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CES 2013: In search of the next RIM

If you walk through the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, just past the replica canals and art exhibits, you’ll find the giant halls where the keynote speeches of this year’s Consumer Electronics Showcase are taking place. And on your way, you might just walk by Kamar Shah and the seven-inch tablet he’s been demonstrating to anyone he meets.

Shah is the chief marketing officer for Rullingnet, founded in Ottawa and maker of a set of hardware and software under the brand name Vinci. The Tab MV, just released, is a $249 Android-based device that is aimed not at the mass market but at a highly specific niche: children under five years of age. The firm is also unveiling new software, called the Educators Solution, which includes structured lesson plans that can teach kids about various parts of the body, among other things.

“The traffic has been phenomenal already,” Shah says, referring to the crowds that have been coming by his booth. “It’s the biggest computer show in the world. It sets the tone for everything else.”

That makes it both exciting and incredibly tough for young Canadian companies to wrest the spotlight away from the Sonys, Samsungs, Panasonics and other global industry juggernauts. They’re all trying to impress the distributors and retailers who could turn some of the products featured at CES into this year’s best-sellers.

Rullingnet is a good example of the kind of firm that may succeed, by focusing on a narrow set of customers with a highly specific offering. They are not trying to be Research In Motion (which isn’t at CES this year anyway) or Apple, which will save its own big launch announcements for February’s MacWorld Expo. And they’re also organized: Shah said most of his interviews and meetings were scheduled well ahead of his team’s arrival at CES. “For small companies it’s a big investment; you can get lost in all the noise,” he said.

Being an exhibitor isn’t the only way to get noticed at CES, of course. Peter Nieforth is proving that with his nascent social media service, It doesn’t officially launch until next month, but Nieforth came first to the nearby BlogWorld event and has since been getting in front of as many people at CES as possible.

“Today I’ve spent most of the day doing video and podcasts and just really being interviewed a lot,” he said.

At a trade show like CES, there is an insatiable appetite among all the media on site to fill the void with as many profiles and reviews as possible. In the past, hoping that your brief moment of fame would endure once the booths get torn down was a pretty big gamble, even in a place where gambling is the norm. For all the self-promoting at CES, companies could still walk away relatively empty-handed. And besides, even the RIMs of the world did not become household names by showing up at CES. It took dogged years of acquiring customers, quarter after quarter.

Instead, a show like CES has become more of a catalyst for online content that could spread much farther than the convention centre. There are a lot of tech industry watchers, myself included, who aren’t at CES this year, but we’re reading the stories, watching the videos, tracking the hashtags on Twitter and generally getting a pretty good sense of the highlights without leaving our desks.

You still need the big event, but the Internet’s ability to amplify its reach gives organizations like TicTalking and Rullingnet much brighter prospects than they would otherwise enjoy. In this case, at least, it’s highly important for the next RIM that what happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas.

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