Uber – Fatal disengagement.

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Google is 5,000x better than Uber at autonomous driving.

  • Although Google is suing Uber for the alleged theft of its Lidar (key autonomy sensor) design, it does not seem to have helped Uber much as it appears to be by far the worst at autonomous driving.
  • This is still the case when one includes the regular car companies that most people have written off as having very little to offer in the new world of digital and autonomous cars.
  • The best measure of an autonomous driving solution is how often the driver has to take over to correct shortcomings in the autonomous driving software.
  • Regulations in California require those that test in the state to submit this data but typically, they all submit it in different ways (see here).
  • There are also different types of disengagement such as when the car is going to hit something (critical) or when the safety driver feels uncomfortable (ordinary).
  • Furthermore, companies test their cars in different conditions meaning that the data can really only be used as indication.
  • However, the contrasts are so stark that I think that meaningful conclusions can be drawn about how advanced the autonomous driving solutions from different players really are.
  • In order of performance the data shows:
    • No. 1 Waymo (Google) is 8x better than the number 2 with 1 disengagement every 5,128 miles driven.
    • Waymo has also driven at least 155x more miles (635,868) in the last 12 months than anyone else, meaning that it has collected more training data than all the others put together.
    • No. 2 BMW with 1 disengagement every 638 miles driven (8x worse than Waymo) but it only drove 638 miles raising questions to the validity of this data.
    • No. 3 Nissan with 1 disengagement every 146 miles and a total of 4,099 miles driven.
    • No. 4 Tesla with 1 disengagement every 3 miles with 550 miles driven but almost all of these occurred in wet road conditions.
    • I think that Tesla deliberately went out to push its system to the limit as wet conditions are known to be far more difficult for autonomous systems.
    • Hence, I do not think that is necessarily an indication of Tesla’s real position in the pecking order.
    • No. 5 Mercedes with 1 disengagement every 2 miles driven with 673 miles driven in total.
    • No. 6 Uber with 1 disengagement every 1 mile driven with a total of 20,354 miles in total.
    • Uber has just suspended its autonomous testing following a serious crash in Arizona despite the fact that it appears that the Uber vehicle was not responsible for the incident.
    • Uber has also been banned from testing in California for failing to register with the DMV.
  • This is yet another indication that the key to artificial intelligence (the heart of all autonomous driving systems) currently is the amount of time that one has been working on the algorithms as well as the amount of data collected (see here).
  • I am certain that this is why Waymo is the best because it began working on autonomous driving in 2009 (far earlier than anyone else) and in the last 2 years has driven more than 150x more miles than anyone else.
  • The fact that Uber, by quite some margin, ranks last is potentially a serious problem in the long-term.
  • This is because if the car companies have their own self driving technology (or use Google) then Uber may find itself being a middleman that is no longer required.
  • Uber currently has the advantage because it has already established itself as the market place for drivers and passengers to transact and these types of positions are extremely hard to disrupt once created.
  • This is why Uber commands the $70bn valuation that it does but unless it gets a handle on autonomous driving, this market place may become obsolete when humans stop driving cars.
  • I still think that the technology will become mature long before the market is ready to adopt it (see here) meaning that Uber should be able to pick-up a viable solution at an attractive price once 2020 deadlines are missed and funding runs out.
  • Despite this view, this is a key risk for Uber and one I would be uncomfortable with especially if I had put some money into the company at $62.5bn.

Google & Facebook – Trouble in paradise.

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Facebook will be hit much harder than Google.

