Yes, Twitter Will Drink Your Milkshake

Updated: Twitter investor Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures may have thought he was just musing aloud about the Twitter ecosystem and whether it has reached an “inflection point” in his recent blog post, but it seems as though some third-party app developers took his comments about Twitter features as a thinly veiled declaration of war. Why? Because the Twitter VC suggested that the social network should have had features such as a URL shortener, a picture-uploading service and other, additional services built in, rather than relying on third-party developers to come up with these add-ons later. The implication, according to some observers, is that Twitter is going to develop its own versions of these features and squeeze out third-party companies. Programming guru Dave Winer put some of these fears into words in a blog post.
In some ways, Wilson’s post seems more like a thoughtful exploration of Twitter’s future (which is how I interpreted it), but it’s clear that the tension surrounding Twitter and its eventual business model — or models — has risen to the point where even an offhand observation by a VC can cause a flash fire to erupt.
This isn’t the first time that developers have gotten their knickers in a knot about Twitter and its intentions, however: Twitter developer Alex Payne caused a minor ruckus in February when he mentioned (in a tweet that has since been deleted from his stream) that there were some cool new features coming to the service’s web site and that once people saw them “you might not want to use a third-party client.” TechCrunch wrote a post speculating that this meant Twitter was going after third-party apps, and Payne decided to stop blogging in part because he thought his comments had been misconstrued. Twitter staffers later tried to smooth the waters at an open house with app developers, video of which is embedded below.
But even if Wilson was firing a shot across the bow of Twitter developers (which he denies), should any of this really come as a surprise to third-party app companies? After all, we’ve seen this movie before — Microsoft’s (s msft) “embrace and extend” policy was built on that kind of behavior. The bottom line is that as Twitter continues to grow, it’s going to do whatever is in the best interests of the company, and if that means gutting the “ecosystem” then so be it. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that Twitter has to compete with every third-party service — it could decide to buy them, as it did with Summize (which became Twitter search). Hopefully the industry will get a better sense of the company’s strategy at the upcoming Chirp conference.
One developer of Twitter apps told me: “Ever since I started developing applications based on Twitter, I knew about the risk that they could do some of the things I was working on themselves. So none of this should be a surprise to anybody. If anything, I think they took too long. It’s in Twitter’s best interest to incorporate some of these applications into their platform.” It’s also worth noting that just because Fred Wilson suggests something doesn’t mean Twitter will necessarily do it — something the VC pointed out in a comment on a post at Business Insider, saying “That post was my work, not Twitter’s work. While I am on the board of Twitter, I don’t work there and I don’t speak for them.”
But even if Twitter does add those features and squeezes out third-party add-ons, it will be another example of a valuable lesson: If you build your service on someone else’s platform, there is a good chance that they will wind up drinking your milkshake. Or as Twitter product manager Josh Elman said on Twitter: “In the history of platforms, hole filling has always been a great place to start, but never a great place to end, right?”
Update: Twitter co-founder and CEO Evan Williams talked about the tension between the service and third-party application developers in an interview with the New York Times, in which he said: “There are tons of opportunities created by the Twitter platform, and things that people will probably be disappointed if they invest in. It’s a question of what should be left up to the ecosystem and what should be created on the platform.”
Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Malu Green