Opinion: Underwhelmed by TechCruch50 Winners

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I was at home on Monday, watching the live stream of the TechCrunch50 conference, and sort of wishing I could be there. The first demo I saw was Geni's Yammer, a group messaging platform very much like Twitter, except that it's for businesses.

Yammer lets you send out a constant stream of data to your workmates about what you're working on (or not working on). "MarkS is blogging. MarkS is playing Asteroids, MarkS is twittering." You can also post news and links, share opinions, and so on. And there's a kind of bulletin board mode where conversations are grouped in threads. The service is free for employees to use, but if their company wants to assume administrative control over the app, it must pay Yammer for the privilege.

I understand that some people love to twitter, but mainly because it's social. To me, dropping it into a workplace context would change everything. When I'm at work, I want to work--not socialize. And if something comes up that is really worth discussing, I'd rather do it face-to-face. In real time, Yammer seems like a distraction.

Then I thought: Well, they're probably saving the really cool products for the final day or two of the conference. I was wrong. Yammer won the grand prize. And after looking at the other winners this year, I'm a bit underwhelmed by the whole batch. The new apps, services, and gadgets that won TechCrunch50 awards strike me as being either slight twists on existing products or products that do something nichey or just plain not-very-useful. This year's winners offer no opportunities for "aha" moments, where the innovation, usefulness, and potential broad appeal of a product suddenly becomes apparent to you.

The Runners-Up

Atmosphir is a game development platform that anybody can use to create multilevel games.

Fitbit, a little gadget that you clip to your clothing, tracks things like your caloric burn and sleeping patterns--and then reports them at a Web interface.

GoodGuide is a Web site that provides extensive information on the health, environmental, and social impacts of the products we buy and the companies that make them. That's nice, but Greenzer and Zeer (both in beta) already do something similar and already have active user communities. Zeer has its mobile app in service (very useful), while GoodGuide is still working on an iPhone app.

Grockit is an online space where students can get together to study and quiz each other. Sounds pretty nichey to me. Do I really need a special tool for that? Can't people just use a multiuser IM program, or something like Basecamp?

One of the runners-up this year did strike me as potentially very useful: Swype. Invented by the same guy (Cliff Kushler, not to be confused with the equally famous Ashton Kutcher, who also spoke at the conference) who invented the T9 predictive text used on millions of cell phones today, Swype lets you select and connect letters on a touch screen by making lines between them with your finger or a pen stylus. This technology, if it works well in the wild, will no doubt be swallowed up by Motorola or Apple or some other big handset maker, but it's not a free-standing product.

None of this is meant as a swipe against TechCrunch50 and the people who run it. I'm only commenting on the batch of companies that won this year. Obviously the conference has no control over the quality of the companies that sign up to participate. The conference also encompasses panel discussions and keynote addresses, which I hear are wonderful (did I mention that Ashton Kutcher spoke this year!!!).

But it does make me wonder whether events like DEMO and TechCrunch50--where companies have just 5 or 6 minutes to show off their product--are likely to be the forums where the big tech products of tomorrow will debut.

Then again, maybe TechCrunch50 just had an off year.

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