It has come to this: These days it takes real courage just to show up. So my hat's off to the 39 brash, young start-ups in Palm Desert, Calif., that have the stuff to stand up and present their innovative ideas, products and services at this year's DEMO 09 Conference. In the past, I have found events produced by trade group DEMO -- this '09 riff runs through March 3 -- to be forgettable events for the Silicon Valley clique. Though the organization claims to have given the likes of Google ( GOOG) and Salesforce.com ( CRM) their start, take a deeper look at the alumni list and you'll see my point: Jambo Networks? Ohhhh. LiveDeal? Please. Hardly the stuff of the next Google. But not this year. A dark economy and our insistence in taking our world view from Marvin the Paranoid Android of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy -- "I think you ought to know I'm feeling very depressed" -- means DEMO events now have the feel of a "Power of Now" symposium, an uplifting, even transformative event. These companies showing at the event have not given up on the future. I am giving these operations a thorough look-see. And so should you. With that in mind, here is a quick roundup of companies showing some spunk out in the desert sun: 7 Billion People Inc.: Austin, Texas-based 7 Billion People has a decent idea: Make e-commerce a positive experience instead of the digital hate mission it is now on Amazon.com ( AMZN), eBay ( EBAY) and BestBuy.com ( BBY). The company claims it has created customized, Web-based transactions that change on the fly based on the preferences of shopper. The company says its software infers from what shoppers click on and react to while online and then creates shopping sequences they prefer. Browse guns and ammo, say, and you get a short checkout with a big button. Or putter around in perfume and birthday cards and you get lots of chatty screens asking for details about your kids. Fascinating idea.
The Touch Book: Dell ( DELL), Hewlett-Packard ( HPQ), Apple ( AAPL) and the other terrified hardware makers may all be doom and gloom right now, but not Menlo Park, Calif.-based Always Innovating. Company founder Gregoire Gentil has decided that the $350 cheapo laptop computer is not cheap or cool enough. This spring, he is coming to market with a $299 tablet computer. That's right, for $300 you will get a fully functional, under-2-pound tablet computer that lasts for 15 hours on a single battery charge. The unit's open-source code and ease of use will make it perfect for so-called "pervasive computing," which means you can stick one up on your fridge or office wall. And post notes. Keep lists. Or play your favorite John Legend song. The company is in pre-orders now. The Vue Personal Video Network: Forget YouTube. Now it's the "Vue Tube." San Diego-based Avaak is coming to market with the Vue: a battery powered plug-and-play streaming video appliance that automatically connects to the Web via a broadband connection. The unit can find other Vues also online or show its video on any Flash-enabled device. The result is a high-quality personal video network, sort of like Skype but with better picture quality and less hassle. Think baby monitor on steroids. What's not to love? CC:Betty.com: We'll see if this business really can scale, but at first blush, what a terrific idea. CC:Betty does just that. It CCs Betty, the Palo Alto, Calif.-based startup that creates a virtual mail space that tracks and recombines email information into discreet photos, conversations, files and other digital stuff. Now most of these Web-based email organizers are a flop. And I will report back on a full demo later. But at first sight, CC:Betty does a nice job. It creates a Web-based tabbed environment that makes keeping your messages, images and other content rather easy. And I liked the interface and preferred it to the grimmer-by-the-minute Google or Yahoo ( YHOO) Web mail. And these were just a few operations. There are 30 or so smaller companies at DEMO bustin' it to make our tomorrows better. The least we can do is sit up and take notice.