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Digital Smackdown: Siri Vs. Cortana Vs. M

San Francisco last month was playing the big game of “Who is it?” as everyone tried to figure out who had taken over the Bill Graham Civic Center, parked a brigade’s worth of security in front of it, and was busy knocking out windows and dropping power generators all around the building.

Was it a political announcement? A secret concert? Nope, turned out to be Apple taking over the joint for a big announcement this month.

As seems to be the case now in the fall, the company is expected to roll out new updates to their phones and operating system. But the scuttlebutt that has people most intrigued is that it looks like finally, after what seems an eternity, we are going to see the new Apple TV.

To say that everyone is twitching with anticipation is an understatement. But this announcement does not live in a vacuum, and in fact comes on the heels of some very equally interesting launches in this industry. And if we put them all together, we can start to see the outlines of what promises to be the mother of all battles.

The Apple launch was preceded by an announcement that Facebook is launching a Siri/Cortana competitor, riding on top of their now independent mobile Messenger app, called “M.” This Messenger-only service is a strange hybrid, where actual humans are helping the algorithms learn as we ask it questions via text like, “What is America’s favorite cat?” Apparently they can also get you one if you ask nicely enough.

Preceding this was the launch of Windows 10, where Microsoft announced quietly that Cortana, their digital assistant, would be launching in beta for Android, and an iOS version was also in the plans. All of this we predicted and discussed back in December of last year, and it’s suddenly starting to look quite prescient given that what we are seeing here is the beginning of quite a war.

The war is for the first screen. But in reality, that first screen is not a screen as much as it is you. When you first wake up, what is the first device you are going to interact with? Will you talk to your phone? Your TV? Will you fire up Apple TV or your Sony PS4? All of these companies are trying to figure out where the happy hunting ground is between the web, smart homes and content that is unbundling in front of our eyes.

Put this all together and suddenly all these weird pieces, like a game console, an Apple TV and virtual assistants start to fit together.

The Apple TV is rumored to have their A8 processor running far harder than earlier versions, the better to cleave gamers from PS4 … which just announced PlayStation Vue, with which you can watch unbundled content … which is a direct shot at Comcast, which is trying desperately not to get disintermediated, but they don’t have a virtual assistant that can pull it together like Cortana…which could find itself competing against M, which people may use instead of Siri … which brings us right back to Apple.

Yes, this godforsaken game of musical chairs is what happens when multiple markets start tripping over each other, trying to get in front of the customer to grab that first screen, that first click, that first search term. The winner could blow several of the competitors out of the market.

For instance, if Siri winds up in the new Apple TV as people suspect, then what does that mean for Facebook? Losing that first query has implications for their ability to keep feeding data into their insatiable advertising platform. Which is why M makes so much sense as a return volley. But unlike Apple with its laptops, phones, and now HomeKit driving into the smart home, Facebook doesn’t have the hardware integration to act on it. Meanwhile, Cortana gives Microsoft the ability to bump them both off with its Cloud service, Windows 10, Android, maybe iOS and even Xbox.

Let’s be honest, it’s all kind of exhausting. And part of it is our expectations. In futuristic movies the main character often wakes up in the morning and his smart environment springs into action, obeying his every spoken command and predicting his every need. It’s a seamless, beautiful experience that thrills us all.

But today is where that world started, with markets collapsing into each other and all the 800-pound gorillas battling for your attention. It will come down to who can get to you first, and when the dust settles several of those gorillas could be several hundred pounds lighter.

After all, as the old cliché goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

Christopher Caen is a partner and chief brand strategist of Theory Associates, a strategic branding agency that creates demand for some of the world’s leading technology brands. He can be reached at [email protected].