The Demo Fall 2008 conference in San Diego this week gave 72 companies six minutes each in front of reporters, venture capitalists, and other industry players to make their case as to why their new technology was worthwhile. Of those, about a fifth were useful to business technologists.
Here is InfoWorld's guide to those that enterprises should investigate further. I've graded them based on likely impact and utility, with A being both the most potentially useful and the most innovative, and F utterly a waste of brain cells. I also provide links in the product names to videos of each presentation so that you can judge for yourself.
AccordiaGroup's Accordia RM. Managing clients is hard, and understanding them for sales, support, or marketing means knowing more than their contact information and order history. Accordia's spin is that by being able to understand the actual relationships of clients to each other and to your company, you can better serve and exploit the clients. So its tool provides a way to search and visualize those relationships. To me, the question is whether users will really be that methodical about discovering, then keeping relationship information updated -- that's a level of detail that seems too hard to maintain for all but the neatest of the neat freaks. What is interesting technologically is its visual approach to exploring highly structured data. Grade: C.
Adapx's Capturx Forms for Excel. We all know the paperless office is a joke, so how do you reduce the workload of converting paper-based information into digital form? Adapx provides Excel plug-in software for Windows that lets you create compositions from which a digital pen captures input -- the item has a watermark that identifies what form it is for and what the fields are, so the captured writing (converted to text via OCR) will flow into the right sheet in Excel when you attach the pen to your PC. I've seen this technology proposed before, but not really make it in the field. The creation process was easy and the loading process slow. And a person has to load each form, so I don't see how this is any better than simply batch-OCR'ing a stack of forms that also uses watermarks -- very old technology widely used in exams and surveys -- or using a digital tablet that presents the form on screen (as your UPS driver uses). Grade: D.
Cinergy's Creately. Diagramming workflows and business processes, as well as adding business logic to those images is hardly a new technology. But Creately introduces a couple twists to the mix. One is the ability to work on such process flows collaboratively in real time via the Web. The other is the ability to create your own workflows and then share their components so that others can build workflows reusing previous efforts. Think of it as SOA for business process modelling. Grade: B.
CoreTrace Bouncer. The highly connected world of the Internet has turned out to be a great way to cause damage through malware, and everyone knows that the typical approach of blocking threats is an impossible task given their speed and ever-changing scale. So why not take the time-honored approach of whitelisting: Only let in those you have approved (think secret-society handshakes, gated communities, and club entry lists). That's what Bouncer does: Only approved applications can be installed on users' Windows PCs. What's interesting is that Bouncer recognizes the real world isn't black-and-white, and permissions shouldn't be either. So IT can specify apps or vendors as OK to install; thus, if Adobe has a new app or version, it's preapproved for installation. Better, IT can also give users different permission levels: no installation beyond the specific list for that computer, installation of anything on the enterprise approval list, and installation of anything (for those users you trust, though Bouncer still tells IT what they installed so that you can override their judgment when it fails). This approach reduces risk, keeps IT overhead low, and doesn't treat all users like morons. Grade: A.
DocCenter's DocLanding. Distributed workgroups make it harder to keep current on documents, and endless e-mail threads don't work very well. DocLanding proposes to address that by letting you create repositories called points that you can open up to other users at varying levels of control -- taking typical permission-based management and applying them to the Web environment. For example, you could give clients the ability to review and comment on documents (for which you can black out material you don’t want to share). But you can go further and let points overlap, so different teams can collaborate on a set of documents "owned" by one point. That allows cross-team and even cross-organizational collaboration when useful, while retaining control over permissions and versioning. My question is, How many collaboration services can you sign up for and manage to handle the various aspects of project collaboration? Grade: C.
Enterprise Informatics' eB for SharePoint. As Microsoft SharePoint gains popularity, internal SharePoint sites mushroom. That creates chaos as to where the "official" version of a document actually resides versus the various versions stored at other SharePoint sites. And it can cause compliance and security issues because SharePoint sites often aren't managed for access control. Enterprise Informatics' eB for SharePoint claims to let the business reassert control over SharePoint sites and their contents via policies, while letting users continue to deploy SharePoint sites for their project collaboration. So as a "master" document moves or is copied throughout SharePoint sites, eB detects and tracks the versions, then can ensure all use the same iteration and that only people who should have access to it in fact do. Enterprise Informatics has long offered enterprise information management tools, and it sees eB as applying the governance of EIM to the ad hoc collaboration of SharePoint. Grade: A.