  • Although it is Google that is taking most of the heat in the current boycott of its digital display advertising, it is Facebook that is likely to be hit hardest by this problem.
  • A series of global firms have pulled their advertising from YouTube is response to finding their advertisement placed in videos which are deemed to be offensive or contain extremist content.
  • This is not a new problem but has come to a head after a series of lapses on the part of YouTube have gone viral raising the ire of companies who would appear to endorsing such content.
  • The net result is that a number of multinational companies (more likely to follow) have pulled their advertising from YouTube until they are confident that Google is able to ensure that their logos and advertising only appears along aside acceptable content.
  • This is a difficult problem because YouTube is adding 400 hours of content to its website every minute and thousands of websites are added to its network on a daily basis.
  • This makes monitoring content on a proactive basis extremely difficult which is why a meaningful number of lapses have come to light.
  • Fortunately for Google, I think that the impact of this issue will be limited and short-lived as:
    • First: this issue only affects YouTube and display advertising which RFM estimates makes up just 12% of gross revenues.
    • Hence, even if this were to fall to zero, the vast majority of Google’s business would be unaffected.
    • Second: Google is the best equipped to deal with this problem compared to any of its competitors.
    • The amount of content that has to be checked on a daily basis is so vast that it can only realistically be carried out by a machine.
    • This means that AI is needed to scan uploaded content and new websites and flag any that are suspected to contain content that Google customers are likely to consider objectionable.
    • Google has the best AI available when it comes to image and video recognition as well as sentence and text recognition.
  • Hence, I think that Google should be able to fix this problem in a comparatively short period of time.
  • However, I do not have the same degree of confidence when it comes to Facebook which already has this problem but has yet to suffer a loss of businesses as a result of it.
  • I think that when this does happen at Facebook, it will be a much more serious problem as this type of advertising is a much larger part of its revenue and I do not think that Facebook has the AI to fix it.
  • RFM research (see here) has found that Facebook is far behind its global peers when it comes to AI, mainly as a result of having not worked in the field for very long.
  • This means that while it is sitting on the world’s second largest treasure trove of data, it is unable to understand what most of it is and is therefore unable to weed out content that is objectionable to its customers.
  • I think that this will take a very long time to fix compared to Google and so when this issue hits Facebook, it will hit it harder and it is likely to last longer.
  • This is just another reason for me to remain pretty cautious on Facebook which I think will see much lower than expected growth this year which is likely to take a toll on the short-term valuation.
  • I also think that Google remains fully valued and would prefer the shares of Microsoft, Tencent, Baidu and Apple for long-term value based investors.

Tencent – Brute force.

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Tencent has time as most gaming AIs are relatively simple.

  • Tencent is finally jumping into artificial intelligence (AI) and I think that it is fortunate in that it is not very difficult to create good algorithms for the vast majority of the games that Tencent offers.
  • Tencent has created AI Lab which now has more than 250 employees whose task it is be to create algorithms that create more sophisticated game opponents as well as chat bots for companies that use WeChat and QQ to talk to their customers.
  • The general impression of AI seems to be that as soon as one has created an AI group, superb, hyper-intelligent algorithms will come rolling out of the door but in reality, this is very far from the truth.
  • RFM research has found (see here) that single biggest determinate of AI excellence to date is time and those that have been doing it the longest tend to have the best AI.
  • This is why RFM has found that it is the search engines thatare the most advanced even though some of the biggest brains in the field are employed elsewhere.
  • With Tencent just getting into this field, I think it will be a very long time before it will be in a position to roll out algorithms that are capable of making its services meaningfully more intelligent.
  • In the long run this will be crucial to maintaining its dominance in the Digital Life segments where it is present as I think competition will become much tougher as the market matures.
  • The good news is that it is unlikely to prove very difficult to create algorithms that are more than good enough to play the games that it offers to a very high standard.
  • This is because most games are either based on hand eye co-ordination or can be solved by an algorithm using a brute-force approach.
  • Brute force involves evaluating every possible outcome from a given position and choosing the best one.
  • With today’s improvements in memory and processing power, this is not very difficult to achieve.
  • The highest profile exception is Go which has so many possible combinations that brute force becomes impossible.
  • This is why DeepMind’s AlphaGo was such a breakthrough, as it uses AI to work out which options should be searched much like a human would.
  • Tencent has produced an AI Go player called Jueyi which has been able to play to a very high standard but I think that the design has been copied from AlphaGo.
  • AI is a co-operative field and DeepMind has published most of its methodology and results for the creation of AlphaGo in the scientific magazine Nature.
  • Consequently, I do not view this as a good example of Tencent coming up with an innovation of its own and I think we will not be seeing hyper-intelligent AIs appearing in Tencent’s services anytime soon.
  • However, I think that Tencent has time as its core markets are still seeing steady growth and it should be reasonably easy to improve the AI opponents in its core segment: gaming.
  • I still like Tencent as there remains substantial upside should it really begin to monetise the ecosystem that it has created but it has a very long way to go before it can be considered a force in AI.

Samsung – Edge dancer pt. II

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I think Bixby will struggle against Google Assistant.

