There have been rumours for some time that Twitter might want to step back into the ecosystem game, by partnering with third-party developers and app companies. The Information has the latest take — an in-depth report on the details of the proposed platform and what it would allow developers to do. The only question now is whether Twitter can convince developers that it won’t later undermine them and cut off their ability to access the network or make a living, as it has so in the past.
As Amir Efrati notes in his piece, Twitter more or less torched its reputation with developers when it started shutting down services, cutting off API access, duplicating the functionality offered by third-party apps and otherwise nuking the ecosystem it had built up. As one developer put it, Twitter “massively damaged their developer ecosystem and breached developer trust.”
It might seem like a long time ago, since Twitter has grown dramatically since then — including an initial public stock offering that has given it a $30-billion market value — but what some developers called the “ecosystem crackdown” was only a few years ago, and much of it occurred under current CEO Dick Costolo. Former startup founder and now Andreessen Horowitz partner Chris Dixon said at the time that Twitter was like “a drunk guy with an Uzi.”
From ecosystem to wasteland
In the early days of the company, third-party apps and services that hooked into the network were not only tolerated but were crucial to its growth — in part because its own apps and website were so terrible, and because other apps and services were adding functionality that Twitter either didn’t have the ability to add or couldn’t spend time on, because it was busy trying to keep the network from going down.
In fact, Twitter held an open house for developers called Chirp in 2011 that was designed to be very much like Facebook’s F8 events: in other words, an open invitation to partner with the company and design apps and services to work on its platform.
Not long after that conference, however, co-founder and CEO Evan Williams was ousted from the company, and its previously open attitude to outside development started to change — as both Twitter and its venture investors realized that the company needed to control as much of the utility of the network as possible in order to monetize it through things like advertising. Venture backer Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures later argued that the company was simply too open to survive.
The great API crackdown
The company and its board were also struck by what one investor described to me as a “Holy S*** moment,” which occurred when Bill Gross — the Idealab founder who came up with the idea for pay-per-click advertising before Google did — began buying up Twitter clients like UberMedia, and made a play for Tweetdeck, the power user’s tool. It looked as though Gross was planning to build an ad network on top of Twitter, using API access as the bridge, and then monetize it himself.
So Twitter shut down Gross’s access with its kill switch, arranged to acquire Tweetdeck itself, and began closing off as many routes into the network as possible. Third-party apps were restricted, and the company came out with a blog post that included a sinister-looking chart that was supposed to indicate which apps were “in the clear” and which needed to watch their backs.
The Information talks about the features that Twitter’s new partnership platform will offer, including app analytics and a way to plug in to its mobile ad network in order to monetize, and it’s possible that these will be enough to convince some larger players to play ball (Twitter is said to be talking with ESPN and King.com). But anyone one who remembers the bloodbath of 2011 and 2012 is going to be somewhat cautious to say the least — or should be.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user / Abysim