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Poor man's email?

Wednesday, March 04, 2009 by Dave Winer.

One of my favorite blogsports for the last couple of years is pondering what Twitter is. Here are some of the things I've come up with: Permalink to this paragraph

1. Personal notepad.  Permalink to this paragraph

2. Coral reef. Permalink to this paragraph

3. Publishing platform. Permalink to this paragraph

4. River of news. Permalink to this paragraph

I'm sure there are others, and as I think of them I'll add to the list.  Permalink to this paragraph

But one thing I never thought of Twitter as was Poor Man's Email, which is how Google CEO Eric Schmidt described it to analysts yesterday.  Permalink to this paragraph

My first inclination was to shout out something about Schmidt, but I held on to it, instead deciding to give it some thought and let other people go first. Surprisingly, there hasn't been much reaction. Permalink to this paragraph

Schmidt has a PhD, and a long track record in the industry before he went to Google. I have a postulate that if very few people do something then it must be hard, and therefore whoever is doing it must be smart. So when people say Steve Ballmer is dumb, I don't buy it. Same with Schmidt. So I wonder how calculated the statement is, or if I'm missing something -- because it never, ever occurred to me that Twitter was any kind of email, rich man's, poor man's or middle class.  Permalink to this paragraph

I couldn't imagine two things being more different, Twitter and email. Permalink to this paragraph

1. Twitter is primarily one-to-many, where email is primarily one-to-one.  Permalink to this paragraph

2. Twitter is by default public, where email is by default private. Permalink to this paragraph

3. Could you use email to implement something Twitter-like? Yes. Could you use Twitter to implement something email-like? Yes. But neither is the same as the other.  Permalink to this paragraph

Schmidt talks about software the way I think about it. Once you have a base set of features it's an interesting puzzle to decide how to evolve it. There's no doubt Twitter has a tricky evolution in front of it. No matter what it does, it's likely to upset users, just as every Facebook move inspires an uprising. If Twitter had established a history of quick feature upgrades it would be a different story, but there were no new features in 2008, and so far none in 2009. That's a long time between changes. At some point they're going to add new features, if only to keep even with the competition that is sure to come. What they choose to do will set expectations for what's to come. The longer they wait, the harder it becomes. Permalink to this paragraph

So Schmidt laid it out.  Permalink to this paragraph

The key question is -- does the basic unit of Twitter change and if so, how? Is the 140-character limit sacred (my guess is yes). What metadata will accompany a twit? This is where it gets interesting. It's hard to imagine Twitter passing on the temptation to add location data to each message. What about the URL? Would they consider moving the link out of the 140 character space and making it part of the package? What about incorporating "re-tweets" into the architecture, instead of forcing users to invent new language, and using up another 20 characters of the 140 (by convention). They could make a lot of improvements if they added more structure to a tweet. I'm sure there are people of both minds inside the Twitter company.  Permalink to this paragraph

A picture named cokebottle.gifAnother takeaway from this is that Google is watching. If Google is preparing their own Twitter, what will it look like? Will it have a different, incompatible API? (My guess, probably. Google will make their own play for developers.) Will it have the same limits as Twitter? (Probably not. This is a very easy way to put pressure on Twitter, even when they have the installed base advantage. Users will say "If Google can do it, why can't Twitter?") Permalink to this paragraph

In Marketing Warfare, Ries & Trout tell the story of how Pepsi got a slice of Coke's market in the 1930s based on bottle size (page 119). Coke had a huge installed base of machines that could only serve 6.5-ounce nickel bottles, which they thought of as the perfect size for a cola drink. Pepsi thought 12-ounce bottles were better, so they came at Coke with the larger bottle. Coke was wrong, but it took a long time to figure it out. Eventually they threw out their machines and bottles and matched Pepsi.  Permalink to this paragraph

Pepsi-Cola hits the spot. Twelve full ounces, that's a lot. Twice as much for a nickel, too. Pepsi-Cola is the drink for you! Permalink to this paragraph

This is why Google is likely to have a 160 character limit. (People who said Schmidt was in error didn't consider the possibility that it was a deliberate misstatement.) And it seems likely Google's Twitter will be based on GMail. (Paul Bucheit, a founder of FriendFeed, could probably comment on the likelihood of this working.) Permalink to this paragraph

Finally, I couldn't help but notice how similar Google's reaction to Twitter is to the reaction of all market leaders to initially successful upstarts. It's the same reaction Alta Vista and Yahoo had to Google when they were young. "Search is only part of a portal," they sniffed. You can make a hugely long list of BigCo's that failed to understand the threat presented by upstarts, and lived to regret it. It's hard to think of a a single example of a BigCo that took a threat seriously when it (based on historical hindsight) needed to. Maybe this is because people like Schmidt, while they are educated, and intelligent, weren't there when their company was the upstart, and neither were most of the people there now. The institutional memory fades, and as it does, it creates the opportunity for the next generation? Perhaps. We'll get a chance to find out soon enough.  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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