Reinventing the Wheel

Reinventing the Wheel : A Story of Genius, Innovation, and Grand Ambition was formerly named Code Name Ginger, a reference to the working name for what would eventually launch to the world as the Segway.

It's a rare firsthand behind-the-scenes account of the launch of a high profile tech device, and perhaps of more interest, of the man behind the legend that is Dean Kamen. It's rare because the captains of industry, e.g. Gates, Jobs, Bezos, have little to benefit from allowing a reporter unfettered access to their lives. The image we have of these people is received, for the most part, through the filter of Public Relations. It is akin to always seeing actors with their makeup on.

Author Steve Kemper was invited to document the creation of Ginger by Kamen himself, and he had near unfettered access for a large chunk of the Segway's development. But when the product leaked to the press with details only available through Kemper's book proposal (the retributive deed of a jilted editor at one of the publishers?), he was booted from Kamen's good graces and from the offices of the Ginger team before the product launched to the world. And so the momentum of the book comes crashing to a halt near the end, but what remains is a good read.

I've ridden a Segway. It's a lot of fun, something that needs to be experienced to be appreciated, but against most standards--the pre-launch hype (hysteria?), the expectations of Kamen the Ginger team, the expectations of investors like John Doerr and Kleiner Perkins--the device has been a disappointment.

There are a few reasons the device failed to meet expectations. One is that it's expensive, a couple thousand dollars. I can buy a cruiser bike here in LA for $300. The second is that they fit into a very strange niche: they're useful for covering distances in between those short enough to talk and long enough that you'd drive. If I had one, the main use would be to commute to work. But LA's sidewalk network is not extensive. If I took a Segway onto the road here in LA I'd be roadkill about five minutes after merging into traffic. In NYC, pedestrians would pull you off your Segway and beat you up if you tried to jockey with them for space on the sidewalk. For longer distances, getting one down into the subway system and onto a subway car would be so difficult as to be impractical.

Where do you park your Segway? I wouldn't feel comfortable leaving it outside, even if no one could ride the thing away. If I had a couple bags of groceries, how would I carry them? When a geek contemplates the Segway, they see a device so cool and revolutionary that it will change the world. When the average person sees the Segway, they see an expensive device that doesn't fit into the world they live in. What are the problems it solves? Being kinder to the environment is not a sufficient purchase driver. People do not vote for green with their pocketbooks unless the impact to their lives is neutral.

What is the market for the device? A great product without a market is in trouble, whereas a lousy product with a great market may survive until it improves or until superior products flood the space.

Another reason for the Segway's disappointing sales, and one I think is underestimated, especially by the geek set, is the mortification you feel when riding around on one. I think a lot of people would be embarrassed to be seen riding around on one in public. Some of it has to do with pop culture and how it was quickly depicted in shows like Arrested Development as a visual gag. But more damaging is that when I see someone on a Segway in public, wearing a bucket of a helmet, rolling along, my first impulse is laughter. Though the perception is unfair, riders seem like people who are too lazy to walk. Perhaps it's because people on Segways don't appear to be moving very quickly, or because they seem so still when standing on the device, gripping the handlebars. I don't think of that person as using the Segway in lieu of a trip in the car. I think of them as using the Segway instead of walking or biking.

A more desired reaction would be to think that the rider was aiding the environment, that they were hip, an early adopter, a trendsetter, the first on the block to get the hot new toy. Do other people think that, or am I the only one who would be a bit hesitant to subject his public image to scrutiny by riding one of these around town? It may seem like a minor branding issue, but it's hugely important.

Compare that to my iPhone. The first week I owned it, every time I pulled it out I felt like a celebrity nipple, so great was the attention it attracted. The Segway is really sexy from a geeky standpoint, but really geeky (in the bad way) from a consumer image standpoint.

Maybe it was ahead of its time. Given the elevated stature of the environment in recent months, perhaps the device would have had a greater success if it had launched a year or so ago as a powerful volley against pollution and global warming. If, at the same time An Inconvenient Truth came out, Al Gore and Leonardo Dicaprio appeared on every TV show possible, riding around on Segways, pushing them as one way to prevent impending environmental apocalypse; if every high profile celebrity in LA and NYC were given one and were seen riding around town on one; then maybe, just maybe, the device might have launched to greater sales and momentum. Not the type of sales predicted by some of the early investors, but stronger than the ones seen to date. Riders might have the sense of pride that Prius owners feel when passing each other on the road.

I also suspect that he devices best bet for catching on lies somewhere outside the U.S. Americans love their cars, and the country is built around them. Overcoming that requires not just solving practical problems but surmounting cultural inertia.

Reinventing the Wheel : A Story of Genius, Innovation, and Grand Ambition

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