March 15, 2011

In Semi-Defense of Twitter

There's been a lot of hullabaloo about Twitter recently telling developers of client apps that, like, maybe client apps aren't a smart business model for them, as Twitter is going to be making client apps and (one might assume) crushing off third-party clients either through force or inertia.

I've read a bunch of opinions of people who feel betrayed by Twitter. Gruber, for instance, has banged the gong very loudly and linked to this article, in which Twitter claims their interest is in making sure that users have a "consistent" experience with Twitter across platforms. Taking Twitter's statement at face value, it's kind of hilarious Gruber would come out against this, since he's the prime press spokesman for Apple's curated approach to apps, where "consistent" is also used as the catch-all buzzword.

But I don't take Twitter's statement at face value. Honestly, I think what it means is, "Hey, guy, we've been providing a free service for five years, and now we need to make money off it. And if that involves us selling advertising on the clients instead of you doing so, well, you're going to get hurt."

That's a hard thing to hear for developers who have written Twitter clients. Some of these guys are my friends, and my heart goes out to them, it does. But, seriously, the value of Twitter is that it's a huge network of people who are posting all kinds of interesting things. If you write a client that accesses this data for free, and then you find a way to monetize your client (ads or sales), well, you have to expect maybe Twitter is going to want this money, right?

Yes, you can argue that great clients have been beneficial to Twitter's growth and development. Certainly I used Twitterific exclusively until very recently. But (a) it's not as though I wouldn't have used Twitter without Twitterific, and (b) it's still hard to argue that Twitter should continue making, like, NO money off Twitter while Twitter client makes continue making SOME money.

I know whereof I speak. My first project on Cocoa, in 1989, was a Usenet news reader, which I gave away, just to build my reputation. An Apple tech guy also wrote a newsreader a little bit later, thus sparking a rivalry between us. I was kind of pissed, honestly, that someone would compete with me and steal "my" market, especially when there were so many apps out there waiting to be written. But, you, being the impartial observer, are probably thinking, "Uh, it wasn't 'your' market. The value came from Usenet." Yes. You're right.

Over the years I've also written a web browser and a mail client and an image viewer and a PDF interpreter and other applications that use someone else's content and let the user interact with it on a new platform. And, while I made sure I got paid in each instance, I did not begrudge, say, Apple, when they decided to include PDF viewing in the core of Mac OS X. (Full disclosure: in that case they licensed it from me, so I got paid again.) Nor have you heard me utter a negative peep when Apple decided to build Safari, after my company had been the only web browser on their platform for years and years. (Again, to be fair, Apple first approached us about licensing our web client, and I believe our management made the wrong decision not doing it.)

And, to address the elephant in the room: Delicious Monster's current application, Delicious Library, uses Amazon database back-end to look up items. This provides a lot of value to Delicious Library. But in this case, we felt like we were safe, because we include lots of links inside Delicious Library for people to buy related items on Amazon, and we drive hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of sales their way. So, we figured squirting a couple bits our way should be well worth it for them. Also, there are other sources of information out there (although up to now none seemed as complete as Amazon), which is unlike Twitter – right now, there aren't other Twitter networks.

But when Amazon's terms of use forced us to withdraw our Delicious Library for iPhone app from the market, yah, I was upset. Because they get paid by people using our apps, but also because I felt this was bad business for them.

I never, however, used the words "they owe us" with regards to Amazon. When I spoke with Bezos on the issue, I said, "Look, here are the reasons I think this is a bad business decision for your company." And I pointed out that a mobile version of my app will only make money for Amazon, and that if he is too strict with access to his database, then someone else will come along and create a more lenient database, and Amazon will lose their enviable position of controlling the standard. [And, in fact, we're starting to see this happen already – Google now has a database that is searchable by UPC that has even more items (in our tests) than Amazon, albeit with less data on each item right now.]

I found out that some people had been approaching Amazon about Delicious Library and yelling and screaming and telling them they suck. And I apologized for those people, because honestly it is Amazon's decision to make, and yelling and screaming and telling people they suck doesn't tend to get results.

So do I think Twitter is wise to cut off third-party clients? Hell, I don't know.

Do I wish Twitter would just say, "Hey, guys, we're going to find a way to make money on our network, which is costing us a fortune, and if we happen to put you out of business, well, that's going to be tough for you?" Yes.

Do I think it's helpful to yell and scream and call Twitter traitors for not supporting their clients? Well, no.

Twitter clients are using a data feed that Twitter provided for free. Twitter's feed is obviously the valuable part of this equation. Twitter provided not just the content on the feed, but also the bandwidth, for free. Each new client costs Twitter actual money. Twitter isn't PBS. How do they make money?

Sure, one can reasonably argue Twitter should have figured out a way to make money a while ago. But, it's just as reasonable to say client-makers should have noticed Twitter isn't making money, and realized that something, somewhere, was going to have to change.

If Twitter does decide to pull their feed from third parties, well, it might not be good for Twitter, but I think you're hard-pressed to call it "evil" when a company does something really nice, for free, for five years, even if they suddenly decide to stop. And hopefully client-makers have, like, made money off their clients already, otherwise THEY messed up.

* Note that Twitter isn't a public company, so nobody knows exactly how much they make or spend, but they do say they make some money selling bulk feeds large companies.
** Full disclosure also requires that I mention I consider Twitter founder Evan Williams a friend, which may color my perceptions of his company. I have intentionally not spoken to him on this issue, however.

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