Facebook and Twitter are hurting the startup ecosystem – and developers won’t stand for it

facebook and twitter are closed

These days, it isn’t enough for a tech startup to create an app – what you really need to create is a platform. We’re constantly seeing it; smallish Web or mobile products that begin life as their little solitary selves, but soon evolve into full-fledged services with impressive user numbers. In time, it becomes so popular that it decides to woo developers into creating products that leverage its core service. Soon, our little tech product that could has spawned an entire ecosystem of smaller services that rely on it. If you’re an app maker, that’s when you know you’ve made it. When you’re a platform.

Facebook and Twitter have certainly made it. Both services, without a doubt, have grown out of their infant app beginnings and are big, powerful platforms – and while they used to be praised for their efforts with developers and the startups they gave rise to, bridges are being burned.  

Lately, there’s been a palpable change in the relationships between Facebook and Twitter and their respective developer ecosystems, starting with Twitter’s announcement that it was going to make an announcement about tightening the use of its API. Thus far, nothing has happened, but it’s put the fear into startups and developers who have based their products off of Twitter’s real time network.

“The effect is that every company working with the Twitter API is pulling back,” Nova Spivack tells me. He’s the co-founder of Bottlenose, a social web app that uses Twitter. He’s started a petition imploring Twitter to keep its ecosystem open. “We’re all concerned, we’re all looking for alternatives, waiting for someone to come make an API.”

“What they’ve done is hostile to their own ecosystem and to the people that helped built it. Whether it’s intentional or not, it’s very damaging.”

While Twitter might be losing developer good faith, it’s the many, many startups that have leveraged its network that are in more trouble. Spivack says that venture capitalists are pulling back from startups using Twitter’s service. “VCs don’t want to do anything – there are a large number of companies and deals that are stuck because of Twitter right now.”

Twitter isn’t the only one on trial. Dalton Caldwell recently took Facebook to task for its acquiring methods. “Your team doesn’t seem to understand that being ‘good negotiators’ vs implying that you will destroy someone’s business built on your ‘open platform’ are not the same thing,” Caldwell recently wrote in the blog post heard round the Internet last week (emphasis his). “I know all about intimidation-based negotiation tactics: I experienced them for years while dealing with the music industry. Bad-faith negotiations are inexcusable, and I didn’t want to believe your company would stoop this low. My mistake.”

app.net screenshotThis isn’t the first time Caldwell has made noise about the current state of our social networking platforms, launching his App.net proposal shortly after Twitter’s infamous announcement about an impending API announcement. (It should be emphasized, no actual change has been implemented as of yet.) And now, this most recent charge, centers around the fact that he built something for Facebook’s platform and was then informed it competed too closely to its new App Center and was more or less pressured to move on.

These open platforms each offer their own respective, incredibly important elements: Twitter is a worldwide, real-time communication tool, and Facebook is easily the forefront in preserving actual identity online. And, of course, they have millions upon millions of users. But what Caldwell and many, many developers have a problem with is that the promise these networks held for them is slipping through their fingers — that the risk of tying themselves to these services is becoming too great. 

The times have changed, and these two platforms, which have each at different moments been lauded for their developer ecosystems and job creation effect, don’t look much like they once did.

Their tactics differ; Facebook acquires its competition (and apparently, pressures them) and Twitter squeezes them out with API changes – but the result is the same: A loss of developer trust and interest. No one knows that better than TwitPic founder Noah Everett, who saw his product directly targeted by Twitter last year. “We understand that Twitter owns the platform and we don’t expect a handout,” he tells me. “We just thought the communication was really lacking. We had no idea they were coming out with a competing product.”

“If we would have known six months before, we could have prepared, or pivoted, but they didn’t tell us.”

The experience was partially what motivated Everett to create a competing real-time communication service, Heello, which he promptly rushed out the door last year. “We left out a lot of features we wanted, and over the past six months we’ve been working on the new iteration of what we always wanted it to be.”

heello relaunchToday Heello’s re-introducing itself along with multimedia and location check-ins built in, as well as inline displays for viewing this content.

User-facing features are all well and good, but Heello’s developer principles are clearly a large part of what the platform has to offer. “We’re going to focus on the developer community and it’s going to be a learning process, but we’re going to provide communication and work out any conflict that could arise,” he says. “Our goal is to give developers a way to make money off our platform.”

Heello will also eventually launch an ad model and users can pony up to the pro version to go ad free. Developers will be able to take advantage of an ad revenue share program as well. There’s also an inherent trust system that Everett doesn’t want to break with Heello.

As Facebook prioritizes its stock prices and Twitter pushes its new media model on the developers and users that were such a vital part of their creation, it’s clear that the door for alternatives is inching open. LinkedIn certainly noticed, yesterday releasing a new developer website and an updated and improved share API that gives developers more visibility.  

It’s not just smart for businesses to see a hole in the market and take advantage – it could mean investors start looking at betting on alternatives. Facebook has proven to be anything but a safe place to put your money, and the Twitter ad platform still raises eyebrows. There could be shift coming. “This is their Myspace moment,” Spivack says of Twitter. “There are several new alternatives in the works.”

Caldwell echoed this in his Facebook rant, saying “…you constructed a business that has financial motivations that are not in-line with users and developers. Even if my project [App.net] isn’t the mechanism that instigates this change, the change will happen.”

Twitter isn’t going to entirely shut off its API, and Facebook isn’t going to acquire every startup that gives them a little trouble. But both platforms have certainly tainted their entirely pro open platform, startup-friendly reputations – and the developer community is taking note.