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The right way, the wrong way, and the Segway

Posted by Ben Smith on 15th April 2015

It has been announced that Segway, at this point the infamous developer of the two-wheeled “human transporter”, has been bought out by its Chinese rival Ninebot. Long after the hype subsided, Segway is now officially a relic. Far from revolutionising the future of transportation, it is now the “£6,000 21st-century Sinclair C5” that has been sold for parts to its nearest rival for a relatively modest sum.

You may think that the obsolescence of the originator of an essentially unloved technology does not really merit much discussion. But if you don’t experience at least a small amount of sadness at the news then I guess you just have a heart of stone.

What’s not to love about overly-ambitious-but-essentially-ridiculous technology? And when they fall flat on their face maybe we’re not surprised, but perhaps we are a bit sad that it did. I would never want to discourage the people who are prepared to dream big out there. And, come on, if nothing else the Segway did give us this episode of Frasier.

That said, the news of the buy out is perhaps well timed to serve as a cautionary tale for new technologies everywhere.

The sorry timeline of Segway’s history is particularly grim reading – surely any entrepreneur’s worst nightmare? How many other companies have this line in their potted histories? “2010: Mr Heselden dies in a freak accident when a cross-country version of the Segway he was riding plunges off cliff”.

And yet the product was launched with such fanfare – including that primetime feature on one of the biggest TV shows in the US. It was ushering in a new age, a new way for humans to interact with the world. And yet here we are, a mostly forgotten novelty.

So what can we learn from Segway? Perhaps one of the biggest lessons we should take is that, if anything, it tried to change the status quo too much. It turned out we just weren’t ready to give up hefting our mass around on our stupid legs (or, y’know, in cars and stuff).

But we can also surmise that for the most part we couldn’t quite embrace something that just had too much of a whiff of the ridiculous and the zany. And last but not least we are reminded that shonky software doesn’t get you anywhere with tech; Segway had to issue not one but two separate complete product recalls because of wonky programming.

If only there was some sort of modern parallel that could benefit from these lessons…

I am thinking of course of wearables. It is far from the only tech trend that could benefit from a moment’s pause to consider the fate of Segway, but it is certainly the one at the peak of the hype cycle right now and one that, to my eyes anyway, could certainly end up similarly deflated.

At the moment we are reliably informed that weaving intricate electronics more seamlessly into our lives will have all sorts of benefits, There is talk of a “sensor storm” sweeping the world, and don’t forget those billions of dollars that smart watches and Google Glass are going to generate.

It’s very easy for me to be snarky about these things, but I would not be in the least surprised to be proved spectacularly wrong. However, I think it is equally easy for the evangelists currently pushing wearables to simply dismiss me and other naysayers as just being on the wrong side of history – to shake their fists and say: “you’ll see”.

But of course Segway teaches us that sometimes the naysayers are right…

If the end of Segway teaches us nothing else, it is worth reminding ourselves that not every new tech trend is destined for some inexorable rise to mainstream domination. For every iPhone there is a Segway – and if that doesn’t sum up the last decade and a half I don’t know what does.

Photo credit: Cristiano Betta

Ben Smith

Ben’s deep knowledge of sectors as diverse as electronics and IT, cleantech and medtech means he has a wide range of experience to draw on for his clients – ensuring that no two campaigns are the same. Ben’s expertise lies in helping his clients to raise their profiles beyond trade media and he has a proven track record in running campaigns that deliver coverage in national, business and consumer publications.