Dear dad, don't listen to my cheapskate brothers about iPad apps

This letter is to my dad, we got him an iPad for Christmas.

Dear dad,

Alex told me he counseled you against buying any apps that cost money. Sounds like Ben also is of that bent. Sounds great to be a cheapskate, right? After all, you’ll save money. I’d question my brother’s motives, though. Maybe they want more inheritance?

Anyway, to me the best apps cost money and you should expect to spend $200 to $400 in the first year on apps. Here’s some reasons why.

1. Paid apps are better games. Look at Angry Birds. They have free versions on Android, but on iPad and iPhone their versions cost five bucks. The thing is, on the free version you have interruptive advertising. Do you really want to live in a world where every few minutes an ad gets displayed? I don’t. So I invest in apps that cost money and apps that have a real business model behind them (IE, where I’m at least a customer that turned over some cash). Plus, I know that Scrabble is one of your favorite games. That costs $4.99. What a deal.

2. Paid apps help teach science. I know you do lots of tutoring at local high schools. One of the most expensive apps, The Elements, costs $14. This app is magical, though, and will open science up to kids in a new way. I wish I had this back when I was in Chemistry class.

3. Paid apps reward the arts. There’s a photographer, Quang-Tuan Luong. He took 10 years to photograph all the US National Parks. 3,000 photos. And you can own them all for $4.99. If enough people do that? Well, then, it’ll encourge more photographers and artists to share their work in apps.

4. Paid apps help you travel. The best apps, like TripIt, have “pro” versions that cost money. In this case TripIt costs me $49 per year. What do I get? Information. I often know my flight is delayed before the pilot tells everyone else. And it helps me get alternate flights and helps me with finding the best seat, and more.

5. Paid apps help you get better news. The Wall Street Journal costs $17+ a month. I know you buy lots of magazines and newspapers, why would it be any different on an iPad?

6. Paid apps help you read longer items. I paid $4.99 for Instapaper, which helps save web pages for later offline reading, optimized for readability. Invaluable.

7. Paid apps help you find better restaurants. Yeah, you can use the free Yelp app (I do that too) but Zagat’s app is better for finding the best restaurants. It costs $10. What’s a meal at a high-end restaurant cost? $50? Some, like at French Laundry, cost $330 and up. Having one extraordinary experience is worth the app’s price. Why? Because they can afford to have moderators that clean up the content, plus they have hooks into other systems, like Foodspotting and Foursquare, which give them better data.

Anyway, there’s some selfish reasons to pay for apps, too.

1. App developers are watching what platforms make the most money. So, if you want better apps, support the developers and they’ll work on more stuff for you. Otherwise they’ll go work on other platforms that have more customers that’ll pay for apps.

2. It gives you leverage. If they start selling all your private information, you’ll be able to scream about it. People who only use free apps should expect there’s some other business model in play behind the scenes.

3. The quality of the apps is higher when you pay for them. Do you work for free? I don’t. Neither do my cheapskate brothers. Yet they want everything for free. But, who do you think developers will do their best work for? A group of people who spends $5 to $15 on them? Or a group of people who forces them to do unnatural acts like put ads into their apps (which encourages them to sell your privacy down the street)?

Me? I’m a selfish baaassstttarrrrddd. I want the best experiences, and I’ve found the best way to get those is to pay for some apps.

–Your son, Robert

Mobile Fanboy! Good or bad?

Welcome to the Future

David Bisset said it: “Fanboys out in force today.”

It’s interesting, whenever I write about mobile, no matter what side of the fence I come down on, people try to use “fanboy” as a pejorative.

It always makes me question whether I’m doing my best to serve my audience.

Here’s my thinking.

First, people who claim to not be fans can be written off completely as non-participants. It’s like going to a Giants vs. Dodgers game and finding someone who says “I don’t care who wins.” People like that bug me. Why are you even at the ballpark then?

