The problem with Twitter has always been monetization: Ads don't pull in the revenue needed to maintain the social network, and it doesn't have Facebook's pull to entice developers to build on top of the platform. But no more -- or at least so Twitter hopes.
Today at its Twitter Flight event, Twitter unveiled Fabric, a software development kit for mobile apps. The move represents the company's first foray into services and something of a new start for the social network.
Fabric is an extension that sits on top of existing iOS and Android development environments -- including the Android Native Development Kit and Apple's Xcode -- letting devs quickly and easily pop in features like bug and crash tracking, Twitter identity sign-in, Tweet embedding, Twitter ad plug-ins, beta app distribtuon, and Digits, a new app onboarding concept based on the user's phone number (more on that later).
"Fabric is deeply integrated with your existing workflow, so you can manage your entire toolset without ever having to leave your favorite coding environment," boasts Twitter on the official Fabric page.
In early 2013, Twitter made the then-baffling purchase of Crashlytics, a startup with a very popular bug tracking tool for developers. It made no sense: What does a social network need with crash tracking? Now, all is clear. The Crashlytics product represents the core of Fabric's value to app developers, who can now quickly add that functionality to their code in just a few clicks.
By simplifying everything from identity to crash tracking, without forcing users to rely on a proprietary IDE, Twitter wants to entice developers to build more apps on top of its platform, even if those apps have nothing to do with Twitter's own social graph. Of course, if you want your app to post to Twitter or have some other kind of social element, that's now easier, too.
But prepare for a wave of apps that use Twitter technology in ways that end users may never be aware of. Digits, especially, presents a huge opportunity: Twitter has figured out a system for authenticating users with just a phone number, rather than requiring an email address. In developing countries, where phone numbers are a lot more prevalent than email addresses, tying identity to something other than the inbox means a much larger potential user base.
The upside for Twitter here is that MoPub, Twitter's advertising offering (another acquisition, and similar to Apple iAds), is just as easy to integrate as other features. And, of course, Twitter takes a cut of that revenue.
The launch of Fabric is reminiscent of nothing so much as Salesforce's acquisition of Heroku; in both cases, the new offerings seemingly had nothing to do with the product except to make it easier to build new apps atop the core offering and build out the platform. And in both cases, even when developers aren't working with the core product, they still win.
"After this, Twitter will now be Twitter the consumer app, and Twitter the mobile services company," Twitter's Kevin Weil, who's leading the Fabric effort, told Wired earlier today.
It's a lofty goal, but it may be a necessary one for the long-term survival of both aspects of Twitter. After all, building features onto an existing product is relatively easy compared to building a successful, viable platform. It seems like Twitter has found a new line of business that dovetails nicely with the core product that made it famous.