By any other name

“I want you to call me Dar,” my good friend Jeff told me once again, impatiently. “Short for Darbloor. It shouldn’t be this hard for you to remember it.”

It was my sophomore year of college, and a few days earlier, Jeff had suddenly insisted that I stop referring to him by the name that his parents and I had always known him by. My reaction to all this was a precise indicator of my level of maturity and compassion at age 20. If he’d gotten to me two years sooner, he would have been praying for me to forget his request to call him Darbloor. But I’d grown up some, and my sole concern was understanding what had brought the poor lad to such a state.

“Jeff is who I used to be,” Darbloor explained, in the manner of a man who’d practiced this speech in front of a mirror. “By choosing the name that best suits the Jeff (sorry, ‘Dar’) of today, I’m taking a symbolic step that puts me in control of my future and …”

After listening to him continue for ten minutes, I asked him if Darbloor wasn’t also the name of one of the villains in the ongoing Star Wars comic that we were reading. Then he changed the subject, and I was a good enough friend to pretend not to notice.

Call me Apple

Now my good friend Apple Computer Inc. has asked me to start calling it Apple Inc. And this time the news came in the form of a press release, rather than over a shared plate of cheesy fries.

Both my friends’ motivations are exactly the same, though. Whether you’re an individual or a billion-dollar company, you should probably stop every now and then and ask yourself, “Who am I?” But if the answer you wind up with involves a corporate rebranding, you probably ought to go back inside the sweat lodge for another hour.

I still don’t know what Jeff’s deal was. (The name Dar lasted about as long as the purple hair he sported late in his freshman year.) But with Apple, it’s pretty obvious: the company is not just in the computer business anymore. Even if it were, the word computer is sounding more and more like a disposable antique of the 1970s or 1980s with each passing year. Here around my sofa, I’ve got an iPod, a Windows Mobile smart phone, and a TiVo. Each one truly fits the Apple II-era definition of a computer, yet we all know them simply as a music player, a phone, and an enchanted friend that brings us movies and TV shows.

More to the point, each one of these items is in the category of a device that Apple now builds. By the start of summer, the iPhone and the Apple TV will be in hundreds of thousands of homes, thus bringing the reliable Apple stamp of simplicity, reliability, and keen-as-a-lightsaber technology to consumer electronics.

Swell. But will Apple continue to bring that stamp to its computers?

We have MacBooks. But they’re unique only in that they run Mac OS instead of Windows. Where is that new miraculous subnotebook or tablet that only Apple can design?

Thanks to the transition to Intel, iMacs and Mac Pros are absolutely no-foolin’ among the most powerful desktops on the planet. But has desktop evolution truly dead-ended with the mouse-keyboard-screen configuration?

And what about Leopard? Apple has shown off only a handful of new features, and none of them seems revolutionary enough to inspire someone to tattoo an Apple logo on a visible body area.

Corporate amnesia

Companies often fail because they forget who they are. When the company that makes fantastic soups repositions itself as “a home branding portfolio,” when a newspaper stops talking about news and refers to its stories solely as content, and especially when the bank that holds your mortgage starts advertising that “Our currency is people, not money,” it’s time to worry.

I’m certainly not worried about Apple Comp—sorry, Apple Inc. Not yet. It has built an entire business out of hiding the word computer from its products’ users. Now it has just gone a step further and removed the word from its name. So long as it remembers the word’s importance, everything’s cool.

But I’ve been a watcher of corporations for far too long not to worry about a day, twenty years from now, when the company’s name is Ako, its logo is a black square inside an orange square, and its most popular product is a line of snack sandwiches that stay fresh without refrigeration.

[ Andy Ihnatko is the technology columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and the author of the forthcoming Mac OS X Leopard Book (Wiley). ]

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