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DEMO 2008: What's Next in Tech

At the annual gathering of tech inventions, companies roll out creations that marry your phone and computer, and make the workplace technologically easier

If the recent performance of technology stocks including Apple (AAPL) and Google (GOOG) has you down on the high-tech economy, perhaps you should come to DEMO.

At this annual technology conference in Palm Desert, Calif., 77 technology innovations, most from startup companies just coming out of development, will get their first public demonstration before an audience of venture capitalists, journalists, and tech gurus prowling for the next big thing.

Many of the numerous contenders for that "big thing" title have the kind of goofy names one would expect of the Web 2.0 era. Take Ribbit. Billing itself as the first phone company birthed in Silicon Valley, Ribbit has brought telephone engineers and software developers together in a bid to meld the Web with voice communications in entirely new ways.

Not Phoning It In

If you have a cell phone and use the Web, you'll want to try Ribbit, says Chief Executive Ted Griggs. The company's first consumer-oriented service, dubbed Amphibian, will let you make calls on your computer as if from your cell phone, and calls dialed to your cell phone can be routed to your computer, or any computer connected to the Web. Voice-mail messages can be stored and retrieved as easily as e-mail. And calls to any one of your phone numbers can ring on multiple phones with different numbers.

"If you're traveling overseas and get a call on your cell phone, you can take the call [on a PC] even though you're out of range" of your wireless carrier's network, Griggs says. "The browser basically becomes another phone." Amphibian, slated to launch during the first quarter, is just a sampling of what Ribbit's technology can do, he adds. The company has opened its technology platform to outside programmers, and about 2,500 software developers are working to create their own specialized applications to add phone-like features to other Web services and applications. For example, the company is already offering a Ribbit add-on for the online customer-relations management software used by customers of (CRM), itself a DEMO alum.

Other companies showcasing their wares at DEMO are working to make phones themselves more powerful. Think back to the last time you were traveling and forgot an important file on your home or work computer. Why not just grab it from afar with your mobile phone? You can already do this from a remote computer using a service such as GoToMyPC. But whether it's a BlackBerry (RIMM), iPhone, or Windows Mobile device, most smartphones now have enough computing horsepower and a fast enough Internet connection to reach back to your home or office and pull things off your computer. PCMobilizr, a service from New York-based Rove Mobile, will give you direct access to your PC's desktop from your wireless device for a monthly subscription fee of about $10.

Common Theme: "Consumerization"

Chris Shipley, head of the Guidewire Group, a Silicon Valley-based market consultancy, runs DEMO and selects the companies that present each year. She says one prevailing theme among this year's crop is the "consumerization" of the business applications people use at work. "There's been such a crush of easy-to-use consumer technology that has come onto the market in the last few years that people are expecting the same ease of use in the technology they use at work," she says. "You don't spend any time on Facebook or YouTube and then go to work and think the interface on your ERP [enterprise resource planning] software is a good thing."

One company trying to address that demand is blist, a software firm that says it has created "the world's easiest [to use] database" software. Taking on a market long dominated by Microsoft (MSFT) and Oracle (ORCL), blist plans to give away its database application in hopes that those who try it will like it so much they'll take it to work and show others. "People want the software they use at work to be easier to use, and that's creating a hole in the marketplace for these new companies to enter," Shipley says. "Individuals have a lot more power than they did before."

Adobe AIR in Action

Another intriguing trend at this year's DEMO is the way numerous entrants have made use of Adobe's (ADBE) AIR technology. Unveiled at last year's DEMO, Adobe AIR is used to create rich Internet applications that can run both while a computer is connected to the Internet and, to some degree, when it isn't.

AIR-based entrants at this year's DEMO include Joggle, an online service designed to organize the files you have scattered among the hard drives on multiple PCs in a single browser window. Joggle was created by Fabrik, a vendor of external hard drives that is familiar with the confusion people face when trying to remember which documents, songs, photos, and videos are stored on which computer. Other DEMO participants that utilize Adobe AIR are Acesis, which created data-management software for health-care providers, and Israel's 2Win Solutions, which built a Web-based collaboration application called KonoLive.

Interviewing Taken Up a Notch

If all those innovations don't get you excited, consider getting paid to go for a job interview. NotchUp is a free service, currently available by invite only, for people who aren't looking for a new job but wouldn't mind keeping their hats in the ring—for a price. The NotchUp service helps you set a fee for which you are willing to interview (typically based on your line of work and depth of experience), and companies that like your qualifications pay that fee in addition to a markup to NotchUp for facilitating the interview. Companies including Google, Yahoo! (YHOO), and Facebook are already using NotchUp in their recruiting efforts.

Novel ideas, of course, don't always lead to success. The graveyard of DEMO participants is far larger than the group of companies whose concepts have led to a next big thing. But set against the rubble of Wall Street's tech sell-off, it's heartening to see the wheels of innovation are still turning.

Check out the slide show to learn more about some of the most interesting entries at DEMO '08.

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