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As antitrust threat looms, iRobot keeps rolling with new Roomba

The new Roomba Combo j7+ from iRobot, which can mop hard floors and vacuum carpets.iRobot

IRobot cofounder Colin Angle ranked No. 28 on the 2022 Tech Power Players 50. See the full list here.


The newest cleaning machine from Bedford-based iRobot is perhaps its most radical yet — a $1,100 robot that can transform from a floor mop to a carpet vacuum.

But as iRobot launched the new Roomba Combo j7+on Tuesday, it’s also looking over its shoulder toward Washington, where federal regulators may try to block its pending $1.7 billion acquisition by online giant Amazon.

Last week, the Federal Trade Commission asked Amazon and iRobot to provide additional details about the deal, a signal that the agency may step in to challenge the acquisition in court.

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“This deal really does raise concerns,” said Krista Brown, senior policy analyst at the American Economic Liberties Project, an organization that favors more aggressive enforcement of antitrust laws. “It’s about the fact that Amazon fundamentally has too much power.”

Brown is especially worried that Amazon is interested in collecting sensitive data about millions of households that use iRobot vacuums and floor mops. These machines use artificial intelligence to create data maps of users’ homes. Brown said that Amazon could combine this data with information about millions of online shoppers. This might tighten Amazon’s stranglehold on the online retailing market, Brown said.

For decades, the FTC and the US Department of Justice have applied a “consumer welfare” standard to the enforcement of antitrust law. Pioneered by law professor and federal judge Robert Bork, this view holds that the government should only file antitrust suits against companies when their business practices can be shown to do specific harms to the well-being of consumers. For example, a company with a monopoly might set its prices too high for many consumers to afford.

Under this approach to antitrust law, it’s very hard to bring cases against big tech companies. Some, like Google and Facebook, don’t charge consumers for major products, like social networking, search services, and e-mail. Then there’s Amazon, a huge company, but not exactly a monopoly. For instance, according to PYMNTS.com, Amazon last year held 51 percent of all US online sales and less than 10 percent of total US retail spending.

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But Lina Khan, chosen by the Biden administration as chair of the FTC, believes antitrust law should be used to prevent companies from stifling competition, even if their policies don’t directly harm consumers. “We should replace the consumer welfare framework with an approach oriented around preserving a competitive process and market structure,” Khan wrote in a 2017 Yale Law Review article.

Until recently, Khan wasn’t able to act on her vision, because the FTC was evenly divided between two Republicans and two Democrats. But in May, after much delay, a third Democratic commissioner was appointed, giving the Democrats a working majority.

Roomba robot vacuums made by iRobot were displayed on a shelf at a Bed Bath and Beyond store on Aug. 5 in Larkspur, Calif. Justin Sullivan/Getty

Two months later, the FTC sued Meta, the parent company of Facebook, to block its acquisition of Within, a little-known maker of virtual reality software. The FTC alleged that Facebook was trying to “buy its way to the top” of the virtual reality market.

Will Duffield, a policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute, thinks it’s probable that the FTC will file a similar lawsuit to block the Amazon-iRobot deal. “I think it’s a very tempting target,” he said.

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But Duffield thinks such a lawsuit would be tough sledding for the FTC because for decades, courts have relied on the consumer welfare standard.

“I think it would face an uphill battle,” he said.

IRobot chief executive Colin Angle refused to discuss the possibility of an antitrust showdown during a recent conversation with the Globe. But he was happy to talk about the Roomba Combo j7+, which uses a mopping pad that retracts into the top of the machine. The pad automatically deploys when the Roomba is mopping an area with hard floors, then lifts away to let the vacuum cleaner take over on carpeted surfaces.

“I think it’s an entirely new class of robot,” Angle said. “You never have to worry about what gets mopped and what gets vacuumed.”

The robot will be powered by a new version of iRobot’s software, which features new abilities to recognize common household obstacles. For instance, Roombas will automatically detect items to be avoided, like backpacks or a child’s toys. But when it spots a toilet, stove, or dishwasher, the Roomba doesn’t avoid them. Instead, it cleans the floor space directly in front of them with extra care.

The idea isn’t merely to recognize household objects but to deal with each object intelligently, as a human would. Angle said it’s a crucial step toward more advanced robots with hands capable of putting items where they belong.

“One day the robot will say: ‘I know what that is. I’ve got to pick it up and put it away for you,’” Angle said. “That’s still a little ways away, but you can see we’re on the journey.”

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Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.