Et tu, Twitter? Here comes developer ire

Twitter launches its own BlackBerry app and acquires Tweetie to form the basis for its iPhone app. This dramatic shift in the company's once hands-off approach has ticked off some developers who are afraid they'll be squeezed out.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
5 min read
Did Twitter just kill thousands of developer dreams? CC: Flickr user muffinquek

This was, to put it plainly, not a great week for many developers. Modifications to Apple's software development kit license for its just-announced iPhone OS 4 software ban non-approved application program interfaces (APIs), including Adobe's Flash Compiler. That decision led Adobe's platform evangelist to blurt out an incensed "Go screw yourself, Apple" blog post.

But unrelated, and more surprising--OK, not really that surprising since we'd been able to augur the entrails of this one for some time now--is Twitter's decision to launch proprietary BlackBerry and iPhone apps. The former was built for Twitter by BlackBerry maker Research In Motion, while the latter will come through Twitter's acquisition of Tweetie manufacturer Atebits, which was announced Friday. Many third-party developers building applications for corporate and individual Twitter use are now alarmed: is Twitter eating up their business models in an attempt to build its own?

Twitter co-founder Evan Williams explained the move as a strategic decision intended to fuel growth. "Careful analysis of the Twitter user experience in the iTunes App Store revealed massive room for improvement," Williams wrote in a blog post Friday. "People are looking for an app from Twitter, and they're not finding one. So, they get confused and give up. It's important that we optimize for user benefit and create an awesome experience."

Since its earliest days, Twitter has had an extremely open API that's kept its own service largely limited to the manufacturing and dissemination of 140-character messages. Everything else--analytics, mobile clients, photo and video sharing--has been on behalf of third-party companies, some of which have become powerhouses in their own right. Twitter executives' laconic public attitude toward eventual profitability may have tricked some entrepreneurs into thinking that this wasn't a "real" company that would put its own interests first, and that they themselves wouldn't be subject to the malaise of developers building on Apple's tightly guarded platforms or those subject to Facebook's routine thrashing of platform regulations.

Not true. As Hunch co-founder Chris Dixon said in a Saturday blog post about the whole controversy, "the real problem is that somehow Twitter had convinced the world they were going to 'let a thousand flowers bloom'--as if they were a nonprofit out to save the world, or that they would invent some fantastic new business model that didn't encroach on third-party developers."

This is not the first time Twitter has purchased developer apps to bring them in-house and make them official, but none before this one have hit home like the Tweetie buy. Twitter's 2008 acquisition of Summize, the Twitter search engine that eventually became Twitter Search, didn't raise many eyebrows because there simply weren't many Twitter search engines to begin with, and Summize was the one that had obviously nailed it. But there are loads of mobile Twitter clients out there, as well as plenty of Web and desktop clients whose developers are probably now wondering whether they'll be next.

Many of the Web's entrepreneurial elite have said in the wake of the announcement that this is nothing evil or backstabbing on the part of Twitter. Developers, really, should have seen it coming.

"It would be very dangerous for anyone to be relying 100 percent on Twitter (for a business model)," Loic Le Meur, founder of social-media client Seesmic, wrote in a blog post on Saturday in which he asserted Seesmic's own ability to survive even with official, competing apps from Twitter. "As Fred Wilson (of Twitter and Zynga investor Union Square Ventures) reminded us, Facebook changed completely the apps notifications, making it now much more difficult for an app to grow to millions of users the way Zynga did."

Chris Dixon said in his blog post that Twitter initially left a lot of "holes" in its product by keeping its initial service so simple. "Twitter was a hugely clever invention and has grown its user base at a staggering rate, but on the product development front has been underwhelming," he wrote. "Buying Tweetie seemed to be a tacit acknowledgment of this weakness and an attempt to rectify it. Acquisitions also have the benefit of sending a positive signal to developers since at least some of them are embraced and not just replaced."

Rational words like this probably won't assuage the guy who made the "Twitter Destroyed My Market Segment And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt" shirt, or the concerns voiced by blog Twittercism over Twitter's ability to build good products in-house. "Twitter hasn't been exactly a leader in innovation for their own product," a post on Twittercism read. "Virtually everything that matters on the platform has been initiated or improved by users (@s, retweets) and developers (practically everything else). Tweetie is so user-friendly and so slick--I hate to think that any of that will suddenly be stifled by committee-thinking."

Oh, and then there's the contingent of folks who hope that developer discontent with Twitter's latest moves will help their own agendas--take Facebook engineer and erstwhile TipJoy founder Ivan Kirigin, who posted to his Twitter account on Friday night, "I suppose when your competition is making huge mistakes, you should just stfu." (STFU means "shut the f*** up," for those who prefer to remain blissfully ignorant of Internet slang.) Ironic, because as Dixon points out, Facebook made a few missteps of its own last year as it hastily attempted to piece together features that fit into the "real-time streaming" craze that Twitter had ignited.

An extra complexity for developers is the fact that the launches of Twitter for BlackBerry and Twitter for iPhone come right ahead of Chirp, the company's first-ever developer conference.

The agenda for Chirp, which takes place in San Francisco next week, promises talk of new features, the hyped-up geolocation API, and various "business strategies." If Twitter's management team has any good sense (which I speculate they do), they'll also show developers that even though they're effectively closing one door by building proprietary clients, they're opening others in turn.

Correction at 1:30 p.m.: This story initially attributed Twitter's post about its Tweetie acquisition to Biz Stone. It was written by Evan Williams.