China is a very particular and unique market when it comes to so many tech and internet-related things. Google and Facebook are effectively banned from the world’s most populous country, Apple and Samsung trail behind Huawei and OPPO in regional smartphone shipments, and Amazon is yet to make a dent in Tmall and JD’s e-commerce duopoly.
Hence, it should come as no surprise that America’s hugely popular Echo smart speakers are nowhere to be found on Chinese turf, and Alexa doesn’t even support voice interaction in Mandarin to begin with. Neither do Bixby or the Google Assistant, while Siri and Cortana tout superior linguistic skills, still lacking standalone devices however.
Enter Alibaba’s ultra-low-cost Tmall Genie, which you can activate by calling its name… in Chinese and Chinese only. There are no plans for an international expansion at the moment, and even domestically, Alibaba merely aims for a one-month commercial “trial” before deciding if this is something worth pursuing on a large scale.
Priced at a crazy affordable 499 yuan ($74), at least for super-early adopters, the Tmall Genie X1 will take voice commands for everything from online shopping to music streaming, smart home controlling, performing web searches to answer questions, setting reminders, reading the news and checking the weather.
The initial skill set ain’t half bad, with third-party app developers welcome to continuously enrich it, the price is clearly right, and the design strikes us as a decent cross between an Echo and Google Home. But Alibaba has to compete against established local smart speaker players like JD.com’s DingDong and Baidu’s Xiaoyu, aka Little Fish.