Windows

Earth to Microsoft: Please stop changing your product names

Deb Shinder wants Microsoft to pick a name and stick with it and to stop confusing their customers.

A rose by any other name would be, well, confusing. If, all of a sudden, people started using the word "persimmon" when they were talking about those long-stemmed red flowers, it would result in chaos within the floral industry, especially right now around Valentine's day. If your florist didn't get the memo, you might end up sending your true love a dozen little, yellow pieces of fruit.

A silly analogy, maybe, but here's the point: names are important -- but consistency and continuity of names is even more important. One of my pet peeves with Microsoft is that they change the names of their products and services more frequently than any company I know.

Playing the name game

Just look up almost any random Microsoft product (other than Office and Windows) on Wikipedia. Let's try Windows Live ID. The first thing you see is "(originally Microsoft Wallet, Microsoft Passport, .NET Passport, and then briefly Microsoft Passport Network)." Windows Live Messenger was formerly just Windows Messenger, and before that it was MSN Messenger (not to be confused with the NT Messenger -- remember that?).

How about those server products? Proxy Server turned into ISA (Internet Security and Acceleration) Server, which turned into TMG (Threat Management Gateway). SNA Server turned into HIS (Host Integration Server), and now it's part of BizTalk technologies. Office Communications Server turned into Lync. MMS (Microsoft Metadirectory Services) turned into MIIS (Microsoft Identity Integration Server), which turned into ILM (Identity Lifecycle Manager).

Exchange Server has managed to hang onto its name, but the original Microsoft Exchange was an email client whose name was changed to Windows Messaging, which eventually forked off into Internet Mail and News (which turned into Outlook Express, which turned into Windows Mail, which turned into Windows Live Mail) and Outlook.

Are you confused yet? So are a lot of customers.

What are they thinking?

I'd love to be a fly on the wall so that I could find out what the folks who make these decisions are thinking. Product names may seem like a trivial matter, but companies spend millions of dollars on "branding" -- the process of creating an instant and positive association between a name and that product in the minds of the public. Names matter. Just ask any high school girl whose parents stuck her with a moniker such as Gertrude or Agnes whether she thinks she'd be more popular if she were named Kristy or Melissa.

Not that an unfortunate name can't be overcome, and even become cool. When the iPad first came out, it was the object of a great deal of fun-poking in the media due to the mental association with feminine hygiene products that it conjured up in some people's minds. That didn't keep the device from racking up record sales when it hit the marketplace. There are other products that have been very successful despite potentially embarrassing or just plain bad product names, too.

In other cases, however, a name can make or break a product -- or keep a teenager off the cheerleading team. Would Apple's Newton (their first "pad," released in 1993) have become a hot seller with a more imaginative name? Would Duz detergent still be around if those who named it hadn't tried to go against the Tide? Would the HTC Rezound -- a phone with really impressive specs, a superior camera, and features that are lacking in its top two competitors -- be getting more attention if it had a "sharp" name like the Razr?

So getting the name right is important, but that doesn't mean that if your product doesn't sell as well as you'd like, you should keep changing the name in hopes of hitting on that magical one that will resonant with all people and cause them to run out and buy it. Consistency in naming is arguably even more important, even if the name is somewhat boring or even bad (Expression Blend? Seriously? FrontPage was a much better name).

Apple used consistency in naming, very successfully, with their iPhone. Instead of naming each version something different, they went with iPhone 2, iPhone 3, iPhone 4, etc. And that was within a larger consistency built around the lowercase letter "i" - iMac, iPod, iPhone, iPad. Microsoft recognizes the need for consistency when it comes to PC operating systems, carrying the Windows name over to each succeeding generation. So why do they keep playing musical chairs with the names of so many of their other products?

It makes sense when a product isn't very successful. It also makes sense when you're drastically changing the nature of the product and rewriting the code from the ground up, e.g. changing Windows Mobile (which was previously Pocket PC, which grew out of Windows CE) to Windows Phone. What doesn't make sense is changing the name of a product with a loyal following and good brand recognition, when the new version just adds some features and functionality but appears to be basically the same product (e.g., ISA Server to TMG).

