I received some interesting — indeed, confessional — e-mail about “The Art of the Demo” in which I suggested that when you see a great technology demo, make sure to look behind the curtain.
But first, let me deal with all the e-mail from Apple aficionados. By using Steve Jobs in the first paragraph, I certainly didn’t mean to suggest to his legion of fans that Steve was stooping to trickery when he unveiled the latest Mac mini last week.
A great demo doesn’t have to be fakery — it just needs to make your product look larger than life. And on that count Steve genuinely belongs in the Demo Hall of Fame. I still remember when, during his hiatus from Apple, he unveiled the first NeXT computer at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco in 1988. For $6500, you didn’t even get a floppy disk drive, but no one noticed: Steve commissioned a beautiful piece of music — a computer-violin duet — and had the first violinist of the San Francisco Symphony onstage to perform it live, with the NeXT box playing along in real time. Now that’s a demo.
On to the confessions:
Steve, Neenah, WI: When I worked for a small company that created nursing home software, I had to do a demo of some vaporware. My boss, all the way there in the car, pounded this into my head: "Never say no." Anything they expect it to do, say of course it can — but that it’s "on another server we didn't bring.”
She would do a demo with a menu system, a bunch of screens but absolutely no code behind them. She could get into a screen and describe what it would look like populated with data — and no one ever asked to see it actually work. This was software we were selling for $20,000 to $100,000.
Ted: Great story! And it brought back many memories. I spent years doing demos for RCA picture tubes and data display tubes. You should have seen us trying to demo HDTV moving pictures using a Pentium I PC 10 years ago! I especially like your Law of the Demo — to always look behind the curtain. It's all so true. We demo’d to some real hard-core techies — IBM, HP, Intel — and yet, you know, even they really WANTED to believe ...
Mark: Ah yes, demos. You didn't mention one of my favorite things about demos — having done the same demo so many times that you knew at exactly what point in the demo you'd simply go into autopilot while thinking about where you were going to eat lunch!
Of course, there's a phenomenon that's the opposite of the one I just described — ever try to use an old demo you haven't touched in a few years? It's very strange (especially when it's a highly scripted demo). A few months ago, I tried to show somebody a demo of an old broadband Internet interface from years ago. The demo was a true classic, and it cost us a couple hundred thousand to get it that way! But as soon as I was into it, I couldn't remember a thing about how it worked…