Lauren Goode

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This Year at SXSW, the Next Killer App … Maybe Isn’t

In recent years, the annual SXSW Interactive festival in Austin, Texas, has become a hive for new platforms, with early tech adopters buzzing about the latest and greatest apps, sending some of them into flight.

SXSWApps

But this year, the next big app is … well, it isn’t clear. After asking nearly a dozen of the hippest, smartest, earliest-adopting people I know in tech, media and digital advertising, the consensus is:

No idea.

What — no new killer app?

Of course, SXSW will still go on and will probably even be fun, even if there isn’t a new app that “wins” the event. And here’s why:

SXSW Interactive was never really a launchpad for apps. With the exception of Foursquare — which the social location company hustled to finish in the few weeks leading up to the 2009 conference — most noteworthy apps haven’t actually launched during the conference.

Twitter didn’t, despite popular mythology, although its numbers did swell during the 2007 SXSW conference. And some articles that year ventured to say that SXSW was a “tipping point” for the newish microblogging site. But the first tweet? It came a year before that.

Also not new-kids-on-the-block were the messaging apps that were all the rage in 2011. GroupMe, now owned by Microsoft, launched the August before; Beluga had been around long enough to get acquired by Facebook just before SXSW that year.

The hype machine is broken. Last year’s pre-conference predictions were over the top. Remember Glancee, Highlight and Sonar? These were hot. They were changing the world! In theory, these apps were taking geolocation services to the next level. Some call this SoLoMo. Others call it MoLoSo. (I get these confused and it hurts my head.)

In any case, users quickly ran into battery issues with their smartphones, since these types of apps constantly track and ping users when other app-happy friends are nearby. And by the end of that week, AllThingsD writer Liz Gannes reported, a good SXSW icebreaker question was asking which apps people had deleted during the event, not downloaded.

Highlight creator Paul Davison said the company never sought out that kind of attention. “We had a lot of visibility after SXSW, which was great,” he says. “But after coming back, we said, ‘Okay, we really need to spend some time building out infrastructure and optimizing battery life. We need to make this a long-term product, not a festival product.’” Highlight has just released a new version of the app, hoping to take a second stab at success at SXSW this year.

There are too many apps. App fatigue isn’t a new theory, but it’s one I’ve heard mentioned a lot more in recent days. “I think it might be more difficult for newer companies to launch things there now,” says Tristan Walker, entrepreneur-in-residence at Andreessen Horowitz, who was part of the early days of Foursquare. “There are only so many new apps you want to download, and you’re not going to benefit from having 16 of them on your smartphone.”

Venture capitalist Bill Tai echoed this sentiment: “There are so many apps, the barrier is harder to break through.” But Tai, who has backed a brand-new app called Posse that he hopes will gain traction at SXSW, added, “I do think some app makers still see it as a good place to launch.”

Exciting hardware is stealing some attention away from apps. It’s hard to imagine SXSW becoming the next CES-like miasma of gizmos and gadgetry, but the New York Times’ Jenna Wortham highlights a hardware trend in her piece this week, with keynotes coming from Tesla’s Elon Musk and the founder and creator of the Ouya gaming console, as well as plenty of 3-D printing sessions to go around.

SXSW isn’t just about apps. It’s about the networking … at the parties. And the non-digital, real, live, human-to-human connections you’ll make … at the parties. And the interesting keynotes and panel sessions … followed by parties. So, if you’re looking to get value out of this year’s fest, you might want to consider this piece of advice, courtesy of Ad Age: Stop looking for the next big app.

Also: Get to a party.

(Feature image: Rondo Estrello / Flickr.)

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