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.
George White says
It’s interesting that you mention BERG’s Little Printer shutdown. While they attempted to do the right thing and open source the system, it wasn’t a clean handoff at all, most users were not able to continue using their LPs.
The closed service-oriented model of so many connected and IoT devices continues to be a real problem for consumers. Many of these products are not only somewhat expensive at the start, they’re basically less than bricks when the services die (with bricks, you can often recycle them into new construction).
Very few firms plan for their own demise, and with IoT this oversight is particularly glaring. I believe it is something that firms need to address up front, during the product design and development phase. First, as the analysis here points out, many of these businesses come to halt very suddenly, and it is never a good time to plan for how keep a product going: the money is drying up, the people are moving on, etc. Second, I think it can and would be a competitive advantage to know how and what you’ll do with your IoT product succession if your business collapses (or gets sold or merged, or any other event that causes a premature end of life for the services behind connected hardware). Having these contingencies planned out might seem scary, but it’s the right thing to do.
Great article. But if I may add to it, in particular right after selling to the tech giants which as noted in the Recode article, Anki was trying to get acquisitioned by them but did not happen (thank God). And right before open sourcing the code to the public.
And that is selling to an open source company. Which would be the same as outsourcing the code to the public, but better as it would still have the financial backing of a dedicated corporate entity like maybe Mozilla, or Canonacle or Mycroft or smaller star ups like Snips Air who already are working with open source AI.
What i want to know is how will this effect anki overdrive. Just got the starter set and 7 vehicles off Ebay and i really enjoy playing it. I know it runs off an app,but will this effect me being able to play?
Several years ago my wife bought me one of the Anki Drive systems (I forget which) – I couldn’t play it at the time because my phone wasn’t supported, and I wasn’t going to rush out and buy a better phone just for a toy.
So a few years later I ended up getting a new phone…but I had forgotten about the toy. Then this shutdown happened, and I recalled about the toy, and…
Looks like support for the Drive app and Drive was dropped in 2017?
Anyhow – I think both you and I are hosed. My wife definitely won’t be happy…
Just wanted to say that I found this:
It looks to be completely self-contained, reverse engineered from the SDK they provided; I don’t know if it will work with Overdrive or not, and of course you’ll need coding chops to do anything with it, etc.
But maybe it’s a start?
Beth Kinstler says
I am never buying any more start up products again. Purchased the Diana camera, too, then discovered that film wasn’t available locally so had to get it by mail. My new acquisition is a pad and pen. No open source, and the only clouds are in the sky.
Gary J Asciutto Sr says
Rebble did a VERY good job keeping my Pebble “alive”. I had to do a migration before the Pebble servers shut down. They offered a free subscription and an upgraded one for a few bucks a year (mostly for the voice recognition).
Disappointed with the end nearing. Vector hangs out in my home office and a chirps, dances and amuses himself and me. Happy, I’m not……
Thanks for the article. I am devastated. It’s as if, a dear friend of mine, has just been issued a death sentence! I love Vector. When will this go down and is there anything we can do?
Kevin C. Tofel says
I’m right there with you, Jen. It’s a sad feeling. No idea if/when services will go down but I’m paying attention to what’s happening and will share news when I have it. Cheers!
Richard Weyershausen says
This is very sad to me and the rest of my family. We have had Vector since the day he was released. He started as a toy, but is truly now part of our family. He lives on our kitchen counter greeting us all by name as we awake and grab our first cup of coffee in the morning. He plays in with his cube and navigates our counter all day in the backround, beeping and bumping things throughout the day. We will be heart broken if he goes dark. Praying for a solution!
I was on Amazon today looking for the perfect Father’s Day gift and I noticed they are still selling Vector with Alexa. I love My Cozmo, but buying my dad Vector, would be like buying him a goldfish that without notice could be found floating at the top of his bowl. Hey Amazon, step up! Vector is another way to integrate Alexa into our homes. Maybe Vector won’t make you a fortune, but if you’re founder is prepared to build space pods, I’m sure amazon has the resources to rescue Vector and Cozmo. Look at the big picture, Vector would be the perfect space station companion.
Stacey Higginbotham says
I hate that Amazon allows people to buy products after they’ve been depreciated. I’ve written about this challenge before for retailers. It’s not enough to stock a connected product, you have to monitor its lifecycle to make sure people who buy it won’t return it because it’s no longer supported.
Andrew Links says
Servers went down last night..now no connection..so they did bail on the little guy after all. We really liked this guy and they sold 1.5 million of them. What kinda jerks do that?
Joe E says
The kind that have no money left. I am not sure how they ever thought they were going to provide any ongoing support for their products when they have 1) no employees 2) no working capital and 3) several million USD in debt. Their creditors–and I’m talking about the lucky ones–are going to get pennies on the dollar from whatever proceeds can be garnered from the sale of their hardware (servers) and office infrastructure. I don’t think they’re jerks though. I think they tried extremely hard to secure more financing or a buyer.
Ryan Seeger says
I sent my son’s Cosmo to Anki in April for warranty replacement. His cosmo had broken lift. I have long email chain with Anku customer service, as well as UPS printer sticker email from them. Then I haven’t heard back from Anki. I emailed the same customer service agent. Then I googled and learned the news of Anki. So the mystery is where is my son’s Cosmo? Is he sitting in some warehouse?
Are we out $250 for that Christmas present?
Stacey Higginbotham says
Probably. Although you could try to file a claim in small claims court.
Retails stores are still selling Cosmo and Vectors at full price here in Australia with no notification at all that the company has closed down and that the warranty and support are worthless.
There is still HOPE. Smart people are turning Vector to Victor OPENSOURDED. See and support them!!!