Mike Isaac

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Dear Developers: Play by the Platform Rules, or Expect a Smackdown

ribbon_logoThe first rule of building on top of another company’s platform: Make sure you play by the rules.

The latest case in point: Ribbon, a Twitter-based payments startup, launched a new product on Wednesday morning, and it looked pretty cool. The main draw was the ability to buy stuff from inside a tweet, simply by clicking on a button and entering your credit card info and shipping deets.

I’m not gonna give you the play-by-play here (as it’s super nerdy stuff). But long story short, Twitter shut off support to Ribbon’s new feature within a few hours after launch. The company flipped out, wrote a huffy blog post about the incident, and quickly reached out to media outlets about the upset.

Here’s the thing. Ribbon’s new payment platform rests on Twitter’s “cards” technology, Twitter’s much-hyped way of helping developers make their tweets richer. There are photo cards, text-based cards, video player cards, and other more recent additions like product and app cards, and developers still need Twitter’s approval to implement them.

According to a source familiar with how cards work, however, it looks like Ribbon wasn’t playing by the rules. Today, Twitter doesn’t support making payments with cards. But what Ribbon could have done was request approval for one type of card — say, a video player card — and then switch up what would actually be happening after launching the product. In other words: Request player card access, then hack together a payments workaround to put into the card after the fact.

Part of me wants to congratulate Ribbon for hacking together a solution. Good for you guys! Ingenuity is always cool to see on major platforms, especially when introducing shiny new products that Twitter hasn’t even introduced — or officially supported — yet. It’s the hacker way! Or something.

twitter_gearBut another part of me wonders why Ribbon — or a developer like Ribbon — needed to jump the gun in the first place. For a long time now, Twitter has hinted at e-commerce options coming to its platform at some point in the future. Global revenue president Adam Bain has publicly remarked on the future of purchasing things through Twitter, how “buying directly from tweets will be huge” at some point.

In short, this is obviously a direction Twitter wants to go. So why hop the line and hack together a workaround? It attracts a flurry of negative, twitch-level press, and most likely gets your startup on Twitter’s bad side. Not sure if its worth it just to be the first product to market on a platform.

“Like any developer on Twitter, we had a hunch that this might happen,” Hany Rashwan, CEO of Ribbon, told me. “However, we’ve had extensive contact with Twitter about what we’re building and finding ways of working together. We’re still excited about the possibilities of what we can build and are looking forward to working with them in the future.” He maintained that the two companies are still in contact.

Twitter didn’t have a comment on the matter.

But it’s not only happening in the Twitterverse. Facebook developers also skirt the line of what’s acceptable and what’s prohibited to be built atop Facebook’s platform. And when the startups get shut down, they inevitably make a big stink about it in the press. Same with Apple’s App Store guideline violations, and Google’s Android Play store escapades.

Now, I’ll be fair to small-timers here, too. All of these companies — Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Google — have penned murky, hard to decipher policies for third-party developers, occasionally making it difficult to know when one is or isn’t breaking the rules. And especially in the cases of Facebook and Twitter, the rules have changed so much in the past few years, it’s difficult to keep up with what is and isn’t above board.

But from what I’m hearing this time around, Ribbon was trying to cut in line. And Twitter seems to not be having it.

My humble suggestion: Play by the rules next time, little startup. Just cross your fingers that those rules stay the same.

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus