Tech Hits (And Misses) Keep on Coming at DEMO
Some startups face a cloudy future at best, while for others, the sky's the limit. A look at some we're likely to hear from again.
PALM DESERT, CALIF. -- Another year, another DEMO conference. The new tech product and services showcase has been plugging away for 18 years, helping launch a number of certifiable hits along the way like the first Palm Pilot, Tivo and Salesforce.com.
But there have also been plenty of "roll-the-dice" debuts by startups with ill-conceived, under-funded or poorly managed products that never really took off.
Another big segment achieved a reasonable level of success on their own or gained enough traction to be acquired by larger companies -- like IronPort Systems, acquired by Cisco last year for $830 million.
I hung out a bit at the conference the first day with the always insightful Jean-Louis Gassée, a former vice president of marketing at Apple (among other tech endeavors).
Now a general partner at venture capital firm Allegis Capital, Gassée shook his head when I mentioned some of the social network startups at DEMO.
"How do they avoid the Facebook gravity well?" he asked.
Still, hope springs eternal for these startups. And there is definitely some worthwhile technology on display here. A company called Livescribe gave a sneak peek of its Pulse SmartPen at an earlier DEMO, but returned this year to show off a more finished version of the product with additional features.
The name says it all -- this is one intelligent writing utensil. The Pulse is really a little computer-in-a-pen that records voice -- useful for situations like in a lecture hall or an interview -- and syncs that with what the user writes on paper. (No wonder the company targets college students as one of its primary markets).
Tap on the written notes to hear an audio playback of the text, beginning at the point where you tapped. You can slow, speed up or rewind the recording, and save your notes to a computer or e-mail them for others to see.
Set to ship in March, the SmartPen is expected to cost $149 for the 1GB or $199 for the 2GB version. The 1GB model can store over 100 hours of audio or 16,000 pages of digital notes.
"This is paper-based computing," said Livescribe CEO Jim Marggraff. Paper-based computing?
"I can author a Flash movie on a piece of paper and share it with others over a social network like Facebook," he said.
Hit or miss? My guess is, at worst, the Pulse SmartPen will initially attract a dedicated, cult following much like Apple's ill-fated Newton. But if the technology works in the real world as advertised and Livescribe can get the price down under $100 in the next year, the company could have a bona fide hit on its hands.
Another firm, Green Plug, showed off technology it said can save energy while reducing the insane tangle of cabling we have to put up with to power computing and other devices.
Using the company's technology, a single power supply transformer you can charge several DC-powered devices with different power requirements using a single power supply -- no transformers or "power bricks" necessary.
"The power model today is broken," said Green Plug founder and CEO Frank Paniagua.
The company has developed "green talk", a digital protocol for real-time communication between devices that require power and their power sources. Green Plug makes the necessary client software available for free.
A Green Plug universal power supply could recognize whether it's connected to, say, an iPod that only needs 5 volts of power, or a far more power-hungry PC -- and allocate power accordingly.
In a demo, the company showed Green Plug in a three-port power supply, supplying 19 volts to an HP laptop and 9.5 volts to a digital picture frame.
In addition to doing away with proprietary transformers, Green Plug also stops power being wasted when chargers are connected to devices that are fully charged or have no devices connected to them (so-called "electricity vampires").
Very cool, er, Green.
A firm called Flypaper brings nifty animation and design tools to the Web. Company CEO Pat Sullivan calls it a bridge between Microsoft's PowerPoint presentation and custom programming with Adobe's Flash.
"Anything done by a Flash programmer, we can't change," Sullivan said. "We bring that power [to change] to everyone."
In an onstage demo, Flypaper showed a variety of artful, interactive 3D designs created by professional designers and other beta users at the company's Web site.
Flypaper's "Models" are like templates users can edit, enhance or change however they like, and publish on the site or post to other community sites like YouTube, MySpace and Facebook.
"The issue with Flash is that it's difficult and expensive to produce something well done," Jon Peddie Research analyst Jared Vishney told me after we'd seen the demo. "And there's always been an issue of how to repurpose those creations and employ them effectively in multiple scenarios."
"Flypaper appears to have solved that problem," he added. "It looks pretty cool."
Sullivan said Flypaper doesn't plan to charge for its "candy store of cool images and models."
"Our intent is totally change the way stories are told on the Web so they're stories that stick."
David Needle is West Coast Bureau Chief for InternetNews.com and is based in San Francisco.