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OK SAPpers, who wants to be a Twit(terer)?

At the risk of making a complete idiot of myself, I’m running this as an idea I’m throwing out. First up, I’m not a geek, I’m not even a very good hacker. But I do understand something about business and business process.

Earlier today, the blogs went nuts debating whether Twitter has a viable business model. Alan Stern at CenterNetworks kicked off the discussion with Is Twitter F*ed? Quick as a flash, the blog heavyweights piled in with both Dave Winer and Fred Wilson opnining on the topic and offering suggestions as to how Twitter might accomplish the building of a solid business.

I lobbed a Tweet out that more or less said: Twitter is a feature, a gr8 feature but as such it should be built to scale and then flipped. This would be very much in the tradition of Skype. But, I argued, ignoring the building of a business where there is money involved is highly risky, leading as it does to models more aligned to consumer advertising which most folk I know hate. 

Fred Wilson came back, vehemently disagreeing but graciously engaging with me on this concluding that:

“…think of twitter as a very lighweight, flexible, controllable version of facebook for power users”

I’m not sure I want to go there either. At least partly. While I thought Facebook had the potential to be a metaphor for portal replacement, it has become a junk yard for largely useless applications. I’m pretty much out of there these days. Twitter though has caught my attention. 

And in one sense Fred is right. Our very own Craig Cmehil built eventtrack as a lightweight method of following conversations occurring at or around specific events. It arose out of a casual Twitter conversation between a handful of us but has proven sufficiently popular to be featured on WebWorker Daily. Congratulations to Craig. 

My point is this: Twitter is currently free. But as we all know, developers need to get paid to put food on the table and hopefully profit from their labors. At present, Twitter is going down the community building route in the hope it will find a business model. For those of us in enterprise land, that has about as much chance of flying in the CXOs office as the proposition of installing chocolate teapots next to the coffee machine. Yet in this community alone there are around 1 million registered users. At BPX there’s another 230K. Over at Oracle, they reckon on having some 5 million + DBAs. Call me stupid but that’s a market. 

Given that Twitter has spawned a wealth of applications and clients – a lot of which are useful – would you be prepared to pay for it? Is there enough utility to think about Twitter as an ad hoc comms service platform for problem solving in the context of say – customer service or supply chain applications? Could it (as it has with me) pretty much eliminate the drudge of email?

Some SDN’ers are active on Twitter and I am finding that as more people read say Craig’s Tweets, they discover me and ‘follow’ what I have to say. I in turn return the compliment. There have been some incredible conversations. Everything from helping folk find a hotel in cities I know to feedback on new video services to pointers about a book being written on ABAP and notifications about new stuff appearing on SDN. Many of the topics are of no interest to me but Twitter is not intrusive. It’s an ambient form of passive communication I can dive into as I feel the need.

Imagine this in the context of an enterprise. How many times have you wanted to call for emergency helpbecause a lump of code is baffling or a service proving troublesome? OK – so the SDN forums provide an incredible response mechanism but think wider. Think about those millions of users out there that think forums are for geeks but want swift answers or wish to share important information and news. What sort of development do you think could be undertaken that would add business value?

When I cajoled Craig into building eventtrack, it was as a response to a problem I had. How do I maintain contact with people around events that I may not be able to attend? How might I maintain contact at very large events where my colleagues might be dispersed? 

It is that kind of question that brings solutions business people like me want on our dekstops, laptops and mobile devices. We value these solutions because they meet our needs.

Given all that – does Twitter’s potential warrant some sort of service or license fee? The fact Twitterific is already charging while Twitter doesn’t make a dime would suggest an emphatic yes. But it is people like you who will be the arbiters. 

