What’s in a name?

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

— Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

This morning I learnt through Engadget that what was known until now as Project Natal is now called Kinect for Xbox 360, as revealed just before E3 by none other than a 76-person cast of Cirque du Soleil. I had two reactions:

  1. Why wasn’t I invited? 😛
  2. Who came up with that horrible name?!

I guess the answer to the first question is obvious: someone messed up—but, please, don’t fire him or her, I wasn’t available anyway.

The answer to the second one is tougher. Natal was a nice name—or a nice code name to be precise. Why change it?

It can’t be easy naming products for a multinational such as Microsoft. You have to take into account that you are probably going to be selling and advertising all over the world (except if you’re selling Zunes, but that’s another story.) You want your name to be catchy, easy to pronounce and, very important, to not have any special connotations in any of the locales you are doing business in. And that’s exactly the problem with “natal.”

Natal, nadal, natale, nadâl, natali, natál; all mean the same thing: Christmas. And if there’s one thing that you do not want associated with a product that you want to sell as much as possible is religion.

Kinect, on the other hand, is, as far as I know, not a word in any language, but with its obvious roots in Greek κίνηση (kínisi), smart people will still get the meaning of movement behind it. It’s also easy to remember and, aside from Australia, there’ll probably be no copyright issues with the name (and even then…)

It’s still ugly.

But Microsoft’s not known for good naming. We all know Microsoft Windows, but do you know what its relationship is to Windows Live or Windows Live Essentials? What about Windows Phone 7 Series—which got renamed to Windows Phone 7—is it the same as Windows 7? And I once head of something called Virtual Earth, which was then renamed to Live Maps (Windows Live Maps?) and I think it’s now called Bing Maps (is Live dead?) but I haven’t checked in the last 24 hours.

It sure is easy to get lost fast.

“Easy” also come to mind when I think of certain products from other companies. Have you heard of the iPod, iPhone, iPad, iMac, iLife, iWorks, …? Those are easy to remember, catchy, not words from the dictionary in any language and unlikely to cause copyright issues. (Except for the new iOS, I don’t know how they’re getting away with that one.) Sure, in the case of the Xbox, the “x” brand is already quite saturated, but that only means that there’s an opportunity to find something original.

Anyway, I wouldn’t like to have to come up with real-world marketable names for a company such as Microsoft, so I do have quite a bit of admiration for all the people involved in the process. I do hope, though, that somebody within Microsoft realises that their names do not take the client into account, and that has to change.

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