(Bloomberg) -- ByteDance Ltd. has overtaken Baidu Inc. in the race to deliver China’s answer to ChatGPT — at least in terms of popularity.

Doubao, the artificial intelligence-powered chatbot released in August, surpassed Baidu’s Ernie Bot in downloads last year and now has more regular monthly users on iOS in China, according to Sensor Tower data. Ernie got off to the fastest start in the country, but ByteDance has now taken the lead and other rivals are approaching.

Beijing-based ByteDance has made a priority of catching up in AI, with co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Liang Rubo asking for a sense of urgency at the company that built up a global following with its short-video services, TikTok and Douyin. Its Doubao was the most downloaded AI chatbot on Apple Inc.’s iOS with almost 9 million downloads in the year to April, followed by Ernie at 8 million, Sensor Tower data showed. Doubao also had the most monthly active users, with more than 4 million.

While the research does not include Android mobile app stores, it illustrates the wider trend in the Chinese market. ByteDance last week revealed that Doubao now has 26 million monthly active users across mobile and PC. That compares to OpenAI’s ChatGPT mobile app with 6.7 million monthly users in the US, according to Similarweb.

Chinese tech pioneers from Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. to Tencent Holdings Ltd. have joined Silicon Valley peers like Microsoft Corp. in placing big bets on generative AI. Beside developing their own in-house foundational models, they’re pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into up-and-coming outfits like Baichuan and Zhipu AI.

Read more: What I Found in Putting China’s First AI Chatbots to The Test

The nascent AI services race in China includes young startups like Beijing-based Moonshot AI with its Kimi bot, underscoring “the sector’s low barrier to entry”, Bloomberg Intelligence analysts including Robert Lea wrote in a report. “Rampant competition in China’s AI sector — which remains dominated by free-to-use services — combined with US trade restrictions on advanced AI accelerator chips will likely continue to hamper monetization efforts for all,” they said.

Ernie is alone among China’s top five AI chatbots to offer a paid subscription tier, though it has brought in less than $500,000 from in-app purchases and subscribers since its launch in March 2023, Sensor Tower found. The bigger growth driver should come from advertising and cloud services, through which Baidu says Ernie will contribute several billion yuan of additional revenue this year.

--With assistance from Zheping Huang.

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.