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Is this the beginning of a rebellion that could turn the tide of goodwill that has nurtured Twitter to prominence against it?

I thought, as I read Fred Wilson’s now infamous Inflection Point screed last week, that it foreshadowed something significant.  Turns out I was correct.  Turns out that Fred, who is an investor in and boardmember of Twitter, was speaking in veiled nuances of Twitter’s acquisition of Tweetie maker AteBits.  In this post, which appears now to have been a ham-fisted attempt to soft-pedal the traumatic news which was to follow, Fred says:

Much of the early work on the Twitter Platform has been filling holes in the Twitter product. It is the kind of work General Computer was doing in Cambridge in the early 80s. Some of the most popular third party services on Twitter are like that. Mobile clients come to mind. Photo sharing services come to mind. URL shorteners come to mind. Search comes to mind. Twitter really should have had all of that when it launched or it should have built those services right into the Twitter experience.

This assumes a lot, it seems to me.  As a relatively early user of Twitter, and an entrepreneur who was experimenting in the same space circa late 2006, I think it was pretty clear to me that no one knew precisely what Twitter was at the time of its launch (TechCrunch agrees).  No… as a totally wide-open platform with a simple API and syndication model, Twitter could have become anything.  As such, different people found different utility within the Twitter framework, until user behaviour congealed around a core set of ideas about what exactly Twitter is.

Twitter couldn’t have had all of these features prior to launch, because no one at Twitter was aware that it needed them.  The very definition of what Twitter was at the time — and is today — was and is entirely negotiated within the marketplace.

Many hands in Twitter’s success so far

In addition to the critically influential early users, what made Twitter a wider phenomenon (it’s still not a mass market phenomenon) was the growing number of third party developers extending the platform — publishing, subscribing and syndicating to and from everything from desktop clients to social networks to refrigerators.  In its early stages, Twitter couldn’t have afforded to hire more than one or two dozen staff to fulfill engineering and product management roles, and most of those were tasked with more mundane “keep things running” tasks, keeping up with scale.

This created a significant gap in evolving the platform and productizing the service.  This gap was rapidly filled by an ecosystem of third party developers functioning as an unpaid R&D department, which has grown and now crests on a scale that the company could not ever sustain on its own — even today.

Keeping the plates spinning while walking the tightrope

So maintaining that ecosystem in balance is a critical function, as it allows Twitter to evolve and grow at minimal cost and with highly limited risk.  It’s a dance which requires deftness, sensitivity, and subtlety; and most importantly a profound understanding of the co-dependence that the platform has with those who seek to extend it.  Companies that successfully navigate these waters maintain a strong internal dialogue — something akin to Star Trek’s Prime Directive – regarding partners which seeks, inasmuch as it can obtain, equanimity within the ecosystem.

Twitter “got away” with the acquisition of Summize in 2008 because that ecosystem was immature, Summize had no obvious competitors, and the platform itself had yet to establish its dominance on the tech scene.  But nowadays, moves by Twitter’s management are scrutinized, debunked, and analyzed — they are the pied piper of “realtime” media, and they have a difficult relationship with a roiling, rowdy group of developers, some of whom love to hate them.

What happens when you churn the waters of the ecosystem too much is pretty simple, and pretty catastrophic:  developers leave.  And what Twitter may have done on Friday is decrease exponentially the number of people who are dedicating their best effort toward plotting a course for Twitter’s future.  This is at a critical time when Twitter’s growth seems to be hitting plateaus and struggling to work its way into the mainstream.

Pick your battles

So when you walk straight into such a fray, and knowingly increase the turbulence in these waters, one would think that some consideration would be given to the worthiness of the battleground in question.  Is getting control over a Desktop and iPhone Twitter client a cause worth the down-side risk?  Is this really a critical choke point in Twitter’s growth that the company needs to take control over?

There are many different approaches to publishing and subscribing to and from Twitter on the Desktop and on iPhones and other mobile devices.  However I would suspect that many developers are considering either walking away completely from, or decreasing the prominence of Twitter within, their applications.  More succinctly — the business model for these apps as freestanding Twitter user agents using a paid model is now evaporated.

This means a far shorter list of UI paradigms and design approaches to interfacing with Twitter.  Probably not a good thing given that Twitter still has some difficulty explaining to Mom & Pop Trailer Park why or how it can be useful in their lives.  While Twitter likely believes it now has the reins on a critical component to breaking into the mass market, it has essentially insourced innovation and assigned it to a very small team, whereas the community’s growth to date was nurtured by a massively outsourced team.

What Twitter doesn’t need, in my opinion, is absolute control over the User Agent.  What it needs is an App Store — a directory, if you will, which provides navigable routes to the wealth of clients and solutions available in the wild.  Furthermore Twitter needs someone who has some success managing an ecosystem of this size in balance over the course of years; who knows how to speak to developers and to encourage them; and who will act as an internal conscience for the developer community that is increasingly fearful of Twitter’s aggression.

Twitter’s challenge is so great and its opportunity is so broad that it is impossible to conceive that it can be properly stickhandled by a small group of visionaries.  Its strength in the past was its ambivalence to 3rd Party developers; but now that ambivalence has taken a dangerous turn.  I certainly hope that the company and its investors do not suffer for this decision, as many of its developers clearly are.

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