API, ShmAPI: App.net Still Has Many Difficulties To Overcome If It Wants To Beat Twitter

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With Thursday’s Twitter API changes, App.net could not have gotten better news. Suddenly, Dalton Caldwell’s vision of a subscription-based Twitter clone seems quite clever.

Yet, when it comes to creating a competitor to such an ubiquitous service, App.net now has to face many challenges. Most of them will be very hard to overcome — even harder than reaching its $500,000 funding goal.

App.net is a social network: where are the users?

Even though Twitter tags itself as a real-time information network, at first it is still a social network with a social graph, conversations and profiles. Paying $50 a year for App.net is not a small decision when it only has around 12,000 users.

Over the years, Twitter has become more useful with the regular addition of new users. App.net is not different, and its priority should now be to attract as many users as possible. Therefore, it should drastically reduce its price because the service has to catch on when the hype is still fresh. It will be better for long-term growth.

Otherwise App.net will become the new FriendFeed (or Pownce, if anyone still remembers).

Third-party clients

A directory of third-party apps is now available, but that is not how users want to use App.net. Most — if not all — of them already have one or multiple Twitter accounts.

They don’t want to use yet another app when they are already familiar with Tweetbot, Twitterrific, Echofon or Plume. Using App.net should be as easy as switching accounts in your Twitter client.

In the now-defunct Tweetie for example, you could set a custom API root. It means that the popular iPhone app could work with other services. For example, you could add an Identi.ca account in Tweetie by pointing the client to Identi.ca’s API.

Yet, convincing third-party developers of popular Twitter clients won’t be a small feat but seems like a necessary step to grow usage. In the example above, Identi.ca’s API had to replicate the interactions of the Twitter API. Therefore, if App.net wants to make it as frictionless as possible for third-party developers, it should replicate Twitter API and convince Twitter developers who feel threatened after Thursday’s news.

App.net buttons and sign in with App.net

Down the road, if App.net is successful enough to attract the attention of content websites and other web services, App.net will have to match Twitter’s tools. Tweet buttons have been a good growth engine for the platform.

App.net users that will only see a Tweet button at the top of an article won’t be enticed to share this article on App.net. Conversely, seducing content websites is no use without many users.

While Twitter is now deeply integrated into iOS and OS X, it does not prevent App.net from creating its version of Sign in with Twitter. Maybe some geeky websites will integrate it next to Facebook Connect and Sign in with Twitter as another way to sign into the service.

App.net needs to be on par with Twitter when it comes to features. A natural advantage of App.net is that spam will be very limited. For example, paid bookmarking site Pinboard only had to shut down three accounts for spam over three years. But the no-nonsense API policy and the no-ad stance are not enough.

Hire, develop quickly and let new users sign up now

App.net is still in alpha and has implemented a waiting list for new users. The last time a major social network required to wait before being invited, it was Google Wave. A year after being announced, it was shut down by Google.

App.net users are willing to make it succeed, but it has to let new users in right now. It should not be considered as an Alpha, people want to use App.net.

Don’t count Twitter’s failing

Twitter is the world’s biggest Twitter-style network (ha!). That’s not necessarily a bad thing. For example, Hacker News thrives even though the vote-based news website does not cover mainstream topics like Digg or Reddit do.

Of course, when you read “we will require you to work with us directly” or “there may also be additional changes to the Rules of the Road” in Michael Sippey’s “Changes coming in Version 1.1 of the Twitter API” post, it does not look promising for developers. If you read carefully between the lines, those Rules of the Road are mainly that Twitter is now in charge, and that if your third-party service or app competes too much with Twitter’s core business, you will either have to agree or to forget about your app.

Geeks want App.net to succeed because the Twitter ecosystem has been very innovative for a few years. Yet, it’s now up to App.net to prove us that we are right to believe in that utopia. They will have to make it happen and they should not rely on bittersweet news from Twitter.