Twitter's tech problems take a toll on developers

Makers of Twitter applications scramble to appease their users when Twitter malfunctions

The recurrent technical problems that have affected Twitter for the past seven weeks have also taken a toll on developers of external applications built for the microblogging service.

Throughout the outages, malfunctions and bugs that began the second week of June and hit their high point during the soccer World Cup, makers of third-party applications have tried to weather the storm while having little or no control over the situation.

The frequent and disruptive technical issues have forced these developers, many of whom generate significant revenue from their Twitter applications, to scramble to appease their angry users, while trying to protect their brands and cope with lost business.

"Twitter API issues in the previous weeks have been terrible for us," said Loic Le Meur, founder and CEO of Seesmic, which makes Twitter client applications for various desktop and mobile platforms.

"Users always blame Seesmic first since it's their primary interface to Twitter. It's extremely frustrating because there is nothing else we can do than warning users Twitter has problems. It is very damaging for us since users start to look for alternatives, which fortunately have the same problems, but damage to the brand is done," he said via e-mail.

Twitter, founded in 2006, became notorious back in 2007 and the first half of 2008 for its lengthy outages, but since then it steadily improved the reliability of the service. It had been having a particularly solid 2010 until June rolled around.

"It had been really stable for a long time and then this just came up as a bit of a surprise," said Ryan Holmes, CEO of HootSuite, which makes a client application to manage accounts from Twitter and other social media services.

At various points since the problems started in early June, a very apologetic Twitter has blamed the problems on a variety of factors, including massive traffic spikes caused by World Cup games, internal system bugs, server upgrades gone wrong and faulty network configurations.

"It's been a bit disruptive and frustrating because many people don't know if it's us or Twitter, and they'll just assume it's us. Then we have a communication issue we have to address," Holmes said in a telephone interview.

Although the issues have dropped in frequency and intensity in the past two weeks, some developers remain doubtful of Twitter's ability to provide a consistently stable service.

Dave Waldman, CEO of BccThis, whose software lets users add notes to e-mail and social media messages, recently decided to de-emphasize development of the company's Twitter client application in part due to Twitter's technical instability.

"It wasn't the defining reason, but it did play a part," Waldman said. BccThis' software also works with Microsoft Outlook, BlackBerry devices and Google's Gmail

"This is one of the fundamental questions you have to ask yourself when you are developing on top of a platform that is still in its own growth stage and is infamously not scalable," he added.

HootSuite's Holmes remains more hopeful, pointing out that Twitter's staff is always very responsive when dealing with technical problems. After all, it's not like Twitter wants its service to suffer outages and be unreliable, he said.

"They've grown so quickly. Scaling up at that pace is a big challenge for anyone," Holmes said.

Indeed, Twitter has become ultra-popular as the microblogging tool of choice for individuals, marketers and public figures to post brief, text-based status updates. About 2 billion messages were posted to Twitter in May, according to Pingdom.

Twitter has high aspirations to make money from its massive usage. In April, Twitter launched its advertising program, called Promoted Tweets, whose initial roster of partners includes Best Buy, Bravo, Red Bull, Sony Pictures, Starbucks and Virgin America.

The last thing these big brands want to be associated with is Twitter's "fail whale" error icon, which has become a symbol for Internet outages and failures in general.

For developers who are already invested in the Twitter platform, their best hope is that the company will manage to eventually provide consistent uptime and reliability.

However, Seesmic's Le Meur isn't holding his breath. "We are generally used to the service going down without any warning and never surprised. We're more surprised when it's up for weeks without problems," he said.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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