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SXSW: Start-ups battle for mobile application downloads

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Media captionScvngr's Seth Priebatsch on how the "game layer" could help society

You can almost feel a buzz on the fingertips of attendees shaking hands at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive festival in Austin, Texas - one of the world's biggest networking opportunities for the web community.

A little micro-blogging site called Twitter launched here as a start-up in 2007 - and there are plenty of people attending this year who want to emulate their success.

The technology enthusiasts behind a myriad start-up companies have flocked to Texas this week for one reason: to get their applications on to the mobile phones of trend-setting early adopters.

Dennis Crowley is the co-founder of Foursquare, a mobile application allowing users to "check-in" at locations, from cafes to concerts to office buildings, and send that information to friends also using the app.

Foursquare launched here in 2009, picked up 5,000 users in four days and is now a sizeable social media player, boasting some seven million users. Mr Crowley says there are few other events where start-ups can accelerate both excitement about their companies and growth.

"It's a great little laboratory for developers," Mr Crowley says.

"[For us] it's one of these things where it spread really quickly in four days of the conference. It has turned into a really good launchpad for start-ups because you have just the right amount of people that are in this early adopter community, and they're down there specifically not so much to go to the conference, but to go to the parties, hang out and socialise.

"And a lot of the tools that people are really interested in building are tools that allow people to go out and socialise."

So what are some of the hottest applications in town this year - and who are the people behind them?


Scvngr is a location-based mobile app similar to Foursquare that asks individuals checking in to a location to complete challenges created by businesses, institutions or fans of the application.

When a Scvngr user checks in to a location, like a gym or restaurant, the application presents a list of real-world challenges - asking the individual to answer a question or riddle or to accept a dare to earn points and seek a reward. Discounts on products or free goods are then sometimes given to those that accomplish the tasks.

Scvngr chief executive Seth Priebatsch, a 22-year-old who refers to himself as the company's "chief ninja", gave the keynote speech this year at SXSW Interactive in front of 2,500 attendees and some 3,500 others who watched from screens in 11 other rooms at the convention centre.

He says that although the application was officially unveiled to consumers nine months ago, "the reason we're at South by Southwest, and the reason everyone else is here, is that it's the most concentrated influx of exciting, fun, early adopter, tech people who are willing to try out anything at least once.

"They are going to try it out at least once, and it's our job to try to win them over and try it out again and again."

Like Mr Crowley, Mr Priebatsch is interested in pushing characteristics typically associated with video games into a physical space through the company's app, which already claims 1.2m users.

Mr Priebatsch says social media companies, like Facebook, have built a "social layer" around the world that works successfully.

He now expects the next 10 years to be devoted to creating "the game layer" on top of society, which he thinks could fundamentally change how people interact with their environments.


The networking service Hashable, launched in October 2010, is attempting to do away with physical business cards and to work as a platform to facilitate business introductions, prompting people to leave their comfort zones and meet others.

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Media captionHashable CEO Mike Yavonditte on how his app could help change business networking

The service was built from the organisational functionality of Twitter hashtags and uses these tags, like #lunch, #businessdrinks or #SXSW, to remind users where real world connections took place.

When a Hashable user meets a potential business connection, the e-mail address or Twitter username of that person is noted along with the location of the meeting, and that information is then sent to other friends and business colleagues using the application.

Users are also prompted to introduce people within their network whom they think would benefit from knowing each other. Making a connection earns the user credits known as "hash cred" and rankings based on the the amount of credits are viewable by those in your network.

Hashable chief executive Michael Yavonditte, who has spent much of his time at SXSW Interactive speaking to other tech heads about the new service, says the New York-based team is adding close to 1,000 users a day and has already signed up tens of thousands of business-minded individuals.

"We kept looking at number of gestures that normal white collar professionals perform on a regular basis: meetings, breakfast, lunch, dinner, coffee, drinks. All of those things are incredibly important events, none of which make it to the internet," Mr Yavonditte says.

"And so we decided to create Hashable in order to structure that information and share it with friends."


The start-up Instagram, has developed a photo-sharing application for the iPhone which enables people to take photographs and immediately share them with friends through a Twitter-style feed.

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Media captionInstagram's Michael Krieger: 'We wanted to liberate photographs from mobile phones'

The San Francisco-based firm debuted only five months ago and already claims an astounding 2.5m users.

Co-founder Michael Krieger says the company is helping to explore the future of the digital photograph by allowing individuals to instantaneously post and receive feedback on each of their photos.

"We thought back to the 1950s and 60s when instant cameras started coming out, and even earlier with the Polaroid camera," Mr Krieger says, adding that people were excited because the cameras offered immediate ways to share photos with friends and family.

But, he says, the problem with digital photographs has been that many people upload them infrequently, so they can be left sitting on devices for a long time and not be seen.

The application is already in widespread use among the tech elite and has been used by many during the past four days as a way to catalogue SXSW Interactive.

Mr Krieger says part of the reason he is attending SXSW is because "it has the potential to launch you into a pretty awesome spot".

"This is our first SXSW, so there are people we wanted to correspond with and users with wanted to meet up with," he told the BBC over the phone, while attending a photography meet-up in downtown Austin to see how people are using the app.

"We wanted to get in front of people who have not seen us yet."

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