Twitter a Ubiquitous Utility? Open Up a Little!

electricityI’m completely stumped by the recent media blitz by Twitter co-founders, Ev Williams, Biz Stone, and Jack Dorsey.  They seem to be traveling the nation like rock stars, willing to say anything and everything about whatever the media wants to hear, as their service sits broken on the sidelines and the world wonders where their much needed Twitter has gone, or why their favorite app is down.  Hey, it’s not my company though, so I’m sure they have their reasons, and good for them for enjoying and celebrating their success.

But then we see statements like that of Jack Dorsey, a reputable coder like myself, and someone I highly respect, stating, “I think Twitter’s a success for us when people stop talking about it, when we stop doing these panels and people just use it as a utility, use it like electricity…It fades into the background, something that’s just a part of communication. We put it on the same level as any communication device. So, e-mail, SMS, phone. That’s where we want to be.”  Of course he’s saying this while his co-founders are touring the nation, visiting Oprah and Ashton and every major News outlet on the planet trying to get people to talk about Twitter.  The thing is, I don’t care how useful Twitter is or has become (Despite the negatives that I’ve written about Twitter, I’ve written just as many positives), Twitter will never become a “Utility” until they open up a little, and I don’t just mean from a PR perspective (actually, I don’t mean that at all). I mean from an architecture perspective.

My friend (and fellow co-writer), Rob Diana, thinks that Twitter is on its way to becoming infrastructure.  I’m not arguing that’s not possible.  In fact, I really think Twitter has the masses to make that happen.  However, to make it the caliber of a “Utility”, or like “Electricity”, to me seems far-fetched when in the end, there is always a Twitter brand wrapped around it and no way for the public to have any control of that data.  Until they remove those chains, Twitter is and always will be just another communications Service, not a Utility.  Twitter will never blend into the background until they open up some.

Let’s look at some example utilities:


We’ll start with the most obvious.  Electricity is a natural force.  It can only be created by utilizing existing energy.  Various “Utilities” have found ways to harness this energy to create this electricity and deliver it to your home.  However no single company owns that electricity, and each company is using the existing, open, laws of physics to harness and deliver such electricity to your home.  No single company controls how electricity gets created or delivered.  In fact, depending on your own local laws, you could even create your own electricity, and live independent from any single “Utility” company that also provides such service.


Water is very similar.  Each company provides a “service” or “utility” around cleaning the water supplies and routing them to your home.  However, there’s nothing stopping any individual (other than government) from collecting their own water, and purifying it themselves for consumption.  It’s bound only by the laws of Physics, and lives on a completely open model.


Perhaps even closer to Twitter’s turf than Electricity, the Phone is an open communications process.  A “utility” company delivers the lines to get a signal from the sender’s phone, to a routing operator, and over to the recipient.  However the underlying technology sending a phone’s signal from sender to recipient and back is not proprietary to any one single company.  It’s simple Electricity (there’s that word again) and open protocols, and based on completely open (the most open) standards, bound simply by the laws of Physics.

So how in the world can a company like Twitter become like “Electricity”, flowing as the infrastructure of communication with little to no knowledge of those using the service?  It comes down to the laws of Physics.  Twitter needs to stop making the rules.  They need to open up 100%, open up their code-base, release a protocol, and start letting people run their own Federated Twitter servers that can be run in any environment, speak the same protocol, and in essence, be invisible to those using the service.  Twitter’s current model will never take them there.

Google’s leading the way here with Wave.  The funny thing is Google employees aren’t going around bragging that their service will become like “Electricity” (okay, well maybe their name kind of implies that).  What will happen is that you’ll be familiar with the Wave Product, which will become like Gmail and many, many users will use it since Google was first-to-market.  However, what most users will not be aware of is that the way they communicate elsewhere will also be powered by Google Wave technology.  Google Wave is also a Protocol, and built on an Open-Source Architecture.  You’ll be able to run your own Wave servers, or even write your own services that speak the Wave protocol.  Your users will never even know their communication went through a Google product.

I’m afraid Twitter has some serious competition as long as they want to become a Utility and Google Wave is in open development.  Because they’ve waited to enter the Open arena, Google may just beat them to the punch on the “Utility” game.  Jack Dorsey’s a smart guy.  Twitter’s a great and powerful platform.  However, I’m afraid they’re focusing too much on the platform and the product and not enough on what should really be the “Electricity” of their system – the communication.

Twitter, it’s time to open up guys.  I’m itching to use some of that “Electricity” of yours.

7 thoughts on “Twitter a Ubiquitous Utility? Open Up a Little!

  1. I just asked Allen Stern to ask these types of questions. Basically, if they really want to be a utility they need to open up more than they already have. They also need to be standards based. Just like you, I am curious if they can make the needed changes before something like Wave really starts gaining adoption.


  2. Jesse, I don't think that Twitter is likely to do any of these things, nor is it likely to innovate in time to rise to the challenge of Wave. We'll still use it, but I think primarily for it's simple, SMS capable, limitations. As you well know there already is a federation of servers based on the nearly identical API to Twitter, and those aren't taking off either. The truth is, people don't actually /want/ to be limited like they are with Twitter (140characters, etc) They want to have the same services everywhere, like they do with Twitter. But it's only a matter of time before most of us have access to mobile data and can give up SMS.

    Meanwhile, Twitter will be a part of our more rich realtime environment, but only a slight part. The rock stars will come home and realize that while they were out partying, the rest of us were at work innovating. And they'll realize that they should have sold long ago, rather than waiting for their billion dollar offer.


  3. Rob, I do think SMS plays a huge role in Twitter's existence. They
    shouldn't call themselves a “utility” based on that however. SMS itself
    maybe, but not Twitter.


  4. You've written my sentiment. I think Wave has implemented the best of Twitter…. but, Twitter is a fad, and if it were to evolve while popular it could retain it's momentum. If it stays stagnant it's doomed to fail.


  5. You've written my sentiment. I think Wave has implemented the best of Twitter…. but, Twitter is a fad, and if it were to evolve while popular it could retain it's momentum. If it stays stagnant it's doomed to fail.


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