Review: Code Name Ginger

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Dan Lyke, Saturday August 12th, 2006

A few weeks ago I linked to an excerpt from Code Name Ginger, "The Story Behind SEGWAY and Dean Kamen's Quest to Invent a New World".

The Segway[Wiki] is interesting not because it's another over-hyped John Doerr[Wiki] attempt to suck money out of the stock market, but because so many really smart people saw a potential for it that most of the rest of us don't understand. To most of us, it's a clumsy overweight scooter, a device for people too lazy to walk that ties up the operator's hands so that there's no ability to carry anything, an expensive toy requiring more of an additional infrastructure than bicycles or traditional scooters, but to the believers it was going to change the way we view transportation.

Much like the Segway[Wiki] itself, Code Name Ginger[Wiki] promises much, but the lessons of the book aren't clear because the lessons of the product it chronicles are so ambiguous. Steve Kemper[Wiki] tries very much to make it a chronicle, rather than a critique, and in that space, and possibly because of some of the personality and confidentiality issues which caused his relationship with the project to fall apart as the project neared completion, it never asks the hard questions, instead leaving us to try to puzzle them out from his narrative.

And even there, I understand that Dean Kamen[Wiki] and John Doerr[Wiki] believed that secrecy was paramount to their project, that they'd only get a short lead-time before the knock-offs appeared, but why didn't anyone notice that it had no cargo capacity? That it tied up the operator's hands so that you couldn't, say, hold those grocery bags that there were no racks for? That it cost the price of a high end bicycle, far more than a basic used car, but with unknown component life?

Because the real story here isn't about the creation of a balancing two-wheeled robotic device, heck, they've been built out of LEGO, this is a tale about product arrogance, about a lack of marketing, about not managing advance hype in an effective way, about the worst stupidities of the .com boom brought to a physical product. And Kemper, in trying to write the next Soul of a New Machine[Wiki], doesn't convey that aspect of the tale.

I doubt he'll ever read this, but if Steve Kemper[Wiki] wants to write a follow-up book, how about getting some of the folks hired, with absolute secrecy during the interview process about the nature of the project, to open up about discovering that they were working on a freakin' scooter, just with lots of stock options and the lure of early retirement? Were they still psyched about the project for its own ends, or, a few weeks after getting hired, did this devolve into a straight money chase or the chance to work over at DEKA (especially since it sounds like many of the DEKA folks were jealous back)? How about asking Dean Kamen[Wiki], John Doerr[Wiki] and the other funders and hypers if they ever did their own grocery shopping? Why making the device closed and unhackable was a high priority?

The thing the book did make me wonder was what will happen when the patents run out on the product and the innovation can begin? Once people can take the basic idea and actually turn it into an innovative product then maybe we'll start to see some the cultural change that Kamen et al claim to see. Until then, though, the story of Segway[Wiki] will be a story of overcapitalization, bad market research, smart people working stretched to things outside of their purview because of myopic management, and product failure.

And while Code Name Ginger[Wiki] was a well written recounting of that tale, it wasn't the greater insight that I was hoping for.

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