Twitter Buys Tweetie, Adds Fuel to Developer Fires

Just two days after comments by Twitter investor Fred Wilson made third-party Twitter developers nervous about what the company might do, those fears have become reality: The company announced Friday that it has acquired Atebits, maker of Tweetie, one of the top Twitter apps for the iPhone. According to a post by co-founder and CEO Evan Williams on the Twitter blog, the app will be renamed Twitter for iPhone and will now be free (previously, the pro version of Tweetie cost $2.99 to download). Developer Loren Brichter said on his blog that he is joining Twitter’s mobile team and will be developing Tweetie for the iPad.

Developers and other observers immediately started analyzing the purchase as soon as the news broke. Hunch Co-founder Chris Dixon connected Fred Wilson’s comments — which the VC blogger denied were about any specific future action by the company — with the Tweetie acquisition, saying: “Wow, weird coincidence! a Twitter board member blogged about killing twitter apps the same week Twitter released/bought 2 clients!” Engadget editor Nilay Patel said that Twitter buying Tweetie was “roughly equivalent to Microsoft building it’s own WP7 phone – bye bye, ecosystem.”

Former Engadget editor and gdgt co-founder Ryan Block said: “As of today, if your app depends on Twitter for anything other than identity or content syndication, you are officially on notice.” Some developers even formed their own unofficial “union” with a Twitter hashtag — the #unionoftwitterapps, and there is plenty of discussion pro and con about the deal on a Google group for Twitter developers. Daring Fireball blogger John Gruber wrote that “there’s going to be some heavy drinking tonight from developers of other iPhone OS Twitter API clients.”

On Wednesday, a blog post by Wilson raised some hackles in the developer community because he said that some of the features third-party apps have provided, such as picture sharing and URL shortening, should have been part of Twitter to begin with. The suggestion seemed to be that Twitter would either be developing some of those itself, or possibly acquiring them, as it did when it bought Summize and renamed it Twitter Search. Some saw this process as a natural one, since companies have been acquiring third-party apps and add-ons or developing their own services that mimic external ones for years. One developer said after the fuss over the Wilson post blew up that it was totally expected, and that he supported the company’s desire to build in some of those features.

In an interview with the New York Times just before the recent controversy, Ev Williams also said that this process was inevitable, and suggested that the company might buy certain apps, and others it might simply compete with. “There’s some misunderstanding around platforms,” he said. “There’s both a natural win-win relationship between a platform provider and third-party developers, and there’s a natural tension.” He added that there are “tons of opportunities created by the Twitter platform, and things that people will probably be disappointed if they invest in. It’s a question of what should be left up to the ecosystem and what should be created on the platform.”

Clearly, having an iPhone app was crucial to what Twitter felt it needed to provide for users, as opposed to allowing a number of developers — of apps such as Tweetdeck, Twitterific and Echofon — to fill that market need. What other things will the company decide it needs to do? An official desktop app perhaps? Or maybe a URL shortener with built-in analytics, such as Bit.ly (which shares some investors with Twitter already, including Ron Conway)? And if it decides to move into these markets, will it build or buy? Nervous developers everywhere are placing their bets, and will no doubt be asking some pointed questions at next week’s Chirp conference. Loic Le Meur of Seesmic and Iain Dodsworth of Tweetdeck appear to have seen this coming and have expanded the utility of their products. Le Meur also wrote a long blog post about how he sees his app stacking up against Twitter and his view of the ecosystem.

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