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Fish and Bicycles
The possibility that the segway will be viewed as simply a high-end toy, a jet ski on wheels, is one of Kamen's greatest concerns, especially after Sept. 11. He wants his machine taken seriously, as a serious solution to serious problems. That anxiety was one of the reasons he and his team decided to concentrate at first on major corporations, universities and government agencies--large, solid, established institutions--rather than dive straight into the consumer marketplace.
Whether such institutions would embrace Segways, however, was an open question. Before last January's leak, Kamen had demoed his invention only when absolutely necessary, or for luminaries such as Steve Jobs and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. After the leak, he became even pickier. He entertained the Postmaster General, who was keen to put letter carriers on Segways, and the head of the National Parks Service, who wanted to do the same with park rangers and police. (Both are among Segway's first customers.) Kamen also stirred up interest at the Department of Defense, which was intrigued by the notion of giving Segways to special forces, and at Federal Express. But few other potential customers were allowed to pass through DEKA's tightly sealed doors.
A few weeks ago, with the launch approaching, Kamen began to let some others in. The Boston police department sent a clutch of cops to Manchester. The city of Atlanta sent a contingent of city planners. And Thanksgiving week, Kamen took his act to California. In one jam-packed day in Silicon Valley, he revealed the Segway to officials from San Francisco International Airport, the California department of transportation, the city of Palo Alto, Stanford University and Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers. Especially gratifying to Kamen was the reaction of Andy Grove, the chairman of Intel and, unlike so many Silicon Valley boosters, a bone-deep skeptic. Perched tentatively on the machine, the 65-year-old Grove was rolling slowly along when Doerr ambled over and pushed him in the chest. When the Segway kept him from losing his balance, Grove emitted a distinctly un-Grove-like giggle. "The machine is gorgeous," he said later. "I'm no good at balancing; it would take me a hundred years to learn to snowboard. This took me less than five minutes."
I asked Grove what he thought of the Segway as a business. "The consumer market is always harder," he said. "But when you think about it, the corporate market is almost unlimited. If the Postal Service and FedEx deploy this for all their carriers, the company will be busy for the next five years just keeping up with that demand."
A patient entrepreneur would revel in that assessment. But Kamen is a man running short on patience. For him, conquering the corporate market is merely a prelude to the battle to come. "The consumer market is where the big money is," says Michael Schmertzler, a Credit Suisse First Boston managing director and, with Doerr, Segway's other major financial backer. "But this is about more than money for Dean. Pardon the cliche, but he really does want to change the world."
With the Segway, Kamen plans to change the world by changing how cities are organized. To Kamen's way of thinking, the problem is the automobile. "Cities need cars like fish need bicycles," he says. Segways, he believes, are ideal for downtown transportation. Unlike cars, they are cheap, clean, efficient, maneuverable. Unlike bicycles, they are designed specifically to be pedestrian friendly. "A bike is too slow and light to mix with trucks in the street but too large and fast to mix with pedestrians on the sidewalk," he argues. "Our machine is compatible with the sidewalk. If a Segway hits you, it's like being hit by another pedestrian." By traveling at three or four times walking speed, and thus turning what would have been a 30-minute walk into a 10-minute ride, Kamen contends, Segways will in effect shrink cities to the point where cars "will not only be undesirable, but unnecessary."
Kamen isn't so naive as to underestimate America's long-standing romance with the automobile. ("I love cars too," he says. "Just not when I'm downtown.") And he is well aware that uprooting the vast urban infrastructure that supports cars, from parking garages to bridges and tunnels, won't happen soon. Which is why he has pinned his greatest hopes not on the U.S. but abroad, especially in the developing world. At a meeting with Jobs a year ago, the Apple co-founder proclaimed, in typically hyperbolic fashion, "If enough people see this machine, you won't have to convince them to architect cities around it; it'll just happen."