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Is Twitter the next Netscape?

Saturday, October 25, 2008 by Dave Winer.

A picture named ridinghood.gifFred Wilson in his famous answer compared Twitter to Google when it was a pre-revenue startup. A nice problem to have, for sure, but what if Twitter is more like Netscape than Google? Permalink to this paragraph

I was a web developer when Microsoft passed Netscape. They did it in a classic style, perfectly executed to take advantage of every door Netscape left open.  Permalink to this paragraph

1. Netscape had left their Mac browser to languish while they focused on Windows. Microsoft, realizing that most web developers used Macs, produced an excellent Mac browser first, and worked closely with Mac developers to make sure their browser worked with the Mac software web developers used.  Permalink to this paragraph

2. Netscape let anyone download their browser for free, but charged corporate users for the software. Microsoft's browser was totally free for everyone. Permalink to this paragraph

3. Microsoft fixed bugs, enhanced performance, listened to market and responded, did all the things a mature company that remembered its entrepreneurial roots could do. Netscape, being a disorganized, chaotic Valley wunderkind, did none of this. Permalink to this paragraph

Now, Netscape could have anticipated that Microsoft was going to do all this, could have kept up the investment on the Mac, made their software fully free, and become the first startup in history to be deeply rooted in everyone else's ego instead of their own. But all that would have been very very hard to pull off. In retrospect, you'd have to say that Netscape tried to own too much, became spread too thin too early. They probably should have narrowed their focus on something very valuable and defensible. Permalink to this paragraph

I thought of Netscape when I read this well-intentioned post by Alex Payne, who is single-handedly grappling with the most vexing of strategic problems on behalf of Twitter, without a clear model of the landscape of the market that's ahead of them. Permalink to this paragraph

The problem is this, how much of the flow of Twitter should they let outside their cloud and under what terms. You can see the promise to grapple with this in the last section of his piece, The Proverbial "Firehose."  Permalink to this paragraph

So many things to say about this, but for now -- this reminds me of IBM's attempt to put the genie back in the bottle in the transition from PC-DOS to OS/2 in the late 80s. They wanted to shut down the clonemakers, Compaq, Dell, HP, etc, without losing their base of software. This opened the door for Microsoft to welcome all the clonemakers to their platform, Windows, and now OS/2 is only of historical note.  Permalink to this paragraph

When one of the big guys competes with Twitter, they will do everything Twitter does, compatibly, and they will also offer a firehose without restrictions, licenses or approval. Twitter will have to follow suit, but then it will be too late, they will be following in the market they created.  Permalink to this paragraph

Much better to get out ahead of it, narrow the focus, welcome the competitors, and reserve for itself the position of the naming authority. It will be impossible to unseat them from this position if they play it right. They can of course continue to operate twitter.com, and with a fully open firehose a bigger competitor might not even find a way into their market. Either way, Twitter must find a defensible posture, they've definitely staked out too much territory, they're spread too thin. Permalink to this paragraph


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A picture named dave.jpgDave Winer, 53, pioneered the development of weblogs, syndication (RSS), podcasting, outlining, and web content management software; former contributing editor at Wired Magazine, research fellow at Harvard Law School, entrepreneur, and investor in web media companies. A native New Yorker, he received a Master's in Computer Science from the University of Wisconsin, a Bachelor's in Mathematics from Tulane University and currently lives in Berkeley, California.

"The protoblogger." - NY Times.

"The father of modern-day content distribution." - PC World.

One of BusinessWeek's 25 Most Influential People on the Web.

"Helped popularize blogging, podcasting and RSS." - Time.

"The father of blogging and RSS." - BBC.

"RSS was born in 1997 out of the confluence of Dave Winer's 'Really Simple Syndication' technology, used to push out blog updates, and Netscape's 'Rich Site Summary', which allowed users to create custom Netscape home pages with regularly updated data flows." - Tim O'Reilly.

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