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Artificial intelligence

Chinese developers pile in for the Next Big Thing in tech: voice-activated smart speakers

China’s tech companies are betting billions of research and development dollars that the next hit will be a successful version of the voice-activated home bot powered by artificial intelligence (AI), in the style of Apple’s HomePod, or Amazon’s Echo.

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 August, 2017, 3:01pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 August, 2017, 10:54am

What’s the Next Big Thing in technology, after the smartphone?

China’s technology companies are betting billions of research and development dollars that the next hit will be a successful version of the voice-activated home bot powered by artificial intelligence (AI), in the style of Apple’s HomePod, or Amazon’s Echo.

Even though these products aren’t yet available in the most populous nation on earth -- Apple’s HomePod is scheduled for worldwide release this autumn -- more than 100 Chinese companies are already jumping into the fray to launch their version of the home bot.

“When we announced in April our plan to unveil our first smart speaker in the third quarter, we thought we would be one of China’s first,” said Li Zhifei, founder and chief executive of Mobvoi, a five-year old Chinese startup backed by Volkswagen and Google. “ We didn’t expect to see more than 100 companies entering the market in the past four months. We’ve now become one of the late movers.”

Read: China’s Mobvoi steps up artificial intelligence efforts

Mobvoi, last week unveiled its Tichome, a 999 yuan (US$150) smart speaker that plays music, helps users search for the nearest hotel, sets alarms, controls household electrical appliances, all through a voice-activated operating menu, in Putonghua.

China is already the largest market for smartphones on the planet, with 538.2 million handsets sold last year, valued at US$133.5 billion. Analysts say the Next Big Thing will be even bigger.

The smartphone is the prevailing interface “to access information and services in the digital age,” said Jin Di, IDC China’s research manager. “The smart speaker may be the next big thing when more devices are connected. It is a nascent but a potential market with no market leader. So everyone wants to jump in to grab a slice of the market share.”

Amazon’s Echo, the first in the market, already sets the bar for wannabe developers to aspire to. The company has already shipped 100 million units since 2014 of the US$179.99 speaker, which also spawned a US$44.99 offspring called the Echo Dot.

Competition is aplenty in China. Alibaba Group Holdings, which surpassed Amazon as the world’s largest online shopping platform -- and owns the South China Morning Post -- has a smart speaker called the Tmall Genie X1, which sells for 499 yuan.

Xiaomi, the Chinese smartphone maker that’s usurped larger global brands as the best-selling smartphone in India has a model called the MiSmart Network Speaker, selling for 299 yuan.

Tencent Holdings, whose mobile game Honour of Kings is played actively by as many as 80 million people everyday, is working on what it calls a “smart box”.

Even Baidu, the dominant Chinese internet search operator that’s trying to remake itself into an AI company, has its me-too smart speaker called Xiaoyu Zaijia, or Small Fish, selling for 1,999 yuan. The Beijing-based company also has a voice-activated platform called DurOs, not unlike Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri, that allows hardware developers to tap into its voice recognition platform to build their own speakers.

Read: Baidu’s ‘small fish’ takes on Amazon Echo and Google Home

“There’s definitely a bubble forming in the market around these smart speakers, because no one wants to miss the big opportunity,” said Zhu Mingming, founder of Hangzhou-based Rokid, an AI startup that has sold 10,000 talking speakers within a month of their launch in May. “This is the future. There’s nothing better than a talking speaker at the centre of your AI-powered smart home.”

Still, not everyone is equally sanguine, or confident of the devices’ future. The success of Amazon’s Echo is due to the large population of full-time housewives in America, said Xie Dianxia, founder of the Chinese startup Ruyi, which also has a voice-activated chatbot in the works.

“They spend a lot of time at home and enjoy interacting with Echo while they are cooking,” he said. “This is not the case with China. Young people tend to dine out to socialise, and there is no time for them to use talking speakers at home.”

For salespeople, it may still be early days before the wider consumer market understands, accepts and seeks out smart speakers, said Li Huiqiang, a salesman who sells electric products in Huaqiangbei, a major electronics manufacturing hub in Shenzhen.

“It’s a good day if I can sell even one or two pieces every day,” Li said. “I don’t think most people know what the functions of a smart speaker is, and very few people buys the product.I do not believe the smart speaker will be as popular as smartphones in China.”

Additional reporting by Josh Ye in Hong Kong.