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Sinofsky’s On To Something: Codenames Must Die

Brandon LeBlanc had this to say about the brand change of Windows Live Mail to Windows Live Hotmail (emphasis mine):

While I’ve grown extremely tired of these ongoing brand changes within Windows Live that further adds to its branding confusion as a whole – I think this branding change for Windows Live Mail to Windows Live Hotmail is a smart move and I am glad Microsoft has chosen to do this.

Microsoft has a codename problem. Practically every software/hardware company on the planet uses codenames for products in development, but Microsoft codenames have become an obsession by themselves. Wikipedia has a 13-page article on Microsoft codenames. It does not have such an article on any other company. Mary Jo Foley did a popular month-long series on Microsoft codenames this past December.

Microsoft has a rich history of codenames, unique to it of any company in history. That legacy needs to end.

Occasionally, a company has a codename problem, with the codename causing brand confusion, especially when the codename is better than the product name. Nintendo faced this problem for half a year after it announced its codename: Revolution console would be named the Wii, a problem that only went away when the thing was a huge success.

Microsoft has this problem all the time. People are still referring to Windows codename: Longhorn today, even though the final name of Vista was announced 18 months ago, and that Vista is nearly a completely seperate project from Longhorn. Windows Mobile 6.0 is probably going to be called “Crossbow” for the next year or so. Many analysts and Microsoft employees have complained of products that have better codenames than final brand names. The next version of Windows is on its third codename, first BlackComb, then Vienna, now Windows 7.

And therein lies the beginning of a solution. Windows 7 is the first version of Windows Microsoft will develop under a non-word codename. Steven Sinofsky took over as head of Windows development last week, and his first action was to kill off “Vienna”, bringing the same conventions used by the Office team (Office 2007 was Office 12) to Windows.

It was a smart move, one that will hopefully prevent the media from obsessing over a codename and confusing the customers in the long run. Microsofties probably love choosing codenames, with their rich history at the company, but I think it’s an idea whose time has gone. Microsoft products need boring codenames that put the focus back on the product, codenames that are forgotten as soon as the product is given a real name.

My suggestion: Borrow from the car industry. The car industry has been using many car names that mean absolutely nothing, especially the luxury car industry. Cars hit the market with names like RL, 530i, 325Ci, LS 430, GS 300, 9-2x, STS, CTS-V, RX, E320, and SLK. It is one of the most bone-headed decisions by the industry, but it could work extremely well for software codenames.

Windows 7 is a good start, but it doesn’t go far enough. The media will still latch on the “7″ name, and if the product name stinks (Windows Grass), the “7″ name will be even harder to forget, confusing customers. All Microsoft codenames should follow a serial number designation, with Windows 7 being WGC, for W=Windows family, G=7, and C=client operating system. From there, programs for Windows 7 would be appended onto the WGC designation, and future versions would be variations on the name. The same thing would work for Word 14, which could be called OLW (O=Office family, L=14, W=word processor).

Microsoft needs to take the emphasis off codename (which inspires product teams to come up with cool, memorable names), and not release brand names until the name is 100% the final one. Calling it Windows Live Mail, then Windows Live Hotmail, only shows indecision, and they need to find something and stick with it.

Customers, especially those testing out beta products, need to know from the beginning that the product has no name. This could have been simple, if Windows Live Mail had been codenamed Live/mail/0[beta], and only announced its name as “Microsoft LM0 – Windows Live email” throughout the beta process.

The codename, as well as any preliminary product names, should be designed to send a message to the user, the media, and the development community that “This is not the final product name”. Confusion is bad for business, and Microsoft has enough communication problems as it is. Make the change, simplify things, and get back to the business of making great software.

February 8th, 2007 Posted by | Corporate, General, Hotmail, Live, Mail, MSN, Windows | 7 comments

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  1. [...] Brandon LeBlanc has some good thoughts about this, good enough that I feel inspired to write a seperate post about something that’s seems to be bugging more than just me. [...]

    Pingback by » Windows Live Hotmail Announced »  InsideMicrosoft - part of the Blog News Channel | February 8, 2007

  2. [...] Sinofsky’s On To Something: Codenames Must Die [...]

    Pingback by Live Vista - Unofficial Live Vista Blog » Live | February 8, 2007

  3. Replacing fun, attention grabbing codenames with meaningless car model names? Terrible idea. Only the auto-obsessed bother learning that stuff, and then act superior to the rest of us who couldn’t care less.

    “Windows 7″ – if the goal is to be boring, that’ll do it.

    But none of this will have any effect on the grotesque product names that Microsoft spews out, each with their mandatory (R) and ™ and a minimum of 6 words, and every product name must include “Microsoft”, “Windows”, “Live” or, better yet, all three. Plus a couple words that vainly try to communicate to customers what the product actually does. Hopeless.

    The people who built Microsoft’s reputation as a powerhouse marketing company are long, long gone. The only good names will continue to come from the product teams, and you’d kill those off too. Swell.

    Comment by exBorger | February 9, 2007

  4. [...] Over on InsideMicrosoft, Nathan Weinberg wrote an post recently, titled “Sinofsky’s on to something: Codenames must die.” He discusses the “problem” with codenames in some detail, and proposes a solution: [...]

    Pingback by Bit-cycling : On names and codenames... | February 9, 2007

  5. exBorger sounds like he could use…

    Microsoft Windows Vista Ultimate Limited Numbered Signature Edition Retail Upgrade English Service Pack 1 64-Bit Single Pack DVD!

    Or perhaps a Mac…

    Comment by Tim | February 10, 2007

  6. Hey! I’m the original author of the Wikipedia article. Thanks for providing a justification for it :-)

    If you’re going for dull names, you could also simply use the year of release, like for firearms – Mauser K.98k, Walther P 38, Colt 1911, etc.

    Me, I’d rather like a thematic codename line, like Apple’s “big wild cats” theme

    Comment by KJK::Hyperion | February 11, 2007

  7. [...] Nathan Weinberg and I were having a IM discussion the other day that ultimately led to his post called “Sinofsky’s On to Something: Codenames Must Die”. It has been rumored that Steven Sinofsky has thrown away any one-worded codenames (like “Blackcomb” or “Vienna”) with simply “Windows 7″ for the next version of Windows after Vista. [...]

    Pingback by Microsoft Product Codenames Must Die at MSTechToday | February 14, 2007

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