At SXSW, a peek at the post-laptop age?

Lugging around a MacBook is totally passe at this year's installment of the annual geek fest--but don't worry, PC makers, it's going to be awhile before the rest of the world follows suit.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
3 min read
Sixth Street in Austin is the artery of the city's party life year-round, but it steps it up a notch around SXSW. Caroline McCarthy/CNET

AUSTIN, Texas--Digital futurists have been saying for years now that they believe the promises of mobile technology are ushering in an era of technology that goes beyond the PC and even the laptop. At this week's South by Southwest Interactive Festival (SXSW), we may have gotten a look into the future: With the enormous festival sprawled out all over the city, toting around a laptop can hold anyone back. More importantly, the immediacy of it all--where to go, where not to go, which party has a longer or a shorter line, where a surprise musical guest has shown up.

"These people are serendipity addicts," said Nate Westheimer, an entrepreneur who said that he didn't have enough time to optimize his latest project, a scheduling start-up called Ohours, for SXSW simply because it's only available on the desktop Web, not as a mobile app or site. Its growth among tech-industry professionals more or less screeched to a halt as SXSW began, because this is an event where the mobile screen, not the desktop, is front and center. For Westheimer, lesson learned.

"It's almost rude to have a computer here," said Andrew Mager, a developer at geolocation software start-up SimpleGeo. "It's almost ironic, though, because it's not weird to have your phone out."

Tablet devices like the iPad and, to a lesser extent, netbooks and other ultra-light laptops (there are quite a few MacBook Airs in Austin this week) have made it possible to keep something bigger than a smartphone stashed away for note-taking, e-mails, or what have you. But they've been hidden, as mobile phones prove more convenient and functional for messaging individuals or groups of people, booking taxis, and figuring out the locations of parties and get-togethers that have sometimes been put together on very short notice. Despite years of gripes about how badly cell phone data networks sag under the weight of thousands of SXSW attendees, mobile connectivity is inseparable from the experience of the festival.

How will this all translate to the "real" world? At SXSW, attendees are social-media lab rats, running around the maze of Austin bars, hotels, and conference rooms equipped with strange, glowing sensors that give them ambiguous signals about where to go and what to do at all hours of the day and night. Most of their quotidian professional routines--which, for most, would involve being at a full-size keyboard at a desktop computer--have come to a standstill. The city's collective blood alcohol level, I'm willing to wager, is unusually high.

At SXSW, a case could be made that we are, indeed, living in a post-PC world. But SXSW isn't how the real world runs. When Twitter captured the attention of the tech world at SXSW in 2007, it took well over a year for even the fringes of mainstream culture to catch on--mainly when celebrities realized that it was a great platform for self-promotion. And there, we're talking about a free Web service, not a major change in the purchasing and productivity habits of millions of people.

The PC isn't dead. But at SXSW, it's moribund. And if you consider the annual festival to be a prognosticator of what the digital lifestyle will eventually be--well, then, maybe it's time to make some predictions for a few years out. Just be more conservative than the atmosphere at the Austin Convention Center would hint.