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Lots of tech but few breakout hits at SXSW confab

AUSTIN, Texas — For all the talk of space travel, the wearable gadgets, marketing stunts, and lavish parties, something was missing at this year’s South By Southwest Interactive Festival: the next ‘‘hot app.’’

The brainy tech jamboree held each year in Texas’ capital city is known as the place where Twitter soared from obscurity to the world stage in 2007. It’s where the location-sharing app Foursquare came out in 2009.

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This year, though, chatter focused on hardware rather than software, and on big ideas rather than coming-out parties. The most-used mobile app was the festival’s own application, which helped attendees keep track of South By Southwest’s barrage of panels, talks, meet-ups, and parties. The star of the show wasn’t the next Twitter but an ever-reluctant Grumpy Cat, whose frowny face has become an Internet sensation. Hundreds of people lined up outside the tent of tech blog Mashable to get a photo with the cat, whose actual name is Tardar Sauce.

South By Southwest appears to be experiencing a bit of Yogi Berra syndrome: ‘‘Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.’’

‘‘I don’t think it’s indicating that there is less innovation,’’ said David-Michel Davies, executive director of the Webby Awards. Rather, he believes there may have been fewer companies breaking out because there’s just so much noise that entrepreneurs are choosing not to launch products here.

To be fair, attendance at the interactive portion of this tech, music, and film festival has risen each year since it got its name in 1999. Attendance at the interactive gathering hit 30,621 this year. Big brands from Yahoo to Amazon have an increasingly large presence, which can drown out small start-ups. Chevrolet, for instance, provided a fleet of cars to shuttle attendees between event venues.

Google Inc. made a splash when it showed off new apps for its Google Glass interactive, Internet-connected glasses on Monday evening. Timothy Jordan, senior developer advocate at Google, demonstrated a handful of apps for Google Glass, including a news headline app from The New York Times and ones from Gmail, Evernote, and social networking start-up Path.

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So is the SXSW breakout a thing of the past for hot start-ups? Andy Kahl, product strategist at a Web privacy start-up, said his company Ghostery got a sudden, unexplained spike of downloads of its privacy tool in March 2010.

The company didn’t attend South By Southwest that year, but someone mentioned them during a talk on Internet privacy. After that, the company resolved to go every year. While Kahl believes the festival is still worth attending, he said ‘‘it is fairly difficult to not get lost in the noise.’’

To attendees like Chris Hwang of the New York-based stock media start-up Pond5, South By Southwest is as much about serendipity and chance meetings as it is about the scheduled events.

He’d signed up to a mentoring session with venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers that ended up being canceled — but instead of moving on, the start-ups began talking with each other.

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