Alibaba Debuts Its Smart Speaker

An Echo Rival for Chinese Consumers

The market for personal digital assistants in the US is currently dominated by Amazon’s quickly expanding family of Echo devices. From wands to screens, various types of Echo are being scattered throughout homes, undertaking mundane tasks like setting timers, delivering access to online music and radio, providing information, controlling smart homes, taking orders and filling shopping carts. It’s a point of control.

Launched in 2014, the Echo line has been such an unexpected success that it’s changing the way early adopters that have embraced the devices interact with everyday products. Taking a page from Amazon’s business model, Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba has unveiled a smart speaker, dubbed Tmall Genie, which will initially be available for 499 yuan (about $73) in its home market. The first devices are expected to ship on 17 July 2017.

The home device, powered by voice-recognition technology similar to Alexa, will be targeted at Chinese consumers. It will only understand voice commands in Mandarin. Among other features, Tmall Genie will allow customers to use verbal commands to buy products from Alibaba’s shopping platforms Taobao and Tmall.

Alibaba’s speaker won’t be alone on the Chinese market: Baidu, the country’s search-engine giant, introduced its voice-controlled digital assistant, called Little Fish, in April 2017. It includes a touch screen that allows users to perform searches, order food and play music and movies. Alibaba’s smaller e-commerce rival sells a smart home speaker called DingDong, and the company is already talking about significant upgrades to the product including a feature that will enable Chinese consumers to use the device to practise English. Tencent also recently unveiled its virtual assistant, Xiaowei. These technology companies combine to control the lion’s share of the domestic market for online retail, music, live-streaming video and search services in China.

Amazon Echo and Google Home aren’t yet available in China, but they’re likely to heighten competition for the devices when they begin marketing their digital assistants in the country. Perhaps more importantly, Alibaba’s product could become a rival to HomePod, Apple’s smart speaker which is slated for launch in December 2017. As iPhone sales soften, Apple is certainly hoping to expand its product portfolio in China, breaking into and establishing itself in new segments.

Few companies could replicate Amazon, but Alibaba can. A product category that didn’t exist just a few years ago has suddenly become a main entry point into some consumers’ lives. Alibaba is right to address this gap in its portfolio.