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Summary:

Twitter co-founder and former CEO Evan Williams admits the company “screwed up” its relationship with third-party developers in the past, and told Web 2.0 Summit attendees today this happened mostly because the startup didn’t originally plan to become a platform company.

Twitter founder Evan Williams

Twitter founder Evan Williams

Like a teenager apologizing to his parents for having a party and breaking the furniture, Twitter co-founder and former CEO Evan Williams admitted today that the company “screwed up” its relationship with third-party developers, and says that happened mostly because the startup didn’t originally plan to become a platform company. Now that it’s actually trying to be a platform, Williams — who has taken over the company’s product development strategy — says that Twitter will continue to try to provide opportunities for developers, but isn’t ruling out moving into any current Twitter-related service or feature area, with the possible exception of gaming.

Williams, who recently stepped down as CEO and was replaced by former chief operating officer Dick Costolo, told the crowd at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco that Twitter originally released an API — which allows developers to integrate their apps and services with the network — because “we thought it would be neat,” and lots of other web companies had them. But as the company grew, it realized that it needed to fill some of the holes in its feature set, and that led to the purchase of Tweetie and triggered some bad feeling in the developer community. “We’ve learned a lot about having an ecosystem and working with third-party developers and we’ve screwed up a lot of that,” he said.

Twitter has continued adding features, said Williams, and plans to keep on doing so regardless of whether other companies are already providing services or apps that have those features. For example, Williams confirmed that Twitter launched an analytics-focused service today, which provides data from the 100 million or so tweets that are published on the network every day to a small group of partners (and has also caused some consternation). But the former CEO said the company wants to ensure the platform it’s building also has plenty of opportunities for outside companies and startups. “We need to keep evolving Twitter, but we also need to keep providing new opportunities for developers,” he said. Williams added:

We launched Twitter sort of as a Model T — it was very basic, but was popular, and it got people excited, and a swarm of developers came in and made it better in the after-market, and that was great [because] it increased demand for the Model T and we could focus on increasing production… but gradually we realized that wasn’t really serving users as much as we should.

Williams also said the demand for the company’s ad-related services — such as “promoted tweets” and “promoted trends” — has been far greater than the startup has been able to satisfy, and most of the advertisers who’ve tried these features have come back again. These monetization efforts have “done better even than we expected,” he told interviewer John Battelle. The company also gets revenue from deals it signed with Microsoft, Google and Yahoo to provide the full Twitter “firehose” of data for their search engines, and today announced a similar deal to provide half of the firehose to Gnip, a company that will be reselling the data to outside analytics providers.

In response to a question from the audience about Twitter empowering people to publish and act as journalists, Williams — who founded Blogger and later sold it to Google — said “lowering the barrier to publishing” has been something he has spent most of his career on, because he believes “the open exchange of information has a positive effect on the world — it’s not all positive, but net-net it is positive.” With Twitter, he said, “we’ve lowered the barriers to publishing almost as far as they can go,” which is good because if there are “more voices and more ways to find the truth, then the truth will be available to more people — I think this is what the Internet empowers [but] society has not fully realized what this means.”

Battelle asked the Twitter founder about rumors that Russian holding company Mail.ru might be leading a large new financing round that would value the company at more than $3 billion, but Williams refused to comment, saying only, “we have a lot of money in the bank” already.

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Photo courtesy of James Duncan Davidson/O’Reilly Media, Inc.

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  1. Glenn Joseph Pingry Wednesday, November 17, 2010

    I’m floored at the fact that its been months since I’ve had my HTCEVO4G since day one in June! I’ve been complaining about not having full use of my phones capabilitys!! It has a FRIEND STREAM on HTC PEEP that was updating Twitter and Facebook at same time now its been screwed up for 6months!!! It only updates Facebook and then screws up again!!! Please tell me that this will be fixed ASAP!!!!!

  2. “because “we thought it would be neat,” and lots of other web companies had them”

    Nice to see the admission, but this would be pretty naive reasoning considering Ev’s deep experience in developing web companies. Something tells me when the early employees start writing books they’re going to be interesting.

  3. Mail.ru and Milner will certainly buy Twitter, and spoil it more. I bet.

  4. Frankly, I don’t know what he’s talking about. I’ve only had good experiences developing against the Twitter API.

    If there’s one company that treats developers terribly, it’s Facebook. Critical feature-breaking bugs take over a year to be addressed, apps get shut down because of undisclosed limits and once that happens you can forget to ever get in touch with anyone.

    The story above rings nothing but Facebook to me: a company that doesn’t take its responsibility as a platform seriously and hasn’t kept up with its growth.

    1. That’s interesting, Joris — Facebook is usually seen as the one who treats its developers better than Twitter. Thanks for the comment.

      1. Joris is right , I think one of the main reason why twitter become popular is their API is very very neat & all of them work.
        Thats why we see twitter client in all size , shape & forms. I dont know what William was thinking.

      2. Joris is very right.
        Except for the Snowflake issue, but they advertised on that in advance, which Facebook seldom does.

  5. Hope Twitter stays the way they are, and don’t try to become the next MySpace or something worse.

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    [...] to Biz Stone so you can stop right there). He said about Twitter’s relationship with developers, as reported by GigaOM Like a teenager apologizing to his parents for having a party and breaking the furniture, Twitter [...]

  7. but i feel is there is still time to catch up…don’t see any twitter rival in the coming..

  8. Its Seems its Facebook that doesnt want to play with anyone
    Williams also noted that Twitter is in talks with Facebook about ways in which the two companies could cooperate. He expressed frustration that Facebook has blocked Twitter from integrating its service in the world’s most popular social networking site. That means Facebook users can’t see which of their friends are also on Twitter. http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/technology/2010/11/twitter-co-founder-evan-williams-we-have-a-lot-of-money-in-the-bank.html

  9. Twitter seems to have gone hunting to kill off third party developers and take back any parts of Twitter that developers found ways to monetize. Saying sorry now is kind of late, don’t you think?

    1. I’m not sure that’s true, Don. Yes, they bought a mobile client, and they have launched their own URL shortener, but there are still lots of Twitter-related tools, apps and services out there that seem to be doing fine.

  10. At the end of the day, what I’m curious about is what it means that so many people want to use Twitter as an ad platform.

    It’s good Silicon Valley gossip to talk about whether developers should rightfully feel scorn or not, but if companies want to have their names sponsored on twitter feeds, this indicates to me either a broadening of the multimedia platform currently hogged by newspapers and online video, or a transition away from reliance on newspapers and video as ad channels.

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  12. It’s good to see Ev getting educated about the needs of Twitter API developers. What he needs to do is realize that “opportunity” is spelled “dollars”. You will know that Twitter has finally found a formula for success when they make it easy for developers to make money. This goes beyond just getting a cut of ad revenue. That is important for publishers who use the API. A twitter app marketplace would be a good start.

    1. Great point, Adam — despite the comments up above about Facebook and the API, what I have heard is that developers like to work with Facebook because it makes it easy for them to make money, whereas Twitter does not.

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    [...] Twitter “Screwed Up” With Developers, Founder Says: Tech News « [...]

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