Being Realistic as a 3rd Party App Developer – Twitter’s Example

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Most developers and their startups are looking to build that ìkiller app.î The one thing that, once people start using it, they’ll wonder how they ever did without. Lately, the platform of choice to build these killer apps around is Twitter. Last week, Twitter’s top investor, Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures, wrote a piece for Business Insider that rocked the world of Twitter developers.

An uproar of “Twitter is abandoning” and “Twitter is screwing” and “Twitter is [insert evil deed here]” hit the blogosphere and developer forums. Because Twitter is the top interface (API) for building third-party apps around, there was bound to be some backlash to Wilson’s statements.

Just what did he say, anyway?

“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.”

With this and his article, Wilson intimated that Twitter has been allowing too many non-affiliated application builders to horn in on its basic services. Of course, Twitter’s basic service is micro-blogging at 140 characters or less, but there are so many things that surround that (most of which Wilson names) that it’s hard not to wonder why Twitter doesn’t have built-ins in some of these areas.

Another thing that Wilson alluded to, that goes largely ignored in the commentary around the Web on the subject, is the continually-changing atmosphere that is Web and mobile app development. He mentions that in the early 1980s, companies like General Computer (making external hard drives for the Apple, which had no HD), Lotus (software for the PC), and others all were hot commodities with “killer apps.” They were filling a hole that existed in the current technology and were, thus, doing very well.

Once the original owners of the technology began to fill that hole themselves, however, those killer apps became obsolete. Eventually, Apple started putting hard drives directly into their computers and Microsoft came out with a full Office suite that included a spread sheet to replace Lotus.

When I contacted Fred Wilson to further substantiate this idea, he respectfully declined and said that he’d said all he intended to say on the subject in that original article. He said a lot, I think, but the message is largely being unheard.

What Wilson is saying is that most “killer apps” are not very long lived. They have their heyday and then changes in technology, marketplace movements, or other things eventually make them obsolete. Technology moves fast and even the original platform itself (in this case Twitter) will either move with it or die. Twenty years ago, there was no Facebook, there were no “blogs,” and there was no Twitter. Eventually, there will again be no Facebook and no Twitter and probably no blogs as we know them today.

As if to substantiate the evolutionary nature of apps, Twitter, earlier this week, acquired Tweetie (now to be renamed “Twitter for iPhone”), the popular Twitter application for the Apple smart phone platform. The fact that this popular iPhone app will now be under the Twitter pavilion and offered for free will likely cause some turmoil in the Twitter application development arena.

I mentioned Tweetphoto (a Twitter-based photo-sharing app) recently getting another cash infusion from venture capitalists to Florian Seroussi, an entrepreneur “geek,” and he replied “I share Fred Wilson’s opinion on hole fillers. Moreover I think 3rd party applications that do not offer added value to Twitter are betting on a buy out. Lame attitude.”

All of this goes to show that application developers cannot sit back and be happy once their killer app starts taking off. Apps have a limited lifespan and anyone in this business who doesn’t realize that will go from one disappointment to another.

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