April 11, 2010

You Asked Twitter to Grow Up. They Have. And You're Mad?

The Friday night surprise of Twitter having acquired Tweetie from Atebits, and adding its creator, Loren Brichter, to the company's swelling mobile team, on the back of Twitter's also announcing their first mobile client for BlackBerry, not only was big news on its own, but it has set off waves in the world of Twitter application developers and users, some of whom are seeing the move as something akin to a betrayal or an anti-competitive move, which puts the owners of the platform in conflict with those expanding it. While I am sympathetic to some of their positions, having seen competitive clients find the world in which they live a lot more difficult, the step is a brilliant one, which is an important stepping stone in terms of moving Twitter forward as a business. For years, as users and coders, we begged for Twitter to graduate from the lean startup mode, with questionable quality and uptime, to one focused on delivering an exceptional product. Now, they are executing, and the next 12 months will undoubtedly be defining in terms of how the company potentially transitions from an cash-burning endeavor to a revenue-generating technology giant.

First and foremost, the most telling bit from Twitter's post on the acquisition of Tweetie came in the first paragraph, when the company explained that people searching Apple's iTunes App store for a Twitter client would not find an official application, but instead a host of them, which was confusing and offputting. While we early adopters have enjoyed the array of Twitter clients, from TweetDeck and Seesmic to Tweetie, Brizzly and many others, it is easy to see how the mainstream audience could be lost before even starting. After all, Facebook and LinkedIn have official applications for the iPhone, from the company themselves, and Twitter didn't - a major hole in their offering. This admission by Twitter to said hole, and solving it on two platforms in one day, is a big move, and one that further cements their brand leadership, instead of sharing that brand with another client or another service.

The acquisition of Tweetie instead of other applications is sharp for more reasons than one. Note that TweetDeck and Seesmic and Brizzly, as well as many other applications serving Twitter, have been drawn to support multiple services in addition to Twitter, most often Facebook. Twitter buying Tweetie, which had remained Twitter-centric, avoids the headaches of peeling away Facebook or Identica or other services' updates, and keeping the application dedicated. Also, despite my personal relationships with many different Twitter client developers, I have always found myself coming back to Tweetie, both on the iPhone and on the Mac. In October, after thinking aloud about Twitter (Web), Tweetie, TweetDeck, Seesmic and Brizzly, I came to the conclusion that Tweetie was closest to the ever-elusive perfect Twitter client. Not only did it offer a top-quality feature set, but it did so with an unmatched interface and innovative integration with practically all leading-edge options, like location, photo integration and lists. So Twitter is not just buying a solution, but they are buying the best one. That Atebits was practically a sole proprietorship, not burdened with millions of dollars of VC funding, as Seesmic and TweetDeck are, made the purchase an even easier move.

If you wrap all that into one statement, Twitter arguably purchased the best client for the best price with the best dedicated feature set, keeping their service at the center of the universe, not competing for attention from other social streams. In one fell swoop, Twitter went from being a zero on the iPhone and Mac client space to the leader, and we can expect iPad comes soon.

But enough about that. People are still throwing up their hands about Twitter's move, saying it makes developers less likely to work on their platform. That platform owners sometimes innovate in ways that go head to head with their own ecosystem is not new. (See: Charles Hudson: Three Reminders About Platform Businesses) Microsoft has made a living from it. Apple does it all the time. And now Twitter is maturing and doing the same. This isn't because they are evil, or hate developers at all. What they need to do is extend their product and extend their brand and start to do a better job of owning the user experience. To date, the Web site has not seen as much growth as the client ecosystem, meaning much of Twitter's onboarding and initial user experience has been owned by third party apps who are not as loyal to the platform, all too happy to offer options to gain data from Facebook and Linkedin, for example.

Much of the discussion in the last week has centered around Twitter developers plugging holes in the company's product. No doubt for the most part that has been true. For example, SocialToo, Jesse Stay's company, where I am an advisor, in early March, enabled phishing protection in all direct messages for all users. (I wrote about it) That was announced on Monday, March 8th, after significant development. But the very next day, on Tuesday, March 9th, Twitter announced that they too were stepping up their anti-phishing attacks in direct messages. The assumption could be that Twitter was cutting Jesse off at the knees, but in reality, they were working to protect their own customers and doing the right thing. Jesse wrote a little about that tonight in a post titled "Twitter, Two Years Later and Nothing Has Changed", and he knows, as I do, that it will take more than plugging holes in Twitter's product to develop a successful business.

While Twitter's move removed a competitive lead from SocialToo in this specific case, it was no cause for alarm or fury, any more than it should be for dedicated Twitter clients who will be building alternatives to Twitter's own products now. If they are looking to attract users, they will need to continue finding ways to offer differentiated user experiences, and innovating where Twitter may be behind. Keep in mind that it was Twitter's users who came up with hashtags, replies and retweets, and clients like TweetDeck who debuted columns and multi-account support. Buying Tweetie doesn't mean that Twitter overnight is going to be innovating at that level.

In December, following a presentation by Ryan Sarver, Twitter's director of platform, at LeWeb, I said that "Twitter's Maturation Continues As They Embrace Developers". While this week's news may not feel like an embrace, it is absolutely sign of maturation. The company is now stopping those holes, and securing the infrastructure. We also have already seen hints of a new revamped Web interface that should take the user experience up another level again. The company continues to hire new people practically every week, almost all of them notable - and bringing with them solid resumes from Valley giants.

This rich pedigree of people and a growing user base that is showing record site activity every month, along with the company's planned @Anywhere platform, pending advertising model, and expansion through business development and word of mouth around the world is setting Twitter up for market leadership approachable by only a small handful of Silicon Valley titans. It's what we all have been asking for them to do as we begged for site stability, greater user discovery, improved tools and reduced latency. There will be some bumps along the way, as the developer community sees churn, and some products eventually are made obsolete. But Twitter can't reduce its own potential in the name of being the friendly nice guy. They need to think about their own business and driving the greatest possible experience for the greatest number of people, in a profitable way. This weekend's moves, and updates we can expect from Chirp this week will push them further along the path.

DISCLOSURE: I am an unpaid advisor to SocialToo. I hold a small equity stake in the company.

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