The Product and the Platform

On March 11th, 2011, Twitter cleared something up with the developers who have written 750,000 apps for their platform: you are not supposed to write Twitter clients. From their post to developers, the choice paragraph follows:

Developers have told us that they’d like more guidance from us about the best opportunities to build on Twitter. More specifically, developers ask us if they should build client apps that mimic or reproduce the mainstream Twitter consumer client experience. The answer is no.

(Emphasis mine.) I’ve long observed many avid users view Twitter as a platform that just happens to have an official web interface. Twitterrific was around for years before Twitter launched their own iOS app, whose recent update has been met with near-unanimous annoyance. I myself use alternative Twitter clients; third-party clients have long made up a majority of my Twitter usage. I simply find third-party offerings much better than the official apps.

I was upset that Twitter would so blatantly tell developers it wasn’t interested in their clients anymore. Twitter’s official iOS and Mac apps are themselves born of a third-party application: Tweetie by Loren Brichter. Fast-forward to 2011 and they have official apps for many popular platforms in addition to their flagship web app. Twitter is positioning itself as the definitive way to experience its service and, by extension, its advertisers.

Shut Up, Neckbeards

Developers didn’t see the writing on the wall: Twitter wants to control the experience third-party developers have brought to millions of users. Their decision to ship their own apps wasn’t about encouraging healthy competition or helping confused users find the best app; Twitter ships native apps to control the consumption of Twitter everywhere it can.

Twitter wants to take back the platform they surrendered to developers five years ago. Developer anger toward Twitter is misdirected. Developers who invest in centrally-controlled platforms like Twitter will constantly be absorbed or obsoleted. Twitter has already acquired the products that transformed into their iOS app, Mac app, and search platforms. Developers should be angry at themselves that they got suckered into believing Twitter was about the platform instead of the product.

When your app exists on someone else’s platform, you are driving every one of your users to said platform. Apps like Echofon or Weet drive users to a service that can eventually change the rules on API access whilst retaining its now huge user base.

If Twitter wants to feed every client a stream of messages that read: “Your Twitter client is no longer supported; visit”, they can do that. Developers aren’t angry with Twitter. Developers are angry because they’ve realized they spent five years making apps that were advertisements for Twitter, and they worked really, really well.

Patches Welcome

Idealistically, developers will improve their support for open-source Twitter clones or rush to devise their own Twitter replacement. I would love a service as widely-used as Twitter that promised to be about the platform rather than the product. But if developers are as responsible for Twitter’s success as they feel they are, perhaps they could popularize another platform.

A compelling third-party ecosystem with kick-ass apps might inspire people to migrate to Twitter has been heralded as a powerful tool for communicating, but the stock the world has put into this business as a mainstream communication tool is staggering. I consider today’s announcement my personal wake-up call; I feel cheated that I can’t pack up my tweets and move them someplace else should I feel like it. But I don’t really own the content I post to Twitter, so if I decide to run with some other service I have to start fresh.

In an Ideal World

App developers: grant Twitter their wish — stop writing clients. Stop supporting your current users. Inform them that Twitter has ruined your business model and you can’t go on supporting their needs. Direct them to Twitter Support if they have any questions. You wish you could support them but Twitter says you’re out. Your hands are tied. It could be nobody follows you on your journey though; we’ve spent a lot of time building someone else’s service for them. Lesson learned?