In this case, why are you commenting on Louis Gray’s blog? (The first comment was from someone like this “I try to not be someone who roots for either one.”) Bah humbug.

Even Louis’ headline “the iPhone Fanboys can’t handle the truth on Android” makes this go down further. Unlike Louis, who has totally bought into the Google ecosystem, I can be seen carrying both devices. Of course, Louis’ fanboyisms gets him invited into Google events and even gets him free gear from Google. Translation: more free gear than I get. (Louis got a Google CR-48 laptop that I didn’t get) 🙂

I’m certain Louis is right. But I’ve learned with Louis to have a certain skepticism of what he’s telling me. After all, he’s the guy who got me to invest so much in FriendFeed. Yeah, now I have a friend with Facebook’s CTO (Facebook bought FriendFeed and then promptly took all the engineers off of that and put them on other projects), but it also got me kept off of Twitter’s suggested user list. There are consequences to your fanboyisms.

Me? The only consequences to me personally will be my $300 investment in apps. I already have a Verizon account I’m paying for and already have an Android device I pay for. Along with the iPhone and iPad I paid for and continue to pay for.

I’ve spent thousands of hours on my various mobile devices. So excuse me if I’m a bit passionate about where I see things going. I’ve also interviewed hundreds of mobile developers to understand where they are going and what bets they are making or even which are their favorites. Including Starbucks CIO (iOS), Sephora’s mobile developer (iOS) OpenTable’s mobile guy (iOS), eBay’s mobile guy (iOS), FoodSpotting’s founder (iOS) and on and on and on.

Is that fanboyism or journalism? Louis seems to say it’s all about being a fanboy and tries to justify his own singular choices. That’s cool. When the water on that side of the pool gets warmer I’ll swim on over.

For now, though, I’m sticking with the developers. The coolest apps are — overwhelmingly — on iOS today (and in my experience, when the same app is on both platforms the iPhone version is usually better designed and crashes less). Not many people argued with that. Not even the Google fanboys.

By the way, gotta correct Louis Gray on something. He says: “Android led the way in true multitasking on the phone, offers a superior GPS experience with top-notch places and maps, and is years ahead of Apple on voice search, it seems.”

OK, the old “my platform has more features than yours does.”

If features mattered Apple wouldn’t exist. After all, Nokia had better screens, better cameras, and better battery life long before the iPhone came along.

Heck, imagine for one moment that I had marched into Steve Ballmer’s office and said “Steve, our tablet PC sucks, we need to get rid of the camera, get rid of multitasking, get rid of printing, get rid of all those extra buttons on the front except for one, get rid of the ability to run Microsoft Office, oh, and make sure all those .NET apps don’t run either. Only then should we ship it.” Well, I would have gotten thrown out of his door so fast I wouldn’t have been able to say goodbye to his assistant. Google fans consistently don’t understand that fact.

But, look at my iPad. I used it all the way from SFO to CDG (Paris) and listened to music the ENTIRE time. It only used 9% of my battery life. Why? BECAUSE it didn’t have multitasking (actually, not quite true, it has some multitasking features now).

Funny enough, when Louis and I had dinner last week he showed me a way to kill tasks that were running in the background. I tried the same trick on my Nexus S and it didn’t work. Damn consistency let’s just ship! Grrr. Funny that every Android user has a Task Killer that they loaded as one of their apps. Try explaining THAT to a normal user “oh, you gotta kill tasks otherwise your phone sometimes won’t run right.”

Grrr. Yeah, I’m a fanboy.

But, these problems are gradually going away. It was far worse a year ago. Today at least the Nexus S is fast, has decent battery life, and feels well designed, if not a bit plasticky (if I didn’t have an iPhone I wouldn’t have noticed that, since most other phones are going that route to keep down costs).

Louis also writes “The truth is that Android can go feature by feature against iPhone now.”

