As Twitter grows, developer anxieties follow suit

Tools

I still don't get Twitter. I've written extensively about the microblogging platform, analyzed it from multiple angles, listened to people much smarter than myself argue its value and importance... and the fundamental appeal still eludes me. Blame the signal-to-noise ratio--from my perspective, the meaningful, informative Twitter posts are drowned out by tweets about what Miley Cyrus bought at the mall or what Jim Carrey thinks about the Tiger Woods scandal. And I'm not the only one missing the point. Speaking this week at Twitter's first Chirp developer conference in San Francisco, co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone revealed that when consumers begin typing "I don't get..." into Google search, "I don't get Twitter" is the second leading suggestion, trailing only "I don't get drunk I get awesome."

Never mind that Twitter is adding about 300,000 new users each day and closing in on 106 million registered total users, up 1,500 percent over a year ago: "We're not getting nearly as many users started and engaged," Williams said. So Twitter will accelerate its efforts to push further into the mainstream, making a series of moves this week to expand its reach and improve its bottom line. First Twitter introduced Promoted Tweets, a much-anticipated advertising program that features ads that show up when users search for keywords tied to marketer campaigns. The program, which promises to transform Twitter from a pop-culture phenomenon into an honest-to-goodness revenue generating business, hinges on nine "resonance" factors developed to make sure users will not see ads they don't consider useful. Twitter will also add Points of Interest, a location-based feature enabling users to click on geotagged tweets to for a real-time perspective on what's happening and who's spending time in a particular place. It sounds a lot like mobile social networking services like Foursquare and Gowalla, although Williams maintains the goal is "make those services work better with Twitter... What we really care about is the content happening at that place."

But the most dramatic change impacting the Twittersphere is the evolving relationship between the company and its developer partners. Developers have long been integral to Twitter's growth--about 75 percent of traffic originates via third-party solutions outside of Twitter.com. But a week ago Twitter announced an agreement to acquire Atebits, developer of the premium Tweetie client for iPhone, which it will rename Twitter for iPhone and make available for free. Needless to say, developers are uneasy, fearing Twitter will now build more applications in-house or purchase services that bolster its overall vision, in the process making outside apps obsolete. Adding fuel to the fire is a recent blog post by Union Square Ventures principal and longtime Twitter board member Fred Wilson, who contends that the Twitter platform "is at an inflection point, much like the desktop software and hardware business was in the mid 80s as the desktop platform started to mature... I think the time for filling the holes in the Twitter service has come and gone."

Williams addressed developer concerns during his Chirp keynote, explaining the thought process behind the Atebits deal. "I know this was a controversial decision to many people because there were other Twitter apps on this platform," he said according to a Wall Street Journal report. "There are fantastic companies and we love the innovation happening there. But when we did the research we found we were really under-serving our users. We had to have a core experience on major (mobile) platforms just like we have to have one on the web." Twitter execs attempted to assuage developer anxieties by suggesting areas where they should focus their efforts, among them location services, gaming, analytics and emerging markets. But it's clear developers should remain on their toes: During a question-and-answer session, Williams said Twitter would not rule out hosting media content like videos and photos, the basis of multiple third-party Twitter apps--"I can't guarantee we won't host media, though that's not on our roadmap this quarter," he said.

Which means it's time for Twitter developers to get creative, and design applications and services that feel completely different from what's already dominating the platform. Twitter is a serious business now, but it's still wide open for innovation. The sheer volume of new users coming aboard each day--and the hundreds of millions of users still on the outside looking in--underlines the massive opportunity for new experiences. Who knows--maybe there's even a Twitter app that convinces me to see the light. -Jason