Why Twitter Survives
...or why I think Mashable is wrong.
Mashable has an interesting article that places Twitter's popularity purely on its simplicity. Even more bold, it believes that people haven't left Twitter because of its simplicity. Its competitors are simply too complex.
I contend that Twitter has succeeded and continues to succeed because no other service matches its breadth of distribution.
Avenues of Distribution
Twitter has been smart by allowing multiple ways to interact with the service:
- There's the web site, of course.
- There's the mobile site.
- There's instant messenger.
- There's the well-documented API.
- And there's SMS.
All of this combined has made Twitter a very compelling platform for barnacle application development. Having so many services that depend on it creates a great deal of resistence to move to other platforms.
This breadth of distribution is also one of the major things that people miss when they talk about making the Twitter-killer or think they know how to scale Twitter. Ultimately, people miss or forget or ignore one of the avenues of distribution.
It's a combination of push and pull technologies that have to work reliably together. The web site, the mobile site and the API are pull technologies that require requests from the end user. SMS and Instant Messenger are push technologies. Each technology you throw in the stack can cause issues in various ways if it goes down.
For example, one of the headaches that Twitter has to deal with every time their IM service goes down is bringing it back up. Suddenly, you receive a flood of status notices that a few thousand users are online. It's enough to take the service back down just as soon as it comes online.
Consider SMS and the cost of having short codes for various countries. The cost alone enough of a barrier for competition to enter the market.
Inevitably, many services are trotted out as possible Twitter-killers. Here's the more popular ones:
Pownce is often referred to as a possible alternative to Twitter. It's simple, well-designed, and has an API. But there's no IM or SMS, nor do I think it's practical for it to go that direction. It wasn't designed to do that. The tagline is "send stuff to your friends" and the service does that. It serves a niche that is separate and complimentary to Twitter and not necessarily a competitor. Pownce may wish to look into providing Twitter support as an additional facet of their service creating more of a "one-stop shop" approach.
Plurk is a relative newcomer to the marketplace and takes a very unique approach to how it displays information. With the lack of an official API (an unofficial but poorly documented API is available), no SMS, and an IM service that's currently down, it's a long ways away from taking down the likes of Twitter.
Finally, I wanted to mention Jaiku. It comes the closest to being the Twitter killer. Web site, check. Mobile site, check. SMS, check. IM, check. What about an API? Half check. They do offer up an API but it is limited and for the most part, read-only.
When you consider estimates that 10 times the Twitter traffic occurs over the API as it does on the web site, and you can see that the secret to building a competitor is building a compelling environment in which to do so.
Unfortunately, when Jaiku sold the service to Google, they shut off new signups. It has been 9 months since and they still haven't opened things up. Behind the scenes, they've been porting things over to Google App Engine and no doubt continuing to work on the service.
However, if Twitter gets its service stabilized before Jaiku's re-emergence, I hold out little hope for Jaiku to steal any major market share. I also find the Jaiku interface more complex than it needs to be.
The future of Twitter
My own interest in Twitter has been waning due to the unreliability of the service and API. I can only surmise that they are currently in the process of rearchitecting the entire application. Otherwise, they may be doomed to eternal failure.