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.

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