The 140-characters Netscape

As in "free beer"

I’ve had an interesting conversation earlier this week with a VC guy. He’s looking at a company that is basing its business on Twitter. My immediate reaction was – there is no way I’d consider building a long-term business on top of Twitter.

That’s because I don’t think there is a long term future for Twitter.

I love Twitter. I really do. Not in the Mel Brooks sense, mind you. I use Twitter a lot (not as much as Jeff, but still :), and I value the way Twitter changed our world.

However, I believe that in 2 years the Twitter brand will be in the same position as the Netscape brand is in now: Twitter will be credited with starting the revolution, and paving the road for followers (pun intended). But at the same time, it will be pushed into a minor position in the market with other players taking the lead (or, as is the case with Netscape, will no longer exist).

Twitter is the model for open conversations. They’ve crystallized the one-way-relationship model and brought it to the masses. You can follow anyone you want. You don’t have even to be a follower to read what anyone says – just visit their stream or subscribe to it with RSS. You can @mention anyone, who may or may not @reply back.

Contrast that with the Twitter platform, which is as closed as it gets.

Can you imagine email, The Killer App for the net, being so successful if you could only email people who use the same email provider as yourself?

Could email have become so central to today’s business interactions if businesses did not have the confidence of knowing they can choose to run their own email servers and have total control over it?

Remember CompuServe? ‘nuf said.

There will be other Twitter-like microblogging services. We had Jaiku and Pownce. We have, TypePad Motion, and Yahoo Meme. IMO, none of them lives up to the challenge of being a worthy Twitter-contender, but it’s only a matter of time, and incentive.

Incentive? Yes. Heck, Google & Facebook tried to acquire Twitter. Usually when a corporate attempts to acquire a startup it’s in the context of a make-or-buy discussion. When the “buy” option fails, corporate usually revert back to the first option. At some point, the big content players might also realize what an important role microblogging has in content distribution.

@biz has been quoted saying that Twitter’s potential is 4B cell phones. Guess what, there is another company that is eyeing the exact same market. A company that is known for having a keen understanding of the value of capturing the user intent and monetizing it. A company that has a reasonably good shot at controlling the entire stack – hardware, software and service. What will be the default microblogging service for the Googlephone? Will it be Twitter? I doubt it.

I believe that in 2 years, we’ll have additional 2-3 “Twitter-like” services from the big players.

But more important, if you follow Dave Winer’s work, you can clearly see how – in a typical Dave Winer fashion – the blocks are being laid out, one by one – the building blocks for an open, distributed, decentralized Twitter-like experience, which is based on widely available and well known technologies instead of proprietary ones.

Facebook were able to pull off successfully a centralized service, but that is because Facebook were bold enough to actually create a “second internet” – a walled garden which duplicates pretty much all of the utilities provided by the open net. Twitter is in a different game – if it tries to recreate the Facebook experience, it will loose much of its current appeal, the simplicity and minimalism that are its trademark (or was, before the Horrible Retweet Thingie). Plus, we already have Facebook, thank you.

Twitter could switch to a WordPress-like model, where you can choose to have your blog hosted on, or run your own WordPress server. Twitter could lead the way in establishing a (or adapting an existing) inter-microblogging-service protocol, that allows users of one service to @mention and follow the users of another compatible service (e.g. @yanivg@twitter). Twitter could start playing nice with pingbacks and trackbacks, with rssCloud and PubSubHub, with OPML, even *gasp* with SMTP, IMAP and POP. If they do that, given their market lead, Twitter might have a prominent position in the Post-One-Twitter world.

If they don’t, they might discover that the Internet does indeed abhors a funnel.