Smart speakers are the beginning of a voice-controlled world

The Lenovo Smart Assistant runs on Amazon's Alexa.

Is there a smart speaker bubble growing in China? This is the question posed by a recent Wall Street Journal article as it explores the myriad brands and manufacturers looking to make their own voice-activated speakers since the likes of Amazon, Google and Apple all joined the market. The reason this has become such a hot market, though, is that voice input has become incredibly important to modern technology.

As if answering its own question, another Wall Street Journal article discusses the “end of typing” thanks to the rise of voice and video as the preferred way to interact on mobile devices for the “next billion” users coming online. These users tend to be less educated and use low-end smartphones, which are good enough to handle video calls and YouTube.

The next billion aren’t going to be big spenders on fancy smart speakers, of course, but the speakers so far have served as a way to improve artificial intelligence and voice recognition. This is what made the Amazon Echo such a creative use of Alexa after the company’s Fire Phone flopped. Since the surprise success of the Echo, other technology giants have entered the smart speaker market. No other AI interface has become as ubiquitous as Alexa, though, which is now getting put in everything from refrigerators to TVs.

The recent dramatic increase in interest for smart speakers seems to have been sparked by by Apple’s HomePod, which was announced in June. Since then, there’s been a surge in interest from Chinese suppliers in Shenzhen looking to make similar products.

The unforgiving startup market in China’s southern Guangdong province is rough as it is, but China’s tech giants are joining the market, too. Alibaba, Xiaomi and JD all have smart speakers of their own. Baidu and Cheetah Mobile are working on the AI end to create systems to power this hardware.

That AI software is important. There’s nothing like Android for AI right now. It didn’t take long after Google introduced its open source operating system for it to become the most-used mobile OS in the world. The only thing that comes close to that for AI right now is Alexa. Since Amazon built the Alexa Voice Service API, many third party hardware makers have been happy to include Alexa in their own devices. Even Lenovo has an Alexa-powered smart speaker.

Though money in China is pouring into the smart speaker market, it seems Chinese consumers aren’t very keen on them yet. Only 2 million units are expected to ship in China this year compared with 14 million units in the US. Chinese startups might now realize what Amazon discovered with the Echo: It’s not about the speaker. It’s about what’s powering the speaker.

The Chinese market is already very familiar with using voice and video to communicate on mobile devices. This kind of usage is growing as more people in emerging markets come online, as well. Tech startups don’t have to rely on homegrown software to make great products, but all kinds of products will soon have to at least know what their users are saying.

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