HD-DVD falls prey to the demo effect

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In pretty much the worst case demo scenario, Microsoft and Toshiba's HD/DVD demo totally flopped:
LAS VEGAS (AP) - It was supposed to be the grand unveiling of a new generation in home entertainment when Kevin Collins of Microsoft Corp. popped an HD DVD disc into a Toshiba production model and hit "play."

Nothing happened.

The failed product demo at this week's International Consumer Electronics Show was hardly an auspicious start for the HD DVD camp in what's promising to be a nasty format war similar to the Betamax/VHS video tape battle.

The "demo effect" is of course well known in tech circles. No matter how many times you test some piece of technology, it's almost certainly going to fail the first time you show it to anyone else. The demo effect is almost impossible to defeat, but there are a few things you can do:

Get used to the idea that it's a sham. The hardest idea for engineers to get their heads around is that demos are fake. You're not trying to actually show your product, just give people an idea of what your product would do if it actually worked. The good part of this is that you have enormous freedom to fake things up. The bad part of this is that the things you show have to work and that if it essentially works but the cosmetics are hosed, it goes over badly.

Rigorously program your demos. You have limited testing time, so it's almost impossible to make sure that everything works. The best you can do is make sure that you do the same thing every time: start it up the same way, show the features in exactly the same order. Don't let the machine go to sleep, etc. None of this guarantees that the system will work when it's shown for real, but if you go off the fairway, the chance that something will break is almost 100%. A corollary to this is to--if at all possible--avoid demos that rely on the Internet. There are all sorts of ways that Internet flakiness can screw up your demo. If you do need to show something that involves networking, you're better off bringing some local machine that can act as the server. Remember, it's OK to have it be fake!

Test, test, and test again. Once you've got your demo planned, you need to test it obsessively. I said before that you needed to rigorously program your demo, but you also need to test all the ways that your marketing/demo person is likely to screw up in action.

Once you get it working, don't screw with it. Engineers always want to put the bleeding-edge code on the demo machine. Don't let them. It's much better to have the old code that really works rather than the newest code. This goes hand-in-hand with the first point about things being fake. What I've done in the past is to maintain a machine that's not used for anything but demos and only install new code once you're really confident. An additional advantage of this is that it lets marketing do independent demos without involving engineering.

Work your way up. This last piece of advice is pure voodoo. If you go right from your home lab to a big demo, Murphy's Law will instantly kick in and your demo won't work. My hand-waving explanation here is that in "live" situations and under stress you behave a bit differently. In any case, it's essential to start with small audiences and work your way up.

So, what's amazing about this HD-DVD failure is that surely Toshiba and Microsoft's people know all this stuff, and it sounds like this is the simplest possible demo. Quite surprising it didn't work, really.

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2 Comments

You also forgot...

ALWAYS have a hot spare running and able to be transitioned over to. I think Steve Jobs demos usually have 2 or 3 hotspares (now THERE is a master of the demo).

The HD-DVD super duper DRM system probably sensed that the DVD was being played in public without written permission from the RIAA, so decided to not display the content.

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