Even showmanship can’t overcome epic demo fails


Author: Kristin Kulpinski
Last updated: Published:

There’s a lot at risk when you demo your actual software. No matter how prepared you are, there’s always the risk of current feature omissions, malfunctions, and an overall generic, glitchy experience.

You only get one chance to make a great impression. Therefore, it’s not enough to be a great presenter with a demo environment loaded with the potential for failure and mishaps. So, it’s best to set yourself up for success by controlling as many variables as possible to minimize the risks.

Even the best showmen like Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Michael Bay, supported by an extensive team of pros, experience demo fails they need to overcome. Let’s look at some examples.

2019 - Elon Musk unveiling the Cybertruck

Elon Musk unveiled his futuristic Cybertruck in Hawthorne, California in November 2019. The presentation demonstrated how tough the Armor Glass windows on the truck were. Chief Designer Franz von Holzhausen hurled a large steel ball bearing at the left front window and the vehicle’s glass was smashed. He then threw another ball bearing at another window, smashing it as well.

This was not what Musk had anticipated, leaving him to laugh off the demo mishap while on stage.

Later, Musk responded to the press by saying, “The sledgehammer demonstration that was done before the Armor Glass demo likely cracked the base of the window, which caused the steel ball to crack the glass instead of bouncing off like it did when he and Chief Designer Franz von Holzhausen were practicing backstage.” He continued, “That was quite startling. And then the irony was that I was like ‘Oh, the first window doesn’t work, don’t worry, the second one will, that will definitely work.’ The thing was, it was (supposed to be the window) on the other side of the vehicle, not the second window along, but on the other side.”

1998 - Windows 98 plug-and-play demo failure

Bill Gates was presenting a demo of Windows 98 in Chicago at a Spring Comdex event when the operating system crashed, resulting in the blue screen of death. Chris Capossela, Microsoft’s product manager, quickly removed the offensive message from the projection screens as Gates joked, “This must be why we’re not shipping Windows 98 yet.”

Gates was later quoted in the LA Times as saying, “I guess we still have some bugs to work out.”

2010 - Steve Jobs announcing the iPhone 4

Steve Jobs was introducing the new iPhone 4 when his demo came to an abrupt halt. He was attempting to show how website text displayed on the new retina display compared to the previous version of the iPhone 3GS. He encountered Wi-Fi issues, resulting in only one of the phone’s browser windows loading while the other phone’s screen was blank except for the half-filled progress bar across the top.

After trying to make it work for a few minutes, Jobs finally gave up and showed some pictures instead. Approximately 20 minutes later, Jobs announced he’d figured out that there were more than 570 devices on Wi-Fi and pleaded with the audience to get off Wi-Fi so he could continue the demonstration. But that didn’t seem to solve the issue either.

An Apple engineer later told infoworld.com, “there were 527 Wi-Fi hotspots set up in the room, most of which were MiFi devices, which connect to the Internet via 3G and set up a local Wi-Fi network so that laptops and mobile devices can access the Internet through them. More than 1,100 devices were connected to those and other local Wi-Fi networks set up by attendees.”

2017 - iPhone X demo - face recognition didn't work

After Phil Schiller finished praising the accuracy of the new iPhone X’s authentication system, Apple’s software chief Craig Federighi came onstage to demonstrate how easy and fast it was to use. But his initial attempt to unlock the onstage demo iPhone X was unsuccessful and he received a passcode screen instead. This caused him to move to a second iPhone X for his demonstration.

Later, an Apple rep explained the issue by saying, “People were handling the device for the stage demo ahead of time and didn’t realize Face ID was trying to authenticate their face. After failing a number of times, because they weren’t Craig, the iPhone did what it was designed to do, which was to require his passcode.” In other words, “Face ID worked as it was designed to.”

2006 - Honda’s Asimo Robot -  stumbles downstairs

Although Honda’s Asimo Robot has made huge strides over the years, its debut showing how well it can climb a flight of stairs was a catastrophic failure. Asimo made it halfway up the staircase when it turned to look at the audience, then suddenly collapsed into a heap.

Stagehands rushed on to hide what had happened by surrounding it with screens in hopes of preventing anyone from photographing the disappointing malfunction. Unfortunately, a video of the demo had already been recorded and posted to YouTube.

2023 - Google's Bard AI chatbot bombs first demo

In February 2023, Microsoft employee Alex Buscher demonstrated Bard, the much-hyped AI chatbot tool. Bard is a search feature integration of the Microsoft Bing search engine and Edge browser with OpenAI.

The demo showed a user asking Bard about new discoveries from the James Webb Space Telescope, and Bard's response claimed that the telescope took the very first pictures of a planet outside our solar system. However, this was found to be incorrect, resulting in Google's parent company, Alphabet's shares falling 7.7%, wiping $100 billion off its market value. Ouch.

Showmanship isn’t enough

Why do all these people feel safe? Was Steve Jobs not one of the best showmen on earth? Isn’t Bill Gates? Don’t these people know how to show their software? And Elon Musk—doesn’t he know how to demo his truck?

Why do the best showmen on earth, who are supported by an army of helpers and are most prepped when going on stage, still fail on the demo? Doing demos is very hard. There are a lot of things that can go wrong.

If you view it as only showing your product, it’s not enough. Demoing your actual product can go terribly wrong. It went wrong for all these people.

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