Building on a Closed Platform? Tread Carefully

By Josh Catone
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Entrepreneur Steve Poland wrote an open letter to Twitter founder Evan Williams today accusing Twitter of “pulling rank” by kicking him off the account @celtics, on which he was running a fan news bot for Boston Celtics news. Poland had owned the account for 18 months, when he grabbed a number of what he calls “quality” accounts — accounts that he perceived might have value in the future.

Twitter, according to their terms of service, can revoke any name they please if they field a request from “businesses or individuals that hold legal claim or trademark on those usernames.” We tried to do that in October for the SitePoint name on Twitter, but Twitter wouldn’t comply because the person using that account owns the trademark in Switzerland (we own it in the US and other countries). We’ve since built a Twitter account on @sitepointdotcom.

But Poland makes a good point when he wonders if businesses should be wary of building on a platform that can revoke a key part of their business with no warning. “StockTwits just raised nearly $1 million — their business is based off Twitter. Definitely one of their assumptions is that they’ll be keeping their username ‘StockTwits,’” he writes. Poland’s own personal account is username: STP. Those are his initials, but also the name of a popular brand of motor oil — what if the corporate STP comes calling?

How does Twitter decided what is infringement and what isn’t?

Also this week MacBlogz published a story about FreedomVoice Systems, a company that makes an iPhone application called Newber that allows you to redirect phone calls from your cell phone to any other phone — so that if you’re on an important call and your iPhone starts to die, you can just redirect the call to a landline and swap phones.

Apparently, FreedomVoice spent about $500 thousand developing and marketing Newber — and Apple hasn’t accepted it into the App Store yet. They might never accept it.

Though about totally different products and platforms, these stories are actually related. They illustrate one of the major risks of developing on a closed platform: if you don’t have guarantees from the platform provider in writing ensuring the well-being of your app, your business is at their mercy.

We wrote about the dangers of closed platforms for both developers and users in August. For developers who create applications on those platforms, when sales channels or even the very existence of their application lies at the discretion of the platform owner and not in the hands of the developer, that is a dangerous proposition for doing business.

“If you were an $800K investor in StockTwits, wouldn’t you want a written letter from Twitter stating that the username ’stocktwits’ was no longer bound to the line [in the Terms of Service regarding username seizure]?” asks Poland. “Maybe there needs to be a process in place where companies/individuals can ensure that clause doesn’t apply to them?”

That’s something that platform owners should do in order to build trust with developers and create an environment that is truly viable for business as well as development.

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