¶ (In)Consistent Experience

About a week and a half ago, Twitter’s Michael Sippey penned a letter on Twitter’s developer blog about the service’s ambition of delivering a consistent Twitter experience.

A lot of speculation has swirled around Sippey’s post the past week, primarily because of this paragraph (emphasis mine):

Back in March of 2011, my colleague Ryan Sarver said that developers should not “build client apps that mimic or reproduce the mainstream Twitter consumer client experience.” That guidance continues to apply as much as ever today. Related to that, we’ve already begun to more thoroughly enforce our Developer Rules of the Road with partners, for example with branding, and in the coming weeks, we will be introducing stricter guidelines around how the Twitter API is used.

Why is this important to you and me? Well, it probably isn’t if you are happy with Twitter’s official clients. But for those of us who use third party clients like Twitterrific, Tweetbot, Echofon, or Plume — this potentially spells disaster for our favorite client.

I see this thinly veiled threat from Twitter being fully revealed in one of two ways:

  1. Third-party Twitter clients will have to introduce Twitter’s promoted tweets (ads) into the stream, and possibly modify how they present tweets to be in line with Twitter’s guidelines on Twitter Cards.
  2. Twitter kills all third-party clients by revoking their API access completely.

If the first option is what happens, I don’t see that as a bad thing, really. Twitter has to pay its bills, and they’ve chosen to do that through ads (I, honestly, would have paid a subscription for Twitter). Third-party clients get to use Twitter’s API for free, and many of them are paid apps. So, third-parties are making money for themselves while not having to provide direct revenue to Twitter.

I can live with ads in the tweet stream. Heck, if you use the official client, you already do.

Now, the second option. This is the tough one. I honestly don’t know if I could stomach using Twitter if third-party clients were killed. Why?

Because Twitter is a hypocrite. Here they are, claiming they want to deliver a consistent experience. But have you used various official apps from Twitter? They are anything but consistent.

The iPhone and Android apps behaves somewhat like the website experience, having both the Connect and Discover areas. However, the iPad app has hardly any of the same features as the phone apps and web. It also has a vastly foreign user interface in comparison.

And I don’t even want to get started on the Mac app, which has been neglected for over a year — its last update was on June 1, 2011. The Mac app cannot even upload an image to Twitter’s own picture service.

Now, maybe there are big updates in store for Twitter’s first-party apps that will unify the experience. But for a company that is implicitly saying it doesn’t want third-party clients in the ecosystem because they are “inconsistent”, they have been showing through history that they do not care about a consistent experience.

So let’s talk about a consistent experience. Go try Twitterrific out on your Mac, iPhone, and iPad. Everything is laid out relatively the same and the apps are updated consistently at the same time, rolling out new features to all platforms at once. If you use Twitterrific on one device, you know how to use it on the other.

The same goes for Tweetbot. Currently, Tweetbot is on the iPhone and iPad, and if Twitter doesn’t pull the third-party rug out, there will soon be a Mac version. On the iPhone and iPad, the Tweetbot experience is consistent and easy to move between one device to the next. I assume the Mac version will be very similar.

Simply put: third-party apps like Twitterrific and Tweetbot have proven they do a much better job at maintaining a consistent Twitter experience than Twitter itself does.

I know that when a company builds their product on top of another company’s product, they should expect that the rug could be pulled out from under them at any time. But it seems such a shame the way Twitter treats third-party developers, since I doubt Twitter would be half the juggernaut it is today without having been built up by third-parties in the first place.

Twitter, historically, has been largely unoriginal in how it has developed new features. Things like mentions and direct messages came from users, not Twitter. Twitter had to buy the leading third-party iPhone app (at the time, Tweetie) to offer the first version of an officially branded client. Even the use of the word tweet and associating a bird icon came from a third-party developer.

If Twitter pushes third-parties out the door, I don’t see a bright future for Twitter. The evidence shows they have little original inspiration and even less commitment to a consistent user experience.