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Developers slam Twitter's new restrictions on access

The relationship started well, but after six years it's soured, and social-media developers are crying foul after Twitter announced new restrictions this week.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
4 min read
Twitter CEO Dick Costolo addressing the Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco. Dan Farber/CNET

Twitter's decision to slap new restrictions on developers is a little like a marriage splintering asunder. It's not that things were always this bad, but, well, our needs have changed, and we want different things than we did six years ago.

The divorce papers arrived Thursday afternoon in the form of an announcement saying that certain app developers -- some of the folks who contributed to Twitter's rapid ascent in the first place -- should no longer feel welcome in the Twitterverse. Tweetbot and Echofon were singled out by name, prompting other programmers in Silicon Valley's tight-knit community to denounce the social network's unilateral decision to break things off.

"I sure as hell wouldn't build a business on Twitter, and I don't think I'll even build any nontrivial features on it anymore," wrote Marco Arment, a developer who created Instapaper. "And if I were in the Twitter-client business, I'd start working on another product."

Building a business on top of someone else's can be risky: you're an apartment dweller on a month-to-month lease who can be kicked out with little notice. Still, Twitter's move -- especially the breadth of restrictions on its application programming interface, or API -- came as a surprise.

Tapbots, which makes the Tweetbot client, felt compelled to post a note yesterday reassuring users that its software would continue to exist: "Tweetbot for Mac is coming out soon, Tweetbot for iOS isn't going anywhere."

Tapbots' Paul Haddad, creator of Tweetbot, told CNET that: "Whenever you build on top of someone's platform there are lots of benefits and lots of risks. I think most people who work with other platforms (or) partners realize that things can change at any moment and hopefully are able to plan around that."

That's a genteel way to put it. Others weren't as polite. Joshua Lewis and Galen Wolfe-Pauly, co-founders of State Design, which has built a kind of Twitter aggregation service, concluded that "unfortunately we now run rampantly afoul of Twitter's impending display guidelines."

Lewis and Wolfe-Pauly spoke for many of their compatriots when they said they had signed up for a developer account at App.net -- a younger, sexier rival that's out to woo as many social-media programmers as it possibly can. (See CNET's article yesterday on App.net.)

The timing of Twitter's announcement was a gift to Dalton Caldwell, the co-creator of App.net. Caldwell raised more than $800,000 a few days ago from over 12,000 contributors eager to see a more open environment, comfortably exceeding his goal of $500,000. More impressive is the list of more than 40 mobile and desktop apps and utilities, with free tools available to make it easy to plug in code for every major environment, including Python, PHP, Java, .Net, and JavaScript.

"We are the first startup that supported App.net and did so just four hours after they launched," Leo Widrich, co-founder of Buffer, told CNET yesterday afternoon. (Buffer allows you to schedule tweets, among other things.) He added in an e-mail message:

Our goal with Buffer is to build tools that make it easier and smarter to use any social platform. We have done this with Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. And now, we do the same with App.net. Dalton and his team have an incredible focus and truly embraced and actively supported us as app developers right from the start. That is something we wanted to be part of and they continue to iterate incredibly fast....

We are extremely friendly with Twitter, App.net, and any other social platforms we support. All we want is to help expand the usability of these platforms with innovation built on top of them. Of course there is always risk, that's why we try to communicate with all platforms as often as we can and [try to determine] whether we should change our approach for them. We haven't had any issues so far -- on the contrary, we have seen great support from all platforms we support.

To be sure, not all Twitter developers will be affected by the changes, which include new limits on how many users applications may have, and new display guidelines that turn out to be mandatory, with Twitter threatening to "revoke your application key" if they're not followed. Business-focused apps have been officially blessed, including the analytics-focused Topsy and DataMinr.

Nor is it clear whether developer ire will translate into Twitter users jumping ship. Something like 80 percent of tweets are posted using Twitter's own services, with the remainder through third-party clients. (And, of course, it's reasonable to point out that these are Twitter's services and Twitter's servers, and it has the right to be as generous or stingy with its data as it wishes.)

But increasing estrangement from the developers and startups who built their businesses in conjunction with yours is probably not a good sign.

Dusty Reagan, author of Twitter Application Development for Dummies, described Twitter as "open" in his book, which was published in March 2010.

Now Reagan seems to have changed his mind. In a blog post yesterday, he wrote: "It feels like Twitter's general attitude towards API developers has increasingly become one of annoyance."