Why Tech Conferences are Now the Worst Place to Demo Tech Products

More and more, they mostly demonstrate that wireless Internet access isn't very reliable.

By  |  Tuesday, July 13, 2010 at 4:51 pm

Back in May, I attended Google’s I|O conference at San Francisco’s Moscone Center. It was an eminently worthwhile event, but wireless connectivity issues were a persistent problem–demos during both of the show’s keynotes were messed up by the difficulty of establishing a reliable connection in a room packed with geeks brandishing smartphones, notebooks., and MiFis.

A few weeks later, Apple’s WWDC convened in the same conference hall. Nobody knows how to orchestrate a demo like Steve Jobs, but when he attempted to show off the iPhone 4, he couldn’t get Safari to load Web pages. The poor guy was reduced to pleading with attendees to shut down their Wi-Fi and said there were 527 MiFi-type wireless routers in the room.

Over the past two days, I’ve been at MobileBeat 2010. A bunch of the demos by startups have been hobbled by spotty connectivity. I took a break this morning to visit an event hosted by Bing at Microsoft’s San Francisco offices. It included a demo of the Bing phone app that didn’t go as planned because the Wi-Fi didn’t work. None of this surprised me.

Overloaded Wi-Fi is generally the culprit here: Even when a demo could theoretically be done over 3G (like Jobs’s iPhone 4 walkthrough) almost nobody’s silly enough to risk doing it that way. It’s a given that 3G is too likely to choke. But in a large room packed with nerds, Wi-Fi can be just as iffy.

How bad have things gotten with these problems putting a crimp in public demonstrations of tech products? When I’m at a conference and a demo involving wireless Internet access begins–and the majority of demos I see nowadays do–I assume it’s not going to go perfectly. There will be a delay while the person onstage tries to get connected. Or the Internet will be so sluggish as to make the product in question look bad. Or the Net will be just plain AWOL

Whatever happens, it won’t be representative of how a product will perform in the real world–unless you invite several thousand wireless gadget-toting pals over to watch you use your new device.

It’s fascinating to watch how different tech execs respond to this basic problem. Some, like Steve Jobs, get visibly testy and/or beg the audience to shut off their gizmos. Others sweat, tug at their shirtcollars like Rodney Dangerfield, and apologize. Some desperately try to make the demo work until the clock runs out; some cry out for tech support; some give up and move on.

Whatever happens, it often renders the demo pointless. Either it makes the product look bad, or it leaves the audience unable to come to any informed conclusions. Playing a pretaped demo would work better. (And I can’t believe I’m saying that: I hate pretaped demos.)

My instinct used to be to blame event organizers for providing cruddy Wi-Fi. Lately, though, the problem is so pervasive that I’m not sure if anything can be done. If Steve Jobs can’t fix this, maybe nobody can.

Then again, maybe it’s possible to solve this issue, or at least make it less of a hassle for all involved. A few possible solutions (yes, I know some of these aren’t exactly practical):

  • Demonstrators could use a wired Ethernet connection if at all possible. (You’d think they’d do this anyhow, but I suspect that it’s not a universal practice.)
  • When using a phone or another device that doesn’t support Ethernet directly, they could use some sort of adapter to pump wired Internet into the device over USB. (Some would call this cheating–but they could disclose that they’re doing it, and it would be preferable to the demo just not working.)
  • My friend Steve Wildstrom has suggested that demonstrators might sidestep Wi-Fi problems by using the robust, little-used 802.11a  variant of the standard, thereby avoiding the spectrum hogs who are on 802.11n and 802.11g. (I’m not sure if this is even possible unless the gadget a demo runs on specifically supports 802.11a.)
  • Conference organizers could provide wired Ethernet connections to attendees with laptops–in the press section, at least–thereby reducing the Wi-Fi load.
  • Organizers could politely request that attendees shut off Wi-Fi and/or other radios before demos begin.
  • Organizers could prevent attendees from brining gadgets into events at all.
  • Or maybe 4G wireless and/or other technological breakthroughs will provide bandwidth so plentiful that this won’t be an issue.

I’m not about to predict that wireless hobgoblins are about to kill off the very idea of the tech-conference product demonstration. I just know that I’ve begun gritting my teeth whenever demos that depend on wireless access begin–which presumably isn’t the desired effect.


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6 Comments For This Post

  1. John Baxter Says:

    My take is that a pre-taped demo should be prepared, and used quite soon after a live demo seems to be going awry. Or just used instead of trying, in a larger venue. Fully disclosed, of course.

    The alternative would indeed be some form of fudged wired connection (used to get iPhone video into projectors anyhow)–those should also be disclosed more than by simply letting the cord show.

    My personal method is to stay home and let you pros do your excellent jobs of telling me what happened.

  2. AZ Bob Says:

    I'm not a radio nerd, but if the device could handle WEP, WPA, et al, then reserve a WiFi channel specifically for the demo. Though now that I think of it, that wouldn't help with 527 MiFi-type devices in the room. Though perhaps offing free WiFi on other channels, and asking to not use those might mitigate it some, assuming the crowd isn't too large, and will actually listen and comply. I don't know how the different channels used affect each other, if there might need to be a unused/lightly-used channel buffer or not between the over used channels and the demo channel.

  3. Steve Wildstrom Says:

    I had suggested that Apple could have used a customized 802.11a iPhone for the keynote. (The little used 802.11a runs at 5 GHz, while b/g uses 2.4 GHz.) Unfortunately, creating one-off phones isn't an option for most demoers. Maybe Apple, HTC, Moto, etc. should make custom 802.11a devices specifically for conferences. It would be a public service and wouldn't be that hard.

  4. bobbeaux Says:

    I was an AV tech at TechCrunch Disrupt. I can tell you they spent A FORTUNE on wireless for the meeting. There were well over a thousand people in attendance and the wifi never faltered. We had multiple ethernet hard lines at the stage and techs on hand just to manage that aspect. They also brought in a MASSIVE data pipes to handle connectivity with the outside world. They also smartly, hired a team of IT professionals to manage and monitor the whole shebang. My feeling is that this was shrewd and very smart. There were so many people live blogging, and tweeting etc.. that it would have been embarassaing for the event organizers if someone could not connect at a
    "Tech" conference Not one person, either attendee or presenter had ANY connectivity issue over the 3 days of the conference. To quote a line from my favorite movie The Right Stuff…"No bucks, no Buck Rogers"

  5. Bob Van Valzah Says:

    I would try leveraging the inverse square law (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inverse-square_law). Put an access point IN the podium. The presenter with a handheld device can look natural and never need an RF path of more than a meter or so. Competing signals from the audience will be at least 10s of meters away and so attenuated 100x or more relative to the presenter. I don't know if the spread spectrum modulation techniques of WiFi exhibit the capture effect of FM, but it's worth a shot. Worst case, you just have to build a transparent Farady cage for the presenter and the access point 🙂

  6. CoHop12 Says:

    Amazingly insightful article. If only it was as easy to implement some of the solutions as it was to read and nod my head at each of your points
    Cole // Laptop repair