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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  • sbdi

    Nothing new here. While its no different as to the dependency you place on Microsoft at the very least you can build tangiable value through them and their desktop.

    Most of these ‘Web 2.0’ companies with their wonderful API / platforms seem to offer any real business value. Just a nice way of accessing eye balls.

  • @sbdi: It is different from developing for a platform like Windows. Microsoft can’t just turn off or block your app (or it would take a significant technical investment on their part to do so), as Facebook could, nor do they control the sales channel for your application, as Apple does for the iPhone, for example.

  • … nor would your app suddenly stop working if Microsoft went bust, as would have happened if anyone had built apps around Pownce in the way that folks have around Twitter.

  • D9r

    Steve Poland’s experience is disturbing, but on the other hand isn’t Twitter’s policy of reserving names for trademark owners similar to that used by domain registrars and/or ICANN?

    Regarding Newber’s experience, I was excited to hear T-Mobile is using the open source Android on their new G1 cellphones. I assume that T-Mobile’s use of Android would eliminate the problems Newber is having with Apple.