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Trivia Tuesday: Microsoft codenames

At Microsoft, codenames are used to refer to products before they’re released to the public. This doesn’t mean they’re always hiding something secret (although sometimes they are), and it’s not uncommon to find technophiles debating over their meaning. If you know the history of Microsoft’s codenames, that shouldn’t come as a surprise, since they often have a creative and meaningful story behind them.

Opus: We’ve already covered the story behind Word for Windows, but it, too, featured an interesting codename. Opus, as it was called in development, would in time become one of Microsoft’s most successful products, and one of the ‘big three’ Office programs, along with PowerPoint and Excel. Although often used to refer to musical compositions, opus simply means a ‘creative work,’ so it makes perfect sense that one of the most empowering tools for creativity ever built would have it as its codename.

Is that a Ribbon on Word 1.0?

Janus: Maybe Microsoft should’ve saved this one for Windows 8. Janus is the ancient Roman god of beginnings and change, who also just happens to have two faces (Metro – err, ‘Modern UI,’ – and desktop, anyone?). But it probably makes sense to use it here, too, since Windows 3.1 would prove to be one of the defining moments in Microsoft’s history. Although it wasn’t quite on top of the market, Windows 3.1 greatly improved on Windows 3.0, which had itself greatly improved on previous versions, and for the first time brought Windows close to the same level of quality as Mac OS.

Microsoft later recycled this codename for its Janus DRM technology

Daytona: As any NASCAR fan knows, nothing signifies speed quite like Daytona, the home of the fabled Daytona 500, and that’s just the point that Microsoft was trying to make when it bestowed this codename on Windows NT 3.5. Designed to be a fast, stable and secure working environment for the pros, Windows NT 3.5 polished out some of the rough edges of its predecessor, Windows NT 3.1. 17 years after its release (or 18, if you count from the first version onwards), the NT kernel still provides the basis for Microsoft’s most important operating systems, including Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8.

Creative name, no?

Chicago (fun fact: big cat kernel codenames, contrast with OS X): Prototyped as far back as 1993, Chicago became ‘the big one,’ Windows 95. It continued the trend set by Daytona by being named after a city, not to mention fitting in perfectly with Microsoft’s slogan at the time, ‘Where do you want to go today?” In its original conception it was intended to be released in 1995 as the predecessor to Cairo, a vaporware OS that would’ve redefined Windows as we know it, things clearly didn’t work out that way.

Chicago underwent some interesting UI changes before release. You can read about some of them here

O’Hare: One of the first landmarks many travelers see in Chicago is O’Hare International Airport, so the browser technology employed by Chicago to ‘take users places’ was codenamed O’Hare. Based on code licensed from Spyglass Mosaic, the finished product, known as Internet Explorer, was bundled with Microsoft Plus! (a collection of extensions for Windows 95) and some OEM versions of the OS.

Check out that logo

Cairo: In case you’re wondering why this one isn’t on the list, it’s because we’re saving it for an article of its own. Just be patient. Seriously. It’s gonna be great.

DirectX Box: Bet you’ll never guess what this became. Like the project of some mad scientist, the DirectX Box was a Windows-based gaming console built using the innards of a Dell laptop way back in 1998. The Xbox, as the name was shortened to, was one of the first mainstream game consoles conceived as a multimedia hub, a motif that’s been taken even further in recent years, and adopted, to one extent or another, by all of its competitors.

Oddly enough, Microsoft’s marketing department hated the name ‘Xbox,’ and did their best to get it changed. When consumer testing revealed that it was by far the preferred name, they changed their tune

Longhorn: Love it or hate it, Windows Vista did help to usher in the modern era of Windows, despite whatever flaws it may have had. But before it was Vista, it was Longhorn, and boy, did it have one heck of a long development cycle. Even though work started before Windows XP was even released, it would take five years until it was done. Even then, many users complained of bugs, and it developed a following of fan-hatred rivaled only by the vilified Windows ME (or Georgia, if you’re going by codenames).

Longhorn saw a lot of changes through its long development cycle, but the one thing that did hold up from beginning to end was that it would only be a minor step between Windows XP and ‘Blackcomb,’ the OS that became Windows 7. Chances are, though, that it didn’t happen for the reasons Microsoft anticipated.

I wonder what Steve Jobs thought of Longhorn?

This is only a tiny sampling of the codenames that have come of Microsoft over the years. There's a ton of others that have really interesting stories behind them, too, so maybe it's something we'll revisit some day. In the meantime, you can check out this site to learn more about Microsoft product codenames.

Images via Wikipedia, James Broun's Tech Blog, and computerandvideogames.com

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