Demo 2004: Picks and Pans
SCOTTSDALE, ARIZONA -- For fourteen years, the Demo conference has been a launchpad for new technology products and services. But that's about the only thing constant about the event; sometimes Demo focuses on consumer products and other years it's an enterprise-fest. And it's seen both boom times (remember the days of dot-com excess?) and quiet years.
The 2004 show feels like a little of all of the above. Roughly two-thirds of the product launches are business-oriented, but home items are more in evidence than last year. And the mood is optimistic, but cautiously so. Even consumer products focus on solving real problems; as Demo Executive Producer Chris Shipley says, there is "a rush to be relevant."
Herewith, some highlights, lowlights, and sidelights from the show, which is produced by PC World sister company IDG Executive Forums:
Virtualizing the PC: Multiple, disparate announcements had a common theme: They all involved products that provide access to PC programs and files in new, creative ways. KeyComputing/Seaside Software's Xkey crams an Exchange client, authentication software, personal files, and more onto a memory drive that plugs into the USB port of any computer. DataPod syncs files, e-mail, and bookmarks among systems via peer-to-peer networking. AllenPort showed a very early version of a Linux-based computing platform that stores programs and files on a centralized server. And Vulcan--the company run by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen--showed the FlipStart, a pocket-sized, one-pound Windows XP machine. --Harry McCracken
Weblog "Googler": Launched last summer, Feedster has emerged as the search engine of choice for those who want to find Weblogs quickly and efficiently. Every search can be turned into a custom newsfeed so that you can always keep up with the latest posts in your favorite areas of interest. New at Demo: a special tab pointing to feeds of political blogs by major parties and their candidates. Feedster.com also added powerful filtering tools for further customization. --Ramon G. McLeod
Massive Movie and Music Machine: The Molino Media Mogul is a networkable consumer electronics?style media server for the living room. It lets you copy and store DVDs, CDs, and digital photos on its 300GB hard drive for playback on a television or on PCs linked to it through a home network. You can legally copy up to 50 DVDs onto its hard drive for long-term storage. You access media (including films) through a TV interface or a browser on a PC. The Media Mogul also plays DVDs directly. Molino Networks expects to ship it this year priced about $1000. --R.G.M.
Club Kid Tip-Offs: Coupled with a Java-enabled mobile phone, the WaveSpotter application lets users identify interesting locations on a digital map so others with similar phones can see what's going on in town or on the highway. Example: a "club kid" finds his favorite nightspot is really jumping and wants to alert the world that this is the place to be. He creates a location on his WaveSpotter map with a photo and text so friends (or the world at large) get the latest info in real time. First public versions of the service by WaveMarket are expected in the spring. --R.G.M.
Scene and Heard
Most Entertainingly Quirky Name for an Unglamorous (if Potentially Useful) Product: Agent Technology introduced Sweet-Tooth, a (deep breath) "decentralized software agent network for supply chains." --H.M.
Buzzphrase of the Show: I kept hearing startup executives refer to their products' supposedly-unique features as "secret sauce." Which left me wondering if they also had two all-beef patties and a sesame-seed bun. (Runner up: Companies that said their product was "TiVo for . . ." in a variety of unlikely, un-TiVo-like categories.) --H.M.
Ba-Boom! Don't try this at home: Seeking to demonstrate the superiority of its phosphate-based Saphion lithium ion technology, battery specialist Valence Technology has produced a film showing what happens when competing batteries containing cobalt dioxide technology undergo extreme stress. Basically, they'll explode and burn if crushed, punctured, or overheated (like in a car trunk on a hot summer day). Not surprisingly, Valence products didn't turn into firecrackers under the same duress. The dramatic footage introduced Valence's newest version of the N-Charge Power System, which can recharge even the latest 90-watt and 120-watt notebooks. The product, due out in late April or early May, also can charge two devices at the same time. A base system and an add-on expansion module can deliver up to ten hours of notebook run-time (five hours each). The base system is expected to retail for $199; the add-on pack, $169. --R.G.M.
Most Mindblowing Demo: France-based Total Immersion showed D'Fusion, a software system for merging live-action video with 3D animation. The package is aimed at a specialized niche--product prototyping--but the demonstration, which involved stunts such as a real Total Immersion executive waving a rose that was computer-generated and animated on the fly, was punctuated by startled applause from the audience. --H.M.
Integrated Enterprise: The Above All Studio application offers to make it easier to integrate disparate enterprise applications that don't communicate well. For example, before following up a sales lead, a salesperson may want background on prior orders, service issues, and billing history--which all might be in applications and databases that aren't well-integrated. The program from AboveAllSoftware.com can be used to assemble relationships without disturbing the original data sources and software. --R.G.M.