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  • Dennis – I’ve been wondering whether Twitter has a business model (classic, west coast or send-money-to this-po-box).  Only having posted around 100 messages, I’m no expert, but I can both see the value in instant message communicating, but the risk in devolution into wall of noise.  Bottom line, I haven’t shared it with my management as a “you gotta see this” so I  guess I’m pretty conservative about how revolutionary this is.  Then again, I used CB channels in the early 80’s on CompuServe.  IRC anyone? //jim
    • We (or maybe Biz Stone) should be thinking of “Because, not With” for how to extract some of the network value that MUST exist in the Twitter community ….
    • The key is to keep your Twitter network to a manageable number. There are some 450 in mine but I know the majority won’t post that often. If it got overwhelming then I’d switch some people off.

      It would be great if they added grouping facilities than I could have like wee folders of different ‘types.’

      Maybe that could be built with the Twitter API? I dunno.

      I get the whole conservative thing but my question is about problem solving. That’s what Craig has pretty much done and it has extended way beyond the immediate SAP type of user. That has to be good news for SAP developers in the long run. 

  • My original reply to Dennis on Twitter:
    “re: Twitter business model – ads for free access and pay for no ads/”better” features? @fredwilson’s freemium model”

    I think there’s space for charging a small (subscription?) fee to users for avoiding Twitter ads, although the ad-monetisation model doesn’t appeal to me at all.

    • That’s exactly the problem. Fred – who has money in Twitter – doesn’t think that’s a great model. But – if enough people tell him he’s blowing smoke then he has to listen.

      My sense is the notion of a Twitter for enterprise is so compelling that if they don’t get their act together, then someone else will. That would be such a waste of resource and what is already a thriving ecosystem. 

      • Now this is an aspect that I would be willing to support, the idea of Twitter inside the firewall on a subscription or license purchase point of view is very interesting (also means I could stop building one).

        Twitter offers huge potential for Enterprise but not in a public or hosted setting.

        • aaaah – Craig – you’re not thinking wide enough. Firewall – Ok but what about your extended community of interest?

          That may require a more fundamental rethink about what ‘network’ means but in principle a network YOU control or at the very least can manage.

          • Ah yes – firewalls … Twitter threatens to turn the porous membrane into a gaping hole. It’s going to take some time but I don’t see how the current firewall approach to ‘corporate secrets’ can survive … more and more of its obdurate practitioners will become extinct or irrelevant.
          • That’s OK but as others have implied earlier, there is a relatively conservative culture on play here.

            But let’s assume that Twitter could be used in a porous membrane fashion. Then does my original thought of paying for the base product seem viable in the context of rewarding apps builders?

            Someone just said on Twitter – ‘especially mobile’ – which has barely been touched by enterprise apps.

          • The notion of limiting the communication to a select group of people will never die.  Basic human nature.  I don’t want my competitors to know what I am doing because I want the first mover advantage.

            Twitter supports this in a sense with protection of updates.  The issue is that all updates run across Twitter systems and are thus insecure (at least to a corporate buyer). 

            An in-house twitter engine will definitely be a product that will be built either as a part of an app suite or as an add-on.

            Why pay twitter though?  It’s a fairly trivial application from an engineering point of view, isn’t it?

          • It’s as wide as you can imagine, the Firewall is simply the control of the gate of who can come in and who can not. My point though is a purely “public” system won’t cut it, I need to install it and control it to make it a viable option in “todays” Enterprise – give it 5 more years and it won’t mean diddly if it’s public (ok maybe 10) the understanding of what is public and security is evolving but for now it’s a hindrance to easy adoption.
    • Here’s the problem though Twitterrific is now charging for no ads, if Twitter was to do the same then I would have to pay two people for the same info without ads. So in a sense apps like Twitterific have now made that model impossible for Twitter.

      If Twitter was to do it they would destroy those (e.g. Twitterific) who helped them grow.

      • But would it? If Twitter charged a modest fee to those who build apps then it could be readily passed on AND provide a sustainable model.
      • Two things, Craig – I don’t use Twitterific (Mac only?) and you pay Twitterific NOT to see Twitterific ads … not Twitter ads. I think Dennis might have the better idea (below (?)) re revenue-sharing.

        Licensing the Twitter engine for use in more controlled networks is IMO a better model than ad-based.

