Twitter recently gave some guidance to developers about which type of 3rd party clients (e.g. TweetDeck, CoTweet, Seesmic, etc) will be permitted going forward. The guidance was essentially that developers should stop building consumer oriented Twitter applications. Evidently, they feel that "a consistent user experience is more crucial than ever." But the user confusion / inconsistent experience argument for reining in the ecosystem rings hollow. A more convincing explanation would be that Twitter needs to control the delivery of ad inventory across it's platform - and that's ok. Twitter has the right to do whatever it feels is best for them and their platform. And Alexandra Sameul has a good take on that in her recent piece over on the Harvard Business Review Blog. But biting the hand that feeds (um - fed) you is a mistake.
Twitter has benefited disproportionately from the efforts of it's ecosystem since it's inception. Hashtags, @ replies, RT's, and more all came from the ecosystem, not Twitter Inc. The real reason 3rd Party clients are so popular in the first place is that the Twitter.com product is virtually unusable for power users. They make using Twitter more intuitive and usable, not less. Shutting down the developer ecosystem in this heavy-handed way is counter-productive to Twitter's efforts to monetize in the long run. There are better ways to maintain control of your platform (and monetize other than serving ads) and still let 3rd parties innovate around your core where everybody makes more money. Ironically, this move to create a more consistent user experience may actually hurt them in a way that I don't think they're fully aware of. I contend that alternative user experiences actually increase their ability to monetize.
IMO the Twitter user base is split in to two basic user groups:
1) Power Users. This group uses Twitter as a business tool of some sort (customer acquisition/competitive intelligence/etc) and/or as an interaction platform. These users overwhelmingly use 3rd party clients because those clients are the only way you can efficiently process the Twitter stream. Twitter.com for this group is a complete non-starter. BTW, what ever happened to "Twitter for Business"?
2) Lean-Back Users: This group tends to follow high-profile celebrities, personal interests, and/or industry leaders. They consume and surf Twitter very similarly to how they consume Television or the Web in general - it's just another broadcast stream for them to drink from. This is the group for which the development of some form of a "channel" solution would be very compelling: "If Twitter were TV, In Search of a Better Twitter App".
The smartest thing Twitter could do is to recognize these two basic user groups and determine how to best serve and monetize each. And I think Twitter knows that the participation of a talented/hungry/motivated developer ecosystem can better serve the user base than Twitter alone can.
I continue to believe that Twitter can be the most important communication channel in the history of the Internet, but they can't do it alone. Ironically, what they'll realize is that by shutting down the ecosystem under the guise of "inconsistent user experience" they're handcuffing product development, which will limit their potential audience, which will constrain their ability to monetize to their full potential. There's middle ground here with the opportunity to open up massive new revenue streams. Twitter just needs to think this through a little better.
(Thanks to Chris Dixon for prompting me to write this post)