Realtime wars pick up speed

Thursday night Twitter engineer Alex Payne finally acknowledged the obvious regarding the firehose – the full stream of data sought after by third-party developers to add back the long-withheld Track service. Twitter executives have been all over the map on this, sending developers on a wild goose chase to obtain access to the XMPP stream that the company has failed to provide since May.

Payne’s post describes how Twitter provided the firehose “on an experimental basis some months ago, but had to limit its distribution to just a few subscribers while we worked on technical hurdles.” At BearHug Camp, developers were told to contact Gnip as an intermediary, but now Payne says Twitter has decided to keep the service in-house with a newly-staffed team and yet another undetermined delta between promise and reality.

Friendfeed’s realtime beta service and promised improvements in auto-provisioning of Friend Lists may have done more than all the BearHugging and developer consternation combined to smoke Twitter out. While Twitter tap dances and stonewalls, Friendfeed releases a steady stream of features that, in aggregate, add up to a whole lot more than promises and lipstick back-pedaling. Today, for example, Friendfeed Rooms were transformed into a comment management system:

Room admins can also now choose whether they want comment moderation on their semi-public rooms. This can be particularly useful if you want to embed your room on your own web site. When commenting in a moderated room, a user will see “Pending” before their unapproved comment, and will also have the option of editing or deleting the comment without needing to wait for an admin to approve or reject it. Room admins will see the approval-pending comments at the top of that room and also in the entries themselves.

This leverages the new realtime features as well as the embeddable widget option to receive such a room feed. It also solves one of Friendfeed’s most fundamental problems, namely the siloing of the comment stream. Not only can rooms be used to aggregate comments, the widget lets you spread the comments around in context of blogs, portals, and other social networks. In one fell swoop, Disqus, coComment, and even other aggregation points such as Microsoft Sharepoint become objects looking smaller than real size in the rear view mirror.

Friendfeed becomes a conversation hub that can be threaded through Twitter and other micromessaging platforms at the cost of a tinyurl. What we’re seeing here are the primitives needed to assemble conversational routing at the micromessage level, something that is more valuable to Twitter users than the limited realtime tools available from the Mother Ship. Friendfeed is in a real conversation with its developers, in contrast to the snipe hunt Twitter keeps sending its developers on, only to admit they are really just buying time until they can figure out how to keep the ideas in-house.

Twitter’s bigger problem is that Track is a commodity once Twitter finally releases it. Regardless of its cost to users – which will likely be subsidized by advertising models – the benefits of tracking a notification service for valuable conversations held and managed by users on a competitive network are also commoditized. The longer Twitter waits to get into the game, the more valuable Friendfeed rooms and conversation streams become and the more opportunity for Friendfeed to release its own Track.

Friend List modeling will then become the analog to Twitter Follows, and Rooms a way of aggregating discovery of new friends. Track across both spaces with realtime output and API messaging back out to Twitter will be hard to compete against, especially when Friendfeed is using Twitter as its viral marketing tool. And history is telling us the only thing likely to get Twitter moving is competition. That they now have in spades.