With Electronic Frontier Foundation president Esther Dyson, entertainer Penn Jillette, Bill Nye "The Science Guy," and Intel chairman and CEO Craig Barrett on hand, Maher played the foil and challenged his guests to prove why an everyday citizen would possibly need to upgrade from his decade-old PC.
"You guys are forcing an upgrade agenda consumers don't want," Maher said, referring to the increasingly short product cycles in the PC industry. The obviously pro-computer panel argued that in the not-so-distant future, almost every home appliance will include a computer of some type.
"Saying you're into PCs will be like saying you're into blenders," said Penn Jillete, one half of the Penn and Teller duo. For his part, Barrett tried to convince Maher that a world where non-PC owners can retrieve email at a local library or post office would be much more convenient than the current system of receiving letters at home, drawing a snort from the host.
"This is your version of a Beltway mentality," Maher laughed. "You don't understand middle America."
Consumers were better off before crash-prone computer components were installed in non-PC machines like cars, Maher said, complaining about the automatic windows on his Mercedes. "Now I have to get the computer fixed to get the god-damned window up," he said.
"There are also computers with Windows that stick," Dyson shot back, to the delight of the crowd.
Microsoft continued to take its share of criticism. The panel demurred from offering predictions about the conclusion of the Microsoft antitrust trial, although Nye noted that "Windows 95 and Internet Explorer have some problems. I hope I'm not shocking anyone here."
Intel's Barrett, who used the forum in place of a formal keynote speech, also deflected specific questions about the business practices of the chipmaker's sometime business partner. "If Microsoft broke some laws, they should be punished," Barrett said. Quickly he added: "As one who is facing an FTC investigation, I'll decline to comment on the situation of my friends in Redmond."
The remainder of the time was spent debating the role of the government in the technology industry, with all of the participants espousing a hands-off policy.