8 Points

Use Twitter for long enough and you'll become intimately familiar with a few third-party applications that have become almost an integral part of the microblogging service, like Bit.ly (for URL shortening) and TwitPic (for image aggregation). It’s not entirely clear how those particular third-party services, as opposed to any of the innumerable rival applications, came to dominate the scene, but at least one company seems to think that Twitter is responsible by playing favorites.

Tr.im, a URL shortener operated by Nambu Networks, announced recently on their homepage and blog that they’ll be shutting down their URL shortening service after failing to find a path to monetization or a company willing to pay even a token amount of money for the URL shortening service. From the Tr.im homepage:

There is no way for us to monetize URL shortening -- users won't pay for it -- and we just can't justify further development since Twitter has all but anointed bit.ly the market winner. There is simply no point for us to continue operating tr.im, and pay for its upkeep.

Interesting stuff, since Twitter hasn’t formally anointed any third-party application or service with anything, with the possible exception of third-party trend tracker What The Trend, which Twitter integrated into its new homepage redesign recently. It’s true, however, that Bit.ly has come to dominate Twitter URL shortening, being the default shortener used by most third-party clients including TweetDeck and Seesmic Desktop (the latter, at least, allows you to choose different URL shorteners or even add your own).

It does raise an interesting question for Twitter application developers – does the tendency for one particular application to rise to the top of the heap represent a large enough risk for third-party developers to keep them away from Twitter application development? Does Twitter, in fact, play favorites, or is it a case of developmental Darwinism, with the best application coming out in the lead?

In the case of URL shortening, there’s not much difference between applications; they simply shorten a URL; those at the top of the heap feature statistical tracking (providing analytical information about users clicking through shortened URL’s). Recently URL shortening came under attack from bloggers and analysts because of the new tendency for hackers and criminals to use URL shortening services to hide URL information about harmful websites until it’s too late for users to realize. The best URL shorteners should probably take this bad press to heart and start offering some kind of anti-virus or anti-phishing protection integrated into the URL shortening service; this would give them an advantage over rivals who offer essentially duplicate functionality.

In the case of more complex applications like TwitPic, the difference between success and failure may lie purely in features; TwitPic has emerged at the top of the heap because of its integration with third-party Twitter clients, ease of use and amazingly short learning curve. Whether or not Twitter is “playing favorites” with applications like these is largely irrelevant, since users have shown a clear preference for certain applications, regardless.

For Tr.im, at least, it’s too-little, too-late – Nambu said in a series of recent blog posts that shortened URLs will continue to function properly until the 31st of December, 2009, and that the API will also continue to function until further notice, but that the closing of the website is a decision that’s already set in stone.

Aug 10, 2009

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