Alibaba adds cars, 'smart living' to its repertoire

The company is offering everything from car marketing services to using a crowdfunding platform through its eBay-like retail site Taobao to allow business owners to raise capital from the site's users.

Don Reisinger
CNET contributor Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.
Don Reisinger
3 min read

The Nest Learning Thermostat is among the devices that make up a "smart living" environment. Nest

China's e-commerce giant Alibaba has added two new divisions to its business that promise much more than shopping options.

First up is a new automotive division. The business unit, announced on Friday by the company, combines many of Alibaba's other properties in one, according to Reuters. Car dealers will be able to use Alibaba's services to input all of their vehicles into a database and promote their available cars to users. Customers, meanwhile, can buy cars and get loans via Alibaba's Tmall e-commerce site.

In addition to cars, Alibaba said on Friday that it has also launched a "smart living" business unit, allowing companies that bundle Internet capabilities into home products, like electrical appliances, to sell them through a special category on its Tmall site. Alibaba is also using a crowdfunding platform through its eBay-like retail site Taobao to allow business owners to raise capital from the site's users.

Alibaba is one of the world's largest technology companies and the dominant force in China's online space. The company's growth is riding on China's status as an online shopping leader, with the number of online shoppers in China exceeding 300 million, according to online statistics portal Statista.

Alibaba provides a range of sites and services to customers, including its Tmall e-commerce site for companies to list their own products in a digital storefront, as well as its Alipay offering that provides digital payment transactions, similar to PayPal.

A central component in Alibaba's business is providing an easy platform on which retailers can offer their wares and customers buy them. But Alibaba also wants to play a part in what is an important, growing market opportunity in the technology space: the so-called "Internet of Things."

The idea behind the Internet of Things is simple: add Web connectivity to everyday products that have historically been offline. By doing so, those products, like refrigerators, washing machines, and others, can talk to owners, provide key information, and make the whole home "smarter."

Nest, a company Google gobbled up last year for $3.2 billion, is a prime example of the promise of the Internet of Things. That company sells a smart thermostat that connects to the Web and "learns" a user's actions to maximize energy efficiency. The thermostat can also tell users when to replace a filter and is fully controlled through a Web connection and mobile app.

But Alibaba's push into cars and "smart living" is about more than just shopping. The company's auto loans program is an attempt to generate cash in a new way on cars bought and sold through its services. By using crowdfunding -- a fundraising technique by which companies raise money through small contributions from customers -- Alibaba is getting products early to the Internet of Things onto its site, while still generating revenue off the sale of those devices.

Expansion beyond simple e-commerce is not only the name of the game for Alibaba, it's part of Amazon's play, as well. Amazon announced last month a home services offering that will allow users to hire professionals to perform tasks around the house, including handling a plumbing issue or mounting a television. Like Alibaba, Amazon receives a portion of each transaction.

Alibaba's automotive and smart living services will be available in China. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.