Really? We compared panoramic photo apps. His sucked compared to the one from Occipital. His photos sucked too, and so did the display of same, when put side-by-side at dinner. I guess he forgot that. Not to mention that there’s nothing like the magical Word Lens app. Not to mention all the iPad apps that are out there like Flipboard, Aweditorium, NPR’s app, etc etc etc.

Oh, and GPS? That’s laughable. The GPS isn’t nearly as accurate in most Android devices as in the iPhone. Compare the two phones when checking in on Foursquare.

Louis, regarding voice navigation, just open the Google app on iPhone and you can do the same thing, plus, look at Voice DJ which is more accurate than anything on Google’s system (the developer of that told me he’ll bring it to Android next year too). Not to mention Siri, which I’m sure we’ll hear more about next year (Apple didn’t buy it for $200+ million to let it die).

Anyway, Louis ends with “But don’t get blinded by the Apple fans trying to define Android as a cheaper, inferior solution. It’s not.”

Really? Give me a break. I’ll go step-by-step how the ecosystem on Google is behind Apple today. Again, if you want. But I’m tired and my kids need some love.

Keep in mind, those are the words of a fanboy. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

The facts in the mirror might be different than they appear on your favorite tech blog, though.

The truth is probably inbetween the fanboy positions. But that’s why I think Fanboys are good, just like Dodgers fans are good for the game of baseball, even though they are on the wrong side of the force. 🙂

If I’m serving my audience well, no one will be able to say “he didn’t do his homework.” That’s what I aim for, but some fanboy attitude is definitely good for the industry. Why? We’re spending our entire waking lives carrying these damn things around and betting our careers on the outcome. If you bet against Microsoft in the 1990s you know how bad that decision is.

How did I do on Hot Startups to Watch of 2010?

So, back in January I wrote about the hot startups to watch of 2010 in two blogs (part I, part II). Here’s the list, and how I did.

First, I missed some of the biggest new startups.

What big wins did I miss?

1. GroupOn. Now valued at $6 billion after being in business just 18 months.
2. Flipboard. Came out in July and was named Apple’s favorite iPad app. (I did have first video of them though).
3. Soluto. Came out in May and won Techcrunch Disrupt. (I did have first video with them, though).
4. Instagram (and competitors Path, PicPlz). Tore it up in December.
5. Siri (which I named as hot in another post, a week after it shipped Apple bought it for about $200 million).
6. A slew of mobile startups like Rovio, who makes Angry Birds.

I’m sure I missed lots of other hot startups, too. Got any?

ReadWriteWeb named their top 10 as (in no particular order, they said, except they published them in this order):

1. Instagram.
2. Quora.
3. Flipboard.
4. Chatroulette (I don’t see how a company that has failed the way this one has should be on such a list, other than they got lots of people to use it for a short time).
5. Rapportive. (I picked Gist which shipped earlier and now does same as Rapportive).
6. Diaspora. Give me a break.
7. Hipmunk. Yup, love this company.
8. LearnBoost.
9. Square.
10. InDinero.

I don’t really agree with RWW’s list, but it’s out there.

So, how did I do?

