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The best and worst of Demo 09

Our favorite new products and ideas from the start-up conference, from an innovative Netbook to a kidney transplant matching service. And one booby prize.

PALM DESERT, Calif.--The Demo conference was small this year. Only 39 companies presented, down from the usual 60+ at this show. The audience was smaller, too. But there were some good companies here, and some solid business models. Senior writer Daniel Terdiman and I came up with our seven picks from this conference.

Always Innovating's Touch Book (story): Yes, it's just another Netbook. But the removable keyboard and touch-screen interface make it an attractive product, and its ARM CPU and custom Linux build earn it geek points. Might be a little too expensive to be an impulse purchase for home users, but it does improve the breed.

Daniel really liked eFormic's CO2Code (story) initiative to create a database of carbon emissions for consumer products, all indexed off the products' UPC codes. Once you know how much carbon your purchases are spewing into the atmosphere, you can buy the appropriate offsets on the site. We'd like to see this service tied into a home-based UPC scanner, or perhaps into grocery stores' loyalty programs.

Skout (story; podcast) makes a clever location-aware dating service. But there's a twist: The company is also creating software for kiosks in bars (in the real world, these are called "jukeboxes") that are aware of the Skout users nearby. This expands the local dating pools. But if you're using one of the kiosks and want to chat up a mobile user, you have to pay for the privilege--a flat rate at the moment, but we don't see why connections shouldn't be market priced. Given what this service is about, why mess around?

I really like the article discovery service Ensembli (story). As I wrote, it does not appear to be a comprehensive or reliable enough for professional use, but it's the simplest way I've seen to expose users to custom content.

Although I have reservations about the current state of the product, Avaak's Vue (story) camera system is clever, reasonably-priced, potentially very useful, and based on genuine technology (a low-power radio mesh network). And the demo did its job. A number of people here told me they were looking forward to buying the system as soon as they could.

Asurion (story) showed a contact manager for Android mobile phones. Not just a phonebook, it's an app that pulls together all your contact information from all your social networks. The Palm Pre is supposed to have a very similar feature. We liked it there, and we like it here.

Although I was initially skeptical of it, I also really liked Silverstone Solutions (story; podcast), a new kidney transplant matching service that tracks more than just one-to-one matches. It could save lives. What's not to like?

Unfortunately, we have to give the Demo booby prize to BluBuzz (story). It's location-based marketing using Bluetooth, which is, I believe, a non-starter (how many mobile users leave their Bluetooth radios on and open to incoming file transfers?). It also requires users install an app. And, sadly, the demo didn't work and it appears one of the presenters forgot his lines. Kind of a double-whammy there, but I will try to learn more about this one to see if there's value hidden under the demo.

Demo will announce its own Demo God and People's Choice awards this afternoon.