Fast Company

Not So Good With Names

Apple Inc, much like its Mac avatar in commercials, is the "hip, with-it" company of the tech world. This behemoth epitomizes innovation and style with CEO Steve Jobs reigning as the god of the must-have gadget universe. Yet, while the iPod is still going strong (21,066,000 iPods were shipped in Q1 2007) putting Gates' Zune to shame, and I listen to my iPod as I write this, there are the frequent news articles about naming rights that should make the Apple avatar a little red in the face.

Founded in 1976, Apple Inc was not so good with names from the start. The company started out as an innovator in the personal computer arena and has since led the way in technology with the iPod. Despite its success with its creative technology, Apple Inc was not the first Apple around -- the Beatles (the music group your hippie aunt listened to, not the kind that mingles with ants and the band currently playing on my iPod) named their recording company Apple Corp in 1968.

This similarity has spurned almost 30 years of court battles between the computer giant and its crunchy musical counterpart in the aptly named Apple vs. Apple dispute. The first settlement came in 1991 when Apple Inc. agreed not to enter the music realm. All was quiet until the sleek, white MP3 player, the iPod, hit shelves in 2001 -- encroaching on Apple Corp's musical turf and keeping the Fab-Four off of Apple Inc's iTunes music store.

Apple Inc. recently settled with the Beatles' Apple Corp in an undisclosed settlement that seems to have swayed in Jobs' Apple Inc. favor, leaving the doors open for the long-anticipated addition of the Beatles catalog to iTunes.

The most current naming-rights debacle that Apple has entered into is with its highly anticipated iPhone. While it seems only natural that Apple should inherit the iAnything nomenclature, Cisco Systems stumbled upon the ownership of the name after acquiring Infogear. Infogear had patented the name iPhone in 1996.

Cisco has stubbornly pursued its ownership of this name despite it not having an iPhone product to accompany that marker. The company sued Apple on January 10, 2007, the day after Apple introduced the prototype for its entry into the smartphone category.

The companies announced today that there has been a second extension on the deadline for Apple to respond to the lawsuit.

While the iPhone is likely to make a big splash when it finally enters the market, it seems that Apple should spend more time on naming its products and less money fighting over not-so-catchy labels. For what's in a name; that which we call a rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet?

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9 Comments

  • Jeff N

    It's hard to say if the Apple attorneys who did a name search are not detail oriented (or forward thinking) or if they're just afraid of going back at Jobs and/or management if they pushed back on legal if they did indeed bring up the existing brand. Whether you're a startup or a well established company... it pays to have a good partnership with your legal team as they have skills that most startup execs don't innately have.

  • Don S.

    Just a quick (slightly pedantic) correction...

    Cisco Systems stumbled upon the ownership of the name after acquiring Infogear. Infogear had patented the name iPhone in 1996.

    You can't patent a name. Infogear registered for a trademark on the iPhone name in 1996, not a patent.

  • M. Russell Stewart

    Maybe Jobs should get in bed with McDonald's for the next iMcPodPhone - for a limited time only.

  • Jim H.

    I find it amazing how many hip, with-it patent and trademark attorneys there are on this page. I've heard that ownership of a patent must be followed by its use in relatively quick time, and that this was not followed, so Cisco's rights have lapsed. They brought out their "iPhone" a couple of weeks before Apple. Coincidence? Or legal move? Anybody know? I surely don't.

    By the way, Tiger is still that last OS X, and TigerDirect, I've heard, is still in business. The suit was dismissed, because you can't own a word in one field and expect to own it for all time. Otherwise, both Tigers would owe William Blake's estate a bundle.

  • Lonny Paul

    Apple does this ad nauseum. TigerDirect and Apple went at it over their 'Tiger' O/S with the TigerDirect 'Tiger Software' and 'Tiger' trademarks.

    As to Cisco's trademark, they do have an iPhone product on the market under their consumer dominating Linksys brand.

    Just because they are different products do not allow them to exclusively and individually use the iPhone name - they must be in different trademark classes - and that would be a stretch.

  • Sam Casner

    I agree with Lisa and Sean. Apple has taken the "i" title and made it a trademark-like quality. However, they did this using creativity with the second part of the title as well.
    "iPod" is creative and not such a literal title. "iPod" was thought up as a title for the hand held media database, capable of storage unheard of by the general public. If Apple had taken the literal approach with the iPod, it would be called iMusic, iMedia or iPortable. In my opinion, they should take more time considering the types of names that helped them gain their fame (along with, and probably not as important as, the design).
    People like the name "iPod" because "pod" is a vague term for an object that can have any of various functions. Now, the word "pod", even without the "i" will likely be forever affiliated with the Apple handheld media player. Apple should continue adding the "i" to this line of products, but should venture from the literal, latter half of the title.

  • jlatte

    People were calling it the iPhone long before it was even released.

    Apple does put thought into their product names. They also looked at the trademarked iPhone and decided that Cisco's iPhone was sufficiently different than their product, and according to to trademark law, Apple could legally use "iPhone". I don't think they would have used it otherwise.

    Cisco is not known for theit consumer electronics.

    -jl

  • tartle

    What's in name? An optimist is someone that on perceiving that a rose smells better than a cabbage assumes it will also make better soup. The name helps too.

  • Sean MacPhedran

    I agree. In the speculation surrounding what was going to happen with Apple and cellphones, some of it centered around Cisco's response if they called it the "iPhone" even before the announcement. It was never a secret that Cisco owned the name, and considering that their IP phones are semi-famous (they blurble the distinctive ringtone in CTU on 24) it's not as if Cisco doesn't have anything to do with phones.

    The equity in Apple's products is in the design, not the name. MacBook, AirPort, etc. illustrate that they can create great products without adding an "i" and options like "iChat" were also available. iPhone is almost too literal, considering the multiple additional features of the phone like mobile web browsing, etc. iPod would have been iMP3Player if they'd been literal.

    But it's a PR story that sticks, and that's one thing Steve Jobs has always been great at. So maybe there's some great thinking in the name after all.