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Microsoft cries 'murder' after suspension of Xiaobing robot

By Gao Yuan | China Daily | Updated: 2014-06-03 07:12

Microsoft Corp's 6-day-old artificial intelligence chatting robot was blocked on popular instant messaging platform WeChat for a second consecutive day on Monday amid a battle over data security concerns.

The suspension of the Siri-like service, named Xiaobing, was another hurdle in the United States-based company's attempt to popularize its Web search engine among more than 500 million Chinese mobile Internet users.

"While we were in talks with WeChat, all the Xiaobing accounts were shut down without prior notice," said an e-mailed statement to China Daily from Microsoft's Asia-Pacific Research and Development Group, which developed Xiaobing.

Microsoft engaged in a bit of hyperbole, calling Xiaobing an "innocent girl" and terming WeChat's move a "brutal murder".

Microsoft is reaching out to other social networking platforms to get Xiaobing "back to life" soon, the company said.

Tencent Holdings Ltd, owner of WeChat, fired back. It accused Xiaobing of violating a number of user policies such as prompting users to include Xiaobing in group chats and creating a large number of spam accounts.

Microsoft denied the allegations, saying Xiaobing is just an entertainment tool and that customer information temporarily stored on company servers is safe.

During the launch of Xiaobing on May 29, Microsoft said it had reached an exclusive partnership with WeChat promoting the AI service. No further information about the agreement was disclosed.

Tencent clearly does not agree there's any deal.

"Xiaobing was solely developed by Microsoft, and Tencent has nothing to do with it," the Shenzhen-based company said.

The short-lived Xiaobing was dubbed as the "strongest social assistant in history" by Microsoft.

The service has collected roughly 15 million snippets of real-life online dialogue in Chinese from blogs and forums in order to understand context and semantics.

The developers admitted Xiaobing can sometimes be too loquacious and cynical because all "her" language skills were acquired online where informal use of words and explicit expressions about sex are common.

According to Eric Jing, head developer of the Xiaobing project, Microsoft wanted to use the WeChat-based chatting tool to tap into the mobile searching market.

"We will be able to provide search results via WeChat to smartphones that do not have Bing installed once our search functions are fully available on Xiaobing," Jing told China Daily earlier. He said it is also possible to add more language skills to Xiaobing's "resume" in the future.

Microsoft may find it isn't wise to challenge Tencent on its own turf, because WeChat is the only sizable social-based instant messaging platform in the country.

WeChat's user numbers had soared above 600 million as of last year.

By contrast, Bing has been a bit player among search engines in China since its official launch in 2009. Its April market share was a scant 0.9 percent. Even Google Inc, which has no official search service on the Chinese mainland, has a larger market share, according to Internet data keeper cnzz.com.

Local search providers, including Baidu Inc, so.com and sogou.com, controlled nearly 98 percent of market share as of April, said cnzz.com.

Analysts said Bing must vigorously expand in the mobile market, which they said wasthe last slim chance for Bing and other small search providers to survive.

"New entrants will find it extremely difficult to shake the top four providers in the market, especially when every player knows mobile Internet is the future," said Zhang Xi, an analyst at Beijing-based iResearch Consulting Group.

Online search providers reaped more than 11.6 billion yuan ($1.9 billion) in revenue during the first quarter of this year, an increase of 56.6 percent year-on-year, according to iResearch. Baidu took more than 80 percent of the industry revenue, while Bing's earnings were next to nothing, data showed.

gaoyuan@chindaily.com.cn

 

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