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That’s NOT What That Word Means

November 28, 2017

VoIP: Voice over IP. A way to send phone calls over the internet using digital signals as opposed to analog phone lines

I’m working on a big project at work. In fact, I’ve been working on it for about 18 months. The project is to move our telephony infrastructure from our own PBX, or Public Business eXchange (essentially a telephone server) hosted in our own data center to a client controlled PBX hosted in a cloud environment. It’s a pretty big deal. We’ve had to learn some stuff as we go. It’s not bleeding-edge technology, but it’s close enough we are getting a little bit of a rash.

The project is finally wrapping up. We are moving our call centers over one by one to the new platform. We’re to the point that we feel confident in making commemorative shirts. We’re going to put the project name on them.


Huh? Really, after a year and a half, we are going to create shirts that have the name of an internet telephony protocol on them. See, when the project was started, it was given the name VOIP. After months, it’s impossible to change it.

If you are a little fuzzy on VoIP, it’s basically interent based phones. If you work in an office, I can almost guarantee you have a VoIP phone on your desk. If you home phone service through your ISP, you have a VoIP phone. Names, especially IT project names tend to take on a life of their own. No where was this as obvious at it was at Microsoft.

I worked for Microsoft for nearly a decade. During part of that time I wrote training materials for Microsoft Exchange. We had several courses that we wrote for internal customer support engineers. We had the NTP, or New-to-Product course. We had courses around “The Client” or “The Server.” At one point I set out to write an advanced class. I wanted it to focus on reading network traces. Network traces are a record of how two computers talk to each other over a network. I didn’t have a good idea of the name when I started. I just called it “Advanced Topics.”

It was a horrible name. We taught our classes all over the world. As we started talking to our foreign affiliates about what we were working on, they all had the same question.

What is “Advanced Topics”? What does that even mean?

Ironically, it was a brilliant course. The best we had ever written. It consistently got amazing reviews. Especially the foreign affiliates loved the in depth discussion of how Exchange communicates over the network. I even got a ShipIt award. It says, “Exchange Advanced Topics” with the date. Yeah, great course. Terrible name.

At the beginning of a project, you are not thinking about what it will be called. Often the features are not completely worked out. You are typically looking for a reasonable title to distinguish your new project from the 101 other projects on your plate.

The worst example I’ve ever seen is the original project name for Microsoft Exchange server and the email client. Back then, (1996) it wasn’t Outlook. Exchange actually shipped with a separate email client. Outlook was part of the Microsoft Office suite. And if you are wondering why Microsoft would have two email clients, . .yeah, it was kind of confusing for us too. Anyway, the project team had two major projects: the Exchange server and the Exchange client. And in a bit of frat boy humor the Program Manager named them Beavis and Butthead.

In case you are not up on classic crass cartoons, Beavis and Butthead were two cartoon characters on MTV. Given teh Exchange team’s counter-culture personality, the names fit. As the project progressed, people would ask,

Have you loaded the latest version of Butthead?

I tried, but I’m still talking to an older version of Butthead. The new Beavis requires an updated API set.

It was all fun and games until the product got close to shipping. The name “Exchange” had not yet been chosen, and certainly not announced. IT journalists were invited to look at Microsoft’s newest email server. And then they wrote about. . .by name. The press at the time was filled with stories about Microsoft’s new product Beavis and Butthead.

Fortunately, for Microsoft, the internet wasn’t really a thing yet. In fact, there’s not really a record even today of the merry misadventures of Beavis and butthead, the Microsoft project. Shortly after Exchange shipped, Microsoft made two changes. First, future exchaneg version would be named after elements on teh periodic table, iridium, platinum, etc. Second, all project names, no matter how small the project had to go through Marketing sign-off.

I’m just sorry they never made project t-shirts for that first Exchange version.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. 

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