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Twitter finally launched its new mobile platform — known as Fabric — at a special conference for developers this week, and the details were more or less identical to what The Information reported earlier this month: Fabric is a suite of tools that includes mobile analytics, a way for apps to hook themselves into Twitter’s mobile advertising network MoPub, and a social-login feature called Digits that uses your phone number instead of a password.
That description makes it sound fairly prosaic, but this is more than just a peace offering to developers who were burned by the company’s earlier scorched-earth approach to its third-party ecosystem — Fabric is nothing less than Twitter’s attempt to reinvent itself as a mobile services company.
It’s not so much that Twitter is abandoning the idea of being a social network or information conduit, but more that it is trying to hedge its bets to some extent by building a platform akin to Google’s or perhaps even Apple’s: one that will integrate its tools into an entire marketplace of apps and services, and thereby give it a potential future apart from just the tweet-o-sphere.
Being a platform is where the money is
This move makes a lot of sense for a number of reasons. Some would argue that the growth of Twitter’s actual social network has been somewhat underwhelming, for one thing — at least as far as the stock market is concerned, since the shares are almost 50 percent lower than they were after the IPO — and engagement numbers have also been lower than expected. It is growing and generating ad revenue, but it is not a Facebook-style blockbuster by any means.
The other reason why Twitter’s move to sell developers on its suite of tools makes sense is that the potential value of such a platform — particularly a mobile one — is theoretically much greater than the value of simply selling sponsored tweets or other forms of advertising on Twitter’s existing network.
If Twitter can manage to convince enough mobile developers and service providers to adopt its MoPub network and its Digits login feature, then it could create a network of clients that would act as a kind of force multiplier for its own advertising efforts, and generate an additional source of revenue. And it could create a kind of lifeboat the company could use as well, if Twitter’s own growth continues to slow. It would become a platform, with the actual Twitter network being just one part of that platform.
So becoming a platform makes a lot of sense for Twitter — but does it make as much sense for app and service providers? In other words, is the prospect of analytics and an ad network and simplified login enough to convince them to integrate themselves so deeply with Twitter? And who will gain more from this arrangement, the app companies or the platform that Twitter is creating?
The drunk guy with the Uzi
Those questions are why Twitter’s earlier scorched-earth policy towards its ecosystem is so important — much more than just some historical tiff with a few app developers — and a big part of the reason why some are skeptical of Twitter’s new-found interest in being a platform. Access to Crashlytics data and the MoPub network and Digits login sounds great, but how many are going to see these the same way Hansel and Gretel should have seen the witch’s cookies and treats: that is, a mouth-watering offering that is just a prelude to a nasty end?
Marco Arment, the creator of apps like Instapaper and Overcast and the co-founder of Tumblr, has made it clear that he doesn’t have any interest in working with Twitter, nor does he think anyone else in their right mind should do so:
If I had to pick a company to have absolute power over something very important, Twitter wouldn’t be very high on the list… Twitter will never, and should never, have any credibility with developers again. Enjoy it while it lasts, but be ready for it to disappear at any moment.
The company and its advisors have argued (and continue to argue) that Twitter was forced to act the way it did towards its developers — behavior that Andreessen Horowitz partner Chris Dixon referred to at one point as being “like a drunk guy with an Uzi” — because people like Bill Gross were using its API to compete with the company, and so they had to lock everything down and shut people off. In other words, self-preservation was the motive, nothing more.
Is Twitter ready to be a real partner?
I have no doubt that Twitter’s vision of what happened has some truth to it: the company and its backers felt threatened, and Twitter also felt considerable pressure to seize control over the ecosystem so that it could generate enough value to justify the billions that VCs had put into the company.
That said, however, the transition from being a wide-open platform to being a closed and locked garden happened so quickly, and was handled so badly, that it sent a message that Twitter probably didn’t want to send: namely, that Twitter would never need outside developers (apart from a tiny number of preferred partners), and moreover that it didn’t recognize any value that those third-party apps or services had created for the network, or their role in its growth and prosperity.
Has Twitter changed to the point where it now cares about those outside apps and their potential to help the network grow? Or does it just see the platform model as the quickest route to bolstering its financial fortunes, and developers as the fuel? Because one sounds like a partnership and the other sounds like a deal in which Twitter gains, but its alleged partners potentially lose.
For the company’s sake, I hope that it has changed, and that it is willing to be a good partner rather than just an all-consuming API hoarder. But it is going to have to try hard to prove that — cute feature names are nice, but they aren’t enough to erase the picture of Twitter as a rapacious dictator, one that is willing to cut off external players without a second’s thought in order to preserve its own needs.