Where's the "Off" Switch?: Wireless microphones are handy when you do a presentation, but if you forget to turn it off while you're offstage, you might entertain the audience more than you expect. One unfortunate presenter made that mistake when, obviously unhappy about her performance, broadcast "I've made an ass of myself" to several hundred people in the audience. Actually, she did just fine. --R.G.M.
Move Over Microsoft: Evermore Software, the first Chinese software company to appear at Demo, has chosen a daunting challenge: Microsoft. The company's Evermore Integrated Office takes on the Microsoft Office hegemony. What does it bring to the table? An integrated interface and the capability to place word-processing documents, spreadsheets, and presentations into one file. Evermore will lease the software (for $99 a year) rather than sell it. (Oh, and its acronym--EIO--reminds one of Old McDonald when spoken). --H.M.
Nifty News Reader: NewsDash is a Web-based news aggregation service created by the company that developed the Oddpost e-mail service. NewsDash makes it simple to subscribe to RSS newsfeeds, be they from mainstream Web sites or individual bloggers. The application integrates tightly with the Oddpost e-mail client, making it easy to forward an interesting news article to a friend. It also provides one-click publication of a news article to a personal blog. The product is in beta testing. --R.G.M.
Slick Ad Hoc Collaboration: Expertcity, creator of the GoToMyPC remote access service, has unveiled GoToMeeting, a Web conferencing service. Unlike WebEx and other existing conferencing systems, GoToMeeting focuses on spur-of-the-moment collaboration. For instance, it hooks into instant-messaging clients to let far-flung coworkers quickly launch a meeting during a chat session. Like GoToMyPC, GoToMeeting looks polished and inventive. --H.M.
Instant Messaging For Gamers: Playing online games is sweet, but can turn sour if you're stuck on a server with strangers who act like jerks. Xfire is an instant messaging application designed for online gamers who'd rather play with friends. Xfire can't guarantee that your pals won't act like fools, but it makes it simple to contact them and, even better, get you and your buddies onto the same game server quickly. Launched formally on Monday, the application has been in beta-testing for less than a month and already has more than 60,000 users. --R.G.M.
Media Mixmaster: Not every product announced at Demo is a would-be breakthrough from a little-known startup. Easy Media Creator 7 is just the latest iteration of Roxio's venerable suite for managing, editing, and burning video, audio, photos, and other data. The company describes it as like Apple's iLife with a lot more depth--and in demos, at least, it indeed looks slick, well-integrated, and bursting with features. --H.M.
See Me, Hear Me: Combining video with instant messaging isn't new, but several companies are trying to make Webcams better business and social tools. Covoq has announced ASAP, which adds Web conferencing to the IM/video mix. Unlike more formal Web conferencing products like WebEx, ASAP seeks to leverage instant messaging for more spontaneous business gatherings. Only the person calling the meeting needs the ASAP software. Other participants can use a Flash-enabled browser instead of a Webcam. For a $50 annual fee, subscribers can call and conference up to five people. Seven-day free trials are available. Meanwhile, SightSpeed announced Mac and Linux versions of its peer-to-peer videoconferencing product. Video Messenger is distinguished by its very high frame rates, which dramatically smooth Webcam-produced video. A multi-party version is expected in the spring. --R.G.M.
Shouting "Fire!" on a Crowded Blog: SilkRoad Technology showed off its collaborative blogging software with an example involving blogging about an imaginary fire elsewhere in the hotel hosting Demo 2004. I don't know, but if I were aware I was in a burning building, I'd be less likely to blog and more likely to run like hell . . . --H.M.
Bubble, Bubble: eStory, Fractal Edge, and Groxis all demonstrated software that supposedly simplifies data-wrangling by rendering Web searches, the Windows file system, and other items as a series of multicolored, concentric circles. The problem they're trying to solve--information overload--is real, but none of the demos suggest a bubble-oriented visual interface is the way to fix it. --H.M.
A Tad Ambitious, Are We?: Bragging kind of goes with the territory of Demo pitches--one exec said Dell is afraid of his product, while another mused that his company could be the next Cisco. My favorite boast: WholeSecurity informed us its Internet threat-detection software will eventually "be as ubiquitous as seat belts." --H.M.
Breaking Nudes: Consumer-electronics startup Akimbo unveiled a living-room box that can download specialized video content across the Internet for TV viewing. The concept's intriguing. But its first example of "specialized video content" was the Web's venerable Naked News strip show/newscast--which made a potentially sexy technology feel, well, sleazy. (The company's 25 content partners include some more appealing options, such as indie films from iFilm.) --H.M.