The number of exhibitors at Comdex Canada has shrunk in tandem with the fortunes of the world's technology companies, but Canadian innovation was alive and well at the show in Toronto this week.
Comdex, the major event on Canada's technology show circuit, has traditionally been a hotspot for product launches. This year, with the industry in a slump, there was nothing much in the "new and exciting" department from the big international players.
"Tire-kickers probably won't be happy with this show," Steve Prahalis, vice-president of Comdex organizer Key3Media International of Needham, Mass., had warned globetechnology.com in a pre-show briefing. "Yes, there will be a lot of new products there, but it's not necessarily going to be a never-never land of technology. The focus this year is on information, and informing people about solutions."
Nevertheless, while the giant technology companies came up somewhat short in terms of market-ready innovations, a number of small Canadian companies rushed in to pick up the slack. Although many of their booths lacked glitz and fanfare, a session of careful digging around the fringes of the show floor unearthed a number of newly released gems from small Canadian developers and startups.
MagicCard of Toronto (www.magiccard.ca) created a buzz on the show floor with its new PCI card that protects Windows-based computers against accidental or intentional damage. This includes everything from glitches when installing hardware drivers or software, right up to viruses and malicious hacker attacks - even a full format of the hard disk is reversed with a simple reboot of the computer.
The $189 card sets up a kind of virtual state where programs run alongside the actual operating system's processes, protecting the hard drive from direct damage. It also stores critical information on a hidden section of the hard drive and has technology that protects the PC's BIOS settings, the company said. The user periodically takes a snapshot of their working system and important files (a three-second process), and if anything corrupts the operating system, they simply reboot and everything reverts to a working state automatically. The MagicCard protects with the PC's root drive and can handle up to eight logical partitions (a network version is also available for multiple computers). The company offered $500 to anyone at Comdex who could trash the operating system of a MagicCard-equipped PC.
"I was amazed at how this card performed," Mehran Farahi, a Toronto-based independent technology evaluator and tester who visited the MagicCard booth at Comdex, said. "I went into the Windows registry and deleted a whole whack of files that a computer cannot run without. Then I changed a bunch of display settings. When I was done, the computer restarted and it came back on like a charm -- there was no trace of all the mess I'd made."
Mississauga, Ont.-based Kasten Chase Applied Research (www.kastenchase.com) showed off its Assurency SecureData software for encrypting information on Palm OS-based handheld computers. The software, which sells for $45 (U.S.) per user, can deliver up to 448-bit encryption using a variety of commercial algorithms. When installed, the 135K program encrypts the entire contents of the handheld (except the owner-information screen, so that a good Samaritan can return a lost PDA to its rightful home). After the user types in their password, only the data displayed at any given time is decrypted so that the performance of the handheld isn't slowed. When the power is turned off, the software re-encrypts any data being displayed and locks down the PDA automatically.
"We kept it as simple as possible because if security works easily then people will actually use it. They won't use it if it interferes with the 'Palm Zen' experience," said Bob Raymond, the company's business development and product manager.
Pocketop Inc. of Vancouver (www.pocketop.net) also grabbed the attention of handheld owners with its PDA keyboard. The keyboard communicates with the handheld over an infrared connection, and gets up to three months of use from a single AAA battery. It folds up into a tiny package and works with just about any Palm OS- or PocketPC-based handheld that has an infrared port. The drive allows the information on the PDA screen to rotate 90 degrees so the handheld can be used in a vertical or horizontal position, and the package includes two different mounting systems for the handheld (one allows the PDA to be positioned a comfortable distance back behind the keyboard, instead of being clamped to the keyboard as competing wired products require). The Pocketop keyboard has just been launched at Future Shop for $149.
cStar Technologies Inc. of Toronto (www.cstartech.com) showed of a working system that allows people to buy drinks and other goods from vending machines using their mobile phones.
"People don't always have coins, but many people now carry their cellphone with them all the time," said Victor Chen, cStar's director of business development.
He said the technology is ready, but it is proving complicated to get cellphone carriers to agree to add purchases to the customer's monthly cellphone bill. Instead, the company is just about to launch a pilot project in Toronto with a large vending machine company that will provide its own cellphone-based billing system. The cStar system will be retrofitted into the company's existing machines.
cStar also showed a wireless reporting system with a range of 20Km that can be used to remotely monitor everything from the inventory in a company's vending machines all over a city, to the mechanical health of elevators, to the output of oil wells. The information can be beamed back to a monitoring centre, or to a mobile service crew's handheld computer.
Mississauga-based Endo Networks (www.endonetworks.com) showcased its mobile kiosk. Initially developed for a beer company for roving promotions, it comes equipped with a touchscreen, digital camera, a bar code scanner and a reader for magnetic-strip cards. The camera can take a person's picture and automatically insert it into a chosen scene (to make it look like they were hanging out with, say, the Budweiser girls), and then e-mail it anywhere in the world. The kiosk can be hooked up to a bar's television system or an overhead-mounted plasma display for things like trivia contests. It can even be connected to a sound system to work as a jukebox, playing songs off its hard drive or the Internet.
The bar code scanner can read tickets or entry forms, and the magnetic strip reader can pull information off a driver's licence card and insert it automatically into entry forms. Data collected from contest entrants can be transferred to a company over the kiosk's modem, or in remote areas with no Internet connection it can be stored on an internal hard disk for later retrieval.
And at the end of the day, the kiosk folds up into a package about the size of an oil drum, and can be rolled away to the next promotion on its built-in wheels.
Calgary's e3 Works (www.e3works.com), an expert in optical storage, has come up with a jet-black CD-Recordable disk is calls the Vinyl CD-R. The non-recording surface is grooved so that it looks just like a small vinyl record - gimmicky but cool, especially for people copying CD music or MP3s. The discs work at up to 24x and store 700MB of data (80 minutes of music). A box of 10 discs (without jewel cases) sells for $11.99 at Future Shop, and the company is planning to expand its Canadian retail presence.
And finally, Logic Box Systems Inc. (www.logicbox.com), a computer recycling and refurbishing company in Mississauga, Ont., showed off some technology that made its debut at Comdex shows of old.
The company handles about 25,000 obsolete PCs and 200,000 other pieces of old computer equipment each year. Rather than send the unsalvageable bits to a landfill, it has hired Ontario art students for the summer to turn some of the junk into sculptures it calls Enviro-tech e-waste art. On show at Comdex were two of the first efforts, Robot 1 by Kevin Mayo and Roboman by Ellen Chiu.