DEMO: It's The Little Things That Count
By Mike Masnick, Thu Feb 17 21:45:00 GMT 2005

While the big announcements were happening in Cannes at 3GSM, out in Scottsdale, Arizona the DEMO conference showed just how mainstream and, well, boring, mobile is becoming. That may be a good thing.

Most of the attention in the wireless world this week has been going to the 3GSM conference over in France. However, out in the deserts of Arizona this year's incarnation of the DEMO conference was taking place. While the conference focuses on new products in a variety of different areas, mobile offerings were clearly a big part of it. In fact, the group that runs DEMO announced that there will no longer be a separate (smaller) DEMOmobile, but that the two conferences will be merged. Mobile, it appears, has grown up.

However, even with that backdrop, one of the most interesting things to note was that, despite a good percentage of the 73 companies presenting having products that had something to do with wireless technologies, none of them were classified that way by the show's producers. Instead, it almost seemed as if the fact that these technologies are mobile isn't even worth mentioning any more. This is actually a good thing. When people stop focusing on the technology itself, but instead start looking at the real applications, that's when the real benefits of the technology come out.

The other noteworthy thing about the wireless technologies and applications on display at this year's DEMO was that not many of them were revolutionary. DEMO is a place to launch new products, ideas and innovations -- and many people come expecting to be blown away. In years past, there have been some phenomenal product launches done at DEMO. However, this year, it seemed as though many of the launched products were simply innovations that build on earlier ideas. While they might not be flashy, it's these incremental improvements that get companies to the point where they're offering the products that people really find valuable.

One of the few big companies presenting at DEMO, Motorola picked up the early buzz with its unveiling of iRadio, a digital radio service that allows a user to stream digital radio stations and MP3s from his or her own phone to a car stereo or home stereo. While the accidental "not really" launch of the Motorola iTunes phone in Cannes got more attention, iRadio is interesting in its own right. Again, it's not the most innovative idea in the world, but it does take the concept of mobile music to the next level, removing a few of the hurdles (though, clearly not all) that might slow adoption.

The same could be said of OpenWave's Mobile Device Manager, which makes it easier for operators to backup data on phones, handle over-the-air updates and remotely diagnose problems. It's neither sexy nor new, but it is a step forward. There have been individual solutions like this, from the way Danger automatically synchronizes its devices with a web server (which has its own problems) to the various over-the-air update companies (some of whom have launched at DEMO in previous years).

Meru Networks showed how to make wireless LANs more reliable with a quality of service offering, while Symbol Technologies showed how to make it more secure. Both Outsmart with its SmartFMC offering and Traverse Networks with its nTouch solution tried to solve the problem of dealing with mobile users who have many different phone numbers and phone systems. There have been other solutions in the past for all of these, but these all try to tweak earlier offerings to make them a little better and a little more usable.

Meanwhile, Avvenu is the latest in a line of companies to offer solutions that more closely tie the files on your desktop to your mobile phone with their attempt at "place shifting" the data normally found on desktop computers so it can be used elsewhere.

Reading down the list, it really doesn't sound that impressive, as it's easy to tick off other companies that have tried (and usually failed) to tackle the same problems and markets. However, most of these efforts did include an incremental step forward, making the offering more effective, more usable or just more affordable. Not all of them will be the right answer, but they're a step in the right direction.

For example, about a year ago, a company named nTAG was getting attention for a solution for conference attendees to meet each other. Basically, it involved a PDA that each attendee received broadcasting information about who they were and what kinds of people they wanted to meet. This year, at DEMO, Jambo Networks took the idea one step further. Recognizing that nearly everyone has a Wi-Fi-enabled laptop or PDA, Jambo offers an application that effectively does the same thing, telling users who else is in their general vicinity that might be interesting to them. Rather than waiting for the two people to already be right next to each other (like the nTAG solution), Jambo lets the "matches" communicate via an instant messaging-style application. In other words, Jambo has taken the idea of real world social networking, and merged it with the concept that Wi-Fi is a platform, not just a technology -- creating something that pushes both ideas forward.

Still, there were some more innovative ideas, such as Sonaptic's technology to create a surround sound effect coming out of mobile phones -- which could help push the rapidly growing mobile music space another step forward.

While the overall impact of the show may have been a bit of a let down in the sense that none of the wireless offerings shown really seemed to knock attendees off their feet, the fact that the focus now seems to be more on practical applications of the technology, rather than just the technology itself, is a sign that wireless offerings are becoming mainstream -- even if they may seem a little boring at times.