Twitter “Screwed Up” With Developers, Founder Says

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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