1. Boxee. Finally shipped Boxee Box, but is largely perceived as struggling against Apple and Google. Tie.
2. Aardvark. Bought by Google. Win. (Google hasn’t done much with it since, which is why I didn’t count it as a big win).
3. Foursquare. Has stayed on a tear. Win.
4. Nextstop. Bought by Facebook and shut down. Tie (if something has deep value it doesn’t get shut down).
5. Rippol. Hasn’t done much. Fail.
6. Waze. Just closed a huge funding round and saw significant gains this year. Big win.
7. Gist. Closed a decent funding round and has gotten lots of kudos. Win.
8. Kynetx. Haven’t heard much about their platform. Fail.
9. Tapulous. Sold to Disney. Big win.
10. Posterous. Continued to see traffic go up and closed good funding round. Win.
11. PointAbout/AppMakr. Right category, but not right company. Fail. (UPDATE: “The AppMakr guys contacted me and let me know about some great traction they’ve gotten this year that I wasn’t aware of (including a $1MM raise). You can find it on their Crunchbase profile: I’m withdrawing the ‘fail’ to see how they do in 2011.”)
12. Payvment. Closed funding and hot space. Win.
13. CloudKick. Rackspace bought them. Big win.
14. Blippy. Closed funding round, and interesting company. I’ll count this as a tie, though, because I haven’t seen much mainstream pickup yet.
15. Expensify. Closed funding round, just shipped new version. Love this company. Win.
16. RedBeacon. Closed funding round, well regarded in marketplace. Win.
17. CitySourced. Has won a lot of city deals, seems to be doing well. Win.
18. Spotify. Roaring across Europe, still hasn’t come to US yet. Win.
19. Plancast. Has become the calendar for geeks, not sure it’s moving into mainstream yet. Win.
20. Evri. Bought Radar Networks, got some more funding. Win.
21. Square. I’m seeing them more and more places. The wine show I was at this year had them everywhere. Win.
22. Aloqa. Acquired by Motorola. Win.
23. Nimsoft. Named to hottest Silicon Valley Companies list, acquired by CA for $350 million. Big win.
24. OneRiot. Shut down its real time search portal. Fail.
25. Wildfire Interactive. Got $4 million in funding. Win.

So, that’s:

Four big wins.
14 wins.
Three ties.
Four fails. Not too shabby. Especially since some of those could turn into wins, like Kinetyx.

Who’ll be on my list next year? I bet that some of those on this Quora list will be considered.

Is Quora the biggest blogging innovation in 10 years?

I’ve now been blogging for 10 years. Looking back we haven’t seen all that much innovation for bloggers. You have a box. You type in it. Put an image into it. And hit publish. That’s much the same as the tools I had 10 years ago.

But now comes Quora.

I’m really loving it. I have a hard time explaining why. I’m not the only one, either.

@Scobleizer I believe @quora is the future of blogging.less than a minute ago via Twitter for iPhone

VC Shervin Pishevar says “I believe @Quora is the future of blogging.”


So what’s going on there?

First, look at the Quora items I’ve been participating in. This is a lot like a blog. But it’s not Dave Winer’s blog style. It’s any question I’ve followed, written in, voted up, etc.

So, what is the innovation here?

First, it learned from Twitter. Ask your users a question and they’ll answer it.

Second, they learned from Facebook. Build a news feed that brings new items to you.

Third, they learned from the best social networks. You follow people you like. But then they twisted it. You can follow topics. Or you can follow questions in addition to following people. This is great for new users who might not know anyone. They can follow topics.

Fourth, they learned from blogs about how to do great SEO. I’ve started seeing Quora show up on Google.

Fifth, they learned from FriendFeed, Digg, and other systems that let you vote up things. If you watch a question that has a lot of engagement you’ll even see votes roll in live. It’s very addictive.

Sixth, they brought the live “engagement display” that Google Wave had: it shows who is answering a question WHILE they are answering it.

Seventh, it has a great search engine for you to find things you are interested in.

Anyway, I find that there’s something addictive about participating over there instead of here on my blog. Why? Because when you see people voting up your answers or adding their own replies in real time it makes you realize there’s a good group of people reading your stuff. I don’t get that immediate rush here (here I have to wait for comments to show up, which isn’t nearly as immediate).

I notice that the same thing has me very excited about Instagram, too. When I look at other people’s photos I can see lots of people liking them and commenting on them in real time.

Will Quora kill blogging? No. Blogging has a business model for publishers that Quora does not provide yet (I don’t care about the business model so I’m free to go where the innovations are happening).

Thanks Quora for providing a great community and way for people to communicate about what’s interesting in their lives in a new way. That’s innovation in blogging.

By the way, even pro bloggers are using Quora. Today Techcrunch used Quora to find and report on Flickr in a new way (that isn’t the first time they’ve done that, either).

UPDATE: Mark Suster, VC, explains why he thinks Quora is significant.

