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Some buzzwords evolve from the foam of language; others are invented in strokes of evil genius
One of my favorite things in the world is etymology, the study of the origins of words, the "wheel-ruts of modern English" in the words of the indispensable Online Etymology Dictionary. One of my least favorite things is the swarm of buzzwords, both technical and marketing, that seem to surround the tech industry. So why not combine the two? Here are ten tech buzzwords or -phrases, identified as some of the most hated on a number of online lists, along with their supervillain origin stories. Read on, and perhaps you'll think twice before introducing the next "disrupt" or "phablet" into the tech vernacular.
The now-ubiquitous phrase cloud computing was thrust into the limelight when then-Google CEO Eric Schmidt, speaking at the Search Engine Strategies Conference, described what Google saw as the new model of business: "We call it cloud computing -- they should be in a 'cloud' somewhere." But the term is much older: in a series of meetings in late 1996, Compaq marketing exec George Favaloro and technologist Sean O'Sullivan came up not just with the phrase but a series of ideas that looked a lot like the modern cloud vision. They were building off the traditional use of a drawing of a cloud to represent the network in diagrams. O'Sullivan tried and failed to trademark the next year; his ahead-of-its-time company flopped.
Crowdsourcing, unlike many of the other terms on this list, was born with a bang, deliberately chosen as the title of a manifesto of sorts by Jeff Howe published in Wired Magazine in 2006. The name was deliberately chosen as a play off of "outsourcing," which had become a hot topic in the tech world earlier in the decade, using as examples the rise of sites like iStockphoto and InnoCentive (but not, weirdly, Wikipedia). The term was coined as part of a marketing push, with an accompanying book and (now moribund) blog, but it has entered the vernacular now and is probably the etymological root of a newer, hotter buzzword: crowdfunding.
The Internet of Things
Kevin Ashton is a British technologist who was working for Procter and Gamble in the late '90s and became interested in using RFID chips to help monitor and manage the company supply chain. To sexy up this entirely sensible idea, he used the phrase "Internet of Things" as a title of a presentation on the subject, since the Internet was still new and exciting back then. Ashton charitably says that just because he coined it "doesn't give me any right to control how others use the phrase." But still, it's a little disappointing that it seems to mostly be used today to describe the will-not-die dream of a Internet-enabled refrigerator that can order milk when you run out.
Many buzzwords are deployed to one-up other buzzwords. After all, if everyone claims to be on the leading edge (and they do), how do you make clear that your technology is leading edgier? The vaguely aggressive sounding phrase bleeding edge does the trick! What's interesting is that, as originally coined, the phrase was not meant to be positive. This 1983 New York Times article, for instance, quotes a bank executive as saying "We ended up on the bleeding edge of technology, instead of the leading edge" when describing a series of catastrophic hard drive failures that soured them on a tech vendor.
We admit that we like a good portmanteau, but the word "phablet" -- it's halfway between a phone and a tablet, you see! -- just sounds ugly and frankly dumb. That's actually how most people thought of the whole giant-phone category back in 2009, when Dell debuted its mostly unloved Streak; that was the product that Dan Warren, now Director of Technology at the GSM association, first applied the term to. Today, Samsung's mega-phones (hmm, we see why they didn't use that term) are selling briskly, and the term has taken off after going almost unused for years.
Big Data has been one of the defining buzzphrases of the first half of the '00s, but its origins go back to before the turn of the century, as sniffed out by a New York Times reporter last year. An economist used the phrase in the title of a paper he presented in 2000, but the true creator appears to be John Mashey, who was Silicon Graphics Inc.'s chief scientist in the 1990s. In the late '90s, he gave a series of talks around Silicon Valley about the coming data explosion, and "big data" is right there in the first slide on the deck. (Some other phrases there, like "big memory," "big net", and "huge data", didn't take off.)
Eating your own dog food
Acting legend and dog food pitchman Lorne Greene may have never promised to eat Alpo himself, but he did swear that he fed it to his own dogs in ads from the '70s and '80s. That probably inspired Paul Maritz, then a manager at Micorsoft, to send a 1988 email with the subject "Eating our own Dogfood" to the test manager for Microsoft LAN Manager, urging his own team to use the product. The phrase soon spread around the company, which had a culture of using its own products already, and then the industry -- by 1999, for instance, Hewlett-Packard had dubbed an initiative to boost use of HP products internally "Project Alpo."
Go far enough back into the history of online communities and you're bound to find a group with a pretty silly name. The Cult of the Dead Cow was a hacking collective that began in a Texas slaughterhouse back in the 1980s. The group had a definite political bent, and Omega, one of its early members, coined the term "hacktivist" in an email to the group in 1996; a subgroup called Hacktivismo spun off in 1999. The cDc had a definite vision for the ideology, though: no network sabotage, DDoS attacks, or anything that could prevent people from communicating or exercising their rights to free speech. Their successors have had no such qualms, however.
Growth hacker is another phrase that didn't arise organically from techies babbling at each other but rather was deliberately launched with fanfare by Sean Ellis in his Software Marketing blog in 2010. A growth hacker, in case you don't know, is someone who works hard, perhaps in unorthodox ways, to increase the number of customers or users of a product or service. That might sound a lot like "marketing" to you, but keep in mind that lots of people who think of themselves as "hackers" don't like marketing, so you have to trick them into doing it. By 2013 the phrase was already recognized as a terrible buzzword.
In a 1995 article and a 1997 book, Clayton Christensen described the "innovator's dilemma": when you create something new and exciting, you get really good at making more and more money off of it, leaving you vulnerable to competition at the low end that totally undermines the whole market segment; Christensen deemed this "disruptive innovation." Silicon Valley fell in love with the phrase, making it completely meaningless along the way: now most people just use it to mean "out-compete". (Did Google really "disrupt" Yahoo's email business? Of course not.) Christensen hasn't helped, since he's built a whole cottage industry of books and seminars about how to disrupt just about anything.