Twitter declares war on third-party client apps

Jason Ankeny

Five years ago this week, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey began programming the microblogging platform, sending out the first tweet days later on March 21, 2006. Twitter now boasts over 200 million users, and generates an average of 1 billion tweets per week--about 480,000 new users sign up each month, with the number of mobile users increasing 182 percent over the last year alone. It wasn't so long ago that Twitter focused on its website and related services while leaving work on mobile software applications to third-party developers, but that dynamic changed last spring when the company acquired Atebits, creator of the Tweetie client for iPhone (subsequently renamed Twitter for iPhone). The move signaled a dramatic turn in Twitter's relationship with the mobile developer community, with official Twitter apps for Android, BlackBerry and Windows Phone soon following.

"Careful analysis of the Twitter user experience in the iTunes App Store revealed massive room for improvement," then-CEO Evan Williams wrote on the Twitter blog in April 2010. "People are looking for an app from Twitter, and they're not finding one. So, they get confused and give up. It's important that we optimize for user benefit and create an awesome experience."

About 90 percent of Twitter users now access the service via official applications, and a recent post on the Twitter Development Talk forum credited to Twitter director of platform Ryan Sarver makes it clear that the days of third-party client applications are officially 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 writes. "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 have spoken with the major client applications in the Twitter ecosystem about these needs on an ongoing basis, and will continue to ensure a high bar is maintained... We need to move to a less fragmented world, where every user can experience Twitter in a consistent way."

Sarver goes on to encourage developers to target other segments of the Twitter ecosystem, including publisher tools, curation, real-time data signals, social CRM and brand insights, and value-added content and vertical experiences. "A lot of Twitter's success is attributable to a diverse ecosystem of more than 750,000 registered apps. We will continue to support this innovation," Sarver maintains. "Twitter will always be a platform on which a smart developer with a great idea and some cool technology can build a great company of his or her own."

To the shock of no one, the developer community did not take kindly to the Sarver post. "I'm not sure you can say these things and simultaneously try to say you have a welcoming developer environment," responds developer Eric Mill. "All third party Twitter developers, no matter what they make, are now walking on eggshells, constantly at risk of offending Twitter's ideas of how users should interact with Twitter. You may feel you ‘need' this consistency, but you don't. You want it, and are willing to make tradeoffs to get it. I just hope you realize how big those tradeoffs are, and how chilling it is for Twitter to decide that only certain kinds of innovation on the Twitter API are welcome." Duane Roelands, developer of the Quitter client app, is more succinct: "Wow. 'Thanks for getting so many people interested in Twitter. Now get lost.' This is appalling."

Some developers contend Twitter's decision has less to do with creating a uniform user experience than it does with fortifying its revenue model: As Twitter continues to build out its advertising business across its platform, it can ill afford to allow consumers to access the service via third-party clients that operate outside of its ad network--or so the thinking goes. Whatever Twitter's rationale, the startup seems to have forgotten how much its spectacular growth depended on the innovations of its developer partners--and it appears willing to move forward with no guarantee that developers will continue leading the way. -Jason