Favorites at Demo 96 are tools for untangling Web

Personal Computers

February 12, 1996|By Stephen Manes

YOU ARE AT CENTER stage in front of an audience of technical wizards, chief executive officers and reporters. On computers that use video screens 10 feet tall, you begin demonstrating your forthcoming product. You aim for a particular site on the World Wide Web, but all you get is a "Waiting for connection" message. Another site displays a notice that the server is temporarily busy. You hear the classic Windows "ding," indicating trouble. Your crestfallen assistant mutters, "Our network went down."

This is not a bad dream, but a composite of the sorts of things that happened all too often at the annual Demo 96 conference recently in Indian Wells, Calif.

One young programmer claimed he had "built an environment for making the Web social." Five anxious minutes later, he muttered, "If this ever comes up, we'll be able to show you." Eventually he did, sort of.

Dan Bricklin, an industry pioneer, found new and deeper circles of Demo Hades. For 5 minutes, little he tried seemed to work. Even the error messages had error messages. After the laughter stopped, the disaster was revealed to be a successful demonstration of Mr. Bricklin's Demo-It software, which helps create prototypes of programs, including bad programs.

The World Wide Web dominated this year's program. Tools designed to help create, monitor and manage Web pages were visible in such profusion that, by the third day, speakers were getting appreciative laughs merely by promising that their products had nothing whatsoever to do with the Web.

The tools suggested that the commercialization and "televisionization" of the Web are proceeding apace with advances in sound, animation, type faces and search techniques, not to mention advertising and charging for products and services. Intel even presented a technology called Intercast, which employs a little-used portion of the TV signal to put Web-like pages on a computer screen with broadcast video.

A few products escaped Web entanglement, but even those often bragged about their connections. Most frivolously, Novell Inc. demonstrated its technology for wiring up households and appliances. It fitted a 10-year-old espresso machine with a special chip and used a remote computer to command it to brew.

The Pilot from the palm computing division of the U.S. Robotics Corp. is the latest entry in the category of pocket-size organizers. Not much larger than a deck of playing cards, the Pilot is intended as an adjunct to full-fledged computers. Slipping it into a cradle connected to a computer and pressing a button will synchronize the information in both machines, if it has been created with mutually compatible programs.

But the Pilot lacks a keyboard or a means of recognizing standard handwriting. It can recognize only characters entered with a stylus in a hand-printing style called Graffiti, so you must adapt to the device, rather than the other way around.

This $300 unit was one of the hits of the show, but whether it can supplant paper or is yet another in the long line of electronic organizers destined for the closet will be clearer when production units arrive late this month.

The most dazzling presentation was probably the one from Kai Krause, co-founder of Metatools Inc.

Windows 95, Mr. Krause said, "cannot be the final cat's meow of how we interact with computers." When it comes to user interfaces, he insisted, "there are so many new ideas left, we haven't seen anything yet." And then he proceeded to prove it, playfully "finger-painting" photos into warped, twisted, stretched and distorted images of their former selves with the greatest of ease.

Alas, it was only a demonstration.

Stephen Manes is a columnist for the New York Times.

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