By Joan O'C. Hamilton
Six months ago, I think I would have greeted the literal rollout of inventor Dean Kamen's oddball new über scooter Segway with a snarl. For one thing, the unveiling was so heavily orchestrated, complete with "exclusives" in major media--including a lengthy piece in Time and an unveiling on Good Morning America. A suspicious leak set the tech world ablaze last year with rumors about Kamen and his invention. It was going to be bigger than the Internet, in one version. Other stories claimed that Apple Computer co-founder Steven P. Jobs got an early peek and made the wacky prediction that cities would redesign themselves around the device. (Jobs denies he ever said this.) And Kamen himself told Time that the Segway "will be to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy."
It was reminiscent of a few other top-secret, but bound-to-disappoint, projects in recent years. Recall, for example, the much-ballyhooed Handspring Visor two years ago. Handspring Inc. was also bankrolled in part, as is Segway, by Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr, and big claims attended its gestation. However, a rush to market meant the original Handsprings made their debut as a nice but ho-hum Palm clone.
Obviously, there is an inevitable letdown now that the scooter's out of the bag. It's hard to imagine that its future for consumers is anything but a novelty. It's too bulky to be practical in crowded situations, too minimalist to carry what most people need in their daily journeys. I've spent too many hours with baby strollers at Disneyland to imagine vast numbers of people navigating and parking anything this size in a convenient way. The chat board yammering that for so long focused on whether Segway, developed under the code names IT and Ginger, would be hydrogen-powered or involve jet packs has shifted to prosaic arguments like whether overweight Americans need a device that will limit their exercise even more.
TRIALS. But frankly, the more I've thought about it, the more I think: Oh, good for you, Dean. Nothing gets high tech's heart--maybe even America's--racing like a nifty new piece of hardware. How refreshing to contemplate an offering that doesn't involve a Web-based, back-office enterprise solution to a problem you never knew companies had! Presumably, no animals were sacrificed to make it. Private backers who could afford it foot the bill, and it looks like there may be some cool industrial and public-sector applications. It was nice to hear postal workers will get to be part of an early trial--there's a crowd who could use some fun these days.
Big, bold, new products you can touch, see, and enjoy using come along rarely in this information economy. What fun to have an outfit stick its neck out and give us something interesting. As the world lurches from the fallout of September 11, events in the Middle East, and the recession, it seems clear the technology march we thought was unstoppable is a luxury of a relatively peaceful economy. Maybe this gyroscopic personal transporter can help us turn a corner and inspire us to embrace new things again, instead of holding on with white knuckles to what we've got.
In the long run, all the hype will make life toughest for Kamen himself, increasing pressure on him to deliver. But truth is, Good Morning America co-hosts Diane Sawyer and Charley Gibson's giggles and grins seemed genuine as they chugged around Bryant Park on their Segways. It was nice to see a silly scene in New York again--and to let your imagination roam in all sorts of mercifully harmless directions.
Hamilton writes the Digital Lifestyle column for BusinessWeek e.biz.