Innovation alive and well at Demo

Highlights of the business software show include a USB-based device that turns any PC into a Microsoft Exchange client, a J2EE development platform using Visual Studio .Net, and more.

Dan Farber
5 min read
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.--Demo 2004, a conference dedicated to new business software, got off to good start here with premieres of products that provide evidence that innovation is alive and well.

Among the most impressive products was KeyComputing's Xkey, a USB-based device that turns any PC into a Microsoft Exchange client. Instead of carrying a laptop around, you could plug an Xkey into a home computer or a branch office and have a secure replica of your Outlook application. The Xkey is insulated from the client system, and has its own processor, database, applications server, Exchange client, security, storage, and SSL VPN. It's expected to ship in May for $300, with 256MB of flash storage.

I carry a laptop everywhere I go, as well as a GoodLink messaging device that provides my e-mail, calendar and attachments in a handheld package--so the Xkey doesn't make sense for me, except as a backup if other systems go down. But I can see the cost savings in providing mobile users with an Xkey for communicating from their home computers or branch office systems, instead of outfitting them with more-expensive and high-maintenance gear. Danny Schrieber, KeyComputing's managing director, said the company will offer a Lotus Notes Xkey, but didn't divulge details of subsequent applications.

FlipStart mini PC
Paul Allen, the billionaire Microsoft founder and investor, introduced one of his pet projects, the FlipStart personal computer. Allen said his company has been working on the device for two years, in hopes of consolidating many individual devices (handheld, laptop, MP3 player, camera, phone) into a single product.

"We were looking to make a device that had the accessibility of other devices combined with the full power of a PC that could be put in pocket or purse," Allen said. "I like to think of it as the Swiss Army knife of the PC--camera, wireless, microphone, speaker, camera. And it's incredibly small."

The FlipStart has a number of navigational tools, including a thumb wheel, a thumb keyboard, touchpad, optional touch screen and mouse buttons. The device weighs less than one pound, and has a 5.6-inch, 1024-by-600-pixel resolution screen, which is HDTV compliant. It displays stunning graphics, but the internal battery life is only about two hours, Allen said. The final version will come with a wireless modem and accessories, including a full-size keyboard and docking station for peripherals.

The basic configuration is a 1GHz processor, a 30GB drive, and both Wi-Fi (802.11) and Bluetooth wireless connectivity. The FlipStart will begin shipping at the end of this year, priced between $1,200 and $1,500, Allen said.

I spent a few minutes trying out the prototype FlipStart, and it is packed with functionality, but also with trade-offs. It's not a great input device without a full-size keyboard, or a great compact MP3 player without a phone design, or a media player without a DVD player. But you can imagine that a few years down the road, an all-in-one device with higher network bandwidth and voice processing will be commonplace. Laptops, PDAs and other personal devices will continue to get smaller and cheaper, but finding the right combination of features and user interface that is more than a costly experiment won't be any easier than it is today.

Enterprise apps
Several enterprise software applications made debuts at Demo 2004 that looked promising and are worthy of further investigation. mValent made the debut of its Infrastructure Automation Suite, which deals with the building and ongoing maintenance of complex infrastructure configurations for Java applications.

mValent addresses a persistent, costly problem that information technology shops face in building applications. Too often, the applications in development and the infrastructure they require are not in harmony, resulting in errors, downtime and escalating costs. mValent's product appears to centralize all the configuration data. It can also show the interdependencies and ripple effects of changes and synchronize changes in a distributed environment.

Mainsoft is bringing Java development into Microsoft's Visual Studio .Net environment with its Visual MainWin for Java 2 Enterprise Edition. Developers can create applications using C# and Visual Basic .Net, and turn them into J2EE applications and Web services without learning Java, Mainsoft CEO Yaacov Cohen told me.

One of the more vexing issues in enterprises is the question of how to measure the return on investment or value of an IT expenditure. The word "measure" can take on many meanings and not offer much insight into the value of IT. Mementos' Software Suite measures the value of enterprise applications and business processes by looking at the usage. When applications are used, they create an observable sequence of events that can be turned into patterns and measured, without programming. If it works as advertised, Memento's software will provide some much needed comfort to managers seeking a single version of the truth about IT investments.

Proofpoint is complementing its antispam server with a risk management server that is focused on preventing outgoing corporate information from harming a company. Given how many potential vulnerabilities are self-inflicted, the scanning of outbound message traffic for policy and regulatory violations should reduce overall risk and liability. Proofpoint applies sophisticated technology (based on technology for genome sequencing) and evaluates 50,000 attributes to uncover violations that put a company at risk.

Several companies have products that help facilitate meeting collaboration, but Quindi's Meeting Companion is the first application that I've seen that captures all the elements of a meeting for playback. If the meeting is recorded in video or audio, any supporting materials, such as slides, notes and Web pages, are synchronized for playback. This kind of record of a meeting can be useful for archiving and for people who missed the meeting as a result of geographical or time-zone constraints.

On the seamless integration from, Above All Studio 1.0 touts itself as just-in-time assembly of composite applications. The visual modeling of a composite application--linking data from three applications and hiding the enterprise application integration issues--was compelling. It's the kind of functionality that corporations want, but has so far proven to be elusive. Pantero promises to automate the reconciliation of data models in real time, without any manual coding. Whether Above All or Pantero can ultimately eliminate the high costs of integration remains to be seen.