sxsw shark

Why wasn’t there a standout killer app at SXSW in 2013? Does it mean that the cool event in Austin, Texas, has jumped the shark?

As a first timer at SXSW, I thought I’d find code hustlers showing off their mobile innovation chops. But creativity isn’t just about writing “killer apps” anymore. The App Store is chock full of creative apps already, inflated expectations have a history of being missed, and consumers have download fatigue. Some may even argue that the consumer mobile app segment has passed Gartner’s “peak of inflated expectations” and is in free fall into the “trough of disillusionment.”

Instead of the expected SXSW app bazaar, I found agencies, media and brands seeking to engage with mobile and social technology. The consumer internet has matured beyond the niches that defined past “winners” at SXSW, and it is now an established segment in which real brands are deploying real dollars. Companies such as Warner Bros. Entertainment, Condé Nast, OMD, Coca-Cola and Viacom (in full disclosure, Intel Capital works with these companies) were there to invest time into meeting and mentoring next-generation innovators.

Examples of such big media and brand interest in the emerging social and mobile technology landscape include the following:

Warner Bros. and Turner Broadcasting launched Media Camp, a startup accelerator for media innovations
Mondelez International (part of Kraft) presented on real-time marketing and its Mobile Futures accelerator
Viacom/MTV, Coca-Cola, and OMD offered up free office hours to up-and-coming founders.

On balance, this evolution is good news. But with it comes greater expectations about consumer engagement, insight, monetization and privacy. Attracting a lot of downloads is obviously very appealing, but companies now need to be prepared to talk about sustained engagement and articulate a clear vision for monetization. I thought there were two categories of companies that did this successfully in Austin: 1) marketplaces, and 2) devices coupled with services.

Great marketplaces can become platforms that facilitate business creation (think eBay a decade ago). Companies at SXSW in this vein included TaskRabbit, Sidecar, Lyft and HotelTonight. Each delivers real value to both buyers and sellers, by creating a marketplace where previously there was imperfect or inaccessible information, limited accountability and an inability to transact. Such disruption is coming to many segments via innovative, easy-to-use online and/or mobile apps. (If you can’t tell already, this is an area of keen interest for the Intel Capital team.)

mike buckleyThe other exciting highlight for me at SXSW was robust devices, as defined by their ability to interact with us. This year’s hardware was more about how we experience the app or device. Most impressive were Nike (FuelBand), Jawbone (Up) and Google Glass, as well as others like fitness devices FitBit, Basis and Pebble. These products gather data about the user, their surroundings or their behavior, and then via associated apps provide some insight. It takes context awareness beyond just finding friends.

So as we settle in this weekend and absorb all that we saw and did (beyond standing in line for the next hot Adrian Grenier band), what becomes apparent is that while no one killer app made headlines, many companies made the successful leap into the big leagues. Instead of being defined by an app or device, companies reached higher to create entirely new experiences for consumers and are helping reinvent marketplaces as we know them. To me, that’s a bigger innovation than most might realize, and I for one am looking forward to next year in Austin.

Mike Buckley is the managing director of the Consumer Internet Sector of Intel Capital, Intel’s global investment and M&A organization. Since 1991, Intel Capital has invested more than $10.8 billion in 1,276 companies in 54 countries.