SAN JOSE, Calif. – Two of China’s Web giants tapped domestic and U.S. chip partners for embedded voice software and services competing with Amazon Alexa and Google Home. Their efforts mark a new front in the war over an emerging market for natural-language and machine-learning services targeting everything from cars to thermostats.
Alibaba announced its Tmall Genie, similar to Amazon’s Echo, using a Mediatek SoC. Rival Baidu announced two- and four-mic far-field reference design for its DuerOS software using Mediatek and Conexant chips as well as support for Nvidia’s Shield TV streaming device. It had previously shown DuerOS running on chips from Shanghai-based RDA Microelectronics.
Alibaba and Baidu announced products in separate events on July 4. The same day, Tencent, China’s third largest Web company, announced a deal to supply content for TCL Corp.’s smart TVs. The move follows Tencent investments of nearly $90 million in TCL in recent weeks, according to a Reuters report.
The news comes at a time when Amazon dominates the still small market for voice-enabled smart services. Amazon’s Echo, based on a Texas Instruments chip set, is said to have shipped 7-10 million units to date, mainly in the U.S. and the U.K.
Later this month, Amazon is expected to add at least one new semiconductor partner to an OEM program that already includes Conexant, Microsemi and NXP. So far, Alexa is not available in China, nor does it support Chinese, leaving a wide open door for its Web rivals there.
Conexant (left) and Baidu reference designs for DuerOS-based smart speakers. (Image: Conexant)
For its part, Baidu seems to be “doubling down on DuerOS as its AI platform and its Apollo platform for autonomous cars,” said Saleel Awsare, president of Conexant, which uses the same chips in reference designs for DuerOS and Alexa.
At a July 4 event in Beijing that attracted as many as 5,000 attendees, Baidu announced DuerOS now has thousands of capabilities for tasks such as finding music, restaurants and movie tickets. China OEM Haier took the stage to reiterate its plans to use the software in TVs and air conditioners.
“Just as we had Windows for PCs and Android for phones, now we are seeing a big fight for the OS of the Internet of Things, and in China they will make sure it’s a Chinese company’s software,” said Awsare, noting Tencent and JD.com are expected to roll competing platforms.
For its part, Conexant has “five or six programs using our [DuerOS] kit in the works for different customers…mostly for smart speakers and robots which are very popular in China,” he said.
A Baidu spokesman was not immediately available to describe the company’s OEM plans. It initially announced DuerOS at CES in January. In March it talked about providing reference kits initially based on modules using the RDA 5981, a 40nm Wi-Fi/Bluetooth chip with an ARM Cortex M4 processor.
Alibaba’s Tmall Genie will cost about $75, well below Echo and Google Home systems, but currently only works for Mandarin and will only be available in China. Like rival services, it can interpret and answer natural language questions on a variety of fields, control home devices and order goods, especially from Alibaba’s Tmall online store, according to a Reuters report.
The devices initially use the same Mediatek SoC as Google Home, the MT8516 with four 64-bit ARM Cortex-A35 cores, according to one online report. A source said a future version may include cores from China's C-Sky, perhaps as early as August.
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