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New products, services for mobile devices at Demo

IPhone apps were the hot trend at DemoFall last year. At Demo 09, the iPhone isn't quite as well represented, but there were still several mobile apps and services on hand.

Asurion Mobile AddressBook lets Android users add new context to their traditional contacts list. The application was one of several for mobile devices on display at Demo 09. Asurion Mobile Applications

PALM DESERT, Calif.--Last September, at DemoFall, I wrote that the most obvious trend in evidence at the technology showcase confab was the prevalence of iPhone apps. It seemed that at least a couple of dozen of the 72 companies at that show were putting at least part of their product offering on Apple's hit device.

Here at Demo 09, I figured that that ratio would jump, or at least stay about the same. But everything is smaller this time around--just 39 companies are presenting, for example, and there are hundreds fewer attendees--and as far as I can tell, the iPhone is hardly the hot platform.

Still, there are a number of companies who have turned to the iPhone--or other mobile devices--as the basis of their offerings. And in fact, a number of them have been grouped together into an afternoon session called "iLove my iPhone." But despite that title, only a few of them actually had dedicated iPhone apps.

Nevertheless, the companies grouped into this session--Coveroo, Promptu Systems, HAM-IT, Asurion Mobile Applications, bluBuzz and Skout--have some pretty interesting technology and services going on. How many of them will last is certainly unknown, but that's no different than any other product category at Demo or elsewhere in the tech business.

Maybe the most interesting of these applications, Asurion Mobile AddressBook, isn't actually available (yet) for the iPhone. For now, it's only on Android. As an iPhone user, though, I can still appreciate Android apps, especially ones that are smart and provide some all-new functionality.

The Mobile AddressBook is a cool app that brings a lot of fresh context to the staid list of names and phone numbers with which all of us are so familiar. Now, Android users will be able to link directly to the Flickr photo sets, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds of those in their contact lists.

That's pretty cool--being able to go directly from the address book to, say, a friend's Flickr photos. But what's even better is that Asurion is making available an open API that will allow third-party developers to link other social tools to the contact list. That can be almost anything you can imagine. In addition, there will be what are called "smart contacts" for companies like airlines. So, you could have Southwest Airlines in your contact list, and click straight through from there to see upcoming itineraries or your account information.

Of course, Palm's Pre is built around much the same functionality--but as an Android app, and perhaps for iPhone later, this allows someone to get these features without having to dedicate themselves to Palm's new phone.

Another very interesting app on display is Skout, a social-dating service for a multitude of platforms, including the iPhone.

Skout requires users to sign up, but once they do, anyone using a compatible phone--the service requires GPS--will be able to see other members who are somewhere nearby. And for each person that pops up, you can see how far away they are and their profile and add them to a friends list.

Skout has an iPhone app that lets people flirt with any other user of the service that are nearby. It utilizes GPS to determine who is nearby, and has social networking features that combine well with more traditional dating service tools. Skout

Whether this will actually help anyone find love is unknown, but the idea is interesting. There have certainly been plenty of mobile social applications in the past--remember Dodgeball? But by making this an opt-in system and combining GPS, this quickly becomes perhaps the most advanced such app I've ever heard of.

The next notable iPhone app was Promptu Systems' ShoutOut, a voice-to SMS system for the platform. This is pretty simple--it does just what it sounds like: it converts spoken phrases to text, which can then be sent out as a text message.

You might ask why you'd want to use such a system, but then think about how often you might want to send someone a text message while driving, and how unsafe doing that can be. In this case, you could simply hold the iPhone up to your mouth, say what you want to say, and then have the ShoutOut technology convert your words to text, which you can edit if necessary, and then send off.

I wonder how popular this will be, but given how dangerous it is to text and drive, I'm hopeful that something like this will become popular, since there's very little chance that drivers are going to stop trying to communicate just because they're behind the wheel.

And, ShoutOut does the same voice to text translation for Twitter, meaning that you can send a tweet from your iPhone without having to type it in.

A much more physical modification of your mobile device is Coveroo's laser-etching service.

This is just what it sounds like: A system that allows you to have an image etched on to the back of your device, be it an iPhone, a BlackBerry, an iPod or one of dozens of others. The company has a collection of more than 200 licensed images--from, say, "The Simpsons"--and it can also work with any custom image sent to it.

I've written about laser-etching services before; as a consumer-facing business, this started with Adafruit Laser Services, a New York company that would etch any laptop, iPod, or cell phone. And in many ways, what Coveroo is doing is not that much different.

Coveroo laptop cover
In addition to selling personalized cell phone covers, Coveroo will soon offer custom-engraved laptops, as well. Coveroo

But in some ways, it is. In particular, the licensed images gives Coveroo the ability to attract customers with very popular movie or TV show characters. In addition, the company is also hoping to license its technology to retailers in the hopes that places like Best Buy or mobile phone retailers will offer etching services to customers right when they're buying their devices.

Further, Coveroo is serving as a reseller of some devices, in the sense that customers can order a new phone, have it etched, and then sent to them.

At $10 to $50, this seems like an inexpensive (especially at the lower end) way to personalize a mobile device, or even protect it against theft.

A couple of mobile applications on display here at Demo I'm not so sure about are bluBuzz's Bluetooth advertising platform and HAM-IT's own customer and service provider matching service.

BluBuzz has built a system that allows companies to reach out to mobile device owners with instant offers--via Bluetooth. The idea is that for anyone who has signed up with the service, a special offer from a business is just a ping away. The location-aware technology can put out a signal that travels up to 1,000 feet. So, if, say, an ice-cream shop has a special flavor today, it can push out an ad to anyone in the area who has signed up for BluBuzz--who will then have the offer appear on their device.

It's an interesting idea, but I'm not sure how many people will sign up. Further, I can imagine it being somewhat annoying to have offers popping up on my phone from time to time, though the company promises that it will be unintrusive. Still, I remain skeptical.

Lastly, HAM-IT has built a system that matches service providers with customers looking for specific kinds of services. It's mainly not a mobile application, but does have a mobile component that will allow someone on, say, an iPhone, to say they're looking for an accountant in Boston, and any accountants in that city who use HAM-IT will offer up their business.

This seems like a service that few people will use on their devices, and I can't really see it being successful. It may be better on the Web, but in focusing on the mobile side of things, this looks less than essential to me.