Mobile Computing: What’s in a Name?


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…


14 responses to “Mobile Computing: What’s in a Name?

  1. Willie Pretorius

    Well said !!

  2. I just have thought since some time that nokia could have released more devices with Maemo loaded on them. A new device always gets attention in blogs and press. That device with Maemo would anytime be better then most symbian devices if not all. A continuing development of maemo throughout the 2010 would have got maemo to a whole new level by now. Why could not they do it is really something I dont understand. Yes the Meego talks came along, and they thought they would really achieve something out of it, but was it possible in the 2010 (n900 came out in 2009)? Heck NO! So why not put a lil more money, do not care about the fact that market understand the difference between maemo and meego because we know its linux and apps wont be hard to port from maemo to meego when the time comes, and most wont even require any change. I’m a linux noob and a developer by profession. I dont code a lot on linux, but this mere fact that that you can just take an app from linux, compile it for n900 is a blast! There is no device that works for me like this. I’m always excited to see all the passionate linux developers porting stuff from the real desktop linux and compiling it for n900. Its so awesome cuz it just works. Yes lot of apps require modifications also, but its way better then having to write apps from scratch. N900 is still love, and i dont see anything else that i want to buy in the near future except just one device, which is supposed to be that future meego/harmattan thing. Hopes …

  3. I absolutely love meegons! They are likable. MeeGo is likable too, human. One big problem with Linux is people find it a misanthropic OS. Look at Ubuntu’s “Linux for human beings” campaign, for example, which I absolutely hate. MeeGo makes it human without dehumanizing the “traditional” Linux users.

    I am not sure what to do with Android’s sci-fi appeal… The way it has been used and abused, and the logo. Looks strange to me. I think htey picked up this Adroid and tried to make it a bit more “childish” as you said, and the result is bizarre. Now meegons can easily be made to do silly things, but there are also pirate meegons, etc, they can kick ass too , this is awesome. 🙂

    Symbian is also cool. Love the name and all the marketing. But I hope they get their act together soon.

    And regarding the mobile computer thing, it’s really awkward not to be able to explain people what my N800 is. I always find myself thinking what to say, for example, to a cop if mine gets stolen. “Someone took my Internet tablet!” no. “Someone took my UMPC!” they will throw _you_ in jail. Figure someone asking you. “What is this, a smartphone, like iPhone?” “Yeah, it’s pretty much like an iPhone, but it doesn’t make calls” no.

    It _is_, though, pretty much like iPod touch. But iPod was “an iPod”. iPad is the tablet. BTW, Acer’s is a “padphone”.

    I like the idea is calling it simply a “mobile computer”. I can live with the awkwardness of a mobile computer that makes calls. It is not strange if it fits in your pocket like a normal dumb or smart phone. Having a keyboard, and the tilted screen, is all that is really needed. Unfortunately that doesn’t help explaining the N800… 🙂

    I was thinking the other day.. There is the PC, and the “ultra-mobile PC”… Maybe we could have a range of devices with name like frequency bands, “mobile computer, highly mobile, very higly mobile, ultra higly mobile” 🙂 Or like VLSI too…

  4. YouGo! xP

    Seriously, I agree. I think much of the MeeGo potential is wasted due to a lack of focus in the “leadership circles”, or at least that’s my impression. The departure of Nokia has seemingly led to so much self-doubt that people trip over their own feet in fear of screwing up and confirming all the nay-sayers. Presentation has a lot to say nowadays.

  5. In fact with the increasing monopoly Intel has on the direction, development and strategy – combined with the fact that there’s an ongoing brand refresh – I wouldn’t be surprised to see a rename.

    Perhaps something which emphasises its strong Linux core, but without losing sight of its mobility focus. Linmob? No, sounds mafiaish. What about Moblin? 😦

    • I was wondering about the brand refresh myself, Andrew, but elected against bogging down the article itself with it. Thank you for mentioning it in comments. It would sure be nice to know more!

      I wouldn’t mind going back to the Moblin name, actually. The mascot could be a cool goblin… 😀

      • I dunno, I think “Moblin” sounds very 1990s/2000s when anything with “Lin” in the name was cool.

        Perhaps LF could get the rights to the “Maemo” name. It’s abstract without being childish and would mean Nokia could give something lasting to MeeGo without having to change its corporate strategy again 😉

  6. Back in 2007, while Nokia was still betting on WiFi becoming omnipresent with the N800 “Internet Tablet”, Apple was betting on established technologies with their “Internet Phone“. This turned out to be the winning strategy. It allowed the big stakeholders to use existing infrastructure and upgrade slowly, and it allowed consumers to carry only one small device in their pocket.

    By the time the N900 came out in 2009, Nokia was playing a game of desperate catch-up, with their competitor a distant cloud of dust on the horizon. It isn’t that the iPhone is better than the N900, it has just had a huge head start in sales and mindshare.

    By the way, I don’t know anyone who carries a chequebook. Debit and credit cards cover almost all use cases these days, and cheques are usually refused by the same people who won’t take plastic. If you actually find someone who will accept a cheque, you usually write the cheque at home, tear it out of the book, and put it in your wallet.

    Your best bet is to call the N800 your media tablet or media player. That’s what it looks most like, anyway; one of those Archos media players. That’s what everyone assumes my N800 is.

    • Thanks for your input qole.

      By the way, I still carry a checkbook. So do many others I know (mostly women). I do write fewer and fewer checks all the time, but have not hit zero yet. My experience in Texas is different than yours in Canada– some parties here aren’t ready yet… and some charge too much for the privilege of electronic payments. 🙄

  7. Interesting. Very. I wonder if the way you react to to MeeGo (the name) depends on the language you speak. To me (as someone who speaks German) both MeeGo and Android are just meaningless combinations of consonants and vowels… MeeGo has an advantage because it’s fairly obvious how it’s meant to be pronounced. I hear people here pronouncing Android as either An-dro-eed or An-droid. Anyway… None of these names sounds particularly cool, techy or cartoonish. They just have no meaning at all.

    I do agree that names matter. I’m just not sure how to tell good from bad names when your market is the whole planet.

  8. You’ve got great insights about Mobile, keep up the good work!

  9. You’ve got great insights about what is mobile computing, keep up the good work!

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