Alibaba challenges Google, Amazon with new Echo-like device

A member of staff from Alibaba Group introduces the company's newly released cut-price voice assistant speaker Tmall Genie during a press conference in Beijing, China, on July 5, 2017.
A member of staff from Alibaba Group introduces the company's newly released cut-price voice assistant speaker Tmall Genie during a press conference in Beijing, China, on July 5, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - The competition in digital speaker-assistants is getting more intense, as Alibaba Group Holding unfurled an Amazon Echo-like device and fellow Chinese internet giants Tencent and Baidu prepare to develop their own.

Alibaba's "Tmall Genie X1" will go for 499 yuan (S$100.9) to the first 1,000 people during a one-month trial, coming in below Apple's US$349 HomePod and the roughly US$180 Echo. Its biggest competitor, Tencent Holdings, is developing a voice-activated digital speaker that could hit the market within months, Tencent President Martin Lau said in a May interview. And on Wednesday, Baidu showed off its own "DuerOS" personal assistant.

Taking a page from Amazon.com and Google, Hangzhou-based Alibaba's speaker offers voice-controlled services from music streaming to newscasts and calendar-booking, according to its website. Importantly, the gadget - powered by the AliGenie system - may eventually simplify shopping for the Chinese e-commerce giant's 450 million active buyers who turn to the website for everything from cherries to makeup. It will begin formal sales from August 8 only for China and won't come with a display.

Digital speakers powered by virtual assistants are one of the hottest consumer product categories right now. Apple recently debuted its Siri-controlled HomePod, Google launched its Home speaker last fall and Amazon, the pioneer, has been churning out Alexa-powered devices for years.

Shipments of intelligent home speakers surged nearly 600 per cent to 4.2 million units in the fourth quarter, with Amazon taking about an 88 per cent share and Google 10 per cent, according to Strategy Analytics. Spending on smart-home related hardware, services and installation fees will reach US$155 billion by 2022, up from almost US$90 billion this year with devices accounting for about half of that, the consulting firm estimates.