Did Twitter Just Give Client Developers the Bird?

Last week Twitter updated the Terms of Use on their API and Ryan Sarver, one of Twitter’s top API guys, issued a very interesting statement that immediately lit a fire under developers and bloggers in the tech world.

Keep reading to see what Twitter said, whether it’s as serious as everyone thinks it is, and why it just may be the case that Twitter is screwing over the very group of people that made it what it is today.

What Did Twitter Say?

Essentially, the folks at Twitter claim that there is a significant problem with user confusion surrounding third party Twitter clients. Supposedly, there are far too many clients that “display tweets in a way that doesn’t follow our design guidelines” says Sarver.

To battle this, Twitter wants to boldly establish themselves as the place to go for the standard Twitter experience:

“Twitter will provide the primary mainstream consumer client experience on phones, computers, and other devices by which millions of people access Twitter content (tweets, trends, profiles, etc.), and send tweets.”

In and even bolder statement, Sarver went on to literally tell developers not to build run of the mill Twitter clients that mimic the functionality of Twitter’s own series of apps:

“developers ask us if they should build client apps that mimic or reproduce the mainstream consumer client experience. The answer is no.”

Twitter History 101

You read that right, Twitter just made an official statement telling the developer community that it doesn’t want anyone developing apps that mimic the “mainstream” Twitter experience.

If you’re unsure as to why this is a serious slap in the face, it’s time to take a brief history lesson about a community of amazing developers without whom Twitter would be very different.

Pre-Celebrity Twitter

Once upon a time, far before Ashton Kutcher made it cool to tweet, Twitter was a quirky little web-only service with a handful of users. Very few people understood the premise, even fewer actually stuck around to engage in the service on a daily or even weekly basis.

Even though the user base was a fraction of what it was now, the growth that was happening was far too much for the company to handle. The infrastructure scaled horribly and we all became far too familiar with the infamous “fail whale.”

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Twitter's Fail Whale was spotted daily not so long ago

When you were able to access the web client, what you found was a little bit of information in a very large browser window. The user experience wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t anything great either.

When third party developers came on the scene, Twitter transformed completely, sure the service still failed all the time but the amazing apps kept us interested. Suddenly this little community wasn’t bound to a browser window but could float in a cozy little app on our desktops to be interacted with at a moment’s notice and then hidden again just as quickly.

Third Party Innovation

Early on in the third party client game, the real innovation in the Twitter world wasn’t coming from Twitter itself but these intrepid developers, rolling out extremely efficient interfaces and unique features.

The third party developers kept a close eye on how users interacted with the platform and were in a heated competition to come up with the best ideas. For instance, third party apps instituted “RT” buttons long before Twitter integrated the official ReTweet system we know now. Other features such as multi-account support, syncing across devices and inline images have been present in third party apps for years but are still no where to be seen in Twitter’s web client.

Can’t Beat ‘Em, Buy ‘Em

By 2010, Twitter was getting beat at it’s own game. Just about every client on the market offered a better experience than Twitter’s web view, and their own foray into the app world was embarrassingly bad. The official Twitter iPhone app was little more than the lackluster mobile site wrapped in an Objective C shell.

Twitter came to grips with this fact and made their first decisive strike against its adoring developer community: they found the best Twitter client on the iPhone and bought it. Tweetie from AteBits wasn’t only the best iPhone client around, it was also the best Mac application. Rockstar designer/developer Loren Brichter had taken the best features from all of the scattered clients that came before him, improved them and placed them into buttery smooth interfaces that still continue to influence app design across all sorts of categories (check out Sparrow for Mac and the latest Evernote for iPhone).

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Twitter Acquired AteBits to get their claws on Tweetie

Twitter has since rebranded all Tweetie products with the Twitter name. Further, they rolled out a gorgeous new iPad app followed by a brand new web interface, both of which borrowed heavily from the work of the third party developer community.

Twitter’s Slight of Hand

Do you see what happened here? Let’s briefly go through that one more time. Twitter creates a great product and invites outside developers to join in the fun. These developers come up with amazing ideas, vastly improve the Twitter experience and virtually beat out any UI that Twitter has ever come up with.

Then, Twitter steals these ideas from the developer community, slaps their own brand on them and issues a statement telling the developers that their poorly made applications are ruining the Twitter experience so they should focus on building “innovative” products that don’t mimic the core Twitter functionality (because that innovation route worked out real well for the last round of developers).

Too Bad for the Little Guy

Many are claiming that Twitter’s statement has been blown out of proportion. The company is genuinely working with some of the larger developers to ensure their continued success. But I say Twitter is still being a bully, not to mention making a poor long-term business decision.

Twitter’s list of “approved” avenues to pursue mostly focuses on the CRM and enterprise angle. Was Tweetie a product aimed at making Twitter more useful for corporate America? No, it was an awesome little Twitter clone from a tiny software company.

Guys like Loren Brichter are where Twitter’s innovation comes from, but Twitter is intent on stomping them out of existence. Long-established Twitter clients for the Mac and iPhone are dropping like flies, meanwhile, Twitter smiles in its success as it tries to screw up its purchased and formerly awesome iPhone client with an advertising bar that receives so much backlash from the community that it had to be immediately revamped.

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Tweetmate for Mac, one of many abandoned Twitter projects

Should Twitter be trusting itself with the future of Twitter? Do they really understand their user base as well as hundreds of nerds in their bedroom offices building one-off clients out of a genuine love for the platform? I’m not so sure.

Further, it’s a fact that Twitter has its eye on the enterprise world. It’s a powerful market and may be the only way that they can actually find a way to be profitable. So who will crack this nut? Will Twitter allow awesome products like HootSuite to continue forever or will they wait and watch for the best strategy to arise before mimicking it, thereby pulling the same stunt with this developer community as it did with the core functionality developer group?

Conclusion

To sum up, no matter how he meant it, Sarver’s comments cut the developer community deep and only served to confirm suspicions that arose the day Twitter purchased AteBits: Twitter wants blood. They want the small stream of inconsistent Twitter apps to be wiped off the map. They want everyone who uses Twitter on every platform to go through their approved solutions. In short, they’re turning the Twitter application free market into a totalitarian regime.

To be completely transparent, I currently use and love Twitter for Mac, iPhone and iPad. These are my primary methods of accessing the service. However, I’m not naive enough to ignore the fact that a huge portion of what I love about these apps came from the third party developer community, not from Twitter itself. I firmly believe that by regulating that third party market too tightly, Twitter is squelching future innovation that would legitimately improve the service. The future Loren Brichters just threw in the towel and decided to develop anything but Twitter apps.

Leave a comment below with your opinions. Have I gone overboard here with some contrived conspiracy theory or has Twitter genuinely violated the trust of its own community?