Alibaba expands its smart speakers beyond the home as it takes on Amazon Echo
While Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri are fighting for dominance in the household market for voice activated assistants, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group wants to grow the footprint of its smart speakers beyond the home.
The Hangzhou-based company will focus its voice-activated solutions on enabling the retail, hotel and air travel industries to better serve customers in “hands free” mode, according to Alibaba AI Labs, the developer of the Tmall Genie smart speaker.
“This is the beginning of a new era. Powered by artificial intelligence, many things can be done by using your mouth, ears and eyes,” Chen Lijuan, general manager of Alibaba AI Labs, told the South China Morning Post on the sidelines of the recent Alibaba Computing Conference.
Answering to Tianmao Jingling, the mandarin pronunciation of Tmall Genie, the speaker debuted in the China market in July, offering services similar to a real butler. Working in a similar fashion to Amazon Echo, it can switch on your television, read the children a story, and order takeaway food via voice request.
By encouraging the adoption of the speakers in hotel rooms, supermarkets and airports – and offering customised services such as answering shoppers’ questions like “where to find the shampoo” in store – Tmall Genie is expected to achieve higher sales.
In late September, AI Labs announced plans to equip 100,000 hotel rooms with the speaker, starting with those owned by Marriott International, which recently set up a joint venture with Alibaba.
Despite being a late comer in the voice-activated market, Chen said she is confident that Tmall Genie will hit the 10 million unit sales mark in less time than it took Amazon Echo, the global market leader.
“We are confident that we can outpace Amazon Echo in growth,” Chen said without revealing Tmall Genie’s current sales numbers.
More than 10 million Echo units, the first such speaker in the market, have been sold since its launch in late 2014, triggering a rash of similar products, including Google Home powered by Google Assistant and Apple’s HomePod powered by Siri.
In China, more than 100 companies from internet giants Baidu and JD.com down to small start-ups have jumped on the bandwagon.
Despite the highly competitive market, Chen said Tmall Genie was well positioned to be market leader in China thanks to the Alibaba Group ecosystem of businesses spanning from online shopping, travel and finance to logistics and entertainment.
“The market in China for smart speakers is still young, but I believe we will see substantial evolution over the next year to 18 months as the market players discover exactly what consumers like and don’t like,” said Paul Erickson, senior analyst at IHS Markit.
The smart speaker is the first product developed by the one-year-old Alibaba AI Labs.
The lab is on track to develop more consumer products that are enabled by artificial intelligence technology, said Chen, without disclosing details.
Alibaba owns the South China Morning Post.