Why 2011 isn't 1995 for Apple

iPad ads everywhere

In 1995 I remember waiting in lines to buy Windows 95. It effectively ended the design lead Apple had for 11 years in personal computers. From then on Microsoft had both the thought leadership and the market share. Apple ended up with less than 10% market share. Microsoft had most of the rest.

Lots of people think that Apple could repeat 1995 in 2011. This time with iOS instead of Macintosh OS and with Google in the place of Microsoft.

We forget one little thing: 1995 was different.

Here’s how.

In 1995 Microsoft had a HUGE marketshare lead with DOS. That meant it had a huge army of developers who didn’t want to switch over to Apple’s system, which they saw as very closed and inflexible. I remember developers coming into the consumer electronics store I helped run in the 1980s and they’d complain bitterly about Apple’s policies (Apple was far less flexible back then than it is today and forced developers to fit into a “look and feel” set of guidelines).

But I look at who is making money. Back in 1995 developers were mostly making money from DOS. Remember, this caused WordPerfect and Borland to make bad bets. They bet on DOS for too long, while Bill Gates went and built some of the first and best Macintosh apps. The lesson, though, doesn’t pass from 1995 to 2011. Today where are most of the developers making their money? iOS (according to Sephora, Starbucks, OpenTable, eBay, and many other developers). So, Android has to convince developers to switch, or do both platforms at same time. That’s quite different.

Plus, back in 1995, who owned the best distribution and supply chains? Microsoft did. Today? Apple does. Apple didn’t have stores back in 1995 which will ensure its products get seen in the marketplace. Back then Microsoft could outspend Apple for shelf space at Frys and other retailers. Plus, Microsoft’s model of having many OEMs building hardware for its OS was far superior to Apple’s approach. Today that’s not really true, because the OEMs aren’t really able to bring that much value to the table and Apple has the best supply chains in China locked up (I visited one of them about two years ago and keep in touch with the folks there and that’s still the case). So, it’s not very likely that a Google phone will ship with better screens or better materials. At least not in volume. That is a huge difference from 1995 to today.

Inside the Paris subway

Other differences? Apple has outspent Microsoft on Advertising around the world. Look at this picture. It’s in Paris subway. Apple bought every square inch of advertising space (it bought the entire subway system’s advertising space, it seemed, iPad ads were plastered down the entire trackway). Google isn’t able to get its message there. That didn’t happen in 1995. Remember how dominant Microsoft’s advertising was back then? Microsoft even convinced the Empire State Building to change its colors that evening.

Let’s go back to how closed Apple is. Most apps this month got approved in less than a week. Some even got approved in less than four days. During the Christmas rush. Is this as good as Android’s (you can ship in minutes) policy? No. But, on the other hand, there are quality controls which consumers appreciate. The apps — overall — ARE better on iOS than on Android. Just check out TweetDeck. It crashes every few minutes on my Android phone. Twitter isn’t nearly as nice. Facebook isn’t as nice. And most apps aren’t as well designed, nor crash resistant, as on iOS.

I am sensing a switch, though. Fred Wilson is leading the charge. But other developers are grumbling about Apple and want there to be an alternative and they are all comparing notes with each other. “How’s Angry Birds doing with its advertising-only Android apps?” they ask. Very well, the answer comes back. So that means more developers will take the bet on Android, but so far I haven’t seen many go “Android only.” Why not? Because they know most of the PR comes from journalists who use mostly iOS devices and most of the best users are on iOS devices too (Sephora’s lead mobile developer told me 80% of the users who pull out a mobile phone in her stores are using iOS, that is echoed by nearly every developer I talk with). Even Swype, which has been kept from delivering their keyboard on iOS devices showed me a prototype of it running on an iPad and the inventor whispered “if Steve Jobs wants to talk, we’d love to ship this on iOS.”

So, when someone says that Apple is repeating the mistakes of 1995 (yes, I’ve been guilty of saying that in the past couple of years too) you should tell them that 2011 is not even close to the same set of conditions as 1995 has.

