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March 11, 1996

Masters of High-Tech Demo Spin Their Magic


They aren't pulpit-thumping preachers, they aren't used car salesmen and they aren't even movie stars, but the world of high technology has spawned its own virtuosos who have raised the mundane product demonstration to an art form.

Once the province of the Fuller Brush man, in the world of computers and networks, the demo, as it is known, can assume the quality of a religious revival meeting where the audience gets a glimpse, if not of the Promised Land, at least of a bit of the future.

Of all the jobs the computer industry has created, the job of demonstration impresario may be the hardest to pigeonhole. It can be done by 20-somethings or 50-somethings. There are no pay scales, no formal prerequisites.

But whether they are programmers, hardware engineers or entrepreneurs, the best of these salesmen-hackers can transport a potential customer with their vision of a computing utopia and they have a real, if not easily measurable, effect on everything from product sales to discussions about the industry's role in society.

In a dry technical business that differentiates its products on the basis of megabytes and megahertz, the demo has created a star culture. Industry heroes like Apple Computer's co-founder, Steven Jobs, or Microsoft's co-founder, William Gates, perform like rock stars before crowds of thousands.

A software designer like Kai Krause of Metatools can hold his audiences spellbound for as long as three hours while the arcane mathematical formulas embedded in his programs make apparently magical images appear on a computer display.

In the most dramatic cases, the vision of a researcher like Douglas C. Engelbart can actually reshape the computer industry, prompting experts to rethink basic issues and charting fundamentally new directions for the industry.

"Giving a demo is finding a way, in the shortest possible time, to not only really strike the imagination but also the hearts and guts of people," said Jean Louis Gassee, the former Apple Computer executive who six years ago started Be Inc., which is based Menlo Park, Calif.

The rise of these super-salesmen has mirrored in many ways the idiosyncrasies of the computer industry. Rather than riding on a Willy Loman sales ethic, the PC industry was propelled to national prominence by evangelists like Jobs who believed personal computers would change society.

Since it has matured, the industry has frequently institutionalized that urge, forcing even the most pedestrian salesman to become self-styled visionaries. Demo virtuosos are a staple at industry trade shows like PC-Expo, Comdex and Macworld, where they hold forth like politicians giving stump speeches.

The work is usually an avocation, not a vocation, and does not fit in any one place in a career path. Demonstrations take place every day, in venues from trade show stages to the offices of newspapers and magazines.

New software or hardware or new on-line services are taken through their paces. Individual features are quickly highlighted, be they the fine resolution of the pixels on the screen, the blinding calculation speed of a new computer or the lifelike animation of a video-game player.

Gassee is one of the Zen masters of the demo. Last fall he unveiled his new computer, taking it through its paces at a computer industry show in Arizona where he received an almost unheard of standing ovation from an audience of usually cynical industry executives.

Gassee's new machine, which he said he intended to sell only to enthusiasts who care little that it is incompatible with Windows, Macintosh or Unix computers, drew appreciation for the sheer audacity of his quixotic venture.

Demos like Gassee's have become a firmly embedded computer industry tradition. A major product launch, such as Apple's Newton or Microsoft's Windows 95, will take place at a major auditorium with simultaneous satellite feeds to multiple continents, hooking together audiences whose size would not embarrass the Rolling Stones.

That kind of a boost for a product that might, in other circumstances, be no more than a mid-life kicker for an established line, can make the difference between desultory consumer interest and the kind of frenzy that greeted Windows 95. In August 1995, when Windows 95 was introduced, a worldwide audience was treated to the ultimate Gates demo. Customers from New Zealand to New York lined up at midnight to buy the software.

In other cases, a passionate introduction for an unknown new computer such as the BeBox can attract the best hackers and create interest in a product that would ordinarily go unnoticed.

But so-called industry visionaries can also over-promise technology before it can be built in workable products. It was this phenomenon that led Esther Dyson, a wry and knowledgeable industry observer, to coin the term "vaporware" for products that either did not exist or could not perform the feats the demo wizards claimed for them.

The "personal digital assistant," or pen computer, was oversold in the early 1990s with flashy demonstrations based on an immature technology. As a result, computer industry analysts said, consumers are now cautious about buying newer, hand-held pen-based computers, despite improvements.

Some demos have become part of the industry's mythology. At a technical conference in the fall of 1968, Engelbart, the computing pioneer, gave a seminal demonstration that, many experts believe, defined the art form. Engelbart was the scientist at the Stanford Research Institute who, in the 1960s, invented the mouse as well as much of the technology that is the basis of today's personal computers.

Sitting on a high stage in front of a specially constructed work station, Engelbart presided over one of the world's first demonstrations of interactive computing. Not only was it the first broad public demonstration of the mouse, but few in the audience had ever seen windows on a computer display, video conferencing or hypertext.

He stunned several thousand of the nation's best computer researchers, who had arrived at the hall believing that people should interact with computers by handing a stack of punched cards to an operator, then receiving a printout several hours later. "People were amazed," said William English, a researcher who worked with Engelbart at SRI. "In one hour he defined the era of modern computing."

The tradition begun by Engelbart is now carried on by designers such as Krause, a Southern California programmer who each year gives more than 100 public demonstrations of his graphics software tools, which are used to create remarkable digital images. He uses the demonstrations to propound his design philosophy and to entrance audiences with the idea of using a computer as an artistic tool.

"My philosophy is to go into virgin snow," he said. "I spend a great deal of time setting up the problems, and people learn how I solve them. I want my audience to get some sense of the complexity involved in what I'm doing."

"Kai almost always gets a standing ovation," said Stewart Alsop, a computer industry editor who created an annual industry show so that the best and flashiest in the industry could perform. "He really believes in what he's doing. It's similar to listening to a preacher and he has this uncanny ability to connect with a crowd in real-time."

Krause's style of giving demonstrations is so effective because he has designed the program he is showing off.

"The single most important determinant of the success of a demo is intimate knowledge of the product," said Guy Kawasaki, a software evangelist -- that is his official title -- at Apple Computer. "Believe it or not, something as simple as that is usually violated. Usually companies send people who are marketers with little understanding of what they're selling."

Andrew Hertzfeld, who was originally a programmer at Apple and later went on to co-found General Magic, the Sunnyvale, Calif., software company, is renowned for his "real-time" feats of programming.

"He seems to enjoy having his system crash" in mid-demo, said Mark Seiden, another programmer. "He'll say something like, 'Oh, I know what that is,' and then quickly type a hex command in his debugger. You're never really sure if he has rehearsed it or he's just really good."

At the MIT Media Laboratory, a training ground for industry's technical elite, the academic slogan "publish or perish" has been recodified as "demo or die."

"When we started the Media Lab, I kept telling people we must demo, demo, demo," said Nicholas Negroponte, the laboratory's director. "Forget technical papers and to a lesser extent theories. Let's prove by doing. Many folks in traditional computer science still think that 'demo or die' is all about icing and no cake. Wow, are they wrong."

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