In the lexicon of Internet developer-speak, APIs are king. APIs -- Application Programming Interfaces -- are the behind-the-scenes channels that client applications use to communicate with system servers for a wide range of Internet-delivered services.
So when Twitter announced a few days ago an array of major changes and some key new restrictions regarding use of Twitter APIs, there were reports that many in the developer community had brought out their pitchforks and torches in angry response.
In a nutshell, Twitter's new rules apply a variety of limits and rules on how clients may use Twitter APIs, which are being widely viewed as being particularly limiting to clients that simply display and generate Twitter messages ("tweets"), and/or are newcomers on the scene without large, already established user bases.
These criticisms appear to have significant merit.
But Twitter is between something of a rock and a hard place right now, a moment of truth that will determine its course in major ways.
We can certainly stipulate that Twitter has every right to make these changes.
They've been providing services to the Internet community nearly entirely for free, and claims of "bait and switch" related to the new rules ("We helped build you up -- how can you do this to us?") are understandable -- but may not take into account the reality Twitter faces going forward.
Part of the problem seems historical. While it's probably difficult to get Twitter to admit it outright, their 140 character message limit, apparently tied to original SMS (text message) standards, has always been constraining.
Some observers have always attempted to suggest that this forced brevity is a benefit -- but I've tended to view this as something of a excuse rather than a ringing endorsement of incomplete sentences and bizarre abbreviations.
It's been clear for quite some time that Twitter feels these constraints as well, as they've built more mechanisms into their site that more easily connect and link full-length materials to individual tweets and tweet conversation threads.
The rise of these tweet expansion mechanisms -- along of course with the desire to inject various forms of service supporting advertising materials -- are likely key drivers of the new API policies, which pretty much will shut out any new clients that can't display the whole gamut of Twitter content. My guess is that older clients that don't meet these specifications will ultimately be dropped from API access as well.
This may well be completely necessary from Twitter's standpoint. Twitter, like Facebook to a significant extent, is something of a one-trick pony. Given the rapid speed of changes on the Web, this means the pony had better adapt fast or it's going to be left behind in the dust.
This does naturally enough point to the value of diversification.
Recall the reactions when Google initially started expanding into areas beyond basic search, experimenting with a range of different and often interconnected services -- some of which have been highly successful, some of which have been shut down over time. Critics claimed (some still do) that Google has too unfocused an array of projects.
But in the fullness of time, the wisdom of Google's management in taking this empirically-oriented course has been clearly demonstrated to most observers, as the range of services in a comprehensive Google ecosystem has not only benefited users, but has created a form of overall "future proofing" against downturns and competition in any specific market segment.
In the case of Twitter, I fully expect that despite changes in its API policies, users and developers will mostly adapt. I am unconvinced that such changes will annoy enough users to drive them en masse -- in the short run at least -- to other (free or fee-based) services.
Of the most longer-term concern perhaps, is whether the foundational Twitter ecosystem itself is becoming stagnant, despite Twitter's attempts to broaden its content reach.
I've noticed (and anecdotally, this seems to be a common impression) that the overall level of useful conversational activity I see on Twitter has dropped considerably in relevance.
Twitter still plays an enormously important role in getting news out quickly regarding important (or even trivial) events, and in providing communication conduits for persons under siege in countries with repressive governments.
But at least in my own case, it seems that many communications that I formerly engaged on Twitter have migrated elsewhere (e.g. Google+), and distressingly, most new followers I get on Twitter are now "We've got something to sell ya'!" spammy in nature, not true communicative followers in the original sense.
What this all may mean for Twitter's future is decidedly unclear.
Twitter has contributed mightily to the Web and the Internet community at large, but the crossroads at which Twitter now finds itself is a critical one.
If developers (for whatever reasons) are sufficiently energized to move toward other platforms, the deleterious effects on Twitter could be serious. And Twitter must now very carefully balance its content expansion course against the expectations it has created over its operational lifetime to this point. Concerns over censorship and the influence of content partners (not limited to Twitter, but spotlighted over the London Olympics) also are in play.
Realistically, I don't think that Twitter has very much margin for error.
But I do very much hope that they're able to successfully thread this needle. It would be a great loss for us all if they ultimately miss that mark.