  • Samsung has launched its offensive on the digital assistant market but I think it will still be dancing around the edge of the main act on the Galaxy s8: Google Assistant.
  • Samsung has announced that its new digital assistant, Bixby will be present on the Samsung Galaxy 8 with its own dedicated key on the side of the device.
  • Bixby promises to offer:
    • First, completeness: This promises to give users complete control of enabled apps rather than the few tasks offered by other assistants.
    • Second contextual awareness: Samsung is promising that Bixby will be aware of the context within which it has been triggered, making it more relevant and useful.
    • I suspect that it will do this using the hooks in Android that Google wrote to enable Google Assistant to do the same thing.
    • Third natural language recognition: Bixby should be able to understand complex, multi-part questions as well as prompt the user to clarify the pieces that it does not understand.
  • These features are very similar to those promised by Viv, the artificial intelligence company that Samsung purchased in October 2016 which is clearly the source of this product.
  • If Bixby can truly fulfil the promises that it is making, then it will almost certainly will be better than Google Assistant.
  • However, I think that this is a very big ask given that RFM research has found that AI excellence to date has been a factor of time and data volume.
  • Viv was founded in 2012 and has no data from commercial products while Google has been crunching data for 20 years and has orders of magnitude more data than its nearest rival.
  • Consequently, I think that compared to this highly ambitious billing, Bixby is going to fall very far short of the promises that it has made.
  • Furthermore, Samsung’s delivery of Bixby is going to be hobbled by the 2014 agreement that it made with Google where it agreed not to compete in the ecosystem (see here).
  • This is why I suspect that Bixby has been relegated to a button on the side of the device whereas it will be Google Assistant that is sitting on the all-important home button.
  • As a result I think on the smartphone, Bixby will lose out to Google Assistant but on other devices it has some chance.
  • Samsung has a good portfolio of other electronic devices, which combined with its SmartThings offering, could allow Bixby to offer intelligent and intuitive control of other Samsung devices.
  • This could help Samsung to encourage greater ownership of Samsung devices across its range but again this will depend on how good Bixby really is.
  • Over 20% of all Google mobile searches are already done using voice meaning that many users are already conditioned to pressing the home button and asking as well as being used to Google’s quality of service.
  • Consequently, I think that the odds are heavily stacked against Samsung having much success with Bixby but as long as it can continue to outsell Huawei by more than 2 phones to 1, the profitability of its handset business should remain intact.
  • I still pretty cautious on Samsung as I am not convinced that the full fall-out from the Note 7 disaster has been felt in terms of market share, which is what makes the Galaxy s8 launch so important.
  • I prefer Baidu, Tencent and Microsoft.

 

Intel – Auto ambition

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Intel must break out of the mould that success has cast for it.

  • The acquisition of Mobileye by Intel highlights both Intel’s determination not to miss the next big trend as well as the concentration of Google’s competitors around HERE.
  • Intel will buy Mobileye for $15.4bn and merge it with its existing autonomous driving business to create one of the leading supplier of autonomous driving systems.
  • Intel already has a substantial effort in this space but adding Mobileye gives it a very strong position in visual sensors and most importantly, gives it direct access to 80% of the automotive market.
  • These doors were already open for Intel but I think that going in with Mobileye will ensure that the automotive industry takes it much more seriously.
  • I think that missing the boat in mobile has damaged Intel’s reputation to the point where some potential customers think that Intel has little to offer beyond chips for PCs and chips for servers.
  • In reality, this is very far from the truth but dispelling that impression is one of the most important tasks that Intel faces over the next few years.
  • The fact that Intel will soon become one of the top 4 shareholders of HERE will also help in improving its credibility in both location and automotive.
  • This is because HERE is the only realistic alternative to Google in high definition maps for autonomous driving which are now recognised as essential for a car to drive itself.
  • Even Mobileye, which early in 2016 was adamant that a HD map was not needed, has caved in and is now working with HERE to use its HD map in its systems.
  • In addition, other ecosystems such as Tencent, Baidu, Facebook and Amazon are also working with HERE for their location data, all of which will benefit Intel as it tries to break the mould that the market has set for it.
  • Mobileye represents that second largest acquisition in Intel’s history underlining the need for semiconductor companies to move into markets beyond consumer electronics and PCs.
  • This is why Qualcomm is buying NXP and why Samsung is buying Harmon.
  • Intel has now armed itself with the potential to offer an end to end solution for autonomous driving but the key to success will be how well it can execute on that offering.
  • History is not in Intel’s side but I detect a change in the way Intel thinks about its place in the world that just might allow it to break the x86 mould that history has cast for it.

