Of big dreamers, one thinks small

Expo: At Arizona's annual Demo, where hopeful firms venture seeking capital, this year's star was a pint-sized, full-fledged portable PC.

March 04, 2004|By Mike Langberg | Mike Langberg,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - A full-fledged Windows computer the size of a videocassette. A cure for spam. A device that copies and stores all your DVD movies and music CDs.

Technology companies never stop dreaming, even as the Silicon Valley recession drags on, and some of the most interesting ideas made their public debut at the Demo show here.

The 14th annual Demo, which ran Feb. 16-17, gave companies a chance to make a very brief pitch from a stage at the Westin Kierland Resort. Most presentations are limited to six minutes, and some are held to just 60 seconds.

This year's Demo "gee-whiz award" goes to Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, whose company showed the tiny computer.

The FlipStart weighs just under a pound, yet it runs Windows XP Professional and contains a 1 gigahertz Transmeta Crusoe processor, 256 megabytes of random-access memory, a 30-gigabyte hard drive and built-in WiFi wireless networking. Measuring 5.8 inches wide by 4 inches deep by 1 inch thick, the FlipStart has a 5.6-inch color LCD screen that displays about two-thirds of a typical page.

There's even a small monochrome LCD display on the FlipStart's lid for viewing e-mail, playing digital music or checking appointments.

Vulcan, a Seattle company owned by Allen, developed the FlipStart and is hoping to lure big computer and consumer electronics companies into licensing the design. If it succeeds, the first FlipStarts could go on sale in the second half of this year for $1,500 to $2,000.

Allen said FlipStarts could eventually cost less than $1,000 if there is mass-market demand.

In theory, at least, the FlipStart should be a winner. Personal digital assistants and smart phones offer only some of the features found in a PC. You might be able to send and receive e-mail, for example, but you can't edit pictures or work on an Excel spreadsheet.

For not much more weight or bulk, FlipStart would become a do-it-all portable device.

On the other hand, Allen hasn't scored any notable business successes since deciding in high school to pal around with a skinny kid named Bill Gates. A long list of Allen-backed products and services have floundered or not met expectations.

But that's the fun of Demo. You know a few of the companies will succeed wildly, some will be modestly successful and many will fail. But you don't know which are which.

Organizer Chris Shipley acts as a funnel; 250 companies asked to present new products at this year's show, but only 70 were accepted and 67 showed up.

The lure is the audience. Total attendance is 620. Not counting the organizers and exhibitors, about 480 venture capitalists, corporate technology buyers, analysts and journalists are sitting in judgment.

A successful performance at Demo gets your company publicity, customers, funding and maybe even a buyout offer.

Most of the Demo companies are software and services for large corporations. There are tools for more efficiently running big computer networks, stopping spam before it invades inboxes and making instant messaging into something more than a way for teen-agers to exchange school gossip.

About a third of Demo is devoted to products ordinary people might buy. Most famously, the original Palm Pilot personal digital assistant was launched at Demo in 1996.

Among companies showing consumer products this year were:

Molino Networks of Santa Cruz, Calif., introduced its Media Mogul box, a $995 home media recorder that attaches to a television set and has a 300-gigabyte hard drive. Due in summer, the Media Mogul copies your home library of DVD movies and music CDs, as well as storing digital pictures and home videos.

The hard drive can hold up to 50 movies or 500 CDs, so you no longer have to get up from the couch every two hours to get out a new DVD. The $2,995 version has one terabyte of storage - that's 1,000 gigabytes - enough for 200 DVDs.

Homestead Technologies of Menlo Park, Calif., It's The Content of San Mateo, Calif., and OurPictures of Palo Alto, Calif., all showed Web-based services for sharing digital pictures, including images from camera phones. Now you can snap a picture of a cute puppy you pass on the street and have it appear almost instantly in the e-mail inboxes of all your friends.

Akimbo of San Mateo rolled out a new video-on-demand service that uses the Internet to deliver television programs. Due in May, the $199 Akimbo box has an 80-gigabyte hard drive that stores 200 hours of compressed video. Subscribers pay $10 a month or more to choose programs from a library of 20,000 hours of programming; the shows are delivered via high-speed cable modem or DSL line through a home network to the Akimbo box. Lacking deals with any major networks, Akimbo won't offer the final episode of Friends or the new season of The Sopranos. But there will be pay-per-view movies and, for consenting adults, the Naked News - the Web site with video of news anchors who bare more than their journalistic souls.

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