Hello Goodbye

Something just happened and I think it may be important. While not everything has been put in place, it appears the necessary ingredients for a conversational platform – correction, open conversational platform – have been added to the mix. What Dave Winer calls the two-party system may be emerging at just the right time to gather tangible momentum.

What Winer brought to the formalization of an open standard around RSS is being forged this time in the MicroBlogging or public IM space by a new cast of characters and a push protocol called XMPP. In the early days of RSS, Winer worked with and then carried on after Netscape dropped out, essentially freezing in place those aspects of both systems that he felt were fundamental.

Today it is Twitter’s functionality that is being aggressively cloned and perhaps frozen with Evan Prodromou’s Identi.ca. Though the platform started shakily with no directory to aid formation of a user’s follow cloud (or social graph), Twitter’s struggles masked the insurgent’s progress. When Twitter’s Evan Williams announced the Summize acquisition in a conversation with Mike Arrington at Tim O’Reilly’s private FooCamp, the outlines of what Twitter would do to monetize the service began to emerge.

Subsequent announcements of a deal with ping server startup Gnip and continued messaging that XMPP would remain quarantined from the larger Twitter development community made it increasingly obvious that Twitter was moving quickly to consolidate ownership of its dominant cloud of users around the Track capability. A kind of registered search where filtered keywords aid in discovering conversations across the public network, Track depends on effective real-time response to enable back and forth “conversations” from point to point and one to many.

Twitter’s @Reply functionality allowed anyone to talk directly to users, but the default setting only let these messages through when the sender was being “followed” by the receiver. When Track was working, I could (and did) route around that limitation by evangelizing the dropping of the @sign. People who tracked my username as I did could get through to me at any time with or without the @sign. Although this strategy irritated many users, it also promoted the way I consumed these track messages, via an XMPP stream over the open source Jabber instant messaging transport supported by Google Talk/Chat among others.

Ironically, Identi.ca has not gotten around yet to supporting the Twitter @reply functionality. When Loic Le Meur made a beta version of his Twhirl desktop client available with Identi.ca support today, it took advantage of the service’s XMPP support, which unlike Twitter’s sweetheart deals with Summize, FriendFeed, and 2 others, is open and available to all comers. Le Meur had invested in an XMPP developer many weeks before when Track and IM were still running, and even with Gnip’s deal still had no way of leveraging the investment.

I was having a little trouble hooking it up (largely because I’d earlier enabled XMPP through Jabber when Identi.ca was launched and had forotten it.) But once I logged in to Twhirl and confessed my problem, Twhirl’s creator Marco Kaiser pinged me and set me straight. Not knowing whether Identi.ca supported the @reply function but knowing there was no track available, I used the @sign and in short order was in touch with Prodromou, who was pinging Kaiser with congratulations on rolling out the Twhirl client.

With clients not only for Twitter, Summize, and FriendFeed but now Identi.ca, Twhirl suddenly becomes a hub for managing the uber service that now has been enabled. Of all the nodes, only Identi.ca actually produces the real-time envelope that, in this case, let me quickly wire up the service, and perhaps soon will let me build out a cloud of users with like-minded needs and concerns. Messages entered into Twitter were taking several minutes to arrive in FriendFeed, by contrast.

Twhirl currently does not interleave streams from Twitter and FriendFeed, though that would be a useful service if it constrained new update from FriendFeed to just new comments with perhaps a TinyUrl link to the originating message. And Twhirl’s display of FriendFeed alone has the habit of bouncing back to the top of the screen on a new comment, together with the somewhat awkward UI for more than several comments being hidden behind a plus sign and an internal scroll bar.

But even more troubling is the lack of Track. Summize searches are available by clicking on a different view in the Twitter window, but there is no comparable access to FriendFeed’s search capability, which also suffers in its native Web client from a less than efficient rollup of conversations containing keywords into 3 or 4 of the initial comments, a link to the bulk in the middle, and then the last 2 or 3 that have come in.

Twitter’s Track service has been hacked around by Dustin Sallings and his Twitterspy service, which has been using a look the other way feed from Summize and therefore Twitter. Sallings has had to be careful not to ping the server too often for fear of overtaxing Summize or the Jabber.org servers, and although he’s enabled the ability to enter posts into the Gchat window, attempts to intermingle follow updates return a 403: Forbidden error.

But significantly, Identi.ca is based on an open source architecture, and the XMPP firehose is fair game for anybody. It wouldn’t take long to enable IdentiSpy without any of the restrictions, and I’ve suggested the possibility of Twhirl harvesting the stream and indexing it or perhaps carrying IdentiSpy or an equivalent.

What’s sure to happen is the rapid evolution of this platform. What’s being tested here is the fundamental relationship between users and services. Although Twitter seemed to make rapid steps toward transparency once stability began to return, the recent deals have seemed to increasingly compartmentalize the service into pieces, with the more monetizable Track IM piece gated by forcing it through the API and licensing the full XMPP stream to favored partners.

It’s understandable that the company needs to protect itself from interlopers, but in an odd way the messaging is similar to the record cartel’s branding of users rather than organized pirates as criminals. In both cases, providing access to the most committed fans would cement the relationship, where Twitter’s painful drip by drip parsing of the real-time magic makes it all the more dramatic when an open service enables conversations while the incumbent sits there like a hall monitor.

Twhirl’s aggregation of these services offers the promise of a suite approach that marries Twitter’s invention with FriendFeed’s conversational extensions, Track’s discoverability, and Identi.ca’s openness. As someone just IDed me:

micah Remapping cloud–wow, @stevegillmor. I’ve been enjoying the view here (but it may take an intervention to get me off of twitterspy)

Just as I fought the @sign to make the point that something bigger was going on, so too am I feeling compelled to refrain from posting to Twitter while I use Twhirl and FriendFeed to keep in touch with the conversation and map it over to the open one. To be sure, Twitter retains lots of scale and increasing stability, but the possibilities of an open Track seem hard to underestimate.

On his way to OSCON this evening, my new friend Evan Prodromou messaged me:

@stevegillmor let me know what it’ll take to switch you over.

Not much.