Showcased

SimulRing is making people jiggle their knees. A hot product demo pumps up the crowd at a big-ticket event like Showcase, in which a couple hundred attendees use the ongoing hunt for the Next Big Thing as an excuse to head to La Quinta for a few sunny days. Seven area companies made the trek, and the one that will eventually be awarded the Investor's Choice—they give you one phone number and it'll ring up to five of your contact numbers at once, mobiles and offices and houses and pagers— is currently causing that involuntary dance geeks do when they see something they like.

It may be, of course, that we just like the promise of a ringing phone. The desert is beautiful and the resort is plush ("bwana-rific," as I put it the first time I noticed the discomforting comforts of obsessively tended grass and obsequious, probably underpaid Hispanic attendants in the California desert), but both cell and Palm connections are bad. During the breaks we wander through the parking lot in front of the convention hall like zombies, searching for those rare cellular sweet spots. The folks back home paid $2,195 a head to send us; obviously we're valuable enough to someone to need to be in touch.

But few phones ring in the hall, which I suspect is to our host's liking. Jesse Berst is in his first year of running this show, and we're doing him and his new Upside Events gig a lot more good paying attention to what's onstage than chattering to the folks back home. Keeping us entertained is hard work: Folks demonstrating their hope-to-be-hot wares are kept to 6 minutes or less to make their pitch, unless we get bored and throw them offstage first.

It's Jesse's job to keep things lively while vendors set up and tear down, while Net connections fritz and stray panel members are rounded up, to remind us that just because these people paid $8,000 each to talk to us doesn't mean we need to be impressed or even kind. Jesse moves it along. He tells Bush jokes, Clinton jokes, dead-dot-com jokes, shucking and jiving, keeping us balanced between the-next-thing-you-see-could-change-your-life expectation and seen-it-all-hauteur that we've all got after years of too many overblown trade shows and anyone-can-play pitch blitzes.

And now we're vicious. Later today Jesse will put on "Demo till You Drop," about to be universally known as "The Gong Show," only Chuck Barris' panel wasn't nearly as eager to hit the gong as our panelists will prove to be. In two days of Showcase, just one demo will get through its allotted six minutes without the bash of brass signaling Jesse to hustle the victim offstage.

By afternoon we'll be bloodthirsty. Onstage will be MetricStream, and they will be inexperienced in demo- as-entertainment. And the product, an e-business management tool, will be complex. And the pitch will be loaded with buzzwords. (I will see "proactive" onscreen and threaten to drag them offstage myself.) The crowd will turn ugly. A panelist will shout, "What is it? Get to the point!" The CEO will stammer; he won't be able to spit out the idea behind his product (not only a complex thing but a new one). They will be most thoroughly gonged. The company president will choke out, plaintively, "I know we're not sexy, but we make money. That's got to count for something." Something will go wrong with the revolving stage they're standing on, and for three or four minutes the MetricStream representatives will stand, gonged, spotlight off, waiting for the platform to rotate them out of sight of the crowd.

Afterward in the booth area (densely packed, unlike Comdex or CES where you can and should feel free to skim entire sections of the convention hall), there will be a sense that we went too far, or rather too far too late. Did MetricStream deserve gonging for being long-winded and complex, or was our haste to smack down six of seven products (and we won't even discuss the venture-cap panel, few of whom admitted in public to liking anything) a late reaction to our own dot-com gullibilities? Where was this skepticism three years ago when we needed it?

Tomorrow—the last day of the show—the mood will be slightly brighter. Eventually the Best of Show (onstage) award will go to Embedix SDK, an unsexy but substantial Linux product pitched with finesse by a Lineo company rep onstage in his underwear for six gutsy minutes. Today the MetricStream bloodbath is hours away. It's first day at Showcase and I am watching a Seattle company get the crowd jiggling, eager to jump out of their chairs and make a run at the Next Big Thing.

 
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