Enterprise AI – IBM and Salesforce

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Microsoft to Facebook could be what IBM is to Salesforce.

  • Salesforce and IBM have announced a wide ranging partnership which will combine their two AI offerings but they will continue to sell the combined offering under two brands.
  • At the same time IBM has announced that it will move its CRM business to Salesforce, depriving Microsoft of a landmark customer.
  • IBM and Salesforce also stated that they already have about 5,000 clients common but virtually no overlap which means to me that the cross-selling opportunity is actually not that large.
  • Hence, I think that the main reason for the combination is that today AI requires both a lot of time and a lot of data and it is here where IBM and Salesforce can help each other out.
  • IBM’s Watson has been around for many years which makes it one of the most experienced.
  • Salesforce is a relative new comer to AI but I think that it is generating far more data than IBM is.
  • Consequently, it is not hard to see how using Watson’s brains and Einstein’s data could result in more effective AIs being trained in a much shorter period of time.
  • Compared to consumer, enterprise AI is much trickier as each corporation wants different things from AI and the data sets are quite specific to each company.
  • Hence, I can see more general algorithms being trained by the supplier which are then customised with the requirements and specific data set of specific customer companies.
  • The net result is that I can see a lot of sense in this tie up as both companies will be able to do what they are currently doing better without treading on each other’s two.
  • In the same vein, there may be some sense in Microsoft doing a similar deal with Facebook in consumer.
  • Facebook is sitting on the second largest data pool in the world but has no idea what do to with it while Microsoft has some history in AI, but its waning consumer ecosystem means that its data volumes in this area leave a lot to be desired.
  • Furthermore, Facebook and Microsoft do not really compete against each other anymore and are already co-operating on building an undersea cable (see here).
  • Consequently, a co-operation on AI could have significant benefits to both companies and would go quite some way to fixing the serious problem that Facebook has with AI (see here).
  • I continue to prefer Microsoft, Baidu and Tencent over Facebook.

Digital assistants – Man and dog

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Late-comers have very little chance

  • The latest craze to hit the mobile industry is digital assistants where every man and his dog is now building one to try and drive engagement through the ecosystem.
  • LINE is the latest entrant with its offering called Clova but just like everyone else, LINE is going to find that digital assistants are fiendishly difficult because they require top notch artificial intelligence to power them.
  • To make life even more difficult, digital assistants suffer from a chicken and egg problem (see here) where they need usage to improve because its with usage data that they can improve.
  • The problem is that no one will use them if they are not already very good meaning they will be unable to gather the data they need to get to level of quality where users will engage with them.
  • LINE is an instant messaging company that has done an excellent job of monetising messaging through the sale of stickers and games but needs to find other avenues to keep its growth growing.
  • The problem is that when I look at LINE, I see no AI competence to speak nor do I see any history of it working on AI.
  • The search engines are the leaders in AI, but they are not the leaders because they are the cleverest.
  • They are the leaders because they have doing it the longest.
  • This is why RFM thinks that Google Assistant and Baidu Duer are miles ahead of everything else that is being offered including Alexa, Siri and Cortana.
  • Now that Google Assistant is being rolled out onto every Android phone that has Marshmallow, Nougat and above, I think many of the others have very little chance at all.
  • Siri will continue to live on iOS devices but the real battle will be between Google and Amazon for the home speaker.
  • Here Google has a vastly superior product but Alexa is much better at controlling the smart home, albeit with an awful user experience.
  • This is because Amazon has done a great job at getting smart home developers on board whereas Google has been very late in even making the API available.
  • RFM estimates that Amazon has around 8m Alexa enabled devices in the hands of users whereas Google has just over 0.5m.
  • Consequently, Google is at risk of losing (see here) to Amazon but I think the shock of seeing itself wiped out at CES has shaken it from its stupor.
  • Consequently, I think that LINE, Huawei, Samsung Viv, JD.com Ding Dong, SK Tel Ding Dong, Sony and so on have very little chance and would be best served by doing a deal with one of strong ones rather than wasting shareholder’s money.

