AUSTIN, Texas--Given that you can't walk more than a couple feet at the South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) festival here without stumbling into someone tapping away on one iPhone application or another, it's easy to forget that just a year ago, there was no such thing as an official iPhone "app."
But now, of course, iPhone apps are one of the hottest technology segments of all. And since SXSWi is ground zero for cutting edge social media and the people who are often the earliest adopters of such technology, a series of companies have used the conference as the launching pad for their own apps for Apple's ubiquitous smartphone.
That the companies--FourSquare, Audioboo, Playfish, Whrrl, and Facebook--chose to launch their apps here is noteworthy, not least because it's well-documented that Apple isn't particularly interested in app developers' deadlines, and for the most part, any success that those developers do have in getting their apps out in time for events seems to be a whole lot of luck.
That's not to say, however, that Apple is entirely unconcerned with developers' needs. In some cases, knowing people inside the company seems to help. But still, after talking to some of the people behind the apps launching here, it appears that the best chance a company has in getting an app out in time for something like SXSWi is getting started on the project well in advance.
Over the last few years at this tech-centric conference, Twitter has been the most used social media tool, with thousands of geeks spending incredible amounts of time typing out 140-character updates on what they're doing, where they're going, what interesting panel they're in, or where wine video blogger Gary Vaynerchuk is giving out cases and cases of wine.
This year, however, many have found that there is a serious case of Twitter overload, and so people have been looking for alternative solutions to getting word out to their friends about what's important to them at the moment. And that's why it was so important to the founders of FourSquare, a brand-new social media service, that their iPhone app be available to SXSWi attendees.
"We were getting worried about" the app not being launched in time for SXSWi, said Naveen Selvadurai, a co-founder of FourSquare, adding that he and his partner, Dennis Crowley, felt that "if it didn't go live at SXSW, it would be a bit of a disaster because everyone would have to use SMS."
And that, of course, would have been its own nightmare for FourSquare given that AT&T's service--which is what iPhone users are relying on--has been spotty at best. Fortunately, the FourSquare app did go live at 11 p.m. last Thursday night, just hours before SXSW officially opened.
But Selvadurai said that there simply had been no way to know ahead of time whether the app would be added to the App Store in time for the conference. He and his team had submitted it to Apple on March 1, and then had heard very little about its status.
"You send it in and you just wait to hear back," Selvadurai said. "We were on the phone with them, asking about the status. 'What else can we do?' They said it's in their team's hands, and that there's nothing else they can do" to give better insight into the app's destiny.
"It's both frustrating and very professional at the same time," he said. "And I've heard that about Apple. They don't let too much information get out."
Apple did not respond to a request for comment about its policies regarding iPhone apps and the App Store.
For Mark Rock, the founder of a British company called Audioboo, getting his iPhone app out in time for SXSWi was also a major priority. The app, which is essentially the mobile front-end for the company's social audio blogging platform, and which is intended to be the "YouTube for the spoken word," launched Friday morning, the first day of the conference, said Rock.
But it was not always certain that it would be ready in time. Rock said that the app had actually been rejected twice by Apple, first for using a kind of button that Apple doesn't approve of, and then because Apple discovered that it was possible to record and broadcast swear words with the app.
"We got around that by doing a bit of moderation," said Rock. And finally, he said, the app was approved, and in time for SXSWi, because Audioboo "had some high-level contacts at Apple Europe."
Facebook makes news on the iPhone
Though SXSWi isn't known primarily as a venue for making news, Facebook certainly stole some headlines on Saturday with the announcement of its Facebook Connect for the iPhone. The service now makes it possible for participating partners to connect friends through their own iPhone apps. So, for example, users of the popular Urbanspoon app--which helps people find restaurants in specific local areas--can rate and share their thoughts on diners and such through Facebook directly on their iPhones.
Games are also a big part of the Facebook Connect program, and so one of the apps that launched at SXSWi was "Who has the Biggest Brain?" from Playfish. The game, which had already been popular as a regular Facebook application, now allows people to compete against each other using their iPhones.
And, lastly, Whrrl also used SXSWi as the logical venue for launching its own iPhone app, which is also part of the Facebook Connect ecosystem. Designed to let people "capture (their) experiences as they happen and organizes them into a lasting story for everyone in (their) life to share in and enjoy."
For these companies, getting the apps out in time for the conference was crucial, given that this small area in downtown Austin is completely saturated with many of the world's leading social media innovators and early adopters. Where better to get an app off the ground and build a huge amount of buzz with a minimum amount of effort?
And the downside of missing the deadline? A loss of that free buzz, something that could only be replicated at a very small number of other events.
So what was FourSquare's backup plan?
Selvadurai said that even if people hadn't been able to get the app, they could still have used the service on the mobile Web on the iPhone, though that obviously would have been a less-than-ideal situation. And, short of that, they could have used text messages to interact with the service, and their friends.
Fortunately for FourSquare, that wasn't necessary, at least not as the primary option.
"We got super lucky," said FourSquare's Selvadurai, "that it was approved and that it would go live."