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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.

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

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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