With the "mobile first" strategy it unveiled today, Twitter achieved two key goals: creating a look and feel that more than ever resembles Facebook's, and asserting new dominance over users' Twitter experience.
On the surface, the announcements of new Twitter profiles, common across all devices and operating systems and top-heavy with a single cover photo, as well as a new photo stream, and an all-new iPad app, are essentially incremental moves, albeit ones that streamline users' mobile experiences.
But for years, the company has been trying to bring its users back into the fold, slowly limiting their third-party options, either through acquisitions of popular apps like TweetDeck or Posterous or through locking out third-party photo services like TwitPic, and yFrog -- which Twitter quietly did today with the new versions of its mobile apps. And all in the guise of gaining more control over the advertising dollars generated by the service.
Today, despite Twitter's base of more than 140 million active users and 400 million daily tweets, the user experience is clearly fragmented -- and so is revenue generation. Whereas Facebook keeps its users essentially locked into a walled garden of its Web site and its mobile apps, Twitter's users access the service not just through Twitter.com and Twitter's own apps, but also through a broad set of third-party apps such as Hootsuite, MetroTwit, Echofon, and others. "Twitter was built on the back of third-party developers," said Noah Everett, the founder of TwitPic, "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."
Everyone knows that the future of Twitter and Facebook is on mobile, but it's not at all clear yet how either company will cash in on the shift away from the Web. For Twitter, though, the job is all that much harder if it can't even control where its users access the service. "Twitter has been trying for some time to bring all of its apps together under a consistent user experience umbrella," said Lauren Dugan, a social media consultant who writes about Twitter for MediaBistro. "Twitter wants users to feel like they have the same...experience regardless of how they access their tweets -- through for iPhone or Android or Twitter.com. And the reasoning is pretty simple: Twitter doesn't make as much money when a user sees tweets through a third-party app."
There's been much ink spilled over the growing enmity between Twitter and third-party developers in the wake of the company's decision to limit outsiders' access to its APIs. But Dugan pointed out that those changes haven't made life harder for everyone. "I think [Twitter's] strategy has been pretty clear," she said. "They are encouraging developers who expand on -- but who don't copy -- the Twitter experience. So analytics and enterprise-level solutions are given the thumbs-up, for instance, while Twitter clients are slowly being squeezed out of the ecosystem."
We've asked Twitter for comment and will update the post when we hear back.
Of course, the goal of centralizing control over how users access Twitter won't work if people don't like the company's mobile apps. But while there has been no widespread lovefest as a result of today's changes, some users do appear pleased with what happened.
On Twitter, for example, user Dylan Kohlhaas referred to the new-style apps as "awesome," and later elaborated to CNET that he liked the new photo stream feature, as well as the cover photo. He did allow that the new Twitter mobile experience seems more like Facebook's look and feel than ever before, but added that "I just like it."
While Facebook and Twitter are fundamentally different services, there's little doubt that each has some features the other is trying to replicate. With today's changes, it's evident that having a large, single profile photo, as well as easy access to a photo stream are elements of Facebook that Twitter wanted to bring to its own users. "Twitter does seem to be taking some cues from Facebook on the design front," Dugan said. "Facebook has had a cover photo on pages and profiles for some time, and clearly someone at Twitter thinks it works."
Ultimately, today's Twitter news seems much more about its long-term strategy than about a fundamental redesign or change in the way its users experience its service. But by improving the way its mobile apps work, even as it slowly restricts users' third-party alternatives, Twitter's game plan is becoming more evident.
"I think [the changes are] a little underwhelming on its own, but part of a larger strategy that Twitter has in the works," Dugan said. "With all of their early acquisitions they were working with a sort of hodgepodge of apps and now they're working hard to align everything under the Twitter brand. This will allow them to capture more of their user base, and ultimately serve up more ads to increase their revenue."