Baidu’s Simeji App Captures Teenage Hearts in Japan

Rin Yano, the creator of a popular Japanese texting program, seeks to double the downloads of her Simeji application when Apple Inc. allows outside developers to provide third-party keyboards for the first time this fall.

The app, which Yano sold to Chinese search-engine giant Baidu Inc. in 2011, allows users to enter a slang word or catchphrase, which is then converted into emoticons, the mix of keyboard characters that convey an emotion. Simeji, named after a type of mushroom, has been downloaded about 10 million times for Google Inc.’s Android operating system and Yano plans to double that figure once Apple introduces its iOS 8 system.

Yano created Simeji with a business partner using the latest teenage slang and catchwords from Japanese TV shows, she said in an interview this month. The 40-year-old web designer, who is expecting her second child in September, said negotiations to sell the program lasted about six months and Baidu hired her to manage its mobile division in Japan the following year. She declined to say how much Baidu paid.

“Simeji is like my baby, in which I have poured a lot of time and energy,” Yano said in an interview in Tokyo. “We are targeting Japanese teenagers who love to use pictures, the latest phrases from popular TV shows and social media services like Twitter.”

Baidu, based in Beijing, is seeking to expand its customer base in Japan through Simeji by luring more smartphone users through new apps and entertainment content. Sales from mobile devices, generated mostly from advertising sales, contributed more than 30 percent of revenue in the first quarter, the company said in April.

Writing Systems

Simeji is also helpful for people writing in Japanese because the language uses three different character sets -- hiragana, katakana and kanji. Over time the program can learn words and phrases a user is most likely to use and automatically suggests them, saving time. Some of the emoticons can be more than 100 characters long.

Baidu plans to keep the Simeji app free of charge and use the software to boost the company’s name recognition in Japan, Yano said. She declined to comment on Baidu’s sales strategy in the country.

The app may also get some attention because of its Chinese owner. The Japanese government in December warned that certain software, including some made in China, used for writing on personal computers could lead to security leaks.

Japan’s National Information Security Center asked all central government ministries to avoid the programs when making confidential documents because a record of the writing can be sent to servers outside the country. The programs, made by Baidu, Microsoft Corp. and Google Inc., allow users to use an English-language keyboard to write Japanese characters phonetically.

No Manipulation

Baidu Japan said its editing software saves no unnecessary data and doesn’t allow files to be manipulated, according to a statement on its website on April 9, citing London-based certification organization Intertek Group Plc.

Meanwhile, Yano says she expects Apple iOS 8 to be released as early as September, around the same time as her baby, a girl, is due, she said.

“I may have to slow down the pace of my work once I have two kids,” said Yano. “As a businesswoman and designer I want to keep being challenged at work and at home.”

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