China Daily is reporting that the Tencent voice assistant, Xiaowei, may be launched as early as this year. Bloomberg first reported in January that “WeChat executive Zhou Jie told attendees at a company conference” that Xiaowei would be added to the messaging service but didn’t indicate the time frame. Zhou told China Daily that Xiaowei may become available to the billion-plus WeChat user base before year’s end and commented:

This will be a product of ‘strategic importance’ for WeChat. We uphold the principle of ‘dialogue is service’, and is [sic] committed to connecting the world with voice.

Third-Party Application and Device Support

Zhou also said that Xiaowei will provide voice interaction with WeChat’s first-party services, those offered natively by the messaging service, as well as third-party services ranging from food delivery to ride-hailing and flight-booking. Tencent has already enlisted partners Spring Airlines and Chang’An Auto Group with the latter likely to introduce Xiaowei in year-end car models.

While Spring Airlines will embed Xiaowei in its WeChat mini program, Harman, Sony, and Vivo all plan to include the new voice assistant pre-installed in forthcoming mobile phones. Also, any WeChat user will be able to access Xiaowei through a dedicated mini-program after launch.

The most popular daily and monthly activity on smart speakers thus far in the U.S. has been listening to streaming music and other audio content. This is an area where Tencent may have a large advantage over rivals such as Baidu and Alibaba. China Daily’s coverage cites Frost & Sullivan’s China division president, Neil Wang, as highlighting Tencent’s “‘incomparable’ content portfolio, such as exclusive access to Universal Music, Sony Music and Times Warner Music’s repertoire, and the wealth of audio and text content from Penguin FM to China Literature, its online literature site.”

Most consumer voice assistant providers need to worry about distribution and content for their voice assistants in addition to solving technical challenges surround the artificial intelligence (AI) performance. Tencent faces fewer challenges on this front because of WeChat’s large, active user base and the company’s deep portfolio of entertainment content. Xaiowei will still need to offer third-party integrations to provide added value for consumers. However, many of these third-parties already have WeChat mini programs so the company only needs to convince them to integrate Xiaowei and offer voice interaction to their users to rapidly expand the benefits of the voice assistant.

Streamlining Multi-step Processes

Another interesting insight shared by Zhou with China Daily was that Xiaowei will be focused on using voice commands to streamline multi-step processes and search large databases of content such as music catalogs. Without voice interaction, these activities require text entry and multiple button taps. Voice is a uniquely efficient input for complex requests followed by simple outputs. As a result, Xiaowei is likely to help WeChat users access information and services more efficiently.

Impact on China Voice Assistant Market

The voice assistant market in China to date has largely revolved around smart speaker adoption where Alibaba and Xiaomi have a lead and Baidu has shown strong sales momentum in recent quarters. However, Baidu also has expanded the availability of its voice assistant, DuerOS, well beyond smart speakers to a variety of devices numbering over 400 million. WeChat is one of the few distribution channels in China that can rival DuerOS in its consumer reach.

Tencent also has many services and content sources that are popular among Chinese consumers where a voice interface could enhance the user experience. As a result, it is very likely that Xiaowei could become the most widely used voice assistant in China within months of its launch. That makes any announcement by Tencent about a WeChat-based voice assistant news worth noting.

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