The grand ambition of giving your project the code name Highlander


Code name reuse is common at Microsoft, and there have been several projects at code-named Highlander, the movie with the tag line There can be only one. (Which makes the whole thing kind of ironic.)

I was able to find a few of these projects. There are probably more that I couldn't find any records of.

Two of the projects I found did not appear to be named Highlander for any reason beyond the fact that the person who chose the name was a fan of the movie.

Another project code named Highlander was an internal IT effort to simplify the way it did something really full of acronyms that I don't understand. ("Reduce the architectural footprint of the XYZZY QX Extranet.") There used to be something like five different systems for doing this thing (whatever it is), and they wanted to consolidate them down to one.

The project code named Highlander that people outside Microsoft will recognize is the one now known as Microsoft Account, but which started out as Passport.¹ Its goal was to provide single sign-on capability, so that you need to remember "only one" password.

The last example is kind of complicated. There was a conflict between two teams. Team A was responsible for a client/server product and developed both the server back-end software as well as the client. Meanwhile, Team 1 wrote an alternative client with what they believed was a more user-friendly interface. A battle ensued between the two teams to write the better client, and management decided to go with Team 1's version.

But Team A did not go down without a fight. Rather than putting their project to rest, Team A doubled down and tried to make an even more awesome client, which they code-named Highlander. The idea was that their project was engaged in an epic battle with Team 1, and the tag line There can be only one reflected their belief that the battle was to the death, and that their project would emerge victorious. This being back in the day when playing music on your Web page was cool, they even set up their internal Web site so that it played the Highlander theme music when you visited.

They were correct in that there was ultimately only one.

The bad news for them was that Team 1 was the winner of the second battle as well.

To me, the moral of the story is to keep your project code name humble.

Reminder: The ground rules for this site prohibits trying to guess the identity of a program whose name I intentionally did not reveal.

¹ The Wikipedia entry for Microsoft Account erroneously claims that the project was once known as Microsoft Wallet. That claim isn't even supported by the Web site they cite as a reference. The Web site says, "Microsoft Wallet has been updated to use Microsoft Passport technology." In other words, "Wallet now uses Passport for authentication." This is like seeing the sentence "Microsoft Active Directory uses Kerberos for authentication" and concluding "Kerberos was once named Microsoft Active Directory."

Comments (24)
  1. Boris says:

    There are two occurrences of 'at' in your opening sentence, but there can be only one.

    [That comment is so awesome that now I have to leave the typo in the article. -Raymond]
  2. Anon says:

    I'd remove the bad cite and info from Wikipedia, but I can't be assed to do so, as a Wikipedia editor "who knows better" will come along and revert.

  3. Steve says:

    "I'd remove the bad cite and info from Wikipedia, but I can't be assed to do so, as a Wikipedia editor "who knows better" will come along and revert."

    For the benefit of anyone who hasn't seen this xkcd about Weakipedia before … http://xkcd.com/978/

  4. RRR says:

    Went there to fix the Wiki page, but someone beat me to it.

  5. Ken in NH says:

    Microsoft should go full ironic and code-name every project Highlander. Anything destined to fail should be code-named Highlander 2.

  6. Sockatume says:

    I will have to steal the use of "Team A" and "Team 1" as opposed to the subtly less even-handed "Team A/B" or "Team 1/2".

    [I've used the A/1 pattern before. It's quite handy. -Raymond]
  7. Andre says:

    @Steve:

    I'm pretty surprised that this 'citogenesis' didn't happen to Raymond's BSOD week, what with the swath of "articles" all getting it wrong and then "citing" him.

  8. Wladimir Palant says:

    @Andre: If you look at the history for that article, the only reason it didn't happen was Raymond's clarification reaching quite a few Wikipedia editors. This made sure that wrong information was removed from the article again. I'd argue that nobody would have noticed without Raymond's second article.

  9. Nawak says:

    "Kerberos was once named Microsoft Active Directory."

    Wow, I didn't know that! How come the Kerberos Wikipedia entry doesn't bother saying that?? Well, it's collaborative after all, so I'll add it to the page…

    ;-)

  10. xpclient says:

    Wikipedia although good for a reference taken with a pinch of salt suffers from bureaucratic guidelines, user politics, non-accountability, insistence on citations rather than the truth (this Microsoft Account is a great example), inaccuracy, bias, conflicts of interest, vandals, power abuse, harassment and disrespect to its community.

  11. John Ludlow says:

    Our UI guidelines are called Highlander. We're on v3 of that at the moment

  12. jas88 says:

    "XYZZY QX Extranet" – that's the codeword for the multiplayer Minesweeper, isn't it?

    I've always liked the variety of codenames – I seem to recall coming across "Bimbo" as a codeword for 3rd-party disk cache software back in the DOS days.

    Now I'm wondering about the worst/strangest codenames that could get accepted … Braveheart? Silence of the Lambs?

    [I think you misremembered. Bambi was the code name for the SmartDrive disk cache. -Raymond]
  13. Dan Bugglin says:

    @John Ludlow  There can be only… 3?

  14. cheong00 says:

    @The MAZZTer: No problem, the previous 2 versions are considered dead. There IS still only one. :P

  15. Been there, done that... says:

    I've learned to avoid:

    projects named after historical disasters: no to Alamo, and Jonestown, believe it or not

    projects named after prematurely dead rock stars: no to Hendrix, Joplin

    I'm sure there are more examples in my past, but it's late. These rules preclude naming projects Pearl Harbor, Auschwitz, Hindenburg, Cobain, Belushi, Mama Cass, My Lai, Fallujah, Hiroshima, Fukishima, Chernobyl, and I'm sure more. Always consider the Feng Shui of your code name, iow.

  16. Dave says:

    >Anything destined to fail should be code-named Highlander 2.

    Or Vista :-).

  17. Dave says:

    >projects named after historical disasters: no to Alamo, and Jonestown, believe it or not

    I once called a project Bataan.  It proved worthy of its name, and just subtle enough to get approved.

  18. DebugErr says:

    [I think you misremembered. Bambi was the code name for the SmartDrive disk cache. -Raymond]

    Bambi was also the codename for the Windows 95 "Hover!" game =)

  19. Chris Crowther @ Work And Can't Be Bothered To Login says:

    Someone is missing out by not code naming something as "Highlander III: The Source".

    (Given how many sub-titles that film has I feel justified in corrupting one of its subtitles: "The Sorcerer")

  20. Juan says:

    Raymond. Why do you care we try to guess the name of Highlander. It died in favor of Skype anyways.

  21. D-Coder says:

    I was amazed, many years ago, to run across a word-processing program boldly named "Final Word."

    In fact it did get to at least "Final Word II."

  22. Cesar says:

    @D-Coder: You might have heard of a little-known game called "Final Fantasy".

    Last time I looked, there were already more than ten games in that series.

  23. "The Wikipedia entry for Microsoft Account erroneously claims that the project was once known as Microsoft Wallet."

    But that's correct. Wallet was the Microsoft billing component on the web. That's now Microsoft Account. Although Wallet was not a predecessor of Passport, they certainly did marry.

  24. "If you look at the history for that article, the only reason it didn't happen was…"

    @Wladimir Palant: …that Wikipedia never made the mistake in the first place. A non-registered user credited Raymond Chen, not Steve Ballmer. (See en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Blue_Screen_of_Death&diff=624820664&oldid=624563657) Later, a registered user called Codename Lisa just covered "Incorrect attribution" with a very scathing edit summary.

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