Three months ago, I wrote about the hazards of building a business around a third party API. My point back then was that if you build against another company's API, you are at that company's complete mercy. Should they change their terms of service, throttle usage or simply go out of business, you would be left high and dry. But there's another big pitfall, as evidenced by the whole Twitter hubbub of the past week. When you build a business that relies on another company's API, there are only two endgames: 1) you get bought; 2) you get crushed. Odds are that #2 will more likely be your fate.
Much of the early work on the Twitter Platform has been filling holes in the Twitter product... Some of the most popular third party services on Twitter are like that. Mobile clients come to mind. Photo sharing services come to mind. URL shorteners come to mind. Search comes to mind. Twitter really should have had all of that when it launched or it should have built those services right into the Twitter experience.
Well, a few days after this post appeared Twitter announced the acquisition of Tweetie, a popular mobile client. Yesterday they announced a URL shortener called twee.tt. Last night it was their new ad platform, one that directly competes with this one, announced just two nights ago. Back in July of 2008 they killed the burgeoning Twitter search space by acquiring Summize. I would wager that Twitpic is either already in negotiations to be acquired, or shitting in their pants.
This is why APIs suck. Companies like Twitter use them when they are growing to enlist (exploit?) sucker developers to help them attract users and "fill in their holes." Then when they get nice and big and take on lots of VC money, they realize that it's time for them to starting making some money. So they begin cannibalizing their own ecosystem by either acquiring or competing with their loyal developers, benefiting a select lucky few while giving the shaft to the vast majority.
Moving forward, are developers going to continue to trust APIs like this? I'm not sure--Twitter has always been seen as one of the more open and developer-friendly companies out there. And all of this went down just days before Twitter's first annual developer conference, Chirp. What a way to kick off an event like that...
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