Alibaba Group Holding Ltd launched on Wednesday a cut-price voice assistant speaker, similar to Amazon.com Inc’s “Echo”, its first foray into artificially intelligent home devices.
Alibaba’s new product derives its name from the company’s e-commerce platform – Tmall – and during a demonstration in Beijing was used to order a delivery of Coca-Cola and buy credit for a phone.
The voice-controlled Tmall Genie can be used to play music, run third-party apps and buy goods from the Chinese retail giant’s online stores. Like many such devices, it lacks a display.
At launch, it will understand only Mandarin and be sold in the company’s domestic market.
China’s Alibaba Group Holding launched on Wednesday a cut-price voice assistant speaker, similar to Amazon.com Inc’s ‘Echo’ and Google’s Home, its first foray into artificially intelligent home devices.
‘Tmall Genie’, named after the company’s e-commerce platform Tmall, costs 499 yuan ($73.42), significantly less than western counterparts by Amazon and Alphabet Inc’s Google , which range from $120 to $180.
These devices are activated by voice commands to perform tasks, such as checking calendars, searching for weather reports, changing music or control smart-home devices, using internet connectivity and artificial intelligence.
China’s top tech firms have ambitions to become world leaders in artificial intelligence as companies, including Alibaba and Amazon, increasingly compete for the same markets.
Tmall allows local and international retailers to run their own virtual storefronts on its platform and says it is China’s third most visited shopping site.
“It clearly is an advantage if – like Amazon – you can pull consumers into your retail ecosystem with a smart speaker,” said Eden Zoller from the technology consultancy Ovum.
“But one thing we need to remember is it’s early days for this category, and there remain questions of consumer trust in using the digital assistants to buy goods, on a smartphone or smart home speaker device.
“By that, I mean both the security of the transaction and privacy concerns about how personal data is leveraged and shared.”
The device, which comes in black and white, can also be tasked with purchasing goods from the company’s Tmall platform, a function similar to Amazon’s Echo device.
Alibaba has addressed these concerns in part by using voiceprint-technology to try to restrict purchases to recognised users.
In addition, it has built in support for Alipay, the company’s popular online payment system, which is similar to PayPal.
Alibaba has invested heavily in offline stores and big data capabilities in an effort to capitalise on the entire supply chain as part of its retail strategy, increasingly drawing comparisons with similar strategies adopted by Amazon.
It recently began rolling out unstaffed brick-and-motor grocery and coffee shops, using QR codes that users can scan to complete payment on its Alipay app, which has over 450 million users. Amazon launched a similar concept of stores in December. ($1=6.7962 yuan)