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Put up or shut up at tech trade show

Forget bright ideas and tech for tech's sake--at this year's Demo conference, customer-seeking companies are going to have to answer the question "What have you done for me lately?"

A conference dedicated to showcasing new technology is out to prove that tech innovation isn't dead; it's just become more practical.

During the dot-com boom, the Demo conference was a splashy venue for high-tech industry executives, venture capitalists and start-ups looking to cut a high profile. This year, however, companies will need more than a great idea and a slick demo to gather the accolades.

Today's environment is decidedly cool to gee-whiz technology without apparent benefit to businesses or consumers. This year's Demo start-ups will be pitching their wares as solutions to persistent problems, according to Chris Shipley, the executive director of the Demo event.

"The market has lost its patience for technology for technology's sake," said Shipley. "It really is 'What have you done for me lately? What can you do for me today?' from both a corporate and consumer perspective."

Presenters at this year's show will also reflect technology areas that are currently garnering the most interest from investors and entrepreneurs. Topping the list are security setups, antispam technologies, collaboration software and wireless applications.

Perhaps not surprisingly, security-oriented companies will have the largest presence, representing nine out of the 60 vendors. Businesses and consumers have boosted spending on securing networks and protecting corporate data.

One company that will pitch its wares at Demo is adding a slightly different twist to information security. Venture-backed Liquid Machines operates on the premise that although businesses have invested heavily in securing the perimeter of corporate networks, they've fallen short when it comes to restricting internal employees' access.

Liquid Machines' software gives information technology administrators and business managers the ability to set up policies and manage access to documents at a very detailed level.

Though they've yet to catch on widely, the latest in biometric security systems--such as setups that scan people's retinas to verify identity--will also be on display. One company called Delean Vision will introduce a verification system based on a skin-matching technique.

Also in the security arena, Demo will serve as a forum to air views on the contentious topic of unsolicited e-mail, or spam. Spam-blocking companies Iron Port, Cloudmark and MailFrontier will make their arguments for the best approach to canning spam.

Iron Port has set up a bonded e-mail sender program, which requests that bulk e-mailers post a bond that would let mail recipients complain to an ISP and levy a fee on a bulk e-mailer if an e-mail was considered spam. Cloudmark counts on individuals to identify known spammers, and MailFrontier provides a mail-filtering technique.

Demo will see a number of start-ups looking to lick the difficulties involved in sorting through information on corporate networks and in collaborating with peers.

Kubi Software was founded by ex-Lotus software architect Julio Estrada with the goal of making e-mail more productive by simplifying collaboration tools. Although products like Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes are laden with collaboration features, most go unused, said Estrada.

"The collaboration problem has been there, and the products have addressed it, but still not in a way that a great majority of people have access to it," said Estrada.

Kubi's software, which will appear in a test version on Monday at Demo, attaches itself to Notes and Exchange e-mail clients and lets people create shared folders that appear within a person's in-box. Users can collaborate on common projects by sharing files, calendar dates, task lists and discussions within the "Kubi space," even across different companies.

Wireless demonstrations--which topped the headlines at last year's conference--will reflect the growing maturity of wireless technologies like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Conference presenters will pitch wireless applications rather than the base-level networking technology, according to Shipley.

Bluesoft, for example, will be showing off a technology based on an embeddable chip with a Bluetooth wireless antenna. Bluesoft expects the system to be used for, among other things, keyless cars and targeted advertising at retail stores. Eka Systems will present its Wi-Fi-based wireless sensor devices and software for managing home networks, including alarm and energy-control systems.

Meanwhile, Navini Networks will demonstrate its proposed solution for wide-scale broadband for consumers with its fixed wireless technology. Networking infrastructure start-up Vivato will also announce an improved antenna that can reduce the number of wireless access points, or radio transmitters, required by a network.

And in yet another example of the pervasiveness of computing, Digital Sun hopes to find another niche use for Wi-Fi in the home: as part of a garden irrigation system that relies on a wireless base station and sensors.

Demo 2003 will be held in Scottsdale, Ariz.