COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PHIL BAKER

A report from DEMOmobile 2003

This week San Diego played host to DEMOmobile 2003, one of the more interesting and influential conferences covering mobile products and technology. DEMOmobile, held yearly, provides a preview of some of the most significant products and services in the wireless and mobile products markets. Past companies that debuted new products at Demo include Palm (Nasdaq: PALM), Google, H-P (NYSE: HPQ), IBM (NYSE: IBM) and Handspring (Nasdaq: HAND).

At this year's conference, 37 companies were each given six minutes to introduce and explain their new products to the audience of 400. The companies invited must have a product that is new to the market and involves mobile technology. If the past is any indication, there will be a few successes and many misses. That's the nature of new technology products, trying to anticipate a need and fill it, often before there really is a need. Nevertheless, Demo provides a great overview of where the industry is going.

At last year's Demo some of the successful technologies introduced were ring tones for cellular phones, mobile gaming on the cell phone, wireless games and WiFi. This year's technology on display included messaging over the cell phone, adaptive computing, wireless security, innovative interfaces to the cell phone and home networks.

Here is a sampling of the companies.

Tapwave, www.tapwave.com, introduced a supercharged Palm device, called Zodiac, designed for multimedia, particularly gaming and video. Sporting the best color screen of any pocket device, Zodiac comes equipped with a fast processor and video chip that displays stunning, full-motion video. In addition, it has stereo speakers, a built-in MP3 player, two memory slots, a high-capacity battery, as well as all of the basic Palm organizer functions. The company was founded by ex-Palm executives, and they have extended the Palm's capabilities more than any previous licensee. This could be a big success if they can maneuver around some competitors such as Sony, Nintendo and Palm. Expect it to be one of this year's must-have holiday gifts for teenagers. Available from their Web site in about a month for $299 to $399.

Logitech (Nasdaq: LOGI), www.logitech.com, demonstrated a wireless desktop Bluetooth network. The company built the network around their existing Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, using the mouse charger as the hub. The network allows wireless printing, synchronizing PDAs, connecting computers and accessing a high-speed connection, all without wires. A PDA with Bluetooth, for example, will be able to connect to the desktop printer, computer and the Internet all wirelessly. The keyboard, mouse and network hub will retail for $179. What's impressive is how Logitech has moved from being a mouse and keyboard company to one with some of the most innovative ideas for desktop and mobile computing.

Ispiri, www.ispiri.com, debuted its $399 home server, called Mirra, to provide file sharing, backup and secure remote access for the home. It automatically backs up, saves and restores files from home computers, allows friends to share your photos and large files, and gives you access to your computer from any remote computer. It's attempting to replace many of the online services and their monthly fees, and become a junior version of an office server. It provides a sense of security by giving you control of your secure data rather than the online companies. How well it will work all comes down to the software. It's tough enough managing a couple of computers in the home. Hopefully this will make things easier and not more difficult.

Aura Communication, www.auracomm.com, introduced a wireless headset that works with any cellular phone. One part connects to your phone and snaps onto your belt; the other piece goes on your ear. Aura utilizes what they call "magnetic communication" rather than Bluetooth to wirelessly connect the phone to the headset, which they say provides clearer sound and uses much less power. The product creates a "communication bubble" that is said to surround each user for secure and reliable communications, blocking out interference from other devices. The product utilizes magnetic induction, which is the technology the FastTrak Speed Pass on cars uses to communicate with tollbooths. This product will sell for $59-$79. I tried it briefly and it seemed to work well. I'm just not sure about that bubble.

There were quite a few companies with products that allow us to do more on our phones. Believe it or not, PocketWatch Systems, www.pocketwatchsystems.com, of Edinburgh, Scotland, introduced software that accesses a computer on your phone. The product, called PocketHub, installs on the computer and allows any Internet-enabled device such as a cell phone, PDA or another computer to connect. They demonstrated how it could be used to access files on your office computer and send e-mail through that computer. It's an impressive technical accomplishment, but using a phone's tiny screen and limited keyboard seems to make it less than ideal. Cost is $69, with no monthly fees.

Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) showed the results of their collaboration with a number of low-end watch companies to provide a service to stream traffic reports, sports updates and other information to the watches using the FM spectrum, for a monthly fee, of course. The watches looked pretty pedestrian, and I question whether these will succeed, since cell phones provide us similar sorts of information, and most of us would rather wear a more attractive watch.

What all of these products have in common is that they enable us to get more information sooner, from just about anywhere. The companies seem to think this is what customers need and want. I personally need to find time to get away from the constant flow of information and to digest what I'm already getting.

Pulse Entertainment, www.pulse3d.com, showed what might be the silliest product of the show. It takes a still photo captured with a cell phone camera and animates it to make it appear that part of the image is moving. It is so silly it may even be successful. Who would have thought that sales of ring tones would reach $20 million this year?

Firetide (www.firetide.com) introduced a product that utilizes WiFi to quickly set up wireless networks of all sizes without requiring hard wiring of Ethernet cables. Designed for small business use and for establishments offering WiFi, it eliminates the need for the wiring of Ethernet cables and self-adjusts when one node fails.

Brother International, of Japan, www.brother.com, introduced a tiny wireless thermal printer, the MPrint, for use with PDAs. While compact and cute, they get my Chutzpah award for pricing it at $499 and $8 for a cassette of 50 sheets of paper.

Realeyes3D from Paris, www.realeyes3d.com, found another way to utilize a cell phone camera. Take a picture of a written note with the camera, and even if it is out of focus and distorted, their software transforms it into a clear image that can be sent on to another phone.

In the past, DEMOMobile has been a good indicator of trends and discoveries in the mobile area. Based on this year's conference there were neither significant new technologies nor startling new developments. It's unclear whether this is a reflection of fewer VC investments or a realization that before we need major new breakthroughs, we need to make what we have now easier to use and more reliable.

With all of this technology, there are now so many ways to stay connected that if we cannot reach someone it is usually because they do not want to be reached.

Don't call me, I'll call you!


Baker has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others. He is the holder of 30 patents and was named San Diego's Ernst & Young Consumer Products Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000. He can be reached at phil.baker@sddt.com.

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