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Twitter Wants To Be an Apple but Falls Far From the Tree

Twitter recently laid down the law with developers concerning "consistency and ecosystem opportunities." The company said it was because "consumers continue to be confused" by the way different Twitter clients work and present data. That now seems to mean no new third-party clients, and the existing client vendors had best watch their steps.

The reaction from developers was fairly harsh, as judged by comments on the post. Those who weren't made were still disappointed in Twitter, as Mike Loukides wrote on the O'Reilly Radar blog. But none of that will change a thing, because Twitter is desperate to make a lot more money than it's been able to pull in. And that means controlling everything as much as possible to drive users to Twitter software and a chance to show ads or otherwise maybe make a buck.

Twitter's company line is that everyone is pretty much moving over to its software already and that smart developers are finding other areas to explore:

As we point out above, we need to move to a less fragmented world, where every user can experience Twitter in a consistent way. This is already happening organically - the number and market share of consumer client apps that are not owned or operated by Twitter has been shrinking. According to our data, 90% of active Twitter users use official Twitter apps on a monthly basis.

In contrast, the number of successful applications and companies in the Twitter ecosystem that focus on areas outside of the mainstream consumer client experience has grown quickly, and this is a trend we want to continue to support and help grow. 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. And, with record user growth, there has never been a better time to build into Twitter.

Translated: Twitter wants people on its software and wants developers to believe that they won't be hurt by being pushed out of the way. Let's dissect this a bit.

First, the claim that 90 percent of active Twitter users use official apps on a monthly basis doesn't quite match data from social network analytics firm Sysomos, as its graph below shows (click to enlarge):

Notice that 42 percent of 25 million tweets posted on a given day came from non-official applications. Twitter claimed that its data covered active Twitter users, which would certainly seem like people who actually wrote something. (Of course, Twitter is loathe to give its actual user numbers, probably because they are far lower than the number of accounts.)

In addition, Twitter mentioned people who use an app once a month. Hardly a rousing adoption. As Ryan Kim points out on GigaOM, Twitter is likely counting people who are less active. If it had 90 percent of the traffic, it wouldn't need to clamp down.

Next, "areas outside of the mainstream" almost by definition mean niche applications. Clearly companies make businesses in niches, but that gets tough when you're dealing with apps of this sort. People aren't willing to pay for the apps, and anything ad-supported means needing larger numbers for profitability.

Apple is controlling in its own ecosystems, but leaves a lot of room for others to make money. Twitter doesn't have the revenue, so we're seeing what happens as the company that has taken $360 million in investment must come to grips with finally working out those grubby business model details. This is beyond control and into the realm of every software company for itself.

Unfortunately, the third party developers, along with those pesky non-conforming clients, are a big reason Twitter was able to grow in the first place. Maybe Twitter's management (and investors, can't forget about them) think that the developers are no longer necessary and can be tossed aside. But Twitter's unique monthly visitors seem to have flattened out, as the graph from below suggests, at least for U.S. traffic:

Maybe that's right, and maybe not. But the tech industry does seem to operate under a law of momentum. So long as the main company in an ecosystem, like Apple, helps others make money, things move along. When the third parties stop gaining an advantage, so does the main company.


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