Smart Speakers like Google Home and Amazon Echo are enjoying robust sales in the US, but have not penetrated the Chinese market. One reason is simple: They don’t speak the language. The lack of Mandarin interface in these devices has prompted a number of Chinese companies to get in the game with their own smart speakers.
There are currently about 10 Chinese-language-enabled smart speakers on the market, and most are about the same: cylindrical plastic boxes stuffed with processing chips and an X-microphone array. Also almost indistinguishable are the speakers’ services: connecting with smart home devices, updating news and weather info, and streaming music.
Dingdong was China’s first homegrown smart speaker and remains the country’s most popular. The DingDong A1 was launched in August 2015 by tech company Linglong, a joint venture between China’s second largest e-commerce company JD Group and China’s top voice technology company iFlytek.
Similar to Echo, Dingdong A1 can access the JD.com online shopping site. The device is awakened by the playful hot word “Dingdong, Dingdong”, which users cannot replace with other words. This year Linglong released the second generation of Dingdong with a price of CNY799 (US$120).
JD.com’s biggest rival Alibaba also debuted its smart speaker this year, the Tianmao Jingling X1, which is Mandarin for “Tmall Genie”. The product integrates Alibaba’s intelligent assistant system AliGenie, and links to Alibaba’s online shopping site Tmall for voice-controled online purchasing. Tianmao Jingling X1 differs from Dingdong A1 in that it supports voiceprint payment, which can recognize users’ voices when logging into their account.
In a bid to boost Tianmao Jingling X1 sales Alibaba dropped the price from CNY499 (US$80) to only CNY99 (US$15) for China’s November 11 “Singles Day” online shopping spree — an event much like Black Friday in the US. By day’s end over one million Tianmao Jingling X1 had sold, doubling Alibaba’s expectations.
Xiaomi’s soon-to-be-released Mi AI Speaker will be the lowest-priced smart speaker on the Chinese market at CNY299 (US$45). Chinese electronics and software company Xiaomi is best known for making affordable smart devices such as smartphones, laptops, wearables, and home appliances, and many industry watchers believe Xiaomi’s forte in hardware and software development will make the speaker popular.
Xiaomi is already deeply established in the smart home device market, with over 60 million products sold. The Mi AI speaker will enable voice control for Xiaomi products such as air conditioners and TVs.
Xiaomi has created an anime avatar for the speaker. Xiao Ai, which is Mandarin for “Little Love”, is an adorable redheaded girl with a sweet, natural voice. Anime culture is widely popular with Chinese consumers, and the character is expected to further drive domestic sales.
Top Chinese tech company Baidu also entered the smart speaker marketplace this year. Raven H satisfies the demands of intelligent human-machine interaction and high-quality music playing. This is the first Raven series product released since Baidu’s acquisition of smart home hardware startup Raven Tech in February.
Raven H has a bold design reflecting Raven Tech’s attention to aesthetics. The speaker resembles a stack of multicoloured plastic squares with a retro curly charging cable. It has a detachable LED touch screen controller which can be used as a voice-based remote to connect with Baidu-Raven’s series of home devices.
Raven H is powered by Baidu’s virtual assistant Xiaodu, which was developed in 2015 and is best known for beating some of China’s brightest humans in a Reality TV Show object detection and speech recognition showdown. Priced at CNY1699 (US$258), Raven H is China’s first high-end smart speaker.
While most Chinese smart speakers are wire-connected and designed for living rooms or offices, AI unicorn & voice technology company Mobvoi has released a portable smart speaker called TicHome Mini. The small round speaker has a tote band and is the world’s first waterproof smart speaker, making it a good sing-a-long companion in the shower.
TicHome Mini has released both Chinese and English-based versions. The English-based device is integrated with Google Assistant, while the Chinese version is powered by the company’s own Mandarin-based system.
The smart speaker competition is heating up in China. Although it’s too early to say who will come out on top, a big positive for all the players is the projection of an exponential market surge over the next two or three years. Consultant firm iiMedia Research says that by the end of 2020, Chinese smart speaker sales will surpass one billion yuan (US$150 million).
Journalist: Tony Peng | Editor: Michael Sarazen