In its latest effort to keep up with its American big brother Amazon, China’s eCommerce giant Alibaba has announced the debut of its own smart home speaker.
With this addition, each of the Frightful Five will have its own voice-controlled speaker: Amazon with its Echo family of devices; Google with the Home speaker; Apple with its new HomePod; Microsoft with the Cortana-powered Invoke speaker; and now, Alibaba, with its as-yet unnamed voice assistant and device.
Like Amazon’s Echo, Alibaba’s smart speaker will be able to carry out verbal commands and enable users to purchase products from Alibaba’s shopping platforms Taobao and Tmall – all, of course, in Mandarin.
But Alibaba founder Jack Ma is always careful to differentiate the two eCommerce giants. Alibaba isn’t just a copycat. It’s not just the “Amazon of China.” Amazon, says Ma, is at its core a retailer, andAlibaba is more like a small business ecosystem.
“Amazon is more like an empire — everything they control themselves, buy and sell," Ma told CNBC. “Our philosophy is to empower others to sell, empower others to service, making sure the other people are more powerful than us. With our technology, our innovation, our partners — 10 million small business sellers — they can compete with Microsoft and IBM. Our philosophy is, using Internet technology we can make every company become Amazon.”
Still, it’s hard not to liken the two based on function as well as sheer size. They don’t just compete in terms of shopping. They also offer movies, cloud and grocery services – and now, artificial intelligence.
When The Information broke Alibaba’s news Thursday, June 29, insiders had reported that the smart speaker could hit the Chinese market as early as this week. It is unlikely to reach the U.S. or anywhere else, they said, as the product was designed for domestic users who already know how to navigate Alibaba’s online services.
Still, it has the potential to disrupt sales for American companies such as Apple, which sells its products in China and may have been planning to release its HomePod smart speaker there (though no such plan had yet been unveiled at the time of Alibaba’s announcement).
The more interesting race may be between Alibaba and its domestic competitors. The Financial Times enumerated the contenders.
China’s Google Home equivalent Xiaoyu Zaijia (“little fish”) rolled out in January from Baidu, which operates China’s dominant search engine. The AI digital assistant answers questions, controls home devices and offers restaurant recommendations. It also beat Amazon to the punch by including a video screen, which was only introduced to the Echo family in May with the launch of the Echo Show.
The DingDong smart speaker by Alibaba’s eCommerce rival JD.com has been on the market for two years and understands both Mandarin and Cantonese – with, it reports, 95 percent accuracy. It has plans to roll out a feature to help users practice their English.
Smartphone maker Huawei also has an Apple Siri-like digital assistant in the works.
As PYMNTS previously reported, this move from Alibaba comes at a time when the company is aggressively expanding both its geographic footprint and its technological one. This week, it spent $1 billion to increase its stake in Lazada to 83 percent to get a foothold in the Southeast Asia eCommerce market.
Meanwhile, its entertainment arm, Alibaba Pictures Group, snapped up Chinese online movie ticket service Damai this year and has now acquired a majority stake in another film ticket website, TicketNew, which operates in India.
In Other News…
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Amazon’s Dash Button can now be used to order Heineken beer, at least for users living in Britain. The company noted that alcohol deliveries require a signature, and customers may be required to provide proof of age. Plus, Amazon Dash sends a notification to the customer’s smartphone whenever an order is placed, so there shouldn’t be any issue with underage kids using the button to buy beer, Amazon said.