This morning, Amazon and iRobot announced “a definitive merger agreement under which Amazon will acquire iRobot” for US $1.7 billion. The announcement was a surprise, to put it mildly, and we’ve barely had a chance to digest the news. But taking a look at what’s already known can still yield initial (if incomplete) answers as to why Amazon and iRobot want to team up—and whether the merger seems like a good idea.
The press release, like most press releases about acquisitions of this nature, doesn’t include much in the way of detail. But here are some quotes:
«We know that saving time matters, and chores take precious time that can be better spent doing something that customers love,» said Dave Limp, SVP of Amazon Devices. «Over many years, the iRobot team has proven its ability to reinvent how people clean with products that are incredibly practical and inventive—from cleaning when and where customers want while avoiding common obstacles in the home, to automatically emptying the collection bin. Customers love iRobot products—and I’m excited to work with the iRobot team to invent in ways that make customers’ lives easier and more enjoyable.»
«Since we started iRobot, our team has been on a mission to create innovative, practical products that make customers’ lives easier, leading to inventions like the Roomba and iRobot OS,» said Colin Angle, chairman and CEO of iRobot. «Amazon shares our passion for building thoughtful innovations that empower people to do more at home, and I cannot think of a better place for our team to continue our mission. I’m hugely excited to be a part of Amazon and to see what we can build together for customers in the years ahead.»
There’s not much to go on here, and iRobot has already referred us to Amazon PR, which, to be honest, feels like a bit of a punch in the gut. I love (loved?) so many things about iRobot—their quirky early history working on weird DARPA projects and even weirder toys, everything they accomplished with the PackBot (and also this), and most of all, the fact that they’ve made a successful company building useful and affordable robots for the home, which is just… It’s so hard to do that I don’t even know where to start. And nobody knows what’s going to happen to iRobot going forward. I’m sure iRobot and Amazon have all kinds of plans and promises and whatnot, but still—I’m now nervous about iRobot’s future.
Why this is a good move for Amazon is clear, but what exactly is in it for iRobot?
It seems fairly obvious why Amazon wanted to get its hands on iRobot. Amazon has been working for years to integrate itself into homes, first with audio systems (Alexa), and then video (Ring), and more recently some questionable home robots of its own, like its indoor security drone and Astro. Amazon clearly needs some help in understanding how to make home robots useful, and iRobot can likely provide some guidance, with its extraordinarily qualified team of highly experienced engineers. And needless to say, iRobot is already well established in a huge number of homes, with brand recognition comparable to something like Velcro or Xerox, in the sense that people don’t have “robot vacuums,” they have Roombas.
All those Roombas in all of those homes are also collecting a crazy amount of data for iRobot. iRobot itself has been reasonably privacy-sensitive about this, but it would be naïve not to assume that Amazon sees a lot of potential for learning much, much more about what goes on in our living rooms. This is more concerning, because Amazon has its own ideas about data privacy, and it’s unclear what this will mean for increasingly camera-reliant Roombas going forward.
I get why this is a good move for Amazon, but I must admit that I’m still trying to figure out what exactly is in it for iRobot, besides of course that “$61 per share in an all-cash transaction valued at approximately $1.7 billion.” Which, to be fair, seems like a heck of a lot of money. Usually when these kinds of mergers happen (and I’m thinking back to Google acquiring all those robotics companies in 2013), the hypothetical appeal for the robotics company is that suddenly they have a bunch more resources to spend on exciting new projects along with a big support structure to help them succeed.
It’s true that iRobot has apparently had some trouble with finding ways to innovate and grow, with their biggest potential new consumer product (the Terra lawn mower) having been on pause since 2020. It could be that big pile of cash, plus not having to worry so much about growth as a publicly traded company, plus some new Amazon-ish projects to work on could be reason enough for this acquisition.
My worry, though, is that iRobot is just going to get completely swallowed into Amazon and effectively cease to exist in a meaningful and unique way. I hope that the relationship between Amazon and iRobot will be an exception to this historical trend. Plus, there is some precedent for this—Boston Dynamics, for example, has survived multiple acquisitions while keeping its technology and philosophy more or less independent and intact. It’ll be on iRobot to very aggressively act to preserve itself, and keeping Colin Angle as CEO is a good start.
We’ll be trying to track down more folks to talk to about this over the coming weeks for a more nuanced and in-depth perspective. In the meantime, make sure to give your Roomba a hug—it’s been quite a day for little round robot vacuums.
Source: IEEE Spectrum Robotics