November 20, 2012

Apple and Twitter

My friend and co-worker Tom has a thesis about Apple’s biggest problem: Google is getting better at design faster than Apple is getting better at web services.

I’m a long-time Mac user and a diehard Apple fan, and even I will admit that Apple’s approach to the web has been a clusterfuck. iCloud, née MobileMe, née .Mac, has only ever been adequate at best. I’ve heard (or been victim to) countless stories of duplicate or lost contacts, calendar syncing errors, or email downtime. Outside of sync services, Apple has other web problems. Here are a few examples:

Almost anything Apple does which involves the internet is a mess, save for their excellent web browser teams.

Meanwhile, Google, specifically Android, has been steadily improving its entire platform. To me, it still doesn’t have the same quality of polish and feel that Apple software does. However, it’s getting harder to argue that point, especially since their web services all tend to Just Work. Features like Google Now and near-instant voice commands are starting to give Android a serious leg up on iOS. Design is coming along as well. Android is still ugly, but it’s much less ugly than it was a few years ago. Google seems to be actively addressing this, and if Apple isn’t worried, they should be. Tom is the first friend I’ve had who has switched from iOS to Android, and he is unlikely to be the last.

Here’s what I’m getting at: Apple should buy Twitter, and they should do it now.

I’m hardly the first to suggest such an acquisition. Apple and Twitter have talked before and much speculation has already been made. Most, if not all, of this speculation centered around how Apple needed to buy a social network, because Apple needed “Social” – whatever that means. Owning a social network only solves one of the aforementioned problems (finding friends) and it only does so only partially: Both friends must already be a part of that social network for it to work. It seems ludicrous to suggest paying billions of dollars for half a solution to the symptom of a problem.

So that’s not that argument I want to make.

I would posit that the cause Apple’s lackluster web skills stems from their inability to recruit or keep talented web engineers. Historically, if you’re into databases, servers, or web application frameworks, then Apple was probably pretty low on the list of places you aspired to work at. Apple has always positioned itself as a consumer products company, and even killed off its server hardware over the years. Mac OS X Server remains, but who knows for how long.

Where Apple falls short, Twitter flies. Not only does Twitter use some of the most advanced web technology, they invented it. They own scale. They know how to send hundreds of thousands of tweets a minute. Further, Twitter is social network with values that (used to) reflect Apple: focus and simplicity.

Apple should buy Twitter not for its social network, but for its talent and technology. That talent and technology could undoubtably help bring Apple and iCloud into the 21st century. The social network is basically an added bonus.

Twitter is a company struggling to make financial sense. With over $1B in funding and over 1500 employees, they need to figure out how to stay in the game for the long term. Hence, the disappointing pivot and the user backlash. Exhibit A, exhibit B. While Twitter may make a lot of money for its investors, having many of your original users abandon ship isn’t good for your long term prospects.

Apple has boatloads of money, and although it’s extremely conservative with it – you don’t get rich by spending money, after all – I don’t think it’s out of the question for them to make a heavy strategic investment like this.

An Apple buyout of Twitter wouldn’t be welcomed by all. With so many Twitter employees, I imagine at least a few hundred of them are dedicated to Twitter’s advertising arm. Since Apple is unlikely to be interested in that aspect of Twitter’s business, many of those jobs would likely disappear. It wouldn’t be pretty. (Then again, maybe they could help turn around iAds?)

If it doesn’t happen soon, it likely won’t happen at all. The larger Twitter gets, the more likely an IPO, and Apple isn’t dumb enough to pay the grossly inflated market prices for a publicly traded social media company. Further, the more Twitter becomes a “media company” the less engineering talent it will retain. Anecdotally, I’ve already heard of quite a few key engineers leaving the nest.

All said, I think this is pretty unlikely to happen. Maybe I’m just jaded, but Twitter probably thinks of itself as being too big and too primed for money-making to be acquired at this point. Also, stomaching the layoffs of much of it’s staff doesn’t sound like something their leadership would be up for. Apple is probably too in denial about the failings of it’s antiquated approach to the web to consider dropping such a huge amount of money.

The fit seems so good, it’s hard to not wish for.

Update: A previous version of this article referenced a statistic about Twitter handling hundreds of thousands of tweets per second. This was an error, the rate Twitter quoted was 327,452 per minute. My apologies. Still, it’s quite an impressive number, considering the one-to-many nature of Tweets.