When Amazon said it would pay $1.7 billion to acquire iRobot, the maker of the Roomba vacuum and other home robots, I was dismayed. Sure, I’m leery of bringing more Amazon products into my home, given the company’s willingness to share private data with law enforcement, but for me the biggest disappointment is that if the deal goes through, iRobot’s planned smart home OS, RobotOS, would be controlled by Amazon.
Earlier this year, iRobot’s Colin Angle did an excellent interview with The Verge where he described what iRobot was trying to build with RobotOS. The plan was that the OS would run on Roombas, but also on other devices, sharing the status of devices and people in the home and allowing them to work together. As Angle told The Verge:
Angle says the new OS will allow iRobot to develop a more complete understanding of the home and leverage that to extend to other areas of the smart home. While today the OS will run on the robots, Angle says it will soon run on other devices, too. That includes air purifiers from Aeris, a company iRobot purchased last year. “There is a cloud-based home understanding; we call it the home knowledge cloud. Other iRobot OS devices could have access to it, and through this shared understanding of the home, know how they’re supposed to operate,” says Angle.
Angle envisioned an air purifier recognizing that people were in the kitchen and deciding to turn on in the living room, since its noise wouldn’t disturb anyone. It tied very much into my goal for the smart home not being comprised of hundred of smart devices, but rather the entire home functioning as a robot with each device functioning as an extension of that robot.
Amazon has alluded to this a lot recently, calling for ambient intelligence in the home. Back when the reviews for its roving security robot Astro were coming out I wrote:
… a home robot will likely look different than what we’re currently imagining. A home has so many functions and is a highly individual environment that a general purpose humanoid robot doesn’t make sense.
But if a robot is simply a machine designed to handle a task the same way every time, then telling Alexa to lock my door and having that command relayed to my smart lock is basically me instructing a robot. As are, essentially, the automations that check to make sure my lights are off, doors are locked, and cameras are turned on before I leave the house.
Alexa handles these tasks in many homes. And if Alexa can gather more context about the home thanks to a roving device with a camera along with the ability to suss out where people are and the state of the home at any given time, then Alexa can become the brains of a smart home robot.
And yes, the immediate result of this deal is that Amazon would be able to turn its planned Astro home robot immediately into something more useful, since the No. 1 complaint was that this device should at least be cleaning while it wandered the home annoying people. Also yes, this deal does give Amazon access to detailed maps of your home, which in turn could be used to gather even more data about you. And finally, it brings in a product portfolio that resulted in annual revenue of $1.56 billion last year, which isn’t much to Amazon, but adds to its overall smart home device portfolio that includes smart speakers, Ring and Eero.
But ultimately this deal is about Amazon’s next step in conquering and controlling the smart home. With the Matter specification release anticipated this fall, Amazon needs a new way to dominate the smart home. For the last few years its Alexa platform has led by being first and then by making it so easy to connect devices to the Alexa platform that most connected devices worked with Alexa. If you were into smart home gear, Alexa had excellent controls for your devices, and almost all devices on the market worked with Alexa.
In a world with a good smart home interoperability protocol, Amazon needs a new strategy to continue being the leader in smart home, and a smart home OS fits the bill. With Matter, basic device interoperability will be standardized, and building out truly intelligent services on top of those devices will become a differentiator. Hence RobotOS.
With Amazon owning that differentiator, it can choose if it wants to make it easy for competitor’s devices to provide deeper context such as location or energy usage to the RobotOS, and also reap even more data about what’s happening inside the home. The development of that platform will be hugely influenced by Amazon’s goals — and its goals are not necessarily the goals that consumers or other device makers might have.
And this is the real shame. With iRobot, a smaller yet, technically advanced device maker, bringing others to the table to map out a future for RobotOS, we’d get more perspectives and more innovation I think. Additionally, consumers would have a greater say in how the concept of a smart home robot might develop by choosing not to buy devices or services that they deem creepy or useless. But with Amazon at the reigns it will be harder for consumers to avoid RobotOS and hard for device makers that might want to participate to dictate more favorable terms.
We do have a current FTC chairman that recognizes the danger that seemingly unrelated acquisitions can have when it comes to disrupting markets, so it’s possible this deal doesn’t go through. It’s also possible that iRobot saw the threat of increased competition from low-cost devices made by Chinese manufacturers and realized that software and a vision weren’t enough to keep investors happy, and so needs this deal to close.
But as a consumer and IoT expert, I mourn what gets lost when we let Amazon dictate the terms of innovation for our smart homes.