Last night Twitter announced a new version of their main website, quickly dubbed #NewTwitter.
I’ve not seen the interface first hand as yet, it will be rolled out over the usual undefined period of time. As with previous features, such as “who to follow”, it may even flick on and off – who knows. There are a number of features I’m curious to see, such as whether they’ve added full geo support, i.e. adding of ‘places’.
But I digress; these new features and all the whooping over slick new interfaces are not what this post is about. What interests me is what Twitter are doing with their brand, how it affects the developer ecosystem and why the hell anyone would attempt to base a business on the Twitter platform.
Twitter as a mainstream brand
It comes as no surprise to me that Twitter want to drive traffic to their own site. They have really stepped up their brand ownership of the past year. The Twitter culture has always been very casual and open. Sure, you can use pictures of blue birds on your site; use their typeface without risk of a law suit; even call your app Tweet-this, or Twit-that. In contrast, Facebook banned the use of the words ‘Face’ and ‘Book’ in all their apps from day one. (Later banning the abbreviation FB). It’s even a part of the Twitter culture that the site goes down all the time; (see Fail Whale). All of this has nurtured the brand to success by a exemplary community of evangelical users. Great, but surely they can’t keep that up if they want to go mainstream?
Third party Twitter clients
The developer community has also been incredibly valuable to Twitter in stimulating its growth. There are countless Twitter clients for mobile and desktop. Twitter recently purchased one of the best Twitter clients for iPhone (then called Tweetie 2, by Atebits). This was a notable move, and recent statistics show that Twitter-owned clients far out-weigh those developed by third parties. Also notable is the absence of a similar purchase of a desktop client. (Tweetie for Mac was not a part of the deal – but they have been stopped from advertising within it). With a killer web app running in-browser, do we even need desktop clients any more? Assuming the new site runs nicely on the iPad, is that another competitive advantage TweetDeck may lose?
And it’s not just client apps …
The last couple of years has seen a boom in URL shorteners. The introduction of Twitter’s own t.co shortener has got to be bad news for a company like Bit.ly. Twitter could start offering tracking and analytics products for all links going through their system, not just the ones shortened by particular providers. I already find it annoying that I can’t track links I tweet via the new tweet button.
TweetMeme are developing DataSift – a product which looks like it will be superior to Twitter’s own search engine. (Remember when they bought Summize?). TweetMeme didn’t seem to complain much when Twitter crushed their famous green button with the new tweet button. TweetMeme claim to be partnering with Twitter and have access to the Twitter ‘Firehose’ for developing Datasift. It looks rather like Twitter are stealth-incubating TweetMeme, and I would guess will eventually acquire them. Even if my guess-work is wrong here, you can see where I’m going with this. If you’re going to have the balls to go against Twitter on their own turf, what else can you do other than hope to sell to them?
What of the others? Will Twitter start running their own media services, crushing the likes of TwitPic?
What’s next for Twitter developers?
Twitter’s continued reclamation of their brand begs some important questions if you’re thinking of building a product around Twitter. You could spend months on a product that only has a life-span of a year or so, before Twitter enter your market and destroy you. Do you have the guts to build something so formidable, that they will just have to buy you? Or are you smart enough to come up with a product that’s valuable to you, but worthless to them?
Any product that replicates Twitter’s core functionality seems like a bad idea right now. Basing a business around a Twitter client didn’t seem so stupid a couple of years ago when Twitter could barely keep their servers running for a whole 24 hours.
The way I see it, there are a number of approaches to building a Twitter-based business, each with different risks.
- Build a product Twitter doesn’t want. i.e. not in line with their business interests;
- Build a product where Twitter is only an extrinsic part;
- Build a product better than Twitter can offer, so they’ll have to buy it.
Point 1 could mean very niche markets; e.g. an analytics suite for very specific industry, or something so trivial (read ‘fun’) that Twitter just wouldn’t be interested in replicating it.
Point 2 is the softest option. Twitter can add great value to a completely separate offering. Whether that means using Twitter to broadcast, or using its content as input. Ask yourself, if Twitter disappeared overnight, does your product still have legs? Was Twitter just a feature?
Point 3 takes balls.. big ones. and probably lots of cash too. All the experimental stuff Twitter put into the developer ecosystem (like user streams) is there for a reason – for you to innovate on their behalf. Note how TweetMeme and TweetDeck are using emerging Twitter features. Twitter themselves won’t be using User Streams on the new site, because it’s not ready. These companies are effectively incubating that technology for Twitter. Their best bet has to be that Twitter buy them. If you’re going to go down this path and build something better than Twitter can build, then yours had better be the best.