The Genius of Apple's Name

An excerpt from Becoming Steve Jobs that made me stop in my tracks. #apple #naming #tech

Read time: 2 minutes Published:

You can hear me read this on my mixtape here.

I recently started the audiobook version of Brent Schlender's Becoming Steve Jobs and this passage on Apple's name made me stop in my tracks:

There are different tales about the origin of the name, but it was a brilliant decision. Years later, Lee Clow, Steve’s longtime collaborator on Apple’s distinctive brand of advertising, told me, “I honestly believe that his intuition was that they were going to change people’s lives by giving them technology they didn’t know they needed, that would be different from anything they knew. So they needed something friendly and approachable and likable. He took a page out of Sony’s book, because Sony was originally called Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corporation, and [cofounder] Akio Morita said they needed something much more approachable.”

Indeed, adopting the name Apple foreshadows the expansiveness and originality Steve would bring to the creation of these new machines. It’s suggestive of so much: the Garden of Eden, and the humanity — both good and bad — resulting from Eve’s bite of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge; Johnny Appleseed, the great sower of plentitude from American myth; the Beatles and their own record label, a connection that would lead to litigation years later; Isaac Newton, the plummeting apple, and the spark of an idea; American as apple pie; the legend of William Tell, who saved his own life and that of his son by using his crossbow to pierce an apple perched on the son’s head; wholesomeness, fecundity, and, of course, the natural world.

Apple is not a word for geeks, unlike Asus, Compaq, Control Data, Data General, DEC, IBM, Sperry Rand, Texas Instruments, or Wipro, to mention some less felicitously named computer companies. It hints at a company that would bring, as it eventually did, humanism and creativity to the science and engineering of computers. As Clow suggests, settling on Apple was a great, intuitive decision. Steve was innately comfortable trusting his gut; it’s a characteristic of the best entrepreneurs, a necessity for anyone who wants to make a living developing things no one has ever quite imagined before.

I don't know how many times I've looked at names like Asus, IBM, Wipro, and Texas Instruments and never reflected on how they are clearly less friendly than "Apple". It's obvious in retrospect — the best kind of obvious.

Longtime readers here will know I have opinions on How to Name Things - mostly in code. It's easy to have strong opinions about stuff only developers see since user validation is just asking people like yourself. It's much harder to name something consumer facing. Here are some useful rules I gleaned from Apple:

  • Two syllables max
  • Familiar English word - literal 5 year olds can spell and pronounce it right
  • Starts with A - useful for alphabetical sort. Amazon did this too
  • Name leads to easy logo/swag/branding ideas
  • Evoke aspirational qualities - knowledge, health, nature

I've vacillated somewhat on whether or not to use an English word for a name. My current company, Temporal, is an English word, and by sheer misfortune it exactly coincided with the Temporal JavaScript proposal. Given that we aim to release a JS SDK soon, this is regrettable potential confusion in every customer conversation. Whereas if you just make up a word, like "Netlify", or "Serverless", you not only ensure that you never clash with anyone, you also shoot right to the top in SEO results. Then again, people can just append "Apple Computer" or "Apple Macintosh" and do fine.

Whatever you do, the worst outcome of naming something an English word is if it leads people to assume it does something different than you intend. It can help to do a sanity check by asking people to guess what your thing does without context.


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