I had the chance to attend my first-ever SxSW Interactive this year – and have the Foursquare badge to prove it – and while my time at the event ended up being unexpectedly short, I saw some trends emerge from watching interactions, attending sessions and talking with other attendees. This year it rained – as I described it, “biblically” – which led to some interesting social dynamics of its own, many of my chance meetings took place in shared taxis that were scarce, to say the least.
Altimeter's Susan Etlinger, Jeremiah Owyang and Yours Truly at SxSW's TechSet Party, hosted by Altimteter's own Brian Solis. (cc) Kenneth Yeung - http://www.snapfoc.us
As a first timer, here are my initial impressions:
- Wow, this is a big event. As I understand it, that’s not always been the case. Having just come off of CES and Mobile World Congress, I’m more or less decided in my thinking that, at above about 25-30K people, depending on the locale and venue, a show has quickly diminishing returns as lines get long, sessions are crowded and the audience gets much more distanced from the content, sometimes literally.
- Launches are smaller than before. While past SxSW events have seen the launch of services like Twitter, this year and last have seen announcements of tools like Groupme and, while popular, are not the game changers that their predecessors have been. This is almost certainly a by product of the level of “noise” that the larger and more varied audience brings with it.
The overall trend this year, however, seemed to be ambient sensors and harnessing computing power that’s increasingly ubiquitous, something we at Altimeter Group are calling “The Sentient World.” It’s a major research theme - read more about all three themes on our blog – for us in 2012, and its overwhelming presence at SxSW this year is just a harbinger of things to come.
My colleague Jeremiah and I tried out some of the much-touted apps that were announced pre-SxSW – he’s shared some of his thoughts on his Web Strategy blog – and Many of these apps garnered a lot of attention this year, chief among the news-getters, Highlight; we also looked at Glancee, Sonar and Echo Echo. From a mobile point of view, and from a utility point of view, there is a lot to say about how these apps presage the idea of the sentient world from a social standpoint, however, we’re clearly not there yet. Here’s what we learned:
- Hello, battery life. Years ago when I first started looking at mobile, then what was part of a larger tarball of tech called “emerging technology,” we used to joke that the final recommendation in any report should be, “any the battery makers will inherit the earth.” Guess, what? Battery still is king when it comes to the utility of a mobile tool and these apps, many of which scan continuously for location data and other users’ signals do one thing.; eat. it. up. Want to Highlight continuously in a crowded space like SxSW? Head over to Mophie and stock up on juicepacks. Holy smokes.
- Hello Users? Erm, Maybe. In addition to their not being a single standard in authentication among these – or any – social apps (Glancee and Highlight using Facebook authentication, Sonar using Foursquare) which immediately fragments their addressable user base, a single, social sign-on choice seems short-sighted.
- How Do I Benefit? While the serendipitous interactions that these tools promise (this is the main purpose behind Highlight, the interface for which is totally passive) illustrate the potential for a sentient device in your pocket, using its sensors to gather, prioritize and interpret ambient data (in this case from other users) the utility of that information is, for me, questionable. Immediately upon landing at AUS I was barraged with “people of interest” by Highlight, others at the event I saw having a similar experience with Sonar. Fact is, the information is interesting but likely provided in over-abundance or not at all (I received no Highlight “near you” notifications prior to arrival) and when it is provided may yield an awkward conversation, at best.
If 2012 is the year of social-local-mobile, or much as I loathe the acronym SoLoMo, I think we’re a long way from these autonomous information gathering tools being truly useful. They are, at present, a novelty that illustrates just how much “behind the scenes” work our smartphones can do for us given their network of sensors and near-constant connectivity. To really be useful? Scan for data from my car to remind me when it needs service, my fridge when I’m low on a key item I’ve identified or – given the rain, crowds and noise as SxSW this year, the location of a nearby cab (are you listening, Uber?) automatically so I can find a quiet spot for some Shiner and good BBQ brisket.