Windows Confidential: The Sample Data List

When seeing a demo of Microsoft software, you may encounter all sorts of sample company and personnel names. Here’s where they come from.

Raymond Chen

What do the companies Northwind Traders, Woodgrove Bank, Tailspin Toys, Frabrikam and Contoso have in common? They’re all company names used in Microsoft samples.

The legal department has come up with a list of fictitious company names that have been cleared for use in samples and examples. They make sure that the name is not already in use and not offensive in any language, that the domain name is registered to Microsoft, and that sort of thing. That helps keep the samples safe for the rest of us.

Before the standardization of those Microsoft fictitious company names, the product groups just chose their own names. That led to many problems, as you might expect. Fictitious URLs in documentation were a rich source of problems. The likelihood that a random plausible-sounding URL corresponds to an actual Web site is probably close to 100 percent. The likelihood that that Web site content is embarrassing in nature is probably nearly as high.

Get Personal

Perhaps you already know about the sample company names and sample URLs. Did you also know there’s an official list of Microsoft-approved people names? When somebody at Microsoft needs to create a sample database of employees, or a screenshot of an application with social features, they can go to a list of names that have been cleared for use by the Microsoft legal department. That list also includes the names of current and former Microsoft employees.

It isn’t even well-advertised within Microsoft, but employees can fill out a form granting Microsoft permission to use their name in sample data. This deftly avoids the problem of, “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize that the name I just made up for sample data is the name of an actual person.”

It starts with the name of an actual person. Then legal gets the person’s permission to use the name in sample data. The name is even tagged with the region of origin. If you’re developing sample data for Thailand, for example, you can filter to names that would make sense for that locale.

Of course, one of the rules surrounding the use of these sample names is that you must respect the fact that it’s the name of a real person who kindly lent you permission to use the name. For example, you can’t put it in a screenshot with a sample news headline like, “(Name) Convicted of Felony.”

Hey, I Know Her

One of my friends is on the list of approved names for sample data, and her name pops up pretty frequently. When the name is paired with a picture, though, such as what you might see on a social networking site, it looks nothing like her. In fact, each time her name pops up, the picture is different. The picture most likely came from a model stock photo service.

The list of approved names is quite long, so why does her name keep showing up? I don't know for sure, but I suspect it’s a combination of several factors: Her name is relatively short, so it meets any size constraints. Her name is vaguely ethnic in an, “I can’t quite put my finger on it way.” This gives the marketing team a lot of flexibility in choosing a fake profile photo. Her name also sounds pleasant—it’s not threatening in the least. She just sounds like the nicest person on earth, the sort of person you’d gladly add to your social network.

I asked her what it feels like seeing her name being used in so many ways. She answered, “I am so confused by the marketing people. They like my name way more than I do.” Indeed they must.

Raymond Chen

Raymond Chen*’s* Web site, The Old New Thing, and identically titled book (Addison-Wesley, 2007) deal with Windows history, Win32 programming and radio contest request lines.