Siri, Cortana, And Why Our Smartphone Assistants Have Such Weird Names

That voice speaking to you from your phone's intelligent personal assistant is likely pleasant and female, and has a sexy-alien name like Siri or Cortana. Product-naming guru Karin Hibma explains.

If our current tech overlords have their way, we'll soon spend our days interacting with our phones—or whatever wearable device finally catches on—as if they're sentient beings, conversing with "Siri," "Cortana," or "Google Now" all day long.

Tech companies like Apple, Google, and Microsoft are making calculated bets that intelligent personal assistants are the future. If they're right, these products will be part of our vernacular in a very regular and intimate way. They've likely given serious thought to both the speaking voice and the chosen name of their brand's particular gizmo. So why Siri, Cortana, Google Now, and Maluuba?

The most obvious similarity among many digital personal assistants is that they sound like women, even though our robot friends are decidedly gender neutral. (They don't have chromosomes, gonads, or bodies—yet.) Microsoft's rumored Siri competitor Cortana, for example, ends in "a," a quick and dirty way to feminize any word. Another popular natural voice language assistant is named Maluuba. Siri is a popular female Norwegian name, meaning "beautiful woman who leads you to victory." Many of these helper bots also have distinctly feminine voices to go along with their girly names.

Siri, left, and Microsoft competitor Cortana

Obviously, these companies want us to think of our disembodied servant companions as women. Since most of these programs end up doing what amounts to secretarial work, that fits into cultural stereotypes of who should be doing that kind of work, as The Atlantic's Rebecca Rosen mused in an article about Siri's voice.

But, if Apple and Microsoft wanted to elicit images of a Mad Men-style typist Googling showtimes and restaurant reviews for us, they could have gone with more traditional women's names. What about Susan, Brenda, or Mary? To be fair, some tech companies have taken that route. One Siri competitor goes by Donna, a reference to the West Wing character. The Garmin GPS voices have names like Karen and Jill. But: Siri? Cortana? Maluuba? They all sound mystical, exotic—at least to an American audience. Cortana, for one, comes straight out of fantasy culture, a nod to an artificially intelligent character in the Halo video game.

Fast Company spoke with branding expert Karin Hibma, who has named hundreds of products—including the Amazon Kindle and TiVo—about the current crop of names.

Hibma has two theories about the mystical naming trend. "The creators are deeply in the engineering world," she points out. "They're probably thinking of something that is familiar and comfortable to them." As in, those Microsoft dudes are gaming nerds. (Cortana could also be a code name for the final product, which has not yet been released, Hibma notes.) Meanwhile, lore has it that the creator of Siri had a coworker with that name and wanted to use it for his yet-to-be born daughter.

But, choosing an unusual name also makes the bot feel more personal. "I would rather speak to Rebecca than I would to Cortana. But collectively we don't want everybody's assistant to be named Rebecca because that would remove the personalization." A common name reminds us that Siri actually isn't so special, which is the opposite of what Apple, Microsoft, and Google want us to think.

We saw this tension play out in the recent Spike Jonze film Her. In the movie's world, each operating system gets a unique name for each owner. The bots—also all women—have more "normal" sounding names, like Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), for example. At one point in the movie, however, the main character (played by Joaquin Phoenix) realizes that his OS, Samantha, isn't just his, but talks to hundreds of other people. At that point, his very intense relationship with Samantha falls apart.

The movie takes Hibma's point to an extreme. But, if we're going to buy into talking to our robot attendants like they're our best friends, they have to fit into a human conception of companionship. How would you feel if your best friend had millions of other best friends?

Choosing a weird, mythical name isn't necessarily the best tactic for tech companies. Short and simple is preferable. Siri accomplishes that, but Cortana doesn't have "broad market appeal," Hibma says. Maluuba breaks all sorts of rules. "We tend to avoid the kind of double voweled, Polynesian-sounding names because they are complicated to understand and to hear," Hibma explained.

