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.com, Leslie Walker

Soon, Clean Your House Like The Jetsons

By Leslie Walker
Thursday, January 13, 2005; Page E01

The Roomba sold out in many stores over the holidays. It joined Rolex and Tiffany on Google's list of the Internet's top 10 brand-name searches for 2004.

And last week, it drew a surprise visit from Microsoft Corp.'s Bill Gates, who stopped by its creator's booth at the Consumer Electronics Show for a look at the flying-saucer-like contraption that heralds the future of home automation.

The Roomba is a self-propelled, slow-moving robotic vacuum cleaner has sold more than 1 million units since its debut two years ago. (iRobot)

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"When they start selling it at Sears, you know something is going on," said Tim Woods, vice president of a technology trade group called the Internet Home Alliance.

Meet the Roomba, a deceptively simple gizmo that, more than anything else at last week's gadget extravaganza in Las Vegas, grabbed my attention. Only three inches tall and one foot wide, this self-propelled, slow-moving robotic vacuum cleaner has sold more than 1 million units since its debut two years ago, at prices from $150 to $280.

Like many folks, I was skeptical when the first-generation Roomba glided away with honors from the 2003 Consumer Electronics Show, but I started paying more attention after its new-and-improved siblings hit the market a few months ago.

Why? Because the Roomba speaks volumes about where consumers would take technology if given the chance -- toward far simpler devices that even your grandmother could operate without a menu or manual.

"There are three buttons, maximum. We had to make it smart enough to make using it intuitive and unintimidating," said Colin Angle, chief executive of iRobot Corp., its Burlington, Mass., maker.

The Roomba's brain is programmed with high-powered software developed for military land-mine detectors, but its outward simplicity set it apart from many smart-home products showcased at last week's electronics show.

Consider the 2,050-square-foot house that stood on a corner of the show parking lot. Billed as a next-generation home, it featured all kinds of wares supposedly designed to improve life at home -- but you'd be hard-pressed to figure out how to work many or to identify their benefits.

And those you might covet seem priced for the well-to-do.

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