The idea behind Baxter, the manufacturing-centric robot unveiled a few months back by Rethink Robotics, is largely that it works right off the shelf. You don’t need much technical ability to operate it, and it can in fact be “programmed” by simply moving its arms through the process you want it to repeat. So unlike many robots, you can teach it to do lots of different things.

But what if you wanted to teach Baxter something totally unrelated to manufacturing? That’s the idea behind the new Baxter Research Robot, released last week. That version of Baxter comes with an SDK and is optimized for experimentation. Rethink wants researchers and companies to mess around with its robot, and invent new things for it to do. In doing so, they’ll be creating the application layer for the Baxter platform.

“We’re really shooting for a change of business model in robotics,” said Mitch Rosenberg, VP Marketing and Product Management at Rethink. “[A] move towards what has been well established as a business model for cell phones and PCs.”

As robotics matures, expect this trend to accelerate. Early robots were a “platform” in the sense that you could do different things with them – think the single robot arm – but they weren’t very easy to use. The next wave was typified by iRobot, which built robots that were very easy to use, with specific tasks in mind. But iRobot is moving toward the platform model in some of its lines. Its Ava healthcare robot will offer an API, as I have written before.

Just like you don’t want to only use the apps Apple or Samsung take the time to write, we may soon be able to access deep troves of robotics software, designed for a wider range of situations than the robots’ manufacturers ever imagined.  The ‘killer app’ for robotics may in fact not be an app at all. It may be the app store itself.

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