By adaptive - March 21st, 2016

The music was great, the food was good, but South by Southwest showed the same lack of excitement in mobile innovation as Mobile World Congress did two weeks earlier. Andrew Tolve reports.

In the news

Thirty thousand people, from entrepreneurs and investors to music junkies, arrived in Austin, Texas, for the annual South by Southwest festival (SXSW), where indie folk acts and pop stars perform alongside startup geeks plugging their latest innovations. This crazy amalgamation has given us Twitter (2007) and Foursquare (2009), along with new concepts like live streaming and personal broadcasting. But this year there was nothing revolutionary or even really all that exciting in the air, save for an opening keynote from President Obama (the first time a standing president has talked at the conference in its 30-year history). Predictably, Obama explored encryption and the drama surrounding the Apple-FBI showdown, although he didn't mention the court case explicitly. "Hardcore Henry," the first film to be shot entirely on a GoPro, debuted at the conference. The co-founder of YouTube, Steve Chen, showed off a new startup called Nom devoted to 24-hour livestreams of chefs cooking food. There was also an app that allows people to create and edit short videos, creating 40-second polished clips. It’s called KnowMe. There were some VR headsets on site. A giant Mr. Robot Ferris Wheel. The world shrugged.

In the money

Snapchat raked in $175 million in funding from Fidelity Investments. That’s a big haul, but it came with a $16 billion valuation that matched the company’s valuation from a year ago. No one likes stagnation, especially in startuplandia, although Snapchat can take solace in the fact that investor enthusiasm is flagging across the board right now, so it may not be a direct response to company performance. Snapchat remains the world’s sixth most valued private company backed by venture capital.

In other news

Instagram announced that it will completely overhaul the way users interact with the popular social media platform, ditching a traditional chronological timeline for a customized feed of popular posts. The company will use algorithms to study the way users interact with their feeds — what kinds of posts they linger on, those they quickly scan over — to start the customization process. Initial response was tepid from users, many of whom worry Instagram will become a popularity contest and recoil from the notion that a computer formula will decide what they like best. The company counters that algorithms make it harder for companies to inundate feeds with ads, just as it raises the bar on friends and family to generate good content (prettier pictures, more interesting observations).

Ridesharing app Lyft wants more drivers on the road to compete with Uber, and it’s leaning on a recent $500 million investment from carmaker General Motors to do so. The two have launched a short-term rental program in Chicago called “Express Drive” that gives Lyft drivers access to Chevrolet Equinox crossovers equipped with OnStar. Rent starts at $99 a week (including insurance and maintenance), and the fee is waived if drivers meet a 65 rider weekly quota. Express Drive will expand to Boston, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore this year.

Nintendo launched its first smartphone app, a social game called Miitomo that feels like a dumbed-down version of Second Life. Users get to create their own avatar and can choose everything from voice to hairdo to clothes and personality. They then go venturing out into an alternate digital universe, although they can’t interact with other avatars in any real-time, ad hoc manner. Instead, you watch your avatar repeat canned answers, like “I want to be an actor when I grow up!” or “I love Maroon 5!” Yawn. The game launches in Japan. Nintendo says Mario themed apps may follow for the US. 

We all may be interacting in virtual reality soon, but for now the emerging technology is all about the gamer community. No surprise then that Oculus announced that 30 new VR games will launch for Oculus Rift when the headset finally hits the market March 28. Game prices will range from $10 to $60. Here’s a full list of titles.

Sony will launch a VR headset for its PlayStation entertainment system this October. The company says that it will offer north of 50 VR games at launch and that it’s harnessing a global network of developers to create far more in the following years. The PlayStation VR headset will cost $399.

Apple will hold a mid-year product launch today (March 21), where it’s expected to unveil the iPhone 5se, an upgrade to the 5s model that debuted back in 2013. Also expected is the debut of a smaller version of last year’s iPad Pro, down from 12.9 inches to 9.7 inch. The tablet is expected to retain all of Pro’s new productivity tools.

Crowdsourcing navigation app Waze launched a Planned Drives feature that taps into historical data to suggest a departure time for any given destination or route. It also shows a graph of traffic on that route over the course of an average day so that you can see when would be the fastest time to schedule your trip. Once the day of departure arrives, you get updates based on real-time traffic so you now exactly when to leave.

Knock knock, who’s there? A six-wheeled robot. Seriously, there’s a robot at your door holding a package for you. It looks like a lunar rover and works for a startup out of Estonia called Starship Technologies. Sound familiar? You might have heard about two former Skype co-founders starting this little experimentation in drone-based deliveries? Well, the company just launched its first pilot in Greenwich, UK, and has another trial slated for the US in April. 

The Mobile Digest is a biweekly lowdown on the world of mobile, combining Open Mobile Media analysis with information from industry press releases.

Andrew Tolve is a regular contributor to Open Mobile Media.

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