File Under: APIs, Social, Web Services

Twitter API Is Becoming Far More than Just an API for Twitter

Twitter’s API has spawned hundreds of mashups and third party software apps, but now it’s growing even further — outside sites have begun mimicking an API to piggyback on Twitter clients.

It started last week with a clever hack by WordPress contributors which allows WordPress.com users to post and read their WordPress.com blogs through third-party Twitter apps like Tweetie 2 for the iPhone.

Now Tumblr has joined in on the fun, allowing you to post and read Tumblr blogs through any third-party Twitter app that allows you to change the API endpoint.

The last bit is key, since while both WordPress and Tumblr have mimicked the Twitter API, you still need to make sure your Twitter client can be manually pointed to the correct URL, i.e. tumblr.com or wordpress.com, rather than twitter.com.

We tested both the WordPress and Tumblr clones of the Twitter API using Tweetie 2 for the iPhone and had no problems setting up and connecting to either service. There are, however, some shortcomings — for example, if your WordPress of Tumblr stream is primarily photos, you won’t see much through the Twitter client. Also, because WordPress and Tumblr both offer infinitely more posting options than Twitter — for instance, uploading photos — the experience of either through a Twitter client is sub par. Still, if you’ve been looking for a good way to blog quick links or short posts on the go, the new API support combined with a mobile Twitter client makes an excellent option.

Dave Winer recently called the development third-party support for the Twitter API an open standard in the making. While we think he might be right, we’re not sure it makes it a good candidate for a de facto standard yet.

For one thing, Twitter is a private company with its own goals for its own API. In order to really become a standard, Twitter would need to freeze its API, ensuring that it doesn’t change. Since Twitter has been doing interesting (and sometimes backwards-incompatible) things with it, like adding geotagging support and changing how replies are handled, and we don’t want to see that stop.

There’s also a very good chance Twitter doesn’t want to freeze its API, which leaves the web with a proprietary API that could change at any given moment — hardly a stable platform on which to build the future of microblogging. In short, WordPress and Tumblr’s recent clones of the Twitter API are just hacks. What Winer and others are hoping is that the hacks will evolve into something more.

It’s important to remember two things. This isn’t the first time an API has been cloned, nor is it the first time a proprietary API has been proposed as a good candidate for a de facto standard. Social bookmarking site Ma.gnolia cloned the Delicious API to great success (before Ma.ngolia went offline) and the OAuth protocol emerged out of a desire to create an open, cross-site authentication platform that mimicked Flickr Auth and other systems.

The web wants a simple, cross-site API that allows basic functionality common to many popular web services — posting, reading and following.

We e-mailed web standards advocate Chris Messina and asked where he thinks this is heading. He points out that there’s already OpenMicroBlogging, an open standard that allows different messaging hubs to route microblogging messages between users in a near real-time time frame.

Unfortunately, OpenMicroBlogging has thus far failed to catch on. Which is why the Twitter API is appealing, because it has caught on and enjoys a wide ecosystem of mashups, desktop apps and mobile clients. It only makes sense that other publishing services — like WordPress and Tumblr — want to be involved in that ecosystem.

As Messina points out in his e-mail, and as has been argued by Dare Obasanjo’s post on 25hoursaday.com, this creates an interesting moral dilemma for Twitter. The company can either embrace this new growth and continue to nurture the efforts of the community, and thus cede total control over its own API, or just ignore it and continue developing its API with aims on improving its own business, even if it breaks the tools built by outside developers.

Whether that ecosystem will remain closely tied to Twitter or perhaps grow beyond it to some kind of standard remains to be seen. But in the mean time, at least you have yet another way to consume your favorite WordPress and Tumblr sites.

See Also: