Social Enterprise

Twitter API changes: Why it's time for developers to adapt

Twitter's restrictions on how developers' access its platform are inevitable but don't mean the demise of popular third party apps and services.

There's been outcry among developers about Twitter's plans to change how its API can be used, brought particularly into focus by last week's announcement that the popular If This, Then That (IFTTT) service will lose most of its ability to push tweets to Facebook or email.

Twitter is certainly applying greater control over how tweets are displayed and stored by third parties than it has done in the past. But while this may alter the look of apps and services built on the platform, and require developers to overhaul how their products access and store tweets, it's unlikely to mean that third party Twitter apps are going to go away.

Angus Fox, director of Multizone, which used to help run the London Twitter Developer Nest and builds social media apps for the emergency services in the UK said: "I don't think it's going to stop any apps in particular, but it's going to cause people to have to do some rework[ing] because they hadn't understood Twitter's intentions," he said - predicting that many services will redesign the way they operate in order not to violate Twitter's policies.

Fox sees little reason why it won't be possible for the majority of developers to work within the new guidelines by tweaking their products. He gave the example of a calendar app that tweets appointment notifications to users and then stores those notification tweets, in violation of restrictions on storing tweets in third-party cloud-based datastores. That app could be altered to create and store the appointment reminder up front, and then push that update to Twitter, avoiding the need to store the tweet, he said.

And, so far, few developers have shuttered apps and services in response to changes to Twitter's terms of service, at least not for good. IFTTT, for example, is promising to find a way to work with Twitter's new terms of service.

Twitter CEO Dick Costolo also said in a recent speech at the Online News Association Conference that the company continues to invest an "extraordinary amount of money" on providing a free API and that it will continue to build out its platform in "an open way". Indeed, perhaps the only category of Twitter app truly endangered by recent changes are pure Twitter clients, which do little more than serve tweets to users  - as the TOS specifies "developers should not build client apps that mimic or reproduce the mainstream Twitter consumer client experience".

Part of the reason for the furore over the changes is uncertainty over what the changes will mean for developers in practice.

Restrictions on how tweets are displayed, for example, particularly those banning tweets appearing in a stream with updates from other services, appear broad enough to require substantial changes to a wide range of apps.

This lack of clarity has left plenty of room for developers to imagine the worst. Speaking at the weekend Costolo tacitly acknowledged the company's failure to communicate these changes well to developers.

There's certainly room for a better understanding between Twitter and its developer community. Twitter would benefit from copying the collaborative community approach taken in developing technical specifications for Java, Fox said, where developers can have more of a say and insight into changes in the pipeline.

In other respects maybe developers should have forseen that Twitter was always destined to reduce the relatively unfettered API access it provided to developers in its early days.

For instance, some of Twitter's changes to its API TOS have been perceived as an attempt to drive traffic from third party services to Twitter's own website and apps, and in so doing maximise returns from sponsored content.

But given that Twitter is likely to be increasingly focused on monetising its 500 million plus strong user base, Fox said that it's important for developers to learn how to make their service work with Twitter's new restrictions, rather than relying on a return to the more open Twitter of old.

"Today it's become totally mainstream, even Jeremy Paxman has a hashtag at the start of Newsnight. It's a totally different animal to what it was three years ago, some of the developers who are more independent minded perhaps hanker after a return to that, but it's not coming back."

About

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic UK. He writes about the technology that IT-decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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