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Code Name: Geekfun

COLUMN ONE

Engineers can't resist the urge to give their high-tech projects cool titles, even if they're dulled down later. But complications can arise.

September 02, 2004|Joseph Menn | Times Staff Writer

Some 15 centuries after the fall of Rome, Microsoft Corp. engineers are toiling to resurrect Janus -- the ancient gatekeeper to heaven.

Microsoft adopted the deity as an internal code name for a system that controls digital music and video stashed on computers and portable players.

When Janus makes its debut today, though, the program will bear a less evocative name: Windows Media Digital Rights Management 10.

The transformation is typical for technology products that enjoy colorful, if often geeky, monikers while in development, only to appear on store shelves under the most mundane names imaginable.

IBM Corp.'s Shark evolved into TotalStorage Enterprise Storage Servers. Apple Computer Inc.'s Killer Rabbit was renamed AppleShare 3.0. And Microsoft's Snowball became merely Windows for Workgroups 3.11.

It's the reverse in most other industries, where pedestrian code names get replaced by catchy brands. Inside General Motors Corp., for instance, the forthcoming Pontiac Solstice roadster was just project GMX020.

But the technology industry's culture is famously less buttoned-down than that of Detroit or Wall Street. Suffusing that culture is the belief among programmers and engineers that they're working on the Next Big Thing -- projects that change the world, not just deliver a more absorbent diaper or crunchier breakfast cereal.

And although marketing departments will ultimately replace most of the colorful monikers with new versions of familiar, easy-to-sell brands, the importance of code names in the development of digital products is hard to overstate.

The financial stakes are huge. A new software program or chip design can take years to bring to market and devour millions -- or even billions -- in capital before it generates a dime of revenue. All the while, competitors are racing to build something smarter and faster that will make existing technology obsolete, giving rise to a state of chronic paranoia.

Faced with that sort of intrigue, few geeks turn down the chance to bestow a secretive pet name on a project before company executives weigh in with potential trademark violations and focus-group feedback.

"A product manager can be defined as someone who has all of the responsibility and none of the power. It's a thankless job," said former Apple Computer technology evangelist Guy Kawasaki, the author of several business books. "One thing the product manager can do is give the code name to the product. Typically, he comes up with a clever name in the middle of the night, and hopefully management doesn't find out until it's ingrained."

In the early years at Apple, the right name helped fire up engineers faced with the tedious prospect of spending years writing millions of lines of computer code.

"You needed a cool name to put on a T-shirt, and you needed a T-shirt to give to people," said former Apple engineer Erich Ringewald. "It was part of getting people excited enough to work 70 hours a week."

The first job of a code name is, of course, to keep a project secret -- a tradition that business borrowed from the military.

Even the Laboratory for the Development of Substitute Materials was deemed too revealing for the effort to develop the first atomic bomb, a campaign that came to be known instead as the Manhattan Project.

Similarly, Intel Corp. adopted a new naming system after the maker of the Pentium, Pentium II and Pentium III computer chips realized that the internal designations P, P2 and P3 left little to the imagination of rivals.

The Pentium IV chip was known before its commercial launch as Willamette, one of the first dubbed under a system that uses names of places. Intel has called other chips and chip sets Banias, Merced and Grantsdale -- names of, respectively, an Israeli spring, a California river and a Montana town.

But the system isn't flawless. Even though the names are intended for internal consumption, they frequently leak out. When they do, trademark owners and even individuals protective of their good names can take offense.

Intel's upcoming 64-bit chip was named Tanglewood until lawyers for the Boston Symphony Orchestra pointed out that Tanglewood isn't a town. It's a private estate the orchestra uses for summer concerts. And it's trademarked. The chip, rechristened Tukwila after a verifiable town south of Seattle, is expected to ship sometime after 2005.

Intel's face-off with the symphony was milder than many spats over code names.

In 1993, Apple managers who were unsure whether the Power MacIntosh 7100 would ever make it to market named it Sagan, after the popular but speculative astronomer Carl Sagan. When the human Sagan got wind of the mock tribute, he asked Apple to drop the name.

So Apple renamed the machine BHA, which Sagan correctly surmised was short for Butt-Head Astronomer.

Sagan sued for libel and lost.

But after Apple attorneys settled other aspects of the case, the engineers promptly changed the code name a final time -- to LAW, short for Lawyers Are Wimps.

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