Fortressware's Personal Fortress. Data leak prevention (DLP) systems have proven unwieldy and hard to implement because of the extreme complexity of figuring out what content should be protected and then examining all messaging traffic to see if that content is being sent out and, if so, to whom. Fortressware addresses this by letting users decide what should be protected; it does so by encapsulating it in a permissions wrapper that requires the recipient to download a free client and then controls the printing, redistribution, and modification of the file. This kind of protection is not new -- Adobe Acrobat has long done a less sophisticated version of it -- but Fortressware has made it more comprehensive in terms of supported files. What the software does not do is work outside of Windows -- at least not in the beta version -- so mobile, Mac, and Linux users get locked out of the protected files altogether. And it’s a lightweight app meant for individual use -- there are no enterprisewide controls à la DLP, though I'm not sure whether that's good or bad. Grade: C.
Fusion-io's ioSAN. Imagine network-attached storage that fits in your hand yet can hold 650GB. That's ioSAN, an SSD-based PCIe card that promises blazingly fast transfer speeds and can support standard disk storage via connected drives for more capacity. Networked servers that have the cards can form a SAN. One of high tech's hallmarks is a drive to miniaturization, and that's ioSAN's key benefit. Grade: B.
Infovell's Infovell. The world probably doesn't want another search engine, but businesses might consider Infovell, which promises deeper search via thousands of indexed research journals, technical articles, and patent applications. Popular search engines rely on popularity to determine what to index, cutting out content considered obscure to the masses. Infovell's innovation is less about technology than a realization that popularity is not the right filter when it comes to specialized research. Grade: C.
OpenACircle.com's OpenACircle. WebEx and GoToMeeting are necessary evils for many -- clunky Web meeting apps that by dint of being early are commonly used. OpenACircle's execs claim their service is better because it lets you create ad hoc groups (circles) as needed, and add, share, and even annotate documents together -- going beyond just meeting capabilities. Essentially, it's permission-based file sharing plus Web meetings. That's a plausible value, but not a huge leap from today's many other offerings. And OpenACircle is clunky, like the standard meeting apps, so no improvement there. Grade: D.
Paragent'sParagent MSP. Most large organizations have an internal or outsourced help desk to manage PCs, track inventory, configuration, and status. But most small businesses don't really manage their PCs, and some hire managed service providers -- usually small shops of a few IT people supporting a few dozen to a few hundred client PCs -- to do it for them. Paragent MSP gives such MSPs a tool to monitor their clients' PCs, tapping into WMI (the native Windows Management Instrumentation API) so that they can see, for example, if a PC has a free memory slot to support RAM for a Windows Vista installation. MSPs pay an annual fee of $8 per PC being monitored. The service includes remote management capabilities based on VNC that let the MSP bypass firewall and other access barriers, so they can more easily troubleshoot user systems. The service taps into an existing Windows service (which our own Windows Sentinel also uses), so it's not technologically sophisticated. But small MSPs will appreciate the access it gives to client systems. Grade C.
PlanDone'sPlanDone. PlanDone's wiki-based app lets you assign projects and schedules, as well as track progress -- no big deal. But its claim to potential fame is its integration of instant messaging and other communications into the project repository. That approach retains the conversations around the project development itself so that context is available to all, as in a wiki -- unlike traditional IM, the messages aren't transitory. PlanDone also uses predictive capabilities to suggest individual workers' priorities in order to orchestrate the schedule, with the goal of increasing the chances of meeting the overall project deadlines and showing the status of each task within a project. Likewise, the app shows where individuals stand on each task, which can help managers know who might be freed up for an unexpected project, who might need more help, or where a project bottleneck exist. The message repository is the key twist in PlanDone, and it's a good insight but not a huge technology challenge. Grade C.
