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Demo gamble: A high-anxiety game of show-and-tell

Few venues in the computer industry have such do-or-die proportions, as dozens of companies preview their prelaunch products to a select audience.

PHOENIX--They are called "demos," an opportunity for an engineer to bask in the brief glory of a successful demonstration of a new product's features and capabilities.

Or a chance to die a thousand deaths in a brief, albeit searing--and very public--humiliation.

Few venues in the computer industry have taken on such do-or-die proportions as the annual Demo conference here, where dozens of companies are invited to preview their beta, or prelaunch, software and hardware, to a select audience of industry executives, venture capitalists and reporters.

For many, a successful demo can make a company's reputation, as was the case several years back when Jeff Hawkins launched the Palm handheld device to rave reviews at this show. But the demo gods are not always so kind. With the increasing reliance of new products on notoriously fickle telecommunications infrastructures, the nightmare scenario becomes more than a remote possibility.

"In 1996, when the Internet was still relatively young, we lost the backbone at the show, and it affected 40 percent of the presentations," said Demo co-host Jim Forbes. "But the odds are that something could happen. This is real life. That's why we tell them to have alternatives."

In the week before this week's two-day show, LingoMotors' demonstration team went on a diet, made sure to go to bed early, and then "prayed to the demo gods 17 times a day," according to John Hanselman, chief executive of the Cambridge, Mass., software company.

And so it was that Hanselman demonstrated the company's context-based, natural-language system for returning Internet search results, flawlessly putting the system through a canned demo. But when show co-host Chris Shipley invited the audience to suggest its own string of search terms, Hanselman momentarily held his breath.

"She threw down the gauntlet," he recalled. "I was floating when it worked."

Not everyone was so lucky.

Executives from Eazel, a Mountain View, Calif., company that has developed a new user interface for Linux-based systems, found themselves improvising after the computer network died midway through the demonstration.

"It happened exactly as we began to try and show off the services part of the demo--which happened to be the most important part," said Brian Croll, the company's vice president of marketing. "I doomed us. I said before going on, to one of the people on the team, that I've never demo'd anything so solid that I use everyday."

Adding to the pressure, a company has only eight minutes on stage to knock peoples' socks off. That becomes especially challenging when an explanation of the product or technology is not easily reducible to sound bites.

That was the challenge facing executives from WaveTrend as they stepped the crowd through their wireless ID security system. First, the PA system acted up, rendering every third word spoken by the presenter inaudible to the audience. And then the system crashed.

The team from EA.com had it even worse. As the presenter began his demo of "Majestic," a suspense thriller that allows people to interact via chat, e-mail, voice mail, fax and the Web, everything just blew up.

The presenter, an executive vice president named Neil Young (no, not that Neil Young) was fast on his feet and talked his way around the glitch for a few minutes until the system could be resuscitated. Then the system blew up again, so he invited attendees to come visit the technology pavilion, where the game was presumably on sounder ground.

"Well," he said, "I don't think I'm going to win the demo god award."