Most people that I spoke to who watched the software design final of the Imagine Cup were a little surprised with the results. To be honest my preferences would have been different but in hindsight I think I can see the rational behind the result.
One of the key judging criteria was around design of the solution which can be broken further into the level of innovation and the impact it would have. Innovation being what sets the solution apart from existing products/techniques and the creative use of technology to address the identified problem. The level of impact is determined by looking at the breadth of people that could benefit and the significance of the solution to that group of people.
In the case of Serbia, who have clearly done the most work out of all the teams in the finals, the concept of a driving simulator is not that new (since we have all played a racing game at some stage) and their solution is simply incremental improvements on an existing concept. Whilst most people could benefit from using such a simulator when learning to drive, there are other techniques for learning to drive that are adequate, so in terms of impact this solution would rank quite low. I'm sure that despite not being in either the top 3 or invited to the Accelerator these guys will go on to be really successful with DriveOn.
The other team that had a really polished product was Austria with their evolutionary electronic whiteboard. Think Microsoft Surface but designed for the class room and without the $10K price tag. I say evolutionary because despite being completed to the point of being a shippable product, their solution really does innovate, mearly extending existing electronic whiteboard functionality. Further, the level of impact is low as it is a tool for teachers to use with their existing teaching process. Again I would hope that these guys go on to sell this despite not having the opportunity to attend the Accelerator.
Most people agreed that what the Thai team had to offer was both innovative, as it took text and rendered it as a series of images, and had deep impact, as it potentially enables the large population who are unable to read, to read.
Similarly the Korean team with their custom built electronic sensory gloves demonstrated significant innovation. Clearly the level for impact for a select group of people is second to none. However as someone pointed the theme was "... better education for all" which is perhaps why they ended up in second.
I think the big surprise for a lot of people was that Jamaica pipped aireland for third place. On the one hand Ireland had a solution that really innovated to help people learn sign language using sign recognition via a low budget web cam but again it could be argued that this only impacts a select group of people and I think that the team needed that extra bit of bite to their presentation. On the other hand you have the Jamaica team that on the surface didn't appear to be that innovative. However, they had probably the best (with perhaps the exception of the Mexican team) presentations and attempted to deliver on a vision that would truly deliver a better education for all.
The other thing to bare in mind regarding the final stage of the competition is that the judges are primarily business, rather than technical, leaders. This means that you need to sell the vision, sell the solution and sell the team. I would suggest that at each stage in the sofware design competition the focus moves away from the technical, towards the business. For example at the national finals the students might have been expected to show code, or discuss in detail their architecture. In the early rounds of the finals they might have been asked about the high level architecture but the focus was more on their use of technology. Then lastly in the finals the focus was more on being able to identify a problem and execute on building a solution to address said problem.