Twitter’s future with third party apps

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February’s shutdown of three UberMedia owned Twitter platforms, most famously UberTwitter now named UberSocial, for “Terms of Service violations,” was seen by many as an attempt to force users onto Twitter’s official BlackBerry application — Twitter for BlackBerry. A move that essentially suggested that Twitter would maximise current or future advertising revenues.

A post by Ryan Sarver, Twitter Head of Platform & API, on the future of the company, third party clients and their developers, also unveiled tightened Terms of Service. This caused further accusations of deviousness to be lobbed at Twitter. Much of this reaction was a result of Sarver’s blunt statement, “…developers ask us if they should build client apps that mimic or reproduce the mainstream Twitter consumer client experience. The answer is no.”

However, taking to his Twitter account, Sarver vehemently defended the post arguing it has been misunderstood.

Sarver tweeted that the post was in no way a ‘writing on the wall’ for existing Twitter apps such as TweetDeck or UberSocial, which many read it as. He further remarked that the updated Terms of Services with regards to them, were merely a tightening of existing rules. However, for those who were considering, or in the process of developing third party clients like TweetDeck or UberSocial, Sarver said that the post was “guidance,” and that, “it’s not a good business to be in” as “it is a space we [Twitter] are investing big in.”

Effectively there were three primary points.

  • First, that Twitter wants to ensure that regardless or how a user accesses Twitter, the experience is uniform; that a user views, retweets, replies, sees profile information the same way.
  • Secondly, that if one is thinking of creating a third party application which is just another platform, think again because Twitter, already holding 90% of that market (as per Twitter’s statistics), is going to be investing even further in that.
  • The final point of Sarver’s post was that Twitter was not closing the door/cautioning against the development of all third party applications. There is still a third party client market to be exploited in services in the vein of instagram, Klout or Foursquare for individuals or, SocialFlow or Mass Relevance for companies.

Up until recently, Twitter has been a veritable free-for-all. Now with the microbloging giant rising to assert itself and its rules, it is understandable why the third party application community, collectively referred to as “The Twitter Ecosystem,” feels uneasy about this.

In fact, as ReadWriteWeb reported, some from the ecosystem seeing the post as the first gust of the winds of change have launched a rival microblogging service rStat.us.

According to rStat.us coder, Steve Klabnik, “any software that’s owned by one entity, corporate or not, is open to the possibility of being abused. So we[rStat.us] decided to fix it.” The site is open source, “decentralised,” and allows the user to “own their data.” As principled and well meaning as rStat.us and any other future rival Twitters may be, Twitter has, for the moment, cornered the microblogging market, and though that may change, it is unlikely anytime soon.

Despite Sarver’s defence of the Terms of Service changes, there is credence to the concerns expressed by the developers of rStat.us and the majority of the ecosystem.

As Twitter co-founder Evan Williams admitted to in a 2010 Twitter blog post, “Twitter is too hard,” Williams at 2009’s TED Conference conceded that much of what is now taken for granted on Twitter, @ replies, RTs, hashtagging, has come about through Twitter’s research and development department. This they have done by being innovative, allowing Twitter to be accessed and presented in new and different ways, not being uniform.

In effect, to them, Sarver’s post read as “thanks for all the help growing our business, now get the hell out so we can rake in all the cash,” or as co-editor or ReadWriteWeb Marshall Kirkpatrick put it, “now friends with Charlie Sheen, Twitter tells its nerdy old pals to drop dead.”

The other issue is advertising.

At the moment, most of Twitter’s income is through its data-licensing deals, which gives companies such as Microsoft and Google — who have such deals — full or partial access to the timeline of public tweets. However, as users have seen with the advent of promoted trends, Twitter’s is now also looking to make money through advertising.

Though Sarver claims that 90% of users use official Twitter apps to access Twitter, it would seem only 58% of tweets sent out in a month are from those apps, as top tech site Mashable reported. Therefore, whilst 90% of people who have Twitter accounts may be logging onto Twitter every now and then through the official apps — of regular users only 58% tweet from it. That is a large number of users not accessing the probable primary sources of Twitter’s future ad income.

Linked to this is the matter of investors and acquisitions.

As internal documents leaked earlier this year proved, Twitter is not averse to the idea of being acquired by an outside group. Earlier this year the microblogging site was rumoured to be entertaining talks from both Google and Facebook. Talks about acquiring Twitter were around the staggering figures of between US$8-billion and US$10-billion.

If Twitter wants sell itself for that kind of figure it will need to prove it is a real business that can turn a profit. Something the Wall Street Journal reported it failed to do last year even though it made an income of US$45-million according to those leaked documents.

Even if Twitter does not want to sell, venture capitalists who have up till now funded Twitter to the tune of US$350-million are certainly pressuring the company to go professional and show them some return on their investment and turn a profit.

Integral in this drive to becoming a profitable business is advertising. If 42% of its regular users rarely if ever interface with twitter.com or official Twitter apps, where these advertisements will be seen, then that is a major problem.

The complaining by the ecosystem that Twitter is stifling the very innovation that has turned Twitter into a product accessible to the public is true and fair. The notion that Twitter is trying to push them out may seem premature — however, the Ubermedia debacle is not easily forgotten.

If these fears prove to be true, Twitter will do well to remember just how disastrous to its image it was when it was shown that Microsoft had been bullying its competitors. Even if not in the most traditional sense as they work with Twitter — the third party clients are clearly now also competitors.

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