Latin, libel and lawsuits: the weird and wonderful world of tech codenames

Decoding the stranger product names

Latin libel and lawsuits the weird and wonderful world of tech codenames

The military's always been good at a snappy-sounding codename: Operation Overlord; The Manhattan Project; Exercise Joint Fire all inspire a certain sense of awe, while still keeping the nature of things a mystery. In recent years, the tech world has got in on the action, with almost every project assigned a codename to keep away prying eyes.

Although some companies choose to go with a dull-but-probably-sensible combination of letters and numbers, other teams have gone for humour, or a sly in-joke. Here are ten of the best, and how they can to be.

Project Ara

Google's Project Ara is their plan to create a modular smartphone by attaching modules to an exoskeleton. It was originally born out of the Phonebloks concept, the name of which should be pretty self-explanatory. However, when Google themselves took on the project, they hired creative design consultants NK Labs to consult on the hardware and software design of the project. The co-founder of NK Labs is on Ara Knaian, hence, 'Project Ara'.

Project Natal
Project Natal: Microsoft gets a Brazilian

Project Natal

Now fairly well-known as the Kinect, Microsoft's motion-gaming controller was originally known by the mysterious codename of 'Project Natal'. As it turns out, this was a continuation of Microsoft's legacy of choosing cities as the codenames for new projects. Natal - a city on the northeastern coast of Brazil - was chosen by Alex Kipman, the Microsoft man responsible for incubating the project. As well as being a city, 'natal' also means 'to be born' in Latin, which Kipman felt reflected Kinect's potential to bring new audiences to the Xbox 360.

Android KitKat
Give us a break, Google

Android KitKat

Google's Android operating system has a long and illustrious tradition of naming each new version after some kind of dessert, in alphabetical order. Two of the first pre-release versions were named Astro Boy and Bender; the first consumer release was named Cupcake, and since then we've had the likes of Donut, Froyo and Gingerbread, right up until the latest version, Android 4.4 KitKat.

4.4 is the first version to get a brand-name dessert – originally, it was widely thought to be named Key Lime Pie, but in a shock move on 3rd September 2013, Google announced that it'd be calling its next version KitKat, thanks to a mutually beneficial deal that saw some 50 million KitKats branded with everyone's favourite Android mascot.

Pigs in Space

Apple has something of a love affair with codenames: for decades, it's assigned both internal and external codenames to every new bit of software or hardware, some of which have stuck so well that they've even become official product names – most notably, the ill-fated Apple Newton PDA.

Sometimes, though, their codenames go off the rails a little. Our personal favourites, hands-down, are 'Bride of Buster' – Mac OS 8.1, to you and me – and best of all, the codename for the original Apple Unix interface, Pigs In Space. Thank goodness that never made it to a consumer launch.

Sims 3
Sims: domestic bliss, with added code

Tactical Domestic Simulator

Cool codenames aren't the sole reserve of the big tech companies, either. Back in its infancy, Maxis/Electronic Arts blockbuster The Sims was struggling a little for an identity. Will Wright, Sims developer, was trying to think of a name for his new personal-life simulator game. Originally, he was settled on Dollhouse, until he realised that wouldn't go down too well with his testosterone-fuelled teenage-boy market. So, he swung completely the other way, naming his project the Tactical Domestic Simulator until shortly before launch, when it got shortened to just The Sims.

Carl Sagan

One of the most infamous codenames was Apple's internal shorthand for the Power Macintosh 7100, which they referred to as the 'Carl Sagan', because they'd make "billions and billions" on the sale (Sagan, an astronomer, was known for his 'billions and billions' quote). Sadly, Carl didn't see the funny side, and took Apple to court for using his name without permission.

Apple's engineers then changed the code to read 'BHA' instead of 'Carl Sagan' – BHA being shorthand for Butt-Headed Astronomer. Sagan didn't find this particularly funny either, and switched his suit to libel. Apple finally settled out of court, and ended up using 'LaW' (Lawyers are Wimps) as their internal codename.

PlayStation 4
PlayStation 4: formerly known as Orbis

Orbis/Thebes

One interesting variation on the traditional codename theme is the use of multiple names for the same product: doing so allows companies to narrow down the source of a leak, depending on the name flying around the rumourmill. That's allegedly what happened with the Playstation 4 – first, everyone was convinced it was called Orbis (shorthand for 'Orbis Vita', the Roman concept for the circle of life), then Thebes (an ancient Greek city). Because the code names came to light at different times, it helped Sony track down the source, and keep a lid on the PS4 until the very last moment.

White Rabbit
White Rabbit - or Photoshop to its friends

White Rabbit

Adobe's taken to using a different system for choosing code names – as its releases aren't exactly secret (wait, there's going to be a next version of Photoshop?!), it chooses a shortlist, and then votes on which option to use for the codename. Their codenames tend to be vaguely based around movies (For example, Photoshop CS3, Red Pill, after the Matrix), and our favourite is 'White Rabbit', the choice for Photoshop CS5. The White Rabbit is a character from Alice in Wonderland, and is meant to represent the symbol of truth – rather ironic, given Photoshop's talent for hiding things.

Mingus

If you've been on the web for longer than five minutes, you've probably been using a WordPress site, whether you know it or not. The open-source WordPress blogging system powers a healthy portion of the internet, from tiny personal blogs to massive professional news sites.

It's long used the names of jazz musicians as codenames, since Matt Mullenweg, the founder of WordPress, is a big music fan. The tradition started way back with the first version of WordPress, which iterated through several jazzy code-names (Theodorius, Blakey) to the final version, which was named in honour of Charles Mingus, a hugely influential jazz double bassist who died from ALS at the age of 56.

Longhorn

When the codename for Windows Vista leaked out, people assumed that 'Longhorn' was some quasi-Viking attempt to make an operating system sound exciting and violent. In fact, it's actually the name of a famous après-ski bar in Whistler, British Colombia. The Windows product team had a retreat to the resort prior to Windows XP, and from then on, most Windows products had a distinctly skiing theme – XP was Whistler, Blackcomb (the resort's other mountain) became 7, and the godawful Media Centre editions were named after Emerald and Harmony, two of Whistler's more popular chairlifts.