The battle for smart speaker market domination goes global

The latest smart speaker market data from Canalys shows significant gains from Chinese vendors and an international shift from the US giants.

The whole sector is on a bit of a tear, with unit shipments jumping 55% year-on-year, showing there is considerable appetite among the general population for totally surrendering the details of their lives to internet behemoths. Perhaps desensitized by their own government’s Orwellian levels of intrusiveness, the Chinese seem especially keen to embrace voluntary surveillance.

As a consequence shipments of the smart speakers made by Baidu, the Chinese equivalent of Google, exploded to 4.5 million in Q2 2019 from a standing start a year ago. China, with its population of 1.4 billion technophiles, can do that for you, but Baidu must be doing something even Alibaba and Xiaomi aren’t because it has overtaken both of them, as well as Google itself, to grab second place among global vendors.

canalys smart speaker q2 19 table

“Aggressive marketing and go-to-market campaigns built strong momentum for Baidu in China,” said Canalys Research Analyst Cynthia Chen. “The vendor stood out as a key driver of smart displays, to achieve 45% smart display product mix in its Q2 shipments. Local network operator’s interests on the device category soared recently. This bodes well for Baidu as it faces little competition in the smart display category, allowing the company to dominate in the operator channel.”

So it looks like standalone smart displays are lumped in with the speakers and that’s what Baidu is doing well. There’s little sign that the company will be honest enough to rebrand its smart displays from ‘Xiaodu’ to ‘Lao da ge’ but you never know. Rather worryingly for Google, the other reason it lost second spot is that its own shipments declined year-on-year.

“Amazon and Google are focused on growing their business outside the US,” said Canalys Senior Analyst Jason Low. “Google’s transition to the Nest branding while pivoting to smart displays proved to be a challenge, especially as it has begun rolling out its Nest Hub smart display globally. Google urgently requires a revamped non-display smart speaker portfolio to rekindle consumer interest, as well as a robust marketing strategy to build its Nest branding outside of the US.”

You can see evidence of this international pivot in the chart below, with at least half of Amazon and Google’s shipments now coming from outside the US, compared to more like a third a year ago. “Despite feeling upbeat about the market outlook, vendors are wary about the price sensitivity towards the relatively new category of smart displays,” said Low.

canalys smart speaker q2 19 chart

Huawei powered Chinese operators trial 5G for industry verticals

China Mobile, the world’s largest mobile operator by subscribers, has just trialled 5G for business vertical use on a standalone (SA) architecture. Huawei and Baidu provided the technologies.

The trial was carried out in Beijing, China, and the use case was a corporate video conference. It used 8K cameras to capture live video, which was then sent to the 5G SA core network through China Mobile’s 5G gNodeBs base stations. The data was then processed (encoded and decoded) by Baidu servers on the same network, then sent to the conference room for the 8K live video broadcast.

The trial was using the technology called “5G Vertical LAN” defined in 3GPP R16, which in essence is an insulated “slice” of the mobile network dedicated to a single business user, i.e. becoming a private cloud for an enterprise. The enterprise cloud can be provided by the mobile operator, or the enterprise can choose to provide its own customized 5G vertical LAN. This cloudified enterprise environment “enables terminals to directly communicate with each other, and allows them to access enterprise clouds” without going through the public cloud, therefore increasing the communication security.

However, to realise such a virtual enterprise setup it needs the 5G network to be in SA mode, because insulating and managing the virtual network is all done with software and hard to implement on non-standalone (NSA) mode. This China Mobile trial was conducted on such an SA architecture.

Huawei did not disclose details of the distance between the two ends, or the latency. The company put up a live video demonstration in the last Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. In that case the distance between the video capturing point and the broadcasting point was about 2km, and the latency was 11ms. But that trial was carried over Vodafone’s hybrid network.

This is not the only network slicing trial Huawei has carried out recently. The day before, the company worked with China Telecom, the world’s largest integrated operator, and China’s State Grid, to carry out a network slicing trial to manage a live power grid. China Telecom has been vocal in promoting 5G for other vertical industries.

