LAS VEGAS -- With "Create," a new programmable robot aimed at hobbyists and developers, iRobot ( IRBT) is trying hard to create an ecosystem around the company's products. The robotics maker known for its cleaning systems, Roomba and Scooba, could well do to build loyalists, especially because competition is on the rise. Two companies here at the Consumer Electronics Show unveiled their own versions of robotic cleaners that squarely compete with iRobot's products. South Korean company Microrobot said it plans to introduce a cleaning robot targeted at the consumer sometime around October, while Australian company Floorbotics hopes to have a product in the market next year. iRobot's popular Roomba vacuuming system has barely 1% of market share, but it's a fast-growing product with few rivals so far. That, however, is unlikely to last. The soon-to-be-introduced systems are not yet a threat for iRobot, but the company needs to build a flock while it is ahead. And that's where Create could help. Priced at $129, Create consists of the Roomba shell and a command system that could be used by developers to build robots with additional functionality -- such as a vaccuming system custom-programmed to remember the layout of a house, or one that can even fetch a beverage from the refrigerator after its cleaning is done. The Create platform can be used with a variety of programming languages and systems. "We want to put iRobot at the center of the ecosystem," says Helen Greiner, chairman and co-founder of iRobot iRobot needs to build that fan base of developers especially now that rivals are circling in. Microrobot's round-shaped Ubot is a single device that sweeps, vacuums and mops and is already in the market. Unlike the Roomba and Scooba, which clean only by randomly moving across the room, the Ubot can work in two settings: a random cleaning mode and a navigational mapping mode that allows it to create a map of the room and follow it. The downside? The Ubot, priced at $1,000, is much more expensive than the Roomba, which starts at around $149; Scooba starts at $399. Also, the Ubot is much thicker than the Roomba and Scooba -- something that could prevent it from cleaning well under sofas and tables, says Greiner.
"The robot form factor makes a huge difference," says Greiner. "We are all about being practical and designing a product that works best for all our users." Microrobot has been selling its product in South Korea since the company's inception in 2005. The Ubot, though, works only on hardwood floors and uses a sensor to read ultraviolet symbols imprinted on the flooring, says Michael Wheeler, director for Microrobot in North America. In Korea, Microrobot works with a manufacturer that embeds the symbols onto hardwood floors, and many new condo units in the company come with these floors. Since the Ubot works only on hardwood floors, Microrobot plans to have a smaller version that will work on both carpets and hardwood floors. That product will be priced in the same range as the Roomba and Scooba, says Wheeler, and will be available in October. Microrobot isn't yet sure how it will sell in North America, but the company hopes to build on its existing relationships with retailers such as Target ( TGT) for its products. At CES, another private company is making a play for Roomba's market. Floorbotics plans to introduce a Roomba-esque vacuum cleaner in the market next year.
The company's Cleanmate and Infinuvo robotic vacuums use a floor-mapping system to build a map of the cleaning surface as they work. The advantage is that the robot navigates intelligently, instead of the random movements that the Roomba and Scooba count on to do their job, and for users that means a quicker job. Floorbotics hasn't revealed the pricing yet for its product. For iRobot, these challenges have yet to pose a big threat. The Roomba and Scooba are sleeker than rivals' products and are competitively priced. Instead, iRobot's strategy of focusing on growing a base of developers and loyalists that could evangelize and innovate using its platform could pay off in a big way. Just ask Microsoft ( MSFT), which used a similar approach of creating strong developer interest around its Windows operating system to emerge as the dominant platform in the market. iRobot hopes the idea will work for it, too. The company says it will consider working with individuals who build new ideas on top of its platform. "We have created a robotics development environment that fulfills a need in the industry for a standard hardware platform on which to develop new mobile robots," says Greiner. Shares of iRobot closed the regular session up 3.6%, or 64 cents, to $18.20.