NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Last week, Facebook (FB - Get Report) introduced its virtual personal assistant, M, to the world, and with it the social media giant entered a new realm, competing directly against similar efforts from Apple (AAPL - Get Report), Google (GOOGL - Get Report), Microsoft (MSFT - Get Report) and Amazon (AMZN - Get Report).
M is an artificial intelligence-based personal assistant integrated within the Facebook Messenger app that completes tasks and finds information for users, such as ordering tickets or finding restaurants. The artificial intelligence behind M will also be trained and supervised by actual humans.
Even though it's currently in an invite-only beta launch that is limited to San Francisco, M has already created buzz about how the text-based assistant will compete against Apple's Siri, Google Now, Microsoft's Cortana and Amazon's Alexa. Each of these companies is trying to build ecosystems around their specific products and services that will tie users to them.
Here's an infographic to compare the five available systems:
"The big challenge with delivering this in an app is that it won't be as immediately 'to hand' as Siri, Cortana, or Google's services on their respective operating systems," Jan Dawson, chief analyst for Jackdaw Research, said in an email. "Users are going to not just have to open an app but drill down another layer to find that specific functionality, which is a far cry from simply holding down a hardware button."
But Dawson said if M can hold its own, it might attract users away from their built-in assistants, especially since so many users are already on the Messenger app. CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced in the company's most recent earnings call that Messenger now has more than 700 million monthly active users.
Dawson said virtual assistants in general are moving toward becoming more versatile and useful.
"These assistants started out as mostly informational and reactive in nature, but are now getting better at predicting what you might want to know and, at least as importantly, what you might want to do, and enabling you to get it done," Dawson said. He said while it's still early to tell what types of proactive features will be developed, it is clear companies are focused on allowing virtual assistants to take actions in the real world, such as booking reservations on-demand.
Gartner analyst Brian Blau agreed with Dawson, saying Facebook is clearly going after action-oriented commands.
"There's this notion that the basic search information you're getting from these things is going to turn into some sort of really valuable information for any particular user and then they are going to act on it or [the virtual assistants] can, " Blau said.
"That's where the smarts come in, that artificial intelligence piece," Blau said. "It's not only about recognizing the voice commands, but it's also learning the language, and it's making sense of it enough to the point that it has confidence that it can perform an action based on that. That's something that Apple and Google are just starting with that Facebook seems to be going after right away."
Dawson said Apple's yet-to-be released proactive features for Siri, which the company announced at its Worldwide Developers' Conference this June, will help make it even more competitive in the virtual assistant market. For instance, Siri will now be able to contextualize users' information better, such as its new ability to group together photos. Now iPhone users can ask Siri for "photos from last May" and Siri will automatically match together photos taken in May of the previous year.
"Google's definitely the player most oriented towards proactivity today, though Microsoft's Cortana is giving it a run for its money, while Apple is making this a major focus of the new version of Siri in iOS 9," Dawson said. "But Google Now has also largely been informational, while Siri has been more action-oriented, while Cortana again finds itself somewhere in the middle."
Siri was first introduced on the iPhone 4S in October 2011, when it was integrated through the phone's home button. Siri performs a variety of tasks from searching the web to telling jokes. With the release of iOS 9 this year, Siri will become more proactive and will have an expanded set of skills, such as allowing users to set location-based reminders such as telling Siri to remind you when you get in your car to check out a particular restaurant.
Google Now is integrated into all Android devices, and performs similar tasks to Siri, except that Google Now is already enabled to set location-based reminders. Google Now was first introduced in July 2012 on Android 4.1. While Google Now is integrated in all Android devices, it can also be used on the iPhone as a feature on the Google search app.
Microsoft's Cortana was first introduced in April 2014 for the Windows phone. Cortana performs similar functions to both Siri and Google Now but instead of just creating location-based reminders, Cortana can also set contact-based reminders, meaning that whenever a specific contact calls, the user will be alerted to a reminder that is targeted to that caller.
For instance, you can ask Cortana to remind you to tell your sister it's your grandmother's birthday the next time you speak with her, and when your sister calls, Cortana will pop up a reminder on your screen reminding you. Microsoft announced in May that Cortana will soon be offered as its own app on both Android and iOS.
Amazon's Alexa is slightly different from the other virtual personal assistants, since it lives within Amazon's Echo device, rather than a mobile phone. While Alexa allows for web searches, it is primarily geared toward working with Amazon's services, enabling users, for example, to order items from Amazon or download audiobooks.
Blau said while the market currently has a variety of familiar names to choose from when it comes to their virtual assistants, the technology behind these programs still has room to grow.
"Google and Apple have had lots of time to get their algorithms in tune, so you would have to think that they are already preparing for what's coming next," Blau said. "I would tend to think this technology is not easy to make and get right, so it's going to take many years to really make some great services that are really effective with the right user interface. So I think Facebook is getting in at a good time."