Posted by: nickgerlich | November 16, 2007

The Next Big Flop

Back around the turn of the century (um, that would be this century, so it’s not ancient history), inventor Dean Kamen held the world in suspense with his announcement of what he was sure would be the greatest personal contribution to humanity. So PR-savvy was Kamen that the world nearly skipped an orbit while we all waited in breathless anticipation.

We were already soaking up the sunshine created by email, e-commerce, and telecommuting, so what could possibly be waiting in the wingsa to make our rich lives even richer?

SegwayIn a clever nod to homophones, and amid much drum rolling, the Segway was introduced right before Christmas 2001. And it was about that time the US sported nearly 300 million pairs of lowered eyebrows, and quizzical looks to match.

The Segway is essentially a two-wheeled human transporter. Running on rechargeable batteries, the Segway’s onboard computer keeps the unit upright (at least in theory), and occupies roughly the same footprint of a human being. It is designed for public spaces, and is intended to replace other forms of human transport (walking, riding, skating, etc.)

Except that this “human being” can travel at speeds ranging up to 10-12mph. I think I would rather be knocked over by a kid on a skateboard or a surly pedestrian than one of these two-wheeled beasts.

If you haven’t seen one of these in West Texas yet, do not be surprised. Only 23,500 units had been sold as of September 2006. I don’t think it was the unit’s size that prevented it from being left in Christmas stockings. No, maybe it was the price tag: $5000-6000.

I have encountered Segways in downtown Chicago (where policemen ride them among the traffic, teeming masses, and other cops on horses), as well as on The Strip in Las Vegas. I’ve also seen mall workers cruising their Segways at The Miracle Mile Shops in the Planet Hollywood Resoirt in Vegas. And just to show that the Segway may have some pop culture appeal, two men rode/drove their Segways from Seattle to Boston, as documented in 10 MPH.

The Segway is certainly an interesting product, and one that should have some urban appeal. But its introduction has met with resistance in some cities, the result being that Segways are banned from sidewalks in some locales. Uncertainty over what the device actually is has caused many a city commissioner to stumble. Is it a medical device? Is it just a fancy pair of skates?

Bush on a SegwayTechnical problems have beset the Segway, though, with several software patches being issued to correct the glitches (this sounds more like a PC on wheels, doesn’t it?). And the fiasco of President Bush taking a header on one wasn’t very complimentary (but was it intentional? You decide…).

Kamen has created what, under most circumstances, really would have become the next big thing, but it was stopped short in its tracks. It’s a thought-provoking solution to a consumer behavior problem, but in the process, it created others. And sticker shock was probably the biggest problem. The Segway has thus been relegated to special uses in municipalities and public areas like malls and theme parks, as well as yet another cool toy for novelty seekers.

Sorry, Dean, but I think the iPod, launched two months before the Segway, went on to become the next big thing. Your massive publicity build-up was a nice try, though. Did you study with Steve Jobs?

Dr “I Am Therefore…I Think” Gerlich


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