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How iPad Is Naming the Game

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Lots of pundits took their potshots at the iPad as it was first coming to market in early last year, with even video sketches on YouTube mocking the name as some kind of high tech version of a feminine hygiene product.

Now, a year later, with Apple reportedly having sold 15 million of the devices, no one's laughing -- at either the product or the name. The high technology industry as a whole, instead, is realizing that Apple's not just changing the game of what was perceived as pretty much a niche market, but they're in the process of renaming the game.

For the past few years, since tech companies have been R&D'ing the future of the computer, there's been a lot of focus on tablets. Microsoft's been yapping about one for years. As has HP, Samsung, Dell and anyone else with a dog in the fight. Everyone's been gearing up but -- as is often the case with emerging technologies -- none of the big leaguers wanted to be the first to go all in. But one thing was "for sure": The new form factor was going to be called, generically, a tablet.

Then came Apple.

And they were not just making a leap in technology, but one in category as well.

They'd already established a readily i-dentified beachhead, brandwise, with the iMac, iPod and iPhone lines. These device brands traded on a couple of equities. The first was Apple's successful transmogrification of the baseline devices -- PCs became Macs (by way of Macintosh), MP3 players were now pods, and the cellular telephone smartened into simply phones. The second, subtler point was the practice of tagging that initial -- and lower case -- i to the front end of a single syllable word.

It doesn't take an experienced branding person to figure out that the hypothetical iTablet name that was floating around pre-announcement would not be the name of the new device. Given Apple's naming heritage, they would either pioneer something new -- as they did with pod -- or else co-opt something relevant yet unexpected. The only thing keeping anyone brand-savvy from laying down even odds on pad being the way they were going to go was not its association to menstrual pads but its similarity to their already popular iPod line.

Confusion in the marketplace is what you want to avoid, and that one was clear to see. On the other hand, while certainly humorous, no one was going to confuse a product from the tech category with a generic descriptor for feminine hygiene products relegated to a very specific aisle at the supermarket or drug store.

From a head-to-head standpoint, as it turns out, pad has it all over tablet in terms of public usage. According to Google's (relatively) new Ngram Viewer, the usage frequency of "tablet" has been somewhat stable over the past 200 years (with a surge from roughly 1870 to 1930), whereas "pad" has been on a more or less steady rise since around 1840. "Pad" overtook "tablet" in the late 1930s. (Of course, since "pad" and "tablet" each have a variety of meanings, it's difficult to determine exactly which meanings were used more frequently when.)

Then there's always Apple casual vs. Microsoft formal. Calling the products in question "pads" conveys a much more casual, friendly, and even playful tone. A "tablet", on the other hand, comes across as a bit more formal, technical, or more refined.

The war of words isn't over yet, with most major high-tech heavyweights still gearing up to come to what is obviously a much more robust market than anticipated. (In a recent TechCrunch article it was revealed that even Apple fanboy bloggers undershot the mark by at least half when it came to predicting iPad sales.) "Tablet", though unlikely, may yet win the day. Even if it does, usage will surely affect the reactions we have to the word -- "tablet" may soon sound just as casual and friendly as does "pad".

Marc Hershon is the co-author of the new book I Hate People (Little, Brown and Company; June 2009) with Jonathan Littman. Marc is a branding expert who, as an Associate with Lexicon Branding, has helped to create such memorable names as BlackBerry, Swiffer, nüvi, and Crackle.com

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