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David Zax

A View from David Zax

Why Apple Should Rename the iPhone the “WeatherVain”

A modest proposal.

  • March 5, 2013

Apple is nothing if not brilliant at marketing. Put a lowercase “i” in front of anything, and it immediately conjures the Cupertino company and its products. Here is a company that practically owns an entire letter, one 26th of our literary heritage.

And yet I think Apple got the name of its most iconic device wrong. I think Apple ought to rename the iPhone.

9to5Mac attended a talk given by Ken Segall, Apple’s former advertising lead. In the video (embedded below), Segall explains that because the word iPhone was problematic (Cisco owned the “IPHONE” trademark before the two companies worekd out a deal), Apple seriously considered a few other names. Among these were “Mobi,” “Telepod,” “TriPod,” and even “iPad.” There are various reasons for this: Mobi evoked the device’s mobility. TriPod evoked what they anticipated were the devices had three main uses: voice calls, music, and internet access.

Or so they thought. The fact of the matter is that usage of an iPhone qua phone is quite minimal. Smartphones are “hardly” used for calls, says The Telegraph, citing mobile network O2. Different studies yield different results, but to judge from a few of them, it would seem that among the most used features of iPhones are… checking the weather, and using social networks.

Perhaps Apple should rebrand its device the “WeatherVain.”

Naturally, I jest. Rebranding much of anything is notoriously risky; mentions of the risible name “Qwikster” surely cause many a Netflix executive to flush with embarrassment (see: “Netflix’s Qwikster Debacle”). The word “iPhone,” of course, isn’t going anywhere–nor should it, from a business and branding standpoint.

But the point I want to make is about the ways technology co-opts words, then shifts their meaning. To the youngest generation, the very word “phone” will no longer evoke “device used to transmit voice across space, for the purpose of conversations.” The word “phone” will evoke “pocket-sized all-purpose computer.” In a certain sense, we will be using a different word from our children, even as we make the same sounds. The rare, curious youngster who takes an interest in old movies may take pleasure in the curious etymology of the word for these magical devices. He’ll giggle at it, much the way we giggle at the World War II era’s use of the word “computer,” used to describe the men and women with math degrees who performed calculations to bolster the war effort. (That use actually dates back to the 17th century.)

“Phone” derives from the Greek for “voice.” But words owe no allegiance to their provenance. Ken Segall’s curious talk is a useful reminder of the powerful influence tech companies can have over our language, and of the ironic fact that the iPhone, so-called, by opening a plethora of alternate avenues for communication, actually ushered in the decline of the telephone call. 

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