Woz and the Segway PT (did Steve Jobs get it wrong?)

Steve Wozniak is a long-time fan of the Segway Personal Transporter (PT), and has owned many examples. He even purchased a yellow i180 model from Segway New Zealand in 2006.

During his talk Steve Wozniack LIVE: Disruptive Innovation, Inspiration and Entrepreneurial Wizardry in Auckland on Monday 21 May 2012, Woz mentioned the Segway Personal Transporter several times – including of course his love of Segway Polo – the first new internationally played sport of the 21st century.

Woz commented that people often judge how innovative something is by the way that it looks. For this reason alone, the Segway PT was perceived as incredibly innovative. There had never been a real-life self-balancing form of human transport prior to its unveiling in 2001.

Woz used Sony products as an example of this. During the latter part of the 20th century Sony was widely considered the most innovative company in the consumer electronics space. Their offerings were that little bit sleeker, little bit smaller, and a little bit more desirable to own than the competition. This enabled Sony to charge premium prices and fund ongoing R&D that kept them on the leading edge, Today, it could be argued that it is Apple that now holds that crown. At Apple product launches, Steve Jobs would draw attention to how the latest and greatest i-Device was thinner, smaller and lighter than ever before.

Another observation that Woz drew attention to was how technology change often pre-dates the development of applications that use it (rather than these two things occurring simultaneously). The gave the example of how he deliberately built expansion slots into the Apple II computer. These slots would prove to be the key element in the long life of this computer in the marketplace. While he could not predict how these slots would be used, he suspected the innate creativity of humans would ensure people went on to invent the widest variety of “cards” to slide into the slots to expand and extend the capabilities of the Apple II – sensors, gaming peripherals, maths accelerators, graphics cards and more. Woz observed that humans – and especially children – are innately curious….we open every drawer and check inside every cupboard. The decision to build in this openness forever changed how individuals, businesses and organisations could use computers to interact with the real world.

His second example was the incredible graphics capabilities and large amount of RAM that early Macintosh computers were designed to address. The Mac could display a bit-mapped photograph on screen – something no other PC of its era could even come close to achieving. This enabled Adobe Corporation to write Photoshop, thereby forever changing the world of print.

There is an analogy here with Darwinian evolution. Certain plants and animals within a species happen to exhibit expressions of genes that make them already pre-adapted to the environmental changes that are occuring, thereby improving their chances of survival (and thus passing on their genes).

The Segway PT is probably an example of a technology that pre-dates the changes in the environment in which it will ultimately thrive, and deliver to people and their communities the benefits it offers.

On many occasions over the last decade Dean Kaman has made this observation, believing that even today the Segway PT is ahead of its time. If he is asked if the Segway PT has been a failure in the marketplace, he says “Ask me again in 10 years and we’ll see who is right” while commenting it took three to four decades between the invention of the motor car and its widespread adoption. He comments that inventors often over-estimate how quickly a new idea will catch on, and underestimate the impact of its eventual impact. Projecting forward the rapid growth of Segway Tours during the last three hearts, the rise in use for patrol and public safety applications, and especially by popularity amongst mobility users, it appears increasingly likely that use of the Segway PT will spread rapidly and become ubiquitous in Western cities within 20 years of its launch.

Steve Jobs had an opportunity to see a prototype Segway PT, and made a number of comments about the early, pre-production design. He also gave his opinion on the strategy Segway, Inc. should take with regards to launching the Segway PT, and drew comparisons with how he went about launching the original iMac. Read it all and find out more about Dean Kamen’s audacious plane to change the world in Steve Kemper’s book “Code Name Ginger: the story behind Segway and Dean Kamen’s quest to invent a new world” (buy it from Fishpond or Amazon).

Later,  when the Segway PT first came out Woz said to Steve Jobs that he thought “….it was so cool and elegant and an amazing machine, just like an Apple II or a Mac.” Jobs’ response was “Yes, but it only does one thing, whereas a computer is a platform that can do many things.”

While the Segway PT “only” moves people around, it does so very well in a wide variety of environments and contexts. Further, self-balancing platforms based on the Segway PT are finding applications in robotics and materials handling, entertainment and education. Perhaps Jobs was overly simplistic in his observation – the next decade will tell.

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” – from Apple’s ‘Think Different’ campaign (1997)

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