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SXSW Interactive (South by Southwest)

Tech and Innovation

Posted on March 15, 2013

9 min read

I’m very excited to be back in Austin, Texas for my second visit to South by Southwest (aka SXSW). SXSW is an annual festival of film, technology and music which began in 1987 with the interactive/digital component kicking off back in 1994. From its music origins the festival has grown over the years and now around 30,000 people arrive in the Texan capital each March turning the already innovative Austin into the epicentre of digital.

So why is Telstra at SXSW Interactive? As we continue our exciting digital journey at Telstra, it’s essential we share our experience as well as learn from and partner with global leaders in digital.

It was only two weeks ago that we extended bill payment options to PayPal; we kicked off this journey on the back of SXSW 2012 and were able to celebrate the launch with the PayPal team here in Austin this year.

Our media business, led by my colleague Adam Good, are also here in Austin and share the same goals – sharing, learning and partnering.

There are literally thousands of sessions at SXSW Interactive, making it impossible to get to them all. I’ve summarised eleven of the sessions I attended to give you a taste of the 2013 event. You’ll also find some links to explore more on the sessions you find a little more relevant to your interests.

1. HTML5 & the Mobile Browser Wars

A developers delight, web browser gurus David Dehghan (Chief Software Architect for Dolphin Browser), Jay Sullivan (Vice President of Product at Mozilla), Mike Taylor (Web Opener at Opera Software) comprised a panel moderated by CNET’s Seth Rosenblatt debating the maturity of HTML5 and newcomers to the rapidly growing mobile browser market. The panel discussed how developers can benefit from a ‘build once’ approach for mobile apps, saving considerable time and cost of building apps for multiple devices and operating systems. Mozilla’s Jay Sullivan also shared the exciting Firefox OS work under-way and the recently announced developer preview handset.

2. #ageofdamage: Be the Company You Want to Keep

David Jones, author of Who Cares Wins: Why Good Business is Better Business, presented a number of case studies of organisations where advertising and a cause came together to extend well beyond a traditional advertising campaign and how social media can make (and break) these causes through people power. From the incredible story of Patagonia’s “Don’t buy this jacket” to the rather humorous response from Bodyform to Richard Neil’s Facebook post, the inspired audience were completely sold on the power of a cause.

3. The $100 billion Mobile Bullet Train Called Africa

A short and sharp insight into the mega growth of mobile on the African continent from Gareth Knight (Founder, Tech4Africa) and Toby Shapshak (Editor, Stuff/The Times) was loaded full of examples where this enormous region is innovating – and the opportunities are life changing. Knight and Shapshak shared how Kenya’s M-PESA mobile peer-to-peer payments service is now used by over 40 per cent of the adult population and how Sproxil, an SMS service that enables consumers to verify medication they have purchased is not counterfeit is truly life changing and operating in 17 African nations.

A closing remark from Knight that has stuck with me: “in Africa, more people have mobile phones than electricity”.

4. Android’s Principles for Designing the Future

As the rise and rise of Android continues in everything from smartphones to car audio systems and game consoles, the design of the user interface becomes increasingly important (and challenging). Google’s Rachel Garb (Staff Interaction Designer) and Helena Roeber (Android UX Lead) hit the stage to take us behind the scenes to share some of the design secrets. With themes ranging from “it’s not my fault”, “sprinkle encouragement” and “delight me in surprising ways” it’s clear that the team are taking on the challenge head-first. One pointed example was how they had banned the use of superfluous questions such as “are you sure?” and simply completed the instead with an option to ‘undo’.

5. Airbnb’s Brian Chesky Talks with Fortune – Forty under Forty

Collaboration consumption was a key theme at the 2012 event, and airbnb Founder and CEO Brian Chesky continued this into 2013 where he was interviewed by Fortune’s Jessi Hempel, providing a very personal insight into the startups journey. Airbnb is a peer-to-peer accommodation sharing market; customers can share anything from a regular apartment, a spare room, a boat or even a tree house. Chesky confessed that he was ‘homeless’: “the only way to understand and improve your product is to use it, I literally live on Airbnb; I have no home”. At Telstra, we focus on our end-to-end customer experience, and in this context it was interesting to listen as Chesky shared his approach to designing an experience and literally evaluating every step of the customer journey. “By focusing on the NPS [Net Promoter Score] of a hundred users, we were able to extend and scale that with fewer problems than just pursuing growth”, he noted.