The commercial 5G networks launched so far, in the US and in Korea, are all on NSA architecture, which limits the use cases to primarily enhanced mobile broadband access, therefore are mainly consumer focused. When Colin Wilcock, chairman of the European Union-backed 5G Industry Association (5G-IA), dismissed the 5G leadership of North America and Korea as not real 5G but beefed up LTE, though not entirely devoid of sourgraping, he got a point. Speaking at the Smart to Future Cities conference recently, he stressed that “the 5G we (Europe) need has to support the other vertical industries”, though also he conceded it is not going to happen now, but will be deployed in two to five years’ time, reported by Compelo.

Baidu rolls out another quarter of strong profit

Baidu has released financials for the last three months with its news product leading the charge for the Chinese search giant.

Total revenues stood at $3.93 billion, increasing 32% year-on-year, while mobile represented 77% of total net revenues, compared to 72% for the second quarter of 2017. The core business brought in $3.03 billion, a 28% rise, while net income was $967 million.

“We had another strong quarter in Q2 with search exhibiting robust revenue growth driven by AI-powered monetization capabilities and Baidu feed continuing strong traffic and monetization momentum,” said CEO Robin Li.

The potentially problematic news app, a similar proposition to the Facebook newsfeed, seems to have successfully negotiated regulatory landmines, reaching 148 million daily active users in June 2018, up 17% from the same period last year. While competitive offerings have been struggling to meet the censorship demands of the Chinese government, Baidu seems to have bowed suggesting there might be more successful numbers over the coming months. Competing video platform Bilibili was one which fell short of government expectations, leading to the app being temporarily removed from app stores by authorities.

The DuerOS, Baidu’s smartphone operating system based on an Android fork, had another successful period with the installed base reaching 90 million devices. Government officials might be keeping a close eye on the situation here, as a viable alternative to Android would be welcomed. AI investments across the Baidu business will improve capabilities here, as the team sign new partnerships with various different segments.

Baidu has now formed strategic partnerships with 20 global and domestic auto OEMs, including the BMW, Daimler and Ford. The autonomous vehicle space is a growing area, though other wins for the operating system are focused around the smart speakers. Not only does Baidu claim the DuerOS-powered Xiaodu Smart Speaker sold out 10,000 units within 90 seconds of its first two online sales, a partnership with InterContinental Hotels Group takes the smart speakers, and more importantly the OS, into the world of smart hotel rooms.

With the voice user interface set to become more important in the digital ecosystem over the next few years, DuerOS is certainly an area worth keeping an eye on.

Blackberry continues quest to prove its still a thing

It used to be a shining gem in the mobile landscape, but the fall from lofty heights was well publicised. A new partnership with Baidu is the next step from Blackberry to prove it is still relevant.

The partnership itself will focus on the development of autonomous vehicles, more specifically, Blackberry’s QNX operating system, which will form the foundations of Baidu’s Apollo autonomous driving open platform. The tie-up will also incorporate Baidu’s CarLife offering (smartphone integration software for connected cars) as well as its virtual assistant DuerOS onto the platform.

“Blackberry QNX has established itself as the OS platform for safety-certified production-based systems,” said Li Zhenyu, GM of the Intelligent Driving Group at Baidu. “We aim to provide automakers with a clear and fast path to autonomous vehicle production, with safety and security as top priorities. By integrating the Blackberry QNX OS with the Apollo platform, we will enable carmakers to leap from prototype to production systems.”

“Baidu has made tremendous strides in Artificial Intelligence and deep learning,” said John Wall, GM of Blackberry’s QNX unit. “These advancements paired with their high-definition maps and Blackberry’s safety-critical embedded software and expertise in security will be crucial ingredients for autonomous vehicles.”

Irrelevant as to whether you believe Blackberry still has a place in the digital world of the 21st century, Wall raises an interesting point which is often overlooked. Companies like Baidu, or Google and Uber, will be critical due the importance of mapping data, irrelevant as to whether their autonomous driving platforms are any good.

