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Late last week it was announced, without much ceremony, that Softbank Group would be acquiring Boston Dynamics and Schaft, collectively the robotics division of Google-parent, Alphabet. The terms of the deal are undisclosed.
Boston Dynamics has been rumoured to be on sale for over a year. As one of the Alphabet ‘other bets’, there has been a struggle to commercialise its robotic technology.
Better focus for Alphabet
However, rather than being seen as a step away from industrial applications, this divestment offers an opportunity for Alphabet to focus even more keenly on what we think its core value proposition in the industrial market should be – software and intelligence. With the recent launch of Google Cloud IoT core, and continuous AI developments, there is an opportunity to make a play in the industrial IoT space. Being unencumbered of a ‘difficult’ hardware product will sharpen Alphabet’s focus.
For Softbank, questions will be asked about how it will make a success out of Boston Dynamics where Alphabet could not. However, these are not the right questions to ask.
Robots find a home
Softbank clearly has a strategy to scale and diversify its exposure to future technologies. It’s CEO – Masayoshi Son – is also driving the Softbank Vision Fund, the largest tech fund in history. Where Boston Dynamics may have been a distraction for Alphabet, Softbank has a different, longer-term vision for the technology.
Softbank Group already has exposure to robotics through Softbank Robotics. Several thousand ‘Pepper’ humanoid robots are used as greeters in Softbank’s stores, with Nestlé Japan rolling them out in its Nescafé stores too. With an existing installed base, there is a platform for IP from Boston Dynamics to be integrated into this solution to produce novel, exciting ways to engage customers in brick and mortar retail locations.
Perhaps greater still, there is an opportunity to drive exposure to robotics and build meaningful data too. The challenges of Japan’s stagnant economy and aging population are well documented. A greater use of robotics is one solution; however, consumer acceptance will be key as will better operational data – for example, how do robots best interact with people in complex environments?
In summary, Softbank provides Boston Dynamics with the culture and market exposure to be successful in ways that Alphabet could not. For Alphabet, it is freed up to focus on its core industrial strategy.