In a move that was telegraphed by Fred Wilson’s (Twitter investor) post titled The Twitter Platform's Inflection Point where he criticized Twitter platform developers for “filling holes” in Twitter’s user experience, the Twitter team have indicated they will start providing official Twitter clients for various mobile platforms. There have been announcements of an official Blackberry client and the purchase of Tweetie so it can become the official iPhone client. The latter was announced in the blog post Twitter for iPhone excerpted below
Careful analysis of the Twitter user experience in the iTunes AppStore revealed massive room for improvement. People are looking for an app from Twitter, and they're not finding one. So, they get confused and give up. It's important that we optimize for user benefit and create an awesome experience.
We're thrilled to announce that we've entered into an agreement with Atebits (aka Loren Brichter) to acquire Tweetie, a leading iPhone Twitter client.
This has led to some anger on the part of Twitter client developers with some of the more colorful reactions being the creation of the Twitter Destroyed My Market Segment T-shirt and a somewhat off-color image that is making the rounds as representative of what Twitter means by “filling holes”.
As an end user and someone who works on web platforms, none of this is really surprising. Geeks consider having to wade through half a dozen Twitter clients before finding one that works for them a feature even though paradox of choice means that most people are actually happier with less choices not more. This is made worse by the fact that in the mobile world, this may mean paying for multiple apps until you find one that you’re happy with.
Any web company that cares about their customers will want to ensure that their experience is as simple and as pleasant as possible. Trusting your primary mobile experience to the generosity and talents of 3rd party developers means you are not responsible for the primary way many people will access your service. This loss of control isn’t great especially when the design direction you want to take your service in may not line up with what developers are doing in their apps. Then there’s the fact that forcing your users to make purchasing decisions before they can use your site conveniently on their phone isn’t a great first time experience either.
I expect mobile clients are just the beginning. There are lots of flaws in the Twitter user experience that are due to Twitter’s reliance on “hole fillers” that I expect they’ll start to fill. The fact that I ever have to go to http://bit.ly as part of my Twitter workflow is a bug. URL shorteners really have no reason to exist in the majority of use cases except when Twitter is sending an SMS message. Sites that exist simply as image hosting services for Twitter like Twitpic and YFrog also seem extremely superflous especially when you consider that since only power users know about them not every Twitter user is figuring out how to use the service for image sharing. I expect this will eventually become a native feature of Twitter as well. Once Twitter controls the primary mobile clients for accessing their service, it’ll actually be easier for them to make these changes since they don’t have to worry about whether 3rd party apps will support Twitter image hosting vs. Twitpic versus rolling their own ghetto solution.
The situation is made particularly tough for 3rd party developers due to Twitter’s lack of a business model as Chris Dixon points out in his post Twitter and third-party Twitter developers
Normally, when third parties try to predict whether their products will be subsumed by a platform, the question boils down to whether their products will be strategic to the platform. When the platform has an established business model, this analysis is fairly straightforward (for example, here is my strategic analysis of Google’s platform). If you make games for the iPhone, you are pretty certain Apple will take their 30% cut and leave you alone. Similarly, if you are a content website relying on SEO and Google Adsense you can be pretty confident Google will leave you alone. Until Twitter has a successful business model, they can’t have a consistent strategy and third parties should expect erratic behavior and even complete and sudden shifts in strategy.
So what might Twitter’s business model eventually be? I expect that Twitter search will monetize poorly because most searches on Twitter don’t have purchasing intent. Twitter’s move into mobile clients and hints about a more engaging website suggest they may be trying to mimic Facebook’s display ad model.
The hard question then is what opportunities will be left for developers on Twitter’s platform once the low hanging fruit has been picked by the company. Here I agree with frequent comments by Dave Winer and Robert Scoble, that there needs to be more metadata attached to tweets so that different data aggregation and search scenarios can be built which satisfy thousands of niches. I especially like what Dave Winer wrote in his post How Twitter can kill the Twitter-killers where he stated
Suppose Twitter wants to make their offering much more competitive and at the same time much more attractive to developers. Sure, as Fred Wilson telegraphed, some developers are going to get rolled over, esp those who camped out on the natural evolutionary path of the platform vendor. But there are lots of things Twitter Corp can do to create more opportunities for developers, ones that expand the scope of the platform and make it possible for a thousand flowers to bloom, a thousand valuable non-trivial flowers.
The largest single thing Twitter could do is open tweet-level metadata. If I want to write an app for dogs who tweet, let me add a "field" to a tweet called isDog, a boolean, that tells me that the author of the tweet is a dog. That way the dog food company who has a Twitter presence can learn that the tweet is from a dog, from the guy who's developing a special Twitter client just for dogs, even though Twitter itself has no knowledge of the special needs of dogs. We can also add a field for breed and age (in dog years of course). Coat type. Toy preference. A link to his or her owner. Are there children in the household?
I probably wouldn’t have used the tweeting dog example but the idea is sound. Location is an example of metadata that is added to tweets which can be used for interesting applications on top of the core news feed experience as shown by Twittervision and Bing's Twitter Maps. I think there’s an opportunity to build interesting things in this space especially if developers can invent new types of metadata without relying on Twitter to first bless new fields like they’ve had to do with location (although their current implementation is still inadequate in my opinion).
Over the next few months, Twitter will likely continue to encroach on territory which was once assumed to belong to 3rd party developers. The question is whether Twitter will replace these opportunities they’ve taken away with new opportunities or instead if they’ve simply used developers as a means to an end and now they are no longer useful?
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