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Yandex bakes AI into smartphones to start OTT fightback

As mobile operators struggle to maintain their revenue streams, Russian search engine Yandex is using artificial intelligence and machine learning to help them fight back against over-the-top services

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As mobile network operators (MNOs) struggle to maintain their revenue streams in the face of ongoing competition from over-the-top (OTT) applications such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, and smartphone suppliers battle to innovate around a form factor that has remained substantially unchanged for a decade, mobile analysts are increasingly suggesting artificial intelligence (AI) as a means to differentiate in a crowded market.

Recent reports from both Gartner and the GSMA have flagged the potential of AI to the mobile industry, with both organisations pointing to the rise of digital assistants as a key indicator of the direction in which the market is moving.

Russian search engine Yandex, up to now little known outside its home markets, has entered the fray too with the launch of a number of AI-powered services that it believes will enable mobile manufacturers and network operators to stand out and unlock new revenue streams.

Speaking to Computer Weekly, Yandex’s vice-president of international business development, Artem Fokin, said that when it came to AI, MNOs and device manufacturers could either develop their own proprietary service or acquire external developers, but with Google’s Android being the dominant platform and few mobile companies willing to invest at such scale, neither option would satisfy the majority.

The alternative is to partner with businesses that have already developed AI platforms, he said. “This is where Yandex fits in, because we have relevant experience of developing AI over 20 years,” said Fokin.

“We took our foundation tech and adapted it to the mobile space, creating a technology called Yandex Zen, which uses natural language processing and image recognition. It understands the meaning of articles and pictures, and it lets us create a personalised feed of related content for the user.”

Zen is built into Yandex’s browser platform and app launcher, and is powered by its machine learning platform, MatrixNet – used at CERN in Switzerland to crunch data from the Large Hadron Collider – which analyses a number of discrete factors to generate increasingly accurate recommendations for the user when exposed to their interests and intent.

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According to Fokin, since being launched at a major Russian telco, Zen has already proved a major revenue driver, and users have been seen spending an average of 20 minutes a day browsing its content feed, during which time they can be exposed to more than 50 different stories.

Fokin acknowledged the concerns of some in the industry about data protection and privacy when dealing with Russia-based businesses, but he pointed out that as a Nasdaq-listed company, Yandex’s goals were aligned to the market first, and that the services would be hosted in local datacentres. In the EU, it runs a facility in Finland, for example.

Also, the data generated is depersonalised and randomised, unlike comparable Google services which are tied to a user’s account, said Fokin.

Launch partners for the service include a number of smartphone suppliers, including UK-based Fly and Wileyfox, Brazil’s Multilaser, China’s ZTE, India’s Lava, and the US’s Posh Mobile, as well as Mobile TeleSystems (MTS), a central and eastern Europe-focused MNO with networks in Armenia, Belarus, Russia, Turkmenistan and Ukraine.

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