In the beginning, they called it “IT” for reasons that were never entirely clear to me. Steve Jobs said it would be bigger than the PC. John Doerr, a venture capitalist who funded Netscape and Amazon, said it might be “bigger than the Internet.”
IT, aka Ginger, aka the star of Paul Blart: Mall Cop is otherwise known as the Segway Personal Transporter. And as of this week, IT’s dead. Manufacture of the Segway PT will stop on July 15, with 21 employees laid off. Twelve will stay on temporarily to handle warranties and repairs, while five Segway employees working on Segway Discovery will remain with the company.
It’s the end of a line for a strange product that delivered exactly what it promised — specifically, a gyroscopically balanced two-wheeled vehicle that was much easier to ride (and far faster) than walking. The company originally hoped to sell 100,000 units in the first 13 months. According to FastCompany, it sold approximately 140,000 vehicles over its entire existence.
Ironically, its own engineering may have been part of the problem in that regard. Segways are apparently quite durable, with internal components that hold up well even at the 100K mile mark. Sales have reportedly been flat for three years, even as the Segway PT fell to just 1.5 percent of Chinese scooter manufacturer Ninebot’s revenue (Ninebot bought Segway in 2015).
This is one problem that didn’t start with the coronavirus. The Segway’s problem was simple: It was never clear who was supposed to buy the thing, or how they were supposed to avoid looking utterly ridiculous while riding it. At 10mph, Segways were too fast for sidewalks, but they’re clearly not street vehicles, either. They were snapped up by enthusiasts like Steve Wozniak, and by businesses that require employees to move a great deal. The aforementioned Paul Blart: Mall Cop movies accurately captured a big chunk of Segway’s business.
Segway’s core IP isn’t going anywhere; Ninebot has already introduced additional products that use the company’s patents, and it showed off ‘hoverchairs’ dubbed S-Pods at CES in 2020, though there’s no word on whether that product has been canceled in the wake of these changes or not. The S-Pod is capable of hitting a terrifying 24 miles per hour and was supposed to be for sale in 2021.
Segway’s biggest problem, in my personal opinion, wasn’t any intrinsic failure of technology, but of optics. Technology doesn’t have to make the end-user look cool, but it certainly doesn’t help if it does. Segways didn’t just fail to make you look more interesting; they actively made anyone riding them look bad. And I genuinely think part of the problem is that no one riding a Segway ever looks as if they are moving.
Run a Google image search for “Bike riding” and look at the results:
Almost every single photo implies motion, to one degree or another. Bodies are bent over handlebars, legs captured mid-stroke. Search for “Segway riding” and here’s what you get:
The only images suggesting motion have been obviously Photoshopped. Ignoring the hoverboard picture, none of these people appear to be doing anything but standing still. Segway’s own website did no better:
People who rode Segways often reported liking them and the vehicles were, by all reports, fairly easy to use — though that didn’t prevent the then-owner of the Segway company from killing himself with one in 2017 — but it simply never looked like a product that would be all that much fun to use, which undoubtedly harmed efforts to find a use case for it.
Feel free to check out our “Now Read” coverage below. ExtremeTech actually wrote quite a bit about the Segway 19 years ago, and I’ve linked up some of our stories to let you eyeball the difference in how a couple of decades changed impressions of the technology.
Feature image is CC BY 2.0, by FaceMePLS, Flickr
- The Technology Behind The Segway
- Ginger Unveiled–It’s a Scooter!
- The Art of the Lean: Riding the Segway