Startups bloom despite the economy

Fresh from Demo Fall 09, InfoWorld's Bill Snyder picks the startup companies that could change your work life

At Demo Fall 09 in San Diego, more than 60 startups and a few veteran outfits strutted their stuff before a skeptical audience of venture capitalists, tech aficionados, and journalists. A lot of sexy and innovative technology was on display this week, most of it targeting consumers. Even if your mission in life is solving down-and-dirty IT problems, several ideas deserve attention.

In particular, outstanding solutions were presented that addressed videoconferencing, Web security, and e-mail management. Plus, I can't resist reporting on an advancement in acoustic science that turns the wimpy audio produced by ultra-thin LCD TVs into rich, powerful stereo sound.

[ Check out more of InfoWorld's coverage of the Demo Fall 09 conference. | Keep up on the day's tech news headlines with InfoWorld's Today's Headlines: First Look newsletter. ]

How can a big, influential show like Demo produce so little technology geared to the enterprise? According to Chris Shipley, who has been executive producer of Demo for 13 years, the answer is simple: "Enterprises aren't spending." And if they're not spending, venture money isn't flowing in that direction. What's more, the rise of smartphone and location-based services, plus the social networking wave, are sending venture money and entrepreneurs in the direction of the consumer market.

Video collaboration on the cheap

Hewlett-Packard is hardly a startup, yet the giant computer maker was permitted to show off an innovative videoconferencing and collaboration product it calls SkyRoom. It allows up to four Windows nodes to link over a standard business network using relatively inexpensive hardware and software -- a huge advance over traditional systems costing thousands of dollars.

With HP SkyRoom, users can share any type of application supported on their PC or workstation, including office documents, streaming video, and interactive 3-D applications -- and videoconference at the same time. The video engine is multithreaded; it compresses and encrypts the information before sending it to the participants, where it is decrypted, decompressed, and updated. In this way, network traffic is reduced, latency and bandwidth requirements are reduced, and the need for dedicated networking hardware is eliminated, the company claims.

HP will include the system without charge to buyers of selected workstations and sell the software (cameras and microphones are extra) for $149.

Web security on the fly

Users of the New York Times Web site (including me) had a rude shock earlier this month when a bit of malware masked as an anti-virus program staged a drive-by attack. Since the attack appeared to last for a while, I'm guessing that the Times' IT staff simply didn't know about it. That's the kind of customer-unfriendly incident that Silicon Valley security vendor Armorize Technologies claims to stop in its tracks.

Armorize's HackAlert scans Web sites at pre-determined intervals, decoding JavaScript and looking for changes in HTML code. If it senses something is amiss, it will alert administrators via text messages with a link that pinpoints where the code has been changed or attacked.

To minimize false positives, HackAlert actually moves suspicious code to a "sandbox" where it is prodded until it does -- or doesn't -- do something malicious. If it does, the alert goes out.

Intelligent e-mail management

Managing e-mail is the bane of just about everyone's work life. At Demo, an interesting new plug-in to Outlook debuted that could help you reduce the maddening clutter.

Liaise, developed by a startup of the same name, watches what you type in Outlook and parses the meaning of key phrases. Let's say I've sent a report to someone on my team asking him to comment by the end of the week. Liaise will interpret my request as an action item and will interpret "end of the week" as Sept. 25, the end of this business week. My log will tell me that the employee owes me some work by Friday. If I send the same person a comment on his work, Liaise will note that as well. If I scheduled a meeting with the person, the application will print a report listing all of my Outlook interactions with him.

The software runs locally, reducing security risks, and doesn't force the user to train the application. Liaise also offers a synchronization service that allows all users of the application to view an update log of all of the group's Outlook interactions.

Great sound from plastic film

The flat-panel TV in your living room looks great, but if you don't hook it up to a separate audio system, the sound is terrible. That's because those fashionably thin screens simply don't have the room to host a conventional speaker. And what's true of a TV is equally true of laptop computers: LCD screens won't get thicker and tiny speakers can only get so much better.

Enter Emo Labs with a new audio technology to fill the sound gap. Simply put, Emo takes a thin, plastic sheet containing small electronic "actuators" along the perimeter and embeds it around the LCD. The sheet, made out of the same commodity plastic found in water bottles, acts as a surprisingly powerful speaker.

Conventional magnet and cone speakers push air inside the speaker box against a diaphragm. Emo's technology actuates a thin membrane along the side of the screen that creates an efficient, piston-like motion in front. The vibration of the screen amplifies the sound.

Emo demonstrated the technology with several different devices, but the show and tell that got my attention was the iPhone demo. An Emo exec simply plugged it into a screen, dialed up some music, and let it rip. Even within the confines of a crowded, noisy demonstration area, the sound was loud, clear, and in stereo.

The company hopes to land contracts to embed the screens in home electronics products sometime next year. No doubt manufacturing costs, quality control, and the public's perception of the quality of sound on existing systems will be major issues to overcome. But the technology is flat-out cool.

Smartphones breath new life into an old idea

Marketers have long hoped for a way to combine the Web with print publications and brochures by using tags that take a viewer to the Internet. It's been tried a number of times, but nobody wants to type in URLs by hand or use clumsy scanning devices.

But that's changing. New smart tagging technology from Microsoft is being used by Ford, the Amsterdam public transportation system, and a number of European magazines and newspapers.

To use the tags, the customer must first download a free app from iTunes or another app store. Launch the app, snap a picture of the tag with your smartphone, and you'll be taken to a Web page with more information.

Getting more advertising may not be to your taste, but these smart tags have numerous applications. Here at Demo, smart tags on the wall let me check the day's agenda or get information about a company without hunting around for a Web site. At a bus stop, it could give me route information or arrival times; at a museum, more information about a painting I like. And so on.

All in all, Demo Fall 09 was an upbeat event, surprisingly so given the state of the economy. Maybe tough times brought out the best in the presenters. Or perhaps real innovation proceeds at its own pace, regardless of the ups and downs of the market.

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