Tweet Marker shows Twitter client developers still innovating

We Twitter addicts—and I’ll count myself among their numbers—face all sorts of monumental challenges on a daily basis, but perhaps none are greater than this: Why, oh why, when we launch our Twitter client on our home computer can it not pick up right where we left off on our mobile client?

Developer Manton Reece of Riverfold Software was not the first to be annoyed by this incongruity, but unlike the rest of us he did something about it. Earlier this year, Reece announced Tweet Marker, a service that lets Twitter clients save and load the most recent tweet a user has read.

“I found myself using a few different Twitter apps across Mac, iPhone, and iPad,” Reece told Macworld via e-mail. “I use my iPad all the time (usually with my own app, Tweet Library), and there's a disconnect when switching over to the Mac or on the go with the iPhone, trying to remember what replies you've seen or where you left off in the main timeline. It seemed like we reached a point where many people wanted this, and someone just had to launch it and try to make it work.”

Now tweet this

But the service remained out of the hands of the average user until Tuesday, when The Iconfactory released Twitterrific 4.3 for Mac, iPhone, and iPad and became the first multi-platform client to support Tweet Marker. Both Reece and The Iconfactory’s Craig Hockenberry hope it will be just the beginning for the feature.

“I couldn't be more excited that Twitterrific is the launch app,” said Reece. “Twitterrific has played an important role in the growth of Twitter since its original release on the Mac, and because it's available on all the platforms I use, the sync is useful right away. But more clients will be coming.”

“We're glad to help get things started,” Hockenberry said, also via email. “We hope that Twitterrific is just the first (as is often the case).”

While timeline syncing isn’t an entirely new feature—Echofon and TweetDeck provide the same feature—both Hockenberry and Reece believe that Tweet Marker’s real strength is that it’s open to all.

“The real value is having something that works well across the entire Twitter ecosystem,” said Hockenberry. “It's our belief that Tweet Marker will become more useful as more clients support it.”

Reece concurs. “Although an app-specific sync service would be fine if you stick with the same app on all platforms, Twitter makes it so easy to try a new client that I'd love to pick my favorite app on each platform and know that they can work together when I switch devices.”

Pump up the volume

By default, Tweet Marker support is disabled in both the Mac and iOS versions of Twitterrific—according to Hockenberry, The Iconfactory was worried that if it were turned on by default the volume might overwhelm the fledgling Tweet Marker servers. To activate the feature on the Mac, visit the General section of the app’s Preferences; on iOS go to Settings -> Twitterrific.

Mark the Spot: Twitterrific now shows a purple banner marking your last read tweet.
Reece acknowledged that scalability is one of the big problems confronting Tweet Marker. While he would’ve “preferred a larger company with more resources” build out the service, that wasn't in the cards—so Reece built it himself and is using Amazon EC2 to host it. “Although the volume of tweets is huge, for Tweet Marker we are talking about tiny bits of data, so it doesn't have the storage or bandwidth requirements that other services like image hosting might have.”

Still, while hosting may be cheap, it isn’t without its costs—and Tweet Marker is a free service. On his blog, Reece wrote that the basic functionality of Tweet Marker would remain free, but he would consider offering advanced features to developers for a fee.

“For example, how great would it be for tweet drafts to sync across multiple clients?” Reece told Macworld. “I also believe there are usage statistics that I can provide to developers to give them a better idea of which platforms and versions are being used, so I hope to use those as an incentive to help support the service.”

Still, such features are still over the horizon. “The first step,” Reece said, “is making sure the initial Tweet Marker launch is successful.”

Whither Twitter?

Silent Spring: Twitter has remained mum, despite calls for a syncing service like Tweet Marker.

Then there's the bigger question: If this is such a great feature, why is it being offered by a small software developer instead of Twitter itself?

“Developers have been asking Twitter to support this functionality since 2009,” said Hockenberry. “I don't understand Twitter's reluctance to support syncing, but we're glad that we now have a solution that makes our customers happy.”

And given the increasingly thorny relationship between Twitter and its developers, Tweet Marker is a great way for developers to show that they’re still innovating and competing.

“How do you compete with an official Twitter app that is not just free, but also quite good?” said Reece. “The answer is to add features beyond the basic API, services like Tweet Marker that appeal to a niche of Twitter users who are very passionate about using Twitter in a certain way and who don't mind paying for great third-party apps.”

Third-party clients played an important role in popularizing Twitter in the service’s nascent days, but many have found themselves sidelined as the company has snapped up some of the more prominent ones. Twitter acquired Atebits, maker of Mac and iOS app Tweetie, in April 2010 and subsequently rebranded the programs as the service’s official clients. More recently, Twitter also purchased TweetDeck.

This has left third-party developers with a simple, if daunting imperative: Innovate or perish. With Tweet Marker's release, there’s little question which option Reece and Hockenberry are pursuing.

“If [Twitter] ever decides to add something like this to the official Twitter API, I'll be happy to support it,” said Reece. “But right now it's a great opportunity for third-party clients to shine.”

Hockenberry is even more vehement. When asked if Tweet Marker was a sign that third-party developers are still a valuable part of the innovation process, he responded with an emphatic, “Hell yes.”

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