Why are they called that? The silly stories behind six tech brands

When you stop and think about it, most tech brand names don’t make a whole lot of sense.

Really, if you told someone 20 years ago that “Go Daddy” would soon be one of the biggest names in computing, they probably would have called you crazy. If you told them 10 years ago that most Americans would one day know “Hulu” as a service that piped entertainment into homes, they might have had you committed.

Those brands work, though—as do scores of other seemingly senseless names like eBay, Skype, and Wii. So where did these strange-sounding syllables come from, and how did they blossom into the powerful forces we know today?

Here are some answers.

Nintendo Wii

Nintendo’s Wii console is one of the weirder—or should I say “wiirder”—brands in the world of technology. So why in the world would Nintendo pick an almost unpronounceable double-voweled word for its gaming console?

Toss your phallic theories aside, my friends: The actual answer is far less titillating. According to remarks made by Nintendo at the time of the Wii’s unveiling, the word Wii—at least, the way it’s pronounced—is meant to emphasize that the system is “for everyone.” (Everyone who knows how to pronounce two back-to-back i’s, anyway.)

The word Wii was also seen as being consistent and memorable across all languages, according to Nintendo. And as for those double i’s? The game-maker thought they symbolized “both the unique controllers and the image of people gathering to play.”

Riight.

Skype

It may now be Microsoft’s child, but make no mistake: Skype wasn’t born in the halls of Redmond. If it were, it probably would have been called Microsoft PC Voice Chat and come in a choice of Home, Professional, and Ultra Premium Professional editions.

But no—Skype was the brainchild of two European entrepreneurs. They sold the service to eBay in 2005; eBay then pawned it off to Microsoft six years later.

The guys behind the service wanted to come up with a name that explained what their product could do. As the story goes, they started out calling it “Sky Peer-to-Peer,” since the connection utilized peer-to-peer technology that worked without wires.

“Sky Peer-to-Peer” wasn’t exactly a name you’d remember, though, so the duo soon shortened the moniker to “Skyper.” As luck would have it, skyper.com was already taken—go figure—and so the name became Skype.

And just like that, a brand was born.

TiVo

Even if you don’t have a TiVo, odds are you’ve used the term as a verb—you know, like “I’m totally going to TiVo that nudie show on Cinemax.” (Or, um, whatever you might say.)

When you think about it, though, the word “TiVo” doesn’t really mean anything. So where did it come from?

Turns out TiVo—at least according to one version of the tale—is a combination of abbreviations (hey, it’s no crime to rhyme). The company supposedly took the “T” and “V” from television and the “I” and “O” from I/O—the term for input/output, not the annual Google developers’ convention—and mashed ‘em all up to form a word that’s maddeningly memorable and oh-so-fun to say.

The other explanation comes by way of a branding expert named Michael Cronan. In an interview with The San Francisco Chronicle, Cronan said he came up with the idea for the name by randomly drawing tiles from a bag of Scrabble letters. (Cronan also apparently came up with the brand “Kindle,” though he won’t say whether his Scrabble bag helped out with that one.)

The TiVo-makers reportedly toyed with hundreds of other possible names for their product, including Lasso and Bongo. It’s just as well those two didn’t work out; asking someone if they “Bongoed Letterman last night” could lead to some pretty awkward stares.

eBay

Most of us know the name eBay as well as we know Coke—so what the hell does it actually mean? (eBay, that is; we’ll leave the tale of Coke to the fine folks at the DEA.)

Here’s the scoop: The guy who founded eBay also ran a consulting company called Echo Bay. The auction site was originally envisioned as a hobby and almost fell under his Echo Bay brand.

One problem: Someone else had already snatched up the domain echobay.com—current domain records show it’s belonged to Vincent Lanci of Stamford, Connecticut since October of 1994—so the blossoming auction site landed instead at ebay.com, which amazingly was still available at that point.

In a way, good ol’ Vincent Lanci may have indirectly helped eBay become what it is today. Think the site would have ever turned into a top-tier brand with Echo Bay as its name?

Hulu

It may sound like a simple tropical drink, but the name Hulu is actually intoxicatingly complex (and—sorry Mai Tai fans—has nothing to do with rum).

Believe it or not, the online video service’s etymology revolves around Mandarin Chinese. Hulu CEO Jason Kilar has said he and his fellow executives held a “series of marathon naming sessions” at which they came up with dozens of possible names for the company. An early standout was—you guessed it—Hulu.

Hulu, Kilar says, has two separate meanings in Mandarin: one that translates to “gourd” and is used to describe a receptacle for precious things (insert your own off-color joke here) and another that means “interactive recording.” Kilar and his crew thought both meanings seemed like perfect fits for the product they were pushing.

Other perks of the name, according to Kilar: It has no English meaning, it’s short and memorable, and it’s “approachable and fun.”

Hey, at least they didn’t go with “Bob.”

Hotmail

What better way to end than with one of the Web’s most damning domains? Let’s face it: If you’ve got an email address at hotmail.com—much like having one at aol.com—it’s the modern-day equivalent of walking down your high school hall with a “KICK ME” sign taped to your back.

(Outlook.com is a little better, but it might still earn you a swirlie if you aren’t careful.)

Hotmail was cool once, back in the days when AOL was more than a punchline. The service launched in the late ’90s, when the notion of Web-based email was still new and uncharted.

The company’s founders wanted a name that ended in “mail,” for obvious reasons. They liked Hotmail because it had the letters “H,” “T,” “M,” and “L”—as in HTML, or HyperText Markup Language, the code used to create basic Web content. In fact, Hotmail was originally stylized as HoTMaiL to emphasize the connection.

And here you thought it couldn’t be any worse than it is today.

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