Twitter: How do You Monetize Infrastructure?

In case you missed it, there’s a fascinating battle going on over in Twitter-land.  For much of the weekend, some of the Twitter clients from Ubermedia, the leading provider of Twitter clients, were shut down for unspecified violations of Twitter terms of service.  First of all, who is Ubermedia?  Ubermedia delivers Twitter client tools including Echofon and Twidroyd, and just this month they announced the acquisition of Tweetdeck.  The net result is that approximately 20% of Twitter traffic flows through Ubermedia clients.  That’s why this skirmish is so interesting.  Ultimately it’s about who gets to monetize the Twitter platform…and Twitter’s not in the pole position.

Much of my recent conversation here on this blog has related to Apple and the control it exerts over its ecosystem and its ability to extract revenue and profit from the “partners” in the ecosystem.  Give Apple credit.  They figured out how to build an infrastructure and an ecosystem whereby they profit handsomely and where they further profit from the infrastructure investments of others.  Look at what Apple has done to the rest of the wireless industry.  With just 3% of the handsets by volume, Apple is generating 2x the profits of the rest of the handset industry combined.  How do you think AT&T feels about that?  And how excited is Verizon to turn over some of their profitability to Apple?  The carriers are in a desperate struggle to be more than just “dumb pipes,” having ceded value to the platform and client providers like Apple, Google and RIM.

So what does this have to do with Twitter?  For Twitter, the situation is more dire than for the cell phone carriers.  At least the carriers have a direct revenue source for their infrastructure, paid for by the consumer (even while they’re fighting over what portion of the revenues generated should be theirs).  And for many years, their capital expenditures were covered by the fees they were extracting because it’s only recently that the platform providers have exploded onto the scene to compete for ecosystem dollars.  Twitter, by contrast, has no financial relationship with anyone in its ecosystem and has largely funded its infrastructure on its own.  (Well, on the dollars of its venture investors.)

Meanwhile, on the backs of this capital investment and Twitter’s open approach, a whole host of services have emerged on top of and around the core Twitter feed.  This is what makes Twitter interesting.  The raw feed itself is rather overwhelming.  It’s only through all of these third-party tools that Twitter starts to become the invaluable resource that it is to so many of us.  And these are where the monetization opportunities come in.  Google built its multi-billion dollar empire on search, selling keywords next to organic search and delivering contextual advertising via its “clients,” like Gmail and Google Docs.  Similarly, Ubermedia can build quite a nice advertising business via contextual advertising alongside the Tweetstream it delivers via its Twitter clients.  And what does Twitter get?  A hearty pat on the back.  Sure, Twitter can sell advertising too but without the contextual knowledge that comes from the client tools, Twitter’s advertising is as likely to be intrusive as it is to be contextual.

Thus, Twitter fires a shot across the bow of Ubermedia, the company best positioned to compete for the dollars Twitter believes to be rightfully theirs.  Yes, there were trademark infringement issues, which were quickly resolved.  This brouhaha was not about that.  This was about the race to monetize Twitter, a race the core platform provider is falling behind in.

Where will this end up?  I’m sure there are some pretty heated conversations going on between Twitter and Ubermedia.  It’s a delicate dance between the two.  Twitter can’t afford to scare away its ecosystem that makes the infrastructure valuable.  At the same time, punishing their end users is never a good idea, especially such a fickle crowd as tech early adopters.  Twitter’s in a strong position, but it’s not unassailable.  However, Ubermedia also now has a pretty good idea of what it means to be on Twitter’s bad side.  Twitter could put them out of business tomorrow.  Thus, the two parties have the strongest of all possible reasons to figure out how to economically co-exist.  I think in the coming weeks and months we’ll see some joint announcements from the two about their plans to monetize the Twitter platform.  Consider this, then, the first negotiating ploy.  “I own your traffic.”  “Well, I can shut that traffic off.”  There’s a lot at stake here but there’s enough to go around to make both parties happy.

(As an aside, this was another interesting moment for Quora and its position among the tech leadership.  A question about why Twitter shut off Ubermedia garnered responses from Bill Gross, Ubermedia’s CEO, and Matt Graves, Twitter’s communications director, although there’s some doubt as to whether the post really came from Graves.)

UPDATE 2/21:  By the way, fear not for either party.  For those of you who think “I knew Twitter ultimately had no business model,” they still have considerable value for other infrastructure players or those who would like to get into/expand their infrastructure play.  In other words, even without a business model, someone will and should pay billions for them.  The case is a little murkier for Ubermedia.  As my friend and colleague Sean Bohan noted, “you play by the open API, you die by the open API.”  Twitter can continue to encroach on Ubermedia’s space.  Much as I hated it, for a brief period of time over the weekend, I had to move to an alternative Twitter client, and the pain of doing so (i.e., the switching cost) was very low.  But Twitter’s not about to shut off its third party ecosystem.  The damage would be too severe.  And thus, Ubermedia, who has critical mass, is both a target but an important ally.  “Frienemy” at its finest.

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