The Difference Between a Prototype and a Demo


A lot has been made about Apple’s hardware product prowess – the click wheel of the iPod, the slimness of the Macbook Air, but just as notable are Apple’s standout software like Safari, Keynote, iOS and many more. In Creative Selection, long-time Apple software engineer Ken Kocienda takes us into the world of software development, and the all important demo, which he gave directly to Steve Jobs on several occasions.

He describes his first experience with a great software demo shortly after joining Apple in 2002 and being tasked with building the Mac OSX’s web browser (which did not yet exist). While Ken and his manager Don tried to wrangle the massive Mozilla Firefox, a new programmer named Richard took an open source browser for Linux, called Konqueror, and made it work for the Mac in a genius demo in just a few days. His demo only really only did 3 things: load web pages (text + images), navigate hyperlinks, and support the back button and was full of hacky code. But it proved the idea was possible and shifted the direction of the project.

Software demos need to be convincing enough to explore an idea, to communicate a step toward making a product, even though the demo is not the product itself. Like the movie, demos should be specifically choreographed, so it’s clear what must be included and what can be left out. Those things that aren’t the main focus of a demo, but are required to create the proper setting, must be realized at the correct level of detail so they contribute to the whole rather than detract from the vision.
– Ken Kocienda

Another way of putting it:

  • A prototype is something you can use to test out a product’s functionality—does it hold up in real-world conditions, does it short-circuit under load, all are trying to answer the question: “does it work right?”
  • A demo is something you use to convey a product’s fidelity. How it will feel to use the product in its final form. Speed, accuracy, delight are all apart of answering the question: “does it feel right?”

It reminds me of the Bel Air trailer. Morgan Cooper, a passionate fan of Will Smith’s Fresh Prince of Bel-Air retold the story of a rebellious young black man from West Philadelphia forced to live with his wealthy uncle and his family in an elite neighborhood in Los Angeles.

While the original show was a fun sitcom in the 90’s, Cooper’s trailer reimagines the story as a modern drama with real stakes, emotion, and beauty. It only takes on 217 seconds, and each frame, each line of dialogue, every micro-expression, is exquisitely written, shot, and delivered.

One year and six million views later, Cooper is confirmed to be co-writing, directing, and co-executive producing, with Will Smith, this new reboot. The demo was a success.