The smartphone market, some argue, really took off after Apple introduced the first app store to make its iPhones more useful. Now a new startup hopes that the same might be the case for the fledgling world of robots: RobotAppStore, an online marketplace for apps for robots, has raised $250,000 from Grishin Robotics, the Robot-focused investment vehicle of Mail.ru CEO Dmitry Grishin, which earlier this year opened for business with a $25 million fund to drive the industry.
This is RobotAppStore’s first external investment, with the company bootstrapped to date. The company declines to call it a seed round just yet because Elad Inbar, ceo and founder of RobotAppStore, says that they are still talking to further investors.
Although app stores proved to be a game-changing part of the smartphone economy, mobile had already taken off as a business, with feature phones already approaching saturation in many markets.
Robots is a different ballgame altogether: there is a lot of potential — and a lot of imagination fuelled by visions of robots from sci-fi movies, TV shows, comics and books — but in reality there are only about 30 million domestic robots in circulation today, according to estimates from RobotAppStore itself.
Another hurdle is that while smartphones are largely coalescing around a couple of dominant platforms — iOS and Android — robots not only are developed with totally different purposes in mind — housekeeping, weightwatching, etc. — but also on different platforms. The state of affairs at the moment, frankly, makes Android fragmentation seem pale in comparison.
In effect, what that means is that RobotAppStore is pushing the egg in the classic chicken/egg scenario. The funding, according to Inbar, will be used to further build out the app store platform and to staff up, but it will also include outreach both to the makers of robots themselves, as well as to app developers to build up the ecosystem. As with smartphone app stores, developers on the RobotAppStore will receive 70% of earnings from the apps. The store currently has some 500 apps in it today.
As new investor Dmitry Grishin described it to me, the challenge with hardware makers will be about encouraging more of them to open up their machines with the APIs that can be usable by the marketplace. The developer challenge will be about getting engineers — drawing largely from the community that make apps for smartphones — to turn their attention to robots.
There will be a third ecosystem hurdle, too: getting some platforms in place as standards. There has been some movement on that already, with the establishment of something called the ROS (for Robot Operating System).
And Google’s Android, despite the name, does not look like it is making a move into becoming a platform for robots at the moment. Grishin does not believe it will anytime soon. “My feeling is that the current state of the market needs something to focus purely on robots,” he says. “Smartphones will develop very differently.”
The challenge does not deter Inbar, whose past experience has included founding a robotics lab, and the CTO of mobile advertising company Massive Impact, running Yahoo’s R&D operation in Israel, and working for mobile operator Orange. Through those roles, he has seen the challenges of fragmentation but also feels like he knows how to navigate them, too.
“If you look at the mobile world ten years ago, it was pretty much like the robotics world today,” he said in an interview. “I feel the same trends are happening. If you wanted to develop a ringtone in the past, you had to do this for two Nokia platforms, Sony, Ericsson, Samsung, Motorola and so on. That’s what the robotics world looks like today.” The implication there is that if the smartphone revolution could coalesce around standards, the same will happen with robots, and possibly in less time (a version of Moore’s law, as it were).
Grishin, too, is optimistic about the opportunity. “First we are interested in the team behind this company,” he says. Second, he says, that he believes in apps pushing more purchases of hardware, as Apple and Google have both proven. “The idea of a robot app store is a very unique proposal for the market. The more opportunities you create for using robots, the bigger the market will grow.”
The target market is promising. ABI Research estimates that the robotics market will bring in $18 billion of revenue by 2015.
Still, it may be some time before our robots, even with a world of apps open to them, will be the all-seeing, all-knowing devices seen in science fiction scenarios (and some live already). “I don’t expect my room vacuum to make me a cup of coffee, but if I’m a developer doing a navigation app I can run that on multiple devices,” says Inbar. “There are a number of functions that can be shared on a number of differen platforms, even if they do not run on all robots everywhere.” He notes how one app turns the Roomba robot vacuum cleaner has been transformed by one developer into a gaming device — turning housekeeping into something a little more fun. “It’s about being super creative.”