When it comes to web businesses, China has created its own versions of a search engine (Baidu), e-commerce platform (Alibaba) and video-streaming service (iQiyi) with resounding success. Yet there’s a conspicuous absence of smart speakers such as the Amazon Echo or Google Home.
The market for devices using audio to deliver artificial-intelligence services is so nascent in China that few researchers track sales. Counterpoint Research estimates that 2 million smart-speaker units will be shipped in China this year, compared with 14 million in the U.S.
The question of adoption is about more than the devices — it’s about which enterprises will control the delivery of AI-based services. In the U.S., Amazon.com Inc., Google, Microsoft Corp., Apple Inc. and Facebook Inc. are all battling to determine which will cement a place at the center of peoples’ digital lives. Amazon said this week that the heavily discounted Echo was the best-selling product during its Prime Day shopping event.
“The overall understanding and response for Chinese natural language in a conversational way is still not mature,” Tracy Tsai, a Gartner Inc. analyst, said. Poor audio recognition on devices produced by some Chinese makers are a key reason for the lack of adoption, she said.
There are also other factors why smart speakers aren’t taking off in the world’s biggest retail market, according to Kai Yu, chief executive officer of Horizon Robotics and founder of the Institute of Deep Learning at Baidu Inc., China’s biggest search engine. Many people, especially younger workers, tend to spend less time at home, where smart speakers are meant to be used.
“If you look at the popularity of the food delivery business, it shows people don’t have much time; young people spend most of their time either at work, or going to work,” Yu said. “There’s still some speculation on whether smart speakers will be popular in China.”
Beijing resident Tianran He doesn’t see a compelling reason to buy a smart speaker, and hasn’t heard of any of his friends or family members talking about getting one. “Having a speaker in the house and knowing it could pick up all the audio feels a bit weird to me,” he said.
Chinese consumers also tend to spend more time consuming content on mobile devices as they move around, instead of in living rooms and bedrooms. Baidu’s iQiyi, the most popular streaming service in the country by time spent viewing, saw almost 70 percent of users watching shows and movies on smartphones and tablets, according to data from early 2016. By contrast, most Netflix Inc. viewers consume their content at home on TVs, according to a speech last year by Scott Mirer, vice president for device partner ecosystems.
While smart speakers haven’t become a hit in China, web companies there intend to sell them. Online retailer JD.com Inc. is the biggest brand to offer one, with shipments of speakers using its technology forecast to reach 1 million units by the end of the year. Counterpoint predicts 22 million of the devices to be sold in China in 2022.
Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Tencent Holdings Ltd. have unveiled plans to make voice-activated speakers. Baidu, whose Mandarin-speaking digital assistant DuerOS is being integrated into a myriad of products, demonstrated a smart speaker at its AI conference this month by asking Beijing’s most common question: “What’s the air quality today?”
Conexant Systems Inc., which develops the technology used to capture and process audio, is working with more than 60 companies in China looking to introduce audio-based smart devices, compared with about 20 U.S.-based smart speaker makers including Amazon, according to President Saleel Awsare.
“In China there are way more startups on this; money just seems to come easier,” Awsare said. “It feels like when the smartphone first came out.”
One possibility is that AI-based audio services won’t be delivered via speakers in China, but rather via home appliances. Chinese consumers bought 65 percent of the world’s smart-connected major home appliances last year, according to IHS Markit, which projects that number to reach 95.1 million units annually by 2020.
Midea Group and JD’s latest fridge will be able to remind their owners to eat more greens, because they’re equipped with image-recognition cameras and software that can tell what foods and vegetables are inside. While the smart refrigerator has become a cliche to a certain extent, it could be a viable way to get AI into homes, according to Chen Zhang, JD’s chief technology officer.
“They key to the fridge isn’t the technology, it’s how the technology fits your life,” Chen said. “AI needs real, practical applications.”