What does the ‘i’ in Apple’s products mean?
Thursday, March 23, 2017
This is the latest entry in a series that examines business buzzwords, helps readers understand them and offers alternatives.
Pods. Pads. Palm Pilots. Sometimes product names can take on a life of their own and become buzzwords that define a whole category of products.
That's certainly true for some of Apple's products. As the tech giant just announced its plans for a new red iPhone 7 and a new, cheaper iPad, I began pondering the origin of those product names.
I'm thinking of the iPad to begin with. It's flat, about the size of a pad of paper and has a touch-sensitive screen. All the other computer companies call that sort of thing a tablet computer. But Apple stuck an i on pad and came up with a catchy name that its loyal users tend to apply to all such computers.
But why i and not an e for ePad, or even a for Apple, as in aPad?
Apple began using a lowercase i at the head of product names in 1998. That's when the iMac was introduced. I was the editor of a regional business magazine at that time, and like most businesses we used PCs and had them networked. Back then using the Internet was a slow, complicated undertaking. The iMac was designed to let individuals get on the Internet simply and fast.
So it's i for internet, right? Got it. Mystery solved.
Not so fast. What about the most ubiquitous of all the Apple i products, the iPod? When it debuted in 2001, the iPod couldn't connect to the Internet on its own. You had to use a computer to log into iTunes and download MP3 and MP4 files, then copy them to your Pod.
Therefore, the i in iPod doesn't mean anything technical; it is a branding effort by Apple to unite the names of its personal IT products. This led to the iPhone (2007) and the iPad (2010), which both run on the iOS operating system.
Fair enough. But what about pod?
The little, round, green vegetable we call peas come in a pod. Cute but not descriptive of the thing.
Maybe it's an acronym built from the first letters of a technical name such as internet portable open database. Except there's no such thing.
No, the answer to our name mystery comes from outer space. Seriously. There are lots of pods in science fiction, such as escape pods (sort of individual life boats) and repair pods and space shuttles.
In the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey," the lead character has taken a pod outside the ship where he hopes that the ship's computer can't pick up his conversation with officials on Earth. Miffed, the computer (a HAL5000) is reluctant to let him back in, leading to one of the most memorable lines in the film, "Open the pod bay doors, HAL."
So we take a meaningless lowercase i and combine it with the name of some science fiction device and voila! The iPod is born, along with podcasts, which I would call radio shows except nobody asked me.
BTW, the name HAL was derived by moving the letters in IBM one notch higher. Clever, eh?
More on business and outer space buzzwords next month.
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- 101 bad business buzzwords — and why you should avoid them
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