Microsoft has often been accused of being in love with "change just for the sake of change" in regard to the user interface. Is the motivation behind all these name changes that simple? Probably not. I would guess that large amounts of money have been thrown at consultants, studies, polls, and surveys aimed at coming up with the "right" names.

Impact on customers

All this would be just of academic interest if not for the effect on customers and users of the products. Confusion leads to frustration, and frustrated customers often give up and go find a competing product that's not so confusing. All this name-changing doesn't create a sense of trust in the product.

A name is a very important part of a product's or person's identity. In the "real world," people generally change their names for only a handful of reasons:

  • Marriage: When women (and sometimes men) take on the names of their spouses. This is perfectly acceptable, but if you have a long list of former married names, people may start to wonder why you can't seem to stay with the same partner.
  • Criminality: When a person needs to hide his/her identity from the law due to past criminal activity.
  • Victimization: When a person is in danger from a stalker, a former abusive partner, a criminal against whom the person has testified, or some such situation.

Oh, Gertrude might get fed up with never being asked out and go to court to get her name changed to something with less of an "old lady" feel, but she probably won't do it more than once. In most cases, having multiple former names doesn't create a good impression.

So come on, Microsoft. Pick a name and stick with it. Stop confusing customers who actually like and want to get your products but have a hard time doing so because they don't know what it is called this week.

Also read:

About

Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 add...

52 comments
seanferd
seanferd

They just haven't found the dumbest name possible yet. Sometimes not even before they discontinue a product.

davidhbrown
davidhbrown

You forgot to mention vanity among the reasons people change their names. That may be the most relevant.

gadjet
gadjet

Whole heartedly! Especially when it comes to renaming "things" within a program. KNOCK IT OFF MICROSOFT! I've been "dabbling" in "Access" fo years, the most difficult thing is trying to use it over different versions, when the same thing suddenly has a different name, it's like having to relearn the program each time. What is the point? Is it to confuse the users so much that they stop using it? Is Microsoft "trying" to lose customers, or make it so difficult that only a select few can use it, I guess if you WANT to go broke over a few years, that would be the way to do it. Make something so difficult that no one can learn it with out having a degree in a new language ever few years. Maybe it just stems from employee turnover, the one who wrote it last time has left because they can't remember his name (probably gone to Apple) and the new guy doesn't know the history, so he reinvents the same wheel with and gives it a different name. The new guy will be gone before the next incantation. Maybe microsoft has more shares in apple than they let on, and maybe they make more money from apple, so they want us all to move to apple?

dAVErSF
dAVErSF

One of the worst naming moves by Microsoft was the absurd change of File Manager to Explorer, which caused untold confusion with Internet Explorer shortcuts and various component file or shortcut names in both programs. Idiotic move!

sir.ptl
sir.ptl

I think Microsoft in particular is tied up in the "Teeny Bopper" craze. And if you don't believe this, just log on to Facebook.

kerry.sisler
kerry.sisler

Perhaps they are just striving to get it right the first time and when that fails, they make successive iterative attempts to continue striving. Oh geez; did I just say "get it right the first time". Apologies...

awgiedawgie
awgiedawgie

Deb, you may want to be a fly on the wall - I'd rather be a bird on a wire, so I could drop a load on the head of whoever keeps giving them the go-ahead for all these name changes.

pdouglas4294
pdouglas4294

Maybe the reason M$ products keep getting re-named is the head of that unit (E-Mail Client for instance) gets changed and one of the first changes they do is to re-org things. One of the divisions in the Govt agency I work at re-ordered its name. The initials went from PPPHS to PHPPS. (What the words meant stayed the same, but the new division head felt it was important to re-emphasize the "PH" part over the "PP". Still, it was more of "BS" to me.)

