When reports first surfaced of Twitter’s new, ambitious plan to win over app developers with a set of tools called Fabric, the outcry was immediate. Few had forgotten the Twitter Wars of 2011, which culminated in the company restricting its API in 2012 to the detriment of many who had built companies and products on top of Twitter data. Rightfully so, people wondered whether developers could trust Twitter again.
Fabric is now out in the wild and developers aren’t fleeing from Twitter in terror. I spoke with seven app creators and engineers and they all told me more or less the same thing – they see Twitter’s 2012 API crackdown as being an entirely different issue from their current reality. They’re more focused on whether Fabric moves the needle forward for signing up users, retaining them, and making money. Those are the real issues at hand.
“If this product is meaningful in any of these categories then developers will be on board,” Anish Acharya, the founder of Google Ventures-backed messaging aggregation app Snowball, told me. “No one in this ecosystem has the luxury of being philosophical.” Given the difficulty of breaking through app store noise and making an impact, mobile developers have to use any tool they can get, even those coming from less trustworthy entities.
Of course, aside from just ethical issues with Twitter’s past actions, there are business considerations for apps to worry about. With Fabric, could Twitter kill companies the way it did in 2012?
Anand Iyer, Chief Product Officer at eBay-like fashion startup Threadflip, doesn’t think so. He pointed out that unlike Twitter’s API, the Fabric products are all replaceable (if you missed the Fabric news and need a rundown on said products, read this). “If Twitter said tomorrow (app analytics product) Crashlytics is going away, that would suck for a lot of developers,” Iyer said. “But they would move onto something else. It’s not critical to the business.”
Is Fabric a revolutionary new platform for developers? Not exactly.
Two thirds of Fabric’s offerings aren’t new — it’s technology that exists elsewhere, although Twitter has made implementing its version very easy. Both ad exchange MoPub and bug reporting technology Crashlytics are competing with other offerings, like ad marketplace Axonix and bug testing software HockeyApp. If an app company is already integrated with competing services, they’re unlikely to switch. For example, Threadflip is happy using the HockeyApp for its analytics and Iyer told me, “[Fabric] didn’t seem out of the gate like anything that we could use.”
Twitter’s platform is more likely to attract future developers, ones who haven’t yet built their product, then convert existing players who have already picked their ad exchange and app analytics tools.
Digits, the free feature for enabling phone number login, is the only truly unique tool in the Fabric arsenal. It’s a product that no one else has. The developers I spoke with said it was “interesting” and “compelling,” but weren’t quite ready to make the leap.
[pullquote person=”” attribution=”Anand Iyer, Chief Product Officer, Threadflip”]”[Fabric] didn’t seem out of the gate like anything that we could use.”[/pullquote]
“It’s a good mechanism for confirming a phone number,” Jim Patterson, founder of enterprise messaging app Cotap, told me. “We’re thinking about using it.”
But Cotap doesn’t want to integrate Digits until the product has become more established. Unlike Crashlytics or MoPub, Digits could really screw over app companies if it didn’t last. “If Twitter lets it die on the vine, then you’re forced to rewrite your authentication…” Patterson trailed off, as if imagining the horror. Migrating users over to a new form of login would be a nightmare.
Not everyone thinks phone numbers are the best way to do user sign in. “It feels like a bigger deal to give a phone number for a service like ours than to give an email,” Threadflip’s Iyer said. “Users might ask, ‘What are they going to do with that number? Will they send me texts?’ That worry starts to arrive.”
The risk might be worth it for companies going international. Phone number authentication is sometimes the only way to identify users in developing countries who don’t have email addresses or social logins. Since almost everyone has a phone, Digits gives apps a free way to grow their user base abroad.
What do the 2012 API victims think?
For all the developers I spoke with, Fabric was a mixed bag. It wasn’t necessarily a slam dunk, given that the tools it offers, by and large, already existed. If app creators were already happy with their current solutions they’re not going to make the effort to switch. But that doesn’t mean companies won’t consider adopting parts of Fabric in the future, particularly if Twitter builds must-have features.
More importantly, and surprisingly, developers by-and-large weren’t worried about Twitter burning them down the line. They don’t think the API tragedy of 2012 will repeat itself. “There’s people chattering about it because it’s something to talk about,” Snowball’s Acharya said. “But it was a totally different situation.”
[pullquote person=”” attribution=”Anish Acharya, Founder, Snowball”]”It was a totally different situation.”[/pullquote]
Of course, the people I spoke with are specifically mobile app developers – which Fabric is targeting. They don’t represent the swathe of people affected in 2012, who were primarily web clients making tweets more readable, like Twitterific, Tweetbot, Flipboard, Favstar.fm, and Hootsuite. I reached out to hear these companies’ thoughts on Twitter’s latest attempt to woo developers. Unfortunately, almost none of them got back to me.
The one company I did hear from, Iconfactory (maker of Twitterific), echoed the thoughts of the mobile app developers I did speak with. “Twitter’s current development efforts don’t really apply to 3rd party Twitter developers like ourselves, nor do they excite us at all,” co-founder Gedeon Maheux said in an email.
There are developers out there who feel differently of course. Two days before the official Fabric announcement at Twitter’s Flight developer conference, Instapaper creator Marco Arment penned an impassioned post on exactly that issue. He said:
Maybe they’ll tell us how great we are this week and they won’t burn us again. And I’m sure the people saying that on stage at their conference will honestly believe that. But it’s only a matter of time before those people move on to different jobs, Twitter’s direction changes again, and developers suddenly find themselves in the wrong quadrant of the newest initiative. Twitter will never, and should never, have any credibility with developers again.
He may be in the minority among the developer community.