Today, App.net (ADN), the social network that made me drop all others made an important announcement – that it is going to allow free accounts that are invited by currently paying members. I did not intend on writing a blog post about it because this is news that has already spread through wildfire in the tech community. Some have lauded and some criticized it. But the post that made me write is this commentary by Marco Arment.
Marco argues that while such news is welcome, ADN needs to do more to promote user growth instead of focusing on developing the API. He goes on to state that the main reason people are signing up is the twitter like functionality sans the spam and advertisements and instead of building file storage APIs, the team should develop spam protection and open the gates completely to free members.
Marco is looking at this from the point of view of a developer afraid to spend time and resources developing apps for a lesser known social platform. In his defense, he states clearly that from the outset, it seems ADN promised a wonderful social network that everyone will jump at. From the earliest days, while I was talking to the early developers and with Dalton and team themselves, one thing was clear – ADN is not making a social network. ADN is making a social platform with an open API that encourages developers to build anything they want without fear of persecution. The objective is to allow developers to take risks and build anything they want. This is proven by the fact that there is no official app.net app, anyone can build their own.
Marco asserts that developers should not build social apps for ADN but should build for Facebook and Twitter instead, because “their role is to spread our apps”. This is too far from the truth. Today, Facebook and twitter are doing everything to pull users back to their default apps, from putting restrictions on the API to tightening the noose on the format in which content can be displayed. This is all just an advertising backed play. ADN, by that standard, has nothing to gain or lose by promoting one app over the other. The money flowing in will flow regardless. Marco also argues that instead of the ADN files API, developers should build on Dropbox because it is a million users ahead and can easily drive adoption of said app.
Marco would do good to remember that people were building apps and services for twitter and Dropbox long before they were famous, well-respected services. Developers come in two varieties – those who seek to earn money from a popular or well-paying service or those who seek to solve a problem they or someone else is facing while using their favorite service. Every social network needs the second kind during its growing phase because those who build the ecosystem just because they are loyal to the service often build the best solutions. Right now, ADN has a good mix of both simply because there is promise of never letting the company’s policies come in the way of what a developer wishes to build. It is not incidental that developers have started hating twitter after their recent change in policy. Therefore, it would be wrong to discourage developers to build just because a service is small or less famous. If no one would have built for Twitter, we’d still all be using our own blogs and if Dropbox would not have had a strong API and a great developer ecosystem, we’d still be using email to send each other files. The ecosystem, too often, makes the service.
It is also important to remember that out of all the customer-paying model based services, there are two that emerge – those that give away some free access and woo users with payment plans and those that are upfront about payment plans but flounder because of the lack of free options. One simple example that comes to mind is Dropbox and Box.net. Dropbox is enormously famous and has a great freemium model. However, most users of the service are free-loaders with the number that pay being much less. Box.net, on the other hand, has always been more of a paid service, whose free members were severely restricted in what they could do. But is Box.net a failure? Have they closed shop when faced with competition from Dropbox? No. Instead, backed by their corporate paying members, they’ve launched an attack on Dropbox by providing more and better free services to its members. Did Box.net just open its arms and start welcoming free-loaders? No, it went step by step, offering bonuses every once in a while to increase market share. Dropbox wins hands down because of its ecosystem that allows people to do so much but Box.net shows that there is always space for another competitor. Without its API and third-party developers, it’s possible we would have seen the end of Dropbox as we’ve seen the end of so many other file storage companies but just because of its paid customers, I doubt we’ll see an end to Box.net any time soon.
Marco states that in building an app for ADN, a developer is requiring people to sign up for a paid ADN service while they could be building for a free service like Twitter or Facebook which will provide better returns. Lets look at Marco’s own service – Instapaper. You can either buy a paid official mobile app for the free service but if you want to buy a third-party app, you have to start paying $1 per month for using the API, making it, in essence, a paid service. The only reason the service is still active in the face of competition from so many free services like Pocket is because it’s a good service, because people are willing to pay for it and because developers are willing to support it with a variety of apps. Once again, we see that more often than the service itself, the ecosystem drives growth and adoption.
One more thing – ADN isn’t asking developers to build ADN specific apps. Developers are taking that decision themselves or based on input from users. ADN is not stopping developers from building cross-posting or cross-functionality apps. Instead, it is encouraging them to do so. Twitter on the other hand, prevents users from building cross-functionality apps. This is as open an API as it gets. Nor is ADN telling developers to specifically use the Files API instead of Dropbox or other storage services, but it is presented as a good option, that’s all. It is only in the interest of the users and developers that ADN is building these features into the API. There has been, since the beginning, talk of building a variety of social networks that do very different things on top of the API. By calling these often discussed use-cases of the API ‘theoretical’, Marco is plainly claiming that such services will never materialize and ADN should just revert to being a twitter clone.
The freemium concept will help ADN grow slowly but surely. As the user base increases, developers will be attracted to the place because of the freedom they are afforded and this will only lead to more paid sign ups and thus, more free users. This is a much better way to grow than to face the “spam and abuse” that other social networks face because that was one thing that was clearly promised to the users. Arment would say that he’s talking for himself in the post and is forcing no one to follow his ideas but he is a beacon of light for independent developers who believe that he was the one man who did it alone, so maybe they can too. He of all should understand the value of an ecosystem around a product and instead of telling people to not trust ADN and not develop for it, he should foster growth. And yes, he is standing on the outside.