At SXSW, a peek at the post-laptop age?

Digital futurists have been saying for years now that they believe the promises of mobile technology are ushering in an era of technology that goes beyond the PC and even the laptop. At this week’s South by Southwest Interactive Festival (SXSW), we may have gotten a look into the future: With the enormous festival sprawled out all over the city, toting around a laptop can hold anyone back. More importantly, the immediacy of it all–where to go, where not to go, which party has a longer or a shorter line, where a surprise musical guest has shown up.

“These people are serendipity addicts,” said Nate Westheimer, an entrepreneur who said that he didn’t have enough time to optimize his latest project, a scheduling start-up called Ohours, for SXSW simply because it’s only available on the desktop Web, not as a mobile app or site. Its growth among tech-industry professionals more or less screeched to a halt as SXSW began, because this is an event where the mobile screen, not the desktop, is front and center. For Westheimer, lesson learned.

“It’s almost rude to have a computer here,” said Andrew Mager, a developer at geolocation software start-up SimpleGeo. “It’s almost ironic, though, because it’s not weird to have your phone out.”

Tablet devices like the iPad and, to a lesser extent, netbooks and other ultra-light laptops (there are quite a few MacBook Airs in Austin this week) have made it possible to keep something bigger than a smartphone stashed away for note-taking, e-mails, or what have you. But they’ve been hidden, as mobile phones prove more convenient and functional for messaging individuals or groups of people, booking taxis, and figuring out the locations of parties and get-togethers that have sometimes been put together on very short notice. Despite years of gripes about how badly cell phone data networks sag under the weight of thousands of SXSW attendees, mobile connectivity is inseparable from the experience of the festival.


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