Is Twitter doing an Apple?

LockedTwitter have announced that they are banning third party companies from injecting "paid tweets into a timeline on any service that leverages the Twitter API" in order to protect "the long-term health and value of the network". As has been evidenced up to now the primary focus has indeed been the twitter platform itself - the longevity of the network rather than short term monetisation.

Twitter argue that a third party ad network may put impressions ahead of the host service itself, thus diminishing the experience and, potentially, leading to a smaller audience as users stop visiting the site.

I am reminded of the argument given by Apple to justify why all iPhone applications must be approved and supplied via the app store: to ensure that the iPhone platform remains stable and free from potentially exploitable flaws.

But how similar are they really?

At first glance there seems a huge gulf between the two philosophies but there is the potential for Twitter to become a much stricter task master, especially when Fred Wilson - a major investor in Twitter - remarked that third party applications are filling gaps in the Twitter ecosystem that Twitter should have filled from the beginning or should be looking to build into the experience.

Twitter are not currently making money from the service but are looking to protect the future; the long tail is where they see the money being recouped but it will be a long hard slog. Reading Dick Costolo's post on the Twitter blog it would seem that they are just looking to maintain the integrity of the part of the service that they truly control: the timeline, beyond that is pretty much fair game. They are committed to the APIand want to encourage developers to build 'around' the timeline but, if we listen to Wilson, for what roles?

Control

Apple, it could be argued, are just looking to control the ecosystem in order to ensure they get a cut of everything. Is it 'really' about stability of the platform or just having the power to exert total control? The iPhone world is very much a siloed operation with Apple having the final say and the ability to block anything that threatens their dominance or revenue. Business is business so you can understand that to a point but how far is too far? How many potential customers are put off by the closed system?

At present, the key difference is that advertising comprises only a small part of the Twitter ecosystem and they are NOT looking to prevent ads _outside_ of the timeline, only reserving their right to control what occurs within it. They are not stopping developers making applications and they are expanding the API all the time. On top of all this Annotations are arguably the biggest invitation to third parties you could currently wish for so, the garden looks rosy.

The thing we have to consider, however, is once Twitter start realising an income from promoted tweets will the money start painting a different picture with regards to openness? Are Fred Wilson's comments an indication of direction or just shooting off at the mouth? When a means to recoup your investment is shown to be working will there be a push to build on it?

As has already been pointed out, Twitter are to introduce their own native link shortener and drop bit.ly as the default option. Twitter has also bought the Tweetie client for iPhone and rebranded it as the official iPhone Twitter application. The interesting point here is that both of these areas were highlighted by Wilson as areas that Twitter should not be leaving up to third parties. What else could be on the hit list, a photo upload service?

On the face of it, if you are looking to provide extended value from your system then do you leave core functionality in the hands of others? Do you risk third parties folding and instantly knocking out part of the ecosystem? Common sense would dictate otherwise but, with a history of unreliability when things get busy, has Twitter learnt from the issues of scale in the past? Could they reliably provide a photo upload service or would we again get a fail whale?

The user

Twitter must, obviously, ask what impact would taking functionality in-house and 'killing off' third parties have on the end user? There will always be a high proportion who wouldn't care as long a they can tweet their friends - just like with the facebook privacy issues. Joe public often doesn't look beyond the basics. They won't be concerned with the technology (especially if it is good enough and functional enough) - people adapt.

There would no doubt be a backlash from developers and some of the tech elite; you can picture the #imleavingtwitter hashtag already - but the numbers here, just like with Facebook, are insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Twitter will not go to the wall over a small developer rebellion should it decide to exert a greater degree of authority.

Best intentions

Looking in from the outside, Twitter seems to have always been operated with the best of intentions. There are numerous ways that the service could have made a quick buck but opted to retain the integrity with which it was founded. Best intentions can sometimes only go so far and you have to question whether, with investors exerting pressure, whether those intentions could ultimately conflict with the need for the service to survive. It can be a bad sign when the money men start dictating policy and control the direction - let's hope we never reach that point.

Update

The API Terms of Service have been updated and go further than was indicated in Costolo's post yesterday. He originally stated:

Companies are selling real-time display ads or other kinds of mobile ads around the timelines on many twitter clients, and we derive no explicit value from those ads. That's fine.

We now, however, have what appears to be a contrary position in the Terms themselves:

IV. COMMERCIAL USE
2 (a) We encourage you to create advertising opportunities around Twitter content that are compliant with these Rules. In cases where Twitter content is the basis (in whole or in part) of the advertising sale, we require you to compensate us (recoupable against any fees payable to Twitter for data licensing). For example, you may sell sponsorships or branding around gadgets or iframes that include Tweets and other customized visualizations of Twitter.

Two days and two seemingly conflicting pieces of information but, as has been pointed out, the terms do seem particularly vague. We will have to wait to see exactly how they are applied but it illustrates a willingness on the part of Twitter to start setting their sites further afield.

Image by Bala