The sight pictured above is a little odd, but it’s not that unusual. If you live in a large urban area, chances are you see people going by on Segway scooters now and again. They’re awkward, they’re funny, and yes they’re a little cool (if you can afford them), but they’re pretty mundane, all things considered. Sometimes you see mail carriers or parking patrols using them. Regular people, not so much.

But do you remember the incredible hype when the Segway first came out? I do. It was in December 2001, and it bordered–literally–on hysteria. The launch of the product, which was invented by Dean Kamen of New Hampshire, was filled with a lot of media and Internet buzz. Before the name “Segway” became public knowledge, the new invention, which no one had seen yet, was called simply “IT” (like the Stephen King novel), or in some instances, “Ginger.” In the early days of the buzz know one knew what IT was, just that an amazing new invention was about to be unveiled in New Hampshire, and that it would be the biggest technology boom in our lifetimes.

Yes. I actually remember reading that. In December 2001 I was working for a large corporate law firm, and I remember when one of the lawyers read something about “IT” on the Internet it created quite a stir at our workplace. This lawyer sent around an email to all the attorneys with the subject line “THE NEXT BIGGEST THING!” and, while not identifying what the product was (he didn’t know), suggesting that if “IT” was as big as “they” (who?) said “IT” was, many of our business clients would immediately want to invest in “IT.” All anybody knew about “IT” was that “IT” had something to do with transportation.

The investment rumors got started as a result of a report on the Internet that Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, had met with the creators of “IT” in New Hampshire, and after taking one look at “IT” decided to invest $10 million on the spot. This was thought to be very persuasive. Never mind that Steve Jobs could probably have found $10 million on the end of an emery board after cleaning under his toenails, but if (GASP!) Steve Jobs was willing to invest in “IT,” everybody would want one! Right?

steve jobs

What if we threw a product launch and Steve Jobs hated it? Hmm…

As it turned out, Steve Jobs did meet with the creators of “IT,” but the meeting lasted longer than 10 minutes and he certainly didn’t cough up $10 million on the spot. In a book about the debacle called Code Name Ginger, the meeting went more like this:

“What does everyone think about the design?” asked Doerr, switching subjects.

“What do you think?” said Jobs to Tim. It was a challenge, not a question.

“I think it’s coming along,” said Tim, “though we expect—” “I think it sucks!” said Jobs.

His vehemence made Tim pause. “Why?” he asked, a bit stiffly.

“It just does.”

This evidently didn’t stop the creators of “IT” from proclaiming–or at least offering no objection to others’ proclamations–with great hyperbole, that “IT”/Ginger was going to “revolutionize human civilization.” Yes. Somebody said that. Evidently the theory was that “IT” was going to replace the automobile in urban areas, and that eventually cities would be designed around “IT”s in the same way that 19th century cities were designed around horses and 20th century cities were designed around cars.

The “IT” hype didn’t last long. Not long before the December 4 launch of the product, someone leaked the patent for “IT” on the Internet. Most everybody shrugged. My first reaction upon seeing the schematics was that it was basically a motorized Razor scooter. It’d make a cool toy for rich kids, but little else.

12 years later my opinion hasn’t changed much. If the Segway is going to “revolutionize human civilization,” it’s taking an awfully long time to get started. I bet in 10 years the only place you’ll be able to find a Segway scooter is in an antique store. You can’t ride them in many places–it’s illegal–and they’re just not very practical. The Segway company is evidently not profitable. It expected to sell 50,000 to 100,000 of the gadgets in the first year of operation. It has sold less than 30,000 in over a decade.

*sad trumpet noise* WOP-WAAAHHH!

The image of Steve Jobs is from the Russian Federation government, Used pursuant to blanket attribution license.