don't know what the name means, but I found it in a news release.

HAL: Oh? What was their news?

MARK: They're in some kind of development partnership with a company called Teknema.

HAL Hmmmm . . . another name that's fraught with meaning!

MARK: Sometimes you have to change your name, though. Remember "Intergalactic Digital Research"? As soon as they started selling CP/M in quantity, they dropped the sci-fi leadin and became "Digital Research" and "Apple Crate Computer" dropped the "Crate."

HAL: There was some logic in calling the company "Apple," though. It clearly suggested the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden and it's a real word with positive connotations like taste and nutrition.

MARK: I always figured it was just a funky name for a quirky company made up by two very wild and crazy guys.

HAL: Don't knock wild and crazy. I wouldn't have called a company "Yahoo!"-I can't even say the word without thinking of Gulliver's Travels, but "Yahoo!" is an order of magnitude better than "Ravisent" or "Kaleida" or "Ultrium."

MARK: At least it suggests the fun and the thrill of finding something you're looking for.

HAL: Exactly. I wonder if our readers have some favorite company or product names that tickle their funny bones. If you'd like to share some wacky names with us, please e-mail me at Remember--they have to be real names and don't forget to include what they're supposed to mean--if you can figure it out.

MARK: On the other hand, if you know of some particularly adept company name or product name--one that expresses itself or its underlying concept particularly well--then I'd like to hear from you. E-mail me at
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Title Annotation:News Briefs
Author:Glatzer, Hal
Publication:Computer Technology Review
Date:Nov 1, 1999
Previous Article:Why Storage Should Be A Service.
Next Article:Letters to the Editor.

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