Twitter Inc. is leaving its comfort zone.
The company best known for its 140-character microblogging service is embarking on what is perhaps the most ambitious expansion in its history, unveiling a slew of new software tools aimed at making life easier for mobile-software developers – whether they use Twitter or not. In the process, the company hopes, Twitter may be able to transform from a single-service provider into a leading middleman between the people who build mobile software and the people who use it.
At its first developers' conference in San Francisco on Wednesday, the microblogging company announced a set of developer tools that focus on everything from bug reports to user sign-in methods.
"There's been this democratization over the past, say, 15 years, of software," said Jeff Seibert, Twitter's mobile-platform director, in an interview. "That's resulted in an explosion in the number of developers worldwide and in their influence on the success of platforms.
"Twitter recognized this, and we want to build tools developers will love, because then they'll find it easy to integrate Twitter into their apps, and ultimately that will help benefit the Twitter network."
In some ways, that strategy marks a departure for a company that once fought bitterly with third-party developers to control the user experience on its core microblogging service. But by building tools for developers (and giving them away mostly for free), Twitter hopes to gain two key advantages – more developers using its ad products, and more Twitter-integrated software luring new users to join the core microblogging service.
Primarily, Twitter makes money through advertising. Perhaps the most visible form is the "promoted tweet," where clients pay to have their tweets show up on the timelines of people who may not follow their accounts.
Twitter also maintains a set of services, such as an advertising tool called MoPub, that let developers choose from a number of ad formats, such as banners and video ads. In effect, such tools allow Twitter to make money in much the same way Google does – by matching up developers and advertisers, and making a small cut of the sale in the process. MoPub was among the services for which Twitter announced upgrades on Wednesday. Perhaps the most significant new product from Twitter is a service called Digits. The tool lets developers build very simple sign-in screens that, rather than asking for a username and password, let users sign in using only their phone numbers, verified by text message. The service is aimed in large part at users in parts of the world where smartphone use is very high relative to traditional PCs.
"I think it is going to be really important in developing countries," said Ming Horn, a conference attendee and founder of KhodeUp, a non-profit that teaches Web development and graphic design to youth in Cambodia. "Digits will definitely make it a lot easier for whatever they build to gain more users because so many people have mobile phones, but almost nobody has laptops or tablets."
Twitter also unveiled a new developer platform called Fabric. The platform is composed of several different "kits," including Digits and Crashlytics, a bug-detection service acquired by Twitter in 2013. Fabric also includes a host of new tools for including tweets in any app.
For example, a game developer can include functionality that allows a user to post a tweet when they complete a level. That tweet could then include a link for others to download the app.
"That directly closes the viral loop," Mr. Seibert said, explaining the reciprocal benefits of opening its technology to developers. "So someone's in your app, they share your content, someone else sees that, installs your app, and so on."
But Twitter's new-found focus on developers is not without risk. Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook have spent billions on building developer tools for their own services and products, and all four have far deeper pockets than their newest competitor.
In order to differentiate its own offerings, Twitter is trying to frame itself as a kind of neutral party in the tech ecosystem wars – a software provider that, unlike Apple or Google, has no interest in making its tools work better on one platform over another.
"The brief history of the mobile-development landscape has been one of a hodgepodge of [developer tools] that you have to incorporate into your apps," said Twitter CEO Dick Costolo during a keynote address to the thousand or so developers at the conference.
"The mobile [developer tool] landscape has also been inhabited by some parties who optimize for self interest first, and for your developer interest second."
Investors, however, did not appear entirely convinced that Twitter will be able to carve out a niche for itself against the tech industry's biggest players. Twitter's share price, already down more than 20 per cent so far this year, dipped another 3 per cent on Wednesday.