What if the apps that ‘win’ SXSW are no longer the best apps at SXSW?

Here at UNTETHER, our approach to content is ‘best rather than first’, but sometimes those concepts are not mutually exclusive. Like when I’m trying to finish an article on the apps and startups trying to make a name for themselves at SXSW, and Erin Griffith drops a great article on PandoDaily that forces me to revise my piece. Curse you, Erin Griffith!

By now the success stories of apps ‘winning’ SXSW are well known: Twitter, foursquare, and GroupMe were all received by the Austin technorati, and rode that initial reception to either mainstream success or, in the case of GroupMe, fruitful acquisition. This year, despite a small army of apps launching to capture the hearts and minds of attendees, Griffith argues that no clear winner has emerged from SXSW, and investigates the reasons why this may be so.

While I may disagree with Griffith no app ‘won’ SXSW (certainly the exposure that Highlight and Glancee got leading up to and through SXSW has placed them top of mind within the tech community), I will concede that no app has come out of Austin with the momentum of Twitter or foursquare in years past. And unless the conditions for ‘winning SXSW’ changes, I expect this to be the new reality.

Griffith argues that past SXSW winners shared a common trait as “consumer Internet companies with services well-suited for a giant festival of networking,” and notes that a small army of apps (Sarah Perez compiled a helpful list here for reference) attempted to replicate that success this year by being seemingly designed to help SXSW attendees get the most out of the parties conference.

In regards to the latter point, Griffith is spot on (we’ll get to her first point later). Many of these applications (most notably LocalMind) launched or released version updates specifically with SXSW in mind. Heck, Uber launched a new service to bring people in Austin barbecue on demand, which is taking SXSW promotions to a new – and delicious – level. SXSW this year seemed most notable for the number of startups looking to cater to the whims and needs of the attendees in Austin.

Griffith attributes the lack of a clear winner to two factors: the glut of LoMoSo apps vying for attention, and the fact that the value of these apps greatly diminishes once SXSW ends. Erin puts it this way:

I can’t see myself using Highlight when I’m back and not in constant networking/socializing mode. I’d use it at a social function if I recognized someone I knew but couldn’t remember how. The problem is that that someone I recognized would also need to have Highlight and also have it running. Some believe that Highlight’s ability to remember connections, mutual friends, and things in common gives it the potential to replace business cards. Again, that requires everyone I might ever exchange info with to have Highlight.

I think the idea behind most of these services, Highlight especially, is a really smart one. I’m not arguing Highlight or Glancee or Sonar can’t grow because they don’t have users. I just don’t think any one of them will “win” SXSW, emerging with a massive wind at its back in the way that Twitter, Foursquare, and GroupMe have. They’re the type of apps that require a critical mass of users to work; that mass is about to scatter from SXSW.

While I think Griffith is right in her analysis of this year’s crop of apps, I think she’s wrong in equating them with past ‘winners’ like foursquare and Twitter, and this speaks to the larger point of the article I originally wanted to write. Where Twitter and foursquare differ from Highlight and Glancee and Sonar is that while they may be ‘services well-suited for a giant festival of networking’ they’re ultimately much, much more than that. Twitter has fundamentally altered how we consume news. foursquare brought gamification to the masses, is an excellent location-based discovery app, and may someday become the mobile monetization solution for local business. Both of these applications caught on following SXSW because they were always bigger than SXSW.

As with all things, timing is everything. Twitter and foursquare may have caught on first at SXSW, but that is because at the time, the Austin technorati were the only North American demographic savvy enough to grok these mobile and social applications. Today we live in a world where the majority of the population grasps the fundamentals of mobile and social; my mother uses foursquare more than I do (sorry, @dens, we’ve created a monster). Foursquare and Twitter would have been winners regardless, but their presence at SXSW accelerated their path to mass acceptance.

Which is why I feel if startups continue to cater their apps to appeal to SXSW attendees, we will continue to see diminishing returns from ‘SXSW winners’, because they’re simply not swinging for the fence (or in the case of Highlight, possibly swinging well before the pitch). It might get them a lot of buzz amongst the tech press, and it might get them funding, but it won’t get them 300 million users.

So does that mean we quit looking to SXSW for the next big thing? No, we just have to change our focus from the apps SXSW attendees are using to enjoy/survive SXSW to the myriad that are launching in Austin. A quick scroll through the list of apps demoed on the StartupBus or the SXSW Accelerator Finalists shows a bunch of very cool, very innovative apps that aren’t trying to ‘win’ SXSW, but are instead using SXSW as a platform to launch, get feedback, and yes, hopefully some positive buzz. They might not help you find the best taco truck in Austin, but one of them might end up changing the world.

About the author

Douglas Soltys

Douglas is the former Editor-In-Chief of Inside BlackBerry, BlackBerry Cool, and QuicklyBored, which he launched as a mobile gaming industry site. His knowledge of mobile and social media led him to a job at RIM (BlackBerry), where he got to travel the world and do lots of cool things. He is often left-handed, but rarely sinister.

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