SXSW is Bigger Than Texas This Week

Tech nerds wearing cowboy boots and western shirts with snap buttons. Waves and waves of Gen Y-ers from San Francisco. Skinny jeans. Chuck Taylors (old, worn). Tattoos. Vans. A sea of Macbooks. Just the outside edge of real Texas heat. Orange conference badges all over town. The smell of barbeque. Margaritas that send you reeling off into the Austin night (they're made especially strong for first-time Austin visitors). Really friendly people from Texas. Days that seem to roll downhill toward nights of bands, bars, parties, and more barbeque -- nights that seem vaporize in a couple hours and then it's morning in Texas again.

Pardon that bit of purple prose, but I just wanted to give you a sense of what it's like here in Austin. The South by Southwest conference, once just a little music festival, has added a film festival and an Internet conference and has become, well, huge. Same thing happened to Sundance in the film world.

Today is the first (real) day of the conference, and I can already tell there are far more people here than last year. Hotels within 5 miles of downtown have been booked up for months. The Hilton had sold out of rooms for this week more than a year ago. I was lucky to get a room at all -- a pretty low-rent one at that, for which I paid a premium price. People are renting out their apartments here to conference-goers for as much as $3000 for a week.

Pretty much the entire music industry will be here when the music festival kicks off next Wednesday, but the city is already crowded with conference attendees and media for the Interactive conference. Near the convention center, CNN appears to have taken over a whole bar/restaurant, with a big lighted CNN SXSW sign on the front, and the CNN tour bus parked out front, and a stage for the "live from Austin" coverage.

SXSW festivities. Photo: Heather Kennedy
In and around the conference center, you'd think that every Internet startup in America is here, parading around in their quirky/hip/dumb T-shirts. It became clear to me during the weeks leading up to the SXSW Interactive conference that this event has become a major marketing, networking, and deal-making event in the tech industry. The volume of e-mail promoting new companies -- most of which seem to make some sort of social, location-based web service or app -- leading up to the conference was truly impressive, and much more than last year.

The big tech and Internet brands are all here, some renting out entire corner lots downtown for events. The marketing money is flowing into Austin this year, no doubt helped by purse strings loosening as the economy shows real signs of recovery.

Microsoft chose SXSW as the setting for its official launch of Internet Explorer 9. (We'll have full coverage of the press conference Monday afternoon.)

As for me, I'm just getting acclimated. The 80-degree weather is thawing out my soul. I intend to have a little fun while I'm here (I have a wristband for the music festival next week). But I will be talking to a lot of startup companies this week, and I'll be sifting out the good from the bad and writing about them.

So let this serve as my one and only "local color" blog from the conference. From here on out it's strictly geek talk. If you're here, let me know what you think of the whole thing so far. If you're not, and there's an Internet company or a band you want me to check out and blog about, let me know.

And now for that margarita. "Yes waitress, it's my first time to Austin . . ."

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