South by Southwest, which took over Austin, Texas, last week, led with the SXSW Interactive portion of the festival, whose lineup also includes SXSW Music and SXSW Film segments. It was hard to pin down winners for this edition SXSW Interactive in part because the prevailing strategy seemed to be “don’t debut new things here.” Still, mobile payment systems, location-based apps, and established digital favorites managed to make waves.
Many ways to pay
Although the mobile payment systems on display had received press attention before SXSW, the conference enabled product developers to showcase updated and/or final versions. Isis — the mobile payment system from a tech cooperative led by AT&T (NYSE:T), Verizon (NYSE:VZ), and Deutsche Telekom’s (PINK:DTEGY) T-Mobile — showed journalists a functional prototype. The demo illustrated the features packaged into a typical transaction: loyalty cards offered by particular merchants and special deals that may apply to a particular product, the payment method linked to the service, and the mobile-device payment “tap” at a point-of-sale terminal.
PayPal, a subsidiary of eBay (NASDAQ: EBAY), previewed its own, forthcoming digital wallet on Tuesday — then eclipsed itself later in the week with the non-SXSW unveiling of its mobile small business payment system, PayPal Here.
Ordering and payment app PayDragon showed off at SXSW with food-truck partnerships that allowed attendees to test the system. The app allows businesses to upload ordering information directly to the app; users can then use the uploaded information to choose what they want, and scan the product’s QR code, or barcode, to place their order. The app also allows merchants to offer special deals.
Apps for finding friends and colleagues
PayDragon aside, the apps that saw the most usage at SXSW were those that combined social networking and location-based interactions, much like previous festival darling Foursquare. Highlight allowed users to see the public Facebook pages of other Highlight users who were nearby, though the app faced privacy concerns and complaints that it was draining batteries. Similarly themed Uberlife allowed users to create “hangouts” and, via their Facebook and Twitter accounts, invite social networking associates in close proximity to join them.
The social location services made sense in the context of SXSW, where the crowds are thick and the attendees have similar interests, but the apps popular in that setting might not gain momentum in the wider world. Even the attendees seemed to acknowledge that possibility. Social bookmarking site Pinterest drew a lot of attention, as did Instagram, the company behind the eponymous iPhone mega-app for photography. Both companies made presentations but neither debuted anything new that would have earned them the amount of ink they previously had gotten at the festival.
The relatively low-key nature of this year’s SXSW, at least for the SXSW Interactive segment, seemed to acknowledge that most attendees would be at least nominally familiar with new products and developments. So the focus this time around was more on explaining existing products and allowing potential new users a chance to try out the technology. Product debuts in this day in age seem more geared toward private corporate presentations, such as the one accompanying PayPal Here, or highly specialized conferences like the Mobile World Congress.