Canada at Comdex: We’re glad to be here

LAS VEGAS, Nev. — “That’s him, isn’t it?”

It was 10:45 a.m. PST, just 15 minutes after the show floor opened at Comdex Fall 2002, and a new company, Personal Computing Environments, unveiled itself to the IT

industry by pulling a white sheet off its first product, an ergonomic workstation called P-CE. Sitting inside it was Bill Gates.

Well, not really, but the impersonator momentarily fooled the large crowd that had been waiting to see what the fuss was about. P-CE (pronounced “peace”) looks somewhat like a NordicTrack all-in-one exercise tool with large curved pipes holding in place two monitors and a series of trays for keyboard and mice, all of which was surrounding a chair the company calls a cockpit.

Benjamin Moglin, the firm’s chief technology officer, said the product has been under development for three years, largely by pooling the resources of third-party researchers, including about a dozen independent Canadian consultants. It was a strategy that aimed to generate a lot of ideas, he said, but also keep overhead down.

“As a small company starting out, one of biggest cost areas you have is staff and salaries,” he said. “In this case, you need a lot of that expertise up front but maybe not going forward, so this was a way around that.”

Like many companies before it, Personal Computing Environments is hoping to gain maximum exposure by launching itself at Comdex Fall 2002 this week to IT managers and resellers. Despite reports that attendance was down to about 125,000 from a high of more than 200,000 a few years ago, some of the Canadian firms here said they are already surprised by the turnout.

“We’ve been busy all morning,” said Eldon Wong, director of technology for Richmond, B.C.-based Powerwallz Network Security Inc. Besides its firewall and virtual private network appliances, Wong said Powerwallz is trying to build its business of creating customized software solutions for large enterprises. One of its customers: Microsoft.

“Some customers may already have authentication, but they want to add encryption,” he said. “We can customize our software so that those are integrated and you can tie the two together.”

Wong said this was Powerwallz’s second time at the show, and that the quality of the audience is higher than before. “There are fewer tire-kickers. It’s just good for us to build awareness about what we’re doing.”

Marc Bellini, manager of business development at Casero Inc., agreed. The Toronto-based company’s software is designed to help broadband operators generate more revenue around residential users. Its Home Pulse, for example, works like a digital dashboard, allowing them to manage news feeds and e-mail while also controlling lights and appliances like surveillance systems or hallway illumination.

“So far broadband is not everywhere it can be,” he said. “We’ve enhanced our narrowband connections, but we’re not taking full advantage of what broadband can be.”

Casero is looking for solution providers at the show, and Bellini said the signs were encouraging. “There are a lot more serious people here,” he said.

Casero is part of the Canadian Pavillion on the show floor, which is being presented by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. John Schwartzberg, its deputy director, said the government increased its investment to allow for a larger space on the show floor this year (it holds approximately 16 companies) in order to advertise Canada as a great place for business.

“There’s that old saying that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but if the cover is bland, they may not open it,” he said.

So far, Schwartzberg said a German company had already stopped by to get more information about the possibility of opening its North American office in Canada, while a Hong Kong firm said it was looking for alternatives after running into trouble with United States regulatory bodies.

“Once they hear about Canada, it’s a 50/50 chance (they’ll open up there),” he said, adding that the pavilion launched a partnering program this year where it trades the corporate profiles of its tenants with those of the Taiwan, Dubai and Korean pavilions.

Comdex may be a forum for those new to the industry, but at least one familiar Canadian face is using the show to launch a comeback. Nir Shafrir was best known as the founder of Canadian distributor Globelle Corp. (which was later acquired by Tech Data) before he dropped out of sight seven years ago. His new company, Ideazon, is exhibiting the Z-Board, an interchangeable keyboard system that allows users to swap interfaces specifically designed for popular PC games and applications like Word, Excel and PhotoShop.

Shafrir said he decided to come out of retirement after hearing about the Z-Board’s technology through colleagues in Israel. Having set up a manufacturing relationship with Q-Tronics in China, the company is getting ready to roll out the first set of keyboards (five for office applications, five designed for specific games) in late February and March.

“Getting distribution isn’t a big deal for me, with my background,” he said. “We just want to show people what’s coming up, get some reactions.”

Sharn Jhaj, senior sales and marketing manager at Vancouver-based K&C Tech, said he already got a reaction to his firm’s Universal Smart Drive (USD) when it came to Comdex last year. K&C in a few weeks will launch a new version of the portable storage device, which looks like a key chain, which will include a Flash memory chip. The first-generation is already in most retail outlets like Best Buy, Jhaj said, in part due to its participation at Comdex.

“A lot of the retailers come here,” he said. “It becomes more of a one-on-one relationship.”

Schwartzburg said that some companies at Comdex hide the fact that they’re Canadian, which he said was a shame. “It never hurt Ericsson to say that they were Swedish,” he said. “Hopefully those attitudes will change.”

Comdex Fall 2002 runs until Friday.

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