Fred Wilson and Fortune are right about Android vs iOS (and everyone else), but I hate it

Fred Wilson is recommending developers invest first in Android and Fortune has a similar article about why 2011 is going to be the year that Android explodes. Why? Market share. Android is about to really take off, his thesis goes.

They are both right. But I hate it. First, let’s talk about why they are right.

I’ve been playing with a Nexus S lately and it finally is “good enough” for me to recommend to family members and friends as a smart phone.

I’ve also had some quality time on the Samsung Galaxy Tab, iPad competitor. It, too, is competent and no longer has the kinds of problems that let me confidently warn my friends and family away from Android platform.

These devices are fast. They have most of the apps you’ll need (maybe not the sexiest ones, but most of the ones that you’ll need). A good web browser. Really good maps, contacts, and phone-handling apps. Etc etc.

Compare Android to every other platform and it stands up as the best choice. Yeah, I know, MG Siegler over at Techcrunch got close to recommending Windows Phone 7 to everyone (he’s an iPhone lover like myself) but notice how many major things he said sucked about that system. The Web browser sucks. The lack of apps sucks. The lack of integration into Google’s many excellent systems like Google Voice, Google Contacts, Google Mail, Google Calendar, or Google Maps sucks (I still don’t like Bing’s maps as much, and that’s the most competitive web service Microsoft has going in my view).

And Windows Phone 7 is superior to Nokia’s OS and RIM’s OS, which have even more significant problems to solve (bad user experiences, difficult developer systems, inadequate app stores, very few modern apps, etc).

So, if I take off my iPhone-loving-hat and look dispassionately at the field I see that 2011 is going to be a great year for Android, a moderately good year for Windows Phone 7, a struggling year for Nokia and RIM (unless they noticeably change the game), with a wildcard year for Palm/HP (we’ll know more about that in about a week, because they are announcing some stuff at CES).

So, what about iPhone? Well, there is one thing neither Fortune nor Fred Wilson are including in their analyses: the Verizon phone. It came up at dinner conversation last night with family members (who aren’t geeky and don’t read Techcrunch). There is a LOT of pent up demand for an iPhone on Verizon. If all the rumors about an iPhone on Verizon are true, that’ll give iPhone a big shot and continue keeping it in the top two of the superphone category (unfortunately Nokia has started calling a wide range of its phones “smart phones” which makes the term “smartphone” totally useless). Most people, when they think of a modern high-end phone are thinking of iPhone, Android (and only when put on a big screen phone like the Nexus S), Windows Phone 7, RIM, Nokia’s N8, etc. This is the only category of phones I care about. I really don’t care that in some poor country Nokia sold hundreds of millions of single-chip, small-screen phones that barely can use text features, not to mention have decent access to the web.

But I don’t see how Verizon will sell enough iPhones to keep it in the numbers race with Android.

Now to why I hate this.

In my usage of the Android-based Samsung Nexus S, I’ve found it’s still behind Apple’s iPhone in almost every way. Even AT&T is far superior to T-Mobile (T-Mobile doesn’t even work in my house and I live 16 miles from Silicon Valley. Arrrrgggh).

The iPhone is easier to use. Smoother, especially when scrolling tweets. More consistent UI. Better designed hardware (the Samsung is, while the best Android phone on market, according to Engadget, not even close to as well designed as the iPhone).

Plus, overall, the apps on both iPhone and iPad are still noticeably ahead of those on Android platform. Today.

Yes, I know both platforms have their fans. I’ve argued both sides of the argument with friends and family. The Android wins if you want Google integration. The iPhone wins if you want best overall experience.

But with the Nexus S Android has caught up to be “close enough” to iPhone that I can no longer confidently state that the best system is Apple’s.

Add price into that equation and I will be recommending Android to a wide range of people in 2011.

I hate that. Because it’s not the best designed device.

So, what can Apple do?

