No matter how many degrees in computer science you hold, you will not be able to reverse-engineer the owl that guards the entrance to Hollywood's Magic Castle, where you must be either a practicing magician certified by the Academy of Magical Arts or close personal friends with one before you can even book a dinner reservation. But today, Adobe Systems — creators of Photoshop, the photo-editing software that gave us the kitten with two heads and the most efficient way to grow your ex-girlfriend a mustache in old vacation photos, otherwise known as the killer app that turned a billion computer geeks into graphic designers — has given the password to a handful of reporter-types in order to ply them with liquor and lunch.
The luncheon's ostensible theme is the future of broadcast, which, of course, encompasses the Internet, television, and how to make money off them. Immune to such hullabaloo, the owl, made of brass, has glowing red eyes and sits next to a beat-up copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. "Open Sesame!" you murmur. The bookcase swings open.
Even in the middle of the afternoon, it's dark and moody in the famously labyrinthine Castle, a little bit decrepit Disneyland Haunted Mansion and a lot traveling Gypsy caravan, a place where skeleton dioramas in the parlor are de rigueur. Behind the bar, the ghost playing the piano takes requests.
"We weren't sure if having it here would be cool or cheesy," one of Adobe's PR associates says of the venue. Most of the time, corporate luncheons like these are held in hotel suites.
"Are you kidding?" I say. "It's both." An invitation to infiltrate one of the most exclusive clubhouses in the city, a magic one, with an owl? It's a masterstroke. Because prying a bunch of computer geeks away from their desks to watch a slide show on beta software they've probably already downloaded and deconstructed at home is the greatest trick the devil ever pulled.
In the Palace of Mysteries, next to the Parlour of Prestidigitation, Adobe's chief strategist for dynamic media walks us through the slide-show presentation. There is the requisite talk of "fully integrated solutions" and "rich ecosystems of content" and progressive versus streaming downloads and "market penetration." The take-home message is that the Adobe Media Player is like TiVo for your computer. It can download your favorite television shows in a superorganized fashion (by season, or episode, or groups of episodes) when you're not using your computer, while you're at work, perhaps, and have them ready to watch when you get home.
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Also, the very quality of the video itself will be different — in high-def, instead of the crappy pixelated stuff. Hypothetically, when Emily Deschanel dissects a cadaver in Bones, we'll be able to make out every little lump in the wiggling maggot she fishes out of the dead body, no matter what size our monitor. Not only that, but we'll be able to impulse-buy the products we see onscreen, literally with the click of a button. To demonstrate, the Adobe guys show us a video of someone playing a guitar: Hold your mouse over the guitar and you get a pop-up screen that links you to a Web site where you can buy the guitar. (Pay no attention to the wet smacking noises in the background. That's just the money men drooling onto their laptops.)
Like Adobe Acrobat, the Adobe Media Player will be free, as will the shows we watch on it. In exchange, we'll surrender our eyeballs and let them blast us with ads. Adobe will make its money partly by selling the software that makes the stuff we'll be watching on the Player. Adobe's toy isn't exactly smoke and mirrors, but rather a subtle refinement of the tech that's already percolating out there. My seatmate, Jay, a tech writer-reporter — a quintessential tech writer-reporter, in fact, with a MacWorld shoulder bag, large eyeglasses and an unpretentious, jolly demeanor — has been scribbling intermittently on a college-ruled notebook. He seems to be enjoying himself.
"This is my 19th-century laptop," he says of the notebook. "It almost never crashes and has virtually unlimited memory." When he was a kid, he tells me, he always wanted to be Steven Spielberg, but instead grew up to be Jimmy Olsen.
During hors d'oeuvres, in fact, Jay and I had been trying to figure out how, precisely, the Open Sesame entrance bookcase owl works. It only opens to the words "Open Sesame" and only if you speak directly into its face. Is it voice-recognition software? Or motion sensors? A lever, maybe, embedded in the floor that releases a latch when you step on it? The bartender is no help. He's giving a waiter advice on racking up ideas for screenplays and how to build a demo reel. And neither is the pretty hostess who points out the owl in the first place. But later on, after I leave, a friend who's been to the Castle before explains the trick: The pretty hostess pushes a hidden button that opens the door immediately after she hears you say "Open Sesame." The simplest tricks really are the most elegant.