Innovative or Not? – The Segway

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Every so often we take a look at a new or iconic product to evaluate the innovation (or lack thereof) behind it. One of us will argue for good, one for bad, and the third will make a final judgement.

Have a suggestion for what we should do next or disagree with our assessments? Have your say in the comments.

This week the Segway comes under our microscope:

Innovative – In 2001, there was word of new technology soon to be unveiled that would become a whole new way of transportation.  Venture capitalist John Doerr claimed it would be more important than the internet, while Steve Jobs was quoted as saying it was “as big a deal as the PC”.  That December, the Segway was revealed in Bryant Park on Good Morning America.  Despite the hype and publicity, the Segway struggled to sell as many units as expected and still to this day remains in a niche market.  However, marketing and publicity aside, we must focus solely on what inventor Dean Kamen provided: a two-wheeled, self-balancing battery powered vehicle termed Segway.  By seemingly being able to read the riders mind, it will move in the direction desired by use of advanced sensing, smart battery management, electric propulsion, and dynamic stabilization.  Balancing is accomplished by use of dual computers utilizing proprietary software, two tilt sensors, and five gyroscopic sensors.  A feedback signal continually adjusting for deviations from expected behaviour moves the wheels forward or backward as needed for either balance or propulsion.  By leaning the Segway away from or towards the riders center of mass, it senses this change and adjusts the speed to accommodate maintaining the balance of the rider.  To turn, the rider manipulates a control on the handlebar right or left.  Considering that prior to this invention, a bicycle was the only other two wheeled mode of transportation, we have come a long way to make life easier.

Not Innovative –  Innovation is a multi-faceted process. Creating a technology, no matter how groundbreaking, is not innovative on its own. It is the application of that technology into a form that meets the needs of a market that makes a truly innovative product. In that regard, the Segway was successful as an invention, but not as an innovation.

The Segway begs the question: can something be innovative if no one’s buying it? Since its unveiling over a decade ago, Segway has found use in a niche market, but has not increased the efficiency or convenience of travel enough to justify its price tag to the average person. A better word to describe Segway would be “novel.” It might have earned some interested looks early on, but in the long run has not changed consumer habits. It did not disrupt the market in any meaningful way—Honda, Toyota, and company haven’t exactly scrambled to put out their own “people movers” in response. And for a device that promised to revolutionize transportation for the masses, that cannot be qualified as anything else but failure.

All innovation is goal-driven, and Segway’s hype may have created a goal that was unattainable. Perhaps with a more modest outlook, it would be easy to see Segway as an innovative product with specific applications (law enforcement/paramedic, factory use, mobility assistance) that could eventually trickle down to full scale consumer use. As it stands now, most consumers know it as the butt of jokes like Paul Blart: Mall Cop.

The Verdict– Innovative!  While it is true that the Segway has not lived up to its early hype, the story of the Segway is really more a story of over zealous advertizing than poor innovation.  Had the original predictions for the Segway been more tame, perhaps opining that its future was one of city tourism, mall cops and enthusiast groups then we would never be having this debate.  The Segway is not a bad product, it serves a use, is loved by some, used by few and even the counsel for the negative admits it is novel.  Can we rule a product not innovative simply because it didn’t deliver against overly ambitious sales forecasts?  I say not, the yardstick of innovation cannot be defined by the modesty of marketing executives.

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