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Lies, damned lies, and demos

Lies, damned lies, and demos
By Harry McCracken • Issue #2 • View online
Hello! Welcome to the second installment of Technologizer the newsletter. As I write this, 461 of you have signed up to receive this. That’s more than I guessed would come on board so quickly, and prompted me to hastily upgrade my Revue newsletter-publishing plan to accomodate more of you.
I’m still experimenting with this medium. The last issue consisted of a bunch of short items, but would you mind if this one focused on one subject? (Okay, okay, I’ll include an bonus item at the end.)

The dark art of the demo
Bill Gates and Regis Philbin at the Windows XP launch in 2001, in a fuzzy photo I took with my Canon point-and-shoot (and which is only tangentially related to this piece).
Bill Gates and Regis Philbin at the Windows XP launch in 2001, in a fuzzy photo I took with my Canon point-and-shoot (and which is only tangentially related to this piece).
Was Google’s I/O unveiling of Duplex, um, duplicitious? The company showed off the technology, designed to let AI-infused software place phone calls and make appointments, by playing two recorded conversations, to a hair stylist and a restaurant. CEO Sundar Pichai emphasized that they were “real” calls.
As journalists have raised questions about the recordings—for instance, why don’t the establishments identify themselves or ask for contact info?—Google has chosen not to address them. Now Daring Fireball’s John Gruber has written a post (one of several he’s posted on the topic) detailing his suspicions that Duplex might be real, but not yet as refined as the I/O presentation suggested.
I’m not here to ruminate about Duplex, its rollout, and Google’s responsibilities. (For one thing, I did so in my last newsletter.) Instead, I’m moved to noodle around on a point in Gruber’s post: “A recording is not a demo.”
He’s right. (I was guilty of lax terminology when I called the Duplex segment of the I/O keynote a “demo” in my initial coverage, and feel sheepish about it.) An onstage presentation involving playback of audio (or video) is not the same thing as one in which someone uses a product live. It removes the risk of embarassing failure and generally strips away the context that would allow the audience to judge just how impressive a new product or technology really is.
Now, there are legitimate reasons why a company might choose to play a recording rather than perform a live demo. For instance, a true unstaged demo of Duplex onstage at I/O would have been a nonstarter for any number of reasons,  starting with the fact that Google wouldn’t have subjected some unsuspecting small business to being part of an onstage presentation streamed to a global audience. And if the business was expecting the call, any interaction with Duplex would have been kabuki rather than a real encounter.
But the thing is, even demos that really are demos are works of stagecraft.  Nobody’s going to show you a half-finished feature or delve into functionality that will, more likely than not, result in a crash. They’ll show you precisely what they want to show you, and you generally don’t have a clue what you aren’t seeing.
There’s a Potemkin Village-like aspect to the entire ritual. That was especially true back in golden age of computer magazines, when companies previewed upcoming products to the press months before they shipped. Almost nothing was anywhere near ready for prime time, which meant that demos—even ones of genuinely impressive products—were akin to someone driving down a twisty road knowing that even one wrong turn would have sent the car careening off a cliff.
Mostly, companies are able to pull off such feats in catastrophe-free fashion, which is why the major exceptions are so memorable. The 1998 Microsoft scanner demo which blue-screened a Windows 98 PC as Bill Gates watched was big news at the time; 20 years later, the Register was moved to publish an article marking its anniversary.
Bill Gates, Windows 98, Blue Screen of Death - YouTube
Bill Gates, Windows 98, Blue Screen of Death - YouTube
I remember a different Gates demo glitch from that era: At the Windows XP launch in 2001, he made a Windows Messenger video call from bustling Times Square to an associate onstage in the theater. During the call, Gates’ laptop crashed—and he instantly switched to a second machine which he just so happened to have with him. It was a nice rebound, but it highlighted the artifice of the whole exercise.
What I’m saying is that a product’s ability to get through a live demo is only slightly more impressive than it seeming to work well in a pre-recorded presentation. Steve Jobs’ January 2007 reveal of the original iPhone was the greatest demo of this century. But as Gruber notes, when Apple then let a few journalists try out the the phone for themselves in supervised sessions later that day, they found that the smartphone that had seemed feature-complete in Jobs’ hands was still missing some functionality altogether.
It was only possible to evaluate the iPhone as a product once reviewers (and, soon thereafter, consumers) got unfettered access to it, which happened months later. The same will be true of Duplex, no matter when it ships and regardless of how Google chose to introduce it to the world.
Many thanks from Macintosh
Speaking of Steve Jobs, the cover of the first issue of Macworld, depicting a nattily-attired Jobs posing with three Macs, is probably the most famous image in computer-magazine history. (Or maybe the only famous image; I can’t think of a runner-up.)
The insides of that 1984 issue are not so well known. When I recently perused an original file copy, one of my favorite items was a story on Susan Kare, whose wonderful iconography played a major role in defining the original Macintosh experience and influences computing interfaces to this day. Macworld’s Jeffrey Young interviewed Kare about some of the artwork she had created on a Mac, back when the machine hadn’t yet been released and she was just about the first artist to get her hand on its mouse. 
The least fancy example of Kare’s work in the article is still an oddly memorable, evocative one: a “many thanks” certificate designed to be cosigned by Jobs and Apple CEO John Sculley. (Whether Apple did dole these out or it’s just an example, I’m not sure.)
At first glance, the certificate looks like the sort of thing that anybody and everybody would soon be whipping up in desktop-publishing programs using templates and clip art. Kare’s version, however, is hand-crafted–she explains that she made each of the knots in the border’s corners slightly different–and it’s easy to forget that in 1984, Macworld readers would have been impressed by the idea it had been created on a personal computer.
That’s it for now. Drop me a line at with any thoughts, requests, or questions, and see you in a few days.
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Harry McCracken

A roundup of technology-related stuff I'm writing, reading, and remembering.

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