The Near Futurist
8Jun/09Off

The Coming Assault on Twitter

Here come the Mongols!

The scene has been played out over and over again, and I can't imagine it will be any different for Twitter. Here's how it goes:

  • Company A produces a product, gains tremendous traction
  • Other players in the industry start to see this success, scratch their heads to figure out how to get a share and compete
  • Without momentum on their side, industry players turn to the one thing they can use to battle the incumbent: openness and standards.
  • Company A is made to look bad for being a "closed" system. Pressure is put on Company A until "something happens."

Yes, I've purposely made the final point vague by referring to it simply as "something happens." That's because what happens next depends on how Company A responds, how the industry players rally and galvanize, and whether or not there are other factors involved.

Let's take a few examples of this happening in recent years.

1. America Online

"You've got fail!"

Remember when KFC was called...sorry, when AOL was called America Online? Back then, when the masses wanted to be online, you signed up for America Online. They had their closed email, their closed content, their closed instant messaging. What did they care? They had up to 30M users at one point.

And what happened? The industry rallied around the open and standards-based "Internet." "Come, be free and get everything!" beseeched the open capital I-Internet. And by the droves, they did. Pretty soon, that 30M number started trending downward like a black diamond slope at Squaw Valley.

America Online, for its survival, finally opened up "the entire Internet" to its subscriber base, changed its name to AOL, was acquired by Time Warner, and ended up getting eaten alive by telcos offering cheap broadband.

Lesson: America Online made its money on access, and once that access became limited (i.e. not as valuable) and commoditized, it lost.

2. Sun Microsystems, Silicon Graphics, Hewlett Packard, IBM

"Critics are like eunuchs (UNIX?) in a harem; they know how it's done, they've seen it done every day, but they're unable to do it themselves." -Brendan Behan

There was a time when many businesses ran a UNIX operating system that wasn't Linux-based. You could buy servers with Solaris, or IRIX, HP-UX or AIX. When you were a systems administrator or programmer, you had to specify which flavor of UNIX was your speciality, and many a holy war was touched off based on which flavor was superior.

Then a fellow name Linus Torvalds came along and ruined it for everyone. Well, everyone except anyone who wanted an open-source and standards-based UNIX OS to run their desktop and server. Slowly but surely, Linux OSes crept into every size enterprise, and every parts of the organization. Openness triupmphed over closedness. Agreed upon standards were put in place in favor of different idiosyncracies of each type of UNIX OS. Linux has basically won the UNIX server world.

Lesson: for closed companies like Sun Microsystems, they continued to make a buck selling the OS with the hardware. For Silicon Graphics, they recently shuttered their doors entirely. For HP, they focused more on providing high-end server software, and for IBM, AIX still runs today, albeit in much more specialied fashions.

3. Facebook

"You wanna be where everybody knows your name..."

The world of online social networking is a story without an end yet. There are quite a few social networks, both mass-market and specialized. But clearly in the US, Facebook has, if not gotten the numbers yet, won over the hearts and minds of anyone above the age of 18. Your social graph of record is stored there, and any activity with that online social graph will likely find its way back to Facebook.

And what is the competition doing? They've rallied around...you've guessed it...openness and standards. The biggest industry players, in the name of openness, formed OpenSocial to provide a common platform for developers to write their apps, allowing them to write once, and hope to gain broad distribution. (Full disclosure: I have in the past done outreach for OpenSocial.) "Why write an app for one social network that only reaches X million users, when you can write it once and reach 5X users?"

As I said, the end of this story has yet to be written. We are at a crossroads, where Facebook is trying to figure out whether it makes sense for them to be truly open ("Do we give away the farm?"). One strategy they have employed is the one that Microsoft famous, "extend and embrace." This can be seen in their recent efforts with Facebook Connect to tie users even more tightly to Facebook as their online social graph of record. You can also see it in their desire to become more like Twitter by redesigning their user interface.

4. Twitter

"Two roads diverged in a wood..." -Robert Frost

Which brings us to Twitter. Today, Twitter is the uncontested champion of...microblogging? Social messaging? Social marketing? Whatever you call it, Twitter stands alone. With Facebook's recent change to become more Twitter-like, even those not in the Silicon Valley bubble can hear those shockwaves, but for now, Twitter has the throne (ironically like Facebook, if not in numbers, than in mindshare, press coverage, etc.)

The Mongol Horde came bearing openness and standards

So what have we learned about trying to unseat an incumbent? Openness and standards. Today, there are no open standards defined for microblogging (for simplicity, I'll use that word). Why? Mostly because the only company doing it thus far at any scale has been Twitter. But they have clearly awoken the Facebook beast, and it won't be long before other big companies join the race. And if those other players are smart, they will likely start rallying for an "open standard" for defining, accessing, and developing with microblogs. Surely the Open Microblog Protocol is coming soon, and anyone who wants to integrate these systems will have to come on board with this new open API and platform. Client apps will show up, allowing you to microblog to multiple platforms at once, and developers will complain about how they have to integrate both the OMP and the Twitter API. And as this "grassroots" effort begins to take hold, Twitter will be faced with a decision: do they open up and integrate like the rest, or do they resist and figure out a different path forward.

That, of course, will be for the smart folks at Twitter to contemplate and solve. An ideal solution will likely involve a lot of tinkering, much like the very first Twitter product did. No, there won't be a silver bullet. More than likely, it will be a solution that involves hundreds of individual decisions by many people that lead Twitter out of the wilderness. There won't be any perfect solutions, but there will likely be those solutions that allows Twitter to maintain dominance in this field, while still allowing for openness.

But make no mistake: that assault is coming, and Twitter would do itself good by preparing for the worst.

Prologue: as I wrote this, I read a news article from ProgrammableWeb that Microsoft has just released the Bing Search API with no usage limits. As a third-place search engine, Microsoft needs to start taking big risks (see my previous blog post) if they hope to gain any ground on Google. This seems like one of those big risks, and – surprise, surprise! – it's a step towards openness.
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