While the market share battle over voice assistants in the US and Europe rages between Amazon and Google, Baidu quietly acquired Kitt.ai last week. Kitt.ai positions itself as a multi-platform natural language understanding engine that also has a hotword (i.e. wake word) detection engine called Snowboy and a conversation engine named Chatflow. Like Wit.ai and API.ai, Kitt.ai was originally developed to support chatbots, but has direct applicability to voice applications.
Kitt.ai founder Xuchen Yao commented in a blog post last week about the progress the company had made of late:
Over the past two years we developed three products: Snowboy (a customizable hotword detection engine), NLU (a multilingual natural language understanding engine), and ChatFlow (a multi-turn conversation engine). As of July 2017, we power more than 12,000 developers on the Snowboy platform, who created the largest hotword library in the world with 9,000 unique hotwords in 15 major languages. We have turned ChatFlow into an enterprise-level software, actively exploring a monetization strategy in the war of chatbot platforms.
This acquisition is likely about time-to-market for Baidu. The company can incorporate a platform that is already in production and proven. The user base is less important since Baidu is more interested in China than Kitt.ai’s current English-speaking customers. The question for Kitt.ai users today is about whether the company resources will now be devoted primarily to supporting the Chinese market and how that will impact product enhancements going forward.
Acquisitions for Developer Tools
API.ai was acquired by Google in September 2016 and Wit.ai was acquired by Facebook in January 2015. Think of these as tools that enable developers to more easily build chatbots and voice applications. They translate speech from the user to text, apply algorithms to divine meaning of the text, manage interactions with the user and convert responses from text-to-speech.
Platforms such as Google, Facebook and Baidu want tools like these in order to assist their developer ecosystem build conversational applications. Kitt.ai is likely expected to complement Baidu’s acquisition of voice assistant technology developer Raventech in February. While Kitt.ai has similar utilities to Wit.ai and API.ai, it also adds hotword detection so the activation phrase for an always-listening voice assistant can be customized by the developer. This element makes Kitt.ai stand out because it is a voice-first feature that other solutions lack and likely is important to Baidu.
Chinese Market Heats Up
Baidu released its voice-enabled robot Xiaoyu in May. At about US$500, the robot is five times more expensive than the Tencent-funded LingLong DingDong and the forthcoming Tmall Genie X1 from Alibaba. Both are voice-only devices. Baidu almost certainly plans to have a more modest offering than Xiaoyu and will be looking to build a large developer community around its voice-first platforms. Kitt.ai is a tool that can help more quickly onboard those developers to build out applications for Baidu’s emerging voice platform. The application developer community will be an important differentiator in China just as it is today in the U.S. Baidu may just have acquired an advantage on that front.