Papa Bear? Sholes? Tech Code Names Explained

Once upon a time, there was a Papa Bear, a Mama Bear and an eensy-weensy Baby Bear.

Think you know the end to this story?

Probably not -- because those three "bears" don't refer to the stuff of fairy tales, but product rollouts in the secretive, ultra-competitive world of consumer electronics.

Before a cell phone, laptop or video game console makes its way to consumers with its trademarked, market-tested (and sometimes very expensive) name, industry watchers say it's often given a temporary internal alias that can run the gamut from the sweet to the silly and everything in between.

Daughters' names, hometowns, favorite kinds of beer, famous people, storybook characters, you name it. Engineers, product managers and others have borrowed from the familiar and the fantastical to assign code names to top-secret products.

Research in Motion, which makes the BlackBerry, did not immediately respond to requests to comment for this story. But the blogger behind the popular tech blog Boy Genius Report, who asked to be referred to as "BG," said that before the company launched its 8300 series BlackBerry Curve in 2007 it referred to its new smart phones as the three bears.

Tech Blogger: Code Names Can Be Anything

"BG" said his sources said the GPS-enabled 8310 was known as Papa Bear and the WiFi-integrated 8320 was called Mama Bear. And the most basic phone in the series, which was expected to lack both Wi-Fi and GPS support, was referred to as Baby Bear.

"[Code names] could be anything," he said, adding that from his observation, depending on the company and the task at hand, project managers to people higher-up have the latitude to choose the internal codes.

When Motorola was planning the release of phones to run on Microsoft Windows Mobile software, "BG" said they chose the names of great conquerors, such as Napoleon and Alexander.

They wanted to make a big splash, he said, and chose names to reflect that ambition. Too bad some might say that it was irony, not victory, they projected when the phones never launched.

Some Code Names Remain a Mystery

But it's not always so easy to parse meaning out of the names.

Before Motorola's much-hyped Droid smart phone hit the market this past fall, many tech blogs described it as the Sholes. But though the code name was widely reported, the origin of it remains an enigma.

Motorola declined to comment for this story but, citing Wikipedia, the blog AndroidGuys ventured a guess. A few months before the Droid's November 2009 launch, the blog published that Christopher Latham Sholes was a 19th century American inventor credited with inventing the first practical typewriter and the QWERY keyboard still used today.

"The Sholes is a classy looking handset with a nice sized keyboard," the blog said. "So it certainly seems feasible that this would be the reason for the name."

Nicholas Lurie, a marketing professor at the Georgia Tech College of Management, said that aside from helping to maintain secrecy, code names can help further a variety of corporate agendas.

"Generally, you want to think about the different constituencies that are out there," he said. Sometimes names are chosen to excite the development, marketing and sales people behind the product. Other times, they're meant to intimidate or throw off a competitor.

Marketing Prof: Some Names Chosen to Throw Off Competition

For example, he said that before Harley-Davidson released its revolutionary V-Rod motorcycle in 2002, it chose a generic-sounding internal name to keep it from attracting attention.

But Lurie he said that because internal code names are not usually vetted in the same ways as final product names, they can be extra vulnerable to criticism if the name leaks.

"When you're talking about a real name, of course, it has to be tested in many different ways," he said. In addition to checking trademark registries and conducting consumer research to make sure the name conveys the information you want it to, he said companies have to be sure that the name is not offensive in different languages.

Given how frequently internal names leak, he said it wouldn't be such a bad idea to bring those kinds of marketing practices to bear at earlier stages of the name game.

Unvetted Names Could Be Vulnerable to Criticism - or Worse

"You always want to assume the worst," he said.

Especially since gadget history shows that the worst case scenarios do indeed occur.

In 1994, Apple had an unfortunate run-in with the late astronomer Carl Sagan. When the scientist widely known for promoting the search for extraterrestrial life learned that the company had code named the Power MacIntosh 7100 after him, he sued.

According to the online, non-profit The Apple Museum, the project was grouped with the Power Mac 6100 and 8100, which were code named Piltdown Man and Cold Fusion, respectively. The "Piltdown Man" was believed to be the fossil of an early human but was ultimately exposed as a hoax. Cold Fusion refers to a highly-hyped but famously dismissed way to produce cheap energy.

"Especially the grouping of his name with two discredited scientific discoveries upset Carl Sagan most so that formally protested," said Lukas Foljanty, Apple enthusiast and founder of The Apple Museum.

Apple did not immediately respond to requests for comment on this story, but Foljanty said that two parties eventually reached an amicable settlement, though the terms remain confidential.

According to The Apple Museum, in the company's youngest days, the code names were mostly female names, chosen in honor of daughters of engineers. The Lisa and Annie, for example, referred to early Apple computers.

Author: Code Names Essential to Security

Those family names later gave way to the whimsical. One desktop Mac was named after Becks beer, another was called Cabernet.

The PowerBook 170 was code-named Road Warrior, which, Foljanty pointed out, ultimately seeped into the common vernacular as a way of describing people who constantly work on the road.

But despite the fun Apple engineers clearly had in christening their high-tech creations, industry experts say the convention served a more serious purpose.

"An essential part of security is the use of code names," wrote Owen Linzmayer in his book "Apple Confidential 2.0: The Definitive History of the World's Most Colorful Company."

He said one project might have separate code names for hardware, software, documentation, design and marketing. Not only that, but Linzmayer said people outside the company, such as developers and the media, might be given different names to describe the same project.

"Not only does all this create confusion in Apple watchers, it also serves as an audit trail to trace leaks to their sources," he wrote.

Despite the company's best efforts, the confidential information finds its way out. But noting that it seems as though Apple code names have not leaked recently, he said in an e-mail that it appears that Apple has abandoned the practice of assigning code names to products.

Either that, or it's just gotten much better at keeping them under wraps.