Rafe Needleman picks the most promising pitches to pay attention to at the Demo start-up conference.
Seventy new products will be announced at the DemoFall 09 conference Tuesday and Wednesday. Looking over the lineup one finds, as usual, some companies refreshing existing product lines, many entering into crowded markets with marginally better if unexciting technology, and others having solutions for very specific vertical markets. But some, thank goodness, do sound more generally interesting. Some are trying to solve big problems in new ways, or are addressing emerging technology or business issues that other companies haven't yet even recognized as markets. And then there are those that sound too weird to work.
Those are the companies that I will be paying special attention to at Demo. Here they are, and why. Note that some of these write-ups are based on incomplete information from the companies, so the descriptions may not be exactly right. Watch CNET's DemoFall coverage for the latest updates and on-the-spot reviews.
Opportunity: Combating e-mail overload
Liaise and Nubli EmailSmarts are both showing products to combat e-mail overload. Liaise, for which I got an advance briefing, watches what you type in Outlook and when it sees you creating what looks like an actionable message ("Pam, I need those copies today!"), it creates trackable items flagged by person, date, and task. You can easily modify how the system flags items, and mark off items as they're done. More importantly, when you're going into a meeting with people, you can print out a list of everything you've committed others to. It works with Outlook so far, other systems to come later -- including, possibly, instant-messaging apps.
EmailSmarts works the other way. It prioritizes incoming e-mails to you based on some presumably brilliant algorithm that takes into account how you reply to people as well. Both Liaise and EmailSmarts are Outlook plug-ins. See also: Xobni (from the TechCrunch50 conference in 2008). Microsoft business development people are sniffing around at these apps, so there is an exit strategy for good e-mail add-ons.
Trend: Crowdsourced traffic data
TrafficTalk sounds basically like a voice chat room for people who are driving, with a focus on traffic. Obviously it'll put people in a room based on location and direction of travel, and possibly based on destination. (I can't help but think of CB radios.) Sounds a lot safer that using a screen-based traffic-reporting tool, although how drivers are supposed to monitor this and have their usual mobile phone conversations at the same time I don't get. See also: Waze, which will be showing an update at Demo.
Trend: Price pressure on cloud computing
Symform is an online data backup service for business, but instead of hosting its own storage servers, Symform give subscribers only as much online storage as they make available on their own network to others. Since Symform isn't actually providing storage, it can sell its service more cheaply than a standard online backup provider. Of course the data is encrypted. And since it's based on business-class servers, it sounds more reliable than Crashplan, which is a similar service for consumer PCs. But it'll be a tough sell. I expect that most businesses will pay the extra money to know who is storing their backups. (This is the "too weird to work" concept I was talking about in my intro.)
Opportunity: Modernizing online dating
DateCheck will make it easier to stalk, I mean, check out, prospective dates. The clever motto says it all: "Look up before you hook up." Of course everyone who uses the Internet checks out potential dates first via Google and Facebook. This just might make it easier.
Gelato is supposed to make creating a believable, sorry, I mean compelling, online profile easy. It scans your existing accounts like Facebook, Twitter, and Netflix to piece together a profile of what you're interested in, and it keeps it up to date for you. It also might be more accurate than what people say about themselves.
Emerging business: Personal data aggregation
OrganIP from Digitrad has a compelling pitch: It is supposed to connect you to the people you want using just their names. I have a feeling, though, that it will require that users register their names, possibly on the .tel top-level domain, since Digitrad also runs Yes.tel, which is a contact management service that connects your personal domain to your personal and social services like Skype, Gmail, Facebook, and Twitter.
Opportunity: Bringing social media to business
Not another Twitter for the enterprise (we have enough of those, thank you), Dekks generates a database of who knows what in a business, with a focus on the mundane, such as "How do I ship a package using our FedEx account?" The current (pre-launch) site makes it look like the method for getting the knowledge into the system could be too clever to be actually used, but I do like the desired outcome. Another one to watch.
Opportunity: Closing the loop with old media
Hand Eye Technology will show off a product that lets users' phones watch TV along with them, through their cameras. Benefit to the user: The phone will then show the user social content related to what's on the screen. Benefit to the marketer: It will also let them buy stuff, not to mention tracking users' viewing behavior.
Emerging business: Mobile-phone-powered point-of-sale technologies
Cardagin (dumb name) will be showing a replacement for those plastic discount cards you swipe at cash registers. It's based on mobile phones. I don't have details yet, but this is worth watching. Once you start to eliminate the need for businesses to roll out card-swipe machines (or integrate them into the closed platforms of existing point-of-sale systems), you expand the market for loyalty programs in small businesses dramatically.
Freeddom Tecnologiae Servicos (from Brazil) will also be showing a credit-card-free point-of-sale system. This one apparently handles the entire clearing of transactions. Again, it makes it possible for smaller businesses to offer their own financial products or credit services without installing the traditional infrastructure to charge payments.
Opportunity: Stomping dinosaurs
Cortera is a community service for small businesses, described to me as "Yelp for business credit." It's supposed to help businesses rate each others' creditworthiness so they can determine who they can extend credit to. It's a dull pitch but a real business, proven to work for more than a hundred years by Dun & Bradstreet. Can an upstart compete? It's possible.
Opportunity: Bending the laws of physics
Solid-state miniaturization can't change physics. That's why batteries are still bigger and heavier than we would like, and the best speakers are big square boxes. But a new technology from Emo Labs is said to enable the creation of rich sound by driving the edges of flat surfaces such as monitor panels. We'll believe it when we hear it. Read more: Audio speakers get a new look and feel.
See also: 10 Demo grads: Where are they now?