All Your Robots Are Belong To Us: You Just Rent Them

Monthly bills. Everyone has them. Except if you go far enough back, not everyone had them. After all, you might live in a home your family has owned for generations. You might be able to produce all the basic necessities using your homestead: food from a garden, water from a well, textiles, soap, and candles. You might have to buy the occasional animal, but your recurring bills could be modest outside of the ever-present tax burden.

But as people moved to cities, they had to pay rent. Buy gas or coal and, eventually, electricity. Water and trash collection are pretty essential, too. But at some point, everyone realized that being in a position to bill you monthly is a good idea. Now we pay for the internet, movie subscriptions, meal plans, alarm monitoring, shopping clubs, cell phones, spa memberships. Soon we might be paying a monthly fee for our robots, too.

Rent To (Not) Own

In industry, this is a common occurrence. You often don’t buy a robot arm or similar device. That, after all, is a capital expense, and most tax codes require you to count it as an asset that slowly depreciates. Instead, you hire a robot from a service provider. Not only does that make it a pure expense, but the provider worries about software, repairs, and all that.

But at home, it is different. There’s no tax advantage in most places between owning a car and leasing it. Yet vendors want to adopt a rent-a-robot strategy. Case in point: a startup named Matician wants you to sign up for a robotic vacuum. For $125 a month, you get a super smart robot vacuum. You could, of course, buy a Roomba, but — according to Matician — the Matic robot uses computer vision to map your house and automatically finds messes. You can also voice command it to clean up areas. It also avoids wire and furniture. They didn’t mention if it can avoid presents left by your pets or not. It will avoid pets and kids, though.

On the face of it, we predict a bad future for Matician. Even if their tech is better than the brand-name robot vacuums, it can’t be that hard to build a similar or better robot that you can buy and own. Unless, of course, all the other vendors realize that the monthly fee bandwagon is the place to be. Then all bets are off.

But you can’t help but wonder if it isn’t going to be just robot vacuums. How long before you pay a monthly fee for your hot water heater? Pay per flush in the bathroom? Already we’ve seen cars that can perform better for a fee and motorcycle protection that shuts off if you fail to make your required payment.

Smart Consumers

DIVX: Buy the disc, rent the movie.

Consumers have too wary to fall for this, but it seems like that may be changing. For example, consider the recent historical example of DIVX, the Digital Video Express format from Circuit City (and not the DivX codec). DIVX players had a feature where you could rent a DVD and never return it. Later, if you wanted to watch it again, the DIVX player could charge you a fee to watch it, or if you fed enough virtual coins into the virtual slot, you could own the disk forever.

Renting might actually make sense for something you don’t use very often. Most people can’t justify buying a cement mixer, but you can rent one for a weekend every few years. But a floor vacuum? Your car? Your word processing software?

Just like DIVX, though, there is only one way to combat this: with your wallet. Companies will do what they can make money doing, and honestly, you can’t blame them for that. Don’t get me wrong, paying for an actual service is great. If someone comes to your home and cleans for you, they should be getting paid. Maybe they even have a robot helper. If someone monitors your home alarm or stores your files remotely, they have expenses that must be paid, and they are entitled to a fair profit. But it is hard to swallow that someone expects you to pay for something that you already own that requires no further action from them.

The Cost

It is one of those things that is hard to articulate but easy to identify. In cases where something is expensive, and you rent to own, that makes sense. Renting might also make sense for something that requires frequent, costly maintenance, or that you use infrequently. Computers and copy machines used to fit that description, and companies rarely bought them but rented them — and also enjoyed having an expense instead of a capital asset. Of course, once those things got cheap… look at fax machines; same story.

There are other hidden costs of renting. For example, today, you can decide that version 2.0 of a program meets your needs and refuse to upgrade. But if you subscribe to that same program, the vendor may discontinue your subscription or price it higher to force you to change because, of course, it “costs more” to offer support for the older software.

Another example is a slowdown in innovation. If you build a circuit simulation program and offer it for sale, you improve it for at least three reasons. First, you want to entice people away from buying competitors. Second, you want to attract new customers. But you must also convince people who already paid you for the software to invest in an upgrade. That last reason goes away if the user pays you every month, rain or shine.

In the end, the free market will decide. If you continue to pay for services, they will happily oblige you. However, it seems like a market opportunity to create new devices and programs that replace pay-as-you-go with something of equal capability that you can buy outright. Smart people ought to flock to a product like that.

34 thoughts on “All Your Robots Are Belong To Us: You Just Rent Them

  1. That’d have to be one more hell of a vacuum cleaner for $1500 per year, every year.

    For that price, it better come with free electricity, free replacement, and free 24/7 emergency service. It better be able to clean the house (including the little “presents” that house pets leave) from top to bottom (upstairs, downstairs, stairways no problem) a let the cat out of the house when it meows at 4 in the morning.

