The network industry’s most colorful story ever

What's behind Big Blue, Red Hat and those purple Extreme Networks switches?

A quick study of the network industry could be enough to give you the blues.

The industry’s extended blue period saw the emergence of wireless security company Bluesocket, plus other outfits of past and present, such as BlueCat Networks, Blue Ridge, Blue Titan and BlueWave Networks.

North Bridge Venture Partners alone counts BlueNote Networks, BlueShift and Bluespec among its investments. The wireless technology has created a spectrum of colorful companies from BlueAnt to Bluetrek.

Not that the industry’s color palette is limited to blue and its association with loyalty and trustworthiness. There’s also France Telecom’s Orange mobile business, Google’s yellow enterprise search boxes, a rainbow of wiring color standards and Apple Computer products, and everything from the Black Hat Briefings for security experts to such new companies such as Code Green Networks.

Red’s popular, too. Novell has been called Small Red and Big Red for its Pantone 485-shaded logo and the boxes in which it shipped NetWare (not for its financial results in recent years). Ray Noorda, the company’s late CEO, used to tell a story about walking into a computer store and asking the clerk what color box stood out the best on the shelf.

The clerk said red, so Noorda went with that. The official story out of Novell today is that the company did a Christmastime launch in the mid-1980s and decided on red, which stuck.

What colors mean to businesses

From elegance and evil to freshness and fertility. You might not think a lot about colors. But companies do and they're betting that their choice of colors in branding themselves and their products will appeal to you whether you know it or not. Here's a summary of what different colors are thought to mean or are associated with (note that some colors have different meanings in different countries):
Black: Elegance, power, evil, mystery.
Blue:Loyalty, trust, calmness (certain shades).
Brown:Dependability, masculinity.
Gold:Prestige, wisdom, wealth, quality.
Gray: Practical, middle-of-the-road.
Green: Nature, freshness, fertility.
Orange: Energy, joy, activeness.
Pink: Femininity, romance.
Purple: Royalty, creativity, luxury, magic.
Red: Energy, danger, passion.
White: Lightness, purity.
Yellow: Happiness, warmth.


Novell competitor Red Hat has made a name for itself in Linux, thanks in part to co-founder Bob Young hamming it up for the cameras wearing a red fedora. Young has said one reason the company is called Red Hat is that red symbolizes revolution and liberation. More specifically, the name came from co-founder Marc Ewing’s penchant for wearing a red lacrosse cap when he was at Carnegie Mellon University, as well as his habit of naming his software projects “Red Hat 1,” “Red Hat 2” and so on. While the company originally used a clip-art top hat as its symbol, today it boasts a red fedora that has a great deal of meaning for the company, says Chris Grams, director of brand communications and design. “The fedora has become a symbolic gift that Red Hat gives to employees and others who have done great honor to or service for the company,” Grams says. “We all wear our fedoras with pride.”

Thanks to Red Hat’s strong brand recognition, it hasn’t had problems with customers confusing it with other “red” companies, such as telecom equipment maker Redback. From time to time, however, it does get mixed up with the Red Hat Society, an organization for women 50 and older, who wear red hats when they get together. “We do occasionally get the opportunity to talk to nice older women about why they should consider using Linux and open source technology,” Grams says.

Purple power

Extreme Networks is a company of a different color: purple.

Chairman Gordon Stitt, who co-founded Extreme in 1996, proudly pleads guilty to choosing for his company the color of Teletubby Tinky-Winky and singer Donny Osmond. The choice (made in conjunction with an outside designer) grew out of Extreme’s logo color, which stemmed from the then-start-up’s desire to create a distinctive personality in a switch market where the same few companies had been around for years.

“The color was a pretty big part of our story,” Stitt says. “People at trade shows would look at our products and ask why they were purple. It gave us an opportunity to tell our story about a new class of products called Layer 3 switches that give you 10 times the performance of a router at a tenth the price and give you quality of service.”

Stitt says the company’s loyal followers refer to themselves as “painting their data centers purple” or “bleeding purple.” New-employee orientations stress “purple power,” the internal name for a product launch is “Purple Reign” and Extreme’s partners work with it through the “Go Purple” program. Microsoft, a big customer, once sent the company a Barney the Dinosaur doll after receiving an order of Extreme switches, Stitt says. “It’s embedded in the culture,” he says.

Steve Mullaney, vice president of marketing at Blue Coat Systems, says using colors to market a company and its products is a time-honored tradition that transcends the network and IT industries. The goal is to get an emotional response, he says. “Whether red to underscore urgency or exclamation, purple to stand out from the crowd, or blue to elicit security and comfort, no one can view colors without feeling some unconscious emotional effect,” he says. “It’s even becoming more apparent in sector references, like ‘green technologies.’”

Michael Hyatt, the CEO of BlueCat, acknowledges that there are a lot of “blue” network companies —”now there are, six years ago when we started, there weren’t” — but says he doesn’t lose sleep over people possibly getting his company confused with the others. “It’s not just about being named differently, but being branded differently,” he says, while wearing a black baseball cap adorned simply with the company’s blue cat logo, not its name. He points to the ways his company makes itself stand out (aside from via its technology and people): creative tchotchkes, such as BlueCat-labeled wine produced in the south of France, and full-blown poker sets.

Why Big Blue?

Now back to IBM and its nickname, which made its first appearance in the press in a 1981 Business Week article, according to LexisNexis and other search engines, that cited “the pervasiveness of IBM’s blue computers.” We asked longtime IBM watchers where the nickname came from and got a boatload of plausible explanations, including: IBM’s status as a Blue Chip company, the blue suits traditionally worn by the company’s executives, the blue covering on its mainframes and other products during the 1960s, and even the big, blue letters in its logo.

To sort things out, we put the question to Paul Lasewicz, IBM’s corporate archivist, but even he said the answer wasn’t black and white: “There’s no definitive answer to that, except to say that the term first emerged outside of IBM, apparently in the early 1980s, although we can’t confirm that.” What is known is that IBM initially shunned the term and even got into a legal scrape with a computer distributor called Big Blue Products in the late 1980s over the term’s use. Eventually, IBM embraced the moniker, even using it on its 1995 annual report’s cover, which read “The New Big Blue.” IBM has gone on to work the color into the names of some of its supercomputers, such as Deep Blue and Blue Gene.

Network rainbow

A sampling of the industry's colorful side.
Red Hat co-founder Bob Young sports the company colors on the cover of his book.

• IBM didn't embrace its Big Blue moniker right away, but eventually even used it on its annual report cover.

Don't be confused: Even Extreme Networks' BlackDiamond switches are purple.

While some might find all these colorful company and product names a bit much, things could be worse, says Blue Coat’s Mullaney. “It’s at least more dignified than all those networking companies who felt the need to use their company name to answer the question, ‘If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?’” he says (see story on tree companies in networking)

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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