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The Twitter OS Company

For people who build things based on the Twitter API, and who love Twitter, there has been some wringing of hands since this post by @sippey last week about Twitter taking more control of their user experience.

The gist of the concern is that Twitter seems to be increasingly focused on developers using their API to build more value within Twitter (and specifically within tweets), and that Twitter apparently would like their partners to be less focused on building on top of Twitter. As @sippey says in his post:

Twitter cards are an important step toward where we are heading with our platform, which involves creating new opportunities to build engaging experiences into Twitter. That is, we want developers to be able to build applications that run within Tweets.

There seems to be an assumption, at Twitter and among passionate third-party developers, that Twitter has to choose between being an API-driven message bus or a company that increasingly controls the full experience end-to-end.

That’s a false choice.

There is a simple historical precedent for the kind of ecosystem Twitter can and should build: it needs to think about the underlying message bus that Twitter powers as an OS, one that supports a wide range of applications built on top of that. Windows, Mac OS, and iOS are the models, not advertising-supported web portals.

Thought of that way, there is no reason why Twitter shouldn’t and can’t be in the application business as well as the OS business. Not just one application, but many applications. Just like Microsoft and Apple have produced Word, Keynote, iMovie, iTunes, PowerPoint and Excel.

Trying to provide an end-to-end, all-encompassing user experience in one client for Twitter is a fool’s errand, especially as we move towards a more mobile-based Internet. It’s going backwards. Fred Wilson got it exactly right in his post this weekend:

Mobile does not reward feature richness. It rewards small, application specific, feature light services. I have said this before but I will say it again. The phone is the equivalent of the web application and the mobile apps you have on your home screen(s) are the features.

That is why Facebook should (and it looks like will) break its big monolithic web app into a bunch of small mobile apps. Messenger, Instagram (not yet owned by Facebook), and Camera are the model for Facebook on mobile.

Bingo. Somewhat ironic that Facebook has figured this out first.

But there is no reason why Twitter shouldn’t and can’t take a similar approach. Twitter shouldn’t want to have just one app; they should make many single-purpose, best-of-breed apps. Build them in-house, or buy the best apps out there.

Because they control the OS — the Twitter message bus — Twitter will always have built-in advantages and should always be able to create best-in-class applications that often beat third parties. That’s fine. Do that, and let the third party ecosystem fill in around those opportunities.

Twitter can and should signal where people shouldn’t invest — be it photos, the basic real-time client, or other areas. And, set up an economic regime that allows Twitter to win and prosper either way. Tell third parties who have built apps off your platform that they have to incorporate your ads, or pay you to use the message bus if they don’t want to include ads.
Having a clear economic relationship with its ecosystem is essential. People build apps on iOS because they know what the rules of the road are. Third party developers know that Apple makes money from the arrangement and isn’t just doing it out of the good of their hearts, and that it’s in their interest to continue supporting iOS as a platform.

After all, the best ecosystems (including coral reefs) are those where everyone’s interests are spelled out, and where the each organism gains something from the others.

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