Today, App.net launched free accounts. Previously, everyone had to pay — originally $50/year, then reduced to $36/year.
The first half of their announcement is written very defensively, presumably because they anticipate anger from paid members. They’re practically beating us over the head with the idea that they’ve always planned to offer free accounts. (I didn’t get that memo, but I don’t care.)
Free accounts have three main limits: they can only follow up to 40 people, they have lower limits for App.net’s new file-storage APIs, and they require an invitation from a paying member. Fair enough, I guess.
What previously made me doubt App.net’s future was that it wasn’t growing quickly enough, and I assumed that a lot of the paying members would decline to renew their accounts when their time was up.1 I’m still worried about that.
My bigger concern is the shift they’ve taken recently away from being a near-clone of Twitter. They’ve always positioned themselves as a more generic platform that could be used to support many different apps, and the Twitter clone was just one use of it. But they’ve pushed especially hard in this direction recently, especially with the heavy promotion of the new File API.
They seem to want developers to start using App.net as a primary storage and communication platform. When they launched, this was something cool developers could do. Now, it seems like this is what developers should do, and this is how we’re supposed to view App.net.
As a developer, I don’t think I’d go anywhere near that type of integration. App.net is still too small of a platform to even support many Twitter-like clients: the biggest and most compelling use of the service to date, and presumably the reason why most of its members signed up. Writing a different type of app for it would only appeal to a small percentage of the already-small userbase.
If I want to build an app with a social network backing it, I should use Twitter or Facebook. Developers need to support the biggest social networks because their role is to spread our apps. Building an app exclusively for App.net would work against us.
If I want to build an app with server-side file storage, I should use Dropbox. Not only does Dropbox offer far more space than App.net in both their free and paid tiers, but there are already quite a few more Dropbox users who can start using your app without the hassle of signing up for a new service. (And Dropbox is more likely to be around in three years.)
Worse yet, if I build an app that requires App.net, it still effectively requires a paid App.net account for my customers to use it, because the chances that they’ll already have been given a free-account invitation from another member are nearly zero. How are developers supposed to sell an app that requires a $36/year, third-party, confusingly positioned service that most customers have never heard of?2
App.net’s push for developers at this stage is solving the wrong problem. Very few developers need App.net to add features or APIs, and I just don’t see a lot of demand for the new APIs and theoretical use-cases that they’re now pushing.
What developers need is for App.net to add tons of users to the service they already offer. (Conveniently, that’s also what App.net’s users need.)
As long as the invitation requirement is in place, the free tier won’t do this. And when an invitation is no longer required, App.net is going to need to start battling the spam and abuse that all free social services face. In the best-case scenario, they’re going to have scaling challenges. It’s not going to be easy.
But that’s what they really need to be focusing on: getting enough people actively using it to compel everyone — old and new — to stick around.
It may already be too late. This is going to be a challenging year for App.net.
I hope they pull it off. I want App.net to succeed. It just doesn’t appear from the outside that they’re solving the right problem.
Correction: I originally wrote here that the first wave of accounts was up for renewal on April 14, giving App.net just seven weeks to convince them to stick around. I had misread my expiration date: it’s actually April 14, 2014 — next year. My mistake. Obviously, then, there’s less urgency on this factor than I thought. ↩