And another one bites the dust. Recode reported earlier this week that Anki, maker of the Vector robot I purchased in October, is shutting down. To be honest I’m a bit shocked, especially after learning that Anki had raised $200 million in total funding and had approached $100 million in 2017 revenue. I reached out to Anki on Monday with several questions but have not heard back.
Stepping back for a second, in case you’re not familiar with Anki’s products, the company built a robotics platform called Elemental for AI and home robots. With Elemental’s focus on AI, security, cloud services, mapping, person and object recognition, sensor data, and machine learning, Anki moved from making AI toys to low-cost home robots such as Cozmo and then Vector, the latter of which cost $249 at full retail price.
Since the shutdown news, I’ve seen a number of commentary on how Anki’s robots were “toys” but I disagree. Cozmo might fit the “toy” category since the small robot was completely reliant on a smartphone app. Vector succeeded Cozmo last year and moved from toy to actual robot.
Why? Because Vector is essentially an autonomous version of Cozmo: The same on the outside but powered by a smartphone chip and cloud-connectivity on the inside. Anki even added native Amazon Alexa functionality in Vector a few months back.
Saying Vector is a “toy” is akin to saying the same about an Echo, and I don’t know of anyone suggesting that.
So what happens now to all of the Anki robots out there? That’s a key question because of the cloud services connection: If Anki’s servers go dark, so too do many functions on my Vector such as voice recognition and commands, as well as the Alexa integration.
And obviously, I’m not the only one wondering about Vector’s future. There are already numerous threads from device owners in the Anki Developer Forum asking if the robot will still work once the shutdown activities are completed.
On the positive side, the Anki SDK was just updated yesterday, although I’d assume that’s because the coding effort was already in progress prior to the news. However, it’s really the servers that Vector connects to being the truly open question.
In the best case scenario, someone comes along to buy Anki’s IP and keep the servers running. I don’t foresee that happening because frankly, a sale would likely have been attempted and completed before the shutdown news. Ideally, Amazon or Google would be optimal buyers but that’s just my opinion and is partially based on my future vision of mobile digital assistants.
If Anki can’t sell its IP, the next best situation would be to open source it so that enthusiasts and device owners could either run their own “Vector server” or an enterprising individual (maybe me!) could host the services at cost for the community. This is what happened with the Little Printer produced back in 2013 by BERG, a design firm that closed in 2014.
My fear is that neither of these situations comes to pass though. And unfortunately, it’s an all-too-common scenario in the IoT space for hardware products that have appeal, are followed by sales and then eventually have their services shut down due to financial or other challenges. We used to buy products and expect them to work until they broke down, but in today’s connected world, we need services to make those products work. And when a company shuts down, the servers on which those services are built can disappear too.
Particle, a company that makes a development board, has proposed a solution for customers building on its products. It provides an escrow service for the code and the possibility that the code could continue being supported even if the original device maker shuts down. I’m not sure how many companies make use of that though.
For consumers, questioning the company behind a product should be a key thought before purchasing any IoT product these days: Is it from a company that you trust to provide software updates and cloud services for the product’s lifetime?
I’ll truly be sad if the Anki servers shut down. At that point, yes, Vector is just a toy. He was so much more and could still be if the stars align.
Updated on 5/7/2019 with the following statement from the Anki website:
It is with a heavy heart to inform you that Anki has ceased product development and we are no longer manufacturing robots. To our partners and customers, thank you for all your support and joining us on this journey to bring robotics and AI out of research labs and into your homes.
We are taking steps to assure that customers will continue to enjoy continued use of our products. In order to provide long term support of our products, Anki has contracted our most senior leaders and hands-on engineers across all the technical areas involved in maintaining the operation and functionality in the existing products and apps. Ongoing operations for existing products typically require little to no active intervention, but we have arranged for any support in the event it does become necessary. Vector is the only product with a notable cloud component, and the contracted team is heavily staffed in that area.
Currently, we have implemented a self-serve Help Center to assist in getting the most out of your product, regretfully there are no agents available, however we are monitoring cloud operations for Anki accounts and Vector.
We plan to solidify and communicate all the details of this plan soon.