Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

What’s Twitter’s Identity Now That It’s Apple’s Identity Provider?

Apple this week anointed Twitter as a built-in feature of the next version of its mobile platform.

The partnership, announced during Apple’s WWDC keynote yesterday, is an obvious diss to Facebook and its Facebook Connect service, which had been Apple’s pick to power social features for iTunes Ping. That deal fell apart last year over what Steve Jobs called “onerous terms,” and relations between the two companies have since been strained.

Facebook has set itself up as the leading identity provider on the Web, with more than 2.5 million sites that operate Facebook Connect and social plug-ins, and something like 700 million active users. Now Apple is propping up the smaller–and different–Twitter as a competitor.

Twitter has 200 million total accounts–it doesn’t specify how many of them are active, or how many of them are real people. Apple, coincidentally, has sold 200 million iOS devices total.

Path CEO Dave Morin, who knows firsthand the challenges of social log-ins from his photo-sharing app, tweeted during the keynote yesterday, “Twitter is the luckiest company on earth today.”

But at least one analyst and many onlookers are playing devil’s advocate by arguing that Apple is the bigger winner, having avoided paying to buy Twitter and reducing it to utility status. Shaw Wu of Sterne Agee wrote in a note to investors this morning:

With iOS 5, Twitter becomes a system level service where AAPL integrated Twitter functionality without having to acquire the company. It begs the question of whether bringing Twitter in-house makes sense in the future.

The close relationship with Apple could also be problematic for Twitter’s other industry relationships, though Twitter Executive Chairman Jack Dorsey said emphatically last week at D9 that Twitter sees itself as an independent company rather than an acquisition target.

To step back, here’s my understanding of how Apple and Twitter said their integration would work (Twitter is holding an event for developers tomorrow now Thursday where it will presumably add more detail):

This fall when the new iOS is released, users who log into Twitter once from an iOS device will be able to share links, photos and other content by tweeting directly from a built-in “tweet sheet” in Apple apps like Safari and the camera. Twitter contact information and photos will be automatically synced to their phone contacts.

Plus, users will also be able to more easily bring all the people they follow into applications made by developers other than Apple. So when a user downloads any app with social features, that app can find overlaps between its users and a user’s Twitter social graph and connect them. (Twitter described this to developers as “bootstrap[ping] a user’s social graph for your app.”)

It was already possible to do all of these things, but now it will be easier. Users won’t have to type in their credentials on awkward tiny keyboards time after time, and they won’t have to switch apps to share content.

All they’ll do is go to Apple’s built-in Settings app and type their log-in and password, then tap to confirm that each app can use their Twitter credentials. This is similar to the way apps ask permission for users’ locations. Actually, it might be helpful to think of a Twitter account like Apple’s social GPS–it’s a way to help apps detect who you are, just as location signals tell apps where you are.

And–I personally appreciate this very much–Apple also redesigned its keyboard for Twitter-specific use, putting “@” and “#” right next to the space bar. No more clicking through two keyboard screens to make a hashtag symbol.

Facebook, by the way, previously launched a single sign-on feature for approved apps on Android and iOS.

So what is Twitter identity, and how is it different from Facebook identity?

Facebook is fundamentally different from Twitter in a couple of key ways (and not just the 140-characters thing): It requires users to use their real names, and it has two-way relationships.

On Twitter, you can have a fake or cutesy handle, you can be a bot, you can represent a company or brand, or you can be yourself–and all these things happily coexist. You can also follow whomever you want, without the other party needing to accept your friend request.

In some ways, Twitter can be a preferable identity system to Facebook. Twitter is built around publishing–it is fundamentally about sharing content. On Twitter, everyone is on a soapbox, performing for an audience–that’s the nature of its one-way communication. Whereas Facebook, as one Web start-up CEO said to me today, seems a lot more like your government-approved driver’s license.

On Twitter, there isn’t as much of the Facebook awkwardness of expressing your true self to your true friends, hiding your embarrassing photos from your boss and your politics from your grandma, and remembering those random people you friended but aren’t sure why.

In some ways, Twitter may indeed be a more effective place to share content. I know firsthand, for instance, that AllThingsD receives far more traffic from Twitter than from Facebook–it just seems to be a more natural fit for our audience.

Though these sorts of stats seem to fluctuate all the time, according to a recent study from ShareThis, links shared on Twitter are clicked on an average of 4.9 times each, as compared to 4.3 times on Facebook and 1.7 times on email.

At D9 last week, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo told Walt Mossberg, “The ‘@username’ is a powerful construct. You give out lots of information without sacrificing privacy.”

Indeed, Twitter handles are increasingly used as identity proxies all over the place. Costolo spoke of the way panelists at South by Southwest printed their Twitter handles on their name placards so audience members could find them afterward. And he talked about a partnership with Mozilla where Firefox automatically recognizes user names and hashtags when @ and # are typed into the address bar.

We shouldn’t overplay the influence of just one device maker and just one social service making an alliance. Before Twitter, Apple previously offered an embedded option to share content directly through its own MobileMe, and we all know how well that worked out. And much could change before iOS comes out in the fall–maybe Apple and Facebook will even kiss and make up by then.

But to someone who watches the social Web closely, Facebook’s ownership of Web identity was becoming almost disturbingly prevalent. So for the sake of interestingness, it’s good to see Twitter getting a boost up in the competition.

Please see the disclosure about Facebook in my ethics statement.

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First the NSA came for, well, jeez pretty much everybody’s data at this point, and I said nothing because wait how does this joke work

— Parker Higgins via Twitter