• United States
News Editor

Optimism abounds . . . justified or not

Feb 24, 20035 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsMessaging AppsVenture Capital

When will the evil economy finally lift its foot off the neck of our industry? “Soon” was the answer offered most often at last week’s Demo 2003, where rarely was heard a discouraging word and the skies, if not sunny all day, at least didn’t seem ready to fall on anyone’s head.

When will the evil economy finally lift its foot off the neck of our industry?

“Soon” was the answer offered most often at last week’s Demo 2003, where rarely was heard a discouraging word and the skies, if not sunny all day, at least didn’t seem ready to fall on anyone’s head. Speaker after speaker – on stage and in private – emphasized the approach of better times, while muttering the obligatory qualifiers.

A cynic might say rose-colored eyewear was in high fashion, but there were few cynics on the grounds.

“It’s a great time to start a company,” said Julio Estrada, founder of Kubi Software, an e-mail-based collaboration newcomer that drew well-deserved praise. “The talent we’ve been able to put together is unbelievable . . . and our recruiting costs are zero.”

Patience is again a virtue, we were told, as venture capitalists reportedly are willing to give start-ups four years to fly, nearly twice the window afforded a few years ago.

On the other hand, Demo organizers – who run this elite invitation-only event Network World owns – had to sift through only half of the 1,000 companies screened in prior years to find this show’s 61 invited vendors. The quality might be higher, but such a thinning of the herd doesn’t come without a price.

There might have been a quiet undercurrent of concern about the economy – and war – but a ransom note couldn’t get some of these entrepreneurs to acknowledge any serious misgivings.

“We’ve got people paying for our beta software,” gushed Liquid Machines CEO Jim Schoonmaker, who’s pushing policy-based security that protects at the file level and looks nifty at the trade-show level.

“We’ve seen the market coming to us,” bragged Buzz Bruggeman, whose ActiveWord Systems promises to save PC users time and money by saving them countless keystrokes. Comes with a cool, personal ROI feature.

“We’re a recessionary product,” boasted ITWorx CEO Youssri Helmy, whose NetCelera bandwidth-optimization appliance is worth a look for those still angling to cut costs.

A quartet of seen-it-all graybeards on hand for a panel discussion were happy to accentuate the positive, yet they, too, had words of caution.

“Deals are getting done, but not on the terms that the entrepreneurs I know are happy about,” said Mitch Kapor, long-ago founder of Lotus and more recently a venture capitalist active in open source.

There was more talk about incremental advances than any next big thing.

“The next big thing is all the little things that make things work,” said Les Vadasz, president of Intel Capital. If the show had an overarching theme, it was just that: making the things we have work better.

For example, Kubi Software surrenders to the reality that workers live in their e-mail by letting Microsoft Outlook and Lotus Notes users collaborate in groups using those familiar interfaces. Instead of forcing them into another application. Oddpost‘s snazzy demo of its Web-based e-mail service kicked the stuffing out of my preconceived notion that no one would pay $30 for what’s been a freebie. And Bloomba from Stata Labs looks ready to bring order to even the ugliest in-box.

Antispam outfits MailFrontier and Cloudmark won bravery points for submitting to a preshow Network World test, but the results reported onstage only confirmed suspicions of filtering skeptics that these products snag too many legitimate messages and aren’t all that good at weeding out junk. Ironport did better with a gateway tool that lets network administrators easily identify the biggest spammers and block their IP addresses by the thousands.

Security companies such as BigFix and Preventsys were marching the ball downfield, too, with promising products that speak directly to problems of the day. BigFix finds and patches vulnerabilities before they jump up and bite your behind. Preventsys automatically audits network elements for compliance with security policies.

Another sign of sanity returning to the industry was that this Demo featured few tech toys. . . . Those that were shown didn’t leave anyone panting for more.

TerraDigital‘s “digital audio jukebox” uses a nifty touchscreen to give audiophiles easy access to their music collections, but doesn’t have a prayer at $895 a pop.

FullAudio, which learned the hard way that young people won’t pay monthly fees for music, has a clever description of its new target market – “the employed” – but will find that crowd no more anxious to pony up.

Lifescape‘s Picassa Sharing Network promises to make sending digital photos to Grandma a snap – and looks idiotproof – which means, well . . . grandparents will be happier with their idiot grandkids.

The most eye-opening demo came from Digital Sun, whose X.Sense wireless soil sensor kept an onstage patch of grass from being flooded by a broken sprinkler head. It promises big savings for owners of automatic irrigation systems and looks like a bargain at $150.

The lamest demo? IBM’s InfoScope technology, which involved a woman who doesn’t speak German taking a digital photo of a subway sign written in German in order to send it wirelessly to a server that would spit back a translation.

And the biggest bomb: WebEx. Nothing in its demo worked, including the presenter’s attempt at covering up with nervous laughter.

Have 2 cents of your own? The address is