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Twitter app competition

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Friday afternoon, Twitter announced they were acquiring Atebits, maker of Tweetie, a popular iPhone and desktop Twitter client and would be rebranding it as "Twitter for iPhone" and "Twitter for OSX." People were up in arms over the weekend, angry that Twitter would now be competing against third party apps. One Twitter client maker questioned if it was wise for them to bother continuing development at all.

I can understand the sentiment, but once you get past the immediate emotional reaction to the news, life for Twitter clients is hardly over.

Presumably the developers of clients already thought their product was better than Tweetie. That’s why they continued to develop. The fact that Tweetie is now owned by Twitter and not Atebits doesn’t change this. If your product was better before, it’s still better now. Tweetie now has better distribution but that’s about all that changed.

Twitter’s ownership of Tweetie doesn’t automatically make it a winner. In fact, in their very announcement of the acquisition, Twitter made a huge marketing blunder in changing the name. They’ve taken an established brand and replaced it with a generic name. "Twitter for iPhone" doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Consumers tend to shorten multiword brands to a single name. You don’t drive a Ford Mustang, you drove a Mustang. You don’t use Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome, you use Firefox or Chrome. What’s a consumer going to call Twitter for iPhone? Probably just Twitter, resulting in brand confusion and dilution. What app is that? "Twitter." Uhh, the web site? Some Twitter app?

There are many products that have succeeded on a platform despite that platform having a bundled competitor. Firefox and is doing quite well, even though both Windows and OSX come with a web browser. My iPhone came with Notes, but I and millions of others use Evernote instead. Every new computer comes with an IM client and every IM network distributes their own, yet alternative clients like Adium, Pidgin, and Trillian still manage to do well.

These alternative tools thrive because they provide a better product than the native application. They add features that the bundled app doesn’t have, provide a better user experience, or give access to networks beyond those provided in the bundled apps.

Likewise, this is what Twitter clients can and should be doing. Did anyone really think there would be a solid long term business to be made around building a desktop portal to a single social network? Twitter clients are easy enough to build they’re the CS 101 student’s project of choice. Building a good one is harder, but a lightweight client that talks to well-known public APIs is going to get commoditized pretty quickly. See email, web browsers, and RSS readers for examples from history.

If you’re making a Twitter client today, you should see opportunity in this move by Twitter. One of your leading competitors has announced that they intend to never move beyond Twitter. You can do what you should have been doing all along, and add multiple social networks, better management tools, and better notification engines, and Tweetie won’t be matching you.

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