Smartphones (aka “converged mobile devices“) have been around in one form or another since 1992. The moniker itself has elicited snickers and outright derision, but the mobile industry grasped for a good description of where cell phones were headed and this is what stuck. It still sounds silly, but has defied reason by surviving… but probably only due to lack of a clear competitor.
Nokia tried breaking out of the smartphone mold with its internet tablets. ”Internet” was prefixed to illustrate the fundamental difference between these devices and their cell radio-enabled brethren: the wide open web was the intended domain. Freed of the restrictions of cell service providers, and limited only by the availability of wifi.
But those zealous providers protected their turf, at least in the US, by attacking “munifi” as unfair competition. The law took their side, and the necessary pilot infrastructure for internet tablets vanished in the blink of an eye.
Nokia reduced the product size, plugged in a GSM radio, and the N900 was born. Its predecessors were left to languish unsupported in a shrinking niche. Apple’s iPhone, however, proved to be more compelling than the N900 and the rest is history.
Not so fast though.
The first half of “internet tablet” was meant to signify increased freedom of use, but as it turns out, “tablet” alone became the standard nomenclature. Even the popular iPad is referred to as a tablet. Consumers want things nice and simple, even if somewhat nondescriptive. But then, how best to summarize what today’s computing tablets do?
After “internet tablet” failed to resonate, Nokia switched to “mobile computer” with the N900. This made a lot of sense. The N900 is a computer first, phone second. Distant second by some counts. And despite its keyboard-laden thickness it’s certainly mobile. The N900 was, for me, the first computer I could absolutely take anywhere. Yes, there have been bumps due to one quality issue or another but the product got mobile computing right.
But again we’re faced with a two-part, slightly misleading descriptor. Nowhere does “mobile computer” give you the sense there’s a cell phone inside. And other names for this class, like MID or UMPC, don’t cover enough ground, either.
“Tablet” however is working for many people, and at some point we may see some convergent term like “tabphone” emerge in a customary lexical evolution. I see the touchscreen cell phone form factor settling into a 5-inch-or-so face size with little or no actual edge, replacing checkbooks as the bulkiest common item on our person. At that point checkbooks will be passé anyway.
And it isn’t just electronic devices suffering the name game. Operating systems play it too. The latest reports for Windows 8 suggest that it’s leaving a long windowing legacy behind, to be replaced by similar yet different paradigms like pages, strips and really big icons.
Linux-powered MeeGo looked to have storybook potential when Intel and Nokia threw a big party for it in Dublin. But months later, Nokia’s retreat from MeeGo was followed by dismay amongst the faithful and abandonment by the casually interested. Many were put off by the name “MeeGo” and are now left to wonder if the childish-sounding appellation has some involvement in the operating system’s recognition problem. While the commonly-deployed default UI may lack sophistication, the OS itself is no less capable than Android. But Android has a cool name. It’s the sort of thing that members of the tech news media can latch onto. That marketeers can wrap slick ads around. That fans will spread virally.
I’m a diehard supporter of the community, but even I’m still put off by the name MeeGo. Others seem to accept it with a wince or a shrug. Bounce it off the uninitiated– and you’ll likely see bemusement or even scorn. The sum of its parts don’t add up to a sound that says “cool technology”. More along the lines of “cartoon character”. And in that vein, MeeGo has its engaging critters, but stand one beside the Android mascot and ask the average customer what they are. I’m betting only Android’s get recognized the vast majority of the time.
Could MeeGo’s name be hurting its chances? I know it sounds trivial, but at some point adoption and acceptance are driven by marketing more than anything else. When consumers are faced with dozens of products that really aren’t differentiated at a meaningful level, then buy-in comes down to presentation. The best-looking of the bunch. The most clever commercial. The coolest name.
Nokia shifted its hardware identification strategy when it became obvious that its cumbersome, conservative conventions found no home in the hearts of typical consumers. Yet when it became time to identify a successor to the cool-sounding Symbian, the quirky name Maemo was crafted. Then Maemo married Intel’s Moblin to produce MeeGo. The derided operating system.
It’s late in the game for the Linux Foundation to try a rename… but a relaunch of the operating system with a shiny new name might actually help. But I don’t see it happening. Instead I see MeeGo in desperate need of cool campaigns to generate interest around what we have. Lacking any commercial entity driving that, maybe the effort will be borne by the community. First, we need a slogan…