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Creative Code Names for Ongoing Projects


Photography: nedrichards

The name of the end product might be decided by ad men, focus groups and marketing people who think tags are for displaying brand names, but while a project is in development, it’s the programmers who get to come up with the working titles. It sounds creative and fun, an opportunity for geeks to undo their ponytails, let their hair down and come up with something cool and funky.

Often they do, especially when the developers are working for free on open source projects. Ubuntu’s creators, for example, tend to opt for two alliterative words, the second of which is an animal. Choices have included “Gutsy Gibbon” (Ubuntu 7.10), “Hardy Heron” (Ubuntu 8.04 LTS), “Dapper Drake” (Ubuntu 6.06 LTS) and “Hoary Hedgehog” (Ubuntu 5.04). Ubuntu 4.10 was probably happy to have been upgraded to a number after being called “Warty Warthog” during development.
Linux’s developers are no less imaginative. While Ubuntu called 7.04 “Feisty Fawn,” Linux used “Feisty Dunnart” to denote Linux Kernel 2.6.2. Other names have included “Colgate” for Red Hat Linux 4.0, “Darth Vader” for College Linux 2.3 and “Puberty”  for WOWLinux 6.2.

A Phoenix, a Firebird and The Considerable Duck

Not all open source names have been successful though. Firefox had to go through several name changes after running intro trademark issues. Phoenix Technologies objected to the project’s original title which might not have been too surprising. It was called “Phoenix.” But cold water was thrown over the second choice “Firebird” by the fellow open-sourcers of the Firebird free database software project. The Mozilla Foundation suggested “Mozilla Firebird” but Firebird’s developers weren’t happy until Mozilla opted for “Firefox” instead. Perhaps the browser-makers should have been more concerned about being mistaken for a defunct muscle car.

It’s GNOME though, a free Unix desktop, that wins the prize for best open source code name with “The Considerable Duck,” the moniker it used for the slightly less catchy GNOME 2.0.2 Desktop RC1.

Step into the corporate world and the code names start to get a little more dull. There’s a good reason for that. Code names have uses beyond letting developers smile at in-jokes. Because they’re supposed to keep the nature of a project secret, a code name that’s too linked to the project’s goals might reveal the company’s direction to competitors. They allow sub-projects to be broken off and given a new identity – one not linked to the failure of the main project. They prevent the public from confusing a bug-ridden pre-release from a fully-functional final version. And they can be leaked to the press to help create a media buzz during the development phase so they have to sound sensible.

It’s no surprise then that while computer clusters in corporations might be named after Twin Peaks characters or Japanese movie monsters, the names given to the products themselves tend to be a little less creative.

Intel, for example, tends to go for place names. Its development code names include “Brookdale” (Intel 845 series chipsets), which probably refers to a town in California, “Bulverde” (the PXA27x family of Xscale processors) and “Camino” (Intel 820 chipsets.) Things started to get a little more interesting when the company allowed developers to use place names in Israel and India, where it also has development centers. “Dothan,” the name of an ancient town in Israel, was used to refer to a version of the Pentium M which succeeded “Banias,” the name of an archaeological site on the Golan Heights.

Occasionally, Intel has also approved of names that are not geographical. “Kikayon,” the name of a plant mentioned in the Book of Jonah, was used to denote a version of the Intel Core processor, and “Boazman,” which referred to a gigabit Ethernet controller, is a Hebrew phrase that can mean “the time has come.” Intel might have regretted giving its developers so much freedom though when they called a 32 nm processor microarchitecture “Gesher.” Although that’s the unassuming Hebrew word for “bridge,” it was also the name of an Israeli political party. Intel later changed the code name to “Sandy Bridge.” Considering the speed with which Israeli political parties rise and fall though, Intel might need to produce alternative code names for all its development products.

Rivals AMD are equally systematic. The company’s K8 CPUs take their code names from cities around the world. The Phenom brand uses names of stars and its mobile platforms the names of birds. The developers of Opteron server CPUs and platforms are clearly a more exciting bunch though; they use cities linked to Ferrari.

Apple’s Big Cat Code Names

In general though, it seems that the cooler and more creative the company, the better the code names. Apple now tends to use the names of big, scary cats to denote its operating systems but the company hasn’t always been so aggressive. The Apple //c+ was oddly named “Adam Ant” after the 80s pop singer, and the Apple Power Macintosh 6100/60 was called “Piltdown Man” after a Paleolithic forgery consisting of a modern human skull and an orangutan’s jawbone. The name “Macintosh” itself derived from “McIntosh” just one code name in a series of types of apple that included “Cortland” (Apple llgs) and “Pippin” (Apple //c).

Nintendo also used some exciting names for its consoles during development. The GameCube used to be called “Dolphin,” the Game Boy Advance was known as “Atlantis” and the Nintendo 64 was named “Project Reality.” The Wii was called “Revolution” for more than a year before the marketing people decided a word normally associated with toilets would help it sell better.

But maybe it was a smart move. “Revolution” alerted the gaming world that something big was coming while “Wii” indicated that what came out was something that long-term players needed and found immensely satisfying.

So code names may be fun but they’re not always trivial. During the Second World War the Germans named a new radar system “Wotan” after a one-eyed god. R.V. Jones, a scientist at the British Air Ministry concluded that the name meant that system used a single beam, and was able to develop an effective countermeasure. May the creativity continue.

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