DEMO - Glitz gives way to practical products

Sobered up by two economically horrendous years for the technology industry, exhibitors at the Demo 2002 show here this week are offering up products and services that might, just might, actually have a chance of succeeding in the world most of us live in.

That wasn't the case in recent years when Demo was dominated by glitzy Web startups and smarmy venture capitalists who wholeheartedly bought into the giddy idea that the "Internet changes everything."

But the polo-shirt-and-shades crowd is out. This time around, the most interesting companies are demonstrating products and services that are, for the most part, sensible and practical--or at the very least, entertaining.

Demo is not like typical trade shows. Exhibitors are screened by the organizers and often demonstrate products and services that are still in the development stage. The show is produced by IDG Executive Forums (a sibling company to PC World, which is an IDG publication).

Fix Me Please

One of the more solid offerings is by, which offers customers a free online service that finds security holes, software bugs, outdated drivers, and viruses on a PC, then automatically retrieves and installs the patch or update. The Emeryville, California-based company is showing an enterprise version of the software that gives system administrators a means to monitor all the PCs on a network, identify problems, and make repairs without having to physically visit and check out each machine individually.

"We actually came up with this because IT administrators were using the consumer product on their personal machines and wanted to use it over their whole network," says Orion Hindawi, product manager. "That's a pretty good endorsement, we think."

The enterprise product, which will work with small or large networks, including those found in small businesses, is scheduled to ship in April, he says. The company expects to price it at about $30 per seat for 1000 seats. Prices will be higher for smaller operations, lower for bigger companies, he says.

Sorting Out Wireless Nets

Wireless networks aimed at business travelers are rapidly appearing in airports and hotels all over the United States, but unless you have accounts with numerous regional vendors, you'll be out of luck if you're outside your neighborhood. Even if you do have accounts with several services, you still face the hassle of configuring your notebook to work properly each time.

Enter Boingo Wireless Inc., a Santa Monica, California company that provides simple tools for easy access to 802.11b wireless networks.

The company's service, which launched two weeks ago, works much like the Earthlink Network. That's hardly surprising since Earthlink's founder, Sky Dayton, is Boingo's chief executive.

Boingo has partnerships with a number of wireless vendors and subscribers to the Boingo service become, in effect, subscribers to all of the partners' services. Subscribers pay their fees to Boingo. The Boingo Pro service costs $25 monthly and includes ten connection days. Daily pricing plans are also available, as well as an unlimited monthly use plan for $75.

The Big Boys

Both Microsoft Corp., which hasn't been much of a player at recent Demos, and IBM Corp. brought hardware that is attracting a lot of attention.

Microsoft's oft-maligned Tablet PC looked quite a bit more interesting than it has at other shows, mostly because this time the company is showing it with a tool to attract folks who must attend meetings bearing notepads.

Instead of using pen and paper, a person armed with a Tablet PC writes directly on its LCD monitor. The monitor sits flat on the top of an ultralight notebook and the image on the screen looks like a digital version of a legal pad. The person writes on the screen in normal handwriting.

The handwriting, including some pretty awful chicken scratch produced by a reporter, can be converted to text and moved to a Word file, copied into an e-mail message, or used in any fashion normally associated with text. The interpretation of the handwriting is quite accurate, although not perfect. The original document can be stored, and best of all, its key words can later be searched. This is very handy if one needs to go back over old notes.

Microsoft expects the product will begin shipping near the end of 2002.

The IBM Meta Pad, also on display here, is a computer about the size of a small paperback book. The device is equipped with an 800-MHz Transmeta processor, 128MB of SDRAM, a 3D graphics chip with 8MB of RAM, and a 10GB hard drive.

The device was built with the idea that all other parts of a PC--the monitor, keyboard, mouse, and so on--are "only accessories" that can be plugged into the device with docking ports. The advantage is that the device can be plugged into a desktop, then moved to a notebook, or even to a handheld, says Ken Ocheltree, exploratory devices manager for IBM Research. When he demonstrated it, the handheld prototype was extremely clunky. The device could also be used as a wearable computer with a headmount display or a detachable LCD monitor.

While interesting, the device is by no means the first of its kind.

Last year, a small California company called Acquis demonstrated working models of its interputer, which has similar components and capabilities.

IBM says it has no plans to sell the device itself, but may license its technologies to other companies.

Virtual Worlds

Virtual worlds and avatars, or digital personas, have had mixed success with the public, mostly because they've been boring and somewhat static--little more than kinda cool chat rooms. On the other hand, online 3D gaming, which are virtual worlds of their own, are a huge success. San Francisco-based Linden Labs is trying to combine the best of both with a product called Linden World, an online 3D environment that users build themselves.

Participants craft their environment, such as a model of their dream castle, with a suite of software tools. Others can help, if they like, and the digital personas on the screen can interact with each other like they do in an online 3D game (albeit without the rocket launchers and machine guns). Models shown at Demo are extremely detailed and more than hold their own, at least in looks, with the online games like Quake and Half-Life. Exactly how the avatars in Linden World will interact is left to the users' imagination, though game-playing will be possible.

Company spokesperson Thomas Reilly, founder of the highly successful PlanetOut gay and lesbian Web site, says the product (strictly for broadband users) is expected to launch late this year. Pricing has not been determined.

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Ramon G. McLeod

PC World
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