MWC Day 2/3 – Show barometer.

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What’s hot and what’s not at MWC.

VR / AR

  • Along with the number of drones, the number of VR units on the stands has fallen substantially compared to last year.
  • I think that this is because last year, VR was a novelty that everyone wanted to try but interest has now waned as very little has changed in 12 months.
  • VR has hugely disappointed in terms of user adoption and there is very little that is new and exciting is being offered on the stands.
  • I think that this is symptomatic of the limitations that plague VR (see here) and until these limitations are properly addressed, VR will continue to disappoint.
  • AR has exactly the same problems with the exception that it has plenty of applications in the enterprise where the content, comfort and price limitations are less important.
  • Consequently, those AR companies that are focused on productivity applications are likely to fare better in the short term.
  • I would steer clear of any investment dependent on VR for now, and HTC in particular.

Jolla – Last man standing

  • Jolla has shown remarkable resilience to the difficult conditions that have caused its competitors to fall by the wayside.
  • I think Sailfish is now the only really viable alternative to Android.
  • Furthermore, the market environment has become far more favourable with both Russia and China far less willing to allow US controlled software into their networks than they were 3 or 4 years ago.
  • Russia has certified Sailfish as an approved OS for state owned enterprises which Jolla is now actively trying to leverage into China.
  • There, it has announced the creation of the Sailfish China Consortium which aims to take the core Sailfish OS, and adapt it for Chinese enterprises that wish to have software over which they have full control.
  • The consortium has three Chinese entities that have expressed an interest in joining.
  • It has also got some interest from Latin America but it is still quite early days.
  • This creates credibility for Jolla and raises the potential for Jolla to get some revenues in the door in order to keep the ship afloat.
  • It is still early days but the dark days of 2016, when the ship looked like it was holed below the waterline look to be behind it.

Artificial Intelligence

  • Artificial Intelligence has made a big appearance at the show this year but still most companies demonstrating it do not seem to have absorbed what AI really is.
  • There are many robots from Asia that are billed as AI but can only respond to a series of pre-programmed responses.
  • In a similar vein, many companies are touting their service or app as being driven by AI but when one looks under the hood one finds little more than advanced statistics.
  • AI is currently the realm of the big companies who can afford the very high salaries that AI engineers can now demand and have the balance sheet to continue investing for a long period of time.
  • The exception is tiny start-ups that have come out of universities but already these companies are very hot property.
  • I have no doubt that AI will be a major differentiator and driver of the digital mobile ecosystem over the next 10 years, but developing AI is still an incredibly difficult, time consuming and expensive task.
  • In AI, I continue to look for those that are developing:
    • Firstly: the ability to train AIs using much less data than today,
    • Secondly: the creation of an AI that can take what it has learned from one task and apply it to another and
    • Thirdly: the creation of AI that can build its own models rather than relying on humans to do it.
  • I consider fixing these problems as essential to fulfilling the dreams that so many companies effusively discuss but have no idea how they will fulfill. .

Google vs. Amazon – Homefront.

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This could be a repeat of VHS vs. Betamax. 

