Don't Mess Around with Good Acronyms

By Evan Schuman  |  Posted 04-21-2005
The high-tech industry in general—and retail IT is certainly no exception—loves acronyms. The more obtuse, the better. Engineers, designers and programmers come up with them because it's fun. Marketing execs use them to simultaneously impress and baffle customers. And PR people use them because ... well ... the young ones don't know any better.

But there are a handful of acronyms that have actual meanings and are widely understood; so to try to change an age-old acronym for a marketing spin is nothing shy of evil. In the dictionary next to "evil," there should be pictures of Hitler, Bin Laden, a cartoon of Boris Badenoff tying a girl to a railroad track and some marketer coming up with new meanings for CRM, ATM or POS.

POS, BTW, stands for "point of sale" and that's the way the universe wants it. Last year, Microsoft—the dastardly king of the bad acronym makers—started using POS to refer to "point of service."

Microsoft had a legitimate point—that mobile devices can be used to help customers learn about prospects and might not necessarily execute a sale—but why not use some other letter combination to communicate this new concept? Why burden your branding effort by first forcing retail IT execs to unlearn what they have learned?

To read about Microsoft's push into the POS space, click here.

Not only that, but this week, I received an e-mail from a company calling itself Prescient Applied Intelligence that it is trying to sell a new "POS audit tool," only these folks are defining POS as "pay on scan."

What did the company do? Throw in every combination for those letters and then—please forgive me—take POS luck? (My apologies, but that was a pun that I simply couldn't POS up.)

This reminds me of one of this industry's most absurd acronym battles. For decades, the venerable Digital Equipment Corp. dominated the server industry (called minis at the time) with its DEC VAX line.

The term "DEC" was known throughout the industry generally with good connotations. When times got tough and DEC started stumbling during the 1990s, its marketing people decided that their company would no longer be known as DEC; instead it would be referred to as Digital.

First, after decades of being known by one acronym, you can't simply decide that everyone must switch. If DEC wanted to change its name, it had every right to do so, but you can't force a new nickname on the industry.

But if DEC did want to change its nickname, why choose something so amazingly generic as "digital," as in digital watch or digital camera? I won't say that that move hastened DEC's demise, but it certainly didn't slow it down any.

What if IBM marketing decided—at its depth when mainframes were being threatened—that it wanted everyone to call the company "International"? How well do you think that would have gone over?

As a technology writer, my job is to try to make sense out of industry ramblings and extract and communicate the shreds of actual information. Terms like "point of sale" communicate actual information. It's incredibly valuable in an industry where meaningless technobabble is common.

If you want to effectively communicate information to IT executives and you start repurposing existing widely accepted acronyms, your branding program will learn about another great acronym: FUBAR.

Evan Schuman is retail editor for Ziff Davis Internet's Enterprise Edit group. He has tracked high-tech issues since 1987, has been opinionated long before that and doesn't plan to stop anytime soon.

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