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Microsoft, Tencent in chatbot spat

2014-06-03 09:00 Global Times Web Editor: Qin Dexing

Microsoft Corp has exchanged fire with Tencent Holdings during the annual Dragon Boat Festival holidays that ended Monday, over the removal of Microsoft's artificially intelligent chatbots from Tencent's popular mobile messaging application and social networking platform WeChat, which the chatbots had been newly registered on, over alleged privacy concerns.

The chatbots, named Xiaobing, or little ice, were launched by Microsoft on Thursday to function as Siri-like voice assistance, in the latest sign of Microsoft's eagerness to tap into China's mobile Internet market where the US software giant has yet to reap any big fortunes.

However, only three days after Xiaobing's public release as part of its test phase, scores of Xiaobing chatbots were suddenly removed throughout WeChat due to claims of an emergence of fake Xiaobing, while some groundless comments written by "ghostwriters" (netizens paid to make critical posts) appeared on the Internet defaming Xiaobing as having infringed on user privacy, Microsoft said in a statement posted on Sunday on the recently created Weibo account for the chatting robot app.

"Microsoft's Xiaobing [chatbots] are all dead," but "we'll save it. Research and development on the second-generation Xiaobing are already near completion," Microsoft said in the statement.

As for Tencent, which Microsoft claimed "killed Xiaobing" with "butcher knives," its action was in response to massive user inquiries about concerns over leakage of chat content, Tencent said on Sunday in a statement on its official Weibo, stressing it has nothing to do with the app.

It found the chatbots had been involved in a variety of unauthorized practices such as simulation of users' operations and mass registration of junk accounts, read the statement, according to which Tencent said it had immediately contacted Microsoft and was still awaiting an effective response from Microsoft.

Renewing the dispute, Microsoft noted on Monday in another statement that the chatting robot app has adopted a privacy protection mechanism that is stricter than that used by WeChat.

Xiaobing derives its voice assistance from a combination of public search engine results and intelligent speech, being irrelevant of any chat content records, said the statement issued by Microsoft's Asia-Pacific Research and Development Group, which is responsible for developing the app.

Both companies could not be reached for further comment.

Tencent has shown it will go to any length to protect its current market position with the removal action, Jia Jinghua, a Shandong-based independent analyst, told the Global Times on Monday.

In just three days since the launch, Xiaobing has won favor from nearly 1.5 million WeChat users, Microsoft's Asia-Pacific Research and Development Group revealed in the statement, in a suggestion of the new app's appeal that may distract users from WeChat.

Jia believes the move is "unwise," as Microsoft still has extensive ammunition in the operating system arena, especially in the PC world, Tencent could easily bring on a retaliatory response from Microsoft and thus take a hefty hit ultimately. The removal would only be temporary, he forecast.

Saying that the dispute between the two companies may originate from Tencent's concern over a threat to its platform given Xiaobing's rapidly gaining popularity, Zhang Yi, CEO of Shenzhen-based market research firm iiMedia Research, emphasized that it is also a reflection that Microsoft, a longtime dominant power in the PC era, has failed to gain traction in the mobile Internet arena.

"Microsoft has to find a killer mobile application to re-emerge as a viable player in the mobile era, but in doing so it has no choice but to seek partnership in the Chinese market where it has already lost the initiative," Zhang said Monday.

The removal, which happened amid accusations traded between China and the US over cyber espionage, may further dent prospects of Microsoft's operations in China, where it has recently been banned from being installed in new government computers, Li Yi, secretary-general of the China Mobile Internet Industry Alliance, told the Global Times on Monday.

The Xiaobing chatbots may simply be forcibly ended if Microsoft cannot find a way into doing business in the country, Li remarked.

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