The App.net aftermath: Can more social services become true dev platforms?

Twitter made a big deal about the launch of its Mute feature, but that's nothing compared to the way it once silenced app developers.

Kiwi Appnet app

App.Net is no longer employing staff, including co-founders Dalton Caldwell and Bryan Berg, but it remains operational.

As he admitted in his recent memoir, "Things a Little Bird Told Me," Twitter co-founder Biz Stone called the company's developer relations one of its biggest failures. "We loved the idea of inviting developers to build apps that would enhance or complement Twitter, but we didn't think it through enough," he writes. "As soon as we released the platform, tons of new Twitter apps sprang into existence. The glut of options muddied the user experience."

Now the problems of an alternative to Twitter service for developers is raising questions about how social media services can effectively work with the app community, and what challenges social services built onto messaging apps might face.

Crowdfunding comes up short
App.net, which was launched two years ago as a place for developers to create their apps and for consumers to have an ad-free experience, recently said its crowdfunding efforts had come up short. Full-time staff have been cut, though the organization promises to continue on.

"After carefully considering a few different options, we are making the difficult decision to no longer employ any salaried employees, including founders," the co-founders wrote in a blog post. "Dalton [Caldwell] and Bryan [Berg] will continue to be responsible for the operation of App.net, but no longer as employees."

For Isaiah Carew, who created the Kiwi desktop client for App.net, the bigger news is  that the Developer Incentive Program is shutting down, which he said amplified those sales and made developing for App.net profitable. That may make it hard to keep developing for App.net and limit it more to hobbyists, he said.

"My reaction: I was not too surprised. I hoped there would be more subscribers, but based on a few quick calculations from the daily active users it seemed like some tough decisions were on the way," he said. "I'm very pleased that they've found a way to keep the service running indefinitely with a skeleton crew. I think that's the best news for Kiwi and Favd that I could have hoped for."

Thomas Husson Forrester Research

Husson

Of course, App.net is not the only option for developers that want to tap into the power of social media services to create great mobile experiences or promote their apps. According to Thomas Husson, an analyst at Forrester Research, messaging apps like Line, Kakao or WeChat are extending their capabilities and morphing into new media portals.

"Many messaging apps have innovated by adding new features and content. WeChat is the most advanced example for now," he said. "WeChat is more than just a Chinese messaging app--it's a platform that allows third parties to connect with consumers through the content, apps and services they build."

It may take time, however, before those firms take a platform-oriented approach that welcomes other developers. 

"It's only a matter of time before one of the big names finds a way to make that work for their business model," Carew said. "But right now it seems that most of these guys are trying hard to discourage third party clients like Kiwi--so I'll have to be patient."

Husson suggested that while Twitter may have once shut the doors on developers, its future growth could depend on opening them back up, much like its bigger rivals in the social networking space.

"I think a growing part of Facebook ads are driven by mobile app installs because of the role of social in app discovery," he said. "Twitter is starting to replicate such an approach."

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The creator of Patter, a chat client for App.net, doesn't plan on going back to Twitter or Facebook.

In search of alternatives
Big-league social services don't interest all developers, though. Take Jonathon Duerig, a San Francisco-based developer who created Patter on App.net to easily set up chat rooms.

"I can't imagine ever going back to Twitter or Facebook. The ads, the spam, and the limitations on innovative use of the platform make them worthless to me," he said. "Any API I build on in the future will be supported by user payments and friendly to user interests. I might build something on top of the DropBox API, for example. Or some future paid social network. But never any network without a clear non-advertising revenue model."

As disappointing as the App.net announcement was, the fact that it is a paid service has meant that Duerig has spent nearly two years without seeing a single ad or "promoted tweet" while talking and learning from the other people on the network. "I'm now too spoiled to accept that in a social network in the future," he said.

Carew suggested that developers may not have to compromise if others join the social networking fray.

"There are new similar experiments taking place on the Internet all the time," he said. "With AWS (Amazon Web Services) costs dropping so sharply, and ever more users with smartphones in their hands, it seems that the time is ripe for experiments like App.net to succeed. Rather than feeling sad it's over, I like to think it's just made me a bit more prepared for a very bright future."

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