  • …as the message size limitation is, well, quite limiting.  At its core, isn’t Twitter mostly a tiny message, service-enabled IM system with some multicasting capabilities?

    The applicability of IM concepts and Twitter concepts has substantial business benefits for instant collaboration, but I’m not sure the specific implementation of Twitter is the answer.

  • hey dennis —

    i follow your (prolific) tweets and enjoy them when i get the chance.
    i too agree that the short-length/microblogging “limitation” is (nearly) (one of the) the entire point(s) of twitter. as ev described at the web2summit, “what can i take away to make a killer app?” can often lead to the real hook.  with so little attention bandwidth, i find it harder to get to the longer posts, but i will read a two-line microblog in a passing instant.

    – @moyalynne

    …with a PS: as many of us do, i’m sure, i struggle between personal/family blogging and work/tech blogging – and twitter is no exception – so you’ll be more likely to see the latest news from an SF playground with a great view (closely related to its respective flickr pic) than what i just saw at the web 2.0 summit (though i had plenty of that too). just a little alternate demographic view…

    • I’m one of those saddo’s who sits in front of Twitter, email and Skype all day so I will tend to be a chatterbox.

      But seriously – I absolutely respect the problem folk have with the work/home divide issue. I’m thinking much more businessy and enterprisey.

      I like Twitter because it adds business value to what I’m doing. Same as I like eventtrack. My question remains the same. Do SDN’ers see enough value in this form of communication to make it worthwhile building upon AND would pay a fee of some sort for the service, subject to Jermemiah’s caveat about security?

      We seem to be floating around the issue but that’s OK. Los of good stuff coming out of it for me in trying to understand the business ‘fit.’

      • for me, a combo — free/upsell — feels right in the enterprise case. after all, ev started it all off already with blogger, and where do you pay to blog?
        putting aside for the moment that the word ‘free’ gives the enterprise the hives, consider viral social spread, event streams to help you solve specific issues *within a business context,* then upsell for the enterprise transactional/analytical prowess. i think that’s a productive direction for driving platform adoption. the question then becomes how to tie the event stream of twitter to SAP’s core strengths — but as Ray Valdez said in the recent Gartner report Facebook and the Emerging Social Platform Wars — “It is a short conceptual distance from a “life stream” of personally significant events to a “work stream” of interactions that have business value.”

        someone’s going to leap that distance.

        • I see where you are going Moya, but I guess that my major problem here is that I still can’t see where the value delivered in the enterprise setting trumps the privacy/security issues inherent in such informal modes of communication.

          Most of the people who I interact with on twitter are not people who I work with.  In the cases that they are, we rarely twitter about work.  Why is that? 

          I do nothing but communicate with team members solving hairy conceptual and practical problems, and none of that interaction takes place over twitter.  It takes place in regular conference calls, on our project wiki, in our project blog, in email, over IM, and last but certainly not least, in face to face conversation.  What does twitter bring to the workplace party that these other modes of conversation don’t? 

          A different question – what is it about twitter that inhibits it from being more useful in the work context?

          One issue that I have found is the lack of ability to easily partition tweet streams.  If you tweet, you tweet to all of your followers, whether they work with you or not.  “But Wait,” you exclaim, “that’s the point!  You are inviting ‘accidental awesomeness’ (thx Cote) to occur by including your self selected community in your workstream.”  I see the merit in the argument, but honestly, while I am all for openness, I just don’t feel comfortable including everyone in my followers list in every issue that my project team faces.  Some of those stories are meant for the campfire after we have slayed the dragons, not for sharing in the heat of the battle.  I don’t think that I am alone in this basic feeling, but perhaps I have a passion for privacy that others do not.

          If we don’t want to share our every issue with all followers, then we constrain twitter to behind the firewall.  That being the case, I think that we will see twitter-like features being embedded in to portal and app servers for use in collaborative environments, which will diminish their value by preventing the previously mentioned accidental awesomeness, and will earn twitter $0.00 since a shoutbox which doesn’t need to scale past the firewall boundary ain’t the hardest thing in the world to implement.

