In a blog post outlining the altered rules--requirements for users of the upcoming 1.1 version of the Twitter API--consumer products director Michael Sippey justified the pending changes as necessary to prevent malicious use of Twitter, to limit demand on Twitter's computational resources, and to limit development of applications that duplicate functions Twitter now wants to control--traditional Twitter clients and syndication of Twitter content.
Prominent developers characterized the shift differently. "Twitter's rules continue to tighten to permit developers to add value to Twitter (mostly 'Share on Twitter' features) but not get nearly as much out of it (e.g., piggyback on the social graph, display timelines, analyze aggregate data)," wrote Marco Arment, creator of Instapaper, in a blog post. "...[I]f I were in the Twitter-client business, I'd start working on another product."
In his analysis of the changes, Arment observed that Twitter is limiting how tweets can be embedded and displayed. Mixing tweet text with other information or display elements appears to be prohibited.
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While this may appear to be an issue that affects only a handful of programmers who have written apps that interact with Twitter, Twitter's actions will have a broad impact on Twitter users: Many third-party Twitter apps will disappear or be forced to remove the functionality that differentiates them from official Twitter software. Twitter has in effect outlawed innovation, except in a narrow, approved range of activity.
Sippey actually calls out several third-party websites and apps that will need to be modified to survive: Echofon, Favstar.fm, Storify, and Tweetbot. Arment says he will need to rewrite Instapaper's "Liked By Friends" browsing feature to comply with the new rules. Other popular services that interact with Twitter data, like IFTTT.com, may also be affected.
Twitter believes these changes are necessary to help it become a profitable, sustainable business. And the company may be right, despite the outcry. Other companies, notably Apple, have imposed wide-ranging restrictions on developers and yet managed to sustain a thriving ecosystem. At the same time, Google, more permissive with its developers, has had to work harder to make Android and the Chrome Web Store appealing as platforms. Perhaps developers do their best work under regimes they resent.
But Twitter could end up promoting the growth of a competitor, App.net, which recently managed to raise over $800,000 in a crowd-based funding drive powered by dissatisfaction with existing social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
In a recent open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg--provocative enough to get attention from the blogosphere (which no doubt helped the App.net funding drive) and prescient in light of the revised Twitter API rules--App.net creator Dalton Caldwell attempted to differentiate his approach to creating a healthy platform for developers. "Your company, and Twitter, have demonstrably proven that they are willing to screw with users and 3rd-party developer ecosystems, all in the name of ad revenue. Once you start down the slippery slope of messing with developers and users, I don't have any confidence you will stop."
Entrepreneur and technologist Nova Spivack argued that Twitter can make more money by relaxing its API rules rather than tightening them.
"The future market cap of the company will ultimately be orders of magnitude greater if they are stewards of the open nervous system of the planet (with the exclusive right to charge everyone tolls) than if they are the next MySpace trying to sell ads on their own pages and apps," Spivack wrote in a blog post. "It's really that simple."
As Twitter insiders reflect on Facebook's fumbled IPO and subsequent stock decline, they see what could become of their own companies. Facebook's woes have affected the private market for Twitter shares and the preparation for an eventual Twitter IPO. A strong revenue stream seems like insurance against disaster, but Twitter may be underestimating the price of driving developers away, particularly if users follow.
Writing apps is expensive and complex. Cross-platform tools can help, but they're far from perfect. Also in the new, all-digital Develop Once, Run Everywhere? issue of InformationWeek: Why the cloud will become a more accepted development environment. (Free with registration.)