In a World of Check-Ins and Social Discovery Apps, EchoEcho Keeps it Simple (and Useful)


Just like last year, this year's edition of SXSW is once again heavily focused on location-based application. While the genre is slowly moving away from check-ins and virtual badges and more towards "social discovery," though, it's still rather debatable how useful apps like Highlight or Glancee are outside of the conference and Silicon Valley bubble. One location app that has long been going against these trends is the Google Venture-funded EchoEcho. The app does one thing – and it does it well: letting you find out where your friends are and making it easy to meet up with them without compromising anybody's privacy.

Just in time for SXSW, the company just rolled out the fourth version of its app (iTunes link), which features a redesigned interface, a mobile web app and the ability to share your location live with a friend for a set period of time (up to 2 hours).

Using the app is as simple as it gets. You just pick a contact from your phone's address book and simply use the app to ask them where they are. Once your contact receives your request and accepts it, you can both see where both of you are (by requesting somebody's location, you also always share your own location). From there, you can use the app to chat and/or suggest a meeting place.

Two major new features in this version make all of this easier (besides the new design, which is much more streamlined that before): live updates that allow you to share your location in the background, so you know how far away your friends are from the meeting place and a new web app that allows your friends to share their location with you without having to install the app themselves (instead of a push notification from the app, your friends will simply get an SMS with a link to the web app).

Just like previous version of the app, the EchoEcho team continuous to ensure that it's available on all the major mobile platforms, including iOS, Android (these have been updated to 4.0 already), as well as Blackberry, Windows Phone and Symbian (I'm not sure the Symbian app will get an update, though).

3:52 pm

A Few Notes About SXSW 2011


I just got back from Austin yesterday and after a day of recuperating from the craziness that is SXSW, here are my thoughts about this year’s event. Quite a bit has been written about it already, so the fact that it’s getting bigger (maybe too big), very commercial and without any real news value doesn’t come as a surprise, even to those who weren’t there this year. But none of these things are what SXSW is about – it’s about the people, the networking, and the new friendships forged in hallways and over free ice cream at Club de Ville.

The Startup Fetish

Before the event, GigaOm’s Stacey Higginbotham rightly asked if startups had become a fetish at SXSW, and after this year’s event, I think the answer to this is a resounding “yes.” Supposedly, this year was the year of group messaging apps. Indeed, I did see quite a few of those in use this year (though I didn’t use a single one myself and didn’t feel like I was missing out), but there really wasn’t a standout hit that everybody was talking about. Actually – as Charlie O’Donnell points out so well – Twitter’s breakout year at SXSW in 2007 was an exception. Counting in Foursquare’s semi-hit at SXSW last year, these are rare exceptions and “not enough to keep watch for it every year.”

This year was also completely devoid of any real news. The keynotes were interesting enough and didn’t turn into total disasters like last year, but they also didn’t offer anything worth writing about from a news perspective.

Some Additional Observations:

Leaving all of this aside, here are some of my thoughts about this year’s event:[list]

  • I thought Yobongo would hit it big, but I did not see a lot of people using it. Beluga, on the other hand, seemed to get decent traction.
  • there was no real breakout app – indeed, there were too many services clamoring for attention to even try them all before getting to Austin.
  • the LiquidSpace bus behind the convention center was very cool. Great place to just kick back and work a bit away from the craziness.
  • the lines to get into parties are getting ridiculous. No wonder the hotel bars are now the best place to meet people. No lines, good drinks (though not free), no advertising and no loud music that prevents you from actually talking to people.
  • the spread out campus system kept me from going to quite a few interesting sessions.
  • the quality of this year’s panels and presentations was higher than last year’s (though maybe I was just lucky).
  • the trade show was a good source of free t-shirts, but generally not that interesting. Props to WordPress, though. The WP Genius Bar was a great idea.
  • the Interactive Awards show was a lot of fun (I had never been before). Host Chris Hardwick kept things on track and the surprise performance by the Gregory Brothers was the icing on the cake (though some in the audience were apparently not familiar with the Bed Intruder song…).[/list]

Bonus: The good folks at Adobe did a nice video with audience members after the panel I moderated:

11:10 am

Donahue: A Better Conference Backchannel from the Makers of Readability


The developers of Readability, the service that makes reading text online better by stripping sites down to their basics and allowing readers to just focus on the text, just launched their newest project at the SXSW conference in Austin. This new application, Donahue, provides conference attendees and presenters with a new way to interact during talks. The idea behind Donahue is based on the reality that the audience members at most tech conferences today often spend more time looking at their screens than at the presenters.

Sadly, the app isn’t available for anyone to use yet. Instead, Arc90 will continue to iterate on the ideas the team developed while building this tool for the SXSW presentation. The hope, though, is to release this as a full-blown tools in the future.

As Arc90’s Tim Meaney and Behavior Design‘s Christopher Fahey (the two companies collaborated in the development of this product) noted, great talks start conversations – and more often than not, these conversations today happen on social networks and sometimes not even in the room where the talk is being presented. Indeed, as Fahey pointed out, “speakers and audiences are becoming more disconnected from each other.” Partly this is due to the fact that the audience members are often paying more attention to their Twitter feeds than the presenters, but Fahey also pointed out that it would be wrong to blame the audience and the presenters for this.

Presentation  Donahue

To fix the conference experience, Donahue wants to help “empower the audience.” Many presentations today, said Fahey, suffer from the fact that the speakers too often try to hide what they really want to say. Donahue instead wants to ensure that the audience can hold the presenters accountable.

So what does this look like in practice?

Danhue bullet points

Donahue’s developers argue that bullet point-style presentations have outlived their usefulness, but more importantly, audiences and speakers need better tools to interact with each other. A conference backchannel – like Donahue – should be opt-in for both the audience and the speaker. Just putting up a big screen with tweets on the stage is not a good solution to this problem (mostly because it encourages too many snarky remarks) and Donahue hence doesn’t display tweets in the presenter view that can be shown on a projector.

In its current form, Donahue provides users with a two-pane view: the presentation slides on the left and a stream of related tweets from the audience on the right. Bringing these two together on one screen is imperative, as human beings are easily distracted and putting them into a different interface to tweet about a talk would make it too easy for an audience member to just focus on anything else but the talk.

Once the app is released, it will also include a Keynote-like interface for building slides.

With Donahue, the developers aimed to create a backchannel that blocks “irrelevant distractions while enabling relevant distractions.” Instead of having to switch back and forth between different apps, both presenters and audience members can see the slides and reactions simultaneously.

The app also keeps an archive of all the related tweets so that the conversation around the talk remains available even after the talk is over.

It’s important to note that Donahue does not provide those who are not in the audience with an audio or video feed – this is really meant to be a tool for those who are in the audience.

2:24 pm