Why developers should carefully watch what Twitter does with Cover

Shane Schick

Maybe it's because I work in publishing, but I get e-mails from search engine optimization firms all the time, and the subject line is almost always the same. "1st page of Google guaranteed!," they promise, meaning that if you use their services, your firm's website is more likely to be found by potential customers online. Good SEO is hugely powerful, and in the mobile world, the best equivalent may be what just happened between Twitter and Cover. 

Founded by former Google employees and launched on an invitation-only basis last October, Cover displays the six apps on the Android lock screen that users are most likely to want to use. This is based on a user's smartphone habits and the current context, matched with location-based intelligence. So, for example, business apps might surface on the screen if you're in the office or a fitness app if you're at the gym.

"Twitter, like Cover, believes in the incredible potential of Android. They share our vision that smartphones can be a lot smarter — more useful and more contextual — and together we're going to make that happen," Cover's founders wrote in a blog post. "We'll be building upon a lot of what makes Cover great, and we're thrilled to create something even better at Twitter."

The commentary online so far suggests Twitter will turn Cover into something that competes with Facebook Home for Android, but that misses the point of what's really going on here. The social networks depend on people sharing stuff, and user-generated content like status updates and personal photos only make up part of that. A lot of the other sharing activity involves content they find online (which explains the slew of news app acquisitions last year), or what they are doing within other applications or online services. If you go on Facebook, for example, you'll often see what your friends just watched on Netflix. There are lots of Tweets about who just "liked" a YouTube video.

What users do is becoming a significant source of "content" in and of itself, which is why companies like Facebook and Twitter want tools that will give them this information on a daily, hourly or ideally, up-to-the-minute basis. It's not just a matter of acquiring the tools, though. In order for them to work, users need to see a benefit from opting into being monitored. Cover is a great example of this because it delivers contextual convenience by making it easier to access the apps you already love.

For developers, a service like Cover could have done more to boost engagement and retention than any marketing they could possibly have done on their own. As Twitter and Facebook work to own more of the data around usage, they will wield considerable influence over app success or failure.

Pretty soon, it's not going to be about getting 15 minutes of fame by being featured in the app store. It's going to be about how much "screen time" your app gets before a user swipes into a mobile experience.--Shane