Developers must do better than plug holes in social media services.
Holes are revenue drains for such platforms, and they're likely to be
filled in house.Source: Flickr user daniel_gies
The biggest web-related news by far this week was a lovers’ quarrel. But it wasn’t two people fighting, it was a company and its developer community. The company was Twitter, and the battle was over the future of the Twitter “ecosystem,” the stable of third-party applications and related services that have grown up around the company since it was founded in 2006. The tiff is in many ways a replay of tensions in developer vs. company relationships that have ebbed and flowed virtually since Silicon Valley began.
The fight started with some comments in a blog post by Twitter investor and venture capitalist Fred Wilson, and escalated through the week, culminating in the company’s acquisition of Atebits, the maker of the Tweetie app for the iPhone. Wilson’s post triggered a blowback from developers because the VC suggested that instead of relying on third parties to provide search and photo sharing and other features, Twitter “really should have had all of that when it launched, or it should have built those services right into the Twitter experience.”
The implication, some felt, was that Twitter was going to either buy up or compete with many of the third-party apps and services that are out there. And just a day or two later, the purchase of Tweetie confirmed those fears. While it was great for the developer of that particular app, as at least one blogger pointed out, it was seen by some as practically a death knell for developers of other iPhone apps such as Twitterific and Echofon, who weren’t selected to be the chosen one. A New York Times interview with Twitter CEO and Co-founder Evan Williams, added fuel to the fire; in it Williams said Twitter would continue to buy or develop apps and features, even if third-party developers already provide them, “because they should be there.”
So has Twitter declared war on its third-party app ecosystem? Not quite.
Both Fred Wilson and Williams said that there are still plenty of opportunities for developers to add value to the platform. As the Twitter co-founder told the Times: “there’s a whole bunch of other stuff that we’re not interested in doing or have no plans to, and that presents a greater opportunity than filling these gaps.” Wilson described several areas that he saw potential for apps to add to what Twitter already does, including 1) social gaming apps similar to what Zynga and others have developed for the Facebook platform; 2) market-specific apps and services such as Stocktwits has built; 3) enterprise-specific apps similar to CoTweet; 4) discovery-related apps such as Tweetmeme, Hunch, MrTweet and others; and 5) analytical tools and services similar to Radian6, Hubspot and Scout Labs.
The clear implication was that if developers choose to focus on those types of areas, they would likely see more success than just “filling the holes” in Twitter’s feature list. The specifics of how Twitter sees those features developing, and which niches or markets it wants to dominate vs. outsource, will no doubt be the subject of considerable discussion at the company’s Chirp conference this week, which Liz Gannes will be covering for GigaOM.
The bottom line is that Twitter is far from unique — there is always tension between a company, particularly one that wants to be a social-media platform, and developers of third-party apps. The tension in that relationship, over what the company wants to do vs. what developers think they have done better, is a fact of life. Some apps and services will get acquired and some will disappear, having learned a valuable lesson: When you are building something that depends on someone else’s product or service, you need to go in with your eyes wide open, and provide something that extends the product, not just a “hole-filler.”