SHCA
SHCA

You're right, it IS completely confusing. I've always felt that positioning and branding have no place at the table on the first release, and are then asked to fix it when sales are disappointing. Having worked those kind of roles at other large software makers, I suspect that it's an outcome of a techie-driven culture within Micrososft. I know from experience that developers will adopt the first name that is mentioned, then stick to it stubbornly, resenting the intrusion of such "non-productive wanks" as marketing or branding. Having spent decades thinking of themselves as technical wizards and ignoring the fully rounded idea of product development, I'm pessimistic about Microsoft's ability to change the cultural mind-set. But please keep poking them, Deb. Microsoft's "bend but don't break" architectural vision is the only thing keeping us from complete market chaos.

yodi.collins
yodi.collins

As long as it works the way I need it to when I use it, Microsoft can name it whatever they want.

jdtool
jdtool

I couldn't agree more! It is to the point that I'm really starting to hate M.S. All the names and name changes and really dumb updates are starting to get so irritating and confusing that I'm starting to look for alternatives to MS products. I don't know what M.S. is thinking but I'm not impressed. I'm even seriously considering a Mac for my next new computer.

your last hope
your last hope

I never see anyone confused for how Microsoft change the name of his products, it very easy download the last version and done

croberts
croberts

The reason a lot of these names changed is because products were acquired from other companies, so it is basically a whole new application from a new developer to replace their ailing application that is not as capable. For example, when Frontpage was replaced by Expression Web. The name change was not really a change because the other program already existed under that name. It is a totally new product from another company. As far as the website stuff goes (.NET Passport, etc.) - Who cares what title they put on a site, you still get there by clicking on the same link. Also, MSN Messenger and Live Messenger...really? If you are still using these then join the 21st century. Get something like Pidgin or Trillian. It's obvious the author is an Apple fan though, so seems like an appropriate article considering the source. I may have been more convinced if she had used Adobe as a comparison. My beef with Microsoft is changing feature and role names within products, like Windows Server. They move things around that are functioning perfectly for no reason. Sure, it might make their source code leaner or make sense to the developer, but for us professionals who get trained on these systems, it is a pain. I am starting to think MS changes feature/role names and locations now just to further propagate their re-certification and training sales.

oldbaritone
oldbaritone

Many of the name changes are just spin, trying to foist off an old, tired product by adding or subtracting a few features and giving it a new name. No progress, just a new coat of paint. Change the name, add a little glitz, and tell the world how great and revolutionary it is.

aljswise
aljswise

Best recent example of unnecessary name change. Microsoft Communicator messaging program is changed to Microsoft Lync. But what is the name of the executable file? communicator.exe

rmccollum
rmccollum

When will the industry of code writting and naming develop "really develop" standards? Let's not hammer MS to much here, the Mac OS x in just a version of Unix (NeXT) with a multitude of version #s as well, with a frontend named after animals - now that's releative (mostly a marketing ploy to grab the attention to the unknowing and young.) All have given many a head scratching session in figuring out just what changed and why the name change. So many IS&T professionals these days have no history in there carreer growth of how and why, thus we are doomed to repeat the past; e.g. powershell, command line, vi(m), edline, etc... of which we all complained about a few years ago. Is anyone or group working on a truly new OS that really takes advantage of the power within today's computing platforms? Do we have companies (speaking blindly here) with Brian Kernighan and Dennis Ritchie types producing new kernel products? Will the MS, Apple, Unix/Linux types continue building modified masks (desktops) for users to do the mundane with razzle-dazzle that gets in the way of productivity in the workplace. After 40+ years in the IT/Commo business all I can say is "Geez, I wonder waht's next - what a ride, I love it." Check out ACM.org and Computer.org for the new and old in computing. My 2 cents worth...

Muhammad Mahdi
Muhammad Mahdi

I remember reading on TechRepublic some time ago that Apple was more successful due to its naming of Mac OS's with agile cat names as opposed to Windows boring win 7, win 98, 95 etc. Now here you say Apple got it right with numbering the iphone 1,2,...

deICERAY
deICERAY

They are simply following industry standards - look at motherboards, processors, good lord, how about video cards? an Nvidia 500 is WAY newer/better than a 9800 - go figure - I think they should rename everything every week; after all, that's how often they have to change the product with patches to keep it from being hijacked by people way smarter than M$...

