Huawei Has 100 Engineers Working on a New Voice Assistant for China

Huawei made headlines when it announced that Amazon’s Alexa personal voice assistant would be included in the company’s flagship Mate 9 smartphone. The third largest smartphone manufacturer globally was clearly making a play to match Apple’s Siri and Google’s Assistant. It was also a big coup for Amazon since its one weakness against Apple and Google in the voice assistant wars is the lack of distribution on smartphones at scale. Huawei immediately makes Amazon Alexa relevant on mobile.

Bloomberg is now reporting that Huawei also plans to chart its own course by building a personal voice assistant for Chinese language in-house. The article states:

A team of more than a hundred engineers is in the early stages of developing the technology at its Shenzhen, China offices, one of the people said. The efforts are extensive and are aimed at Apple Inc.’s Siri, Inc.’s Alexa, and Alphabet Inc.’s Google Assistant, not smaller players, the person said. Huawei’s assistant would communicate in Chinese languages and target domestic users while the company will continue to work with Google and Amazon’s Alexa service outside China, a one of the other people said.

So, it looks like Huawei is ceding the English-language voice assistant market to the current incumbents. That makes sense as its partners are the two leaders in the market. In addition, both have a several year head-start in technology development combined with tremendous financial resources. What neither has is a solution today for Chinese.

Huawei’s Market Advantages for Chinese Voice Assistants

This is not to say that the deep learning models used for English language cannot be applied to Chinese. They almost certainly can and both Amazon and Google would likely be able to move more quickly in building a solution than an operation that is just starting up. However, Huawei has two advantages to exploit. It has a large Chinese user base for immediate distribution and it has access to a tremendous amount of AI training data. This just might level the playing field. Add to this that Amazon has virtually no presence and many Google services are blocked in China and the Huawei advantages look even more relevant.

Huawei signaled its direct AI interest in October when it announced a $1 million investment in AI research through a partnership with UC Berkeley. With that said, $1 million and 100 engineers is not close to the scale of investment at Amazon and Google. Jeff Bezos commented during a Recode interview last June that the Alexa team had exceeded 1,000 developers for years and other reports suggest it may grow to 2,000 people by the end of Q1 2017. Amazon, Google and IBM have invested billions of dollars building out their AI capabilities. They may not have easy access to the Chinese market today, but they have a lot of technology advantages and institutional knowledge that could make them formidable in any market given the right circumstances.

Google is Losing Its Tight Grip on OEM Partners

This is the second Google Android manufacturing partner to commit to its own voice assistant in less than six months. Samsung, the world’s largest smartphone manufacturer by volume in October acquired Viv, the highest-profile startup in the voice assistant category. Viv was started by the creators of Apple’s Siri, so there is a pedigree in the space. Google hasn’t officially lost access for Google Assistant to either Huawei or Samsung yet. And, we have seen Samsung fail at competing with Google before when it attempted to develop an Android replacement. This means there are plausible scenarios where Google’s scale and technology advantages will overwhelm their partners attempts to compete. However, it certainly is putting limits on Google’s negotiating power and creates an option for these companies to walk away from Google as the market evolves further.

Huawei Launches First Alexa-Enabled Smartphone

TechCrunch – Huawei puts $1M into New AI Research Partnership with UC Berkeley