Exclusive: Meet the Indian startup behind Xiaomi’s default keyboard app fighting Google’s monopoly with fast innovation

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Updated: May 18, 2021 1:47 PM

"OEMs want to work with us because of the monopolistic behaviour that Google shows towards them. Nobody wants to be at the losing end of the agreement."

Bobble AI, Bobble, Xiaomi, Mint KeyboardBobble landed a strategic deal with Xiaomi in 2019 to build the Mint keyboard. (Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

Bobble started its journey in 2015 as a mobile application for turning selfies into stickers instantly sharable over WhatsApp and the likes. The idea was to make smartphone conversations more expressive. A year later, the New Delhi-based startup launched a dedicated keyboard application called Bobble AI keyboard, to distribute this content and grow its reach.

Starting 2017, Bobble started working with various original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), big and small – the list includes Micromax, Lava, Indus OS, Panasonic and others – and eventually landed into a larger strategic deal with Xiaomi in 2019 to build the Mint keyboard, the default keyboard app seen inside many Mi and Redmi phones currently sold in India and Indonesia (Xiaomi has since partnered with China’s Baidu, so some of its devices also ship with Facemoji by default in the Indian market).

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Fast forward to 2021 and Bobble claims it serves over 50 million users with conversational content such as stickers, GIFs, and emojis, its unique selling point being deep localisation bolstered by artificial intelligence. Clearly, whatever it is that it has been doing, it has been working well despite the challenging nature of the category it likes to play in.

“The nature of our category is such that people are not aware that they can change their phone’s keyboard. Not many people are aware that they can go on an app store and search for a keyboard, download it and make it their default,” co-founder Ankit Prasad tells Financial Express Online.

But that is changing. “As per our data in 2016 only 3 percent of Google Play Store users were searching for third-party keyboard applications. But in 2020, it increased to 35 percent. So, the awareness has certainly grown.”

Having said that, Bobble acquires as many as 80-85 percent users organically, through word of mouth if you will, meaning the Google Play Store has “really insignificant contribution in our growth.” Unlike competition, Google’s Play Store discovery, or the lack thereof, does not bother it.

David versus the Goliaths

Microsoft with its SwiftKey keyboard is a tough rival, but an even bigger threat is Google due to massive scale of Android. Prasad is quick to give you a history lesson. “Gboard was launched in May 2016, and it isn’t even the default keyboard on Android (devices). It is the Android Open Source Project or AOSP keyboard, but that keyword is not used by any OEM because it sucks,” he quips, adding “Bobble Indic keyboard was launched (even) earlier in February 2016.”

Bobble is betting on the same space as these larger tech giants (there is some competition also from Baidu and Tencent) but it is confident that it is onto something big and “history says that whenever there was a new category, there was always a new winner, because there is always scope for innovation.”

Its unique go-to market strategy is centred on partnerships, and these partnerships are enabled by ground rules that it creates taking into account the geography, user segment, languages and phone model that OEMs want to come up with and that is how it is able to secure deals.

“The reason why OEMs want to work with us is because of the monopolistic behaviour that Google shows towards them. Nobody wants to be at the losing end of the agreement. Google does not pay them much or help them with any understanding or any revenue sharing. Google does not customise the product for the new phone that they are launching (in India),” Prasad says.

Bobble supports all 23 official Indic languages and keeps an eye-out for user level insights. All its future innovations are centred around those insights. One example is rolling out a trilingual keypad, so you can use three different languages on the same keypad. Another is, bringing emojis up front and give them the same hierarchy as the alphabets – better yet, make them dynamic.

“We were the first ones to come up with the emoji row in 2017 and in 2020 Google copied that feature. Large tech giants typically lack fast innovation unlike the kind of fast innovation that startups (like us) can afford. Sticker and GIF sharing is a regular thing today, but we designed the first such pre-embedded keyboard technology in the world – Google did not do it.”

To expedite these innovations, Bobble is investing heavily in Artificial Intelligence, both voice related AI and typing related AI and Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP). In the last 5-6 years of the keyboard’s existence, it has invested more than $7-8 million to just develop the product. The majority of the 100-member team is product and R&D-oriented.

Down the rabbit hole

Bobble’s AI can extract 72 different facial feature points. It can make you smile in 10 different ways. It can customise your look with accessories. All this, at the press of a button on the keyboard. But the utility of the product extends beyond the realm of making conversations fun and engaging.

When you’re on Amazon searching for a product, or booking a cab on Uber, or ordering food from Zomato, imagine your keyboard telling you, “hey, we collated the most value for money offers for you so you might want to check this out.” Bobble can do that.

“When people spend time, generate sessions and execute different use cases through our keyword application, we are able to recommend them certain products and services and make money out of that,” Prasad explains.

Or, it can also take you down the rabbit hole.

“We know the real-time intent and mood of the user through our data intelligence capabilities. We process raw input data that goes from keyboard to different applications on device in real-time and generate intent signals that are then mapped with different products and services or used for other market research purposes,” he adds. Though he is also quick to point out that, all this is done in an anonymised manner.

“When you use any of our keyboard products, you can be rest assured that Ankit Prasad is not sneaking into your conversations and Bobble is not taking away that data from your device. We are ethically compliant,” Prasad says moving on to reiterate their privacy policy. Bobble is both ISO 27,001 and ISO 27,701 certified for GDPR compliance – this apparently covers the monetary aspect as well.

The data pipeline is managed by Bobble. It is stored on India servers (no data is transferred to any third-party) in compliance with the law of the land.

“Xiaomi is a distribution partner. They are not the owners of the keyboard. Therefore, they have limited access to user information that is needed for their own compliance.”

The business model involves Bobble “helping” brands in targeting the right consumer at the right time with the right messaging, but that does not happen at the cost, or risk of data privacy or data security, according to Prasad.

On to a brighter future

Prasad feels there is much larger adoption and acceptance for startups in India today than say a few years ago. Parents don’t tell their children not to join startups anymore. They have much larger appreciation for startup jobs. Government policies are also becoming more and more startup friendly, though there is “a huge scope to fill the gap that still exists.” But it is encouraging that the whole ecosystem is becoming mature.

“Government policies were conventionally designed keeping in mind that every business wants to hide their income or trying to do tax evasion or do money laundering and things like that. Startups are changing that mindset. The fact that so many young entrepreneurs are doing this for the first time with a mission and vision in mind (not just for pure money making) has pushed the government to relax different policies (to make business more feasible),” Prasad says.

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All this pushes Bobble to do better. In the days to come, it is looking to dive deeper into the conversation media marketing business (brands like ITC, Cadbury, Nescafe and Paytm First Games are some of the brands that it has been working closely with) and take it to the “next level” by introducing new content formats.

As for specific product features, Bobble is working on a smart compose feature similar to Gmail and LinkedIn as well as an automatic OTP fill-in feature both of which should help users save some time and makes all-round experience smoother and more seamless.

“Apart from India, there are certain geographies across Southeast Asia, where we are getting good traction. These are the areas where we are looking for new partnerships. We are forging new alliances with OEMs and telcos and trying to become a truly global company out of India. That is the next step for us,” Prasad says.

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