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DEMO 2002

This week’s uninspired DEMO 2002 lacked sex appeal and VC dealings but suffered no shortage of nitty-gritty tools and applications.

This week’s DEMO 2002 conference in Phoenix was far more subdued than last year’s affair — and just a shadow of its former late-1990s self.

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Approximately 500 attendees — down from more than 700 in 2001 — gathered timidly in the Pointe Hilton Tapatio Cliffs’ main conference room for three days of networking and demonstrations by companies specializing in Web services and Internet-enabled enterprise applications. The new products were so specific, so niche, that they boggled the mind. I often had a hard time differentiating one from the next, or identifying the differences between “all-new, groundbreaking” applets and previous editions released 6 or 12 months ago by the same companies.

Despite her commendable efforts to keep the raucous The Gong Show atmosphere of DEMO alive, coexecutive producer Chris Shipleya was hampered by a quiet and mostly unenthusiastic audience, a cohost who disappeared with an unnamed ailment after the first cocktail party, and her own lackluster performance on the DEMO stage.

Okay, so much for the nay-saying. Ultimately, DEMO 2002 delivered a useful, though hardly thrilling, experience by highlighting mundane products and applications — useful tools to accomplish the nitty-gritty, quietly important work that keeps the business world turning. It’s not sexy or exciting to demonstrate how an Internet-enabled enterprise solution with a vastly improved GUI (graphic user interface) lays on top of Outlook, PeopleSoft, Siebel, or some proprietary sales-and-marketing program, making it simpler for back-office employees to track leads, campaigns, contracts, and revenues. But it gets the job done — and, frankly, that’s what most companies need these days. There are a million different ways to slice the enterprise-application pie, and the companies presenting at DEMO 2002 hit just about every one.

Also noteworthy were the composition and goals of the 2002 audience. Fewer members of the hard-core technology press were present this year — the PC Weeks and InfoWorlds were nominally represented. But many more writers from publications like Fortune, Newsweek, and the San Jose Mercury News were scanning the scene — not for gadgetry and whiz-bang products, but rather for signs of a shifting technology or investor climate.

The venture-capital representation at DEMO had also changed dramatically since last year, when big-wig VCs were still out in force, holding earnest conversations about funding deals in the hallways after each general session. Despite the sense of impending doom that descended on the market this time last year, participants at DEMO 2001 honestly thought that they could find the “big next big deal” at the event. This year, many VC firms dispatched their young associates — not-yet deal makers who aimed only to interview companies, not actually to ink any agreements. One associate whom I spoke to said the conference was almost like a training course — he was told to attend, speak with several companies, and learn how the entrepreneur interviewing process is done. Then return to the home office and do some real work.

Alison Overholt (aoverholt@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company staff writer.

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Sidebar: DEMO Demonstrations Worth Remembering

Space Data Corp.

This company proposes to close the gaps in cell-phone coverage by launching cellular-receiving equipment in weather balloons above the United States. The company’s Skysite Network may sound loony, but it’s backed by an impressive theory: Individual cellular towers are planted a few hundred feet off the ground, which limits their radius of operation. Cellular equipment on a weather balloon, however, can span 20 miles and provide increased coverage by several orders of magnitude.

PrivaSys Inc.

This company thinks it has an answer to the question, “Why do I carry so many cards?!” At the same time, it hopes to solve the dilemma of “How do I safeguard against credit-card fraud?” PrivaSys has a product that looks like every other plastic credit card in your wallet — the difference is that the back of the card features several raised buttons, which form a minikeypad. Before you swipe your credit card at the drugstore or the mall, you press a personal identification number (PIN) into the keypad. Only then is the card “released” to approve the transaction.

Users can program different PINs for different accounts and store them all in the same card. So noncompeting card issuers can all be housed on one device — for example, all the Gap companies plus Mastercard — and you can identify which account to use by the PIN you punch in at the register. Or AmEx, Mileage Plus, and Starwood Hotels information could all be on another card. PrivaSys’s solution is an entirely different way to look at security and payment options.

Digit Wireless LLC

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The Fastap full keyboard offers a good solution to the problem of text messaging or Web browsing on a wireless phone. The keypad has the entire alphabet on it, as well as a few punctuation keys and a key that can be programmed for a particular word or name that you use frequently. At first glance, it looks cumbersome to navigate all the little buttons (tiny letter keys surround each traditional number key, with the numbers recessed between the raised letters), but I didn’t miss any keys the first time I tried it. Plus, Digit Wireless has signed a member of the New England Patriots as spokesperson to prove the point that even big, beefy guys can use this thing. The real test, of course, will be whether any hardware manufacturers pick it up for future phone models.

Virtual Ink Corp.

The mimio Xi is the latest from the company that introduced the capability to capture whiteboard brainstorm sessions electronically. The original mimio product, which can be attached to the side of any whiteboard, is pretty large and requires cords for both power and data storage. The mimio Xi is 60% smaller (about a foot and a half long, and it folds in half for easy transport in a laptop bag) and is an entirely self-contained, wireless appliance. In simplest terms: No cords. Just stick it to the whiteboard, and it records up to 12 hours of doodling. Then take it home, connect it to your PC with a USB cable, and print, fax, or email all of your recorded whiteboard thoughts. Cost: $799.