    1. It’s not for me, but looking at the Matician website under “Why is this a membership”, you get free hardware upgrades when a new vacuum comes out, and free consumables such as bags and rollers. If you return the vacuum, they refund your unused months. Their FAQ also says all video and audio is processed on the vacuum, “it never leaves your home”. Honestly besides the price, what’s not to like?

      1. Let’s be sure to differentiate between “free” and “included”. $1500/yr is a lot of money. That’s two brand new top-of-the-line roombas every year.

        From a total cost of ownership perspective, owning two base model roombas myself, the consumables aren’t expensive, and when I neglected some maintenance and had to replace a part, it was a $60 part, and 11 CAPTIVE screws to replace. (protip: if you fail to clear the hair buildup from the brushes for months on end, it’ll end up punching through the cleaning head module)

      2. “free hardware upgrades when a new vacuum comes out”

        Oh god, are we really in the era where people ‘keep up with the Joneses’ with robot vacuum cleaners?

  2. You know what is really sad? That people will go for this and pay $1500/yr for a vacuum cleaner. It is already sad that companies have become so greedy(?), but it is even more sad that quite a few people are feeding their money to those companies. :-(

    1. High end products aren’t for everyone, think of a Lamborghini. There’s plenty of people who have disposable income whose robot vacuum just stopped working. Due to modern consumerism, they’ll just throw the old one in the trash, and pick up a brand new model with all the bells and whistles (and free shipping). After clicking “buy now” they get that dopamine hit and go about their day. Maybe the next version of the vacuum can be more affordable and they can sell more of them.

      1. If you have lambo money, maybe you have more than a single 1-story home, and either way you probably aren’t going to do all the other cleaning by yourself and then refuse to do anything about the vacuuming. So why bother keeping track of a vacuum on a separate subscription, when you could have your cleaning service take care of everything?

    1. I wonder where all this data is sent… Because every vacuum cleaner NEEDS an internet connection… (Well, if it is an “as a service”-device it probably really needs it for licence and stuff)

      1. Actually, my father just bought one where connecting it to the internet was optional. He bought it just for that reason. And indeed, I placed it to charge, pressed the start button in the remote, and it started cleaning straight away.
        And It was not one of those cheapo robots, it did scan the room with a (must say) strange lidar (strange, because of how the lense was mounted, could not see any moving parts, not like in other cleaning robots) did detect stairs, didn’t loose itself when getting stuck in mop on the floor… Quite impressed

      2. People might say this reaction is knee-jerk and alarmist but it’s worth remembering that iRobot intended to sell the internal layout of your living space to “Apple, Amazon and Google parent Alphabet” back in 2017. If it wasn’t for the press reacting to the quarterly report this was buried within and the resulting stock value drop, they would have gotten away with it.

        Colin himself had this to say when the press started reporting on the privacy intrusion:
        “there’s an entire ecosystem of things and services that the smart home can deliver once you have a rich map of the home that the user has allowed to be shared.”

        His tone deafness towards the privacy concerns and the resulting press rush to educate owners on how to disable, complain, and opt out caused them to drop the project. Not to mention that there were no immediate benefits, just possibilities that, in hindsight, would never come to fruition with or without map data due to the complexity and low margins.

      1. This already happened. It seems that iRobot sells video/photo information from “tester” J7 roombas to a startup called Scale AI for subject classification and model training. Though that initial classification was handed off to gig workers in Venezuela who took screenshots of juicy things then shared them publicly onto facebook.

        >iRobot—the world’s largest vendor of robotic vacuums, which Amazon recently acquired for $1.7 billion in a pending deal—confirmed that these images were captured by its Roombas in 2020. All of them came from “special development robots with hardware and software modifications that are not and never were present on iRobot consumer products for purchase,” the company said in a statement. They were given to “paid collectors and employees” who signed written agreements acknowledging that they were sending data streams, including video, back to the company for training purposes. According to iRobot, the devices were labeled with a bright green sticker that read “video recording in progress,” and it was up to those paid data collectors to “remove anything they deem sensitive from any space the robot operates in, including children.”

        Who knows how brazen Amazon will be with that data once the sale goes though.

        Google for “A Roomba recorded a woman on the toilet. How did screenshots end up on Facebook?” for the rest of the article.

  3. Remember the juice machine? $400 machine that did the same thing as your bare hand? People actually bought them.

    A fool and his money are soon parted.
    A sucker is born every minute.
    and oh about 472 more similar idioms.

