Hits and misses at DemoFall

At the showcase for start-ups, the bright ideas range from Web site tools to juiced-up phone gear.

Rafe Needleman Former Editor at Large
Rafe Needleman reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business.
Rafe Needleman
6 min read
SAN DIEGO--Nearly 70 companies showed off new products at DemoFall here this week, hoping to generate both buzz and deals.

CNET and ZDNet bloggers were on-site to cover the event, and we had differing opinions on what was good--and not. (To see CNET News.com's running commentary from DemoFall, click here. For ZDNet's observations, click here.)

Here's the lowdown on what we found.

The hits

Rafe Needleman, CNET.com: I was able to stay for only one day of the conference, but I really liked Be Here's TotalView VoIP-based conference room phone. It puts a single camera with a fisheye lens on a stalk above the phone, so it can see everybody in the room. If there's a TotalView in both conference rooms during a call, people who plug their laptops into their local unit can get their own customizable look at the people on the other side of the conference--a full 360-degree view, a zoom in on a particular person, or a collection of windows showing different scenes. This could be the first fairly priced ($2,000 per unit) group videoconference system that actually works.

BuzzLogic also looks like a game-changer. For marketers, it tracks which blogs are the most-read on a particular topic, who influences the influential bloggers, and whom they influence in turn. (Disclosure: ZDNet blogger Mitch Ratcliffe is on the launch team of BuzzLogic. I formed my opinion of the company before I knew this.)

Daniel Terdiman, CNET News.com: I hate to say it, but my favorite product of the conference was Paris-based Violet's Nabaztag. The name is horrible, because no one will ever be able to remember it. But it's one cool Wi-Fi rabbit. That's right, it's a Wi-Fi rabbit that serves as a cool, cute communications tool that can link two people in a visceral way as well as provide an unusual way to find out if you have new e-mail, a fun way to share MP3s, and a rare opportunity to impress friends with what is, essentially, a plastic toy. It is undeniably adorable.

Click here to Play

Video: GPS from Dash is always online
Dash Navigation CEO Paul Lego presents the company's Dash navigator at DemoFall 2006 in San Diego.

I was a big fan of Dash Navigation and its Dash car navigator. The idea here is that users can benefit from real-time traffic information that's based on the collective intelligence of other Dash users. That's because the Dash system broadcasts users' real-life traffic experiences back to central servers, which then send that information back to other users.

Mitch Ratcliffe, ZDNet: The standouts for me were these: Blueorganizer Browser Extension, from AdaptiveBlue. It makes all this talk about attention into a benefit that helps the user. There's a lot of detail in the product, but in a nutshell it identifies content you use regularly, allows easy extraction of information from pages for your favorites, wish lists and so forth. One of the preferences I really liked was the automatic saving in favorites of any page or site that you visit a specified number of times. It's only for Firefox now, and there will be a lot of challenges to achieve wide adoption, but those are problems that can be solved when you have a great product like this.

Also, I liked Cuts, a diabolically clever approach to video editing of studio movies and television, along with all other video, that lets folks remix movies to, for example, make "Brokeback Mountain" into just a cowboy movie or to show your grandmother the two minutes of "Jackass II" that won't offend her. Since only the video edit paths are shared--clips must be played in their Mac and PC player from a legal source, such as a DVD or free video from the Web--there's no litigation waiting to pounce. I think the company will sell DVDs and downloadable media just so folks can see other hacks and mashups from the media.

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Video: Cuts lets you make movie mashups
Cuts CEO Evan Krauss introduces the new video editor at DemoFall 2006.

Finally, Jajah Mobile, which is Skype for mobile phones. An applet installed on a phone intercepts keypad entries and makes calls via VoIP, allowing users to make free calls to other Jajah members and to pay as little as two cents a minute for most places on earth. The applet is a cool hack: I don't know why Skype didn't do this first.

Marc Orchant, ZDNet: I agree with Mitch on Blueorganizer from AdaptiveBlue. It's the first thing I saw at the show that I installed instantly. The connectivity to trusted sites, where I can take action on the information I aggregate in the organizer, is a huge win. Other collection tools stop short of making information actionable the way this tool does.

I also was very impressed with SiteKreator, which is the first really simple and yet really rich site creation tool I think is easy enough for my family to use--and powerful enough to let them do some of the things they'll eventually want to with their own Web presence (like add a blog or discussion forum, provide private, password-protected content areas, and set up e-mail mailing lists, RSS feeds, and other communication tools).

My third pick is ThinkFree Office. I've been following the development of this tool and the latest version provides one of the richest Internet application experiences I've seen yet. The document- sharing and version control features are particularly powerful.

Dan Farber, ZDNet: My fellow travelers to DemoFall have identified many of the winners, given that no single product stood head and shoulders above the others. For the more business-centric products, PostPath's Linux-based Exchange server, and the disaster recovery solution in a box for Microsoft Exchange from Teneros, appear to offer compelling propositions. I also liked the application virtualization platform from Trigence. In addition, the influence of wikis and Web 2.0 on business applications was evident in content management products from Koral, System One, Serebrum and MindTouch.

Two of my personal favorites were Pluggd's HearHere software, which combines semantic/topic analysis and speech recognition to allow searching of audio files for specific content, and RingCube Technologies' MojoPac, which brings a Windows XP or Vista PC environment to any USB 2.0 storage device, including iPods.

The misses

Mitch Ratcliffe: I thought Dash was a miss, albeit a near miss, contrary to Daniel. The social features of the device are really intriguing--each device uploads data that can be used by others on the network to avoid traffic when calculating routes or find services or restaurants. However, the demo played a trick that made it look much easier to use than it will usually be.

VaporStream, while controversial and interesting because it simply destroys e-mail after it's read, is a miss. I can't imagine any CIO buying this, because corporate records are necessary--if you worry about what you send in e-mail, don't send the e-mail. I'm comfortable with making mistakes, so I don't fear a record of my communications, unless the government wants it, which I can deal with by calling an attorney, not turning to "Mission: Impossible" e-mail strategies.

There also were a number of features in search of a company and products with no business plan. They'll learn and grow or fail by next year's Demo.

Dan Farber: The most controversial demo goes to VaporStream.

Marc Orchant: Mitch, Dan and I agree on VaporStream. This looks like a Sarbanes-Oxley nightmare and I don't see a lot of organizations taking a chance on the repercussions of not retaining corporate communications. The ScanR business card recognizer, although a great idea, lost me because of ScanR's affiliation with Jigsaw--a service I find highly objectionable (it pays people to submit other people's business cards into a directory without their explicit permission).

Rafe Needleman: Two things. First, the Mvox Duo, a Bluetooth headset/speakerphone combo. It's a nice little product, but I just told you exactly what it is in four words. The "Star Trek"-themed demo was overkill. And second, SalesGenius, which I've covered before. It lets a sales rep monitor potential customers as they use the rep's Web site. Honestly, I think it's a brilliant product, and I'll bet it does make salespeople more productive, but it's one of the creepiest monitoring tools I've seen. I'll also weigh in against VaporStream. If you've got a secret, your best bet is to keep it off the PC and the Internet, period.