Twitter Under Federal Investigation For Shutting Out Developer Community

Twitter’s developer community is huge. How big? Recently it was reported as being as large as 900,000 apps over 600,000 developers making about 13 billion API requests each and every day.

As I said: huge.

But things quickly change. Earlier this year, a series of strategic moves saw Twitter acquire some important third-party clients and re-brand them as official products, whilst flat-out blocking those of competitors, which began to unsettle the development industry. When the company then started telling developers that they should no longer be building apps that mimic the Twitter experience, things got really edgy. After all, they protested, many had invested time and resources into building a business that fundamentally depended on Twitter.

Relations soon reached a boiling point. And now, US regulators have begun an investigation into whether Twitter has unfairly disadvantaged those businesses and developers who had come to rely on the platform, and what, if anything, should be done about it.

Some history. In February Twitter first rocked the developer world by suspending several clients from rival Ubermedia, including Twidroyd and the app that was then known as UberTwitter. The suspension lasted for three days. Ubermedia made some requested changes – which included getting rid of the ‘Twitter’ part from UberTwitter (it was renamed UberSocial) – and their uptime privilege was resumed.

Twitter continued to clamp down on third party apps, and over time has begun to acquire those that might have presented a threat to their control. This began with the purchase and assimilation of Tweetie back in April 2010, which was renamed into the official Twitter For iPhone app, and recently included TweetDeck, although it remains to be seen what they’ll do with that.

Twitter has every right to push its official range of clients,
but must it be at the expense of everybody else?

Then, in March, Twitter really put the screws on developers by eliminating all doubt about how that relationship is going to move forward. A message from platform lead Ryan Sarver got right to the point:

“Developers have told us that they’d like more guidance from us about the best opportunities to build on Twitter.  More specifically, developers ask us if they should build client apps that mimic or reproduce the mainstream Twitter consumer client experience. The answer is no.”

And if all that wasn’t monopolistic enough, last month Twitter announced the launch of its own internal photo-sharing service, which could very well mean the end of once-popular image uploaders such as Twitpic and yfrog.

So, here’s the big question that developers want answered: is the door to Twitter still open, inasmuch as there will always be plenty of slices of bread to go around and a place for everybody at the table (albeit with certain restrictions)? Or is that door rapidly closing, with less and less opportunity available for those who want to build third party apps that depend on Twitter’s data?

We should know soon enough, as this week the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has begun to hold meetings with developers to investigate the way that Twitter manages its relationships with those businesses that have wanted to use the network’s ecosystem to build apps and provide services.

So far Twitter has declined to comment, but those impacted by the platform’s decision process and the regulator’s actions have said a few words. UberMedia were amongst the first to be approached by the FTC, and have stated that they “intend to fully comply with their request for information”.

Loic Le Meur, the outspoken founder of Seesmic, said on Tuesday that “the opportunity around Twitter is not open” and that Seesmic had begun to inch away from its original focus on Twitter as a result.