Reinventing the Wheel

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Dean's Machine: Will cities allow it to share the sidewalk with pedestrians?

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Will the Segway be a runaway hit? A device that reduces the need for walking, one of the healthiest activities known to man, may strike many people as the last thing our culture needs. (Kamen scoffs, "Because I give kids calculators doesn't make them stupider.") And three grand may strike many others as an awful lot to pay for something they've managed so far to live happily without. John Doerr, who helped bankroll Compaq in the infant days of the personal-computer industry, points out that the first PCs cost $3,000 to $5,000. The analogy is worth pondering. The brave souls who bought those early PCs were willing to cough up big bucks not simply to own computers that were small and powerful but also to be part of a kind of revolutionary vanguard. Will consumers today make the same calculation about the Segway?

If it's seen as sufficiently cool, they might. But here Segway faces a double-edged sword. If not for the media frenzy a year ago, Kamen and his invention would be receiving a good deal less attention. At the same time, that frenzy ginned up expectations so absurdly extravagant that they will be hard to live up to. There is a very real possibility that for those whose only experience of the Segway is on TV or in the press, the reaction to it may boil down to five lethal words: Is that all it is? And that possibility is only enhanced by the fact that to many eyes giving the photos only a cursory glance, a Segway doesn't look like a revolution. It looks...well, sorta like a scooter.

But looks can be misleading, as anyone who's ridden a Segway can attest. Just ask Jeff Bezos. On a rainy morning in Seattle recently, Bezos dropped in at a meeting between Kamen, his team and a pair of Amazon execs. The meeting was being held in an Amazon "pick and pack" facility--a warehouse in which employees pick stock from shelves and pack it in boxes for shipment to customers. Kamen had come to sell Amazon some Segways by demonstrating that they would, as Bezos put it, "improve our picking productivity."

Like Grove, Bezos is confident that Segway will make a mint selling to the corporate market; also like Grove, he is less certain about its consumer prospects. "At Amazon, we didn't know at first, and nobody knew, whether people would want to buy books online, and the same is true for whether people will want to ride these," he says. "Walking is a superb mechanism for getting around--I don't see it being replaced anytime soon. And for long hauls, driving is darn good too. The question is whether there's a middle ground, some intermediate zone where these would be better than all the alternatives?"

Just then, Kamen rides up and hands his Segway over to Bezos. As the Amazon boss races madly around the warehouse, hooting and cackling and flapping his arms, someone yells out, "Yo, Jeff, what were you saying about the consumer market?" Whizzing past, Bezos shouts back, "There's definitely at least a consumer market of one!"

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