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Advice to Twitter developers. Aka, The Carpenters or Queen?

The Twitter developer community is aflutter about Twitter buying an iPhone application called Tweetie. The controversy is that Twitter is competing with other Twitter iPhone applications after encouraging developers to create these applications. The fear is that this means that Twitter “wants it all,” and the playing field is no longer level.

I’ve been on both sides of this story: I ran the Apple developer program when Apple published applications such as MacWrite, MacPaint, MacDraw, MacProject, and MacBasic, and I’ve started companies to publish products such as 4th Dimension and Emailer. From my experience, the greatest fears of developers are unlikely to occur, so here’s what you should do if you are one.

  1. Shut up. Do yourself a favor: Shut up and let other developers rag on Twitter. There are already plenty of them who are doing this. Someday you will need something from Twitter, so don’t create enemies because you want to see your name in Mashable and feel all macho about yourself. Twitter reversing its decision at this point is as likely as Dick Cheney apologizing for invading Iraq so don’t waste your breath and burn any bridges.

  2. Keep calm. No one knows how this will turn out. Here are two extreme scenarios:

    Worst case (or best case if you’re Twitter): Loren’s code is so clean and commented that an intern can maintain it. Everyone agrees that the iPad is top priority. Loren and Ev are completing each other’s sentences. Fred Wilson redefines the vague segment of “killer apps that Twitter won’t do” to “anything that Twitter doesn’t want to do.” Near the end of the Twitter sign-up process, Twitter displays the SAL (Suggested Application List) button. In sixty-point type it says, “Next and install the Twitter application suite” which 99% of new users click on. Badabing-badabang—most people have the unwittingly installed the official Twitter apps, and no one installs third-party Twitter apps anymore.

    Best case (or worst case if you’re Twitter): The acquisition doesn’t work out. Loren Brichter, the author of Tweetie, gets frustrated working inside Twitter. He wants to do a kickass iPad version, but management wants him to continue working on the iPhone version. He wants to hand off the Tweetie source code to other employees, but not one line of code is commented so he has to continue to work on it. Every time he wants to make a change, he has to get Dick, Ev, and Biz to approve. Come to find out, making money and making Twitter scale is more important and difficult than shipping apps, so he doesn’t get much love. After six months, Loren says, “Screw this” and quits.

  3. Right now, which scenario (or another one) comes true is a coin flip, so take a deep breath and think purifying thoughts in a downward-facing tweet pose.

  4. Check your analytics. In the past few days, has interest in your application waned? Are you getting much fewer downloads and installs? Probably not. Has the Suggested Application List happened yet? Nope. As my mother used to say, “It’s not over until it starts, and it’s over.”

  5. Look for alternatives. Twitter isn’t responsible for your success, and you’re not responsible for Twitter’s. Everyone needs to do what they need to do. You are an ant. Twitter is an elephant. If you don’t like what the elephant is doing, you have two choices: Find another elephant or create your own elephant. In less metaphorical terms, “find another elephant” means two things:

    First, develop for other social-networking platforms like Facebook, FourSquare, Gowalla, MySpace, or Google Buzz. There’s also Status.net. This is an open-source micro-blogging platform. (Disclosure: I advise Status.net.) If you really want to know, good developers targeting other platforms is the only trend that could convince Twitter to change its mind. Of course, if good developers target other platforms and are successful, it may be too late for Twitter to change its mind.

    Second, try to get bundled on hardware platforms like mobile phones (HTC, Nokia, Google, Motorola, even Apple) and computers (ASUS, Dell, Lenovo, even Apple). Twitter’s official apps matter a lot less if your app is pre-installed on phones and computers. Incidentally, read Robert Scoble’s post about Seesmic’s search for alternatives.

    “Create your own elephant” means that you create another Twitter, Facebook, FourSquare, Gowalla, or MySpace. This is very hard to do but that’s why when an ant succeeds, it gets to be the elephant and do what it wants to do. If you think this is impossible, travel back in time to three years ago when everyone thought that MySpace was invincible. My how times change, but “no guts, no glory” stays the same.

  6. Enhance your product. This is what your primary focus should be. Start by asking yourself why Twitter bought Tweetie instead of your application. Maybe because it was better, pray tell? Answer me this: How is it that Tweetie can load search results so fast? Answer me this too: Can your Twitter app update Facebook, FourSquare, Gowalla, MySpace, and Google Buzz?

    Right now developers of Twitter clients for Windows, Macintosh, Linux, iPad, and Blackberry should be killing themselves to create the best product. Only good can come of this reaction: maybe Twitter will buy your product. If it doesn’t, at least you will have a better product, which you need anyway. The truth is that most developers won’t embrace this attitude. Most will waste cycles bitching about Twitter’s decision instead. You should hope this is true. It means there will be less noise when the dust settles.

  7. Frame the competition. Get ready for a little aikido because that’s what it’s going to take. When people ask about Tweetie, aka Twitter for iPhone, mutter some damning faint praise: “Yeah, it’s a solid app for beginners and appeals to the lowest common denominator user but it’s not cutting edge because, as you can imagine, Twitter is more concerned about scaling and monetization than apps. Think MacWrite versus Microsoft Word.” In Tweetie’s case, it’s really not true, but we’re talking about marketing here, not truth. 🙂

If Twitter had not bought (what I consider to be) the best iPhone app, I would make it my mission to tell people, particularly newbies, to use Tweetie (ask Loren how many people I told about Tweetie). There are plenty of other folks like me: we love Twitter so much that we want to ensure that others use the best Twitter tools. Our allegiance is to Twitter the community not Twitter the company just as my allegiance is to Macintosh the computer not Apple the company. Ergo, e.g., I tell people to use Adobe’s Lightroom not Apple’s Aperture.

Developers (and elephants) should never under-estimate the power of people who love a product. In a market that we all hope is as big as we all hope, there’s plenty of space for official Twitter apps and third-party apps that are better than official Twitter apps. As the Carpenters sang, “We’ll find a place where there’s room to grow. And yes, we’ve just begun.”

Then again, I could be wrong, and then I’ll be quoting Queen.

More Twitter news and tips.

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  • Jeffrey Johnson

    The best advice in the article and comments is this – develop a better product! If someone has a better product than you do, they deserve to get more for it, whether that is in cash, customers, or credit.