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Demo veterans tell their secrets

What makes a demo god? Find out what it takes from the pros.

Rule No. 1 for Eckart Walther, a senior product manager at Netscape Communications (NSCP), is never do a live demo off the Internet unless absolutely necessary.

Walther is a veteran of that computer industry ritual known as the demo, a peculiar mixture of product demonstration, evangelism, and performance art. And at this week's Demo 97 conference in Indian Wells, California--where demos are elevated to a quasi-religious status and a privileged few are respected as "demo gods"--there was no shortage of veterans like him.

All of them had plenty of wisdom to share on the subject of what makes a good and bad demo, as well as who belongs in the pantheon of demo gods. Several people echoed Walther's policy about avoiding demos that use the Internet due to the network's maddening unpredictability. While long interludes of waiting for images to download may be acceptable in the comfort of one's office or home, they are generally not in front of large groups of people, especially if you are trying to sell Internet software.

"You should never perform with live animals, children, and the Internet," said Bob Metcalfe, vice president of technology for publisher International Data Group and founder of 3Com.

Another pitfall of the demo--buggy code--has led some veterans to come up with offerings to ward off unexpected software meltdowns. At Demo this week, Miko Matsumura, a Java evangelist for JavaSoft and, by several estimates, a budding demo god himself, cracked a telephone card in half before going on stage to bring himself good luck.

Joseph Linaschke, a project manager at MetaTools, doesn't make a habit of demonstrating buggy programs, but he says audiences tend to forgive glitches. "If it does crash, we just say it was in alpha." But there were also rumors at the conference of a product manager from Lotus Development whose career took a turn for the worse after a particularly bad demo at a previous conference.

Most people at the conference agreed that the best demos dispense with aggressive marketing pitches, competitive nastiness, and scripted presentations. A demo god--they are almost invariably gods, and not goddesses--can read the mood of audience like a nightclub singer or a stand-up comedian. Also, it doesn't hurt to have cool technology to show.

Case in point, a demo by Josh Gabriel, creative director at Mixman Technologies, showed off George Clinton's Greatest Funkin' Hits , a CD-ROM that allows users to create remixes of songs. With the music still pounding in everyone's ear from Gabriel's remix of the Clinton classic, Atomic Dog, one member of the audience shouted, "That's what computers are for!"

Demo 97 had its own officially anointed demo god, Kai Krause, the chief scientist at MetaTools. In a presentation appropriately titled "Return of the Demo God," Krause was treated to a rock star's ovation after a deft display of graphics technology.

But alas the demo god to end all demo gods was not at Demo 97 this year.

"I never make any decisions right after listening to Steve Jobs," Metcalfe said. "He's too good."