Canadian startups impress at Barcelona mobile show: Peter Nowak

An app that logs into everything?

(Peter Nowak)

(Peter Nowak)

Visitors to the Canada booth at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week might have been a little confused to see Ontario with its own, separate exhibit space nearby. The other nine provinces were mashed into a single space, while the biggest province sat just across the aisle in a relatively spacious spread spanning the equivalent of two typical booths. When there’s an issue of one province separating from the others, it’s usually Quebec that’s involved, so why was Ontario going it solo?

“It’s not,” explained Victor Miranda, an area director for the Ontario Ministry of Research and Development. “We’re right next to them.” Hmm. With its own signage and branding – not to mention some quiet griping from exhibitors – that sure didn’t appear to be the case.

Nevertheless, Ontario’s separate status at the show was perhaps warranted, with 27 companies represented through their own micro-booths within the larger space. The rest of Canada had only 11 companies officially exhibiting. All told, both booths served as a sort of meeting space and headquarters for the 100-or-so Canadian firms attending MWC.

The majority were small startups, and I chatted with a handful of the ones that looked most interesting. First up was 4iii Innovations, a company based in Cochrane, Alberta, that is looking to get in on the current wave of wearable gadgets. The founders are actually wearable veterans, having started Dynastream Innovations years back, which was the company behind the popular ANT wireless protocol technology used by many fitness brands, including Adidas and Timex. Dynastream was acquired by GPS giant Garmin back in 2006 for $36 million.

4iii is releasing a line of new wearables this spring: the SideKiiiick GPS tracker, the Viiiiva Mini heart-rate monitor and the FYiiii notifier, starting at $69. All three use a similar core – a small black pod that can be worn with a wrist strap or as a brooch, or simply carried in a pocket.

Some might see 4iii’s single-purpose products as having a disadvantage to other broad-based devices that cover all the bases – such as the Samsung Galaxy Gear 2 smartwatch, also announced at MWC – but the startup doesn’t think so. Representatives say small, inexpensive and unobtrusive is the way to go. In these relatively early days of wearables, I’m inclined to agree.

Next up was Ottawa-based You.i, a company focused on helping cable companies deal with “the Netflix problem.” One of the streaming service’s big advantages over all other competitors has been its ability to present a more or less unified experience across a wide range of devices. People watching Netflix on a PlayStation 4, for example, are getting basically the same interface as someone on a Roku device or Android tablet.

You.i – a clever take on UI, or user interface – makes the software that lets other companies replicate that same common experience. As such, it’s seeing considerable interest from cable companies such as Time Warner and Rogers, who are looking to create their own on-demand TV-everywhere services, or to stretch them across the wide array of devices out there. The company scores huge points with me because it has a big image from Community, my favourite comedy series, plastered across its main web page.

The most relevant Canadian startup at the show, at least to consumers, was perhaps Montreal-based PasswordBox. Fresh off a “Best Mobile App” win at last month’s Consumer Electronics Show, PasswordBox offers something of an Internet holy grail – the ability to sign in to multiple accounts in one spot.

Once you input all of your account passwords into the app, you can then use it to access email, Facebook, Twitter and pretty much anything that requires online authentication. Android users get native app sign-ins, meaning that once you’re set up, you can launch each individual app as you normally would and PasswordBox signs you in automatically behind the scenes. iOS users have to launch the PasswordBox app itself, then tap on the account/app they want. It’s a minor extra step, but a company representative says native app support for iOS is coming soon.

The company is making money in an interesting way – the app is free, as are the first 25 accounts set up, but anything more will cost you. One last interesting feature of the service is that users can share their accounts and passwords with friends or loved ones, which includes passing such information on in the event of death. Users can thus effectively will their accounts to other people.

Here’s PasswordBox’s video:

The app raises an obvious concern, as in isn’t it risky to put all your passwords into one spot? In the video above, the company says it uses the same security as the U.S. government, which in this day and age probably isn’t too reassuring. At MWC, a representative said PasswordBox works on the same principles as a vault: it may be risky to put all your valuables in one place, but it’s more convenient and potentially still safer than leaving them scattered about.

It certainly is a nifty app. We’ll see over time if Internet users agree and find the convenience worth the risk.