Word Routes

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How We Got an "App" For That

When the American Dialect Society selected app as the 2010 Word of the Year, it was a nod to the tech term's sudden ubiquity over the past year or two. And now it's more contested than ever with Apple locked in litigation with two rivals, Microsoft and Amazon, in an attempt to hold on to a trademark for app store. How did we get to the point where, as the Apple slogan goes, "there's an app for that" (regardless of whose store you buy it from)?

App, of course, is a shortened form of application (and also a shortened form of appetizer, but that's another story). As I told CNN.com for their piece on the latest chapter of the app store feud, in which Apple is suing Amazon for setting up an "Appstore" for Google's Android devices, the app shorthand goes all the way back to 1985. That's when the magazine InfoWorld reported on the release of Framework II, an office suite from the software makers Ashton-Tate. Comparing the new release to the first version of Framework, the InfoWorld reviewers wrote, "At first look, the user sees only one new menu ('apps' for applications) at the top of the screen." A screenshot helpfully highlights the Apps pull-down menu.

Framework II's apps menu included telecommunications, a spell-checker, mail merge, and label-printing options, all built into the office suite. Pretty handy for 1985, but a far cry of what we think of as apps today. Later in the '80s, as app became more popular as the clipped form of application, it led to the catchy expression killer app, used to describe an application that was so useful that consumers would flock to buy both the software and the hardware needed to run it. The Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet program was hailed as a killer app that caused businesses to invest in IBM PCs at the expense of competing systems.

App continued to chug along to refer to various kinds of computer applications until 2008, when Apple unveiled the App Store, a service running on its mobile operating system, iOS, that made it easy to download the new generation of apps being developed for iPhones, iPods, and later other Apple devices. Rival smartphone developers, particularly Google with its Android phones and Microsoft with its Windows 7 phones, would follow suit with similar app-selling services. But Apple now claims that because it got there first, no other company should be able to use app store (with or without a space between the two words). Microsoft and Amazon argue that the expression is so generic that Apple can't assert trademark status for it.

Interestingly, well before Apple launched its App Store, there were two trademark claims made on "Appstore" (without a space). The first was by Sage Networks, filed in 1998 and approved the following year. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ruled that the trademark was abandoned in 2001 after Sage failed to file a use statement. Then, in 2006, Salesforce.com applied for the "Appstore" trademark. CNET News reported in December of that year that Salesforce "plans to introduce the AppStore, which is designed to work in conjunction with AppExchange." The article goes on, "AppStore aims to bring marketing and back-office tasks, such as billing and collection services, to small third-party applications vendors for a fee."

So what happened to the Salesforce plans for its AppStore, which was supposed to see the light of day in late 2007? Larry Dignan revealed in his ZDNet column that Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff decided against using the term, sticking with AppExchange — but not before Benioff had a meeting with Apple CEO Steve Jobs. Benioff had been an Apple intern and still idolized Jobs, according to Dignan. Before you know it, Benioff had abandoned the trademark claim on AppStore and handed it off to Apple (along with the appstore.com domain name). As Dignan observes, "The lesson: One man's castoff is another man's zillion dollar idea."

Microsoft, in its filing against Apple last January arguing that app store is now generic, didn't bother with any of this prehistory, instead focusing on how the two-word phrase has now become widely associated with the selling of smartphone apps beyond Apple. One particular damning piece of evidence comes from Jobs himself. In a financial call last October, Jobs said:

In addition to Google's own app marketplace, Amazon, Verizon, and Vodafone have all announced that they are creating their own app stores for Android. So there will be at least four app stores on Android, which customers must search among to find the app they want, and developers will need to work with to distribute their apps and get paid.

That would seem to be bad news for Apple, since Jobs was guilty of classic generic usage, referring to app stores in the plural. Much to my surprise, the Microsoft filing also quoted me, in my capacity as chair of the American Dialect Society's New Words Committee. In the ADS press release after app was chosen as Word of the Year, I said, "App has been around for ages, but with millions of dollars of marketing muscle behind the slogan 'There's an app for that,' plus the arrival of 'app stores' for a wide spectrum of operating systems for phones and computers, app really exploded in the last 12 months." That quote duly appeared on p. 14 of the Microsoft brief, which was filed mere days after the WOTY announcement.

Despite my quote becoming part of Microsoft's (and now Amazon's) arsenal against Apple, I can sympathize to some extent with Apple's current predicament. After all of their efforts to create a revolutionary new ecosystem of apps that can be easily bought, downloaded and installed from their App Store, other companies are now trying to ride their coattails. Still, Apple's case for upholding app store as a protected trademark doesn't look like a particularly strong one, since whatever distinctiveness the term had seems to have dissipated. As is so often the case with the onslaught of genericization, Apple may have become a victim of its own success.

I'll have further thoughts on the app store feud in this weekend's New York Times Week in Review section. [Update: The Week in Review piece is online here.]


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Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Friday March 25th 2011, 2:01 AM
Comment by: Syzygy
This high stakes squabble reminds one of AOL's trademarking the "You've got mail" phrase. Much was made of the 'it's too generic to trademark' arguments of the time. However, AOL won exclusive rights to the phrase.

What is more interesting is how Apple and other large tech companies have learned from Microsoft's normal business practices. When the graphic user interface developers were warming to the term 'windows' to describe the boxes drawn on the screen, Microsoft trademarked the generic term for their own product, Microsoft Windows. Microsoft named many other programs as generically as possible such as 'Office', 'Word', 'Paint', 'Notebook' and so forth.

But when the worm has turned Microsoft fights like, well, Microsoft.
Saturday March 26th 2011, 10:48 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Kinda reminds me of Grand Theft Motto: http://www.visualthesaurus.com/cm/ll/1802/
Wednesday March 30th 2011, 12:35 PM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)Top 10 Commenter
Good article! Glad I read it!

Also, good comment, Dianna D.

I am against restricting language for any purpose. Anybody should be able to use any usable term without worrying about whether some team of glowering lawyers have preempted the word, denying its use except for their client's limited intentions.
Saturday December 8th 2012, 11:40 PM
Comment by: yogi
when is your android app coming folks? been waiting.... love vocabulary.com btw!
Tuesday March 26th 2013, 5:38 PM
Comment by: Kelley M. (San Mateo, CA)
Yes, is vocabulary.com ever going to come out with an app?! That would change my life!!
Friday May 3rd 2013, 6:30 AM
Comment by: Ricky S. (India)
Vocabulary.com app ???
YES PLEASE !!
Monday May 27th 2013, 10:36 AM
Comment by: Martin M.
Great article.
Also like to show my interest for a vocabulary.com app.
Friday July 26th 2013, 5:27 AM
Comment by: Sudheer (India)
Eagerly waiting for android app..
Thursday December 12th 2013, 2:09 AM
Comment by: bukht A.
We need an app for this BADLY.

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