Qtask's Qtask. Qtask provides a hosted application for managing not just work products, such as Word files, project code, and Excel spreadsheets, but also for assigning people tasks, tracking their progress, managing approval, and coordinating the chain of ownership as projects go through the various experts who need to work in it. At the core of Qtask is universal, fine-grained visibility into the project, its tasks, and its participants' contributions to give managers both an instrument for accountability and an easier ability to adjust the project based on its actual state. Qtask also manages the communication across team members so that the discussions, e-mails, and more remain available to all participants, as well as for use later on, such as when starting up a similar project. It also means a contractor can't walk away with the work it did, leaving you out to dry. I liked how the service covers the entire project management activity, integrating most of the necessary technologies (e-mail integration may need some work), to provide a comprehensive collaboration medium instead of just a slice as so many others do. Grade: A.
Quantivo's Quantivo. The analytics startup's tool combines what it calls an "affinity" database with a cloud-based infrastructure hosted by ... well, the company won't say, but Amazon is a reasonable guess. Quantivo is designed to recognize patterns and index relationships, rather than looking at data in a conventional row-and-column configuration. The company claims a significant benefit of the product is its ability to recognize relationships within structured data. One example: drilling down into retail data to get a sense of which customers that have bought relatively inexpensive plumbing equipment are likely to purchase pricey items such as counters or cabinets. Quantivo is ambitious in a good way. Grade: A.
Radiant Logic's Virtual Context Server. Vendors have spent years trying to convert unstructured data, such as documents, into structured data, such as a database. Radiant Logic has inverted that approach to make structured data available through the ultimate unstructured query tool: a search box. Its Virtual Context Server analyzes various databases, applications, and other structured data sources and generates the relationships of meaning among the data – that is, its semantics. IT analysts can modify and create their own semantics for data as well. The result: natural language text that users can search for, bringing that structured data to the fore in an unstructured search. Thus, an intranet search for a company will not only bring back the company’s contact information from a CRM database, but also the various reps the company has worked with, the status of current orders, and payment history for that company from the ERP system. IT can also set access rules to the data, so database information such as pricing isn't available to just anyone who does a search. VCS also can be set up to let users correct information they get in their search results, and either update the source database or have the change stored in VCS so that it is applied to future searches as well. Clearly, a company needs analytics experts to do the semantics work, but it could pay off big. Grade: A.
SkyDataSystems' SkyData. A common target for Demo products is the mobile user. SkyData is such an example, in this case providing a mobile service to pull in CRM, contacts, news, social network, and calendar information so that you have context on who you are talking to or what you are talking (or e-mailing) about from your mobile device. Color me grumpy, but the BlackBerry and iPhone demos of this left my thumb feeling tired -- way too much work to get these data snippets, much less keep track of them as you go through each piece to build that missing context. Grade: F.
TetraBase's TetraBase SDT. The startup's innovation is an accelerator that improves the performance of installed databases. Although the product is compatible with all major flavors of databases, at this early point it works best with Microsoft’s SQL server, the company says. Simply put, Tetrabase adds a layer of management intelligence. Once administrators spot a problem (like the database bogging down every morning), they can use Tetrabase to find a solution. Consider this example: A trucking company uses TetraBase SDT to load the data that dispatchers need each morning -- before the dispatchers punch in. That avoids the previous situation where every morning a cadre of dispatchers logs in to a company database at the same time to prepare to dispatch trucks and drivers on their way -- causing the database to bog down at the worst possible opportunity. Grade: B.
Toolgether's Toolgether. If you create simple desktop apps -- calculators, forms, and other widgets -- Toolgether has a tool to Webify them, so you can convert them to Java apps that you can sell in a widget marketplace it is launching. Sound familiar? It should -- Adobe, Google, Microsoft, Apple, and many others are in the same game to differing extents, and it's hard to see the need for yet one more. Grade: F.
Unity Solutions' Lanxoma. IT staffers won't like this tracking tool that limits technicians' access to privileged systems to specific windows of time and then logs everything they do on Windows systems, even taking screencasts. (So you might want to become a Linux admin instead.) The premise is that since most data security threats are internal, IT staff is a company's biggest risk. There's truth to that, but it still doesn't feel good. Nonetheless, while logging is not a new idea, such comprehensive lockdown and tracking is an advance. If only it worked on Linux and other industrial-grade OSes where IT could do real harm. Grade: C.