1996 to 2006: Great comedy moments in tech

Summary:ZDNet UK's decade-long scrutiny of the IT sector has seen its highs and lows — but it's also had its fair share of laughs

As we look back over the first 10 years of ZDNet UK, one recurring theme is that the technology industry has a great sense of its own importance. Sometimes this is well-deserved, but sometimes it is tragically misplaced.

Any sector that takes itself too seriously is setting itself up for a fall, and tech is ripe with some juicy examples. Our 10-year retrospective wouldn't be complete without a look back at some of the comedy moments that have provided light relief from takeovers, job losses and security scares, and cut some of tech's biggest figures down to size into the bargain.

Yes… it's Bill
It may be obvious and unfair given his philanthropic calling, but any search for unintended comedy in the computer industry has to begin with one man. William Henry Gates III. From the now legendary pictures of a youthful Bill smirking at a police photographer following his arrest for speeding, Gates has been an endless source of amusement.

One of the earliest stories captured by a fledgling ZDNet UK exposing the comedy potential of the then Microsoft chief executive involved some sneaky snaps of Bill doing what could only describe as the "funky chicken", during a hearty attempt at disco dancing back at Comdex '97. The theory that Gates was attempting to boost his public image ahead of the first rumblings of the US Department of Justice antitrust investigation was touted at the time — clearly no one is capable of dancing that well, least of all Bill.

Trade shows, where on-stage demonstrations are stalked by disaster, have always been hard on Bill. The most famous incident probably involves the curse of Microsoft users everywhere — the Blue Screen of Death. In a comforting piece of Schadenfreude, Gates himself fell victim to a BSoD incident while unveiling the then-new Windows 98 at Comdex on 20 April, 1998. The demonstration apparently crashed when a Microsoft minion connected a scanner to a PC.

The Monkey Boy cometh
Luckily for Gates, he has always had a larger-than-life Oliver Hardy to distract from his own Laurel-like antics. Brash, bruising and belligerent are just three of many 'B' words used to describe Microsoft chief executive officer Steve "I don’t throw chairs" Ballmer. Where Bill's amusement value has always been firmly tied to his geekiness, Ballmer is funny in the same way as the Tasmanian Devil — a spitting, spluttering, human tsunami of gracelessness. Steve's most famous incident happened at one of his innumerable trade show appearances where he cavorted on stage in a now legendary burst of lunacy dubbed the Monkey Boy incident.

Craig Barrett should never Walk this Way
It's not only the likes of Bill and Steve who have fallen foul of the conference circuit. Some tech chief executives appear suicidal in their enthusiasm to leap clear out of their comfort zone when put anywhere near an audience. Intel's ageing chief executive Craig Barrett demonstrated the most reckless example of listening to his marketers while abandoning any of his own common sense when he stepped on stage with geriatric rock legend Steven Tyler from Aerosmith. In one of the most excruciatingly embarrassing demonstrations a tech audience has ever had to suffer, Barrett attempted to sing and shuffle along to a tuneless rendition of Walk This Way. Be afraid, be very afraid. 

To baldly go…
Another inextricable Intel conference appearance that deserves a mention involves that god-like figure of geek mythology, Star Trek actor William Shatner. At the 2002 IDF, Intel's chief technical officer, Pat Gelsinger, hauled Shatner on stage to discuss the finer points of technology. After expressing great wonder at the mysteries of the flush toilet, Shatner apparently wound up the discussion with the immortal line: "None of this shit works for me". Not quite, "Beam me up Scotty", but equally memorable for attendees that year no doubt.

Topics: Tech Industry


"If I'd written all the truth I knew for the past ten years, about 600 people - including me - would be rotting in prison cells from Rio to Seattle today. Absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism." Hunter S. Thompson Andrew Donoghue is a freelance technology and business journ... Full Bio

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