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A War of the Words
May 26, 1997 :: Michael Sippey

In their book "The 500 Year Delta: What Happens After What Comes Next," Jim Taylor and Watts Wacker write of cryptocentrism, or "the tendency of media communes, tribes, and other microcultures to invent language that maintains in-group/out-of-group distinctions. Technobabble, gang 'signing,' and graffiti 'tagging' are all examples of cryptocentrism." It goes without saying that the net is a highly cryptocentric place, being the perfect medium for self-referential amplification of technobabble. What do you think everyone's going to read on all those push channels, but more stories about push technology?

Language (the English language, that is) plays an important role in the care and feeding of the Internet. Without simple metaphors (electronic "mail," virtual "communities") we'd have a hard time grasping what it is we really do on this thing most of the time, much less explain it to our less than connected relatives. Luckily, the formerly omnipresent "network as thoroughfare" metaphor has sped by in a blur, leaving the phrase "information superhighway" strewn across countless GeoCities homepages and FCC briefing documents. Similarly, the "surfing" metaphor was recently killed by the Loma Prieta-inspired AT&T ad showing multicultural business types riding a horrific sinewave of asphalt through the middle of downtown Manhattan. Who wants to surf their way through flying chunks of pavement?

While these "tired" terms seem to have run out of gas (waiting only to be jump-start a few miles down the road by some retro-leaning technologist or publisher), new (or quasi-new) computing paradigms (like "network computing" or the above-mentioned and ever-present "push") bring with them new sets of words, phrases and terms.

In a world where a press release can be more important than a code release, product names have become the poetry of the digital revolution. With the breakneck pace of product introductions, standard settings and industry alignments, the news story about the product can do more for you than the release of the product itself. After all, to a reporter at the rosy future of a press release or a white paper is a much more exciting story than the mundane reality of a 20 meg download riddled with bugs. In this environment, a product name can stand as a compressed description of where an individual chunk of code resides along the computing food chain.

And, not surpringly, that Silicon Valley food chain breeds more than its fair share of parasitical behavior. Individual companies, with their own product naming strategies, use common metaphors, words or fragments of words, to align their products with others in their product category. It's a no-brainer to realize that Netscape's Netcaster has something to do with broadcasted information over the Internet. But the word fragment at the heart of Netcaster -- "cast" -- also refers to the product's key technology component, Marimba's Castanet. It's product naming with a subliminal twist; unless, of course, it's being driven by the invisible hand of the Kereitsu.

From a product or brand manager's perspective, technology product naming can now be the most crucial part of a communications strategy. When a startup (or even an established player) is trying to hook it's cart to a leading horse, co-opting a theme can't hurt. Products with names like Café, Roaster, Beans, Latte, etc., have that caffeinated edge that coffee-achieving trade editors and IS managers are looking for, right out of the bag.

It may be overly simplistic to point out that the language battles that occur in the "real world" mirror the ones that go on in the "compiled" (or interpreted) world. But the fact of the matter is that for any software or tools company, it's a two-front war. You can be sure that at the same time that Microsoft is polishing up the specs on the Channel Definition Format, they're putting as much work into the white paper that spins CDF as a more pure approach to channeled push technology than Netscape's Communicator. Can you count the industry buzzwords in the following sentence, and identify the target audience? "Based on the open CDF file format, Microsoft's extensible Webcasting architecture provides a mean to unify the various 'push' services and promises interoperability of clients, servers, tools, and network protocols from different third-party vendors."

Speaking of third-parties, it's a small victory for Microsoft when Dave Winer says yes to everyone and builds a nice script for the Frontier community that automatically generates appropriate CDF. But you can bet that it's a bigger victory for the PR folks when the ultimate third-party, the San Jose Mercury News, mistakenly cites CDF as the "Common Data Format." After all, what's wrong with a little typo like that if it serves to promote the idea of an industry standard data format.

As Steven Champeon pointed out a few weeks ago, even the use of the term "push" is a misnomer. But since "scheduled pull" doesn't have the same ring to it, and the name of the game isn't technical accuracy but marketing savvy, the war of the words is only bound to escalate.

(Oh, and by the way, is pleased to announce that it will soon be embracing open, extensible, roasted-Java pushnetcasting technology for interoperable, write-once-read-anywhere multi-platform thin clients. So there.)



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