Pete Karl is an engineer who builds Twitter apps at the Digital Influence Group and his own start-up called Lion Burger. “I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop,” he said. “Before, I think developers had the upper hand. But now it’s time for Twitter to try and make some money, and I think they want to create a situation where the scales are tipped more in Twitter’s favor.”
For the technology industry, this is a familiar story. Giving away technical secrets to those who want to use your product to build their own might seem counterintuitive to most companies, but it is a common path to success in the tech world. Microsoft, Apple, Google and Facebook have all, to varying degrees, opened their platforms this way.
It can be a stunning source of growth.
“Embracing the openness leads to ubiquity, and if you can embrace that ubiquity, you can make money,” said Mark C. Stevens, a lawyer for start-up companies at Fenwick & West in Silicon Valley.
But invariably, the provider and the developers bump against each other. “That’s how it always is when you develop for a corporate-owned platform,” Dave Winer, software developer, blogger and visiting scholar at New York University, wrote last week. “You have to make peace with that reality before you write your first line of code.”
Microsoft, for example, became ubiquitous in large part because of all the tools, like memory managers, that outside developers built. Once Microsoft built memory managers into Windows, those start-ups became irrelevant.
Twitter has been unusually free about letting developers tap into its data and technology, through what is known as an application programming interface. Sometimes it gives developers certain tools, like geolocation for Twitter posts, before it uses them on its own site, and developers can use the data and create a site or app without signing any contracts or even alerting Twitter.
“The problems we’re solving are so big that we need a lot of people working on them and we need to give them the same level of access,” said Ryan Sarver, the director of platform at Twitter.
If developers build something Twitter wants, the company has three options — let it exist separately, create its own version, or buy the start-up, as Twitter did in 2008 with Summize, which created a Twitter search engine, and last week with Atebits.
“For every platform ever, it’s a question of what should be left up to the ecosystem and what should be created on the platform,” Mr. Williams said.
Developers are rapidly learning that truth. Heypic.me is an iPhone app for posting photos to Twitter and to a Web site that shows Twitter photos on a map of the world.