FTutone
FTutone

The primary reason the names change is ego! M$ changes people's positions every two years (or less if they screw up) and every person wants to leave their stamp by changing the name of the next version of whatever it is they are working on! Most companies do exactly the same - except for Apple :>).

OldHenry
OldHenry

I had two customers whose architecture groups would not allow them to use SPS because the P stood for "Portal" and they already had a portal standard chosen. Microsoft renamed SharePoint Portal Server to Office SharePoint Server and we were off to the races.

BTrik
BTrik

It is done on purpose to give us something else to complain about. This diverts attention away from their poor code.

keh1044
keh1044

The idea is simple: To keep you in the buying, training, and upgrade queues for as long as possible. Market share, dependence, continuity. Just as the government holds sway by keeping the masses dependent, ignorant, and fearful, so do corporations like Microsoft trade on the basic need of humans to stay in their comfort zone. They change their interfaces for the same reasons - and it works, IMHO.

bgc
bgc

Having used M$ Office since version 1 I am still flabbergasted at how M$ creates negative transfer of training effects by renaming and moving various functions around and calling that BS an upgrade. They are not alone in this form of "upgrade" fraud but they have turned it into an arcane art. M$ wonders why we don't want to buy their latest versions. Hey M$, has anybody in your company spent five minutes in a human factors course? Looking at the so called Office upgrades through the years the answer is: Obviously NOT.

richard.warren
richard.warren

I demo'd Microsoft Merchant Server 1.0 on-stage for Bill Gates the day he launched the product in San Francisco showing two e-commerce web sites we had built for our customers. Then the product morphed into Commerce Server, then into Site Server Commerce Edition, then back into Commerce Server, which is what it's called today. Tough building that brand, don't you think?

MikeL28
MikeL28

From the point of view of a basic user, their biggest boo-boo was to rename 'File-Manager' (from 3.1 if I remember rightly) to Explorer. Yes, they've stuck to Explorer, [b]unfortunately[/b], because most of my users still confuse it with IE. Aaaargh!

Peter Sanders
Peter Sanders

Hi The new name leads many people to think they are buying something really new when its only had a quick makeover. This means that for many, they choose to "upgrade" when they could just stay with what they have, Of course all of these "upgrades" provide squillions of dollars to Microsoft. Peter

PeterM42
PeterM42

"Windows 7" is actually Windows 6.1 - ie: a bug-fix for Windows 6.0 aka Vista. Open Windows Explorer > Help > About and check the version number.

Terry Cliss
Terry Cliss

At the age of 79+ I can still remember my name. Why not Microsoft?

ess
ess

Microsoft Office 365

fishystory
fishystory

Although the Windows name doesn't change, the naming structure between each new release of Windows. Initially, the first versions of Windows were called Windows 1.0, 2.0, 2.1, 3.0 and 3.1. Then they based it on year for 95, 98 and 2000 (with ME being another change between 98 and 2000). Soon after Microsoft briefly used the acronym XP, and then simply named Windows after a dictionary word called Vista. And now we're back to version numbers for Windows 7 and 8. I've deliberately left out Windows NT, and Microsoft's mobile operating systems since that would any additional level of confusion. In contrast to Microsoft, marketing and the naming of products is one of Apple's strengths. They name each new version of OS X with big cats (although the first public beta, Kodiak, was named after a grizzly bear), e.g. Cheetah, Puma, Jaguar, Panther, Tiger, Leopard, Snow leopard and now Lion.

pgit
pgit

MS changes the name, and more frustratingly the location in the windows interface of it's internal tools, also.

boomchuck1
boomchuck1

Originally Microsoft Access was a telecomm program for your modem. You do remember modems, right?

