iPhone, iTV, and household names

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What’s in a name? When a product doesn’t actually have one, a whole lot. The past few weeks I’ve had numerous conversations about two forthcoming Apple products — one that’s been announced, another that’s the subject of intense speculation. Honestly, I don’t think the names that have been bandied about for these two products are even close to their true identities. In fact, I think the real names for these products are right here under our noses.

But first, some background. As you might have guessed, the two products I’m talking about Apple’s set-top box (code-named iTV), and the much-rumored Apple cell phone (generally called the iPhone on the Internet).

When Steve Jobs previewed the iTV, he was careful to point out that “iTV” was a name Apple was using internally, but that it was “a product code name. We’ve got to come up with a final name when we introduce it.” And yet in the intervening three months I’ve seen dozens of people hold dramatic Internet debates about the merits of iTV as a product name.

Then a couple of weeks ago, Gizmodo posted a teasing blog entry claiming that the iPhone was about to be announced. And indeed, like clockwork, the following Monday Linksys announced that it was making an Internet phone called iPhone.

I’ll admit that I’m not impressed with Gizmodo’s crying wolf on this one, but I was taken aback by the response from Internet commentators about the iPhone name. “So the iPhone is a VOIP handset, and not by Apple. Now, the bigger story presents itself: What will Apple call its cellphone?” said an item posted on Gizmodo. “Steve Jobs probably isn’t too happy about the outcome.”

So let me get this straight. Apple has never, ever even admitted that this product might one day exist. Cisco’s owned the trademark on “iPhone” for ten years. And frankly, the whole i-Everything thing is getting a bit tired. So does anyone reasonably think that Apple was truly planning on calling their phone the iPhone? The only people who should be disappointed are the people who have been throwing around the word iPhone as if it were a real product name, which it never was.

Obviously, product names are vitally important. And if you don’t come up with a name for your product, one will be assigned for you by the media, or the masses, or your competitors. And names are steeped in meaning. Take the iPod: when Apple announced five years ago that its digital music player was going to be called iPod, many of us raised an eyebrow. Even Steve Jobs seemed to stretch when making his case: “iMac, iBook… iPod.” Uh, okay…

iPod might not have meant anything then, but it sure means something now. People know what iPod means, and they like what it means. That gives the iPod name huge value. The name carries so much weight that Apple has (sometimes heavy-handedly) struck back against anyone who as attempted to appropriate the iPod trademark for their own purposes.

Now consider the roll-out of Apple’s new Intel-based Macs this year. The new Mac products this year had one thing in common: they all had the word Mac in their names. The Apple buzzword of the ’90s, “power,” was chucked in the bin. Goodbye PowerBook and Power Mac, hello MacBook and Mac Pro. The message here was pretty simple: when you’re thinking of a computer from Apple, the brand is Mac.

As a company, Apple’s divided itself into two divisions: one for music products, the other for computer products. And the company has two brand names that clearly define those two divisions: iPod and Mac.

So why in the world would Apple muddy the waters with another brand name?

Yes, it’s possible that Apple thinks its set-top box or phone handset are going to be so huge that they need a fresh brand name all their own. But I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that it’s unlikely that any new Apple product name is going to be able to outdo Mac and iPod for brand recognition. If Apple was introducing a completely new class of product — a washing machine, say, or a killer robot — a new brand might make more sense.

But look at those rumors again. The iTV (not its real name) looks like a tiny Mac mini with its own Front Row-style interface, but it’s dedicated to playing back digital media in a home-entertainment setting. Most reasonable people would speculate that the iPhone (also not its real name) will be an attempt to put iPod and cellular phone features in a single device.

For me, the story is pretty clear: If there’s an “iPhone,” it’ll almost certainly be an iPod with phone features. The iPod brand already covers three core products: iPod, iPod nano, and iPod shuffle. Why not iPod phone? Or iPod nano with phone? Or iPod with phone? In fact, if you were Apple, why wouldn’t you couple your cellular phone strategy with the power of the iPod name? It only makes sense.

I’m not quite as positive about the iTV, but when pressed I’d probably make the same argument: What is the iTV but a dedicated iPod for your home theater set-up? So why not call it iPod home or iPod theater or iPod TV and use the world’s general love for and acceptance of the iPod to drive sales of your new device?

So if you’re one of those pundits out there desperately searching for new monikers to replace iTV and iPhone, may I humbly suggest that you start flogging iPod TV and iPod phone? You’ll be glad you did.

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