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Kakao prepares launch of South Korea's answer to Siri

Tech peers Samsung, Naver play catch-up with AI-powered voice assistants

HONG KONG/SEOUL -- South Korean technology company Kakao will launch a voice-controlled service powered by artificial intelligence in the third quarter of this year, joining a crowded field of competitors including Samsung Electronics and Apple.

Kakao, which owns South Korea's popular messaging app, announced earlier that an AI-assistant platform would be rolled out in June with new features being added later in the year, such as speakers that respond to voice commands to hail a cab and do groceries online.

"It's going to be done with our conversational interface: It could be a speaker, it could be a chatbot, it could be everything," said Kakao's chief executive Jimmy Rim Jim-hoon on Friday.

Kakao chief executive Jimmy Rim Ji-hoon speaks at a technology conference in Hong Kong on June 9. (Photo by Jennifer Lo)

Speaking at The Wall Street Journal's D. Live Asia Conference in Hong Kong, he said: "The global trend is that everybody is talking about the speaker, but it's not the speaker itself -- it's the conversational interface. It would be in any terminal."

Rim's remarks came a week after Apple announced plans to manufacture HomePod, which combines its Siri digital assistant with a home speaker. The $349 device, which will be available later this year, will combat the challenges from Amazon's Echo and Google's Home.

Competition is also heating up in South Korea. Samsung Electronics has offered its voice assistant Bixby in Korean since May through its latest smartphone model Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus. The company said its English service will be available later this month, and will add Chinese and Spanish services after the launch of the English version.

Samsung said Bixby can do some 3,000 activities, such as searching for news, music, shopping and weather information, by acknowledging millions of expressions. The company said that the voice assistant can help users in other ways, including sharing a photo in their gallery through Facebook.

South Korea's Naver, parent of messaging app Line, launched a test version of its voice assistant application last month to gear up for its AI experiments. Naver-Clova, as it is called, offers a wide range services from searching for information to music recommendations as well as translation of foreign languages.

Strong search function

"The biggest asset of Naver-Clova is its strong search function for information. You can search for simple questions such as when the Chuseok Holiday is, or how much is 500 euros in Korean currency, as well as restaurant recommendations," said the company in a statement.

Chuseok is considered by many in Korea to be the most important traditional holiday, but the dates vary every year on a Gregorian calendar, as it is based on a lunar calendar.

Kakao has in recent years diversified beyond its messaging business, Kakao Talk, to providing services through its taxi hailing and navigation apps, as well as a music streaming service, Melon.

The company is looking to apply its AI-powered voice technology to its array of services. Rim cited examples including talking to Kakao's app to hail taxis and order food from Kakao's delivery partners such as Pizza Hut and Burger King.

Kakao's strategy is to avoid head-to-head competition with global messaging players. The company focuses on its messaging "platform business" at home and "content business" overseas, which includes music, gaming and entertainment.

"We are putting a lot of interest in Japan, and China a little bit," said Rim, claiming that Kakao's online comic service in Japan has about half a million users.

Asked about his vision for the next generation messaging app, Rim said it would be the virtual personal assistant. "Since Kakao has 99.9% of the market share in [South] Korea, we are in a very good position to step into that way."

He added: "If you want to see the future of mobile, I am pretty confident you can see it in Korea."

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