October 10, 2014, 3:59 PM

Alibaba invests $50 million in a smart TV app

Peel can turn a smartphone or tablet into a TV remote control, and collect valuable data on consumer behavior.

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When Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. went public last month, raising $25 billion in a record IPO, much of the commentary was about whether the Chinese e-commerce giant would challenge e-retailers like Amazon.com Inc. But Alibaba’s investment strategy suggests a vision that goes beyond retail to encompass all kinds of activities that appeal to large numbers of consumers, particularly in entertainment.

In another example of that strategy, Silicon Valley startup Peel Technologies has confirmed that it has received a $50 million investment from Alibaba, which had previously put money into the firm.

"Alibaba was an early strategic investor in our vision for this company,” says Peel CEO and co-founder Thiru Arunachalam.  “We will use the funds to continue its expansion into pioneering products and services."

Based in Mountain View, CA, Peel introduced in 2012 its app, which was initially designed to eliminate the need for several remotes to control TVs, DVRs and cable TV boxes. Peel’s app can be downloaded to smartphones and tablets, turning those devices into universal remotes. 

A new feature of the Peel app called True Tune-in Ads lets TV networks advertise their shows, through the app. Tapping on an ad changes the channel to the advertised show.

“True Tune-in Ads are banners notifications to our app users with the call to action "Watch now,"  Peel’s head of marketing, James Ryan, tells Internet Retailer. “If the show is on at that moment in their time zone, it will change the channel via the app's remote functionality to the promoted show.  If it is on at a later time, it will prompt the user to set a calendar reminder or program their DVR.” Ryan says the app can track how consumers respond to those ads.

That kind of consumer data, while not directly related to shopping, is part of what makes Peel interesting to Alibaba, Arunachalam told CNBC in an interview last month.

“Entertainment is a massive focus for Alibaba,” Arunachalam said. He noted that Alibaba in July had sealed a deal with movie and TV studio Lions Gate Entertainment Inc. to stream content to a TV set-top box Alibaba has developed for the China market. “We being in mobile and having connections to the consumer experience is extremely strategic for them. Also we have collected a lot of data on consumer behavior, which anonymously can be used to power their e-commerce business.”

Peel says more than 90 million consumers in 200 countries uses its app, generating 5 billion smart remote actions a month.

Alibaba has also invested recently in online video site Youku Tudou Inc. and ChinaVision Media Group Ltd., a Chinese firm that produces movies and TV shows.

Alibaba dominates e-commerce generally in China, accounting for 81% of online retail sales in China in 2013. Alibaba declined to comment on its investment in Peel due to a mandated quiet period following its IPO.

Readers who prefer to read in Mandarin can find Chinese e-commerce news (http: //www. dianshang500.com) on dianshang500.com.

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