The killer song this spring in Silicon Valley has been real-time chirruping of the little Twitter bird. First Twitter, the micro-messaging network founded by Biz Stone, Jack Dorsey and Ev Williams in March 2006, grew its user base by over 1000% between the Spring of 2008 and 2009 – making it by far the fastest growing social network on the Internet. Then Oprah, that most viral of American media high-priestesses, noisily opened a Twitter account and acquired 900,000 followers in less than a month. Then Facebook, the social networking leviathan with over 150 million users, tried in its latest incantation to reinvent itself as a real-time Twitter service. Finally, in a mid April nail-biting race to the million follower mark, Hollywood actor and model Ashton Kutcher narrowly beat out CNN by 1,200 followers.
So it’s not surprising that some of the big media and technology cats are now trying to get their greedy mitts on that little tweetie bird. Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, even, most bizarrely of all, the New York Times are all now rumoured to be interested in acquiring the venture capital backed, San Francisco based company. The supposed price has been inflating as quickly as the number of Twitter users: $200 million, $500 million even $1 billion – not exactly small change for a start-up without any revenue or even a business model. And then last week, Biz Stone appeared on ABC’s “The View” television show and cheekily told host Barbara Walters that Twitter wasn’t for sale. Clearly something is up.
What would you get if you bought Twitter? According to the now immortal words of Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO, you’d be buying a “poor-man’s email system” – which is how he described Twitter at a Morgan Stanley technology conference earlier this spring. So why is Google supposedly so keen on buying Twitter? The answer, naturally, is search. Many Silicon Valley pundits believe that the next big thing will be real-time search and that Twitter, with its hundreds of millions of short messages, houses an phenomenally rich informational seam that could rapidly make the Google search engine seem out-of-date. But while Google obviously needs Twitter, it’s less clear if Twitter needs Google. Last year, Twitter acquired Summize, a search engine of its own which could enable it to become Google 2.0 without having to answer to Eric Schmidt.
Twitter, of course, it is more, much much more than just a poor-man’s email system. With it seductively simple interface, its intensely viral community, its real-time communications technology and user-controlled features, Twitter is represents not only the future of the Internet, but probably also the future of media. Thus the rumored interest in Twitter of companies as diverse as Microsoft, Amazon and the New York Times.
Then there’s Apple, the most insurrectionary of Silicon Valley companies, who have been linked to a Twitter acquisition by the normally well-informed technology blog Techcrunch. Why would Apple want to buy Twitter? Because, I suspect, locking Twitter into their iTunes store and iPhone network would provide valuable individual brands like @oprah and @aplusk with a remarkably effective marketing and sales platform to distribute their products. The Twitter-Apple cat then would be truly amongst the old media pigeons. Merging the revolutionary Twitter into insurrectionary Apple would be one more nail – perhaps the final nail -- in the coffin of traditional record labels, publishers and television and movie networks.