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Tuesday, 2 October 2012

After two decades, DEMO is still hosting amazing new products

DEMO Fall 2012 setup

The first time I attended DEMO, which happens today and tomorrow in Santa Clara Calif., was in 1995. I watched Jeff Hawkins and Ed Colligan stage the very first public demonstration of the PalmPilot, a then-revolutionary handheld organizer with a stylus-centric "touch" screen and a strange input system called Graffiti.

Like most of the people in the audience, I was blown away. I placed an order for a PalmPilot the same day, and a few months later, I was geekily using its to-do list feature to check off items on my grocery list while I walked the aisles of Safeway. I felt conspicuously nerdy, and I probably was. The world wasn't quite ready for digital grocery lists.

Five years after the PalmPilot debut, I returned to DEMO, this time as the co-founder of an early-stage startup. We were woefully underprepared to start a company, but we knew that the DEMO conference, which by then was already in its ninth year, was the perfect venue for getting attention and -- we hoped -- venture capital. Sadly, we learned that the dot-com bust was more powerful than our DEMO exposure, and we didn't have enough business experience then to weather the storm, an experience I described in more detail last year.

Subsequently, I covered DEMO as a member of the press when I was at Wired and returned to the stage as a moderator last year when I joined VentureBeat, which has co-produced the show together with IDG for the past three and a half years.

Having seen the event from so many different angles, I suppose it's normal that I feel a little twinge of sadness that this will be the last time VentureBeat works on the show. We've handed the reins over the Erick Schonfeld, a move that will benefit DEMO itself as much as it benefits VentureBeat. Schonfeld, who is a smart guy, will bring new blood and new ideas to DEMO. And the move leaves VentureBeat free to concentrate on our own rapidly-growing brand, instead of balancing two brands.

Introducing the DEMO Fall 2012 conference this morning, VentureBeat's founder and editor-in-chief Matt Marshall likened the process of starting a company to getting a flywheel moving. At first, the flywheel is huge, massive, and seemingly immobile. But if you push and push, he said, eventually it starts rotating, and then its mass and inertia work in your favor, keeping the business spinning. VentureBeat is a pretty big flywheel now, with 24 employees and traffic that's doubling every year. It's time for us to move on.

As for DEMO, there aren't too many tech conferences that are still going 22 years after they've been started. It's a testament to the power of a deceptively simple idea: Make the products and their creators the center of attention, and give everyone just a few minutes to give the best demonstration they can.

Since 1991, many other tech conferences have imitated the model, adding tweaks of their own here and there. But few have been able to replicate the professionalism, quality, and selectiveness of DEMO. It's been a great ride for me, and even though I won't be onstage after this year, I'll look forward to continuing to cover DEMO as a journalist.

Unless I come back again someday as an entrepreneur, that is.

You can follow all the news from DEMO Fall 2012, and watch a live video stream of the event, right here on VentureBeat.

Photo credit: Stephen Brashear/DEMO

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