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How will you use your phone in the future? You may find out at SXSW

If you're obsessed with reading Twitter, South by Southwest is partly to blame. At the annual Austin gathering of techies, musicians and filmmakers, we could well see what's next.


The tech industry will descend on Austin this week.

Richard Nieva/CNET

The capital of Texas will become the temporary capital of technology later this week.

Austin, famous for barbecues and bands, will displace San Francisco as the center of disruption beginning Friday, when throngs of startups, investors and press gather in the city for the annual South by Southwest festival. Despite its origins as an indie music showcase, the nine-day festival has been a remarkably prescient crystal ball for the future of technology and media.

SXSW, as it's usually called, helped launch tweeting and live streaming, popularizing entirely new forms of communication. It also introduced people to the idea of checking into businesses, a concept that has waxed and waned in popularity but is still alive and kicking.

Want some examples? Twitter reached the mainstream during the festival in 2007, when it won SXSW's Web Award for best "blog." During the festival, attendees used the social-networking service to find out where friends were having lunch or which parties were most worthwhile. Two years later, attendees gravitated to Foursquare, a location-sharing tool, to let friends know which haunts were hopping and where to meet up.

In 2012, Highlight, an app that lets people running it on a phone see information about each other, made a stir by letting festivalgoers connect with people near them. Last year, SXSW helped kick off the world of personal broadcasting by popularizing Meerkat, an app that lets users send live video from a phone to the Net.

An exaltation of early adopters

In a way, it's like a grand science experiment: Get a big nerd-crowd together to live and collide in Texas for a few days, and watch what happens in the petri dish.

"You get this massive concentration of early adopters at one place at one time," said Jan Dawson, principal analyst at Jackdaw Research, who covers consumer technology.

"It lends itself well to certain types of mobile apps taking off."

Of course, success at SXSW doesn't necessarily translate into success beyond Austin's dusty streets. Highlight was a flash in the pan; no one talks about it anymore. Even Foursquare is limping along. It's had to make major shakeups to its business to stay relevant, including splitting its services into two apps in 2014: Foursquare for recommending restaurants and other venues, and the then-new Swarm for check-ins. In January, co-founder Dennis Crowley stepped down as CEO.

Facebook and Twitter, the undeniable giants of social networking, have helped render judgment on SXSW favorites, snapping up companies with similar products and using their deep pockets to muscle in on the territory. After seeing the success of Highlight, Facebook bought a competitor called Glancee, repackaging it as a feature called Nearby Friends. Paul Davison, Highlight's co-founder, launched his next project this past Tuesday, a photo app called Shorts that lets people share their camera rolls with friends. The company said the team is focused on that now.

Similarly, Meerkat may have pioneered mobile live-streaming, but Twitter crippled it by not letting Meerkat pull information from a user's collection of Twitter followers, the so-called social graph. On the same day, Twitter officially announced the acquisition of Periscope, a Meerkat competitor.

Last week, Meerkat said it was ditching live-streaming to focus on a "video social network," though the company won't reveal much else.

Facebook, too, has made a big bet on live streaming, launching Facebook Live in August.

"The fact is, the bigger players are watching this festival very carefully," said Hugh Forrest, head of SXSW Interactive, the tech-specific portion of the festival. Facebook Live could be one of the breakout stars at this year's event, he said.

A Facebook spokeswoman wouldn't comment specifically on SXSW but said live streaming "is a really new format on Facebook and we're just starting to understand its potential."

Twitter, Foursquare and Meerkat didn't respond to requests for comment.

Virtual reality, which has begun moving from pipe dream to the real world, is also expected to be a big deal at this year's festival.

President Barack Obama will give the SXSW Interactive keynote address on Friday. He's expected to talk about civic engagement in the era of the social network. First Lady Michelle Obama will give a keynote as well to discuss making education more accessible for girls around the world.

CNET's Richard Nieva (@richardjnieva) will be in Austin covering all things tech, geek culture and maybe even barbecue. Check in this week for news from SXSW.