  • Google is adding functionality to allow Google Assistant to compete more directly with Amazon’s Alexa, but what it really needs is to offer love and support to developers of smart home products.
  • Google’s failure to do this was visible on every stand at CES where a smart home product was to be found as they all will work with Amazon Alexa
  • Only a very tiny fraction will work with Google Assistant.
  • Google’s shopping functionality has involved singing a up a series of retailers such as Costco, PetSmart and Target to link their online ordering systems with Google Home such that a similar (to Amazon) shopping experience can be offered through the device.
  • Measuring up to Amazon in this category is going to be tough because Amazon has one system through which millions of products are available globally, whereas Google will have to sign up lots of retailers in every locality where it aims to have this service available.
  • However, when it comes to almost all of the other features, Google Assistant is capable of offering a vastly superior user performance than Amazon Alexa.
  • This is because the AI that powers Google Assistant is top of the class while Alexa’s is second rate at best.
  • Furthermore, the Google Home speaker is $50 cheaper than the Amazon Echo and in my opinion, a nicer looking product.
  • However, where Google falls over is home automation and here Amazon is currently ruling the roost.
  • RFM research has found that device developers receive plenty of love and support from Amazon which combined with the fact that there are now 8m devices in the hands of users drives them to make their products work with Alexa right from launch.
  • This is despite the fact that using many of these products with Amazon Alexa is a frustrating and fragmented experience.
  • A good example of this is Plex, which recently enabled an Alexa skill so that the user could control the Plex player using Alexa.
  • However, because Alexa lacks the brains to make service intuitive, the user experience is so bad that one tries to control Plex with Alexa once and quickly returns to the remote control.
  • In contrast to Amazon, many developers find that Google is difficult to work with and some did not even know who to at Google to call to enable Google Home with their product.
  • This is the opportunity for Google Home even though it only has around 0.5m devices in the market today.
  • I think Google needs to ramp up its love and support for developers immediately and thinking that they will just turn up at Google i/o is not nearly good enough.
  • There is a whole segment (home) of the digital ecosystem up for grabs right now and I still maintain that this is Google’s to lose.
  • However, at the moment it is Amazon that is blazing the trail and if Alexa makes it into the majority of households before Google pulls its finger out then the game will, in all probability, already be lost.
  • This will not be the first time that an inferior product will have won the day and I think there are valuable lessons that Google can learn from studying this history.
  • From an investment perspective, I continue to not really like either Alphabet or Amazon preferring Baidu, Tencent and Microsoft.

Huawei & Baidu – Bodies and time.

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I think Huawei would be better off doing a deal with Baidu.  

  • It looks like Huawei has decided to build its own Chinese language digital assistant to cement its recent gains at home but no matter how many bodies it throws at this task, its lack of the core raw materials (data and history) is going to cause problems.
  • The digital assistant is the first real Digital Life service that is entirely dependent on artificial intelligence for its functionality which creates a huge challenge.
  • Furthermore, in order to evolve, all digital assistants need to generate usage data which can then be used to improve the algorithms that power the user experience.
  • Even the best assistants out there today are hugely limited in terms of what they can understand and what they can achieve.
  • For example, to accurately answer questions around exchange rates, the assistant has to be taught what these are, how they work and in what form the questions are likely to be asked.
  • For example, asking Amazon Alexa how many US Dollars there are to the GB Pound provides the correct answer but ask for UAE Dirhams to the Pound or Dollar and Alexa falls silent.
  • Only Google Assistant was able to provide the right answer due to the combination of the best search system and the best AI available.
  • In effect RFM research has found that Alexa, Cortana and Siri have been programmed with a fairly narrow set of capabilities and the AI and data set is simply not there to support the service when something unexpected is requested.
  • Fortunately for Huawei, Google is not present in China but at home it will be facing an opponent that is almost as good: Baidu.
  • Baidu dominates the search market in China and has been working on its AI algorithms for nearly 20 years.
  • Furthermore, Baidu has already launched its own digital assistant called Duer which I suspect will be significantly better than anything that Huawei is likely to produce in the medium term.
  • However in China, none of the ecosystems are preinstalled devices meaning that Baidu will be unable to install Duer on the device and set it as default.
  • RFM research (see here) has found that this could confer a substantial advantage to any ecosystem as strategy is virtually absent in the Chinese market outside of the app stores.
  • Huawei as a handset maker will have this advantage and so I can see a scenario where users try its digital assistant but unless it is superb they will quickly switch to Duer.
  • This is where I think Huawei will have difficulties as even though it has 100 engineers working on this product, it is starting from scratch and building decent AI takes years and requires vast quantities of data.
  • Hence, I think it unlikely that Huawei will ever come up with a product as good as Baidu’s.
  • This is where I think Huawei and Baidu could help each other as Baidu has the product and Huawei a mechanism for distributing it.
  • A deal where Huawei installs Duer at the factory and sets it by default in return for being paid TAC (traffic acquisition cost) makes more sense to me than paying 100 engineers to come up with an inferior product.
  • This will not help Huawei’s ambitions to develop an ecosystem and generate better profitability, but TAC revenue from Baidu would certainly help improve margins.
  • Given its recent market share gains at home, the time to negotiate this deal is now rather than when its own assistant has tried and failed.
  • Although Baidu looks like it may be backing out of its ecosystem, the short-term improvement in its financials that cost cuts could generate could give the shares a lift (see here).
  • This is why it is still on my preferred list along with Tencent and Microsoft.