Wednesday, March 28, 2007 / Technology - Valley view: Will twittering be big business? / Technology - Valley view: Will twittering be big business?

Valley view: Will twittering be big business?
Chris Nuttall

Published: March 28 2007 10:21 | Last updated: March 28 2007 10:21

Spring has sprung, the birds are singing and San Francisco is hearts a-flutter over a Web 2.0 service called Twitter.

I encountered it first in January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Tekkies were using it to track events and each other’s movements around the vast show. It has been growing exponentially ever since.

Twitter essentially allows you to broadcast SMS-type messages to friends and the public about what you’re up to, with an archive of your one-sentence twitterings available on the website.

Opinions are divided on whether to love or hate Twitter and whether it is full of useless minutiae or useful information. Photo blogger Thomas Hawk finds it as addictive as Flickr and says: “It is the micro blogging platform du jour, allows me to stay in contact with over 400 people, serves as a great daily record of what I’ve been up to for archive purposes, and is fun as hell.”

Others might say this is taking Web 2.0’s interactive tools and blogging into the realms of the absurd.

Just looking at the current twitterings on the public page, there are some interesting comments but also entries such as “same thing I was doing eight hours ago”, “uploading a new image”, “getting dinner on my way home” and commercial messages including the BBC posting what is up next on the World Service.

These may tell us little about the zeitgeist but there is no doubt that Twitter itself is very much of the moment – the Hitwise research team says its traffic has risen 55 per cent in the space of a week, and although still niche, it is already spawning related sites such as Twittersearch, Twitterholic, which ranks “twits” by postings, and Twittermaps and Twittervision, mash-ups that mix Google maps of the world with the latest twitterings and their locations.

What is also interesting about Twitter is what it says about Web 2.0 and Silicon Valley’s culture. Valley companies have a habit of working on one idea until a better one comes along. This is not a world of carefully hatched business plans leading to world domination, it is one of happenstance and serendipity, quick adaptations and imaginative improvisations on existing themes.

In Twitter’s case, Evan Williams is behind the service, an entrepreneur and developer who founded Blogger, the blogging service bought by Google in 2003. He went on to create Odeo, a podcasting technology that has made little impression, but one of his engineers came up with Twitter as a project and this has now changed the course of the business.

But what is the business? Williams doesn’t know and doesn’t seem to care. Build a great user experience and the business model will follow, he told the San Francisco Chronicle.

I have heard this more than once in recent weeks from Web 2.0 companies, including Izimi, a British company that is following other foreign start-ups in setting up in San Francisco, the heart of the movement.

This seems part of a new confidence and independence that Web 2.0 fosters. The code-sharing that goes on, the coffee-shop offices and the cheap technology now available means these small companies can survive for long periods without the need to seek venture capital or go to the markets.

It’s a refreshing change from the 1999 bubble of MBAs with carefully prepared business plans designed to attract venture capital. There were too many me-too ideas and everyone had the same SASSy proposals for making money, as in Subscriptions, Advertising, selling Services or earning Sponsorship. All the while, they had sweet FA – as in Flotation or Acquisition – in the back of their minds as the best way to cash in.

So in contrast, the Web 2.0 crowd seem happy to, and can afford to, go with the flow of where their users take their services. Look at Google, they point out, it went four years before finding a business model, and a pretty spectacular one at that.

This is all very well, but there is only one Google, and MySpace and YouTube have achieved similar dominance in social networking and online video. The future could be big for Twitter or it could end up as a passing fad – already many people are learning to turn down or turn off the constant messaging to their phones.

Instead of understanding their market in advance with focus groups, Web 2.0 companies are doing it on the fly by observing user behaviour. They are user-driven in every sense and will live or die by those users and their attention spans.

The best outcome for most would be an acquisition by a larger company, in the way that Google and Yahoo! have picked up Web 2.0 services such as, Flickr, JotSpot, Keyhole, Konfabulator, Oddpost, Upcoming and Writely.

The rest need to partner and club together, according to a new Forrester Research survey, if they want to address enterprises with their services. Businesses made clear they wanted to buy suites of Web 2.0 applications not stand-alone services.

And mass-market consumers may prefer integrated offerings rather than idle twitterings as well.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007

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