As I promised a month ago, I’m going to start blogging about the new Microsoft product that I’m working on. What’s prompted me to start today is that Hugh McLeod—of the excellent gapingvoid—and Robert Scoble —of, well, scobleizer—are engaged in a bit of to-and-fro over Microsoft’s “next big idea”. Hugh’s latest post is “Microsoft needs to play more”, in which he bemoans the lack-of-playfulness of Microsoft product names.

Apple calls their new OS "Tiger". Microsoft calls their new OS "Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005".

Man, already it's beginning to bore me, and I don't even know what it does yet.

Apple has the "Newton". MS has "Microsoft Windows Tablet PC Edition."

There ya go, boring me again.

This strikes close to home because, well, my product is going to have a boring name. Let me explain…

Internally we’re called “Indy”, which has caused some problems of its own. You see, when the project started in Microsoft Research, we were unaware of the internal web page that lists every Microsoft project codename ever. So we didn’t know that “Indy” had already been used for one of the early Windows NT releases, and we hadn’t yet heard of the “Indigo” component of Longhorn. By the time we realised the resulting confusion it was too late to change, because we would have lost all of our internal mind share, so Indy has stuck.

Of course, we can’t actually ship something called Microsoft Indy, because those fine folks at the IndyCar racing series would be understandably upset. In fact, we’re meant to refer to it in public as “the project codenamed Indy” to avoid precisely this kind of confusion. So right now we’re undergoing the “branding process” to come up with a more acceptable name. As I’ve had it explained to me, a Microsoft product has two choices:

  1. You’re a standalone, big-budget product—like, say, XBox. Congratulations, you get to have a brand all of your own! Your name will be something evocative, and is meant to trigger feelings. You’ll also have a dedicated team of people whose entire job is to promote and defend that brand.
  2. You’re a small part of a family of products—like, say, Indy (we’re part of the System Center family, which includes MOM and SMS). Congratulations, you get to ride on the coat-tails of an existing brand! Your name will consist of that brand with some more words tacked on the end. It’ll be something descriptive, and is meant to be informative. This is how you start out with the “Microsoft Windows” brand and end up with a product called “Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005”.

What this means in practice is that we come up with a bunch of descriptive terms of what Indy is, and what it does, and give the entire list to marketing. Marketing then tries out every possible combination of these terms attached to our parent brand, and looks at how much they add to the brand, how recognizable they are, etc etc. Sometime soon (and hopefully before MMS 2005!) out will pop a name. And it’ll almost certainly be four or five words long, and very informative, and very boring.

But that’s not what we really wanted. Deep down, everyone wants to be a #1–type of product. We wanted a name of our own. We wanted to be…

Dr Performo!

Which leads nicely into a discussion of what the heck Indy is and what it does. I’ll get into that later this week

(If you want to read about how another Microsoft project came into being, then I can highly recommend Chris Pratley’s history of OneNote, starting with “OneNote Genesis”. If you want to read more about the XBox brand, then go read John Porcaro’s blog.  If you want to get into marketing and think up product names of your own, then Heather Leigh is looking to hire you. And if “branding process” makes you think of panicked mooing and a smell of singed flesh in the air, then I’m glad that it’s not just me…)