6. Shaq Goes Social: The Big Interview

Author and keynote at last November’s Australian Digital Summit Brian Solis interviewed Shaquille O’Neal aka @SHAQ, on his career transition from champion NBA basketballer to investor and entrepreneur. O’Neal was an early investor in Google and joked how he was approached: “we’re gonna create this little search engine thing and we want you to invest”. During an entertaining discussion O’Neal shared his Twitter secret recipe: “my twitter rule is 60 per cent of the time I want to make you laugh, 30 per cent inspire and 10 per cent marketing”. O’Neal is on the advisory board of Tout – a video sharing tech start-up in San Francisco.

7. Google[x]: Building a Moonshot Factory

Google Glass are undoubtedly the star ‘gadget’ of SXSW. Dr Astro Teller also known as Captain of Moonshots for Google[x], gave a rare insight into Google’s scientific approach to solving problems and creating products from the highly secretive Google[x] labs. It was hard not to be inspired by Dr Teller who posed the audience a simple question; “what would you work on today if you knew it wouldn’t fail? Ask yourself why you wouldn’t start tomorrow?” Google seems to be a true laboratory: as Dr Teller said, “responsibly irresponsible behaviour is vigorously encouraged” and shared how Google[x] had made significant improvements to the problem of indoor maps and were working on projects such as the driver-less car and the creation of artificial neural networks in the Google Brain Project. Teller concluded by sharing ‘Solve for [x]’ – a forum to encourage and amplify technology-based moonshot thinking and collaboration.

8. Chaotic Good: The Right Alignment for Your Company

I’m pretty sure most times you read the word ‘Evernote‘ it’s sitting below a cute little green elephant icon on your smartphone or tablet. The hugely popular note-taking companion now has 26 versions for nearly every device or operating system available. Evernote CEO, Phil Libin took the stage to talk value, design and culture – what he calls ‘chaotic good’. Libin says his goal wasn’t to disrupt any industry as that was value dilution; “non-zero sum is the goal, I win, you win” creating mutual value. Evernote’s values extend into “a culture of design, design of culture” Libin said.

“Great products aren’t neutral… They have a strong point of view. Measured over the life of the company, the culture is the product” Libin said.

9. How to Solve the World’s Problems

Award winning author and thought leader, Don Tapscott delivered a keynote on his nine pillars for how to solve the world’s problems through non-state multi-stakeholder networks. While the focus was broader than digital, these ‘Global Solution Networks’ (knowledge, policy, advocacy, operational and delivery, watchdog, standards, platform, governance and institutions) are fuelled by connectivity. This is a concept worthy of more than my brief summary, watch Tapscott’s TEDx Wall Street talk ‘Three Principles for a New Wall Street’ to see how Tapscott tells his story.

10. Julie Uhrman and Josh Topolsky Keynote

You probably haven’t heard of OUYA, whilst their story is short it is yet another proof point of ‘people power’ in the digital economy. OUYA is a gaming software and hardware ecosystem that operates on Google’s Android platform. Interviewed by Joshua Topolsky (Editor, The Verge), OUYA Founder and CEO, Julie Uhrman said “we raised one million dollars in eight hours with Kickstarter, and over the course of the Kickstarter campaign we raised $8.6 million and sold over 63,000 OUYAs”. Similar to its crowd sourced funding model, OUYA aims to bring game designers and developers closer to their customer through a developer marketplace, and promises “free trials of games before you buy” for everyone. Uhrman’s dream is to have OUYA part of every TV.  The dream is alive (and funded) – developer consoles shipped in April, US retail partnerships are locked in and Kickstarter ‘backers’ will start receiving their consoles in May. Learn more at OUYA.tv or listen to a podcast of this keynote.

11. Elon Musk Keynote

Elon Musk was interviewed by Chris Anderson (Author, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More) and was literally out of this world – he gets my vote for ‘best in show’. Musk, who co-founded PayPal, talked about his role as CEO and Product Architect for Tesla and CEO & CTO for SpaceX – all of which he occupies concurrently. To put it into perspective, these companies are trying to fundamentally change the world’s automotive industry (Tesla) and create an affordable space travel tourism sector – – by putting a man on Mars by 2020 (SpaceX). The Tesla journey has been challenging, with Musk sharing just how important relationships have been to the business, and an insight into balancing his work and life (Musk has five children). SpaceX’s immediate challenge is to create a reusable rocket propulsion system, Musk showed this video from earlier days as an important milestone.

When asked for his view on Mars, Musk responded: “I want to die on Mars, just not on impact”. Check out this video interview from Foundation 20 with Musk.

After an incredible week of SXSW Interactive, SXSW takes on a Music theme and it’s time for us to wrap up and get back into the swing of things at Telstra. Thanks for your interest, I hope you found this update useful and look forward to your comments.

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