Enough With The Ridiculous Product Code Names

By Mat Honan on at

You see that photo right above these words? That's a bloody ice cream sandwich. You know what's on the next generation of Android phones? An operating system. Android 4.0 to be specific. I challenge you to eat it.

Dear technology industry: let's stop with the dumb-ass code names. You want to use them internally? Fine. But they're ridiculous when you use them in public. When you do so, it effectively becomes the defacto product name.

I mean, do you really want people calling it Mango? Really?

I get it. It's handy to use code names when products are in development. They're easily referred to, and it gives your company a bit of stealth. Someone hears you talking about your next-generation Taco Truck, they aren't necessarily going to equate that to a smartphone. But please quit inflicting them on the public. Or if you do plan to make them public, please give them some sort of useful nomenclature. Being silly for the sake of being silly is just, well, silly.

I bear part of the blame. Technology journalists and bloggers love talking in code. Version 4.0? Ha! Why would I use an easily-recognizable number that gives both a sense of the product history and clear indication of what I'm talking about when I can show off my 1337 status by calling it Ice Cream Sandwich, a term that both displays my insider knowledge and confounds those who don't pay close attention to release cycles. This has encouraged companies to start using those names in public too. And sometimes that's not helpful. It's only a problem when the code name becomes the product name, either in a defacto-if-encouraged sense (like Mango) or officially (like Ice Cream Sandwich or Lion).

Here's an exercise. Which came first? Jaguar or Panther? You may know the answer, but look at you; you're reading a tech blog. Do you think most consumers would find the answer evident? Compare that question to: Which came first version 10.2 or version 10.3?

In short, if you think of names as sales tools, you should make sure that name helps people make purchasing decisions. You should want your customers to know which is the newest, latest, and greatest. It may not be a big deal if there's no choice involved—for example, if all your products come with version X installed.

But if there is choice in the marketplace (as there very much is with Android phones) why would you muddy the waters by getting people to think in terms of Ice Cream Sandwich versus Gingerbread, or Froyo, or Creme Brulee or whatever when you can have people think in terms of one, two, three, four. Or 2009, 2010, 2011.

Car companies actually have this right. Model years are an easy way for consumers to differentiate products. You know who's actually quite good at this in the technology industry? Microsoft. What, huh, who? Yeah. Microsoft.

Windows 95? It was released in 1995. Windows 2000? It was released in 2000. Which came first, Windows 7, or Windows 8? That's pretty clear. And then they went and rolled out Mango. Mango!

I sort of blame Apple for all this nonsense.

If you look at the OS X release cycle, Apple initially used its internal code names internally, and version numbers externally. Check out the boxes for OS X 10.0, or OS X 10.1. A lot of tech geeks and journos called those things Cheetah and Puma, respectively, but Apple used version numbers on the boxes.

And then came 10.2. It was codenamed Jaguar, and Apple radically changed its packaging. It was both subtle, and an overt reference to the code name. By 10.3 it was prominently printing the codename itself (Panther) right on the box, and it was all downhill from there. By 10.6 the version number doesn't even appear prominently anymore.

Maybe this is just because I'm old and cranky. But I've been covering technology since the '90s. If I have trouble making sense of all these code names and become confused as to which came first, what does that do to the average consumer?

And to be clear, I'm not against code names. I'm certainly not against using them internally, or even externally if they can add some value. But I am so, so sick of meaningless, ridiculous code names being bandied about for the sake of being cute in lieu of nomenclature that's actually helpful.