Can #NewTwitter Swim Faster Than a Fail Whale?

The Coast Guard reported Thursday that a ship entering San Francisco Bay struck a 25-foot whale and dragged it all the way to Berth 57 at the Port of Oakland, where it was pronounced DOA. (I’m not joking.)

If you worked at San Francisco-based Twitter and you were looking for bad omens, this might be one. The company is famous for the “Fail Whale,” a cheerful little drawing of a whale being borne aloft by birds. The graphic appears on the Twitter website every time the messaging service is over capacity, which is distressingly often. So when real whales start impaling themselves on the cargo ships that steam through the bay a couple of miles away from Twitter’s Folsom Street headquarters, you have to wonder if it’s nature’s warped way of sending a protest.

On the whole, it’s been an exciting month for the venture-funded startup, which launched in 2006. The folks at Twitter, the company, have been working very hard lately to prove that they can do cool things with Twitter, the communications platform. On September 1, they introduced a slick new app for the Apple iPad and iPhone that’s truly among the best ways to access your Twitterstream on those devices. And now they’re in the process of introducing a new version of the Twitter website—naturally dubbed #NewTwitter by social media mavens—that mimics some of the nicest features of the Twitter iPad app. (It’s an interesting case of tablet design influencing Web design.)

FailwhaleBut after spending a day playing with #NewTwitter, I still have my doubts about whether Twitter, the startup, can regain leadership when it comes to building innovative mobile and desktop applications that tap into Twitter, the microblogging service. The heart of the challenge for Twitter’s leaders, in my mind, is that the business and the platform are not the same thing. Thanks largely to decisions Twitter execs made early on about opening up the technology to outside developers, the service has taken on a life of its own, separate from any hopes the company may for commercializing it.

There are great applications like Flipboard and TweetDeck (I’ll say more about each of these in a moment) that let millions of people use Twitter, the service, every day without ever visiting or having a substantive interaction with Twitter, the company. There is a whole online marketplace for Twitter apps,, where you can browse more than 1,000 Twitter apps for the Web and hundreds for mobile and desktop platforms. But only a handful of these are made by Twitter itself.

What Twitter’s founders invented, in other words, wasn’t really a product. It was a new communications genre—one as useful in its own way as e-mail and text messaging, and just as important as a platform for experimentation. What’s bizarre, when you think about it, is the fact that all tweets still have to pass through Twitter’s servers. It’s as if AOL were handling every e-mail message in the world, or as if Verizon were handling every SMS message. It would be a completely absurd situation, if it weren’t for the fact that Twitter really did invent the idea of 140-character messages that get distributed to collections of followers, and thus has every right to profit from it.

The problem is that there’s something bigger at stake here than one company’s fortunes. In a previous column about Twitter, back in March 2009, I wrote that “If tweeting is truly fundamental—that is, if Internet users start to think of it as a basic feature of the Internet comparable to e-mail or instant messaging, as I believe many already do—then it may turn out to be too important to leave to Twitter.” I think that’s even more true now than it was last year, and it’s an issue that Twitter, its investors, and its users may have to resolve before either the company or the platform can grow to their full potential.

But enough pontificating for the moment. Let’s get down to brass tacks, and compare the Twitter apps being created by outside developers with those the company is building in-house. I think you have to conclude that the outside developers are still innovating faster—which eventually leads back to … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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2 responses to “Can #NewTwitter Swim Faster Than a Fail Whale?”

  1. Lily says:

    Is anyone here actually making money from Twitter?

  2. After reading this fine article, I still don’t know which twitter app to use for my iphone.