What Twitter's journey to an IPO should teach developers

Editor's Corner

Shane Schick

There seemed to be plenty of people cheering Twitter on a few weeks ago when the company successfully launched its initial public offerings, but independent app developers were probably not among them.

In the lead-up to the IPO, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey got a lot of coverage from the mainstream media, including a lengthy profile in the New Yorker. About half-way through the piece he finally gave what I believe is the first personal, direct explanation for why Twitter clamped down on the creation of third-party apps:

Recently, Dorsey has focused on tightening Twitter's control over the look and functionality of its service across platforms. Independent developers had created superior interfaces for reading and organizing tweets, meaning that Twitter was no longer defining the user experience. The company, controversially, has begun revoking the access of these developers and supplanting their creations with in-house products. Dorsey defends this shift in the name of simplicity. "When people go to the App Store and type in 'Twitter,' they don't expect a million different apps," he said. "They expect to find one--from the company."

What's interesting here is the idea that those third-party apps were "superior" to what Twitter was offering. Dorsey falls back on fears of brand confusion and lack of consistency. The truth, as always, may lie somewhere in the middle. And though of course the New Yorker didn't really go into it, Twitter continues to support the idea of third-party apps that run within Tweets, just not client apps.

Twitter's IPO was seen as a major milestone in its journey from scrappy startup to multi-billion dollar success story. I think these kinds of issues around third party apps, in a way, might represent another kind of milestone, or perhaps a kind of growing pain. Perhaps creating lookalike apps, or ones which try to improve upon the core functionality of a mobile offering, are a way for developers to get their heads around the user experiences that make that offering valuable to consumers. Though companies like Twitter may eventually pull back the reins, those early third-party efforts may generate enough interest among other developers to turn the core offering from a product into a platform. This is what's happened to Facebook, for example, and I suspect the same could end up being true for Snapchat, Uber, Airbnb and a host of other rising players.

If that happens, though, those companies will have to ensure third party developers can effectively monetize, engage and get discovered. Dorsey may be right about what consumers want when they go to an app store, but if Twitter wants apps inside Tweets, users will need a way to find them. This may be among the company's first big post-IPO challenges: Now that the iconic bird is being traded on the stock market, how can third-party Twitter app developers more effectively spread their wings? -Shane