The tech world is about to lose another independent hardware company with that of Amazon planned acquisition of iRobotwhose Roombas pioneered robotic vacuum cleaners two decades ago.
The deal is valued at $1.7 billion, and co-founder Colin Angle will retain his role as iRobot CEO at Amazon. Neither company has said much about the acquisition other than to judge a shared desire to make people’s lives easier.
There is already a lot of worry about it what Amazon could do with iRobot’s data. After all, some Roomba vacuums can create detailed maps of your home, and Angle suggested back in 2017 that the company could. share that information with tech giants. (he quickly) ran the idea back.)
But the real downer of this acquisition isn’t just about data – of which the tech giants already have enough – but about losing yet another independent company with interesting smarthome ambitions of its own. While iRobot once had a plan to be the brains of your home, its new mission will likely be to sell more Ring home security plans.
More ambitious plans
iRobot is no longer alone in the robotic vacuum cleaner industry. While it’s still the most popular brand, it faces stiff competition from brands like Neato, Eufy, and Ecovacs, who have added their own room assignment, self-empty, ledge detection, and mopping features. Hardware alone is no longer a major differentiator.
That could explain why Angle has been speaking out about iRobot’s software and services in recent years. In 2020, iRobot announced a software update called “Genius”, heralding the upgrade as a “brain swap” that would make Roombas smarter and more coordinated. With Genius, users could define specific areas for spot cleaning, or set up routines for cleaning just a handful of typically messy areas.
Last year, Angle took it a step further, claiming that iRobot’s vacuum cleaners would eventually be able to communicate with other devices in the home. In an interview with londonbusinessblog.com in September, he talked about having Roombas act as roaming security cameras, adjusting the lighting in the room based on where people are, and controlling air purifiers based on environmental conditions.
“The scope of Genius is much wider than just making your Roomba work better,” Angle told me last year.
Angle also insisted that Amazon, Apple, and Google are ruining the smart home by trying to integrate with just about any existing product, no matter how well those integrations worked. (They often don’t work well at all.) Alternatively, Angle envisioned a more curated approach in which iRobot would work better with a smaller number of connected devices.
“Unlike the Googles, Amazons and SmartThings of the world, I believe in a walled garden,” he said. “I believe the experience trumps universality.”
It seems unlikely that those ideas will become reality after the takeover. While Amazon is clearly interested in home robots — as seen with the ambitious but deeply flawed Astro — its main angle is security, and the company as a whole has focused on surveillance as the centerpiece of its smart-home efforts. You can imagine iRobot rolling back its plans to be the brain of your smart home, instead serving as just another set of eyes for Ring home security clients and whatever civil rights baggage they’re carrying.
Returning familiar territory
Admittedly, this is all just speculation. But it’s informed by what happened the last time Amazon acquired an ambitious upstart in the smart-home space.
I’m talking, of course, about Eero, a maker of Wi-Fi routers that had its own grand plans to become the brain of your home. Before the acquisition, CEO Nick Weaver spoke repeatedly about the computing power Eero had built into its mesh Wi-Fi systems, hinting at how they could support a future smart home operating system.
Those plans never came true. As Rachel Kraus reported for Mashable in 2019, Eero abandoned plans for a home security system fearing to compete with Google and other tech giants, and was acquired by Amazon for a disappointing $97 million.
As part of Amazon, Eero continues to develop Wi-Fi routers, but its broader smart-home plans exist mainly to power the Ring home security device. The Call Alarm Prolaunched last year essentially merges an Eero router and Ring home security base station into one product.
Granted, Eero’s core routers haven’t suffered from Amazon, and neither have iRobot’s vacuum cleaners and mops. And when combined, they can form the kind of ambitious smart-home ecosystem that each of the two companies only envisioned.
Amazon also seems concerned about suppressing data collection and issued the following statement after publishing: “Protecting customer data has always been incredibly important to Amazon, and we think we’ve been very good stewards of people’s data across all of our Customer trust is something we’ve been working hard to build — and hard to maintain — every day.”
Still, it’s sad to see another attempt at an independent platform transformed into that of a tech giant, one whose main selling point is to protect you from danger – real or perceived – rather than adding mere convenience to your life. .