Mic Wright wonders why anyone in their right mind would pin the future success of their business on technology platforms that have proven themselves to be capricious, greedy and short-termist.
Platforms can serve many purposes. Sometimes, it’s not until you’ve climbed the ladder to reach the top that you discover whether you are faced with a telescope that allows you to scan bright horizons – or the ugly end of a hangman’s gibbet.
The quartet of tech titans with most influence on our lives today – Facebook, Twitter, Google and Apple – have all created platforms. Each of them promotes their solution as something that sets both users and the developers who serve them “free”.
But it is becoming increasingly clear that shadows are falling across the most prominent platforms, leaving companies that have flocked to them in the shade, or worse.
Smaller companies that get burned when the big boys change their rules generally keep quiet, wary of expense and ostracism. But, last week, Dalton Caldwell, the founder and CEO of App.net, a service for developers which is also developing a new social feed, broke cover.
In a blog post written as an open letter to Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, Caldwell recounted what he alleges occurred during a meeting at the social network’s Menlo Park headquarters. Frankly, it comes off less like a business encounter and more like a protection racket shakedown. He says:
“As I understood at the time, the purpose of the meeting was for me to present/demonstrate a new iOS app and service I have been building on the Facebook Platform. I had been reassured by Facebook dev-relations employees that the service I was building was an interesting/valuable use of Open Graph & Facebook Platform …[and] was hoping the outcome…would be executive-level support for my impugning product launch.”
With due respect to Caldwell, that’s a bit like Luke Skywalker rocking up for a tête-à-tête at the Death Star hoping for some tips on X-Wing maintenance. The meeting took an inevitable turn for the sinister when, as he recalls:
“The individuals in the room explained that the product I was building was competitive with [Faceook’s] recently-announced Facebook App Centre product. Your executives explained to me that they would hate to have to compete with the “interesting product” I had built, and since I am a ‘nice guy with a good reputation’ they wanted to acquire my company to help build App Centre.”
Showing either great principles or towering stupidity, Caldwell was sceptical and told Facebook that he was not interested in being party to “an acqui-hire”, but would discuss a serious offer to acquire his team and product. If that was not on the table, he told them he “had zero interest” in seeing his product shut down and his team absorbed into Facebook.
That’s the point at which Facebook’s execs, according to Caldwell, developed a glint in their eye akin to a mob enforcer staring at a local florists with a petrol can in his hand. He continues:
“Strangely, your ‘platform developer relations’ executive… explained that he was recently given ownership of App Centre and that because of the new ad units they were building, he was now responsible for over $1bn/year in ad revenue. The excecs… made it clear that the success of my product would be an impediment to your ad revenue… and thus even offering me the chance to be acquired was a noble and kind move.”
Caldwell says he has since communicated his dissatisfaction with the Don Corleone-style negotiation and received an apology from the executive in question. But he is still deeply disquieted by the experience and used his blog post to send a message to Zuckerberg.
“Your team doesn’t seem to understand that being ‘good negotiator’ and implying that you will destroy someone’s business built on your ‘open platform’ are not the same thing. I know all about intimidation-based negotiation tactics: I experienced them for years while dealing with the music industry.”
Thankfully, Caldwell has learned an important lesson from the encounter. He says: “I have come to the conclusion that I took this foolhardy risk because the Twitter ‘platform’ was even more of a joke than the Facebook ‘platform’… I have to endure huge platform risk [but]… I am resolved to never write another line of code for rotten-to-the-core ‘platforms’ like Facebook or Twitter.”
The rest of his post comprises a discussion of the issue from a now-jaded developer’s perspective and makes a further vital point: Facebook and Twitter, like Apple and Microsoft before them, have shown themselves willing to kick third-party developers in the goolies in the pursuit of relatively short-term gains.
The platform is not a partnership between developer and platform owner: these are feudal constructions where the code crunching serf can face an entire new statute of laws at a moment’s notice – or have unexpected taxes levied on them whenever the King requires it.
If Facebook considers you a threat, it has two strategies: the cheque book and the cosh. The first was seen most clearly in its $1 billion acquisition of Instagram. A combination of threats and cash were deployed when it took location app Gowalla out of play and began to turn the screw on Foursquare.
That was a strategy with little result, as Facebook Places remains unloved and Dennis Crowley’s baby is growing into a profitable progeny.
Crowley could of course give Caldwell some sage advice about the perils of being absorbed into one of the modern monoliths. His first location-aware start-up, Dodgeball, was bounced into the big grasping arms of Google but ended up deflated by lack of attention with the future Foursquare founder jumping ship soon after, determined to avoid a similar fate in future.
Google, too, has a habit of making defensive acquisitions and of changing the rules at a moment’s notice, whether it’s tweaking the search algorithm and page design in ways that some claim favours its own growing stable of products or merely changing the rules in ways that leave website owners befuddled and, in some cases, bankrupt.
With Android, Google has played it sneaky since day one. It first announced the platform before the iPhone launched, showcasing reference designs that looked much more like BlackBerry devices with full QWERTY keyboards than the gorgeous touchable slabs of glass we’ve become used to.
When the iPhone arrived, Google turned to touchscreens and, Eric Schmidt, its then CEO and an Apple board member, became the cuckoo in Cupertino’s nest. (Here’s an interesting aside. It’s a little-known fact that Eric Schmidt carries two mobile devices: an Android and a BlackBerry. He told a Telegraph executive in 2011 that the BlackBerry was for “the real work”.)
Apple are big enough to battle Google alone. The real issue is for hardware manufacturers who staked their futures on Android and software developers who put their faith in the Google Play store. While Google boasts about the openness of its OS, it has repeatedly kept the newest builds to itself for long stretches, crowning Nexus-branded devices, those with its explicit seal of approval, as Android royalty.
Though Google does pass its patronage around, its purchase of Motorola points to a future where it could permanently shut out the partners who helped put Android phones in millions of hands, adopting Apple’s strategy of controlling the entire experience. Certainly that may be the only way to stop the destructive fragmentation problem: most Android phones never get updated to the latest OS after they hit the market.
Apple platforms can be a similarly dangerous plac. Whether you are building products for OS X or iOS, good ideas have a habit of being integrated by Apple without even the acquisition that Facebook developers can expect. Apple just does it all in-house. A notable example in recent years on iOS and OS X is the Reading List feature, which appears more than a little indebted to the trail blazed by Marco Arment’s Instapaper.
There is a difference, though, between Arment and many other developers: he’s frighteningly smart. Rather than rolling over and showing his belly when Apple unveiled Reading List last year, he doubled down on development, recently launching advertising on popular podcasts. He noted in a blog post:
“If Reading List gets widely adopted and millions of people start saving pages for later reading, a portion of those people will be interested in upgrading to a dedicated deluxe app… they’ll quickly find Instapaper in the the App Store.”
Life for developers banking their future on Twitter is indubitably bleaker. The social network is rapidly retreating from its previous support of third-party applications and restricting access to its API, most notably to Instagram. Its new strategy is to keep pushing users to its official apps. Two of those – Tweetie and Tweetdeck – it bought in, conveniently neutralising two major threats and saving on development time.
But other developers hoping for gratitude from Ev Williams after they helped turn Twitter into a global powerhouse should find a better way of wasting their time.
There’s a cliché that does the rounds on the tech blogs at times like these: if you’re not paying for a service, you are the product. Well, in similar fashion, developers and founders who choose to lash their ambition to someone else’s mast should remember an even hoarier saying: it’s not the fall that kills you, it’s the sudden stop.