Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Right Idea, Wrong Time

There are good ideas, bad ideas, and ideas whose time has not yet arrived. We all probably see ideas of all three types all the time. If only we could reliably distinguish among them.

Think back to the Apple Newton, one of the first high-function handheld devices. It was, by any reasonable account, a loser. The interface was clunky, the software was lackluster, the price was high, and so not surprisingly, the sales were poor. A few years later the Palm Pilot came out. It did much better, but it was still only a niche device for a tech audience. At about that time, it would have been easy to conclude that personal digital assistants (PDAs) and other handheld electronics were never going to become the “next big thing.” And then the iPod came along. And then the iPhone came along. Suddenly, advanced handheld computers were mainstream and everywhere.
Think back to the tablet computers first introduced a decade ago. They used pen input and ran a Windows operating system. But they didn’t quite catch on. It would have been easy to conclude that tablet computers were not going to catch on. Until the iPad came along.

In each of these cases, a perfectly good idea came to market too soon, or perhaps was poorly executed. Or both. Eventually a better implementation came along at the right moment at the right price – and the product category took off. I suggest that it’s worth keeping an open mind to this possibility when a product or product category looks like a loser. When prices drop due to falling costs of construction or due to volume, when rough edges get smoothed, when the market itself changes around the product category, sometimes a surprise "winner" emerges.

Remember the Segway? The personal transportation device was going to transform cities and change the way people get around. Except it hasn't done so. 

The Segway occupies an odd place culturally. Not a success, but not forgotten. It’s a central element in odd stories like a modern Santa delivering Christmas trees, or an accident ending a college career. It’s typical to see stories about how the Segway failed to deliver on the huge initial hype. It hasn’t changed the way cities are planned and the way people get from place to place. At least not yet. But what if the Segway is like the Newton or the Palm Pilot or the Windows Tablet? What if it is almost the right idea but introduced a little too soon and at too high a price to catch on? 

I can't say that I'm convinced that the Segway (or some derivative work) will catch on, but I'm open to the possibility. I've learned that some things start out looking like a bad idea and later turn into a good one.

What do you think? Is the Segway an idea whose time has not yet come? Please leave a comment and let us know.


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