Knowing it Z to A


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Everyone should have some useless trick or trivia in their repertoire that will win them a drink now and again. Regardless of financial security (or lack thereof), nothing tastes so dry as a martini won at the expense of a guileless pal. My claim to fame is saying the alphabet backwards. It surprises me that anyone will take this wager as it is not the kind of boast one would make emptily. There is no inherent value in the act; it is nothing more than a stupid human trick.

The alphabet forward or backward has little intrinsic usefulness either, except perhaps for the future file clerks of America. Oh, I can hear the letters (of the epistolary variety) coming already: how dare I impugn the foundation of the written word? Well, that's my point. While rote memorization of the alphabet song or its antithesis may bring smiles from grandparents and teachers, it doesn't compare with the bulb-lighting moment when letters organize themselves into a sum greater than their parts—words imbued with meaning. It is the difference between seeing your reflection and realizing that face represents you.

In the alphabet soup of technology, acronyms arise with the speed of a teen's text-messaging digits. KM, CM, ECM, and WCM are but a few that hang their meaning on managing content of some kind. Newcomers include MAM (to manage marketing or media assets, depending on who's selling) and TCM (like, managing total content, man). And, in our neck of the technological woods, managing content is a mighty oak. With the slew of real-time communication acronyms shooting up all around us, it's no surprise that we purveyors of content can get a bit tangled.

Take instant messaging: IM, you might think. And you might be right. But IM could also mean instant messenger, and thus confused with AOL's proprietary AIM. Protecting AIM makes sense: that's AOL's trademarked instant messaging product. But AOL has put the linguistic brakes on the use of the words "instant messenger" in any context other than in direct reference to its own product. I'm pretty sure we can still use IM as long as we are referring to the verb or gerund, but not the noun. Clear?

I'm wondering what AOL gains from this move. I understand why Xerox didn't want its name to be used willy-nilly by every copycat. I get how Kleenex wanted to be a brand that made tissues for the face and other body parts, not a generic term used even when others' products got sold. But how does it behoove AOL to trademark two words that have entered the common parlance, in a particular order, at a given time in our communication history? I can say AOL Instant Messenger and I can say Instant Messenger if I'm referring to AOL's product, but the strange part is that I can only say "instant messenger" (even with no initial caps) if I mean AIM. The company views the use of these two words in reference to a broader category as an infringement on its intellectual property.

This is like Kleenex sending out cease-and-desist orders to everyone that referred to facial tissue not as Kleenex, but as "facial tissue" itself. I mean where would that have left a company like Puffs? With snot rag? Maybe not, but would they have had to write around it with something catchy like "tissue that is used on the face or nose area"? Perhaps they would have felt compelled to coin their own term like "Paperchief."

While AOL does lay claim to the intellectual origins of instant messaging, it does so through conquest more than creativity. The technology was invented by three young Israeli men who had a pet project to create instant, easy, Internet communication, which they called ICQ (for I Seek You). Net access was pricey in Israel so they moved to the U.S. and formed a company called Mirabilis. Through the viral marketing miracle that is the Internet, ICQ got 12 million downloads. Eventually, those millions led to many more, in the form of a $400-million buy-out of all Mirabilis assets by AOL in 1997.

AOL won a 2002 patent on instant messaging systems and has gone a long way to make IM (verb) a fixture on desktops and mobile devices everywhere. The competition—which includes major players and a bevy of upstarts—stay away from AOL's proprietary instant messenger word order. Many of the product names don't say what they do (Trillian), others (Yahoo!, Microsoft) just use the word Messenger, while those walking closer to the edge (Jabber) use IM (though I'm sure they mean the verb, not the precious noun).

It tempts me to start writing "messenger, instant" to see if it is, in fact, the order of these two words (which have been scurrying around doing things in the English language for a heck of a long time) that is at issue here. Does restricting the ebb and flow of the techno-vernacular (I believe it would be okay to abbreviate that as TV, incidentally) enhance the company's cachet? I would wager that allowing themselves to be associated with this increasingly essential form of Net-enabled communication and real-time data paradigm would take them a whole lot further. Look at Xerox: While it didn't allow its brand to be synonymous with copies, the power of its brand was reinforced by every facsimile.