Mobvoi Inc (羽扇智信息), a Chinese artificial-intelligence (AI) startup backed by Google, intends to go toe-to-toe with Apple Inc when it begins selling its smartwatches in the US in September.
The four-year-old startup founded by a coterie of former Googlers is hoping US consumers take to the second generation of the Ticwatch, which made waves in China via voice-activated natural language search and innovative features such as a touch-sensitive strip for scrolling. The new version responds to questions in English and is to enable US users to order pizzas, hail Uber taxis and pick out restaurants on Yelp.
The US$200 gadget is to retail for a fraction of the standard-issue Apple Watch and is about US$100 cheaper than Motorola’s latest smartwatch, the Moto 360.
Mobvoi chief executive officer and founder Li Zhifei (李志飛) estimates he can sell about 50,000 of the devices within one year of its US debut, helping to bring the gadget’s total revenue to US$100 million next year.
Alphabet Inc’s Google led Mobvoi’s last round of financing in October last year, valuing the company at US$300 million. It was the US Internet giant’s first direct investment in China since withdrawing online search from the country in 2010 because of disagreements with the government. This year, Mobvoi became an official Chinese partner for Google’s Android Wear software, meaning its voice-search services are embedded in the US company’s operating system for wearable devices.
“The Google label definitely helped us in marketing, but our core advantages are AI technologies that allow machines to understand natural languages, a self-developed system and self-designed hardware,” said Li, who helped develop Google’s translation software before founding Mobvoi in 2012.
Li said the company might consider a US initial public offering next year if its US-bound device can replicate its success at home.
During the “Singles Day” sales extravaganza last year, when millions of Chinese shoppers flocked online in search of once-a-year bargains, Mobvoi’s device was the third-best selling watch on shopping site JD.com, behind only Apple and the Moto 360.
However, the Ticwatch 2 is debuting at a time of flagging demand, as potential buyers await hardware improvements.
The smartwatch market plunged 32 percent in the second quarter, according to preliminary data from marker researcher International Data Corp (IDC), with Apple’s market share diving to 47 percent from 72 percent last year.
Longer term, shipments of smartwatches could reach 82.5 million by 2020, from about 21.3 million this year, IDC has estimated.
“There’re a lot of attempts and innovation” in wearables, Gartner Inc analyst Brian Blau said. “It’s exciting to see an ex-Googler is trying this.”
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