Dear Twitter: Please Don’t Become Palm

By  |  Tuesday, December 30, 2008 at 10:55 am

palm-twitterDear Twitter,

Got a second?

Almost everybody who folllows my online adventures closely knows I’m a fan of yours. I Tweet up a storm at my own feed and there’s also a technologizer one that automatically Tweets every Technologizer story.  When friends tell me they don’t understand you, I evangelize on your behalf. I can’t think of a tech product or service I use every day that I take more pleasure in.

But I’m increasingly concerned about you. Simply put, you seem to be profoundly complacent on multiple fronts. A few examples (all of which plenty of people have pointed out before me)…

–You bought Twitter-search company Summize back in July, but still haven’t deigned to put so much as a link to its impressive search engine in Twitter’s interface–except for the tiny one in your footer–let alone a search field. (You still make us go to to find this most basic of features.)

–You haven’t added many (any?) of the obvious features that would make Twitter more useful, like the ability to really respond to a specific Tweet.

–You’re letting third-party sites such as Tweetree give Twitter obvious enhancements like embedded pictures and videos and threaded conversation views.

–Speaking of third parties, they’re doing much of the heavy lifting of making Twitter useful, via desktop clients such as Tweetdeck, phone clients such as Tweetie, and services such as TwitPic. Yet you do little or nothing to help your users find any of them.

–You haven’t introduced any money-making features, which leaves your users worried that you haven’t figured out a business model that’ll keep you going strong for years to come.

Much of this reminds me of the history of Palm. In the mid-1990s, it created the first truly usable PDAs. They were so usable in large part because they were so darn simple. And Palm refused to overcomplicate its products, while numerous more-powerful-but-less-simple competitors flopped.

For years, it worked wonderfully well for Palm and its customers–and the company miraculously managed to repeat the strategy successfully when it hopped from PDAs to Treo smartphones.

And then…it stopped working. While Palm was busy not mucking up its OS, other companies solved many of the issues that made their earlier products so unsatisfactory. Folks started to assume that smartphones would have rich, deeply embedded support for stuff like multimedia, which was tough for Palm to offer since its OS’s infrastructure was so antediluvian. In part because of the things it hadn’t done to upgrade its own OS, it was forced to take the soul-crushing step of making Treos that ran Windows.

Little by little, the company that once understood handheld computing better than any other lost its way, and lost much of its customer base. And the iPhone came along and instantly made Treos look archaic–just as the original Palm PDAs did to mid-1990s handhelds like Apple’s Newton and HP’s OmniGo.

For the past few years, Palm has been discovering how hard it is to surge back into a leadership spot once you’ve almost intentionally given up your lead. It’s pinning all its hopes on the Nova operating system that will apparently debut next week at the Consumer Electronics Show.  I remain a Palm fan and have an open mind, so I’m working hard to be optimistic–but I don’t think you’ll find a single Palm-watcher out there who thinks that the most likely scenario involves Nova catapulting Palm back to glory, or who doesn’t think that the company was horribly complacent for far too many years. (Here’s a famous example of tough love…one which I thought about when I sat down to write this letter.)

Did I mention that I used Palm products forever, but moved on a couple of years ago? I felt guilty. I also felt like I had no choice.

I understand that I don’t have a clue what you guys are up to behind closed doors. You may have this all figured out already. I’m not saying that anyone else has it figured out yet–Tweetree, for instance, is a tad clunky, and I’m not proposing that you remodel Twitter to resemble it this very moment. And I understand that no would-be Twitter-killer has done so much as give you a flesh wound yet. (Actually, they seem to be dying off, just as would-be PalmPilot-killers did for years.)

I’m not saying you’re headed for a cliff, and you certainly haven’t driven off one yet. But I’m still worried that you’re too confident in the power of Twitter’s simplicity, too afraid you might mess it up by making changes unless they’re absolutely perfect, and too slow in reacting to the changing world around you. I’m worried, in other words, that you’re turning into Palm.

Anything you might do to help make clear you’re on top of things and intend to keep on improving Twitter forever–while preserving its DNA–would help. (No, reinstating People Search doesn’t count.)

That’s my two cents, anyhow.

Happy new year,



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9 Comments For This Post

  1. Xavier Says:

    Couldn’t agree more Harry. I just started using twitter after holding out (I have enough online stuff to manage) and am really surprised at the lack of features.

    I got my first Palm Pilot in 1998 and was a big fan- it was like magic. Unfortunately, the Treo 650 I bought 7 years later wasn’t that big of an improvement…

  2. Charles Forsythe Says:

    I guess I’ll have to read more evangelism about Twitter.

    So far, most use appears to be as a tool for narcissists who aren’t ambitious enough to start a blog. I think you’re spot on about the search feature, because while there may be interesting tweets out there, I have no idea how I’d find them through the blizzard of tripe.

    Congratulations for having the first twitter page I’ve ever read that contained something I found interesting! I may subscribe — I mean “follow”. 🙂

  3. Jeff Shuey Says:

    Spot on. I owned several Palm devices and was an early convert (and advocate) for Graffiti. I held out for a long time before switching over to more powerful devices – always hoping that the next iteration would fix the ills that ailed 'em. Finally I had to give up and move on. I hope this is not the fate that awaits Twitter. I hope they have a master plan on what to do next and next and next. I'd like to think my hope is not mis-placed as it was with Palm. Time will tell. The best technology does not always win, but it doesn't hurt.

  4. Ari Herzog Says:

    Ponder this, Harry: RIM builds its BlackBerry phones with so many applications. More are available for download on the default browser homepage and/or from approved websites. But a lot of functionality comes from apps that are not on RIM-approved sites, ranging from GMail Mobile Sync to TwitterBerry.

    That said, I’d enjoy seeing a slimmed down model for that you can see on Create a banner tab that links to every (or a select few) third-party apps that can be reached from their site. Maybe developers pay a fee to be “approved” by Twitter. Something like that?

  5. Seth Goldstein Says:


    I completely agree and I have to admit I’m worried about Twitter too. So many of us have come to rely on this service for not only personal reason but for business matters as well. I even went so far as to take a leap of faith and put my Twitter URL on my business card. Am I crazy to order 2000 business cards with a service that could go away? I hope they don’t!


  6. Josh Fialkoff Says:

    This is dead on!

    I was a Palm evangelist (the Treo 270 was one of the most thrilling small purchases I ever made).

    I was sad to see the company wither away and let others, especially Apple, build on the innovations Palm made.

    The only point with which I disagree is that it’s not good to have third-party companies creating enhancements. It’s odd to me that even though Twitter has no public money-making plan, companies like TweetDeck think *they* can make money.

    Let’s hope the folks Twitter have some great ideas that they just aren’t telling us about.

    It’s going to be interesting to see what happens…

  7. scott Says:

    You may also want to check out yonkly. It’s the first “create your own” microblog to integrate with Twitter:

  8. Harry McCracken Says:

    Charles: There are self-indulgent, boring people on Twitter, but I follow a bunch of folks who inform and entertain me. Like any media, it’s only as much as the people who use it make of it. (I’m convinced that when the stone tablet was invented, most cave men dismissed it as being “only for telling people what you had for breakfast…”


  9. Warren Sukernek Says:

    The parallels between Palm and Twitter are eerily similar, both in your post and in the brand loyalty that people are leaving in the comments. Hopefully, Twitter can learn from the Palm lesson.

    Thanks for the insight.


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