Chinese search engine is to launch an instant-messaging service called Baidu Hi.

Development work on Baidu Hi has been going on for nearly one year and the service is currently being tested internally. But Baidu, which is hiring more people to work on Baidu Hi, stopped short of saying when the instant-messaging service would be offered to the general public.

The statement did not say whether Baidu Hi will offer features besides messaging, such as the ability to make voice over IP (VoIP) calls.

Baidu may dominate internet search in China and routinely trounce Google in market-share surveys there, but that's unlikely to translate into dominance of the instant-messaging market in China. That market is currently dominated by Tencent, which runs the popular QQ instant-messaging service.

Tencent claimed a 79 percent share of China's instant-messaging market in September 2007, based on frequency of use. The company also said there are 289 million active QQ accounts. That number exceeds the total number of internet users in China, according to estimates released by the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), and likely includes users with multiple accounts and those living outside China.

In January, CNNIC reported that China had 210 million internet users at the end of December 2007.