The changes Twitter is making to its API policies triggered a wave of protest among its developers, but they might be necessary for the strategy Twitter has laid out for itself to make money and keep growing its service.
The stricter rules on how developers can make use of its Twitter stream appear to be tied to the company's efforts to bring in more revenue from advertising and potentially other sources. To achieve that, Twitter believes it must provide a consistent experience for users who access its service, instead of the hodgepodge of interfaces they have today from third-party clients.
That means tighter rules for developers, who are now being encouraged to develop within Twitter itself. But the way Twitter has communicated the changes, as well as the ambiguity of its guidelines -- it hasn't said yet exactly what its "stricter rules" will entail -- have stirred discontent among some developers.
The most recent scuffle began with a blog post two weeks ago, in which Twitter reminded developers it doesn't want them to build Twitter clients that mimic the "mainstream Twitter consumer client experience."
Instead, it wants them to focus on building "more interactive experiences within expanded tweets." It highlighted its recently introduced "Twitter cards," which are tweets that can be expanded with a click to display an image, video clip or the summary of a news story, for instance, all within the standard Twitter interface.
"The technology behind expanded Tweets ... gives developers and publishers a way to tell richer stories on Twitter, directly within Tweets and drive traffic back to their sites," it said.
At the same time, it began clamping down on third-party applications that offer users alternative ways to view their Twitter stream. Most notably, LinkedIn said users would no longer be able to view their stream of tweets on its website, though they can still post tweets from LinkedIn.
Some developers balked, believing Twitter might soon shut them out, too.
"The mistake we all made with Twitter, me too, was to think a corporate API could act like an open protocol," software developer Dave Winer said in a tweet.
Kwasi Frye, of Clearly Innovative, a software design and development company, said Twitter was sending signals that "it is not going to continue to be supportive of developers mimicking the Twitter platform -- or pretty much anything they're doing with the API."
The responses stem in part from the difficult relationship Twitter has had lately with its developers. After its launch in 2006, Twitter encouraged developers to get creative with its platform. Some of its core features, including retweeting, originated outside the company. Third-party applications such as TweetDeck, HootSuite, Echofon and CoTweet proliferated.
In 2010, Twitter hosted its first developer conference, dubbed Chirp. It appeared to be following the model of companies like Facebook and Google, except Twitter didn't repeat the event; it hasn't held another major conference for developers since.
"Spirits of developers were high" at Chirp and "the smell of one common thing, building the Twitter ecosystem, was in the air," Richard Grant-Gailums, CEO of Veritweet, said via email. His company verifies the identify of all its users, so no one tweets anonymously.
When Twitter acquired TweetDeck in the middle of last year, its attitude toward third-party developers cooled, Grant-Gailums said.
Jeremiah Owyang, an analyst at Altimeter Group, said it's not unusual for social networks that clamp down on their APIs' (application programming interfaces) use to see some backlash. "The initial approach is 'let a thousand flowers bloom,'" he said. "But then once they start blooming, the networks realize that they're missing out on monetization opportunities."
In Twitter's case, it seems the company is eyeing advertising opportunities through its expanded tweets. If the feature takes off, users "should expect that standardized advertising units will be deployed across these cards," Owyang said.
Twitter declined to comment for this article, but it is reportedly eyeing other revenue opportunities as well, such as allowing users to make a restaurant reservation or even a purchase from within Twitter.
If expanded tweets are to take on more functionality, and become a greater source of revenue, it could explain why having a standard, dependable user interface is important for Twitter.
But the way Twitter has communicated its plans has likely made its problems worse than they had to be. Its move to tighten its API rules is "on one level fair, but on another level it drives developers nuts, because they were expecting one thing and now it's another," said Robert Scoble, an early Twitter advocate who does developer outreach for Rackspace.
Most companies that invite developers to build on their platforms warn them well in advance of upcoming changes, but Twitter doesn't, Scoble said. "Twitter just doesn't have that outreach to developers that makes you feel warm and fuzzy even when things are changing," he said.
IDC analyst Al Hilwa sees Twitter in somewhat of a Catch-22 situation: It needs a robust community of developers to continue its growth, but the steps it is taking to achieve that growth risk alienating its developers.
"Having a development ecosystem is one of those Holy Grails in tech. Not every company is able to do it, but it's a big plus if you can. It multiplies monetization opportunities for you," Hilwa said.
Ultimately, Twitter's efforts to expand its revenue may be a bigger priority for it at the moment than its relationship with developers, Hilwa and Owyang said.
"But let's be clear, the number of developers to walk away from Twitter will be small," Owyang said. "We're going to hear a lot of moaning on blog posts and in tweets, but they can't completely unhook from Twitter."
Cameron Scott covers search, web services and privacy for The IDG News Service. Follow Cameron on Twitter at CScott_IDG.
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