With dot-com riches all but dried up, start-ups are looking beyond the Web browser to find surer paths to profitability. The results, on display this week in Phoenix, Arizona, at a high-profile product showcase called DEMO 2001, include an Internet-controlled robot, a high-tech pen that sends written notes by cell phone and technologies that track consumers' locations to beam them marketing pitches.
Big companies are also experimenting. Eastman Kodak Co. (ek), for example, will demonstrate a $229 (247 euros) portable gadget called mc3 that takes both digital photos and video clips, and plays digital music off the Internet.
It's not that the Internet isn't still driving business plans. But many innovators and investors have concluded that just logging onto Web sites is no longer useful or enjoyable enough in many cases. The current line of thinking is that consumers and companies may be more excited, and even willing to pay, if the Internet helps them get things accomplished -- wherever they are.
"It's all about being in two places at once," says Helen Greiner, president and co-founder of iRobot Corp. (www.irobot.com), a scheduled DEMO exhibitor.
With its latest product, Somerville, Massachusetts-based iRobot illustrates the mobility concept, which sometimes is called "telepresence." Currently, the company is talking up an eight-wheeled robot that can rise to eye level and can be equipped with audio and video capabilities. Users with a Web browser can see and hear what the robot does as they direct its movements. The company initially targeted the robot as a remote guard-dog for business settings such as factories and warehouses. But iRobot says a consumer version this year will cost about $2,000.
Similarly, UnwireIt.com (www.unwireit.com), a Palo Alto, California, start-up, plans to show off technology called MyCasa that could allow users to view their homes and to control systems such as heating and burglar alarms from Web-connected pocket organizers or PCs.
The DEMO show, now in its 11th year, is expected to attract 77 exhibitors and 800 industry executives, venture capitalists and journalists. In addition to buzz about the new gadgets, survival may also be a hot topic at the DEMO show. Some firms that exhibited last year have radically changed their focus or dropped out of sight. And in a nod to the current malaise with technology stocks, the show sold out its exhibition booths a bit more slowly this year.
"Companies are under intense scrutiny to deliver revenues as soon as possible," said Jim Forbes, a DEMO executive producer.
Key theme: Mobility
Mobility is likely to be an overarching theme, driven in part by wireless technologies dubbed Bluetooth and 802.11 that send data over distances of nine meters or so; the technologies aren't owned by any one company but are broadly used in the tech industry. Palm Inc. (palm) will show several Bluetooth applications for its hand-held computers, including the ability of two Palm users to wirelessly check each others' calendars to schedule a meeting.
Meanwhile, Digital Ink Inc. of Wellesley, Massachusetts, has developed a pen and base unit with technology to track a users' movements when they write on paper. An image of the handwriting is stored in the pen itself, and can be connected to an advanced cell phone or PC to be transmitted to Digital Ink's Web site. There it can be stored, translated into computer characters, e-mailed or faxed elsewhere, said Ilya Schiller, president of the company. And Dashbox (www.dashbox.com), a San Francisco start-up, is developing a subscription service that gives users mobile access to data or scanned images of key paper documents, such as birth certificates, home titles or insurance policies.
Part of the key to immediate sales is to develop technology that can work with gadgets consumers already own. Hence, many DEMO exhibitors are focusing on telephones. NotifyMe Networks (www.notifyme.com) of Sunnyvale, California, has developed software that companies can use to alert people by phone of vital information and allow them to act on it by pushing a keypad. For example, an airline might use the software to call travelers to tell them a flight had been canceled, and let them rebook seats on the flight by following instructions from an automated attendant.
Location is important in other ways. Quova Inc. (www.quova.com) uses a variety of techniques to locate the city Web users are logging in from, to help companies target marketing pitches and to detect fraud. For instance, PanGo Networks Inc. (www.pangonetworks.com), an eight-employee Pittsburgh company, is developing software so that stores or other businesses could send pitches to participating users carrying cell phones or hand-held computers once they enter predefined spaces near those establishments, says Mark Pollard, PanGo's director of engineering.
Many product makers are betting on new improvements in wireless networks and other key pieces of infrastructure. Microsoft Corp. (msft), which will show off improvements to its Outlook software for mobile users, is fielding a particularly large team to perfect new pieces of plumbing for new Web applications that control a range of devices, both mobile and stationary.
And some start-ups hope to change the infrastructure on their own. Xdegrees Inc. (www.xdegrees.com), Mountain View, California, wants to extend the Internet's basic naming system so many new types of files and devices can be shared by companies and computer users. The idea is to inspire new kinds of decentralized computing services, a bit like the way Napster Inc. (www.napster.com) passes music files from machine to machine.
Some of the innovations require complex partnerships. And that's a far cry from the early days of the Internet, when isolated Web sites were the rage. "The Net just keeps getting bigger and faster and more ubiquitous, so you have more and more opportunities," notes Stewart Alsop, a general partner with the venture-capital firm New Enterprise Associates. "But it's a little harder, because the value is created more in integrating multiple things than creating one thing."
To help ease the way for its new developments, FullAudio Inc. (www.fullaudio.com), a Chicago start-up backed by New Enterprise Associates, is negotiating with record labels in hopes of developing a subscription music service that could compete with Napster. FullAudio plans to show prototype technology at DEMO that partners could develop to seamlessly move Internet music among PCs, home stereos or cars.