Canary in a coalmine

Twitter API changes are a death sentence to its ecosystem

It’s difficult to avoid today’s headlines on the upcoming changes to Twitter’s API, announced via a blog post. Unlike previous threats, these changes aren’t just hints as to where the service will go, but a death sentence to many parts of the Twitter ecosystem.

Let’s get the less controversial bits out of the way first: changing the way in which Twitter limits API requests - 60 of each endpoint per hour, rather than 350 of any per hour, is sensible, and mandatory OAuth use will help reduce load, even if some apps will suffer.

Meanwhile, the strict guidelines on tweet presentation may seem sensible on the surface - except they seem to even extend to contexts such as the redesigned digg.com, which uses custom embedded tweets in its current design.

Generating more public ire is Twitter’s decision to limit third-party clients to a maximum of 100,000 users without explicit permission (or, for those already above 100,000, the ceiling will be double their current userbase).

Mind you, the shutting-out of third-party clients has been a long time coming. Twitter’s Director of Consumer Products, Michael Sippey writes in today’s blog post:

Nearly eighteen months ago, we gave developers guidance that they should not build client apps that mimic or reproduce the mainstream Twitter consumer client experience." And to reiterate what I wrote in my last post, that guidance continues to apply today.

What Twitter wants, as illustrated by a rather cringeworthy chart, are analytic apps and corporate clients.

The current API, version 1.0, will be discontinued in six months to give developers time to adjust. Of course, developers in many cases won’t be adjusting - they’ll simply be abandoning their projects. Instapaper developer Marco Arment highlights in a blog post just how many services are likely to be affected - including his own app.

As you might expect, the reaction to all of these announcements has been largely negative. John Gruber, a big fan of third-party clients, is scathing of Twitter’s direction:

So Klout, which is utter vainglorious masturbatory nonsense, that’s OK. But services like Storify and Favstar, which are actually useful and/or fun, those are no good.

Some have played down the announcement, accepting that Twitter is taking fairly sensible steps. Anil Dash’s rewrite of the official blog post puts a cheery spin on things, but his interpretation of Twitter policy - that third-party clients are still welcome, and that apps with more than 100,000 users will get “personal” treatment - is probably a bit naive.

But this bad press is nothing to Twitter, because they don’t need its core tech audience anymore. An audience of ‘Little Monsters’ and ‘Beliebers’ (that’s Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber fans) is infinitely larger and more profitable.

App.net's alpha client

Alarm bells have been ringing for a while, and developers have been looking for an alternative service for a while. The announcement of API v1.1 comes soon after the funding of App.net, a service pitching itself as a Twitter clone. The difference here is that it is paid for by users rather than its advertisers, and with an unrestricted API. While still currently a proof-of-concept “alpha prototype”, App.net has succeeded in giving itself initial momentum. Where the service is heading is another matter, and the likelihood is that it will end up being a closed community of Twitter-bashing techies willing to pay.

Twitter was of course initially populated by early adopters, many of them developers interested in playing with the service’s API. But App.net is unlikely to ever gain Twitter’s mass appeal: after all, what does it have to offer users who don’t even know what an API is? A greater range of clients and no adverts are no substitute for Twitter’s millions of users (notably their celebrity contingent). Plus, in an age where most services are free and ad-supported, $50/year for a single account is a hard sell.

The other social network that has failed to take advantage of developer dissatisfaction is Google+. A year on from launch and still a full API is nowhere to be seen. While it’s to be expected that, like Twitter and Facebook, Google want to keep control of their product, opening it up to outside developers could give the service the shot in the arm it needs to become somewhat relevant. Unfortunately, this doesn’t look likely.

Facebook has proven that “mainstream” users already invested in a service are very, very difficult to scare off, and so far Twitter hasn’t offended them directly. Let’s just hope they can keep up a high standard of native apps.

Elliot Bentley

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