Not all developers chirping ahead of Twitter event

One developer expects Twitter to spell out its intentions regarding the company's app platform

Twitter executives will likely face a tough audience at the company's first conference for third-party developers, many of whom are concerned that the company is building applications and tools that could compete with -- and squash -- their own.

Until recently, Twitter and developers enjoyed a long honeymoon, after the company launched its minimalistic, bare-bones microblogging service and generously opened up its platform so that external applications could be created for it.

Developers responded by creating desktop clients, mobile interfaces, search engines, photo sharing tools, "tweet" monitoring software and profile customization wares, to mention just a few.

Currently, more than 50,000 third-party Twitter applications exist, many of them generating revenue for developers of all sizes, from individuals to larger vendors.

During the first several years of its existence, Twitter, which was founded in 2006, operated with a small group of employees who seemed to spend most of their time scrambling to keep the site up and running, because it crashed so often.

Things are different now. Twitter employs more than 170 people, it is much more stable and its popularity has skyrocketed. More than 50 million "tweets" are posted every day, and unique users grew 608% to 69.5 million in February of this year, compared with February of last year, according to comScore.

Twitter, which for years paid little attention to making money, just introduced an advertising system, and has recently built and released applications it considers core to its mission, becoming a competitor to some external developers.

At Chirp, the developer conference to be held Wednesday and Thursday in San Francisco, Sean Callahan, CEO of TweetPhoto, expects Twitter officials to spell out their intentions regarding the company's application platform.

"I want to get some clarity around the state of the Twitter developer ecosystem and what the plans are for it," said Callahan, whose company has grown its size and revenue very rapidly thanks to the popularity of TweetPhoto, a social-media sharing platform, among developers and end-users alike.

"I'm looking for reassurance that they'll continue to support the developer community. Are they going to provide the same level of support they did, now that they are in competition [with developers]? Will they still offer the same API [application programming interface] calls? Will they hold back certain API calls that make their apps better than everybody else's?" he said.

Andrew Stone, CEO of Stone Design, maker of the Twittelator client applications for the iPhone and iPad, also wants Twitter to provide a clear road map for the platform.

"We know that Twitter wants to keep growing and moving and whatnot, so it's really important for them to lay down their road map for us all. It's been coming out piecemeal over the last year, so we're always reacting to it," Stone said, referring to the launch of new, significant capabilities like geolocation and lists.

In addition to the direction of the application platform, many developers will likely be very interested in learning how they'll be able to benefit from Twitter's new Promoted Tweets advertising service.

"Is it going to be applicable to what we're doing? Will it scale and allow us to really monetize TweetPhoto better than we're doing now? What opportunities will they present to us?" Callahan said.

That isn't clear, according to Gartner analyst Andrew Frank. "What does this do to the developer community? It's an open question. A lot of Twitter client applications already use advertising. This seems at best to sit awkwardly next to Twitter's own advertising aspirations. Can Twitter come up with a developer-friendly ad network model, where developers can participate?"

In the days and weeks leading up to Chirp, developers have had to digest a steady stream of announcements and product launches that leave no doubt that Twitter is leaving behind its laissez-faire approach and becoming more hands-on with regards to capabilities previously provided by external developers.

For example, last Friday alone, Twitter announced the launch of a BlackBerry client application it co-developed with Research In Motion and its intention to acquire Tweetie, an iPhone client application. That had been preceded by a blog post from Fred Wilson, principal of Union Square Ventures, a venture capital backer of Twitter, in which he said Twitter has reached a point in which it must fill in the obvious holes in its feature set, such as search, photo sharing and mobile clients, while developers should focus on areas that extend the value of the service, such as social gaming, business applications, usage analytics and industry verticals.

Stone finds the timing of these announcements and launches "a little odd," coming so close to Chirp. "If they're trying to get developers to buy into whatever is coming up, and yet they can throw a curveball at any moment, developers are going to think twice about committing resources to the platform," he said.

Yet, neither Stone nor Callahan are ready to throw in the towel. Far from it.

Callahan and his team recently extended TweetPhoto so that it can be used by developers and users on other social networks like Facebook, LinkedIn, FourSquare and MySpace.

"We knew this day was going to come when Twitter was going to start filling in the holes so to speak, so we started thinking about different ways we can continue our growth, which is to branch out to other social networks," he said. "We're going to keep focusing on building the best platform and technology."

Stone is confident about the quality of his applications and about his company's ability to innovate and adapt quickly, a level of flexibility that he feels VC-funded startups may not have.

"We're an agile, fast, 'indie' company, so we can change stuff and ship it," Stone said. "It's all moving so fast. My advice is to be light on your feet, no matter how much money or manpower you're bringing to the table."

While developers worry about Twitter's plans, uncertainty also exists at a broader level, he said. "It's Twitter's moment now, but how long will it last? I don't know," Stone said.

This all comes with the territory, he said. "Small corporations becoming big corporations have growing pains. There's always going to be some hurt feelings, but that's life and you have to learn to roll with it," Stone said.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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