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Developers Fret Over Twitter's Software Strategy

Some worry that the company’s new applications will compete directly with their own.

It has been the question on the lips of Twitter’s critics ever since the company launched in 2006: how will the social messaging service ever make money?

Tweet this: Tweekdeck, shown here on several devices, is one of many software applications written for Twitter by external developers.

This week’s upcoming Chirp conference in San Francisco could finally provide an answer, as the company looks to share its latest plans–and paper over the cracks in its relationship with a legion of independent developers.

Alongside more technical details on the previously announced @anywhere platform for integrating Twitter with other websites, speculation suggests that Chirp could see the launch of an advertising system and better geo-location services–possibilities that leading coders are looking forward to hearing about.

“I think Chirp is an opportunity for Twitter to outline its advertising strategy, both for themselves and the ecosystem,” says Iain Dodsworth, the creator of popular desktop Twitter client TweetDeck. In addition, he suggests, the company could “discuss how they would want to see it implemented–best practices, tied in with their philosophies on ‘not being evil.’ “

Convincing developers that Twitter intends no harm may prove more difficult than expected, however, given the events of the past few days. On the surface, at least, it seems that Twitter is departing from its policy of working closely with outside developers and instead choosing to compete directly with them.

On Friday, the company made two surprise announcements. First was the news that it would produce its own client for accessing Twitter via BlackBerry handsets, a move that breaks with the tradition of relying on outside developers to create Twitter tools. Then the company created a minor tremor with the revelation that it would be doing the same for the iPhone by acquiring Atebits, the company behind the popular client Tweetie. This app will be rebadged as “Twitter for iPhone,” and Twitter will bring its creator, Loren Brichter, under its wing.

Some reacted angrily to the news.

“Twitter has just kicked all the other developers of Twitter iPhone clients in the teeth,” said one developer on a Twitter developer forum. Another responded by putting Tweeterena–a client with some 50,000 users–up for sale on eBay.

Not everybody thinks the latest twist is a major shock, however. The shift was signaled last week by investor Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures, a Twitter board member, who presaged the Tweetie announcement when he pointed out that developers needed to start focusing on innovation–not just plugging obvious gaps in the company’s existing product.

“I think the time for filling holes in the Twitter service has come and gone. … What are the products and services that create something entirely new on top of Twitter?” he wrote in a blog post.

For some of those suddenly faced with competing more directly with Twitter, it is important that the company offers an olive branch at Chirp. TweetDeck’s Dodsworth suggests that independent software houses will need to focus on things that Twitter itself cannot–or will not–bring in-house.

“I think it unlikely that Twitter will be adding Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace–or a few others’ streams we have coming up–to their interface any time soon, and that’s a pretty good differentiator,” he says.

And while plenty of talk at Chirp is likely to focus on the conflict between the company and third-party programmers, Twitter could easily smooth over fractured relationships with smart announcements–especially if those include financial incentives for developers.

Jan Schulz-Hofen runs a Twitter advertising network called Be A Magpie, which boasts 15 million users, making it the largest of its kind.

“The people at Twitter are very smart and won’t be reinventing the wheel,” he says. “We expect them to either come up with something that’s entirely new and groundbreaking, which will be good for the ecosystem as a whole, us included, or partner with existing players to help their business and take a share, which would also be good for us, I guess.”

Schulz-Hofen expects to see a number of new features aimed at those who use Twitter for business–including access to new data sources, tools for power users and other services that companies may be willing to pay for.

“As everyone else, we can only speculate,” he says. “But I would not be surprised to see more business features like coauthoring and analytics,” he says. “In-stream advertising? Maybe. I guess we will have to wait and see.”

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