Behold China’s Answer to Amazon Echo: The LingLong DingDong

Behold China’s Answer to Amazon Echo: The LingLong DingDong

Tuesday, 22 November 2016
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The Amazon Echo is remarkably useful. Alexa, the digital personal assistant within the cylindrical black gadget, plays music, helps with recipes, and orders stuff online. One thing it cannot do, however, is speak Chinese.

The LingLong DingDong can.

The name may sound funny to you, but this gadget is no joke. It could introduce millions of people to the power of a voice-activated, cloud-based smart home speaker. And it could help introduce the Echo to China.

Companies like Amazon and Google want their voice-enabled smart speakers front and center in your home. These clever devices are designed to be your primary interface to almost anything. Using nothing more than a wake word and a simple sentence, you can get the weather, set alarms or maintain a shopping list, and control your lights and locks. Whichever product and platform you choose becomes the focal point of your interaction with the internet. According to one report, China’s smart home market alone could hit $22.8 billion by 2018. “We think that the voice is most natural way to connect,” says Charlie Liu, LingLong’s senior marketing manager. “You just need to say what you want. We think it is really a huge market.”

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The DingDong, which costs the equivalent of $118, provides news, weather, and stock updates. It answers questions, manages schedules, provides directions, and plays music and audiobooks. It is the first product from Beijing LingLong Co., a $25 million joint venture between, China’s largest online retailer, and voice recognition powerhouse iFlytek.

The gadget weighs about 3 pounds and stands 9.5 inches tall. It is circular at the top and square on the bottom, and available in white, red, black, and purple. The shape symbolizes tiānyuán dìfāng—the notion that “heaven is round, Earth is square,” a concept that Liu says is central to LingLong’s design language. The colors also are imbued with meaning; white is associated with purity, and red with prosperity.

Three commands wake the device: DingDong DingDong, Xiaowei Xiaowei (a girl’s nickname), and BaiLing BaiLing (skylark). The DingDong comes in Mandarin and Cantonese versions (the engines required to understand the languages are too complex to include them both in one device). Most people speak Mandarin, and the myriad accents and dialects present a Herculean challenge. Still, the company claims the DingDong understands roughly 95 percent of the population.

If the DingDong sounds a lot like the Echo, that’s by design. Although work on the DingDong was well underway when the Echo arrived in 2014, engineers at LingLong took a long look at Amazon’s digital assistant. “Their launch influenced us a lot,” Liu says. No one at the company could get one, so they gleaned what they could from marketing materials and info online.

“It is a challenge to do on the R&D side,” says Lv Fang, head of sales and marketing. Even now, the product has a few kinks—some customers are having trouble connecting to Wi-Fi.

So far, customers primarily use the DingDong for music, drawing on a library of about 3 million songs. The limited feature set won’t change without far broader third-party support. “Echo is really great in this area,” Liu said. “[We have] 10 services like that, but Amazon announced that they have 4,000. It’s really a big gap.” To close that gap, the company recently made a voice service platform available to developers, and is offering tech support and other incentives to bring them aboard.

Although the DingDong can play any number of Chinese music, dramas, and the like, it was flummoxed by a request for Beyoncé when saying her name in English. It couldn’t provide a stock quote for because it is listed on the NASDAQ, not in China. And it can only provide one response per question or command. But the company plans to incorporate artificial intelligence to make DingDong smarter.

It also hopes to work with other companies to sharpen DingDong’s skills. Beyond creating a robust ecosystem of developers, LingLong is offering its technology to other smart speaker manufacturers. And it hopes to work with Amazon to introduce DingDong to Alexa—and vice-versa. “If they want to sell the Echo in China, maybe they will use our voice engine,” Fang says.

In fact, LingLong might be Jeff Bezos’s best chance to crack that market. “China is kind of a lost opportunity for these companies,” says Ashutosh Sharma, research director at Forrester. “China is very protective, it’s not as open as India is. The Chinese government also places a lot of requirements.” Alexa could work with DingDong to make inroads where Amazon alone cannot. So Alexa might one day speak Chinese after all.

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