App.net, a new microblogging service, has been making a lot of noise recently -- because of its crowd-funded approach to financing, its no-advertising pledge, and the fact that it wants to cater to developers with an open API.
As interesting as the entire story is, that last point is the key for me.
App.net is the brainchild of Dalton Caldwell, CEO of Mixed Media Labs. He had a vision for a microblogging service -- with an emphasis on "service" -- supported by crowdfunding, where users and developers pay a fee to participate. Users get an ad-free service. Developers get access to the API to use the service as they wish. You can see him describe that vision in the video below:
The message resonated enough with early adopters that App.net blew past the company's weekend goal of raising $500,000 for initial development. According to The Next Web, it closed fundraising with an impressive final total of $803,000 from 12,315 backers.
Whatever you think of the approach (and not everyone thinks a user/developer-funded approach is any more or less pure than advertising), it was an impressive show of grassroots support for an alternative to mainstream social media.
The alpha iteration of App.net is not much to look at. On its face, it appears to be a simple microblogging service, but Mathew Ingram at GigaOM says it would be a mistake to dismiss it as only that. If you do, he says, you're clearly missing the point.
That's because App.net is less about the microblogging app and more about the open API. The project is actually a shot across the bow of Twitter, Facebook, and their increasingly firm control of their APIs. Caldwell has grown increasingly disenchanted with both mainstream social media companies, and he has decided to offer a different way of doing business.
There were a couple of drivers. First, Twitter announced that third-party developers had to bow to Twtter's will. Then came Caldwell's ill-fated meeting with Facebook executives. He was looking for support for his product launch, but he was told his product was too close to one already in development by Facebook. At that point, the executives offered to buy Caldwell's company. He refused and ended up writing an angry open letter to Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg on his blog.
Which brings us to the new product and the idea of open APIs for developers. You may recall I wrote a post recently about a run-in Craigslist was having with a company called PadMapper, which had tapped into Craigslist data and displayed apartment ads on a map so users could see where the apartments were located. It was a creative and constructive use of Craigslist content. Craigslist reacted by going ballistic, calling the lawyers, and ordering PadMapper to stop. I suggested they were missing a monetization opportunity.
Now, along comes App.net, a service created by developers for developers and built on the idea that programmer access to the API is a core part of the service. In exchange for that access, the developers pay the company a fee. Caldwell recognizes something fundamental here: By giving up control of the API, the developers can make the best possible use of the service, and his service can make money off that access.
As for users, they pay a yearly fee of $50 for an ad-free service in which their data is not sold off to the highest bidders. They're given a variety of ways to access the service from the third-party developer pool that App.net's business model cultivates.
The funding hurdle was step one, and App.net handled it easily. The next step involves completing development of the core product. It may be true that App.net is more than a pure microblogging application, but it will require both users and developers in sufficient numbers in order to make the operation a profitable business. That may prove more challenging than the initial fundraising.
But whatever happens with this service -- whether it's a raging success or a dismal failure -- App.net has proven one key tenet already: Open APIs matter to developers, and they are willing to pay for the right to access them and use them as they see fit. Facebook, Twitter, and every other large organization trying to control its APIs would be wise to pay attention.
— Ron Miller is a freelance technology journalist, blogger, FierceContentManagement editor, and contributing editor at EContent magazine.