One of the most successful APIs in use on the Internet today belongs to Twitter. Despite its overwhelming success – and half a billion users – Twitter has struggled into profitability. The service can be used freely by anyone, for anything imaginable – but that doesn’t create revenue for Twitter. CEO Dick Costolo has decided on a change of direction, restricting the API in an effort to channel Twitter’s users toward Twitter-created tools showing Twitter-approved views — delivered with embedded, unblockable advertising.
It’s a tricky thing to change an API that millions of developers have been using for years. Many of Microsoft’s APIs for its Windows operating system have remained essentially unchanged for almost two decades, precisely because the software giant did not want to force programmers to re-write their programs – and risk losing them to a competing operating system. Most often companies will ‘deprecate’ their APIs, essentially saying, “We’d prefer you didn’t use this, but if you really must, here it is,” keeping them available for years while guiding programmers through a relatively painless transition into the new API – that’s Apple’s strategy.
In order to satisfy its commercial imperatives, Twitter will remove services, not simply obsolete and replace them. Some things a developer can do with Twitter today will not be possible in the near future. Their applications will break, and no amount of rewriting will restore that functionality.
Twitter has become an Internet-on-top-of-the-Internet, a way of making connections through an abstract interface which removes the requirement of knowing where the connection is being made. Although we rarely reflect upon it, the Internet is very much like a landline telephone network – an Internet Protocol (IP) address is attached to a specific computer in a specific place. This is glossed a little for mobile devices, which have temporary IP numbers assigned to them as needed, but the idea remains the same: the number maps onto a computing device.
Twitter changed that; I could be on any computer anywhere, and, via Twitter’s switchboard messaging, could engage in communication with another computer (and user) anywhere, neither side possessing any awareness of the location the other. All you need is the Twitter account ‘handle’ – such as @mpesce, @TheEconomist, or @servalproject – to directly connect to the other party. This is an important service, one for which there is great demand. If Twitter will not provide this service, another organization will rise up to meet that need.
Software developer App.Net recently raised half a million dollars through crowdfunding to provide such a service. When they started their fundraising, Twitter had not announced its change in direction, but their timing was excellent – as soon as the announcement came, contributors flocked to App.Net, knowing they would need a reliable provider, serving up an API providing the abstract connections that has made Twitter so powerful.
Twitter seems perfectly content to cede this ground, choosing short-term profits over long-term utility, casting itself as an application, rather than the plumbing that makes many applications possible. There may be no glory in plumbing, but people will always need it; plumbing opens the path to opportunities inconceivable for an advertising business.