Build, buy or encourage? That might be the simplest way to describe one of the key challenges Twitter faces as it works to figure out how best to improve the popular site, balancing its desire to support developers with the temptation of implementing new services itself.
In a blunt exchange during an onstage appearance at the Web 2.0 Summit late Wednesday, Twitter co-founder Ev Williams said the company has been in a transition phase the past few months that included the release of new features and a redesign of the website he called the New Twitter.
“If I look at the history of Twitter, we spent very little time improving the product, adding functionality or improving the user experience because our focus was on scaling up,” said Williams, who resigned from his CEO post earlier this year to work with the company’s designers and engineers on improving the service.
He said Twitter only recently got to the point where it could afford to make improvements that weren’t superficial. Williams said he wants to push the envelope and drive the introduction of new discovery features. “It’s really the beginning of where we see Twitter going,” he said, adding that others at the company are working on areas that include mobile, monetization and search.
But Twitter’s build out of new features poses a dilemma for developers. While Twitter encourages developers to build new services, Williams acknowledges his company reserves the right to buy companies or build services it thinks will improve Twitter most effectively. So a company with a Twitter utility or add-on service is somewhat at the mercy of a potentially market-changing move by Twitter into the same area, though developers for other platforms, like the iPhone or Facebook, have similar issues.
“Well designed platforms offer a lot of opportunities for winning businesses,” said Williams. “We aspire to be a platform company but I don’t think we’ve done a good job yet.”
He said Twitter’s early success attracted a lot of developers that improved the service with aftermarket products. “That was fantastic,” he said.
But just as Ford’s original Model-T car was eclipsed by competitors with better features, Williams said Twitter can’t always wait for developers to improve the service. For example, Twitter bought mobile software firm Tweetie because it felt Twitter’s accessibility and popularity on mobile devices was way below where it should be.
“And everyone who was developing mobile apps for Twitter stopped,” said John Battelle, Web 2.0 Summit’s moderator, who conducted the interview with Williams. While he didn’t respond to Battelle’s claim, Williams said mobile use of Twitter has “exploded” since the company moved directly into that area.
“We need to keep evolving Twitter and also provide more opportunities for developers to add value,” said Williams. “I don’t think we’re a great platform company yet, but we aspire to be one. We can’t, not do things. We tried that, it doesn’t work.”
Twitter’s Next Moves
Without revealing specific product plans, Williams said improving the “relevance” of tweets is a big focus for the company. “A big theme for us is to give people what they want,” he said, noting that unlike other popular websites, Twitter’s never measured the amount of time users spend on the site.
“We focus on how you can get more value from the tweets you get,” he added.
Williams agreed with a point by Battelle that figuring out a way to make more personally relevant tweets surface higher on the page might be a good user value. “Figuring out the top tweets in real time is non-trivial, but we’re working on that,” he said.
Wrapping up his comments, Williams noted that as the company staffs up, it tells new employees three things:
“Change the world, build a good business and have fun. Two out of three isn’t good enough.”