The Lost Art of Apple Code Names

Brooklyn, Aladdin, Colt 45, Cobra, Ray Ban, Stealth, Apollo, XO, Tempest, Brazil 32, Crusader, Instatower, Kanga, JeDI, Aruba, Love Shack, Mark Twain, Excalibur, Tsunami, Phoenix, Nitro, Gelato, Dante, Q, Mach 5, Spartacus, Zelda, Yoda, Green Jade, Spock, Milwaukee, Aurora, Peter Pan, Optimus

This is just a sampling of the rich cornucopia of Apple code names over the past 35 years. The names run the gamut from pop culture references to inside jokes – from celebrity names to just cool sounding words. While ostensibly these code names were supposed to be strictly internal and secret, they have been revealed to the public over the years and become part of the fabric of Apple’s history. Ask most Apple geeks about code names and they will likely be able to name a couple off the top of their heads.

While most Apple code names seem pretty random, there are a couple categories you can place them into.

A number of code names represent some aspect of the product that is being released. Some examples are the Mac LC was codenamed Pinball, because its wide, flat case resembled a pinball machine. The Mac 512K was codenamed Fat Mac, because it had a ‘fatter’ memory at four times that of the original 128K Mac. The Quadra 630 was code named Show and Tell, because it had more advanced multimedia capabilities. The Performa 6400 was code named Instatower, because it was the first Performa to use a mini-tower casing.

There are also numerous code names based upon famous celebrities and pop culture. Various permutations of the PowerBook Duo line used the code names Ansel Adams, M.C. Escher, and Chuck Yeager. The Apple IIc was at different points code named both E.T. and Yoda, reminding me of this famous scene. The Mac IIx was code named Spock, the Mac TV was named Peter Pan, and the Newton 130 was named Dante.

The most infamous computer code named after a famous person was the PowerMac 7100, code named Carl Sagan. When Sagan heard of this code name he was so offended he actually sued Apple, even though the code name was strictly internal and never publicly advertised. Apple’s team subsequently added new code names for the PowerMac 7100, including BHA (Butt Head Astronomer) and LAW (Lawyers are Wimps).

Then there are the inside joke names, in which the creators of the product simply used things that only they would understand. One of the code names of the Apple IIgs was Gumby, because of an impersonation done at a company Halloween parade. The Apple IIc+ was code named Propeller because a team member had a propeller beanie. The PowerBook 150 was codenamed JeDI, with the letters J, D, and I standing for ‘just did it,’ apparently referring to certain sexual abilities of the team working on the computer, maybe in combination with being Star Wars fans.1

While most code names were used exclusively by the internal teams at Apple and never officially released to the public, there are some exceptions.

Two of Apple’s most famous computers were actually officially named after their original code names. The Apple Lisa was internally referred to as Lisa, infamously named after Steve Jobs’ daughter, and the code name stuck and became the shipping name. The original Macintosh was codenamed Macintosh and the name simply never changed. Both these projects were led by Jobs, and I wonder if part of the reason the more creative code names stuck was these were more revolutionary computers and he wanted to break away from the standard number names and go with something original. It would be a different world if the original Apple Macintosh was instead named something like the Apple 1000A.

In addition to the Lisa and Macintosh, code names played a part in Apple’s line of PowerBooks from the late 90s into the early 2000s. Officially, these were referred to by Apple as the PowerBook G3. However, there were different versions of the PowerBook G3 and each had a unique code name – Kanga, Wall Street, Lombard, and Pismo. While these were merely the code names, they managed to break into the public consciousness and most people referred to those PowerBooks by their code names. One didn’t simply have a PowerBook G3 (Firewire), they had a PowerBook Pismo. Most likely the reason for this is the PowerBook G3 was the first time Apple abandoned its numbering system of PowerBooks and there wasn’t an easy way to differentiate the various G3s, so using code names was a convenient workaround.

The most recent example of Apple actually embracing code names for shipping products is the ‘Big Cat’ names it has given to major releases of OS X. Starting with OS 10.0 being named Cheetah, Apple has code named each release after a different big cat – Puma, Jaguar, Panther, Tiger, Leopard, Snow Leopard, Lion, and Mountain Lion. While these were the internal code names, Apple began to actually officially name these releases after the code names, including advertising the releases with pictures of the various big cats.2

While Apple embraced creative code names for its OS software in the 2000s, it slowly changed its internal code names for hardware to merely letters and numbers. The original iPhone’s codename was M68, and subsequent iPhone’s were codenamed N82, N88, N89. The same can be said of the iPad (K48), and recent Macs (P92, P79, Q16A). It’s disappointing to look over all the interesting and imaginative code names Apple used to use, and see that creativity has been reduced to simply letters and numbers. While code names are usually only internal and aren’t released to the public, they form a part of the history and legacy of Apple. Apple’s abandonment of creative code names takes a little away from that legacy.

The abandoning of creative code names has also compounded the confusion people have in referring to recent Apple products. If I bought the latest generation iMac, what do I call it? Usually we are stuck with saying iMac (Late 2012), which is very boring and rather forgettable designation. In the past, like with the PowerBook G3, you could use the code name as an alternative way to refer to these products. However, if the official designation is iMac (Late 2012) and the codename is something like P570, neither is distinct enough to stick in people’s minds.

This makes me long for Apple to bring back creative code names for its products. Take a product like the iPad (3rd Generation), and imagine its code name was Van Gogh, based on the fact it was the first Retina iPad and had a beautiful screen. That would be memorable and people could refer to it as a the iPad Van Gogh, instead of the awkward iPad (3rd generation). While the general public probably would not know these code names, all the Apple geeks out there could use them to create an easier, and much cooler, way to refer to Apple products. If Apple itself won’t create these code names, maybe the Apple community should pick up the slack and start creating its own code names.3

I’ll throw out some ideas of what code names I would like to use to refer to certain Apple products. I admit I’m biased towards artists and superheroes:

*iPad (3rd Generation): Van Gogh

*iPad (4th Generation): Captain America

*iPad Mini (1st Generation): Bucky

*iMac (Late 2012): Slim Jim

*iPhone 4: Picasso

*iPhone 4S: Autobahn

*iPhone 5: Skyscraper

*MacBook Air (Mid 2012): Silver Surfer

*MacBook Pro (Retina): DaVinci

If you have any thoughts (including ideas for code names) please comment below, email me, or catch me on twitter.

1. Strange because you would think most Star Wars fans probably do not possess the most advanced sexual abilities.

2. Apple also has code named most versions of iOS after ski resorts, including Big Bear, Northstar, and Telluride.

3. I look to the Weather Channel’s idea of naming winter storms, even though no official weather association names winter storms, the Weather Channel decided to go out on the limb and do it itself.


2 thoughts on “The Lost Art of Apple Code Names

  1. Thanks for the article.Seems I’d missed most of the party starting with an iBook G3 300Mhz v2 – at least we had colors back then (Blueberry :)Regarding footnote 3: In Europe at least that’s rather official, that is naming Highs and Lows switching male and female names each year for some years now to balance out systematic biases last time I checked the naming procedure was actually a student project at Free University Berlin bringing in some cash for meteorology 🙂 Hey, look, your Low just crashed some parties in Denmark, honey

Comments are closed.