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Twitter CEO touts 'true platform,' ignores developer anger

On "Charlie Rose," Dick Costolo says Twitter is focusing on a "consistent experience" and that this justifies restrictions on developers of third-party apps. The question of controlling ad profits goes unaddressed.

Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, appearing Tuesday night on "Charlie Rose."
Screenshot by CNET

With the Twitter developer community up in arms over recent moves limiting access to the service, CEO Dick Costolo said Tuesday that the company's decisions were motivated by wanting to build a deeper platform serving a wider variety of users than it does today.

During an appearance last night on Charlie Rose, just hours after unveiling Twitter's new "mobile first" strategy on the "Today Show," Costolo explained moves that have curtailed the functionality of some third-party Twitter clients in the context of developing a Twitter ecosystem for everyone from individual users to large corporations, but he sidestepped the company's desire to get a bigger piece of the advertising pie.

"As our users were starting to adopt Twitter on more than one platform...we realized we have to have a consistent owned and operated experience," Costolo told Rose. What "we tried to message the ecosystem is, there are all these value added services that we'd like you to start building that our customers and users are going to want...like large corporate accounts wanting customer relationship management software, and there are already thousands of Twitter clients, there aren't the need for lots of new clients. And that's the migration we've been continuing down."

Added Costolo, "The future of Twitter is that we'll have a true platform...not just an API that allows developers to create an alternate Twitter experience, but an API that allows third parties to build on top of Twitter in a way that creates accretive value for the user, much how Amazon allowed third-party merchants to build into Amazon."

Certainly, Twitter wants to foster the creation of that kind of ecosystem, but it's also clear that because of the highly fragmented nature of the Twitter ecosystem, the company itself doesn't get all the advertising revenue the service generates. And its moves to limit access to the platform for those building standard Twitter clients -- as well as to cut off access, as it did yesterday, to third-party photo hosting services from official Twitter clients -- has some developers fuming.

"Twitter was built on the back of third-party developers," Noah Everett, the founder of TwitPic, told CNET yesterday in the wake of the unveiling of Twitter's mobile strategy, "but now those developers are getting the shaft. I'm sure the pressure coming down from [Twitter's] boardroom is pretty intense [to try to] control the eyeballs and control the message."

Apple and Amazon
Twitter's mobile app being integrated directly into Apple's iOS -- meaning it's a standard app for anyone using iOS 5.0 or later -- means the two companies have spent a good deal of time working together recently. In fact, Costolo told Rose, Apple "is in many ways a mentor company for us."

That means, he said, Apple's process of thinking about simplicity of design -- "not feature, feature, feature, but what can we remove from the product to make it easier to use" -- is just the kind of lesson that those at Twitter aspire to.

At the same time, a company like Twitter can learn a lot from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' "maniacal focus on customers," regardless of how many different things the online retailing giant tries.

Twitter's future
Looking five years down the line, Costolo said, Twitter expects to be spending its energy worrying about the "balance between courage and focus," essentially a mixing of both Apple's and Amazon's philosophies. So on the one hand, the company expects to be focused on making users' experiences better, but also on "being as bold as we [can] be [and asking] are we taking chances and balancing that with, Let's not go do every new thing we want to do. That balance is the tension that Apple and Amazon, in their very different ways, have successfully navigated so well."

One thing is for sure, though: Twitter will never budge from its 140-character limit. Costolo called that limit "sacrosanct." Asked why, he responded, "Because it works. There's something about the constraint that makes it exactly the right length. [But] I don't pretend to know what it is."

And that 140-character limit will apply to every user, regardless of whether it's someone tweeting about their breakfast or someone deeply involved in a major protest in China, Syria, or even in the U.S. Asked about Twitter's position on a recent court ruling that it had to turn over an Occupy Wall Street protester's account contents to police, Costolo said that the company "provided [the account contents] sealed, in the hopes that, based on appeal, we'll be able to provide that user" with protection.

Costolo also said that he is seeing more and more cases of governments demanding that the company turn over users' information, but that the most insidious situations might be in England, where "superinjunctions" require companies to adhere to court orders without ever saying publicly that they've done so. "That's particularly Kafkaesque and disconcerting," he said. "There's something creepy about them that makes me feel they don't have a place in the world we've all decided we want to live, here in the U.S. at least."