When we talk about autonomous vehicles we discuss the sensors, the AI components or the processors to power the vehicle, but very rarely about the digital mapping technologies which underpin the whole concept. This is not unusual, as it isn’t the most exciting aspect of the tech, but often the boring areas are some of the most lucrative. Baidu’s horde of geographical information is potentially an excellent hook onto developments.

Blackberry might, or might not, be struggling to hold onto relevance in the fast moving tech world, but holding onto the coat tails of fast-rising Baidu isn’t the worst idea we’ve heard so far this year.

Huawei and Baidu team up on AI

Huawei and Baidu have announced a wide ranging partnership to develop artificial intelligence (AI) platforms and technology, to internet services and content ecosystems.

The tagline itself might sound a bit ominous, ‘AI that knows you better’, but it is where the industry is heading. More comprehensive artificial intelligence applications which reveal information about you which you didn’t even realise you had given away. Another concern might be held in Silicon Valley; two of the worlds’ most successful latecomers to the technology tsunami teaming up to steal AI fortunes from California.

“The future is all about smart devices that will actively serve us, not just respond to what we tell them to do,” said Richard Yu, CEO of Huawei’s Consumer Business Group. “With a strong background in R&D, Huawei will work with Baidu to accelerate innovation in the industry, develop the next generation of smartphones, and provide global consumers with AI that knows you better.”

“It should come as no surprise that Baidu and Huawei are working together, because we have many similarities – technology is embedded in our DNA and we have developed our own technologies in order to grow,” said Robin Li, Baidu CEO.

“The Internet era is evolving into the era of AI. Baidu has been dedicated to the field of AI for a long time. Huawei has a large user base. Together, Baidu and Huawei can do many things which we were not able to do in the past. The Chinese saying ‘let a hundred flowers bloom’ is a good way to describe our cooperation – today we planted the seeds, and I believe soon they will grow into many flowers.”

The plan is to build an open ecosystem using Huawei’s HiAI platform and Baidu Brain, a compendium of the company’s AI assets and services. The open ecosystem will make use of Huawei’s Neural Network Processing Unit (NPU) and Baidu’s PaddlePaddle deep learning framework to democratize the power of AI for developers and accelerate the introduction of new offerings.

First up will be work on voice and image recognition for smart devices, as well as building an augmented reality (AR) ecosystem, to help move along another area which has the potential for major disruption. Such work might be able to help both brands make stronger strides into the international markets.

One area for Huawei which might be a focal point is cracking the US market with its smartphones. Huawei has made solid progress in the developing markets, but reports in recent weeks have seen some positive moves in the US. That said, the Apple and Samsung dominance will be difficult to crack, therefore the team will have to create a solid USP to make waves. AI, AR and VR might be that differentiation the brand needs.

Aside from consumer applications, the promise of productivity gains has seen businesses flock to the likes of Google, IBM and Amazon to cash in on the craze. Huawei has proved it can turn a segment on its head, Ericsson and Nokia will testify to this, so the techies-club in Silicon Valley should be a bit worried about China stealing the AI thunder.

The new AI Team; Baidu and Qualcomm

Qualcomm and Baidu have announced a strategic alliance to create an AI voice solution based on the new Snapdragon 845 Mobile Platform and Baidu’s DuerOS Conversational AI System.

The aim will be to optimize Baidu’s DuerOS conversational artificial intelligence (AI) system for smartphones on the Qualcomm Snapdragon Mobile Platform to create a smart assistant solution for global smartphone and IoT devices. The DuerOS has been around since early 2017, though such a partnership might be a means for Baidu to take another step into the global tech space.

“Qualcomm Technologies continues to drive research into AI, and we are committed to the development of on-device AI, including audio. Qualcomm Technologies is pleased to collaborate with Baidu on AI for voice enabled solutions,” said Keith Kressin, SVP for Product Management at Qualcomm Technologies.

