My predictions this year will be pretty focused on the Internet Big Five (Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook) but the first two focus on Twitter. Why? Because Twitter is poised to become a critical “free radical” whose presence affects the actions of all the Big Five players. And 2012 will be the year this becomes readily apparent. In short: In 2012, every Big Five Internet company will need to have a clear Twitter strategy. At the moment, not all of them do.
What do I mean when I use the term “free radical”? Well, taken loosely from molecular chemistry and biology, free radicals are particles with open shells or unpaired electrons – they cause change in otherwise stable systems. I take the term with a bit more license, however – to me Twitter is the only Internet service at scale that has yet to ossify into a predictable platform with a massive revenue base to protect. This fact, plus the company’s liberal philosophical bent toward free speech, positions Twitter as something of a shape-shifting arms merchant in the ongoing battle between the Internet Big Five. Believe me, any one of the Five would kill to own Twitter, several of them have tried to buy the company over the past few years. It’s now clear that Twitter’s path is one of independence. To succeed, it must become the Swiss bank of social intent, providing its services in some kind of useful way to each and every one of the Big Five.
2011 has already set the table for how this year is going to play out. In short, Microsoft and Apple embraced Twitter, Google and Facebook rejected it, and Amazon stayed on the sidelines, for the most part.
Last year, Google allowed its search deal with Twitter to expire (not for lack of trying, I am sure), and then rolled out Google+, which is clearly a Twitter competitor (sure, it’s also a Facebook competitor, but let’s keep this post focused, shall we? Google+ replaced Twitter in Google’s search service. Enough said.). Microsoft, on the other hand, was happy to renew its deal. It’ll do more with Twitter in 2012, to be sure.
Last year was the year Facebook pretty much copied everything Twitter does, up to and including the “Subscribe” feature, which is pretty much a full copy of Twitter inside the Facebook walled garden. Meanwhile Apple embraced Twitter wholeheartedly, with a deal that clearly benefited from Facebook negotiations gone south. And as I said earlier, Amazon didn’t see much reason to work with Twitter, save adding a few new handles to its corporate identity.
In 2012, every Big Five player is going to have to reckon (again) with Twitter. And it’s my hope that Twitter’s approach to these Internet behemoths is to force them all to play by the same rules. In other words, no exclusive deals for any of them. If Google wants to integrate Twitter natively into Android (the way Apple has with iOS), why, great. Twitter won’t refuse to do so because Apple objects. Should Microsoft care to build Twitter natively into Xbox Live, again, no problem, but sorry Microsoft, Twitter keeps the right to allow Sony or Nintendo (or, gasp, Facebook proxy Zynga) the same option. When Amazon starts publicly acting like a full-blown media company (and not just a distribution or ecommerce player), it will cut a deal with Twitter for distribution and data, quite possibly in the advertising network space. Amazon’s competitors will have nothing to say about it. And if Facebook ever wakes up and realizes that Twitter might play a part in its strategy in some important way, Twitter will be more than happy to figure out a deal, even if Google objects.
In short, the Internet Big Five need a neutral player they can all draw on for value and features that any one of them can’t (or won’t) do – for any number of reasons. This is the role Google played in the first five years of Web 2.o (but increasingly can’t play due to conflicts with owned and operated properties like YouTube, Android, Google+, Places, etc.). For now, Google and Facebook still think they can out-Twitter Twitter. Microsoft and Apple have already punted on competing directly. I’m predicting 2012 is the year Google and Facebook come around and work with Twitter in some new, significant way, as will Amazon.
This is a pretty risky prediction to make, to be sure. Sitting here in January of 2012, it’s quite easy to argue that the folks at Facebook and Google see absolutely no reason to work with Twitter. But there’s an important reason to work with Twitter that hasn’t become quite evident, yet. And that has to do with the concept of openness and the need for third party validation in the eyes of government and consumer scrutiny. More on that in a future prediction.