War Is Hell: Welcome to the Twitter Wars of 2011

Did you hear that noise? It sounded like a cannon shot. And it was: a cannon shot fired from Twitter headquarters, directly across the bow of UberMedia — and, by extension, across the bow of every third-party developer whose app competes in some way with the micro-blogging service. With little or no warning, Twitter flipped the “kill switch” and shut down several of UberMedia’s apps on Friday afternoon, including UberTwitter and the popular Android app Twidroyd.

Twitter says the reasons were simple: trademark infringement and breaches of the terms of service. But there is a lot more to this than just a squabble over usage, and Twitter’s heavy-handed behavior is drawing some fire even from the company’s supporters.

The first notice that anyone had of serious issues between Twitter and UberMedia came when users suddenly couldn’t access the network through UberTwitter and Twidroyd on Friday afternoon. Shortly afterward, a post appeared on the Twitter support blog saying that the apps had been shut down for “violating our policies” — but even that explanation only came after a description of the “official” clients for Twitter (with some helpful links) and a generic-sounding statement about how the company asks applications “to abide by a simple set of rules that we believe are in the interests of our users.”

The blog post didn’t even describe what the actual violations by UberTwitter and Twidroyd were — those details didn’t come out until someone posted a question on the Q&A site Quora about the shutdowns, which drew a comment from Twitter communications staffer Matt Graves that included an explanatory statement that the company sent to the media. According to the statement:

The violations include, but aren’t limited to, a privacy issue with private Direct Messages longer than 140 characters, trademark infringement, and changing the content of users’ Tweets in order to make money.

Graves said the company had “had conversations” with UberMedia about some of the violations since April 2010, including the use of terms such as “tweet” and “twitter” in product names, and that the company hoped “that they will bring the suspended applications into compliance with our policies soon.” Meanwhile, UberMedia founder Bill Gross was busy doing damage control, posting on Twitter that the company was making changes to bring its applications into compliance (including changing the name of UberTwitter to UberSocial, something he said had been in the works for some time) and issuing a news release with the details (Om has an interview with Gross here).

I wrote recently about the potential for a serious collision between UberMedia and Twitter — based on Gross’s accumulation of Twitter clients, his attempts to launch a competing advertising product, and a recent financing that saw a series of venture funds put $17.5 million into the company — and this seems an obvious signal that Twitter is not going to take UberMedia’s potential competitive threat lying down. If it had wanted to handle things quietly, Twitter could easily have negotiated something with UberMedia via back-room diplomacy. Instead, it clearly decided to send a message, both to UberMedia and to other third-party developers: Namely, don’t step out of line.

Obviously, Twitter has the right to manage its network and provide access to whoever it wishes. But the heavy-handed way in which it terminated UberMedia’s apps drew criticism even from some of the company’s supporters, including venture investor Mark Suster. A partner with GRP Partners, Suster — who doesn’t have a stake in either Twitter or UberMedia — wrote a sharply critical Quora note and a somewhat friendlier blog post about the incident, saying he didn’t appreciate being cannon fodder in the war between Twitter and one of its third-party app developers. Angel investor Dave McClure, meanwhile, yanked the company’s chain with a tweet about the company not having to worry about any Google-style “don’t be evil” mantra.

When Twitter started buying up applications and clamping down on third-party apps last year, it was obvious that the company was no longer the free-wheeling, “everyone join the party” kind of operation it seemed to be in the early days, when third-party apps were seen as partners who could help the network grow and no one worried about things like trademark infringement (TwitPic and Tweetmeme and other apps and services continue to function without any problems — so far). But the no-holds-barred attack on UberMedia suggests that Twitter is even more willing to throw its weight around now, especially since there is a potential $10-billion valuation on the line. No more Mr. Nice Guy?

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Dennis Jarvis