Alibaba Plans $1.4 Billion Investment in Tmall Genie Voice Assistant AI

Chinese tech giant Alibaba plans to spend 10 billion yuan ($1.4 billion) in developing the next generation of technology for its Tmall Genie voice assistant. The company announced that the enormous investment is going toward upgrading the artificial intelligence and Internet of Things platform, although it did not give a timeline for the development and sale of the improved Tmall Genie.

Genie Wishes

Alibaba has been upping investment in its voice assistant and smart speaker technology at a steady clip since releasing the first Tmall Genie smart speaker in 2017. The most recent Tmall Genie is a 10-inch smart display costing about $77, notably cheaper than a similarly sized Amazon or Google smart display, but with far fewer voice apps and third-party tech integrations. With the newly announced cash stockpile for future improvements, Alibaba said it plans to expand the content accessible through its smart speakers and create new technology to run smart home devices.

The Tmall Genie does have some notable features that help it stand out, such as integrating with Starbucks for delivery and selling a novelty Starbucks-branded version of its smart speaker, but it faces tough competition within China, including from Baidu, whose smart speakers have been beating Alibaba in sales regularly. Baidu is even ahead in debuting a new generation of the technology. The company announced the upcoming Xiaodu Smart Speaker 2 Infrared Version this month, which will use its eponymous infrared sensors to connect to smart home devices and includes a new embedded processor to up its far-field voice interaction performance. Alibaba is likely eager to make up lost ground, especially considering how Alibaba was handily beating Baidu two years ago before Baidu’s low-cost Xiaodu smart speakers allowed it to wrest away dominance of the market and embed Baidu’s DuerOS voice assistant platform in more than 400 million devices as of July 2019.

Chinese Smart Speaker Growth

Amazon and Google dwarf the smart speaker sales of any Chinese company. Amazon sent out 15.8 million smart speakers in the last quarter of 2019 alone, followed by Google with 13.9 million. Alibaba only came in fourth with 5.4 million units, slightly behind Baidu’s 5.9 million. But, Amazon doesn’t sell Alexa devices in China at all, which gives Alibaba and its domestic rivals a lot more scope for growth. And Chinese smart speaker sales are exploding, rising 137% from the same quarter in 2018. New partnerships and deals are shifting the landscape, but at the moment there appears to be a lot of opportunity for Alibaba, especially if the new investment leads to smart speakers and software that attract a lot of new customers and help cement current brand loyalty.


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