At South by Southwest Interactive, there were more toys to play with, more places to be and lots more people to meet.
The technology portion of SXSW started March 12 and wrapped up Tuesday. For the first time, paid attendance is on track to surpass that of the SXSW Music. When the dust settles, Interactive is expected to have grown about 40 percent over last year to 12,000-13,000 paid attendees.
The fest has benefited from a wave of interest in social media, the popularity of the iPhone (which about 63 percent of attendees own, said fest coordinator Shawn O'Keefe) and Austin's own charms as a destination.
While Twitter was the darling of the festival from 2007 through 2009 (and went on to seemingly conquer the world), Austin-based Gowalla Inc. and its chief rival, Foursquare, were the most buzzed-about companies this year with their "location-aware" apps, which allow users to earn badges and virtual prizes when they let friends know where they're located.
The two companies scheduled big parties at the same time. Foursquare had actor and social-media enthusiast Ashton Kutcher in attendance, but Gowalla was the local favorite. The company won the Mobile category at the SXSW Interactive Web Awards, and its CEO Josh Williams was the overall winner of the American-Statesman's Texas Social Media Awards.
The use of these tools, which are especially relevant at a festival where bar-hopping and taco hunting have become as big a part of the event as the daytime panels, was widespread, but it remains to be seen if it the momentum will continue now that everyone has gone home.
Twitter wasn't far from the spotlight, though. The much-anticipated keynote interview with Twitter CEO Evan Williams on Monday turned out to be as dry as burnt toast. Hundreds walked out of the packed exhibit hall early, and thousands expressed their boredom on Twitter, just as attendees did in 2008 during a disastrous keynote presentation featuring BusinessWeek columnist Sarah Lacy and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Hugh Forrest, director of SXSW Interactive, said the festival might look at dropping the keynote interview format.
But the walkouts might have been less a sign of outrage than a sign of more to do at this year's fest. Daytime sessions expanded from the Austin Convention Center and downtown Hilton to include the Marriott Courtyard and Radisson hotels. The parties, as usual, were crowded, loud and absolutely the place to be. That's the problem with SXSW Interactive, according to some. Some bloggers who hadn't even attended the fest called it nothing more than an excuse for tech geeks to go out and drink every night, a kind of spring break for digital creatives.
Before the fest even started, Paul Carr from TechCrunch wrote a tongue-in-cheek, expletive-filled piece about marketing at the fest. Satiric Twitter feeds — including one purporting to be from a wife furious at her husband for going to SXSW on their anniversary weekend — made comedic hay out of Interactive.
But for every complaint, there was a panel that dealt with important tech issues like privacy (the Danah Boyd keynote), our digital assets (a panel on what happens to your online life after you die) and how the publishing world is preparing itself for Apple's forthcoming iPad device.
The user-interface designers who'll be guiding the way we read and interact with such tablet devices were this year's tech rock stars, just as mobile app designers were last year's most-admired attendees.
Other news was made at the fest: YouTube launched a new service for independent musicians; Microsoft announced Internet Explorer 9; music services MOG and Spotify provided some hope for the future of the music industry, Dell showed off its Mini 5 Android-based handheld device; Digg announced a site redesign and Twitter launched a service called "@Anywhere" for media Web sites.
The week even brought a few hints at what next year's SXSW Interactive might be like. Forrest said in an interview on Wednesday, "We're going to need to change things up significantly next year to even accommodate a growth rate that's half that or less than (what it was for 2010)."
That's the thing about SXSW Interactive that keeps many coming back — it still changes every year and still manages to surprise.