Ev Williams: Twitter Should Be A Platform Company

Twitter and Medium co-founder Ev Williams was interviewed this morning by legendary journalist Walter Isaacson at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen. Isaacson didn’t hold any punches when it came to asking about Twitter’s future, either.

Isaacson started off by asking what, exactly, Twitter is looking for in a new CEO.  Said Williams: “An exceptional leader…who can make things happen.”

Asked if that person should be more versed in product or in driving revenue, Williams answered, “I don’t think revenue is the right way to say it. [This person primarily needs] to see the potential of the platform and [that’s] more strategy than product per se. There are lots of amazing product people in Twitter today. Its potential is vast. The challenge is deciding what to focus on and aligning the organization toward that purpose.”

Asked why Twitter felt there was the need to change out management right now, Williams stuck to what the company has stated previously, saying it was former CEO Dick Costolo’s decision. “We were optimistic about where we were going, but Dick decided now is the time to step down for his personal choices, as well, he said, if he was going to step down, now seemed like the right time to do it.”

Isaacson also brought up the question of the incoming CEO facing too many ex-Twitter CEOs on its board. How big a problem is that, he asked. Williams said he didn’t think the company’s board composition would be a deciding factor in any candidate’s choice but that, ” If the CEO would prefer one less [former] CEO, I’d be happy to [step down].”

Naturally, Isaacson also asked Williams what he saw as the strategic vision of the company, given that Twitter has been famously confusing on this point. Williams said he didn’t think it was his place to define the company’s vision, but, he continued on, “I think Twitter is primarily a news system. From early on, we didn’t know what it was: a social network, microblogging was a thing a lot of people called it. In 2009, we made the distinction internally and the way we started talking about it was as a real-time information network. Since then, [there have been] many applications of that [including] personal components and public components. What is news? Twitter excels at that.”

Isaacson quickly disagreed, though, noting that earlier this morning, he’d turned to the network to glean more information about a landmark deal reached earlier today on Iran’s nuclear program. “I went to Twitter, and it didn’t satisfy me,” he told Williams.

Williams said that “guaranteed,” Twitter has “all the information you’re looking for, so a big topic of conversation [within the company], and what we’re building into Twitter, are better ways to organize that information.”

Evans added, “I agree that it could be way better,” but “both the infrastructure and data is available.” He continued: “It’s not an easy task to make it easier to use, but that speaks to the potential that Twitter has before it.”

Couldn’t  — or perhaps shouldn’t — third parties help toward that end, Isaacson suggested, seemingly referring to Twitter’s checkered history with third-party developers, who it has at times seemed to welcome into the fold, only to later cut off.

Said Williams (in an answer certain to upset some of those same third-party developers): ” Yes. We had an API really early and we didn’t have a platform and people conflated those things and people built apps or clients for Twitter or things that were ostensibly on top of Twitter. But it wasn’t a well-designed platform and it didn’t create a win for developers or users or the company. It was a strategic error that we had to wind down, and the company [received] a lot of critiques for that. But the story that [third-party developers drove] all this growth and innovation for Twitter was completely overblown.”

Unfortunately, Williams declined to share Twitter’s roadmap with Isaacson, saying there are “new products and new sources of revenue coming,” but quickly added, jokingly, “I’ve already said too much.”

He was just about to jump off stage, in fact, when Fortune writer Erin Griffith (who was seated in the audience) brought up a fake Bloomberg story circulated this morning, one reporting that “Twitter is working closely with bankers after receiving an offer to be bought out for $31 billion.”

Though the story was a hoax, Griffith asked, would Twitter be better off under an umbrella company?

“No, not at this time,” said Williams, saying he couldn’t expound too much on his views owing to legal restrictions. “There is incredible potential at Twitter and blah blah blah, the board will do what it’s supposed to do,” he said to chuckles from attendees.