The death of the Amazon deal could mean goodbye iRobot

Amazon backing out of its deal to buy iRobot due to regulatory issues may feel like a win for privacy advocates, but it could be a death knell for the Roomba robot vacuum as we know it.

On the face of it, the objection from the European Commission that the deal was anti-competitive is cruelly ironic for iRobot, a foundering market leader struggling against a giant wave of competition. It was relying on Amazon to bring it an injection of cash along with the resources it needed to stay afloat in today’s insanely competitive robot vacuum market. But the deal is dead, and iRobot’s competition is still very much there. 

iRobot’s dominant market share has been steadily eroding since 2014. According to data from Statista, it dropped from 64 percent in 2016 to 46 percent in 2020. As someone who has been reviewing robot vacuums for over five years, it’s easy to see why.

In the last decade, Chinese companies like Ecovacs (Deebot / Yeedi), Anker (Eufy), Roborock (backed by Xiaomi), and Dreame Technology have burst onto the global market with cheaper, flashier options.

There are a lot of robot vacuums available today, and I’ve tested most of them.
Photo by Jennifer Pattison Tuohy / The Verge

Samsung and US-based SharkNinja are also taking bites out of the pie, and that’s not to mention the dozens of no-name brands with bots available on Amazon for under $200 — a fraction of the price of flagships from Roborock ($1,600) and Roomba ($1,400). 

The market was tough enough to take down one US-based robovac company last year, Neato Robotics. Now, iRobot is the one with problems. Reporting a net loss for 2022, it potentially needed a deal like Amazon’s to survive.

If anyone was going to bring us a Rosey the Robot, it was iRobot

A sale could have helped iRobot “better compete in the global marketplace, particularly against companies, and from countries, that aren’t subject to the same regulatory requirements in fast-moving technology segments like robotics,” said Amazon SVP David Zapolsky when Amazon announced it was abandoning the deal. 

Now iRobot has lost its CEO and founder Colin Angle, is laying off staff, and facing an existential crisis, which is a huge shame because it’s still our best bet for truly smart and innovative robovacs. Led by Angle, iRobot has been a major innovator in home robotics over the last three decades. The sum total of its advancements exceeds those of competitors like Roborock and Ecovacs. If anyone was going to bring us a Rosey the Robot, it was iRobot. 

The Samsung Jet Bot AI and the Roomba j7 were two of the first robot vacuums to be able to (mostly) avoid smearing dog crap over your house.
Photo by Jennifer Pattison Tuohy / The Verge

iRobot invented the first successful robot vacuum over 20 years ago, but if your last experience with a Roomba was pre-2013, things have changed. Today, all these floor cleaning droids are much, much better — in large part due to iRobot’s innovations that have been adopted by the rest of the market. 

It was the first to implement a viable auto-empty dock that sucks the dirt out of the robot’s bin for you. (Others tried, but versions of iRobot’s method are now standard). It was one of the first to bring effective room mapping to move bots on from their bump-and-roll randomness, and it has led the way in developing reliable AI algorithms for avoiding household objects like socks, phone cables, and pet waste. And, based on my extensive experience testing these bots, it’s still the best at cleaning your floors. Its unique dual rubber roller brush system, which some have copied but none have surpassed, gets the job done.

What also sets iRobot apart is its approach to software. On top of a robust and easy-to-use app, the company has built a robot OS with the goal of elevating floor-cleaning robots from basic remote control vacuuming to something smarter. “The barrier to the next level of AI in robotics isn’t better AI. It’s context,” Angle told me in 2022, just prior to announcing the Amazon deal. iRobot was working on using its robots to better understand how we live in our homes to both improve how they clean and potentially expand further into the smart home. This, as I’ve said before, is a big part of why Amazon wanted the company.

Potentially, it was these efforts at making the robot floor cleaner smarter, plowing money into R&D around intelligence rather than churning out more mass-market products like its competitors, that put iRobot in its current precarious position. 

Roborock offers a huge lineup of good robot vacuums at every price point.
Photo by Jennifer Pattison Tuohy / The Verge

Its competitors are racing ahead, regularly launching new models at multiple price points with new, sometimes bizarre-seeming features (a vacuum with an arm, a robot that can cut hair, and another with mops that can do the splits).

While iRobot has not been resting on its laurels, its decision not to pivot to lidar from vSLAM (visual simultaneous localization and mapping) when the technology became more affordable was a questionable one. As was its slow adoption of the popular combination mopping and vacuuming model. The company stuck for too long to its ethos that the tasks were better separate (it has a line of mopping-only robots) before only halfheartedly addressing the problem with the Combo j7 in 2022 and, more recently, launching more lower-cost bots. 

In the meantime, Roborock, Ecovacs, and Dreame Technology have been furiously innovating on the all-in-one solution: a robot vacuum that can mop, vacuum, empty its bin, refill its mop, drain its dirty water, clean and blow dry its mop pads, and even hook into your plumbing so you barely need to lift a finger. A year later, iRobot responded with the Combo j9 Plus, which has an auto-fill dock for the mop but lacks many of the features its competitors tout. 

The pandemic bump the company experienced when we were all frantically cleaning our homes turned into a catastrophic tumble

While these multifunction robovacs may be more of a fad than a trend (time will tell, but few do both well and those docks are more work than they appear), its tardiness here puts iRobot on the back foot. Now, hurting for cash and with its founder Angle out, the money men are coming in.

The pandemic bump the company experienced when we were all frantically cleaning our homes turned into a catastrophic tumble as revenue dropped. The 2022 net loss has been compounded, and iRobot is estimating an operating loss of up to $285 million in 2023. Last year, it had to borrow $200 million until the Amazon deal closed, and with just a $94 million apology from Amazon for walking away from the deal, it’s got to find the rest of that money elsewhere or risk being sold off for parts.

The Ecovacs Deebot X2 Omni is one of a new breed of very expensive robot vacuums that promise to do almost everything for you.
Photo by Jennifer Pattison Tuohy / The Verge

The plan includes cutting a third of its staff, shutting down offices, and reducing research and development by $20 million year over year through offshoring non-core engineering functions. It’s also abandoning its line of air purifiers (it purchased Aeris in 2021) and its Terra robot lawnmower (which never launched in the US), which will once again put the competition ahead of it. Ecovacs and Dreame are both shipping robot lawnmowers to the US for the first time this year, and Ecovacs has a robot air purifier it says is coming to the US soon.

Without substantive R&D, innovative new products, and building on its (comparatively) excellent software, Roomba could quickly become an also-ran as Chinese companies move in and hoover up more market share. These companies make good robot vacuums and are innovating rapidly, but they come with their own issues, including a lack of user repairability (which iRobot excels at) and some privacy concerns. 

Angle said this week that he believes “iRobot has an exciting future ahead of it.” With basic robot vacuums fast becoming a commodity product, the next big thing in home robotics is a leap I’m genuinely excited about. While iRobot was high on my list of companies to deliver that, I wish I could be as optimistic about its future.

By 111 Tech

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