This is a debate around the recent decision by Twitter to compete directly with third party developers who are making Twitter applications that Twitter has deemed to be mere “hole fillers.” A variety of third party apps are now competing directly with Twitter.
Most developers we’ve spoken with are upset, and say that Twitter gave them guidance that they wouldn’t compete with them. And in the past Twitter has been consistent in saying that they want to provide the plumbing for the Twitter ecosystem. Now it’s quite clear that they want to build on top of that plumbing, too.
Halstead seems unworried by the changes. He says that new features in Twitter’s API will allow new types of apps to be built by third parties, and the existing stuff isn’t as relevant (tell that to the guys who’ve just been hit). And his Tweetmeme app isn’t in much danger because he has actual code on tens of thousands of websites. Even if Twitter competed directly, it would be hard to get publishers to replace that code.
My chief rebuttal to Halstead is that the new API features, such as geo, are great. But developers building around those features are simply providing the research & development effort to figure out what works. Once they do, Twitter will call them hole fillers and compete directly.
He says Seesmic will be able to continue to compete because (1) Seesmic is focused on more than just Twitter, and (2) Twitter has promised to only use the same APIs in their apps that they provide to developers.
That troubles me, too, and I use a Windows/Office analogy in the debate. The Office team theoretically only uses the same tools to build on Windows that everyone else does. But they have special access, and an official stamp of approval, and countless other advantages that make it impossible for anyone to build an Office suite on top of Windows effectively.
John Borthwick has been the most effective at communicating the problem from the developer standpoint. Developers need to know the rules that Twitter is playing by. Calling something a hole filler after the fact isn’t reasonable.
Lastly, talk about holes and filling holes in platforms is misleading at best. Take a list of emerging to mature companies — great companies … Is Groupon a hole in Facebook? Facebook a hole in Google?? Google is a hole in Microsoft??? Microsoft in IBM???? Maybe it’s holes all the way down? Innovation — building great companies — is about finding, filling and even creating holes.
John also said something similar in a comment to a TechCrunch post a couple of days ago:
Over the past few years a set of platforms have emerged online that give startup’s a foundation to get a kick start to building their audience and/or their business. Adsense/Adwords were probably the first scaled examples of this. And as these platforms mature its important for their to be clear boundaries between what the platform provider does and doesnt do. Granted these boundaries shift over time — but they have to be sustained for long enough for the platform provider to achieve scale and trust and to get a critical mass of applications running on it. To play out the Google example take the UX of Google. They understood they werent in the content business — they were in the navigation business. Now after 10 years the line is getting hazy in some areas — this is why the local search stuff, the yelp conversations resonate with people — Google has for what ever reason decided that local is something it needs to wrap more of an arm around local. How long is that arm? How detrimental is it to local players? im not sure? — but if i had to put a dollar down I would bet that Yelp and say Opentable etc. will do just fine. So — clear sustained boundaries are necessary. The second point is that people bootstrapping on these platforms should also try to spread their relevance — beyond the underlying platform –so yelp should extend its business model beyond adsense, zynga beyond facebook etc. etc. That is what Stocktwits has done, same for bit.ly, Tweetdeck, Someecards, OMGpop etc… all of these services have a leg in multiple platforms.
At some level — one person’s innovation is clearly another persons hole. Take a list of emerging to mature companies — great companies … Is Groupon a hole in Facebook??? Facebook a hole in Google?? Google is a hole in Microsoft. Microsoft in IBM?? It’s holes all the way down (or up) — thats much of what innovation is. After 30yrs of personal computing history we have a lot of platform history to draw from, Apple understands this very well, so does Google, so does Amazon, so does Ebay. Once again — great businesses will emerge out of these new and emerging platforms.
That, to me, is the key issue. Twitter is now making a new set of promises to developers. Will they break that promise too in a year or two? Maybe it doesn’t matter. Halstead says in the video that the opportunity is too large to ignore, damn the risks. Perhaps that’s so. But it seems like the best developers may choose to spend their time on something else, where they don’t run the risk of Twitter changing their mind again.