January 30, 2010      

iRobot’s Roomba dominates the robotic vacuum cleaner market, yet it has captured just a tiny fraction of the overall vacuum market–about 1 percent according to company executives. What makes this seeming contradiction possible? The short answer is that iRobot leads a very small submarket. Its domination is the result of solid robotic technology supported by equally solid marketing. Branding success for iRobot has reached the point where Roomba fans have posted more than 4,000 videos of their vacuums on YouTube. Google reports an 8-to-1 advantage in keyword searches for “Roomba” over “robot vacuum,” the next nearest total. In fact, “Roomba” beats out “vacuum” on the Google Keyword Tool search statistic report by 11-to-1. Roomba wins on the Web and in major retail outlets.

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Not First, But Most
The first robot vacuum, the prehistoric Trilobite from Electrolux, appeared on the BBC program “Tomorrow’s World” in 1996. It became available for public sale in 2001, a year earlier than the Roomba. The Trilobite was reportedly discontinued, but Electrolux announced a Trilobite 2.0 in 2005. Unfortunately, Electrolux did not address the Trilobite’s largest shortcoming vis-à-vis the Roomba–its high price. As a result, the Trilobite has been a market nonstarter.

Enter the Roomba, providing solid performance at street prices starting at around $125 online and available at major retailers such as Best Buy, Target, and Sears. Models sold directly by iRobot range from $129 to $549. The Electrolux Trilobite, by contrast, has a street price in excess of $1,600.

iRobot has sold more than 3 million Roombas over the life of the product line. iRobot’s 2008 end-of-year financial statement reported that 55 to 60 percent of iRobot’s total revenue came from the Home Robot division, of which Roomba sales are the primary contributor. The balance of its $307.6 million in 2008 revenue came from the company’s military side, best known for producing the PackBot family of small unmanned ground vehicles (SUGVs).

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Protected IP Protects Some Markets
In 2008, roughly half the Roomba sales were made overseas, which translates to approximately $80 million in international revenue. This total speaks to the strength of the Roomba brand, since scores of less expensive Chinese Roomba clones are available outside of North America. These low-end, mostly low-quality knockoffs may gain some market share outside of the United States in areas where intellectual property (IP) rights are less well protected, but have no real chance of success in markets where IP is protected. Colin Angle, iRobot’s CEO, recently told market analysts that the company holds 50 patents that remain active until 2019, about half of which are for the Roomba. Angle estimated that a potential competitor would need to spend at least five years and $50 million to develop a salable robotic vacuum to go head-to-head with the Roomba.

Serious Competitors, Little Headway
The most recent of iRobot’s competitors, as well as the highest profile, is Korea’s Samsung. In 2007, Samsung released the Furot robotic vacuum, which it followed up in March 2008 with the Hauzen model. In September 2009, Samsung released the Furot II, which many people found very similar to the Hauzen VC-RE70V and VC-RE72V models. The features lists for the Samsung devices are longer than those for the Roomba, product quality is very high, and the price, at around $400 (USD), is in the Roomba ballpark. To date, Samsung has not marketed the Furot or Hauzen models in the United States.

Since most reviews of the Samsung robotic vacuums rate them as more sophisticated than the Roomba, Angle’s comments that competitors lag far behind iRobot might appear more emotional than factual. The idea that Samsung would create a patent-infringing unit seems farfetched, and iRobot has taken no action to defend any allegedly breached patents by Samsung to this date. Still, to Angle’s point, the Samsung units have made virtually no market share headway against the Roomba.

Dyson, the maker of the Dyson Ball upright, also produced a robotic vacuum cleaner. The DC06 had more than 70 sensory devices, three on-board computers, and microprocessor-driven electrical motors. Equipped with the highly power-efficient Dyson Digital Motor, the DC06 could outperform competitors’ robotic cleaners and approximate the pickup levels of mains-powered vacuum cleaners.

Dyson, like Samsung, has deep pockets and plays fair by international IP laws. However, the DC06, which was the result of more than a decade of R&D, never made it past home trials. Dyson representatives have indicated that the product worked well, but the advanced functionality pushed the price above acceptable levels. The company has pulled the DC06 from the market to undergo further development.

“Good Enough” Functionality
While the Roomba can boast of a relatively low price, many higher-priced competitive systems include functionality lacking in the iRobot offerings. One area of technical superiority for both the Electrolux and the Dyson DC06 over the Roomba is advanced navigation. Roomba continues to use the “bump-and-turn” method of navigation, while more advanced systems have integrated cameras and room-mapping software into their units.

Of course, bump-and-turn is less expensive than the more advanced vision-/map-based systems. Still, iRobot executives remain proud of the Roomba’s navigational algorithms, including new abilities to stop when it senses a drop-off such as stairs. iRobot claims complete floor coverage by systems smart enough to avoid “spider trap” dead ends, where an entrance to an area is far smaller than the area itself, often trapping autonomous robots. Some models include scheduling functionality. The latest models are better able to avoid choking on electrical cords and other large debris left in their path.

Japanese Systems Lacking
Japanese manufacturers remain oddly indifferent to the robotic vacuum cleaner market. Panasonic’s Fukitorimushi, which was announced in spring 2009, looks at first glance to be an elaborate practical joke. The robot, which often has the words “creepy” and “weird” associated with it in articles, does not vacuum but instead wipes. Also, the robot does not roll, but inches along like a worm. In videos, the device appears like a pillow, scooting slowly around the floor while rubbing a special nanocloth attached to the underside of the unit (provided by Teijin Ltd.) to wipe up dirt on hard floor surfaces.

Hitachi, too, announced a small, one-foot-diameter robot vacuum. The Home Cleaning Robot never got past the demonstration stage, although it generated considerable attention by media outlets when it debuted in 2003.

Dominance Will Continue
iRobot’s Angle has publicly stated, without referring to Samsung and other possible (and credible) competitors in the market such as Dyson, Electrolux, and LG Electronics, that he expects Roomba to retain its market leadership position in global robotic vacuum sales. He is correct.

Competitive products have sold only a fraction of the number of Roomba units sold, and many product lines have been discontinued due to poor sales. Inexperience or lack of distribution channels could be one explanation, but companies like LG, Electrolux, Samsung, Dyson, and Karcher have vastly more experience and contacts than iRobot. Also, the vacuums from Korean and European producers boast of features not found in the Roomba (they are technically superior); however, they are much more expensive than the Roomba. And while robotic vacuums manufactured in China are much less expensive, they are of inferior quality.

iRobot’s success is not due to a single factor. With a combination of the correct price- performance level, solid brand marketing, and a strong patent arsenal, iRobot will retain its leadership role in the robotic vacuum cleaner market. If a consumer wants a robot vacuum, there’s one name that comes to mind. That situation, along with iRobot’s market share leadership, will not be changing for the foreseeable future.

The Bottom Line
The phrase “robotic vacuum” conjures one image–iRobot’s Roomba. Although it is neither the first nor the fanciest, the Roomba dominates the robotic vacuum cleaner market domestically and internationally. A combination of low price, “good enough” performance, protected IP, and widespread brand awareness ensures that iRobot’s Roomba line of robotic vacuums will continue to lead this market. Roomba’s true competition is not other robotic vacuum cleaners, but cleaning services, traditional vacuums, a decline in holiday impulse purchases in a weak international economy, and a fading novelty factor.