As Jack Kerouac noted in The Dharma Bums, “one day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.” By that definition, Microsoft Word is a “right word”. And while overly straightforward names can turn stale over time, Microsoft Word remains fresh. In fact, at River + Wolf, we think Word no less striking than Google’s Alphabet.
So, how did Microsoft arrive at this mark?
Simple is best
Back in the heyday of modern computing, the two major players in the word-processing market were WordPerfect and WordStar, serviceable programs saddled with awkward, clunky names. When Microsoft jumped into the word-processing fray in 1983 – with a program designed for Xenix Systems – the program had the cringe-worthy name Multi-Tool Word. Thankfully, it wasn’t long before Microsoft lopped off the extra syllables and went for the elegant simplicity of Microsoft Word.
Unlike Microsoft Word, Excel speaks directly to benefits and for this reason, it is more aspirational than Word. It also manages to make a non-offensive pun on the software’s so-called “cells”. By contrast, MultiPlan, Microsoft’s previous name for the program, feels timid and functional.
Power to the people
Unlike Word and Excel, Microsoft did not develop the PowerPoint product and name. Both had been developed by Forethought, Inc. a software company acquired by Microsoft in 1987. The working name for the program was Presenter, a lackluster name that was soon abandoned due to trademark issues.
Say what you want about PowerPoint as a presentation tool, the program’s name works on multiple levels. It is imbued with a good-natured goofiness (who doesn’t chuckle at the idea of a person engaged in power pointing?), the alliterative “p” creates memorable music, and, according to Robert Gaskins, a member of the software team who developed both the name and program, it implies empowered users.
Outlook, Microsoft’s personal information manager, handles email, calendar, and tasks. But the name suggests more than a task manager; it positions the software as a lens through which we can view their world. Another bonus? Like Word and Excel, the name avoids technical jargon in favor of a human sound.
With these three names—Word, Powerpoint, and Outlook—Microsoft hit a sweet spot of naming. As with all products, it is ultimately hard to know the name’s role in propelling these programs to popularity. But however big or small it might be, I think most of us would agree that it’s great to live in a universe where we don’t have to say such names as Multi-Tool Word and MultiPlan.