The Next Big Thing

Move over, Siri: China's ZTE says it created more intelligent virtual personal assistant

Chinese tech giant hopes virtual assistant can help it lead global smartphone market

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 February, 2015, 2:10am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 April, 2015, 12:11pm

Chinese tech giant ZTE believes its home-grown electronic personal assistant will be more than a match for Apple's Siri, Google's Now, Microsoft's Cortana or Amazon's Echo.

The smartphone maker is so confident of its voice-control and artificial intelligence technology that it is banking on grabbing a leading share of the global market.

It also planned to aggressively rebrand its image through social media and marketing - an area other Chinese firms tended to neglect, said Lin Waiman, senior director of technology and partnership at ZTE.

"We have put a lot of work into building a smart system based on voice control and artificial intelligence. It uses chips that we developed ourselves. It is a separate ecosystem in its own right," he said at the firm's Shenzhen headquarters.

The idea of having an electronic genie as the centrepiece of a smartphone is hardly new. Apple introduced Siri - the best known electronic personal assistant - with its iPhone 4s in 2011. Voice-command features have since become a must-have for any top-market smartphone, with Google, Microsoft and Amazon putting forward their own candidates for the "smartest electronic genie of them all".

After years of competing over hardware specifications such as screen resolution or camera pixels, major tech companies are betting on voice-activated interfaces to be the next big thing to sell "smart" gadgets.

Speaking to CNN last year, Adam Cheyer, the co-founder of Siri, said: "There has been a series of battles to gain market share at the point where users interface with computers. I think the major companies have to get into this game or risk not having direct interaction with a user."

Lin believes it is essential to get the feature right from the start. "Instead of upgrading our phones' specifications a tiny bit for every new launch, we believe true innovation lies in coming up with something original that stands out from others in the market," he said.

Lin pictured how a busy taxi driver could simply talk to his phone whenever he needed help: the latest weather, traffic conditions or a customer's destination.

ZTE recently launched its new flagship smartphone, the Star 2, with voice and motion-controlled features at its core.

A long press on the "home" button wakes up the assistant, which responds to a variety of commands, but unlike other virtual assistants, does not have a name. Users can open apps, play music, toggle Wi-fi, activate the camera, and even swap between front and rear camera lenses using their voices.

The system can unlock the phone using a pre-set command, and it recognises the owner's voice. Many overseas brands offer similar products. But in China, Star 2 costs only 2,499 yuan (HK$3,145).

Lin claims his system is quicker and more accurate than other voice-control assistants, including Apple's Siri.

A test of its functions by the Post showed a system that consistently and accurately responded to various commands including "take a selfie for me using low aperture", spoken in Putonghua. When the phone is placed next to the owner's ear, the phone asks who it should call.

The phone had been "very popular" with consumers in China and overseas, Lin said. Digitaltrends, a popular gadget review website, said ZTE's smart assistant was "so good it makes Siri look silly".

ZTE has teamed up with an increasing number of software makers and other technology partners. For example, it has been working with US software firm Nuance Communications since last year to develop better voice-recognition technology.

On the mainland, the world's largest smartphone market, ZTE is lagging behind domestic competitors such as Xiaomi and Huawei, both of which have made use of social media to market their products. Lin admitted this was an area that ZTE had neglected, but he said the company had launched a department specifically to expand its fan base.

ZTE's rebranding exercise is part of a broader trend among Chinese smartphone makers that are expanding overseas and challenging market leaders Samsung and Apple.

It plans to drastically increase the number of brick-and-mortar shops on the mainland from 30,000 to between 60,000 and 100,000, to reassure users that there are places that can deal with their problems.

The company is trying to win over consumers abroad by boosting its marketing budget by half to over 10 billion yuan. In the US, in particular, its marketing budget will triple. "If we can make it in the US, we can make it anywhere in the world," Lin said.

ZTE shipped about 100 million mobile devices globally last year, including 48 million smartphones. Smartphones contributed 70 per cent of the total revenue of its mobile devices business.

In the US, ZTE was the fourth-largest smartphone vendor in the third quarter with a market share of 6.3 per cent, behind Apple, Samsung and LG. But to gain brand recognition, ZTE must shake off its image as a maker of budget-priced phones. Last year it stopped selling smartphones under 600 yuan, Lin said.