When Time Magazine named Java as one of the 10 Best Products of 1995 a new American marketing legend was born. Who knows if Sun Microsystems’ technology would have performed as well if the name “Oak” or “Greentalk” had remained – two of the early naming options.
The basics of the Java success story are well known: give someone an elegant, open-source programming environment and the world will be your oyster. The people tasked with creating a brand identity for Sun’s programming language chose a coffee metaphor to be remembered by the next generation of application developers.
Originally published in 1996 by our then US sister publication JavaWorld, this group interview offers a look back at how Java got its name — and what coffee is all about.
The interlocutors of that time:
Frank Yellin: Our lawyers had told us not to use the name ‘OAK’. This was already patented by Oak Technologies. So a brainstorming session was held to brainstorm ideas for a new name. This session was attended by all members of the so-called “Live Oak” group, ie everyone actively working on the new language. As a result, about ten possible names were identified. These were then submitted to the legal department. Three of them were approved: Java, DNA and Silk. No one can remember who first came up with the name “Java”. To my knowledge, only one person has publicly claimed to be the namesake.
Kim Poles: I mentioned Java. I put a lot of time and energy into it because I wanted to find the perfect name. Something that reflects the essence of technology: dynamic, revolutionary, lively, fun. Because this programming language is so unique, I really wanted to avoid nerdy names. I also didn’t want anything with ‘net’ or ‘web’, that would have been much too general. My goal was to create something cool, unique – easy to spell and pronounce. I gathered the team in a room, wrote some terms like ‘dynamic’, ‘alive’, ‘shock’, ‘impact’, ‘revolutionary’ etc. on the board and led the brainstorm. During this session, the name Java was discussed. Other names were DNA, Silk, Ruby and WRL, for WebRunner Language – yuk!
Sami Shaio: Hard to say where the name ‘Java’ came first, but it ended up on the nominee list – along with Silk, Lyric, Pepper, NetProse, Neon, and a host of others too embarrassed to mention.
Chris Warth: Some other candidates were WebDancer and WebSpinner. While marketing wanted a name that would imply an association with the web, I think we did the right thing in choosing a different name. Java will likely find a real home in applications far from the Internet, so it’s a good thing it wasn’t pigeonholed early on.
James Gosling: The meeting organized by Kim Polese was actually a continuous chaos. Some participants simply shouted terms. You don’t know who yelled what first – and it doesn’t matter. I had the feeling that half of the Oxford Dictionary was being yelled at. There was also a lively discussion about the pros and cons of individual names. In the end we narrowed it down to a dozen names and turned them over to our lawyers.
Timothy Lindholm: We were really disgusted and exhausted from hacking the marathon we were doing at the time. But we needed time to find a name. I don’t remember there being a supporter of the ‘Java’ proposal. The people I spoke to are convinced that it was caused by group dynamics.
Arthur van Hof: I believe the name was first suggested by Chris Warth. We’d been in this meeting for hours, and while he was having a cup of Peet’s Java coffee, he chose “Java” as an example of another name that would never work. The initial reactions were mixed. But I think the final candidates were Silk, DNA and Java. I suggested Lingua Java, but it didn’t work. We couldn’t trademark the other names, so we chose Java. Finally, our Marketing Officer, Kim Polese, approved the new name.
Poles: I tested the names at parties, with friends and relatives. And Java received the most positive reactions of all candidates. Since we weren’t sure if we could trademark that name, I chose three or four alternatives and worked with our legal team on them. Java passed and was my favorite, so I named the language Java and the browser HotJava – a much better name than ‘WebRunner’, by the way. The software engineers had a hard time saying goodbye to ‘Oak’, but eventually they got used to it. Branding was very important to me – I wanted Java to become a standard. So I focused on building a strong brand.
yellin: Anyone could rank Java, DNA, and Silk in order of preference. The name with the most yes votes also received the most no votes. So he was dropped. Of the other two names, Java received the most votes. Thus, he became the preferred candidate.
shao: It was a duel between Silk and Java, and Java was victorious. James Gosling seemed to prefer Java to Silk. Kim Polese had the last word on the name since she was the product manager. But most decisions at the time were made by consensus.
Eric Schmidt: Kim explained that we had to choose a new name because ‘Oak’ – which we were all used to – was already taken. If I remember correctly, she suggested two names, Java and Silk. Out of the two, she preferred Java and thought the Live Oak team liked it. Bert and I decided to go along with her recommendation and the decision was made. For these reasons, I think it’s right to give Kim credit for the name. She presented it to us and sold it and then implemented it accordingly.
Chris Warth: But I seem to remember that Kim wasn’t too keen on ‘Java’ at first. At the time, we were also trying to rebrand our browser from WebRunner – which had already been acquired by Taligent – to something not yet trademarked. Kim wanted names like WebSpinner or even WebDancer – something that would make it clear that it was a World Wide Web product. The trademark search was conducted and after a few weeks a short list of approved names came back. It seemed like an endless series of meetings and approvals were needed – like the name really mattered. Kim wanted us to delay the release so we could find something better than Java, but she was drowned out by the engineers – especially James and Arthur van Hoff and myself.
At one point, James said we were going with Java and HotJava, and Kim emailed us, asking us to wait for other names to come. James refused and told her we would work with what we had. We then quickly renamed the source code and released the version. Ultimately, I think the marketing experts and management had a lot less to do with the naming than the software engineers who really wanted to release something. I think Kim is rewriting history a bit when she claims she chose the name for marketing reasons. We chose ‘Java’ because we ran out of options and wanted to market our product. The marketing justifications came later.
warth: I’m not claiming I was the one who first suggested the name. But we certainly drank ‘Peet’s Java’. I don’t remember exactly who said it first. Me and James and the other engineers thought we could call it “xyzzy” and it would still be popular. In the end, it doesn’t matter who originally suggested the name, because it was ultimately a group decision — aided by a lot of caffeine.
Timothy Lindholm: The naming of Java was not done by one person, but was the product of a creative and dedicated crew who worked hard to achieve their goals. Don’t be fooled by how individuals and the media have subsequently filtered many elements of Java’s origins for their own purposes. (FM)
This post is based on an article from our US sister publication InfoWorld.