Twitter’s announcement in April this year that it had bought Tweetie, arguably the best Twitter iPhone app, had third party developers squawking. Tweetie had been priced at $2.99 in the iPhone’s App Store. Now renamed “Twitter for iPhone,” the app is given away for free, combining branding power with an unbeatable price. The concern wasn’t just that other developers now have no chance of selling their own mobile apps, it was that all developers are now at risk of Twitter moving into their space and swallowing the entire market. One company may come out a winner, with a large check and a lucrative job offer for the founder. Everyone else will be left pecking at crumbs.
For developers, Twitter’s purchase looked not just frighteningly dangerous but also horribly ungrateful. As the service had battled with scaling problems in the first couple of years after launch, its energy and time taken up with fights against the Fail Whale, it was developers who had been busy making the service usable. Without URL shorteners like Bit.ly, it would have been impossible to add links to tweets, a potentially crippling limitation. TwitPic and TwitVid have massively extended Twitter’s reach, generating headlines from users who happened to be in the right place at the right time with their lenses pointing in the right direction. For Twitter to follow its (relative) stabilization by extending its platform and pushing third-party developers over the edge appeared terribly unfair.
It was also perhaps inevitable, a natural process in which Twitter itself offers a comprehensive range of features and becomes easier to understand and use.
Disengaging from Twitter
One reaction among developers has been to look for ways to disengage and become less dependent on a single platform. iPhone app developers may be at risk of the App Store’s capricious selectors but while rejection (or the launch of a rival built into the operating system) might be costly, it doesn’t have to be disastrous if the developer can also sell to Android and Blackberry markets. DataViz, creators of the DocsToGo productivity suite, for example, makes its products available on a range of different platforms, ensuring revenue even if iWorks on the iPad eats into its iPhone profits. For Twitter developers however that sort of diversification looks much harder to achieve. Twitter is software not hardware and its API generates a unique kind of information for them to work with. Brizzly might be multiplatform and there’s no shortage of services that allow Facebook status updates to be turned into tweets and vice-versa but it’s hard to find an app that takes streams of posts and uses them in the same way across different social media sites.
Twitter is Too Serious for Gaming
In a blog post published around the same time as Twitter’s announcement, Fred Wilson, one of Twitter’s initial investors, castigated developers for merely “filling holes in the Twitter product.” Services like search, URL shortening and image posting should have been there from the beginning instead of the company relying on developers like Summize (an early Twitter Purchase), Bit.ly and YFrog to create and make Twitter usable, he argued. Developers now though should be looking to create the kind of killer app that launches an entirely new industry of its own in the same way that Lotus looked at the Mac and invented desktop publishing. Helpfully, Wilson suggested four areas that developers might want to explore: social gaming; verticals that aggregate conversations (like Stocktwits and Flixup); enterprise (by which he appeared to mean business usage); and discovery that helps users find people to follow.
All of those suggestions though have their problems. Social gaming might appear to be the most promising. It’s already achieved proven success on Facebook where Zynga, despite being tied to a single platform, has managed to become a $270 million business with a stable of products that includes Farmville and Mafia Wars. Developers that have tried to follow the same route on Twitter though have run into trouble. The lack of any native graphics means that the game has to take place off the site. More importantly, while Facebook is a casual environment, Twitter is usually more commercial, a place for professional networking rather than gaming. Gawk.it, which calls itself the world’s first Twitter fantasy sports game, has struggled.
Fred Wilson cites CoTweet as one example of a company making the most of “enterprise” on Twitter, an area that he calls a “huge opportunity.” CoTweet isn’t alone but the rise of enterprise apps requires a confidence in Twitter’s business-building potential — something that has yet to be proved — and an understanding of Twitter’s own commercial activities — something that has yet to be released. Should Twitter itself start charging for multiple user accounts, detailed analytics and notifications, CoTweet will be the first developer to feel like Twitterific, a Tweetie rival.
If “verticals” have been limited it might because their potential is limited too. StockTwits may have its use and the idea could clearly be extended to other fields but it’s simple enough for free competitors to push aside any developer who tried to charge for it, leaving them with little but advertising revenue and a large development bill. And discovery already has plenty of services, from MrTweet to WeFollow —and yet most people still build their follower lists gradually by tracing back conversations and seeing who takes part in discussions with the people they follow.
Developers then have reason to be concerned about Twitter’s decision to buy the apps that “filled its gaps.” Twitter isn’t a Mac. It doesn’t have the versatility of a desktop computer nor is it as essential as a desktop computer. And just as third-party providers struggled to compete against Microsoft when the company integrated its media players and other programs into Windows, so developers will want to know what they’re going to be facing from Twitter before they invest in a killer app. The most important hole that Twitter needs to be filling now if it wants to help developers is the information gap about its own development plans.