  • Moya describes one challenge.  Here’s another: bridging the gap between geek enthusiasm and business skepticism (intolerance? lack of undestanding or appreciating the tool?)

    Dennis wrote: “I’m not a geek, I’m not even a very good hacker. But I do understand something about business and business process.”
    For those who haven’t experienced Dennis’ passion around kicking video blogging tool tires or tirelessly critiquing and sharing many new-fangled web application thingies or link-referencing them avidly (on twitter or blogs) this might be taken to mean that Dennis is more like a “non-geek”/business user…hmmm…a little too ingenuous.
    For business folks to be more than curious about twitter, curious enough to pay for services, say, they will need to see some very persuasive use cases or be patient and/or geeky enough to engage enough to begin to drive business innovation with their requirements. Dennis wrote: “It is that kind of question that brings solutions business people like me want on our dekstops, laptops and mobile devices. We value these solutions because they meet our needs.”

    As far as needs are concerned, there is a slightly distorting factor in this very dialogue here(blog and comments) which currently has mostly technical conversationalists talking to each other.  And interestingly,  before we continue to engage the innovators and geeks and bleeding edge technologists in conversations around twitter extensions or solutions that business  folks will pay for, it would be helpful if some of those businessy folks were to show up and weigh in here ;-).  Come on you BPXers.  Tell developers what it is you want from Twitter…or perhaps many of you haven’t yet seen the value.  A helpful beginner’s guide is provided by Jeremiah Owyang.

    I see great potential for Twitter as a business app.  Will they pay? From an information delivery perspective it amazes me what business units have paid for, and dare I say, will pay for.
    Over a decade ago, I was commissioned to do some research for a business unit of a large telecommunications company via a small consulting firm I interfaced with.  What stunned me at the time was that I would receive a salary to simply aggregate information that was freely accessible on federal websites about phone usage and national landline proliferation in rural areas.  I was very candid about how easy it was for me to get this info from the web and dared ask: What were they paying me for?  Answer: Summarizing.   I simply read tons of material online and distilled it.  I even created a small access database application to store some of those aggregations for easy reuse and generated some nice spreadsheets with stats and graphs.  But that was then.
    What’s the point here now?
    I believe the requirement anti is upped.  Nano-blogs or distilled information (your 140 character better tweets) require inordinate skill, knowledge. The best ones even have some humor or genius combined with succinct and useful information.  I go to twitter to be updated (by an incredibly articulate and savvy group of people) on the most important and pressing business matters I need to engage in: community, social media trends and now CSR interests as well.  It think it takes tremendous skill, discipline and intelligence to do this well in 140 characters.  I am amazed that there is so much of that skill in those I “follow”.

    When it comes down to it, it is still about the quality of content and even more importantly the content providers.

    For Twitter to be useful, nay indispensable to a business audience, Twitter would need to fill a number of requirements.
    1)     Be stable and available (not quite there yet)
    2)     Deliver high-value, aggregated information (does this require experts doing a lot of reading, summarizing, categorizing and critiquing of content in the background?)
    3)     Offer an intuitive and simple filtering method so that low-value noise content is minimized or eliminated (Craig’s eventtrack is an ingenious and simple channel mechanism which can help create expert groups)

    But the biggest requirement will be to really engage the absolutely geek averse types who often are the very ones having the means to pay development costs.

    As for governance?  Rather than hide content Twitter might be viewed as an opportunity to hone our integrity around content transparency and help drive a clearer sense of responsibility and ownership about those things we choose to publish.

    Thanks to Jeremiah pointing to Brian Oberkirch  with this entertaining list of dos and don’ts: Advanced Twitter

    • Excellent response Marilyn, adds a lot of clarity.

      Anyone else? I’m planning on surfacing this on my ZDNet blog because I think it adds some much needed balance to the overall Twitter mania.