Alibaba – 2020 Direction

Alibaba Generated RMB268.4 Billion During the 2019 Alibaba sales fest, Double 11. Photo: Alibaba

Alibaba is known as a platform that enables buyers and sellers from around the world to come together at the same virtual point, and complete a transaction that is of benefit to both of them.

To make this happen effectively, Alibaba has had to build a range of services that are far wider and more comprehensive than those needed to simply manage a specific transaction. Underpinning them are a range of other services – including sales and transaction management, product innovation, cloud infrastructure, supply chain management and logistics management – that are required to make any seller/buyer transactions possible.

This model is based on the fundamental premise that Alibaba’s customers need a business service, rather than access to the latest technology. The two are obviously closely intertwined, but their real need is for the former, not the latter. Many other cloud services providers have only recently started to move in this direction, as the market demand is growing. This puts Alibaba in a strong place to start servicing that need to a much wider marketplace across the world.

That is now one of the company’s primary goals for 2020, with plans to move more steadily into world markets as a cloud service provider. Should customers prefer to use private cloud capabilities as well, it encourages them to look at its Alibaba Business Operating System. This Initiative aims to make its cloud services and other data intelligence technologies much more widely available around the world.

The robustness of the available cloud infrastructure

The annual Alibaba sales fest, 11.11 (otherwise known as Double 11), is probably the clearest demonstration of the capabilities of Alibaba’s own data intelligence backbone – Alibaba Cloud – is able to make available to its customers. Held over 24 hours on November 11th 2019, it generated a Gross Merchandise Volume (GMV) of more than $38 billion, a sum that many global businesses would consider a good performance even over a year’s worth of trading.

An even better indication of the resilience of the resources in play, is the time the system took to reach its first $1 billion of GMV – just 68 seconds from a standing start. The first $10 billion GMV was generated in under 30 minutes. This was achieved using Alibaba-developed servers running its Apsara Operating System to process around 970 PetaBytes of data running at a peak load of 544,000 orders per second. Notably, during that one day, the company reported zero down-time on any of the systems in use, and that was with a worldwide reach for both vendors and consumers. As a statistical measure of the capabilities and resilience of Alibaba Cloud, it is difficult to unearth a set of numbers more compelling in demonstrating an ability to hit the goal all businesses want in terms of reliability and results.

To address a potential world market for cloud services it is essential that there is global availability, and Alibaba Cloud now has a total of 61 availability zones in 20 regions across the world. These include a current total of 12 dedicated Content Delivery Network centres outside of China, including the Middle East (Dubai), Southern Asia (Indonesia), and multiple centres in the USA and Europe.

The cloud service capabilities are also supported – and continually extended – by the presence of the company’s DAMO Academy. This is a global initiative by Alibaba to lead its technology and science research work, and is the primary source of its development of AI services aimed at improving the user experience for both vendors and their consumer customers.

This work includes research on fundamental technologies including:

1)Voice Interaction: research on speech recognition and keyword spotting, acoustics and signal processing, speech synthesis, voice recognition, TTS and other technologies in the domain of voice interaction.

2)Natural Language Understanding: research topics include knowledge representation and reasoning, sentiment analysis, text classification, recommendation algorithms and machine translation.

3)Vision AI: Image understanding and analysis, image and text analysis, video understanding and 3D vision.

4)Decision Intelligence: deep learning model construction, large-scale model training to solve data-driven intelligence issues and business optimisation.


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Innovative use of AI for developers

All four of these areas of AI research and development are important for applications developers, and play an important part in the company’s goal for its Cloud Services – to turn data into real time, real life, solutions. This means new challenges for AI developers looking to turn innovative ideas into real world applications.

A key component here is the availability of specific Software Development Kits (SDK), together with access to a growing variety of third-party mobile services. It also includes a range of mini-app platforms, with a strong focus on mobile applications that developers can integrate rapidly into their developments. Meanwhile, the Alibaba/SAIC Motor joint venture, Banma, is also offering not only end-to-end customised solutions for intelligently connected vehicles, but has now added a number of software development packages for auto partners. These enable them to rapidly develop proprietary applications such as mapping services, voice assistants, and infotainment functions.

Innovative use of AI for enterprises

All of the AI application areas being worked on by the DAMO Academy are going to be of interest to enterprise users, and perhaps their biggest collective challenge here will be getting up to speed on the number of different ways AI can be exploited. This is where the Academy can offer a specific advantage because, as the name implies, it is also the source of education on the subjects it is researching and developing.

The learning opportunity it presents is going to be vital over the next few years, because enterprises will need to get to grips with both how AI can improve and extend their own internal business processes and management capabilities, but also how they can develop those applications to ensure their customers enjoy a far better service experience. That is the route to making any business `sticky’, as well as the source that customers come back to first and, ideally, only. This is true for all areas of enterprise activity, be it business-to-business or business-to-consumer.  

Enterprise users also have an important requirement that Alibaba is aiming to fulfil, which is the ability to use the applications and services from the big names of business management applications. This is vitally important, as those applications are the cornerstones of every enterprise around the globe. It is why Alibaba formed a major partnership with SAP last year, and why its latest partnership recruit is MongoDB, thus giving customers access to one of the leading No-SQL database systems available, fully supported, on a cloud-delivered as-a-Service basis.

The company’s approach to the enterprise market is also expanding. It already provides enterprises with comprehensive infrastructure capabilities, to the point where they don’t have to think about it unless they have very specific requirements. Now the focus is on the provision of the business outcomes those customers are looking for. This is arguably where Alibaba has a lead over its contemporaries, at least when it comes to online retail management and delivery.

In practice, however, many of the applications and services can also be used in a wider range of applications areas and this is leading Alibaba Cloud to build up its partner programme, which sees it starting work with a wide range of companies – both large and small – that focus on specific market niches that would be difficult for the company to address directly. These can be some of the global consultancies that concentrate on creating complex, end-to-end business solutions for large enterprises, through to small businesses that address the business management needs of other small businesses in countries or regions.

Innovative use of AI for consumers

As enterprises master the development of AI services, they can improve the ways in which they deliver good experiences to their consumer customers. This process will certainly be helped by the range of AI services Alibaba has already developed. Many were deployed by the company during 11.11, with the aim of delivering more efficient and seamless services to consumers. One of them, a customer-service chatbot called Alime Shop Assistant, handled 97% of online customer inquiries on Alibaba’s Taobao and Tmall e-commerce platforms during that day. This already offers 11 languages to support communications between global buyers and sellers, and works at a level of simultaneous translation that would be very difficult and costly to do with humans alone.

One of the most important services now becoming available for both consumers and the vendors they turn to, is the ability to provide recommendations based on a consumer’s purchase history. This can save consumers hours of fruitless web-surfing trying to find what they don’t yet know they want by presenting the products and services that best match the analysis results. And for enterprises it provides many opportunities to switch/cross/up sell to customers that might otherwise look elsewhere on the web. As 2020 unfolds, Alibaba is set to be at the heart of facilitating seamless and efficient transactions between buyers and sellers, wherever they are located globally.

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