Google’s surprise announcement, on Monday afternoon, that it was restructuring under a new holding company called Alphabet – abc.xyz on the Web – was greeted with a mix of enthusiasm (“a brilliant move”), skepticism (“the memorable, if unsightly, U.R.L. abc.xyz”), puzzlement (“Ohio man with @alphabet Twitter handle has ‘interesting’ end to day”), and snark (“Here’s what Twitter thinks about Google becoming Alphabet”). My own attention, of course, was captured by the new name and, especially, by the very interesting and forward-thinking URL. Here are my observations, in non-alphabetical order:
Old words are best. That’s part of a famous Winston Churchill quote (“Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words when short are best of all”). “Alphabet” is a venerable English word, going back to the late 15th century, when it was adopted from Middle French. That presents quite a contrast with Google, which was an intentional misspelling of googol, a word invented in 1920 (by the nine-year-old nephew of the American mathematician Edward Kasner) to describe the value of 1 followed by a hundred zeroes. Neologisms are often useful and playful – googol certainly is both – but they can be jarring and a tough sell at first. (We tend to forget that when Google was a baby company, many people thought its name sounded like baby talk.) Old words, on the other hand, have deep cultural resonance and emotional reverberation: consider home and domicile, which have the same meaning but very different shadings. By the way, if Google had wanted an even older word, it could have chosen Ábécédé, the Old English equivalent of Alphabet.
Meaning must be relevant. Here’s what Larry Page, a co-founder of Google who’s now the CEO of Alphabet, said about the name: “We liked the name Alphabet because it means a collection of letters that represent language, one of humanity’s most important innovations, and is the core of how we index with Google search!” Perhaps not the most elegant sentence ever penned, but a story that makes sense – it doesn’t torture a definition into submission.
Polysemous names are good. Polysemy is the possession of multiple meanings: look up set in any standard dictionary to see a quintessential example. Alphabet qualifies, too. Not only does it mean “a set of written symbols in a conventional order,” but it can also have any of several figurative uses: a long or complete series; the rudiments or basics of a subject; a set of symbols available for use with a computer or in a program (a usage that first appeared in print in 1953, according to the OED); and the set of nucleotides from which nucleic acid molecules are composed. Alphabet blocks, the children’s toy, were invented in the 1840s. Alphabet soup was invented in 1867, two years before the founding of the Campbell Soup Company. (Here’s a gem of a line from “Confessions of a Magazine Writer,” published in 1907 in The Bookman, a New York literary journal: “I drank alphabet soup for ten days in succession, and turned out so complex a short story that I myself did not know what it meant.”) Alphabet agency first appeared during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first presidential administration, when it was used disparagingly in reference to the bumper crop of New Deal programs known by their three-letter acronyms (WPA, TVA, et al.). Why does all of this polysemy matter? Because the more meanings, the richer the name and the more vivid the imagery it evokes.
Wordplay is OK. Larry Page again: “We also like that [Alphabet] means alpha‑bet (Alpha is investment return above benchmark), which we strive for!” (Larry Page likes exclamation marks!) Placing a bet on alpha? Well played, Mr. Alpha Dog. In the past, Google hasn’t distinguished itself with creative naming – Google Mail, Google Plus, Google Photos, Google Maps – so this puckish departure is welcome.
Language metaphors are humanizing. Google is a powerful name (well, it is now – don’t forget those early “baby talk” objections), but it’s also profoundly geeky. Alphabet is the opposite: basic, universal, and deeply human. Every written language has an alphabet; the alphabet is often the first thing a child memorizes. Alphabets are not only one of the primary foundations of civilization; they’re also beautiful and versatile.
Distinctiveness does not require uniqueness. Yes, a “dad, husband, and self-proclaimed geek” in Cleveland, Ohio, has possession of the @alphabet Twitter handle. Temporarily awkward for him, but not a concern for Alphabet in Mountain View, California (which so far has zero Twitter presence, and probably doesn’t need it). Yes, a subsidiary of BMW is called Alphabet, and owns the Alphabet.com and Alphabet.biz URLs. Not a conflict, legally, with a technology holding company. Yes, there’s an Alphabet Inc. in Indonesia (it manufactures wallets and bags). And, say New York Times technology reporters Jack Ewing and Quentin Hardy:
The name isn’t just causing waves with BMW. On Wall Street, there is an Alphabet Funds. Lots of midsize and small companies also use the name Alphabet. There is an Alphabet Energy in Hayward, Calif.; an Alphabet Record Company in Austin, Tex.; an Alphabet Plumbing in Prescott, Ariz.; and numerous preschools, inns and restaurants with some variation of the name.
If you think Google didn’t know about all this, you don’t know about corporate trademark lawyers. Especially those employed by large companies. They researched, they discovered, they proceeded anyway. Because they can, and because there’s just enough legal support on their side to satisfy them.
Your URL does not have to be pure. Guess what: it isn’t just Alphabet.com—people are squatting on Alphabet.net, Alphabet.org, and Alphabet.co. What, Google worry? Nope. Because…
The new domains are here. Get used to them. Sorry, New Yorker: I don’t think abc.xyz is “unsightly.” I think it’s ingenious, it’s fun, it’s easy to remember, and it supports the brand by showing, not telling. As I’ve said before, .com is far from the only URL option for businesses – not with more than 300 English-language top-level domains (TLDs) in play, and more being added every month. And now that a $400 billion company has made it OK to go non-.com, it’s hard to make a compelling argument against the trend.
Finally, here are a few amusing bits about the announcement:
Twenty-six reasons Google created Alphabet (“H is for Haters”).
What Alphabet might look like in 2050 (“T is for Therapi”).
Look closely at abc.xyz, writes Kwame Opam at The Verge, and you’ll find “a link to Hooli.xyz, a clear reference to Google-alike company Hooli from HBO’s Silicon Valley.” (Shortcut: the link is in the period after “our drone delivery effort.”) Opam continues:
The joke is wonderfully meta; the Alphabet site shares the same .xyz domain with Hooli XYZ, Hooli's so-called “moonshot division.” It’s fitting then that the link to Hooli.xyz can be found after Page mention’s [sic] Alphabet’s own moonshoot [sic] division, the X lab, which is currently working on drone delivery.
Oh, and one more thing: Using hidden links is a violation of Google’s own Terms of Service.