1. Push onto more carriers.
2. Lower price.
3. Come out with some major innovations, particularly for developers (if you haven’t watched my interviews with the smart people behind the funding of Siri, that was bought by Apple, you really should — that interview gives insights into what Apple could do this year to stay in the game. Part I. Part II).
4. Integrate further with other systems in the home. One of the demos of the iPad that gets everyone going is when I show off how to use my iPad as a remote control for my Apple TV.
5. Make a deal with Facebook. Normal people are ADDICTED to Facebook. Ever sit in a lobby at a restaurant and watch what people do on phones? I do. Facebook is #1 app by far. What if next iPhone had best-of-breed integration with Facebook?

Anyway, unless something major happens this year (it probably will, the world keeps speeding up) it looks like Android is gonna take off.

I hate that.

I sure hope Steve Jobs has one of those moments where he shocks the world again and keeps this game interesting. I sure would hate it if Google took over the world of mobile the way Bill Gates took over the world of desktops. And, yes, it sure does feel like early 1995 in the mobile world. So, Steve, what you got up your sleeve?

UPDATE: I did a followup to this post about why 2011 isn’t 1995 for Apple.

An industry challenge: build "MicroSXSW" to bring back fun times at SXSW

CarWoo's co-founders and PR team

Tonight after work I went to Starbucks with the CarWoo team. They are building a better way to buy a car. Got funded to the tune of $6 million. Are one of Paul Graham’s favorite Y Combinator companies. He’s been telling people he thinks they have potential to go public. Why? Because they are “crushing it” as they help car buyers have a better experience. I liked them so much I spent 40 minutes talking with the co-founders about their new service and how they are changing the world.

But that’s not what this post is about.

No, during that coffee break (it’s a startup, after all, and they went back to work) we talked about SXSW. I took a picture because this is what I wish SXSW was: intimate, fun, conversations about the tech industry. That’s what SXSW used to be.

Instead, this year, SXSW became something different. It got too crowded. I remember waiting in lines for more than an hour just to get into an over-crowded, loud, party where you could barely move around.

Diggnation Party Line at SXSW

Next year is looking even worse. Already it’s the number one event on Plancast (my favorite place to find geeky events) by far. I’m hearing that hotel rooms — if you can find them — are running $800 a night or more.

So, this is an industry challenge.

Do we turn SXSW into something that really becomes a parody of itself, or do we try to save it?

Me? I want to get more of those intimate experiences we used to have. I remember when the entire Web Standards Project fit at one picnic table. I remember having a fun conversation with a small group, all huddled around Craig Newmark in the rain at a BBQ place across the street. I remember being able to get into parties without being a VIP and last year the VIPs even had to wait in line at nearly every party. Heck, I remember when Scott Beale Tweeted in 2007 that he was sitting all alone in an empty pub and I joined him and had a leisurely beer at a picnic table with him and a few other friends. Those days are seemingly gone.

Can we bring them back?

I’ve been studying this problem for a long time. Back when I worked at Microsoft Linda Stone invited me to a party. She pissed off my wife because she insisted on keeping the party size small. I didn’t grok that at the time, but by keeping the dinner party to 10 people she made an experience that was magical and that I’ll remember the rest of my life.

Now, we can’t do that at SXSW. Why? Too much opportunity cost. If we did a dinner like that everyone would be looking at their watches and realizing that they could be out meeting cooler people and collecting business cards. Heck, I was at one dinner one night and watched as people were looking at Twitter and Foursquare and seeing people peel off for better events elsewhere. “Gary Vaynerchuk is pouring wine,” one partier advertised. I’ll be honest. I ended up going to that eventually too.

I arrived just as Gary was pouring his last bottle of wine. But it felt empty. Why? Because I barely got to say 15 words to Gary. That isn’t the same experience as getting to hang out in Sonoma with Gary and a handful of other people (another experience I’ll remember the rest of my life).

