Jan 11

Microsoft: coveting Apple’s magic words

Every so often, there comes a bit of technology-related news that just makes me smile. Microsoft is pretty good at generating such stories.

The latest: Microsoft has taken action to oppose Apple’s trademark application for the phrase “App Store.”

It’s not hard to understand their logic. These days, apps rule the world. They’re the basic price of admission for any smartphone contender. How can Apple own a phrase made of common words?

The quick answer is: those words weren’t common until Apple started to use them.

The evolution of the word “app” is actually a pet topic of mine. Since Microsoft has struck my justice nerve, I can’t stop myself from sharing.

Everyone who has ever been tasked with writing ads for a technology company will tell you that before apps became popular, there was no simple word one could use to describe a software product. In fact, we had only two words to choose from: application and program. If your goal was to write people-friendly ads, both of these choices sucked.

The word app was indeed part of our vocabulary — but that was only on the inside. Real people didn’t talk that way. Whenever some maverick would suggest that we just say app and be done with it, clients would reject it on the grounds that it was too techy. For the sake of advertising, application and program were left to do the job.

What Apple did when they introduced apps on iPhone may seem innocuous now, but it was actually quite ballsy. They made the conscious decision to take the word app to the mass audience. Others might have used the word on occasion, but Apple was the company that really stepped up to the plate. They put millions of dollars into the “There’s an app for that” campaign. They alone made app a household word.

With App Store taken by Apple, Apps Marketplace taken by Google, and App World taken by Blackberry, poor Microsoft finds itself in an awkward (yet familiar) position. They can either try to be original, or spend a few million bucks to echo someone else.

It does make one wonder why Microsoft isn’t trying to wrestle the other companies’ descriptors away from them. Isn’t the world as common as the word store?

The fact is, companies trademark combinations of common words all the time. When you’re first to think of something, you take legal precautions to prevent others from copying you. The Money Store is trademarked, as are countless other common word combinations.

If Microsoft wanted to be more true to their DNA, they might grab The Copier Store. That one was actually trademarked by some guy in New Jersey, but it’s available now.

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  • App Place, App Store, App Shop… c’mon MS, there are still names for that! :D

  • Synth

    I think the exe. store has a nice ring to it.

  • Sean Wilson

    When Apple announced the App Store, I remember being concerned because the word “app” wasn’t part of the average consumer’s vocabulary. For most of my friends, I’d translate “app/application” to “program”. I really thought Apple would have trouble with the App Store because people didn’t know what apps were.


  • Microsoft has no room to complain. Isn’t Windows a generic word?

  • rd

    NeXT used .app as extension for their program directory which contain all the program in a container.
    That was 1989.
    Steve Jobs has been using app since that time.

    Microsoft has XBox Live Marketplace since 2005.
    They can use WindowsStore or MyStore since
    that is what they had in Windows. Windows is everything so now they want to call it
    Windows Phone App Store.

    I guess Microsoft can’t go with simple.

  • rd

    Official name will be.

    Windows Phone To The Cloud My App Store.

  • ken segall

    Kudos for remembering that the app-word was used as a file extension in the days of NeXT. However, I wouldn’t exactly say that Steve Jobs has been “using” the word since that time. In my experience with NeXT and Apple, we never used the word in any type of public communication.

  • rd

    Well for programmers there was

    AppKit – main framework
    NXApp – global class

    NXApp – quaterly jounal published by NeXT

  • ken segall

    Methinks we are straying a bit. This article was about “app” as a word used by the general audience. My point was that neither NeXT nor Apple used the word when speaking to their wider audience until iPhone apps were born — at which time “app” became a household word.

  • rd

    I understand your point.
    NeXT was precluded via a non-compete with Apple from going after consumer market, not that
    consumers could afford it either.
    It only ever communicated with
    Developers, Higher Education and Enterprise.
    It only advertised in magazines like Byte and pcweek. So you are asking for the impossible
    because NeXT wasn’t going to use it in their ads.

    Applications supplied by NeXT was in a directory called /NextApps
    while your own Applications resided in $(HOME)/Apps
    Obviously directory names changed with advent
    of Mac OS X to Applications.

    So if you were lucky enough to use the NeXT then
    it was right there in front of you.

  • ken segall

    Your facts aren’t entirely correct. With modesty, I will point out that I wrote just about every ad in the history of NeXT, which makes me fairly familiar with our target audience and how we spoke to them. We advertised not only in trade magazines, but in more general publications such as The Wall Street Journal. Our main message over the years was about the ease of building enterprise applications with NextStep (especially after NeXT became a software-only company). Even though we were speaking to a more sophisticated, tech-aware crowd, we did not use the app-word in our communications. In the OS itself, words like “NextApps” were simply seen as convenient system abbreviations — that kind of talk did not carry over into our ads and press releases.

  • rd

    “convenient system abbreviations”
    The ladder keeps getting longer and longer.
    I simply pointing that it was used in the OS.
    I said Steve used it in keynotes and on this video.
    “mission critical app”

    NeXT had bigger fish to fry with OOD, OOP, Rapid prototyping, Services, MACH, Unix, DSP, DPS, real WYSIWYG, sound in email, Improv, etc with those things to communicate
    the word “apps” was not going to be emphasized.
    My point is the OS could be used as proof

    PS. Did you write the copy for the ad insert
    in pcweek in November 1990
    introducing NextStation. It was great ad.
    That was my first introduction to NeXT.
    I have all the NeXTWorlds still so I have
    seen most their ads.

  • ken segall

    Yes, that would be me. Not sure which insert that was though. Was Steve the poster boy on that one?