Jack Dorsey and Twitter: Can you have a part-time product visionary?

New York Times technology writer Nick Bilton has published a profile of Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, and the challenges the company is facing as it tries to transform itself from a real-time information network into an advertising-driven media entity. But one of the interesting things about the piece isn’t what it tells us about Costolo or his background as an improvisational comedian — it’s the details that Bilton includes about the lack of involvement of Twitter’s co-founder and alleged product visionary, Jack Dorsey.

Although he was brought back into the company (with much fanfare) to help guide the product’s evolution, Dorsey is apparently not really involved with day-to-day decisions any more. So who is Twitter’s product visionary now, and what does that mean for the future of the service? According to Bilton, the co-founder has stepped back from having more of a day-to-day role within the company, in part because other employees said he was difficult to deal with and found his product direction confusing. As the NYT writer puts it:

“Mr. Dorsey’s role has since been reduced after employees complained that he was difficult to work with and repeatedly changed his mind about product directions. He no longer has anyone directly reporting to him, although he is still involved in strategic decisions.”

Who is Twitter’s chief visionary now?

As Bilton describes in his piece, Dorsey — who famously drafted the original idea for Twitter on a notepad in 2006 — left the company under less-than-auspicious circumstances in 2008, after Evan Williams took control and forced him out as chief executive, something Dorsey later said was “like a punch in the stomach.” But not long after Costolo took over as CEO of Twitter in 2010 (and Williams left to start a new startup incubator called Obvious), the company asked Dorsey to come back as executive chairman and help revitalize the product. At the time, Dorsey said on Twitter that he was “thrilled to get back to work at Twitter leading product.”

Over the next year, Twitter redesigned its mobile app and also its website, launching new features that allowed content to be embedded inside a tweet — something the company has since extended with what it calls “Twitter cards,” which allow videos and excerpts of other types of content to appear inside a frame. Some sources close to the company say this effort was the evolution of something called “annotations,” which Twitter promised it would roll out in 2010 but never implemented. Twitter cards are also seen by many as the key to the company’s future revenue plans.

Bilton doesn’t say when Dorsey’s role at the company was scaled back, although reports earlier this year from Business Insider and All Things Digital suggested he was no longer as involved as he had been, in part because his other company — the mobile-payment company Square — had started taking off (it has since become a major player with an estimated market value of $3 billion). And while the NYT piece says Costolo “looks to Dorsey for ideas,” and director of consumer product Michael Sippey also works with him to make sure the product is “Twittery,” it’s not clear exactly what Dorsey has been involved with when it comes to recent features.

What does Twitter want to be when it grows up?

So Twitter now has product leads in charge of consumer features, advertising and international, but it doesn’t have anyone driving the broader vision related to the service except for Costolo — who doesn’t have a product background — and Dorsey in what appears to be a part-time role. Some see that as a bad thing for a startup that is trying to balance the conflicting needs of users and advertisers, something that sources close to Twitter say is causing dissent even within the company. As angel investor Chris Dixon put it when Dorsey returned to the company last year:

“The history of tech companies shows again and again that having a great product-focused founder at the helm has always been the best thing for the company and for its customers/users.”

Twitter has been the target of a lot of criticism from developers and power users recently, for clamping down on the way external apps and services (such as Tumblr and Instagram) use the company’s API, and forcing them to display tweets in certain ways. The company and its supporters maintain that this is not meant as a crackdown on the Twitter ecosystem, but instead is a desire to implement a “consistent user experience” — the same reason the official iPad app was recently replaced, even though some users complained that features they liked were no longer supported.

Users and designers say Twitter’s crackdown on external apps would be a lot easier to tolerate or even support if the company’s own products were more appealing to use. So are the shortcomings in the service and its offerings a result of Dorsey’s vision, or the result of a lack of vision because he has stepped back from a day-to-day role with the company? Either way, those vision problems could cause Twitter even more growing pains in the future as it tries to go mainstream.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Jack Dorsey and Pinar Ozger