Date July 6, 2000 Forbes.com Why Cool Chip Code Names Die By Arik Hesseldahl No one who knows Intel was the least bit surprised when it said last week that it will call its forthcoming PC processor the Pentium 4. Couldn't the world's biggest chip company come up with a new product name to shake its identity? If it ever wanted to, it might take inspiration from its many product code names. Before it was the Pentium 4, it was called Willamette. Before Pentium III, there was Coppermine and Katmai. Before Pentium II there was Klamath and Deschutes. So, what happened to all these cool code names that they were replaced by boring and predictable product names? They fell victim to the most successful branding campaign in the history of the computer chip industry. When Intel's (Nasdaq: INTC - news) Pentium name first hit the public consciousness, it sounded like the name of a newly discovered radioactive isotope, like Radium or Plutonium. Today the name is more or less the PC industry's equivalent of Coca-Cola (Nasdaq: COKE - news) or McDonald's (NYSE: MCD - news). The Intel Inside stamp on a PC and in ads for PCs amounts to a modern Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. When a PC maker advertises it wares on TV, Intel picks up part of the advertising cost. In return it gets various little plugs during the TV spot, like the now familiar four-tone and chimes sound effect. Besides Pentium, Intel also makes a chip called Celeron for cheaper computers aimed at consumers and is readying a 64-bit chip for servers and workstations with another name seemingly inspired by the Periodic Table of Elements, Itanium. (It sounds like the metal titanium.) Intel's branding has been so successful that its main rival in the PC processor business, Advanced Micro Devices (NYSE: AMD - news), created a brand name of its own. After years of selling chips with yawners like K6 and K6-2+, last year AMD named a chip it had been calling K7 Athlon, apparently from the Greek word for contest (Decathlon\205get it?). In April it followed with a name for its chips aimed at cheaper systems, Duron. This name is taken, AMD says, from the Latin words durare, which means to last or to endure, and on, which means unit. The idea, AMD says, was to convey a sense of a workhorse-type product whose value will last over the long term. This may be an attempt to allay consumer fears that the computers they buy become obsolete the moment the check is signed. And while these brand names are okay and may make sense with consumers, they're not nearly as interesting as the multitude of code names the chip industry uses on products while they're still in development. Unless they're really into computers, typical consumers have little use for these code names. But technology journalists and industry analysts banter about code-named chips for months or years before they come to market, to the point that it's sometimes difficult to remember the new, official name. Take the example of the forthcoming Pentium 4. Before it bore that name, Intel employees, industry analysts and the media called it Willamette, the name of a river in Oregon not far from the company's design facility outside Portland. Itanium had been called Merced, the name of a river in Northern California. The current Pentium III had been called Coppermine, apparently after a river in Canada's Nunavut region, while a previous version of Pentium III had been called Katmai, after an Alaskan river. So, what's with the rivers? Could someone high up within Intel be hinting at a love for whitewater rafting or fly-fishing? Or is the code-naming convention the result of a simple vote of a committee of engineers? Current Intel code names making the rounds read like the itinerary of a whitewater junkie: Deerfield, Foster, Northwood, Tualatin, Gallatin, McKinley and Madison are rivers in Oregon, California, Alaska, Montana, and, in the case of Deerfield, Massachusetts and Vermont. AMD's code names follow an apparent formula too: sports cars. Various flavors of the Athlon processor have carried code names like Thunderbird, while a chip known internally and in the press as Mustang is waiting in the wings for next year, as is a mobile chip known as Corvette. The Duron chip had previously been known as Spitfire. Of course AMD Chief Executive Jerry Sanders is known for his love of fast and expensive cars, but an AMD spokesman says there's no connection. The only code name that deviates from the automotive theme is Sledgehammer, AMD's 64-bit chip for servers and workstations, which is intended to compete against Intel's Itanium. Before it had either fancy brand names or even macho code names, AMD's K-generation of processors, beginning with the K5 in 1994, had their name inspired by Kryptonite, the fictional element from comic books that could bring the otherwise all-powerful Superman to his knees. In this case Superman was Intel, whose Pentium name was just catching on, but apparently no one took notice of the fact that Superman is a good guy and that only villains ever use Kryptonite. Yet the K has endured in the names of various AMD chips for nearly six years. AMD still turns out chips in the K6-2 family. Before they were Kryptonite, the K-series of processors were designed by a company called Nex-Gen, which AMD acquired in 1996. The folks at Nex-Gen took their chip code names from the names of dinosaur characters in the children's animated movie The Land Before Time. Then there are the code names for the PC processor company bringing up the rear, Taiwan's VIA Technologies. Last year, VIA, which previously made only PC chipsets--chips that moderate the communications between the main processor and the main memory in a PC--jumped into the microprocessor market when it bought the Cyrix chip division of National Semiconductor (NYSE: NSM - news) and the processor division of Integrated Device Technology (Nasdaq: IDTI - news). Now that the company pastes the Cyrix name on all its processors--the most recent is Cyrix III--its code names have taken on a biblical tone: Joshua, Samuel and Matthew. While it was still a unit of National Semiconductor, Cyrix found itself on the dark side of The Force. It was forced by filmmaker George Lucas to change the code name of a chip it was developing from Jedi, referring to the benevolent warrior knights of the Star Wars movies, to Gobi, the name of the desert of Mongolia. Another flavor of Cyrix chip was known as Mojave, after a desert. So, what's the purpose for all these code names? They let the chip companies talk about their forthcoming chips without really talking about them. Companies let slip a few bare bones facts about chips they have in development and give it a code name, and the technology pundits take it from there, speculating, questioning and prodding those who know the details to say more. It's not unlike fans of the Star Wars movies knowing the general plot direction of the next movie, clamoring for more details. It makes for great ink in industry trade publications and Web sites but generally matters not one whit to consumers, who just want their computers to work like they're supposed to.