In my studying of group dynamics I’ve noticed that the ultimate dinner party is four people. Why? Five makes it easy to “split” the conversation. Two people can feel OK peeling off and having their own conversation. But if you limit it to four, I notice that conversations are more intimate and people look at their phones a lot less often.

The trick is, how do we encourage people to stick into a group of four long enough to have the magical experience that I had tonight where you get to really know someone and have some deep conversations. The kinds that change careers. Friendships. Families.

It seems weird for me to say this, but I’m tired of going to big massive parties where you collect a lot of business cards but don’t have any good conversations to show for it. I now have enough business cards. I don’t need more. I bet many of you are in the same place. In fact, this year we’ve seen companies like and Path come along and try to serve smaller “micro” groups. Path limits you from sharing photos with more than 50 friends. I’ve come to like that constraint, somewhat. It’s just that I wish I could share with many small groups.

So, how about this as a proposal:

Kill the big parties. Instead, follow Zappos’ lead. This year they hosted a bus. It could only hold about 30 people (it had its own bar, after all). But the time I spent on that bus is still my favorite experience at SXSW. Why? Because it forced a small handful of people to sit together and talk. Even if it was just for 15 minutes it was nice to have an intimate experience with a small number of other people.

To me the Zappos bus was the prototype of the “MicroSXSW experience.” Here’s some video of that:

Here, look at how Zappos seats people at work:

The Casual department

There are fewer than 10 people in one department. This photo is of the Casual-wear department. Why not put dozens of people into one department? Because humans don’t do their best work in large groups.

Today I met a remarkable entrepreneur. He made a magical iPhone app with one other guy: WordLens, that translates Spanish to English in real time on your iPhone. I interviewed him today too. Two guys changed the world. Micro style. Or, look at Instagram. They only have four people and their iPhone app just passed a million users. Micro style. (I interviewed one of the co-founders recently there too).

Noticing a trend yet? You should. Micro teams change the world.

I remember that in 1996 ICQ released to 40 people. Within two years they had about 100 million users. That was before Twitter. Micro style. Three kids and a parent with a little bit of money. Changed the world.

So, I think I’ve made the case for what we need to do at SXSW. Make it possible to have these “Micro SXSW” experiences.

In fact, make it fun! Let’s see what we can do together as we brainstorm.

I’m looking for ways to make it impossible to interact with more than three people at a time and how to hold that group together as long as possible. It doesn’t sound scalable, does it?

Revolving Door Party at SXSW 2010 from Ed Hunsinger on Vimeo.

But, how about a Revolving Door Party? It wasn’t possible to fit more than three other people into one of those at the same time. Magical. Why did the most fun thing at SXSW only happen after all the normal people went to sleep (Foursquare alerted me to this after I had pulled the covers over my head — I thought it was interesting enough to get dressed and go downstairs and, indeed, it was).

In 2008 I held a “MicroSXSW” event at the Salt Lick:

How about if we do rolling parties that way?

Or, even better, how about if you get 10 cards with three spots on them when you arrive at SXSW and you pick people to have a “MicroSXSW” with? Fill them all in and get entered into a prize. Heck, let’s get Foursquare to let you all “check in” to such a “MicroSXSW” for a special badge. Getting a badge for attending a huge party? Lame. Getting a badge for having a great conversation with three other people? Awesomeness! Heck, I’d love it if you recorded your thoughts or interviewed each other. The folks going to SXSW are the top Web builders in the world. Imagine all the knowledge we could share with the world that way. Imagine that big companies rewarded the best “MicroSXSW” with prizes.

Can you come up with better ideas for how to bring these great experiences to more people? Let’s brainstorm.

By the way, Rackspace on Thursday, is deciding what to do with its SXSW budget. I hope we figure out a way to support a MicroSXSW movement. You can help with your ideas.

Otherwise we’ll all be stuck in line at the Mashable and Digg party having no fun. If that happens another year it’ll probably be the last time I go. I have enough business cards. I’m chasing MicroSXSW experiences now. You in?