The Nokia N97 is a name only a product engineer could love

This is the definition of a technology status symbol: You go into a restaurant or a bar, you take out your device and someone asks you, “Is that an iPhone?”

Try as I might, I can’t really imagine anyone approaching someone on the street and asking, “Hey, is that an N97?”

The launch of Nokia’s latest addition to the N-series made me realize how the branding of computing clients has become almost redundant, unless you’re Apple. Even for the Mac maker, the branding is limited to a lower-case “I,” which becomes merely a qualifier for the kind of product being marketed. Elsewhere, companies seem unable to stop spitting out smart phones with one-word names that imply either ease-of-use, intimate user experiences or both: Samsung’s Instinct. HTC’s Touch. When did IT devices start sounding like perfumes?

The desktop world is even less name-conscious. Does anyone outside of HP really know or care about the name Pavillion? Do Dell customers think much about their Optiplex? The products become synonymous with the company that makes them. Only when the design is really innovative, or the performance really groundbreaking, do we see the product names matter (which is why we don’t talk about making calls on our Apple, but do talk about setting up our HPs and Dells at work or home).

This doesn’t mean branding doesn’t matter, and that it shouldn’t especially matter to IT managers. What users purchase with their own money is often what ends up getting connected to the enterprise network. And not all smart phones, for example, are the best choice to run a particular business’s applications, just as IT departments make deliberate choices – about processor and memory as well as cost – around the PCs they add to their fleet. They should know what the hot products are, and be prepared to inform users of whether they conform to policies or not.

All of which makes the N97 and other products with the letter/number naming conventions all the more problematic. Although there are early adopters who like to purchase the most cutting-edge devices, others will be slow to the N97, and may not be as quick to remember its name. If they have to choose between the N97 and something as simple as “iPhone,” (or Instinct, for that matter), they might be more likely to ignore some of the Nokia product’s worthy features.

Vendors don’t understand the relationship between consumers and the IT environments in which their products mesh at work. If they did, they would be briefing IT managers as often as they do IDC and Forrester. And they would put some meaning behind their brands so that their advertising campaigns are about something other than a cool-looking device. I’m not aware of many firms doing that today. If I’m wrong, let me know. Maybe you could call me on your Nokia.

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