  4. “In industry, this is a common occurrence”
    Not in industries which don’t want to go bust and be offshored. Especially not in industries where the workers are capable and talented, better to own whatever the thing is and have your own competent folks maintain it (or modify to suit your needs) than rely on some company you rent it from wich might suddenly fold and brick your thing. Renting something instead of owning it is a scam which the whole hacker community must stand against, if the freaks who dream of “own nothing and be happy” get their way there will be nothing to hack, and evrything will be ever more infected by DRM and mandatory updates which ruin long established workflows. Just say NO.

    1. “This is how we’re different from self-owned vacuums..” and then proceeds to list off features that have been common in robovacs for a few years now.

      At the price they want per year, you could get the absolute top of the line vacuum + mop, and own it. I think they’re going to have a hard time finding customers at that rate who aren’t in the tax bracket of “I’m rich enough that this is insignificant” who don’t already have a maid/service.

  5. Seems like a new Juicero. Subscription for something that doesn’t need one. Subscription service on a vacuum is something I would have said as a joke to make a point, but now it exists. I’m sure I’ll end up with a bunch of them from the trash once the original owners get fed up with them, stop paying the bill, and they become a doorstop. Free in the trash is the right price point for something like this.

  6. When I see a subscription for something, I sometimes think to myself “How much money would I have to park somewhere, earning a reasonable interest rate, in order to pay for this subscription for however long I might keep it?” Usually, the answer is pretty large, and I find that I might not want that subscription after all.

  7. The difference between renting a cement mixer and this thing is that when you’re done using a cement mixer it goes back to the place and other people use it. Presumably it gets used a lot. “Renting” stuff in your own home means when you aren’t using it it just sits there collecting dust.
    I rented a boat at a lake for a reasonable day with the family for the first time. We had a great time and at the end I handed the keys back over and didn’t have to put a boat in the side yard.
    I wish there was a way to do this with, say, a pasta maker (or vacuum) that doesn’t get used much and sits there hogging up space for ages. The problem is when you want to use it tonight. I guess if I lived with 3 roommates still the sharing of common resources/tools kinda happened but let’s be honest 4 dudes didn’t do that much vacuuming anyway.

    1. And it would be more than just vacuuming too. Even at very competitive wages, you could get at least half of a workday of cleaning for $125, and you’d get a full 8 hours at the $15 minimum wage progressives keep arguing for, with enough left over for a $5 tip!

      Here’s a thought: Let’s say vacuuming the parts of your house you might use the robot for would take around 30 minutes for a person, achieving the same quality of work. This seems pretty reasonable to me. At the $15 an hour progressive claim is the minimum needed to survive in the U.S., you can pay someone $7.50 for 30 minutes 16 times a month. That’s every other day. You probably don’t need to vacuum that frequently, even if it is only the same quality the robot would do. In addition, you could probably hire a neighbor kid who doesn’t need a living wage (not that $15/hr is necessary to get by in most of the U.S., even after the massive inflation we’ve seen recently) at $7.25 an hour (Federal minimum wage) or ~$11 (somewhere around average state minimum wage for the U.S.). At Federal minimum wage, you could get 30 minutes of vacuuming every day of the month, and even at $11 you could get 30 minutes every weekday. Probably your best bet though, is to hire someone with a bit more experience for $20 an hour to spend an hour and a half cleaning once a week. Not only will you get better quality vacuuming for your money, a professional can determine how much time needs to be spent on that and spend the remaining time doing other cleaning. Good luck getting your $125 a month vacuum robot to clean the bathrooms and sweep and mop the kitchen! (Or better yet, get off your butt, and do your own weekly cleaning, and pay a professional housekeeper to come do a full 8 hour deep clean once a month.)

  8. This is something people don’t realize, but this has sort of been the case with software since the ’80s or ’90s. Read the EULA of the software you normally use. You don’t legally own it. You don’t even legally own your copy of it. The company that made it is merely giving you conditional permission to own it. Many EULAs have clauses that can be used by the company to withdraw that permission, sometimes conditional upon your usage, other times unconditional. Older EULAs (from the ’90s and early 2000s) are less likely to be explicit about this, but they still don’t say that the permission to use the software is unlimited or indefinite. In general, EULAs don’t typically say how long the permission lasts for, and companies actually have used that to justify withdrawing permission for continued use of the software. More recently, software companies tie their software’s functionality to network connectivity, even when it doesn’t make sense. Many single player mobile games won’t function without a constant internet connect. More and more often PC games won’t function without an active internet connection, including single player games and multi-player games played in single player mode. It’s not just games though. Bigger productivity software companies are moving to web oriented software that requires an active internet connection to use. Some do this by making them browser based (see the Microsoft 365 suite). They aren’t doing this because the browser is more convenient or better. Making and maintaining elaborate browser apps is a lot more work than making similar native apps. The only reason to do this is to tie the user down. Of course, many of the productivity applications are subscription based, so they are already 100% rental. (There’s a reason I went out of my way to learn open source alternatives to the recommended proprietary software in college.)