“The collaboration with Baidu will bring AI for voice enabled solutions to next-generation Snapdragon mobile platforms, allowing users to wakeup smartphones and IoT devices using their voice in their natural language at any time and at extremely low power, while utilizing Baidu’s DuerOS voice services.”

“Through the collaboration with Qualcomm Technologies, we will bring a new AI voice experience to OEMs of smartphones and IoT devices around the world. Leveraging Baidu’s strengths in AI, big data, knowledge graph, information and services ecosystems, DuerOS will support OEMs with its strong capabilities, while providing users with more comprehensive and quality information and services to satisfy their needs,” said Kun Jing, GM of the Duer business unit at Baidu.

The DuerOS is already in a number of products targeted at the Chinese market, and similar to offers from Google and Amazon, is activated by using the phrase ‘Xiaodu Xiaodu’. The OS already has 130 partners, and is one of the more popular smart assistant choices for third party hardware manufacturers in China. DuerOS has been incorporated into more than 100 branded devices ranging from refrigerators and air conditioners to mobile phones, TV set-top boxes and smart speakers.

While Baidu’s OS is a small player right now, this will certainly be one to keep an eye on. Chinese technology companies are proving very capable of competing on the global stage, so Google and Amazon would be well placed to keep a wary eye on developments here.

It’s official – Siri is a simpleton

It is true, but might be a bit mean to single out the iLeader, as researchers have put various artificial intelligence programmes to the test, figuring out what the IQ of each one is.

Liu Feng of Beijing Jiaotong University, Yong Shi from the Chinese Academy of Sciences Research Center and Ying Liu of from University of Chinese Academy of Sciences have figured out what we’re all been wondering; how smart are AI virtual assistants. And it turns out those who are worried about the technology rising up and enslaving us can sleep easy for the moment; the average six year-old has a higher IQ.

“This research provides a possibility of using the AI IQ test method to continually assess relevant intelligence systems and to analyse the development of the artificial IQ of various systems, allowing for the differentiation of similar products in the field of artificial intelligence,” the researchers said in the paper. “The resulting test data will have practical value in researching competitors’ development trends.”

In terms of the best and worst, Google featured at the top of the AI list, with an IQ of 47.28. Baidu’s Duer got 37.2, Chinese search engine Sogou hit the heights of 32.25, while the AI powering Microsoft’s Bing had an IQ of 31.98. Apple’s Siri was a lowly 23.94. And just to provide a bit of context, a six year-old child average IQ is 55.5, at 12 the average increases to 84.5 and at 18 it is 97.

To be completely honest, the rankings don’t really mean much at the moment, though it is a much needed reminder the AI world is still in its infancy. The benefits have been loudly pronounced by the technology companies of the world, but realistically, there is still a lot to do before we see AI make more than quirky and slightly inaccurate impacts on our daily lives.

“IQ essentially is a measurement of the ability and efficiency of intelligent systems in terms of knowledge mastery, learning, use, and creation. Therefore, IQ can be represented by different knowledge grades,” the researchers said.

The idea of introducing knowledge grades in the AI world is an interesting one, as it effectively gives an instant answer to how advanced such a programme is. The researchers have suggested this could be a scale from one to six, with each level demonstrating an increased level of independence, interactivity and intelligence.

This scale starts as simply as whether an AI programme can interact with a human, and rises all the way up to a system which “continuously innovates and creates new knowledge, with I/O ability, knowledge mastery, and application ability that all approach infinite values as time goes on”. This would what most people would see as artificial intelligence.

Aside from the age of artificial intelligence, another explanation for the low IQ scores might be the limited nature of most AI programmes. AI propositions are currently being built for specific purposes, with little of zero opportunity of that particular programme broadening its talents. AlphaGo, for instance, demonstrates a high skill level for the complicated game of Go, but would it be able to beat a six year-old at Hangman? The researchers believe AlphaGo would be at the third knowledge grade.

Some people might be scared of the potential of artificial intelligence, but for the moment it seems you can just threaten it with no desert if it starts getting a bit moody.