December 18, 2019
Do you have a story about Steve Jobs, and how he helped in naming Mathematica?
Steve was… I started interacting with him pretty soon after we had very early versions of Mathematica because he was going to bring out this NeXT computer and it was oriented towards education. We made this deal early on to bundle what would be called Mathematica on the NeXT computer so everybody who got a NeXT could use Mathematica. It turned out that it was a pretty good deal on both sides. It was pretty smart of Steve to figure out that was a good idea. A bunch of people bought NeXTs because of that. A bunch of people used our stuff because of that…
But in terms of naming your products… I had thought of the name Mathematica, but I thought it was too long, too ponderous, etc. I had this whole list of other names. I put that list on the web some number of years ago. What’s funny is all these names… including really horrifying awful ones… have been used as product names in the intervening years. But Steve had a theory of naming at that point, which was take the generic word for something, and I think he said: “Romanticize it”. He used the example of Trinitron, which was a now long-lost brand probably from Sony, which was a television brand and represented the three cathode-ray tube guns or something in color television, which younger people who are listening to this have probably never heard of. It makes me feel old.
In any case, at that time, the killer app of the thing we were building was for mathematical computation. In the end, the bigger picture is all about computation in general, but at that time, math was the first killer app for that type of approach. So Steve was… “You’ve got to call it Mathematica because it’s like math, but it’s romanticizing that word”.
I always had very civilized interactions with Steve, actually. I also liked the fact that I would tell him something, and he would say, “I don’t care”, and then sometime later, he would [say], “Actually, I do care”. That happened with Wolfram|Alpha. I showed it to him before I released it, and he says, “I don’t know why I care about this”. A little while goes by and [there’s] this little company called Siri that had licensed our stuff and had put a wrapper around it, and made a thing that could be thought of as an intelligent assistant rather than the use case that we were primarily dealing with, which was ask questions on the web. Then he looks at this, and he says, “Okay, now I get it”.
There are a bunch of things that… When we were working on the first version of Mathematica and interacting a lot with NeXT, there were all kinds of “Just be more ambitious” type pieces of input from Steve that were nice.