These poor branding choices might have something to do with the engineering-driven cultures at so many tech companies, Hibma says. The creators of such products may overreach on the names to bestow significance, without realizing or caring how it could negatively impact the product's marketability. Furthermore, startups may not consider the endurance of a product name because they don't think that long term.

Google Now stands out among the current crop as less of a name and more of an entity—a curious and risky move, since in Google's ideal future, humans will talk to their computers like people (preferably, ones attached to their face via Google Glass). But it fits with Google's overall brand strategy.

"They have really made the effort to put all the wood behind one arrow," says Hibma, referring to the search giant's choice to mark all its products with a single brand name. "It doesn't make sense to create brands around a lot of different names that they then have to include back into the circle." Google may not have an entirely clear picture of how it will fit into our lives in 20 years, but it does know that whatever it manifests will bear the name Google.

Cortana in Halo 4

That doesn't mean Microsoft should rename its product Windows Now. But it could certainly do better than Cortana. "I would have loved if Microsoft would have come up with a name that has that kind of sense of (being part of) common language, but also alluding to something that isn't usually represented in that context," said Hibma.

Something like Kindle, just to give one genius example.

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10 Comments

  • I'm sure that the choice of a femenine voice is also related with the low-power (and low-in-bass) speakers of a smartphone. Also, a feminine voice inspires more confidence.

  • ruairi1

    Cortana, Outlook, Surface, I like the MS products but dislike the names they choose. Hotmail had a terrible image and I can definitely see why they changed , not just the name but the entire service, but recycling an existing name wasted a chance for something better. In fact, re-using names seems to be Microsoft's thing as with Surface (originally a table-like computer) and Cortana, taken from their game. Their SkyDrive had to change to Onedrive, which actually improved the name in my opinion. MS doesn't have a single brand image name like Apple's i_ or Google's 'Google whatever'. 'One' could be MS's chance, OneDrive, OneNote, Xbox One etc.

  • I kind of feel like the author needs to go back and do some research. Especially about Siri.

    Siri was originally an app for iPhone designed by SRI (See where Siri came from?) International.

    I don't know about the other ones, but the information above is not correct and sails to mention Siri's actual roots and beginning.

    You might be better off just reading the Wikipedia page about Siri. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siri#Research_and_development

  • Pär Toresson

    Interesting! And starts up some thought processess. Personally, my phone is very much my assistant, and if I want to I can choose the name of my phone (mainly for sharinng my network). And I did. So why does that name not go into the "assistant" in the phone? We already have the possibility to choose the voice (female/male) of many services, so how about if everyone would be able to name their "assistants" themselves? What names would we then see, and how/what could brands learn from the names their products/services receive from actual customers?

  • Interesting take about the disembodied female companion/servant dynamic. Brings up the question of if businesses who adopt virtual assistants will use or avoid avatars and characters in addition to voides based on that personalization. I wonder what UK Apple users think about this female angle though, because up until the most recent iOS update the default Siri voice was male in the UK.

  • One of the origins of the name Siri came from the CALO project. There was a program called Iris that Adam Cheyer led that combined and integrated email, web, calendar, mapping, etc under one roof, that would help you with your day. Reverse Iris and you get Siri. There is more to the story as well...

  • I assumed their uniqueness was partly technical. We know Google and Microsoft have developed their systems with auto-listening activation in mind, as in "Ok Google." So the assistant keyword must be easily distinguished by the system and rarely used in ordinary speech.

  • I actually think Microsoft naming their VA Cortana was incredibly shrewd. It leverages a Microsoft-branded asset that people are familiar with. I wouldn't be so quick to think it was a couple of engineers that came up with the name in a bubble. Halo has sold over 50 million units worldwide. Many people are familiar with the name Cortana and what it represents. The Halo link also creates a very cool back (brand) story as well. Who wouldn't want to use the same AI in their phone that Master Chief used to help save humanity? Can Apple or Google tell a similar story about their virtual assistants?