I'm flying back from 5 days in Austin, where the interactive portion of the annual South by Southwest (aka SXSW, or Southby) conference was in full swing. Although marred by three days of cold rain, hail and wind -- which many wags dubbed "the rainpocolypse" -- it was still a mostly useful event. Here are some of the more interesting things I learned this year.
Social tech services don't need SXSW to break out.
Twitter and Foursquare famously launched at SXSW, and built huge user-bases on top of these geeky early adopters. There were certainly a host of fun apps that launched at SXSW this year, mostly focused on combining social and mobile (aka So-Mo) to help you find friends and flings. Most of the attendees were experimenting with Highlig.ht, Glancee, Ban.Jo and a handful of other oddly named programs. These apps weirdly mine your Facebook and Twitter lists to locate friends of friends, and then pop up their photos when you're nearby.
Setting aside the privacy implications, which are all too real, none of the apps seemed poised to take the world by storm. Each tends to drain precious battery life from mobile devices, which renders both the phone and the app useless in short order. In aggregate the category seems fun, but hardly critical.
Absent a breakout, instead everyone was talking about Pinterest, the shiny new social site that began its meteoric rise to prominence this summer. And as it turns out, Pinterest didn't need the geeky set to start its rise. I shared a drink with Time magazine's tech guy, Harry McCracken, and StripedShirt.com CEO Laura Beck as we discussed what kicked off Pinterest's success. Laura pinned it on Harry, pointing out that the company's almost vertical ascent started almost immediately after he picked it as one of the "50 Best Websites of 2011" last summer. If true, this would seem to indicate that mainstream press, not geeky hipsters, are the new path to stardom. (Harry, however, passed on the credit for discovering Pinterest to a 20-something co-worker, so perhaps the pathway to glory still runs through Gen Y after all.)
The Apple monoculture has eased, a bit.
Over the last few years, I felt like an SXSW outcast with my Android phone and Windows notebook. This year not so much -- as more and more visitors were sporting one of the new big-screen Samsung and HTC phones. That turned into a benefit for the top two So-Mo apps, as Highlight and Glancee duked it out. Highlight probably would have been the hands-down winner in previous years, given the outpouring of love from many techno-elite. But without Android support, lots of attendees were shut out. Glancee, by contrast, was available on both Android and iPhone, which broadened its potential installed base significantly. Apple still holds the notebook crown, though, as I was still one of the few Thinkpad toting attendees. But the mobile tide has turned.
Worst Case Scenario, mobile edition.
What happens when you take 70,000 mobile devices, 30,000 geeks, investors and developers, and copious amounts of free alcohol into a square-mile area? You get the Mobile version of The Worst Case Survival Guide. AT&T's network reportedly crashed frequently, T-mobile dropped voice and data connections with alacrity, and even the local Yellow Cab computers couldn't handle the load.
But all that chaos can be put to good use. I spent some time with a venture capital pal of mine, who simultaneously stress-tested nearly 20 apps across two different phones. Although somewhat disjointed, we did end up having a somewhat intelligible conversation as the needy objects in his pocket frequently begged for attention. His thesis: Survive this overloaded petrie dish of users and data, and you'll be well positioned to work just about anywhere. So maybe you don't need to launch your apps at SXSW, but you'd better be prepared to work there without crashing and burning.
Yogi Berra wouldn't go.
Although I ran into lots of old friends, PR folks, journalists and marketers, there was a dearth of high-level execs from brands, agencies and media. Last year it seemed that every CMO, president and venture partner needed to be at SXSW; this year not so much. A very nonrandom sample of some of my high-level friends found that most of them were passing on SXSW this year, because they had "too much work to do."
Austin bursts at the seams during SXSW. Hotel rooms are impossible to find, the best panels were routinely so overcrowded that hundreds were turned away and it was impossible to get around during large parts of the day. When high-level execs start to believe that "no one goes there anymore, it's too crowded," that 's likely to trickle down to staffs as well.
Face-to-face still matters.
It's ironic that a conference so focused on using technology to connect people is , in the end, most useful when it brings people together face to face. The chance encounters and scheduled meetings I set up were extremely useful, even though many of the folks I'd hoped to see stayed away. And that 's why I'll go back next year, but for 3 days instead of 5. I love Austin, but five soggy days were two too many.