Watch Out! These Tech Words Have Many Meanings

By Mike Elgan  |  Posted 2016-09-07 Email Print this article Print
Tech Words

We use technology buzzwords every day without agreeing on what they actually mean. If you come across unclear tech terms, be sure to clarify and specify.

Words have meaning. But sometimes two people can disagree over the meaning of a word. In which case, that word has two meanings.

This is crucially important in the workplace and in business. We use words to negotiate contracts, hire staff, set objectives and formulate action plans. If we disagree over the meanings of the words we use, bad things can happen. Projects can fail. Business relationships can sour. People can lose their jobs.

The problem is acute in tech circles. Because technology evolves rapidly, the words we use to describe technology ideas and phenomena often don't have time to settle on a universally agreed-upon meaning.

If you're hoping there's some central authority establishing and policing correct technology word meanings, I'm sorry to dash your hopes: There isn't one. The definitions of words are determined by mass agreement. When enough people use a word and agree on its meaning, dictionary editors enter that word and definition into the dictionary.

That's why it's important to know exactly which tech-related words have multiple meanings, and to clearly articulate exactly which meaning you have in mind anytime you use one of those words.

Here are some of the most commonly used words in technology that have alternative meanings.


Chatter about security and encryption often involves the word "backdoor." Broadly, a backdoor is a way to bypass normal authentication for any computer-related system.

Sometimes—as in the case of Apple's conflict with the FBI over encryption—a backdoor is deliberately built in for authorized access. So, for example, the normal method to authenticate an iPhone is via a passcode or fingerprint scan. The FBI wanted Apple to build in a backdoor for accessing an iPhone without those methods. Such a backdoor would—or should— provide alternative, but authorized, access.

The other well-known kind of backdoor is installed by malware, enabling unauthorized access that also routs around normal authentication. This class of backdoor provides alternative, but unauthorized, access.

In both cases, a backdoor is software that's written for the purpose of functioning as a backdoor into a system. But the word backdoor also applies to methods beyond special-purpose code.

In fact, anything that bypasses normal authentication is also a backdoor. If you guess a password, that's a backdoor. A software update is a backdoor for the software maker. A smartphone jailbreak is a backdoor. Even a back door can be a backdoor, if walking through that door gives you access to a system normally authenticated over the internet.

When people use the word backdoor, they may have a specific, narrow definition in mind, but the listener may have a completely different one.

Artificial Intelligence

Silicon Valley talks about artificial intelligence as if it's a well-defined descriptor. In fact, there is no universally agreed-upon definition for AI.

Some experts believe that AI is present when software behaves like a person by simulating one side of a conversation. By this definition, Siri, Google Now, Cortana and Alexa are all examples of AI.

But others say that AI requires some kind of advanced machine learning or neural networking technology behind it to qualify.

In general, companies describe their technology as AI if they can reasonably get away with it. So there's a set of computer science definitions for AI, and there's the marketing buzzword definitions.

Cloud Computing

The most entertaining definition for cloud computing I've heard is, "somebody else's computer."

The word "cloud" in "cloud computing" comes from network diagrams. When you're mapping out a network and don't want to—or cannot—describe some part of the network, you draw a puffy cloud, which represents a network or process that isn't specified. The cloud is surrogate for information or detail. It represents ignorance, really.

Cloud computing represents computer storage, processing or networking that is difficult or impossible to understand or explain. Interestingly, this is the definition of the word "mystery." I'm probably in the minority, but I think we should replace the term "cloud computing" with "mystery computing."

Initially, cloud computing was associated with more specific jargon, including "utility computing," "grid computing" and "software as a service."

Nowadays, the term "cloud computing" is applied to just about anything that happens over the internet. And it's not always clear what the speaker means.


Mike Elgan, a Baseline contributor, is a Silicon Valley-based columnist, writer, speaker and blogger.


Submit a Comment

Loading Comments...
Manage your Newsletters: Login   Register My Newsletters