    There is hope though. The video game industry tried this rental model around two decades earlier than anyone else. In the 1990s subscription MMOs and MUDs were a thing, and by the early 2000s, it was normal practice for MMOs to charge subscription fees. By the mid-2010s though, even Blizzard, owner of the most successful subscription MMO in history, admitted that it knew it couldn’t keep World of Warcraft on a subscription model forever (either they’ve forgotten about that, or they are hanging on for as long as humanly possible, but WoW subscriptions have fallen massively since, as new free-to-play MMOS have become more popular). Basically, the subscription model for video games is dying. In fact, most new games that would have been subscription games 10 to 15 years ago are now being marketed as free-to-play games with paid premium content, and more and more of that premium content is purely aesthetic, due to backlash against pay-to-win games.

    Basically, the subscription model for games is giving way to a free-to-play with optional premium content model. If productivity software is following the same path, and so far it seems to be, we can expect all of this subscription software to be replaced with free-to-use competition that includes paid premium features. If pay-to-win games are telling us anything, this will likely include a period during which the software is heavily impaired even for basic hobby use without paying for the premium features, but competition will ultimately break through this, and the premium features will ultimately mainly be limited to high end professional stuff that adds convenience for professional power users but that isn’t necessary to be productive.

    So what does this mean in the context of renting robots? Honestly, probably nothing. I don’t see much chance that rented robots are going to find a significant consumer market. Capitalism is really good at absolutely crushing dumb ideas with competition. Even if 99% of robot vacuum cleaner companies do a subscription/rental style model, all it takes is one that sells them outright at a competitive price, and the whole house of cards comes crashing down. I don’t see any chance of robots heading into a free-to-use model either, because unlike software, physical products have a per-unit capital cost. Software you can make once and distribute it infinite times at almost no additional cost. A software package that costs a million dollars to make can be distributed to 10 people or a trillion people with negligible cost difference. (Sure, there’s the cost of transport. A trillion downloads is going to cost quite a bit more for the internet service than 10 downloads. On a per unit basis though, 10 downloads is practically free, and a trillion is even cheaper per unit than 10.) For robots though, this just isn’t the case. Based on an analysis I once did of base cost for laptops, a $200 robot vacuum cleaner probably costs around $50 to make, not counting one time design and development costs. If you sell a million, the design and development cost per unit is insignificant, but that $50 per unit cost never goes away.

    It actually makes perfect sense to go with a free-to-use model with software, when distribution cost is negligible, because people like free, so that will maximize use. If people are already using your software, they are far more likely to pay for premium features as they find a need to have them than they are to purchase your software for one feature when they are already using someone else’s software. Free-to-use is a strong marketing strategy for software. It’s a better version of shareware (because shareware typically seriously hobbled the software, where free-to-use/free-to-play gives the user all of the critical features and only paywalls advanced convenience/power features or (in quality free-to-play games) aesthetic features that don’t give paying players an unfair advantage.

    Free-to-use doesn’t make any sense for robots or other physical products though, because physical products aren’t make-once-copy-infinite-times things. Say Heroes of the Storm has 1 million players, and 90% never buy one premium item. That’s only 100,000 paying players, and if each spends $100 on paid content each year, that’s $10 million a year, and the only costs they have are ongoing content development, debugging, and server maintenance (I guess advertising as well). That’s plenty of money to cover a handful of employees and the other costs with large profits on top of that, and 90% of users aren’t paying them a dime. Even if the game cost 5 times that to develop, it will pay for itself in less than a decade easily. If a million people get a free-to-use robot that cost $50 per unit to make, that’s an upfront cost of $50 million, on top of initial design and development. If 90% don’t pay for premium features (like what?), each paying user has to buy $500 in premium features just to pay for the cost of the robots themselves. That doesn’t cover design and development, and it doesn’t cover any sort of ongoing costs for software upgrades, repairs (because if the company doesn’t repair them for free itself, users will just go get a new free robot whenever one stops working right), or any sort of ongoing feature development.

    I suspect this is going to be short lived. Like I said, all it takes is one company selling them outright at a reasonable price to crash an entire rental market. Unless they are as expensive as cars or houses, there’s not going to be any reason for anyone to rent a vacuum robot, and prices for technology trend downward pretty consistently over time.

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