Can Twitter salvage its relationship with developers?

Jason Ankeny

There are now more than a million registered applications across the Twitter ecosystem--not bad for a platform devoted to messages no longer than 140 characters each. Twitter celebrated the million app milestone with a blog entry trumpeting the occasion, noting that registered apps totaled just 150,000 a year ago. The microblogging phenom adds that there are now more than 750,000 developers worldwide producing Twitter apps spanning categories from analytics to curation to publisher tools--in fact, developer activity is so frenzied that a new Twitter app is registered every 1.5 seconds. And with good reason: Investors have pumped more than $500 million into Twitter ecosystem partners since December 2010, and acquisition prices exceed $1 billion.  

Looking solely at the numbers, you'd never imagine that Twitter's relationship with the developer community is anything less than perfect. But that relationship has been eroding for months as Twitter has ramped up its efforts to institute official branded applications in place of third-party apps. A March 2011 post on the Twitter Development Talk forum credited to Twitter director of platform Ryan Sarver made it clear that the days of non-official Twitter clients are numbered: "Developers ask us if they should build client apps that mimic or reproduce the mainstream Twitter consumer client experience. The answer is no," Sarver wrote. " If you are an existing developer of client apps, you can continue to serve your user base, but we will be holding you to high standards to ensure you do not violate users' privacy, that you provide consistency in the user experience, and that you rigorously adhere to all areas of our Terms of Service... We need to move to a less fragmented world, where every user can experience Twitter in a consistent way."

Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal reported the Federal Trade Commission's antitrust arm is investigating Twitter--the exact focus of the probe is unclear, although a source indicates the inquiry is "narrow" in scope and won't impact the company's emerging advertising business. But there's a good chance Twitter's developer ties are the focus: Investigators have requested information from UberMedia, the startup behind Twitter client applications like UberSocial, Echofon and Twidroyd. (The FTC routinely investigates companies to determine potential anti-competitive behaviors--the probes, often prompted by complaints from rivals, typically don't result in legal action or penalties against the companies in the commission's crosshairs.) UberMedia confirmed it has been in contact with the FTC, and said in a statement "We intend to fully comply with their request for information."

Tensions between Twitter and UberMedia have been escalating for months. Twitter temporarily blocked three of UberMedia's apps in February, stating the solutions violated company policies; UberMedia ultimately rebranded its UberTwitter app under the UberSocial moniker at Twitter's request. Insiders say UberMedia sought to acquire social networking solutions developer TweetDeck before Twitter purchased the firm in May--UberMedia offered TweetDeck as much as $30 million in February, prompting Twitter to step in with an unsolicited counteroffer over concerns that an UberMedia/TweetDeck alliance would pose too much of a competitive threat. Sources now say UberMedia is building its own service to compete with reported in April that the firm is pitching a microblogging service that promises to lure users by addressing the most common complaints dogging the Twitter platform, including eliminating the 140-character tweet limits and creating a more intuitive and accessible user experience. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, the number of developers devoting their time and energy to building Twitter apps makes it clear that the relationship has not yet reached the point of no return. No less significant, Twitter is moving to mend fences--on Monday, the company introduced, a new Drupal-based developer portal including APIs, tips, tutorials, blogs and forums designed to improve dialogue across all corners of the Twitter universe. "The entire Twitter team is committed to investing in the ecosystem by listening to developers and enabling them with the right tools and information," Twitter vows. "[Now] anyone in the ecosystem can start building with Twitter, connect directly with Twitter team members, exchange ideas with fellow developers, and find all the resources they need to create their own product or business." The site isn't going to repair Twitter's relationship with developers overnight, but it's a step in the right direction that opens up new lines of communication between the two sides. And communication is what Twitter is all about. -Jason