Hey, Twitter — shouldn’t it be about the users?

As expected, on Thursday Twitter released new restrictions on how third-party apps and services can make use of the network — including caps on how much data they can access and strict requirements for how tweets must be displayed. Depending on whom you listen to, this is either a totally logical and even welcome move by a growing corporation or a heinous betrayal of everything the company used to stand for and a sign it has completely lost its way. More than one observer has compared the reaction from developers to the response that die-hard music fans have when their favorite band signs a big record deal or sells out to an advertiser, and that probably sums up a lot of the angst pretty well.

Beneath all the sound and fury from developers, however, is a kernel of truth that Twitter would do well to consider: namely, that one of the reasons why external apps and services have been — and continue to be — such an important part of the company’s growth and success is that many of its own products are frequently underwhelming at best. If the point of the new API changes is to control more of the ecosystem and the Twitter experience, then the company had better make sure that experience is as good as it can possibly be, or it risks losing the very user base it is hoping to monetize, as others have in the past.

As Harry McCracken notes in a post at Techland, the description of the changes from consumer product lead Michael Sippey does a pretty poor job of explaining what kind of behavior Twitter is in favor of and what kind it isn’t, and it doesn’t really give users any kind of guidance at all when it comes to which apps or services they should feel comfortable using. The confusing table included in the post — with quadrants for different apps and abstract descriptions rather than names — obscured a lot more than it revealed, as highlighted by the fact that many people couldn’t tell whether Storify was one of the “good” apps or one of the bad ones and the director of platform Ryan Sarver was forced to try to clarify that with a tweet.

The new rules have their defenders, including some who argue that Twitter is at least providing some firm guidance for developers, since its attitude toward third-party apps and services has been the subject of a lot of fear and uncertainty. Others have made the point that placing limits on API use makes perfect sense for a company that is trying to generate revenue from its network, as opposed to giving every developer with an app a free ride, and that the limits are not onerous (although Bottlenose founder Nova Spivack argues that Twitter could actually make as much or more money by licensing the use of its API).

But while the limits on API use and the requirements for how Twitter can be used may not look extreme, the message behind them seems to be clear. As entrepreneur and venture investor Chris Dixon put it, “If you make a Twitter client, you should stop and make something else.” Instapaper developer Marco Arment has a similar view of the changes, saying they are obviously designed to make it difficult for other services to make use of what Twitter sees as its core functionality, to the point where one clause about how tweets must be displayed even appears to threaten popular aggregation apps like Flipboard. As Arment put it:

“Apps cannot interleave chronological groups of Twitter posts with anything else. This is very broad and will bite more services and apps than you may expect. It’s probably the clause that caused the dispute with LinkedIn, and why Flipboard CEO Mike McCue just left Twitter’s board.”

Squashing third-party apps means pain for users

The fact that Flipboard and Tweetbot — a popular mobile client — and possibly even services like Storify are threatened by Twitter’s moves highlights an important point: The company claims that these changes are being made to provide a “consistent user experience,” implying that all it really wants is to save users from irritating or poorly designed services. But the reason why people use apps and services like Flipboard, Tweetbot and Hootsuite in the first place is that they provide something useful that Twitter doesn’t. How does throttling or even extinguishing those kinds of apps help users? Just like the decision to pull tweets out of Google search, users are the ones who ultimately seem to pay for these kinds of moves.

One of the things that makes Tweetbot appealing as a mobile Twitter client, at least to me, is that it is consistently faster and better designed than the official mobile app and has a number of useful features that Twitter’s app doesn’t. As more than one person has pointed out, the company’s mobile web app and even its regular website also leave a lot to be desired in terms of usability, and the iPad app and Mac OS X apps appear to be the redheaded stepchildren of the family: They get few (if any) updates, and in some cases they may not even meet Twitter’s new display and usage guidelines.

It’s true that relatively few people use third-party apps, and so some have argued the developer angst and outcry isn’t worth paying attention to. But if this rationale is taken far enough, it turns into a kind of “we can do whatever we want, and users will have to put up with it” attitude, and that could be very dangerous indeed. As I have argued before, MySpace and Digg are a examples of companies that put the demands of revenue generation and business models ahead of what their users wanted, and they paid the price. They may not have had third-party developers, but the outcome was the same.

In a debate with John Gruber of Daring Fireball, who says Twitter is effectively telling developers to “drop dead,” Anil Dash argued that the company’s restrictions aren’t that different from what Apple has done with its app store and developer community. But unlike Twitter, Apple had a successful and attractive platform that developers were clamoring for access to. The platform Twitter is now trying to monetize would not have achieved much of its value if it wasn’t for the developers it is now spurning. Will it have the same value if they leave?

Furthermore, Apple’s focus has also always been on users and the user experience, and its requirements for developers — however draconian they seemed – have stemmed from that impulse. Twitter wants to portray its changes and restrictions in the same way, but it is a much harder argument to buy. It feels as though the company’s need to justify its $8 billion market value is taking precedence over everything else, and developers — and users — are getting caught in the crossfire.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Mark Strozier and Rosaura Ochoa