eclypse
eclypse

If you're an IBM fan (or even if you're not), you'll know that their UNIX boxes have been RS/6000 eServer pSeries pSeries System p POWER Systems p and those are the ones I can remember. The AS/400 went through something similar - eServer iSeries, System i, and just "i". I still don't know what was wrong with RS/6000 and AS/400 - everyone knew what they were and as anyone who has worked with IBM gear knows, when you deal with IBM, the name isn't important, but the machine type is really what matters. They don't care if you have a Power 750, they only care if you can tell them that it is an 8233-E8B. How's that for fun? =)

mario.pineda@landisgyr
mario.pineda@landisgyr

I was so confused a while ago with the Online products offered by MS, that I put together a matrix to list and differentiate them all. It came out to be 14 different groups of online products only for the end-consumer market.

browninj
browninj

You want to discuss name changes, look at Citrix. They can't do anything without changing a name.

fjp
fjp

Except of course for the name Explorer, which they have presumably patented.. :-)

puppadave
puppadave

Evedentally everyone has overlooked the obvious!!! There is a panel of "Over-the-hill" guys (and gals) that sit in a small office around a table and are charged with the responsibility of coming up with product and branch/division names, to include re-naming old products with minor changes, so that the "End Users" are thoroughly confused and have to use M$ tech support to figure out what the hell is going on!!!!

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

"I am starting to think MS changes feature/role names and locations now just to further propagate their re-certification and training sales." Exactamundo, at least on the infrastructure side.

Terry Cliss
Terry Cliss

...remember that it is a leap year. How about Microsoft Office 366!

Travasaurus
Travasaurus

Very true; I worked with the AS/400 PC-related products (even have and old certification for them) and I still can't remember what they were called. IWS or something like that...

david.hunt
david.hunt

and S/36, although they co-existed with S/38. In addition, there was the even smaller "Series 1", although it wasn't really a similar machine.

Hey_Joe
Hey_Joe

@browninj: A-to-the-MEN! This article would be 3 times longer if Citrix were profiled. Case in point: XenApp. Citrix was originally Citrix MultiUser then WinView for OS2. When MS server was the base OS, it became WinFrame until Citrix VPs were bored and dubbed it Metaframe 1.8. Metaframe 1.8 became Metaframe XP, which then added the "SRx" or Service Release suffix to the product name. Now you had Metaframe XP SR1, Metaframe XP SR2 then Metaframe XP SR3. Metaframe XP was eventually dropped in favor of Citrix Presentation Server 3.0 and eventually 4.0. After 4.0 was released, Citrix chose to brand other products with the 4.0 (we called it 4.oh_no) convention. So you now had Presentation Server 4.0, Password Mangler 4.0 and Access Gateway 4.0. They stuck with this for one more release all smacked with a v4.5 suffix. After Citrix acquired XEN in 2007, they had the brilliant brain-fart to "Xenify" (using the sales rep's own term) the ENTIRE product line. Which brings us to the current XenApp moniker. Now remember, this is all for just one product! I could write a book on changes to the licensing program over the years. One last comment. Apple was touted for the simplicity of their product names. I generally agree with that from a consumer's POV. But that is laughable when you scratch the surface. For example, MacBooks come in regular, Pro or Air. Within Pro, there are 13", 15" and 17" inch models. The 15" MacBookPro can be any of the following: 15-inch-Late 2011, 15-Inch-Early 2011, 15-inch-Mid 2010, 15-inch-Mid 2009, 15-inch-2.53GHz-Mid 2009, 15-inch-Late 2008, 15-inch-Early 2008, 15-inch-2.4/2.2 GHz, 15-inch-Core 2 Duo, 15-inch-Glossy or the original MacBook Pro. I guess Apple is just as guilty but hides it better!

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

"Let's use the same name for different, concurrent products. That won't confuse anyone." Debra missed the renaming of the client systems management tool from SMS (Systems Management Server?) to SCCM (Systems Center Computer Management, or whatever these initials stand for this week). Also, how many names has Microsoft Security Essentials had? At least two others that escape me.

david.hunt
david.hunt

The UI + nobody wants that monstrosity on a desktop. Did someone mention human factors!

Travasaurus
Travasaurus

Live OneCare and then another name before MS bought the company and renamed it. Possibly more, but I can't remember either...