Twitter ad play chokes third-party devs
Money rules. Not freedom
Open...and Shut For years people have talked up Twitter as the future of journalism, described it as a freedom-fighting platform and used other such bold phrases. As it turns out, Twitter is just an app. And not always a very good one, thanks to its increasing efforts to monetize the interface.
I suppose it was bound to happen. Twitter, for all its save-the-world hoopla, isn't a charity. It has investors, and those investors expect to make money on their investment. Lots of money. Twitter has been searching for a business model for years, and finally seems to have settled on one: advertising.
Yes, it's boring, but with more than 200 million users, it's not a bad way for the company to make money. Especially if it can force people to stare at its ads.
Twitter recently did two things to accomplish this. First, it took over a significant amount of screen real estate on its iPhone mobile app for a "trending topics" banner. It's so invasive and irrelevant to many of us that instantly howls erupted about how to remove it.
You can't. It's a "feature."
It's called the Quick Bar, it takes up 10 per cent of one's mobile screen, and it's actually designed to host ads.
Oh, and now Twitter doesn't want to allow anyone to use alternative clients that don't feature a Quick Bar. The company announced last week that due to "user confusion", the company was effectively going to kill (or maim) rival Twitter clients.
The game plan goes like this:
- Phase 1: introduce obnoxious Quick Bar as a not-so-secret Trojan Horse for ads
- Phase 2: kill off attempts to get a better Twitter experience in competing clients
- Phase 3: finally start making real money
Never mind that the best way to ensure people use Twitter's official client is for the company to actually build a great user experience that its customers want to use, Twitter has apparently decided to take the easier road: force.
But then, it's incorrect to call Twitter users "customers," because we're not, and therein lies one of the big problems for anyone who wants to moan about the change. While Twitter users provide value to the company and its network, we don't directly pay the company any money, which makes it somewhat easy to neglect what we want. (Of course, as Canonical chief technology officer Matt Zimmerman writes, smart companies are those that listen to users, not just customers.)
As the saying goes: "If you aren't paying for the product, you are the product." In the world of Twitter, its users just got sold.
There is no user confusion in Twitter land. There was simply confusion in Twitter's offices about how to make money. That has now been resolved.
Even so, it's not clear that this is the best way forward for Twitter. Bryce Roberts, managing director at O'Reilly Alpha Tech Ventures, sounds an alarm about Facebook that strikes home at Twitter, too:
It's easy to say that Facebook, at its best, is about solving big social challenges or organizing information on people....Facebook at its best is when it acts as an enabling platform and gets out of its users way....Facebook at its worst? ...When it gets lusty about data sets and application spaces it sees other start ups winning in like Groups, Q&A, Location and Comments and disregard its role as a platform.
Twitter is a platform. It's a network. Insomuch as the company gets into the game of dictating how its users interact with the underlying platform - that is, controlling which clients they use to access the Twitter stream - it feels like Twitter is out of its realm of expertise, and it could flail. Twitter used to listen to third-party developers - including those building alternative clients - and learn from them.
Twitter would be wise to continue. ®
Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Strobe, a startup that offers an open source framework for building mobile apps. He was formerly chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfreso's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open-source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears twice a week on The Register.
Re: You pay for texts?
Yes we all pay for text messages – the operators don't route them through their networks out of goodwill. In some markets this is hidden in the bill as a "package" of X messages allowed every month (and of course you pay the whole "package" whether you used it up by month's end or not); other times it's an "all you can eat" proposition. But the MNO's do sell this to us as a service – and anyone making an appealing case as to why we should care to buy it could reasonably expect to make a cut.
You don't have to clamp down on third-party clients to charge manufacturers for bundling them into their handsets. "By all means, bundle whatever client you want, third-party, homebrew, you name it. But if it gets out of factory Twitter-enabled, you pay." It would be relatively simple for Twitter to block non-complying handsets (by checking the UAS / UAProf on HTTP requests), just so the makers couldn't call it bluff.
As to the value in this proposition, imagine you're a manager in a manufacturer and decide this is ridiculous: "sure we can simply ship your handsets without a Twitter client, letting the task of installing one to consumers!" Then, the following month your competitor launches a properly-licensed, "Twitter-ready" model, and makes a beautiful marketing case out of how you can "just turn on and start tweet'ing!" Pesky competitors, eh?
As for the third idea, I was not talking about "promoted" anything, but of charging money – a monthly service fee, if you will – from businesses that use Twitter as a customer channel. This would be done in a way similar to how some softwares are "free for personal use" – private Twitterers enjoy it for free, corporate Twitterers pay up. You could even give them some sugar (e.g. support, extra customization options, etc) just so they don't think they're getting ripped for nothing, but the basic idea is that mostly everything remains the same, except that now it costs money.
The 140-character business plan
So after years of consideration all they could think of was force-feeding a billboard onto their users? Damn, I can think of three better business plans right now:
- Drum up txt'ing as the "natural" way to update Twitter accounts (the 140-character limit was originally meant to comply with SMS), then approach the Mobile Operators and ask for a cut from the increased messaging revenue. Or perhaps do it the other way around - strike a deal with the operators, then promote txt'ing updates?
- Charge handset manufacturers for bundling Twitter clients into their software, offering to provide / develop the client;
- Ever so slightly charge businesses for using Twitter as a customer channel (they're using the platform commercially, it's only fair they share a cut from their revenues).
What these three plans have in common is that they're unobtrusive, and don't jeopardize Twitter's user base. Also they mean going after real businesses and asking them for money, which of course takes some guts to do - perhaps the reason for falling back to an ad-based model in the first place?
Since they can't know ....
Yeah, because it would never occur to them to download a third party client and have a look at it. They'll never think of that.