Of Meerkats and marketers: The highlights of SXSW 2015

Reporters' notebook: The annual technology, film and music confab showed us that brands have money to blow, and a tiny app can still make a name for itself when the tech industry converges on Austin, Texas.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Richard Nieva
Dara Kerr
4 min read

McDonald's was only one of the big brands at the festival. Richard Nieva/CNET

AUSTIN, Texas -- South by Southwest is going to the dogs. And cats. And Meerkats.

Each year, the technology industry descends on Austin, Texas, for the annual festival, where Silicon Valley intermingles with the worlds of film, music and pop culture.

People in the tech industry now view the confab with a mixture of excitement and disillusionment -- and everything in between. This is the show that launched Twitter, now a multibillion dollar public company, as well as the check-in service Foursquare. It's also the event ""="" shortcode="link" asset-type="article" uuid="725aea38-8c86-11e2-b06b-024c619f5c3d" slug="sxsw-homeless-hotspots-ignite-controversy" link-text="that dreamed up the controversial " section="news" title="SXSW 'Homeless Hotspots' ignite controversy" edition="us" data-key="link_bulk_key" api="{"id":"725aea38-8c86-11e2-b06b-024c619f5c3d","slug":"sxsw-homeless-hotspots-ignite-controversy","contentType":null,"edition":"us","topic":{"slug":"internet"},"metaData":{"typeTitle":null,"hubTopicPathString":"Internet","reviewType":null},"section":"news"}">

This year's festival was similar to SXSW conferences of years past: tons of marketers and tons of entrepreneurs, all trying to find a place in the spotlight as more than 30,000 attendees roamed Austin's streets.

The biggest takeaway might be that the festival is still a place where a small tech company can make big waves. Case in point: Meerkat, the fast-growing live-stream video app that stole the show this year. But that wasn't the only notable story from the tech-centric portion of the festival.

Here's a look at the highlights, trends and quirky happenings at this year's festival.

The Meerkat-Twitter debacle

Meerkat launched a little over two weeks ago and immediately grabbed the technorati. The app lets people broadcast a live stream from their phones and post a link to it for their Twitter followers.

Meerkat CEO Ben Rubin in the spotlight. Richard Nieva/CNET

But on the first day of the festival, Twitter cut Meerkat off from the social network's ready-made audience of followers. And on the same day, Twitter officially announced the acquisition of a Meerkat competitor, called Periscope. The publicity made Meerkat CEO Ben Rubin, a 27-year-old from Israel, the most popular guy in Austin.

Rubin said he has no hard feelings toward the social-networking giant. "We would not be sitting here if it wasn't for Twitter," said Rubin. "We need to be grateful for that."

Meerkat has since said that being cut off from Twitter is a "bump in the road." The company said it has plans to get past the Twitter lockout and has updated its app to allow people to search and discover other users.

Animals steal the show

This year's SXSW was a place to hear nuggets of wisdom from some of the world's greatest minds, including MIT's Hugh Herr, who heads biomechatronics research at the university's Media Lab; Google's Astro Teller, head of the Google X "moonshot factory," and Martine Rothblatt, who founded satellite-radio company Sirius XM. But the draw of listening to deep thoughts didn't compare with the charm of certain animals.

People lined the block waiting to pet Internet-star Grumpy Cat and a small caramel-colored Chihuahua with an overbite named Tuna. Smartphone-accessory company Mophie grabbed attention with Saint Bernards it sent out to rescue people whose smartphone batteries were dying. Those desperate for a charge just had to tweet Mophie a screenshot of their low battery and, hey presto, an Alpine rescue dog would show up with a wireless charger in its neck barrel collar. It's not quite the same as saving hikers in the Swiss Alps, though.

The brands have taken over

SXSW has turned into Spring Break for #brands. Pepsi, Visa and Walgreens were all here to mingle with startups. But one of the biggest marketing presences at the festival was McDonald's, a first time sponsor of SXSW.

The company held pitch competitions for startups to see how they could help the iconic brand infuse more technology into its restaurants. McDonald's even had a swanky kick-off bash on Saturday night. But it's unclear how much the company's SXSW visit helped the brand. A woman riding in a pedicab yelled, "You're the worst! I hate you, McDonald's!"

Saint Bernards helped attendees charge their phones. Dara Kerr/CNET

A change in the weather

Fun fact: Al Gore flies Southwest Airlines out of Oakland. The former vice president of the United States was on the same flight as CNET's Rich Nieva. If you're wondering, he sat in the first row of the plane and read newspapers made out of actual paper (remember, he's part of the board of directors for that iPad company).

Gore gave the festival's opening keynote address on the effects of climate change. Known as a passionate environmentalist, Gore pleaded with the SXSW folks to tap into the power of the Internet to help save the planet and to call out politicians who deny climate change.

You're not going to fly that UAV

Days before SXSW began, the Austin Police Department declared the city a drone-free zone. Officials said they worried about how too many Wi-Fi signals would affect emergency communications. But that didn't stop drone enthusiasts from holding panels touting the machines' capabilities or giving indoor demos. Chaotic Moon even showed off its drone that can shoot fire, spray paint and silly string.

Bruce Sterling, the science fiction writer known for his traditional closing rant on the last day of the conference's tech portion, joked about how much the show had changed over the years. Big brands and fancy executives ruled the show, he said.

"How was this different than the other SXSWs?" he asked. "Really nice clothes."