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3 Reasons iRobot Isn't Worried About Dyson's Robot Vacuum

By Steve Symington - Dec 5, 2014 at 1:25PM

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iRobot CFO Alison Dean sheds light on why it's welcoming Dyson's new robot vacuum into the space.

iRobot stock, Roomba, Dyson 360 Eye

iRobot's Roomba 870 (left) will have new competition next year from Dyson's 360 Eye (right). Source: iRobot, Dyson.

With Dyson set to launch its first-ever robotic vacuum next year, you'd think the folks at iRobot Corporation (IRBT -0.27%) would be sweating bullets today. Dubbed the "360 Eye," Dyson promises its slick-looking machine will have "the strongest suction of any robot vacuum."

Home Robots currently serve as the primary driver of iRobot's growth amid an increasingly difficult environment for defense spending. And within that, Roomba alone generates a whopping 85% of iRobot's total sales. But while iRobot has faced dozens of ambitious competitors since introducing its first Roomba more than 12 years ago, none enjoy the same levels of spirited innovation and consumer confidence as Dyson.

iRobot management claims it's relatively unconcerned. In fact, iRobot actually appears excited for Dyson's impending entry into its core market.

Speaking at the NASDAQ OMX 31st Investor Program earlier this week, iRobot CFO Alison Dean gave three reasons why iRobot isn't worried: 

1. This isn't a stealth attack

This is something we expected. [Dyson] has been vocal about the fact they've been working on a robotic vacuum cleaner for many years. In fact, we understand they were ready to launch one a few years ago, and pulled it at the last minute for reasons we're not sure of -- I guess they just felt like they weren't ready.

Dyson intends to launch the 360 Eye in Japan next April, followed by other select international markets later in 2015. All the while, iRobot has built a base of, and collected feedback from, millions of Roomba owners during the past 12 years, effectively bolstering its market-leading position. What's more, iRobot CEO Colin Angle recently noted that, while Dyson claims to have spent 16 years and $47 million designing the 360 Eye, iRobot already spends more than that on robot research and development every year.

2. Dyson's design could be missing the point

From a technical perspective, there's nothing we've seen in their design that makes us feel any differently with our product roadmap. The one area we think if they wanted to come on strong is from a sales and marketing perspective. [...] We are preparing ourselves to reeducate consumers about why Roomba is so successful. It's not all about suction; there are a lot of other things that allow the product to clean effectively.

Dyson certainly has the marketing clout to position its product as superior -- and it will be priced that way with an MSRP around $1,000. But iRobot specifically doubts Dyson's outsized focus on basically miniaturizing its "cyclone" technology to achieve that suction, which requires significant battery power, and a very tall unit. This means Dyson's 360 Eye won't be able to fit underneath low furniture -- as Roomba can -- and will only be able to run an estimated 20 to 30 minutes -- compared to two-to-three hours for Roomba -- before needing to recharge.

In addition, Dean points out that Dyson's 360 Eye still uses brushes, which inevitably get tangled with hair and other debris, and need to be regularly cleaned by consumers. And as a longtime Roomba owner myself, I can safely say this was my single biggest complaint with the otherwise autonomous cleaning technology.

Just more than a year ago, iRobot took a huge leap forward when it introduced brushless "Aeroforce Extractors" in its Roomba 800 series bots, effectively resolving that problem and making the 800 series iRobot's most popular Roombas yet.

3. Market validation

One of the biggest continuing challenges for growth is getting those traditional upright vacuum cleaner skeptics to want to move into robotic vacuum cleaning. And when a leading upright vacuum cleaner developer is moving toward our space, it's a positive indicator for the space. Dyson's CEO was actually quoted as saying the future of vacuum cleaning is a handheld and a robotic vacuum cleaner. So if that's not good for our space and our business, I don't know what is.

Finally, here Dean is touching on Dyson's market entry as a potentially important inflection point for iRobot's business.

For additional perspective, during iRobot's fourth-quarter conference call last year, Colin Angle pointed out global robot vacuum cleaner revenue accounted for a full 15% of new vacuum cleaner sales. That might not sound like much, but he also elaborated that that share was comparable to those of microwave ovens and dishwashers at the same stage in their life cycles, or roughly 10 to 15 years following introduction.

"As awareness of the category continues to expand," Angle concluded, "we could see an adoption rate similar to those other appliances."

In this case, with so much share left to grab from traditional upright vacuums, I'm convinced that iRobot stockholders should happily join their company in welcoming Dyson into the robotic vacuum market.

Steve Symington owns shares of iRobot. The Motley Fool recommends iRobot. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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