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App.net: 'Plumbing' for social apps, not Twitter rival (podcast)

CNET's Larry Magid talks with App.net founder Dalton Caldwell about his ambitious project to create an ad-free, open platform for the sort of third-party social apps Twitter once allowed but now discourages.

App.net founder Dalton Caldwell App.net promotional video; screenshot by Larry Magid/CNET

App.net founder Dalton Caldwell was impressed by Twitter in its "early days" when third-party developers were using it as a platform to "build really strange and amazing software, which is not what the people at Twitter necessarily intended." At that point, said Caldwell, "they had an open platform and you could build any kind of business on it in."

But, he added, "there's been a number of business moves made by Twitter to restrict third-party access to the data and discourage third-party clients being built." He said Twitter's "business model is advertising and it makes perfect, logical sense for them to want to control the clients to be able to place advertising in them." (Scroll down to listen to podcast interview)

Still, he said that his new service, App.net, "is not meant to replace Twitter" or "compete with Twitter in the sense that we're trying to steal their user base." There used to be an encouragement of it (third-party apps), but they changed their mind, and to me that looks like a hole in the market."

So, he set out to build his own infrastructure that could be used by others to create "mini social networks." He likens App.net to "plumbing" or the "proverbial electric grid." He said that "from a consumer perspective it won't feel like you're using App.net." The "inspiration of this project," he said, "was to imagine that you have an API (application program interface) that's very similar to Twitter, but would not require advertising to support it and thus app developers would be able to build any kind of application they would want to build."

App.net alpha lets members exchange messages of up to 256 characters. Screenshot by Larry Magid/CNET

To test the concept -- and raise the necessary seed funding -- Caldwell created a Kickstarter-like appeal, asking people to contribute. The minimum amount, $50, comes with a year's worth of access to the App.net site. The goal was to get 10,000 people to collectively kick in $500,000. But at last count, App.net had raised more than $800,000 from 12,000 backers. People can still come to the site and pay $50 for a membership or $100 for developer status.

What members get is access to a Twitter-like Web site where people can post and read comments of up to 256 characters (Twitter's limit is 140), but Caldwell is quick to point out that the current site is simply an alpha proof of concept. His main goal is to get developers to create apps that work on the infrastructure he's building. As per his funding model, he doesn't want to accept advertising but wishes to "align our financial incentives so that the company...is financially incentivized to protect and nurture our third-party developers."

Getting thousands of early adopters to chip in to help build an advertising-free infrastructure and play around with a new Twitter-like application is impressive, but -- as we discuss in the podcast --- it's not the same as building a sustainable business where people continue to subscribe and build on the service. With a core group of active users and developers, App.net is off to a good start, but as Caldwell fully understands there's a long road ahead.

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