Computers Have Terrible Names

Computers have terrible names. Back in the early days, some thought was put to giving a computer a decent name. In 1944 there was Colossus, two versions of which helped break German codes at the end of the Second World War. Colossus packs a punch. There was a wooden roller coaster at Six Flags Magic Mountain named Colossus. If the name is good enough for a thrill ride, it should be good enough for a collection of vacuum tubes. ENIAC was not an inspired name. But Whirlwind, and Pegasus showed imagination.

Around the time the personal computer made its debut, the names became dull. This becomes evident when compared to the names of another popular machine, the automobile. A Ford Mustang has gravitas. A Timex Sinclair 1000, not so much. A TRS-80 (we called them “Trash-80s”) sounded more like a science-fictional robot, than a computer. A Commodore 64 always made me think of a Naval officer in a Metropolis-like bureaucracy. Time did nothing to improve upon these names. An IBM ThinkPad never send chills down my spine the way a Corvette Stingray does. The Dell Latitude makes me think of cold weather.

Why is it that marketing departments have done such a poor job naming computers? Car names never sound like cars, but it is as if adding a lot of digits to the name makes the computer sound more computery. Dell Latitude D6000. IBM ThinkPad x60. Apple has a good brand, but the names don’t inspire confidence. iMac, PowerBook, and MacBook don’t do much for me. Of the three, PowerBook comes closest to stirring something in me.

Good names engulf the thing that they represent. “What do you drive?” someone asks. “A Mustang,” comes the reply. No need to include the manufacturer. Just Mustang. Like Madonna. Or Prince. Sure, you could say you have an Apple. But it isn’t the same. I love my Apple computers, but naming machinery after fruit seems strange to me. After all, when a car doesn’t work we call it a lemon.

The marketing departments of computer companies could have done much better. Ford already had the Mustang, but IBM could have called their PC the Lightning. The IBM Lightning. That has a ring to it. Instead of, “You know what I’ve got in the garage? A ’66 Tempest,” you might have heard someone saying, “You know what I’ve got in the den? A ’84 Lightning. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.”

As someone who has worked in IT for 22 years, there isn’t a computer name I’ve come across that has caught my attention the way the name of other types of machines do. Even typewriters had better names than computers. My portable Royal QuietComfort DeLuxe rolls off the tongue. Of course, if someone asked me what kind of typewriter I used, I’d say, “A Royal.” And if I was looking to impress that someone, I’d add, “A manual.”

Instead, I’m stuck with my Dell Precision laptop, which I refer to, vaguely, as “my laptop.” At home, I’ve got my iMac, and MacBook. I like to think of these two computers as Fat Man and Little Boy. Both are somewhat dated. I can’t even use AirDrop on my iMac.

Computer manufacturers could have followed the lead of car makers. New models would be recognized by the year in which they were produced. Thus, I might have an ’16 Lightning. And since I tend to be fond of old things, I’d look wistful upon my friend who still manages to operate a classic ’84 Lightning. You know, the one with two front-facing 5-1/4-inch floppy drives and 4 megabytes of RAM.

Yeah, those were the days.

2 thoughts on “Computers Have Terrible Names

  1. It has been noted that I didn’t mention devices like the Nexus, or Galaxy, or other mobile devices. My focus was on personal computers, desktops and laptops. That said, as far as I’m concerned, the names of mobile devices are only marginal improvements over personal computers. And Galaxie (spelled with the ie) has already been done–by Ford.

  2. Not quite the same thing, but this is actually why I give my individual computers their own names. I’m writing this particular comment with “Ashbite”, for example. It really makes it a lot easier to talk about a particular device — not “the Lenovo Y50” or “the Toshiba”.

    He’s since been disassembled, but my parents had an old desktop (I think it was Dell, but much of it was custom-built anyway), but we had always called it “Kup”, named after one of the old Autobots from the Transformers. The name suited since it kept running for years, and the name stuck.

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