Baidu, China’s answer to Google, is itching to expand its footprint in India. The company held a press conference on January 16 to announce its breakthroughs in AI keyboard inputs and share its positive overseas market figures.
Till date, Baidu’s overseas input apps have been installed over 100 million times, supporting 120 languages and covering 190 countries. Facemoji, the keyboard Baidu launched in India, is available in 22 Indian languages.
During the presser, Baidu demonstrated Facemoji’s impressive voice input function as the app picked up a Hindi tongue twister (ram raja raat bhar ro raha) down to the T. As many as 21% of Facemoji users in India have used the function since its November launch, Baidu claimed.
The keyboard has a multi-language voice recognition capability (the app can pick mixed language voice inputs) which makes it ideal for a place like India where the illiteracy rate is as high as 30%.
Can Baidu’s Facemoji make a real impact in Indian market?
Google’s Gboard has the most market share as Google Mobile Services suite comes pre-installed with a good number of phones in India. Microsoft’s SwiftKey, with Huawei and Micromax partnerships, comes as a close second.
TouchPal is another force to reckon with, thanks to the Chinese company’s tie-ups with Vivo and Oppo. The maker of TouchPal raised USD 52 million in a US IPO in October last year. Jiang Feng, Baidu’s head of Keyboard division, said the company has entered into agreements with Chinese smartphone makers to push the overseas play, told news media Baijingapp.
However, he didn’t give a clear stat on Baidu’s India strategy.
Apart from the big fishes, local keyboards are also coming in thick and fast. Bobble keyboard is a good case in point.
A Xiaomi team found Bobble has a good Net Promoter Score while Beta testing its operating system. In terms of content customisation, Bobble has the highest engagement and retention rate among all third-party keyboards, claimed Ankit Prasad, co-founder of Bobble. He said Bobble was supposed to provide facial recognition tech for Baidu’s Simeji, Facemoji’s precursor, in the US. However, Baidu launched the function without Bobble. Baidu and Bobble had put out a joint press release after signing the agreement in August 2016 and “making all the deliveries from our side, ie Bobble technology (both SDK&APK). But they never integrated our code, instead got inspired to create their own (sic),” said Ankit.
“Although the agreement was signed, disputing Baidu is tough for a small startup like us,” he added. The Passage had accessed the mail sent to Bobble from Baidu touching upon the terms of agreement. “The keyboard function was finally launched in India in early 2018,” added Ankit.
In India, Facemoji is also facing competition from Chinese players such as Kika, whom Xiaomi previously worked with, and Cheetah Keyboard, the latest entry into India’s keyboard space.
A keyboard’s global success does not necessarily mean local success. Indian languages are tough to integrate what with the local variants and dialects. It remains to be seen how Baidu will cope, Ankit said.
What’s more, the text/voice input, Facemoji’s fancy selling point, is not really new. Keyboards are trying to become multi-purpose platforms rather than simple typing tools. For example, SwiftKey has the calendar and Bing Maps function incorporated in its process. ShopChat enables shopping inside the keyboard. Fleksy has plugged in Spotify, Youtube, Dropbox and Facebook into the keyboard functions. Tencent’s keyboard Sougou has embedded a pack of edgy utilities as well.
Baidu entered India three years back with a product line-up including DU Battery Saver, DU Speed Booster, ES File Explorer and DU Ad Platform. MoboMarket. Baidu’s app store for overseas Android market used to do a lot of localisation in Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Tamil and Urdu markets.
DU Battery Saver and DU Speed Booster was listed among top 10 Indian tools app for a long time in 2016, according to tech media portal 36Kr. DU Ad Platform, an advertisement targeting network in India, was said to be able to compete with Google in India’s digital advertising market.
Baidu, in 2016, set up local servers and had incorporated cloud technology into the platform. The utility suite was hived off to form an independent company, DO Global, in August 2018. Do Global now has 250 million global users, and India is among the top 5 markets, said Weilin Li, head of Do Global.
Talking the talk
Baidu was reportedly in talks to buy a majority stake in coupon firm Mydala for USD 100 million. “We absolutely plan to be in India for the long term,” a Baidu’s spokesperson told Economic Times in 2016.
In 2016, Baidu also said it had plans to invest in startups like Zomato, BookMyShow and BigBasket, Bloomberg reported. However, nothing significant has materialised so far.
The market and competition were quite different two years back. Now the players are more equipped and the market is more ready, said Satish Meena, an analyst from Forrester.
“If they are looking to capture the search market, it would definitely be difficult, as Google has already gone deep into India’s Android market. They need to figure out products that do not directly compete with the giants. If they just want to copy what others are already offering, then there’s very limited chance for them to grow,” he added.