The DEMO Paradox?

from the mixing-it-up dept

Here’s the roundup on the first real day of DEMOfall, talking about some of the specific oddities of DEMO, including the paradox of bad ideas with good demos and good ideas with bad demos, along with what seemed most interesting… and which products induced the most head scratching. The quick summary is that simplicity is good, but complexity in the name of simplicity is bad. Rather than fill up the main post with all the details, we’ve put the full story after the jump, so if you want to read it, click here to see the full report.

This is the third DEMO conference I've attended, and I enjoy them all much more than traditional conferences for a couple of reasons. First, the format works. You're not stuck listening to the hour long sales pitch from the big companies sponsoring the conference who you really couldn't care less about. The quick, six-minute, pitch format is an interesting dynamic, though, with connectivity in the room (I made out using an EVDO card, while the grumbling from other attendees was that the WiFi was overloaded), if a demo doesn't capture interest in the first 30 seconds or so, responding to some emails or reading a news story online may make me miss an entire demo. The second reason that DEMO is always fun is that the people here are usually quite interesting, and it's a different mix than the typical techie conferences, so the between session discussions are worthwhile.

The summary message for today isn't just true for today, but is a bit of DEMO wisdom that's worth remembering. I can't take the credit for it, as SixApart's Andrew Anker mentioned it to me first. It's the DEMO paradox: the coolest, most interesting demos are often from companies that aren't that interesting, whereas the least interesting demos sometimes come from companies with products that are quite cool. There are a variety of reasons behind this, and it doesn't always hold, but it's an important reality check. After all, the hands down, best absolute demo at the last DEMO in the spring was for Homestead, a bubble-era web company that's still trying to get people to build websites. So, with that in mind, take some of the DEMO coverage you may read with a grain of salt.

For example, one of today's "coolest" demos in terms of technology that seemed really innovative was Echelon's demo. They're working on sensor networks which do have plenty of applications -- but the one they demoed didn't seem all that practical in real life. It was a "smart carpet" that could tell exactly where people were walking on it, alerting the computer system if someone fell or if something was moved or even (this is where it may have gone too far) where the carpet should be cleaned because it got the most traffic. That sounds cool at first, but, seriously, is knowing where to clean your carpet that big of a pain point? It seems like there are plenty of other, more practical applications.

Meanwhile, the easiest way to sum up the products that seemed most interesting is to say they were focused on "simplicity." Some demos just come across as way too complex to ever see someone really using it, but the interesting ones were ones that had a clear benefit that could be seen simply. U3 and Realm both showed off "simple" ways to carry around your data with you, with systems that plug into any computer and automatically bring back your settings or even computing state. Pie showed off a system to make home networking much easier. NextPage has an interesting service for doing simplified document management in a way that makes sense almost instantly. With all of these, though, the general sense was that they look great -- if (oh, how we dream) they actually worked as well as promised. It seems plenty of attendees have become too cynical to believe that's possible.

Of course, there were also plenty of companies that claimed to do things in the name of simplicity, but which often seemed the simplicity just made it more complicated. That included a system from Powware that would let people create programs by drawing and writing (as someone said, sort of a "reverse Logo"). The folks at Trimergent were quite proud of the system they had for merging desktop search, web search, database search, file sharing, information sharing in order to build shareable on-the-fly portals, but you had to think too hard to come up with ways in which it would really be useful. They kept saying how you could use their system to create a Plaxo-on-the-fly or a Napster-on-the-fly, but it wasn't clear why I'd want to do that.

Another product that got some buzz, but which had more than a few attendees scratching their heads was UniPrivacy's DeleteNow, which is basically trying to position itself as a solution to the Eric Schmidt problem of having info you don't want about yourself found on search engines. They claim that for $3/month, they'll get rid of any private info about you from the various search engines. How do they do that, not actually having access to the search engines' databases? Good question! The answer certainly wasn't too clear, and may involve basically having an automated system for bugging the search engines to remove your data. Whether or not that actually works is a different issue, but that's why the $3 is a monthly rate, rather than a one off. The subscription means they'll keep scanning in case the data comes back. Of course, some may interpret "comes back" to mean "was never actually removed."

Anyway, that's the quick list of what caught my eye. I'll have more tomorrow.

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