SXSWi - party like its 2009

Prior to SXSWi I was asked goodness knows how many times if I was likely to be there. I said the same thing to all comers: 'I don't get it.
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor

Prior to SXSWi I was asked goodness knows how many times if I was likely to be there. I said the same thing to all comers: 'I don't get it. I don't see the point. Waste of time.' Much against my advice, at least one SAP Mentor poneyed up a not inconsiderable sum to get there. It seems I was pretty much right. From the dribbles of reportage I saw, there was nothing terribly eye catching. Professional snark Paul Carr of The Guardian summed it up perfectly:

When my editor woke me from my hungover bed in Austin to ask for 300 quick words on the spirit of this year's SXSWi, I balked at the word limit. Three hundred words? Frankly, I could do it in seven: the last days of Sodom and Gomorrah. I don't care what you tell your boss; SXSWi is not a business conference. Sure, the BBQ joints and bars do a roaring trade, but for everyone else, it's a five-day party - the Spring Break of social media, the Cancun of coding.

And that's what makes it the perfect bellwether for the dotcom sector's mood...This year, without doubt, we are witnessing The End of the Fun. The drunkenness is still here, but it's much less subsidised and far less good-natured.

This year, the only buzz is how hammered everyone is getting, who drunkenly "made out" with who and who showed up to their panel still wasted from the night before. If your boss wouldn't give you a party pass to Texas this year, take it from me - you were one of the lucky ones. This is an industry drinking to forget how screwed it is; and it's not pretty to watch.

Giggles aside, it's much worse than Paul imagines. Breakthrough innovation seems to have dried up. Sure, I still get the occasional pitch but do I really want to look at version 2.x of yet another billing application? Or hear from the latest self-proclaimed 'leader' in cloud computing? Well yes, I might if they really have something interesting to say that addresses a need for the enterprise. Sadly, that seems to be lacking right now.

We're in a period where grinding out value is the name of the game. While Silicon Valley may be the engine for innovation, the death throes that Carr evokes cannot be good news to the VC community that has sunk millions into the startup community. For some, the antics he recalls such as:

In 2007 it was the emergence of Twitter, in 2008 it was Sarah 2.0 and Zuck, but when it comes to this year's South By Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, there can surely only be one defining moment: the moment when Michael Smith ate so many spicy tacos that he went blind.

...may be amusing but they also imply an immaturity that enterprise loathes. We were all young once and goodness knows I enjoy my share of falling down liquid. Anyone from enterprise land looking to the Valley right now must be wondering what sort of thinking goes into product development when there is nothing of note to report back from an event of this kind? At least not for the enterprise types out there.

While SXSW was going on, I spoke with several of my Irregular chums who were there, either because they live in the area or because they needed to be in Austin. The responses I got back surprised even me. Amid the frustration at the lack of attention towards the enterprise, the words 'vacant' and 'irrelevant' spring to mind. That's depressing.

This may surprise some but Irregulars love the world of innovation. It keeps us thinking, it keeps us prodding at thoughts around value delivery. SXSWi may be a consumery place and to that extent holds almost no interest for me. But I want to learn from the consumer side of the house. I want to understand the lessons that can turn crusty ol' software into something that's a joy to use.

Some tried to salvage something out of the carnage. Brian Solis for instance had this to say:

I’m just returning from the SXSW Interactive festival where thousands of “geeks” stormed Austin Texas to learn, share and celebrate what I call the Social Economy.

It’s something so special that I’m struggling to truly capture and convey the emotional essence and inspirational spirit that uniquely brings together innovation, ideas, and the people who galvanize change and evolution.

Duh? Did those of us who take a contrarian view and choose to throw brick bats from afar miss something? If so then I've seen precious little evidence. Robert Scoble tried to tell me I'm wrong following a Twitter spat where I was hurling abuse at the SXSWerati. Perhaps I am. I'm sure it will come back to haunt me.

The best I can discern from all the chatter is that SXSWi was a great place to meet those with whom connections had only been made in digital life. The ol' 'networking' vibe. I can buy that. At a pinch. As I said to one colleague: "Yeah - I can do that down the local bar on a Friday night when the Brits come in for long weekends." Seems like 9,000 attendees did exactly that in a soggy but otherwise booze fueled Austin, Texas.

Here's hoping next year will have an enterprisey flavor that gets my juices flowing.

Image courtesy of kdpaine's Twitterstream

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