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The Future Of Twitter Is Nothing You've Seen Before

There's a raging debate happening right now about the future of Twitter. Whatever side you're on, it's definitely not going to be the same.

Unless you are a developer or a serious web nerd, you probably didn't realize there's a minor revolt happening against Twitter right now, the result of two separate but inter-related issues: The reiterated warning to developers not to build Twitter apps that "that mimic or reproduce the mainstream Twitter consumer client experience" — in other words any Twitter app you've used other than the official Twitter app, like Tweetbot or Twitterific — paired with an increasingly restrictive API. And a less-than-consistent experience across all of Twitter's apps.

Which may sound trivial to users, but ultimately we're talking about the future of how you — we — are going to consume and produce content for Twitter.

"Consistency." It's seemingly Twitter's favorite word right now. What does it mean? Well, it means maintaining a particular experience across every app, across every device. Twitter itself does not offer this right now, with varying experiences across the eight different platforms it supports — the iPad app and mobile site are wildly different from the Android experience, which is nothing like Twitter for Mac, which doesn't seem like it came from the same company as Twitter.com. So it seems strange — hypocritical to some — that it continues to ring that bell in the face of developers. The thing is, it's all part of the plan. Consistency is crucial to what Twitter's planning, even more than it already is for the platform, and in a way that goes far beyond simply implementing retweets correctly in your third-party app.

Twitter as you know it right now, through its official apps and the website, is not quite what Twitter will look like in the near(ish) future. The director of Twitter's design team told me that none of Twitter's current apps quite match the vision for where they're going with Twitter. None of them. The vision? In a word, simpler. But also more beautiful. To that point, Twitter just made a huge hire — Microsoft's Mike Kruzeniski, Creative Director for Windows Phone, who was also one of the design leads on Kin (which was in fact beautifully designed, like Windows Phone (above), though it suffered from stunningly poor execution). His emphasis on print design matches up neatly with what Twitter's trying to accomplish with Twitter Cards in attaching "media experiences" to tweets as well, I think. So you can start to get an idea of where Twitter might go.

Getting there is not going to be easy, with Twitter attempting to balance the goals of being as simple as possible with the difficulties of maintaining a single vision across a multitude of platforms — in some ways, much like developers years ago wrestled intensely with how to design an app for both Windows and Mac that was consistent across both operating systems while feeling native to each one at the same time.

And while Twitter's focus lately has overwhelmingly been on refining the experience of consuming Twitter — largely in the service of new users — one of things it's looking at intensely is refining the actual tweeting experience. Right now, if you want to post a photo to Twitter using the iPhone — an OS that Twitter is baked into — it takes a half dozen steps or so (you can open Photos, find your photo, tap your photo, tap share, tap Twitter, compose Tweet, Tweet or open Twitter, hit "compose tweet," hit the picture button, snap or select a photo, write your tweet, then tweet). If you're at a concert and just want to tweet a photo and get back to the show, this giant list of steps is a problem. It's one that Twitter's working on fixing, reducing "friction points" so it's superfast and easy to tweet while making what you're tweeting as "dynamic" as possible.

The other thing "consistency" means to Twitter — obviously in the future — is being able to start a session on one device, like a laptop, and pick it up exactly where you left off on another.

The biggest hint as to where Twitter's going, though, is Twitter cards. Currently, they do things like display YouTube videos, Foursquare checkins, Instagram shots and, more recently, summarize linked articles with a headline and thumbnail, all embedded within a tweet. The result is, well, this — a shift from a stream of text into something richer and more viscous.

The vision that should start to form in your mind is something like this: Streams that are richer, more dynamic and more relevant to users, powered by more frictionless tweeting, all inside of a user experience that's simpler, more beautiful and totally consistent from phone to laptop to tablet (with, say, synced direct messages). And faster. To do this, though, requires totally controlling the user experience.

So the future for developers? It looks like, ultimately, it's not building apps to read Twitter, it's building apps into Twitter. Head of product Michael Sippey is upfront that Cards "are an important step toward where we are heading with our platform, which involves creating new opportunities to build engaging experiences into Twitter." (Emphasis mine.) It's a lot like Facebook, in other words. And you can imagine a lot of other stuff embedded in tweets, like Rdio tracks or direct movie ticket purchasing. Ads, maybe (probably). Which is part of why Twitter is already so focused on the mantra of "consistency" — if these cards and these other experiences like it are the future of Twitter, it can't have a bunch of apps not support them or not display them the way Twitter wants them displayed.

Whatever the future is for developers, Twitter does totally owe them a more direct explanation of where the ecosystem is going and what their place is in it, especially if that place is going away — apps like Twitterific have been around for a long time, and are much of what helped make Twitter a huge thing, even if it is a service for normal people now. Though if you look real close (or again, at Facebook) you can see how this is all probably going to end. (How many Facebook apps are there for the iPhone? One.)

As Anil Dash points out, this is "a result of the fact that so many normal people showed up to use the service," not a "nefarious plan by the tyrannical cabal that controls Twitter to create a Horrible Commercialized Network For Kardashians," as some of the people "lamenting that Twitter isn't just for geeks anymore" might want to argue.

Personally, I don't want a million Twitter apps, anyway. I just want a great one.