April 25, 2008

Twitter is indeed replaceable

Dennis Howlett believes any hope of monetizing [Twitter] rests upon reliability at scale. He’s partially right. Michael Arrington disagrees, essentially asserting that Twitter has become an unshakable monopoly due to the network effect, but his reasoning is flawed.

As Arrington surely knows, but seems in this case to be overlooking, the first vendor in a new category is almost never the ultimate winner. Microsoft wasn’t first in anything except PC-based computer languages. Google wasn’t close to first in search. Apple is only a niche PC vendor — and in the category it does dominate, MP3 players, it was hardly the first entrant. Amazon, eBay, and YouTube are close enough to being first entrants to prove that pioneers sometimes win. But usually they wind up face down in the mud, with arrows embedded in their backs.

In Twitter’s case, a mass-successful form will necessarily look utterly different from what exists today. Techie early-adopters are not going to recruit a critical mass of users into a system that isn’t better-suited for them. So if Twitter doesn’t greatly change its features and functions, a competitor will do it for them.

What Howlett got a little bit wrong is his focus on reliability rather than usability. People are used to intermittently-available communication tools, from cell phones to blogs. (I’d guess that there are a LOT of days on which my blogs have at least a several-minute outage.) But he’s also partially right, as people tolerate only deterministic unreliability, and Twitter’s currently is indeterminate. If I know a message can’t or didn’t get through, I’ll cope. But if I’m not sure, I’ll go to an alternate medium to confirm. And if I do that, what do I need the original medium for at all?


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