The Sands of Technology Keep Shifting at SXSW

Turns out, at a tech conference, it's tech leaders who pack in the seats, even more so than most celebrities.

by Austin American-Statesman / March 18, 2015
Walter Isaacson (pictured right) moderates a SXSW panel, featuring United States Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith (center) and Google chairman Eric Schmidt (left) . Flickr/Cole Camplese
(Tribune News Service) -- Ruminating on revolutionary technological shifts, localized gossip and altered modes of transportation, among other subjects, leaders speaking at South by Southwest Interactive peered into the past and the future on Monday.

Turns out, at a tech conference, it's tech leaders who pack in the seats, even more so than most celebrities.

Walter Isaacson, the author of "Steve Jobs" and "The Innovators," moderated a panel on what makes innovation and what could be done better in places like Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C. It featured United States Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith and Google chairman Eric Schmidt.

It seems like there's a lot of work to do in policy, in promoting the spread of fast Internet and in being more inclusive.

Toward the end of the talk, a very interesting thing happened: The audience noticed -- and posted on Twitter -- that Smith was being interrupted by Schmidt and Isaacson. During the Q&A, an audience member asked Isaacson and Schmidt if they were aware of that.

Smith answered the question and spoke more broadly about challenges she's faced as a woman in business and government, then the panel ended before either Schmidt or Isaacson addressed the question.

It was a SXSW moment, all right.

Elsewhere, sporting matching Yik Yak socks, co-founders Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington gave a rare public interview about Yik Yak, the buzzy location-based social network that shows anonymous messages.

Yik Yak has caught fire on college campuses and is picking up steam among older audiences.

It took Droll and Buffington two tries with other applications before creating one that really resonated with users. The two met at Furman University in South Carolina, where they shared mutual tennis buddies and were also in the same fraternity.

"We told everyone we made it for Harvard kids," Buffington said. It was an effort to generate more buzz. It worked.

The pair also sent personalized emails to student organization leaders across college campuses and nudged them to use the app, and let them know if their rival schools were using it, too.

They plan to expand internationally, starting with English-speaking countries. In November, Twitter launched a similar location-based functionality.

"I didn't know it was coming," Droll said. "It's definitely a nice shout-out from Twitter, but I'm curious to see how it plays out ... it's not core to their experience."

Yik Yak founders said they are not worried about the new rival. They are focusing on improving their product.

And no, Twitter hasn't offered to buy Yik Yak.

"We wanted to level the playing field for content," Buffington said. "A place where your race, religion ... didn't matter, it just mattered if you had something good to say."

The keys to their success? Droll: "Start simple. Start small. Start now."

Meanwhile, Logan Green, the co-founder and CEO of the transportation company, Lyft, spoke about the quick rise of ride-hailing technology. In a keynote speech, he spoke about competitor, Uber, and what the future might hold.

Lyft, which, as recently as last year, was illegal to operate in Austin -- and which has since become so legal it's now operating out of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport -- can claim about $330 million in funding. New host cities are announced frequently.

Still, Lyft is dwarfed by Uber, which has about seven times more funding and many more sites of operation.

Green seemed to minimize Uber's breadth and business reach, calling it only a "good car service." At one point, Green said he believes its leaders have behaved unethically on several fronts, including employee poaching. Green: "We have a lawsuit pending."

Green said his company's ultimate goal is to allow people to skip owning cars, and as such, he positioned his company as one that does social good.

He was less than convincing when it came to discussing why the company doesn't have full-time drivers with benefits ("Flexibility is the new stability," he said); or what will happen if autonomous cars, which he's very excited about, put those drivers out of work.

In short, he said the economy will shift to accommodate those employees.

Interviewer Doug MacMillan from the Wall Street Journal pressed Green on multiple fronts about the company's business practices and missions, but Green, who was personable and good-humored, put a positive spin on everything from the company's transition away from its trademark pink mustaches -- they don't weather well and are being replaced with gold sashes -- to its fiercest competitor, refusing to talk trash actively.

Lyft might be operating in an industry where there's plenty of room for both. Though the room was filled with early adopters, the majority of attendees at the presentation raised their hands when asked if they'd tried Lyft.

And even more raised their hands as users of Uber.

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