Twitter Takes Design Cues From Apple, Changing Everything for Developers

Last Updated Sep 16, 2010 7:19 PM EDT

The New Twitter looks a lot like the Twitter for iPad app for a good reason: the design sense belongs to a single new engineer. His design philosophy has some radical implications for Twitter's future.

In April of this year, Twitter acquired Loren Brichter, the one-man-show app developer who went by the name Atebits. His app, Tweetie for iPhone, pulled in at least a couple of million dollars in sales (he won't say) and won him an Apple Design Award before I interviewed him for a book about iPhone interaction design.

Brichter is a fascinating (and clearly valuable) developer for his willingness to rethink the way iPhone apps work -- while somehow staying within the spirit of Apple's own design. In Tweetie for iPhone, he designed a feature that refreshed your list of Tweets when you over-scrolled to the top of the list. A spring-loaded arrow pops up, and when you release it, new Tweets flood in.

That isn't something that Apple included anywhere in the iPhone, and in the Mac developer world -- especially with the unchartered iPhone -- it's orthodox to stick to Apple's Human Interface Guidelines, or HIG, lest your app feel un-Apple (or get rejected from the App Store.)

But early in the days of the App Store, Apple hadn't updated its HIG to include the most recent iPhone OS. Brichter blazed his own trail, and others followed: several of his UI innovations from Tweetie have begun cropping up in other apps. He has helped create our expectations for iOS apps.

It goes without saying that anyone who can teach Apple about UI is obviously very, very good. So good, in fact, that the competition is left more or less defenseless. When Brichter released Tweetie, he was coming off a stint at Apple doing iPhone programming. He had never built an app before; he was working on the UIKit level and below, deep in the guts of the code, doing optimization. There were already dozens of iPhone Twitter clients, but they were all a headache to use. In just a few months, Tweetie had majority market share.

It's no exaggeration to say that Brichter will have tremendous power over Twitter's UI. If you think this is understatement, here's Harry McCrackin at Technologizer to back me up:

Tweetie is not merely a nice piece of software but one of the best pieces of smartphone software -- for any purpose -- I've ever seen. And I believe that Loren Brichter is among the most talented developers of user interfaces who's ever worked on any platform. I expected that a larger company would acquire Atebits to get Brichter on board... and kind of feel that if a company was capable of convincing Brichter to join it, it would be irresponsible not to do so.
My point is: no third-party app developer could out-do him at UI design on the iOS. And now, with Twitter's seal of approval and $100 million resources, they definitely can't. Twitter knows that. When it acquired Atebits, founder Evan Williams said:
"There's some misunderstanding around platforms," Mr. Williams said. "There's both a natural win-win relationship between a platform provider and third-party developers, and there's a natural tension."
That "natural tension" has reached a new lopsidedness because of Brichter, and now Twitter's third party party developers must follow its (superior) paradigm lest they be shunned by users with new, higher expectations (and by Twitter itself). That makes them more reliant on Twitter.com and its apps. Alex Payne, former platform manager at Twitter, describes it thusly:
Previously, developers took data out of Twitter and into the context of their own applications and services. The new design flips this on its head, bringing rich embedded content into the site from a host of brand-name web properties.
If this seems like too drastic a reversal to be true, Payne also acknowledges that this strategy comes in place of no strategy at all. Back when he was managing the platform:
The company didn't quite know where it was going at the time, so I just did what I thought made sense with our API.
Now Twitter has seized its own destiny. The company has partnered up with sixteen other content sites to help them adapt to New Twitter, presumably under a new, well-designed UI philosophy. (DeviantART, Etsy, Flickr, Justin.TV, Kickstarter, Kiva, Vimeo, yfrog, and YouTube (GOOG) are amongst the big ones.)

Before, Twitter was a public service: a trough for up-to-the-minute everything. Finally, with New Twitter, they've got the destination site they deserve -- and they've whipped third-party developers into shape.

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