Dalton Caldwell: App.net may not have won yet, but we are still fighting the good fight

When entrepreneur Dalton Caldwell launched the open platform known as App.net a year ago this week, it looked like a fool’s errand. It didn’t help that everyone seemed to see the new service as an attempt to build a paid replacement for Twitter, and therefore doomed. But while many have long since consigned it to the dustbin of history, Caldwell says he has already succeeded with the market he was hoping to appeal to — namely, developers — and that he believes App.net has created the prototype for a viable social-app ecosystem.
Caldwell said in an interview that he still believes building an open social platform is “a fight worth fighting” — and he now has more resources to apply to that fight, since he just closed a $2.5-million financing round with Andreessen Horowitz. Even if App.net was to stop now, Caldwell says he has already gotten farther than any other attempt to create an open social-app platform: there are over 150,000 App.net users, and the directory has over 250 apps in it, some with tens of thousands of downloads.

“We’re not at the level of a Facebook where we have tens of millions of users, but then how many make it as far as we have? Usually things die in the cradle before they make it to 100,000 users. We may not be huge, but there is a small hardcore userbase that actually uses this thing — it’s not a science project, it’s got a heartbeat. And we have momentum.”

An audacious proposal

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The idea that App.net was going to be a paid version of Twitter got started because at the time Caldwell launched the service, Twitter had been under fire for closing down its network to third-party developers in a variety of ways — by tightening its restrictions on API use, for example, or shutting off access to applications it saw as competitors, such as Tumblr. Caldwell sparked a lot of attention with a post he wrote entitled: “What Twitter could have been,” about how the service could have been a powerful open API platform.
In a followup post called “An audacious proposal,” Caldwell said that he believed one of the problems with networks like Twitter and Facebook and Google+ was that their interests were not aligned with third-party developers or users. In most cases, he argued, these services are driven by a desire to get as large as possible and to control as much of the network as possible, so that they can monetize their userbase through advertising.
Instead, Caldwell envisioned a network or platform whose interests would be aligned with developers: one where developers would pay a monthly fee for access, so that advertising and other click-driven monetization methods wouldn’t be necessary.
By doing so, he hoped to create an ecosystem that would allow independent developers to create a whole variety of interesting applications and services in the cloud — including micro-blogging or messaging services like App.net, the somewhat confusingly named Twitter-style application (now known as Alpha) that was intended to be a demonstration of what was possible. And that vision has been borne out over the past year, he said, since App.net has produced a fairly broad variety of apps.

“It feels good after a year to look back and see all the stuff people have built, which to me demonstrates that yes, developers wanted the thing we were talking about a year ago, and 2) the platform is actually not vaporware, so you can build those kinds of things now, it’s not just me telling a story and not backing it up… and also that users want it. There’s applications people are building that people actually want to use.”

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People always switch to better mousetraps

Although there are plenty of apps in the App.net directory and on iOS and Android that simply provide access to the platform’s Twitter-style messaging service, Caldwell says the ones he is most encouraged by are the apps that use the platform to do something interesting that wouldn’t be possible without it — such as a Dropbox-style file management app that uses App.net for storage and sharing, a group messaging app and an app that allows users to create old-style chatrooms using the platform.
App.net may still be relatively small, but Caldwell says that he believes the need for an open social platform is as large as ever — if not larger, since both Twitter and Facebook have continued to clamp down on developers and increase the restrictions on what they can do.
If App.net can become the go-to platform for independent developers to create interesting social apps, Caldwell argues, then eventually they will build one that is insanely viral — like Snapchat — and that in turn will drive user interest in the network, and create the kind of network effects the ecosystem needs to grow. It’s the same philosophy behind the growth of Dropbox and Evernote, he said, both of which have opened up their APIs and ecosystems.

“The whole reason we’re doing this is we think there’s a huge demand for a social platform that developers can build on, and I have so much faith in developers that I believe their applications are what will attract people. I believe that people always switch to better mousetraps, and most of the innovation we’ve seen has been coming from independent app developers, not from the big platforms. I think the fight is worth fighting, and I think the market need for the kind of thing we’re building definitely exists.”

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Shawn Campbell