The Crown Jewels

It turns out the battle for control of Twitter rests almost exclusively in the unique value proposition of XMPP-served track. As Twitter strips away various features of its service to rebuild a scalable fail-whale -proof version, the one remaining hurdle is restoration of a fully-functional Track over IM.

For the last two weeks, a one-way IM service via Gchat inside Gmail or Gtalk standalone has provided a stream of tweets but not the previously enabled ability to post back to Twitter via the IM window. In addition, there is no support for the Track function, which interweaves Tweets from any endpoint on the Twitter network that correspond to the keywords you “track” on. Track was briefly available over SMS several weeks ago, but was then withdrawn.

Track and realtime IM users have made do with a cornucopia of third party add-ons, most significantly the Summize service that lets you create compound OR searches to simulate Track’s multiple keywords. Instead of seeing these “hits” in the Gchat stream, you create a separate Firefox tab and watch for the title bar to change when new entries appear. You then click the “refresh” link that appears and scroll down through the latest entries.

As for the realtime flow aspects of the IM integration, I run Twhirl, an Adobe AIR application that pushes new entry notifications up from the bottom of the screen as they appear; clicking on one brings the Twhirl window forward with the latest results. It’s not quite realtime, as Twhirl uses API calls that have frequently been gated by Twitter as demand overwhelms the gasping Twitter servers. You can add FriendFeed and its search capability to Twhirl in another window, and even click on a button to access Summize searches.

Ever since Twitter shut down its XMPP stream to third party developers, it’s been a Twitter parlor game to figure out how Summize continues to provide realtime service. In conversations with TechcrunchIT over the past 24 hours, the mystery has been cleared up. In fact, Summize is using the XMPP service provided by Twitter as it has all along. While Summize is not specifically named, Twitter acknowledged in a post to the Twitter development talk Google group on June 19th by Alex Payne that “the public timeline PubSub feed” is being delivered to several subscribers. Those subscribers were chosen because they provided a great deal of value to the widest audience possible at least cost to the overburdened Twitter infrastructure.

Allowing Summize to replace some aspects of the Track functionality is keeping power users from bolting to other services, not just because the promise of restoring overall service is implicit in the continued bootstrap but also that Twitter signals that they recognize the unique and perhaps critical intellectual property that Track in realtime represents. The dominant market share that Twitter still enjoys is leveraged by the ability of anyone in the cloud to signal to any other user (and most significantly, group of users) in realtime as a response to or the trigger of a swarming event on the network.

Many users have made much of migrating to other services, most aggressively FriendFeed, as a more reliable and perhaps more focused cloud of users. But Twitter’s closely-held XMPP subscribers do not include FriendFeed or other close competitors, so most Twitter users are keeping their accounts open in anticipation of the revival of access to realtime conversations. The Alex Payne post makes clear that revamping Twitter internals to support additional XMPP subscribers is not high on the priority list, but neither is Twitter willing to allow Summize or other current subscribers to syndicate the feed out to the third party cloud of developers.

There have been internal discussions of the business implications of handing out the stream of all public updates. Enabling the stream for existing and future subscribers will likely entail signing a terms of use document that specifies, amongst other things, that we won’t allow any resyndication of content (without a further agreement). This won’t effect some projects, but clearly will effect others. Such is business.

And such is the high-wire act that Twitter executives have to perform. Much of Twitter’s momentum has derived from its harnessing of a viral developer community and the resulting innovation and value creation akin to the Facebook explosion when they opened up API access. But keeping developers in play requires an even-handed and transparent approach to the key assets: rapid realtime access to the core user population in a way that allows Twitter’s vanilla services to be extended to head off better-funded or fast followers who don’t have to rework the underlying architecture in place, but rather can build a system to address the market opportunity Twitter discovered.

In some ways the dilemma resembles Facebook’s stance in relationship to Google’s Friend Connect initiative, which forced Facebook to retreat to legalisms to deny Google access they already allow to other API users. When questioned closely about this apparent disconnect at Supernova, Facebook’s Dave Morin was compelled to acknowledge that, like Twitter, such is business – and is best left not to the technologists but the lawyers.

Twitter has bought enough time with its users, a hardy bunch who have proven they can endure unending pain with the faint promise of better days ahead. But the third party developer crowd will need to know sooner than later whether it makes sense to hitch their star to the Twitter cloud, or move laterally to other platforms or even a federated alliance where users will aggregate in hopes of improving their clout and leverage to gain new features and authority.