On Friday, news broke that Twitter acquired Loren Brichter’s Atebits, the company behind Tweetie. Twitter plans to rename Tweetie for iPhone as Twitter for iPhone, slash the price from $2.99 to free, and apparently release a custom iPad client as well.
I’ve previously reviewed the iPhone apps Tweetie and Tweetie 2 for Macworld, the latter scoring a perfect five mice. I wrote specifically that Tweetie 2 wasn’t just the best iPhone Twitter app, but the best Twitter app on any platform.
So it makes sense that Twitter would want to own Tweetie. Twitter’s extremely open and easy API has had several near-simultaneous effects:
It allowed developers to make (far) better tools for using Twitter than the Twitter website itself. This in turn contributed to the popularity of the site overall, as it was easier to use and get notifications from. The increased popularity exhibited the familiar “network effect”; more interest meant still more Twitter clients. More Twitter clients meant increased competition, which thus meant the quality of the best Twitter apps continued to rise. As a result, Twitter (the website) became increasingly less useful, serving mostly as the interface for newcomers to the site who didn’t know any better.
Twitter software developers have, to date, generated more revenue than the Twitter site.
By acquiring Tweetie, Twitter now owns the best Twitter client, which makes sense. But regardless of whether it’s the right business decision for Twitter (it is), does it unfairly and negatively impact other developers who make numerous other very good, very popular Twitter clients?
The knee-jerk response is: Yes, it sure does.
I tried to come up with an apt comparison. Apple makes a free default Mail client, but others can offer premium email clients for the Mac desktop. Few do, fewer make any money from it. But the analogy isn’t perfect, since Apple doesn’t “own” the email protocols the way Twitter owns Twittering.
Google does own Gmail. But you don’t have to use the Gmail website; you can use any email program to access your Gmail email, and a few developers even offer for-pay dedicated Gmail clients. A closer, but still imperfect analogy. And again: I imagine very few of those developers make any real money.
A much closer analogy is the world of instant messaging. AIM and Yahoo! offer their own dedicated clients, but software like Adium and Trillian compete with those free apps with their own interfaces to the messaging protocols. And here’s the tricky part: Both are offered for free. Adium is open-source; Trillian comes in free and premium flavors.
The biggest impact Twitter owning Tweetie will have on developers is that, from this point on, no more Tweeties — that is, premium, paid-only Twitter clients — will ever see much success again. Twitterrific has long been freely available using an advertising model, and the latest incarnation (for iPad) wisely offers in-app upgrades (to remove ads and to enable support for multiple accounts).
But if Twitter née Tweetie for iPad offers multiple accounts for free, how many people will ever give Twitterrific money now? And I don’t think the answer changes much even if Twitter for iPad is only 75% as good as Twitterrific.
This isn’t a death knell for other Twitter clients. Mozilla has success with Firefox even though they don’t charge for it, have a relatively small market share, and don’t sell it. In-app advertising (in this case, revenue agreements with search engines when searches are triggered from the in-browser search field) keep the (open-source) project flush with cash.
But it does mean that future Twitter clients on any platform where Tweetie/Twiter competes (iPhone, iPad, Mac) will likely never again be able to charge up front with any real success.