Like Amazon, Alibaba is extending its reach into a wide spectrum of businesses and technologies. Alibaba’s chief technology officer, Jianfeng “Jeff” Zhang, told a Bellevue audience it is working on everything from big data to artificial intelligence and virtual reality.
Alibaba is perhaps best known in Seattle and the U.S. as one of the largest e-commerce companies in the world and an international rival to Amazon.com.
But Alibaba’s chief technology officer, Jeff Zhang, says it is also one of the best big-data companies in the world, with a scale of business that generates vast amounts of data and tentacles that reach into everything from social media to financing and payment, navigation to digital entertainment.
“That’s our competitive edge compared to other technology companies,” Zhang said to a crowd of about 300 engineers, most Chinese-speaking, at the Westin Bellevue Saturday afternoon. “We have different kinds of data,” drawing not only from Alibaba Group’s own e-commerce platforms (including the Taobao consumer-to-consumer shopping site and TMall business-to-consumer site) but also companies it has a stake in, such as Sina Weibo (the hugely popular microblogging site similar to Twitter) and Ant Financial (finance and payments).
“We possess all these data from our ecosystem,” he said through an interpreter. “It’s rich and diverse.”
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Zhang made his remarks at the Alibaba Technology Forum, at which local engineers could get a deeper technical dive into some of the technologies Alibaba uses.
It’s the first time since 2014, and the first time since Alibaba opened an office in Seattle, that the e-commerce giant’s chief technology officer has visited the area.
Last fall, Alibaba moved its local office from Seattle to Bellevue, where some 40 engineers are working on projects that cross different platforms and geographies, according to a spokesperson.
The company has no current plans to expand — or reduce — its workforce here. And Zhang, in an interview before his speech, said he was not here to recruit but to let people know more about Alibaba’s businesses and technology needs.
Alibaba remains a giant in e-commerce, reporting $15.7 billion in revenue and $11 billion in profit last year. Unlike Amazon, which mostly sells directly to consumers and does some hosting of third-party merchants on its sites, Alibaba’s e-commerce platforms mainly act as middlemen between buyers and sellers.
Amazon, in comparison, brought in far more in net sales — $107 billion — but less in profit: $596 million.
Alibaba is invested in everything from health care to food delivery to entertainment. And it’s using its YunOS operating system in everything from smartphones to an Internet-enabled car to smart refrigerators and TVs.
Like Amazon, it’s also focused on providing cloud infrastructure to businesses with Aliyun — Alibaba Cloud.
Zhang said in the interview that the company is still concentrating its cloud efforts on Chinese businesses for the time being, saying the opportunity there is large. “We don’t have specific international plans yet,” he added.
Of its Seattle-based competitor, Amazon, which has been trying to make inroads into the Chinese market for years, Zhang said: “We’re not terribly clear on Amazon’s China plans.”
Overall, Zhang said, “We operate on a very different business model than Amazon, so we don’t compete directly.”
A top technology priority for Alibaba, Zhang said, is data processing and analytics.
Some of the company’s data-processing systems, he said, are used to monitor and screen for counterfeits. The company has gotten heat for having counterfeit goods on its platforms.
“Alibaba has over a billion products on its platforms at any given time. It’s hard for us to manually scan it all,” he said, saying data such as where irregular behaviors are happening is helpful in tracking counterfeit activities.
In his speech, Zhang talked of other technologies the company is paying attention to, including augmented reality and virtual reality (AR/VR), voice recognition and artificial intelligence. “Our strategy encompasses a wide range of fields. It’s way beyond traditional e-commerce,” Zhang said.
“What’s the real breakthrough? Is it a driverless car? Is it AR/VR?” he asked. “We’re still exploring and there’s no clear answer. In the end, it will depend on which company can leverage it to achieve scale.”