Mike Isaac

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Meet Blogger Mobile: Biz Stone’s Idea for Twitter Before It Was Twitter

Even with the best of ideas, timing is still everything. And sometimes you arrive years too early to something big.

Just ask Biz Stone, one of the co-founders of Twitter, who in the early 2000s made multiple attempts to build a simple, lightweight publishing service — all years before Twitter was ever on the radar. In a series of old blog posts, aptly enough, Stone documented much of his thought process of what a Twitter-like product could be, and made several early versions of a short-form blogging service.

The first attempt came in 2003 with Sideblogger, a small project Stone worked on with programmer Chris MacDonald, tailored for entries that were “too short for your main blog,” as Stone once put it. Read this line from his early thoughts on the product:

“My last post was 377 characters. My RSS reader is set to 255 characters. Maybe 255 is a new blog standard? The point at which post becomes essay?”

Not quite 140 characters yet, but prescient enough.

Sideblogger didn’t work out — Google ended up freaking Stone out by asking him to take “Blogger” out of the title, as the company owned the eponymous service.

Later on, after Stone ended up joining Google and Blogger, came the Blogger Mobile project you see in the photo above. Stone, early Twitter product leader Jason Goldman, and Jason Shellen, another Blogger veteran, all collaborated on the project.

This is quintessential Twitter before actually becoming Twitter. The entire premise was to easily post messages from your phone — a concept foreign to most folks who only had feature phones (which basically was most people with cellphones at the time). Sending text messages to a short code, as the graphic shows, was even more of a confusing concept to the general public.

Even if folks did understand how to post mobile messages to Blogger, most people didn’t use a mobile browser on their phones. Remember, this was the heyday of the Motorola Razr, a massively popular but technologically limited device.

Moreover, aside from all the technological hurdles at the time, Blogger didn’t have one of Twitter’s most crucial features — a “following” model. So, sure, you’d post new entries to your blog on the go, but no one would know it or really care. Hence, no real early traction or feeling of completion.

Whether you want to call it a Twitter precursor or not, it’s fascinating to see this small window into Stone’s early thinking; you can tell that the seeds of something short, lightweight and fast are there.

And it’s hard to look at the UFO cartoon above without feeling some echoes of Twitter’s “plane in the Hudson River” moment — the point at which co-founders like Jack Dorsey say Twitter finally broke through to the mainstream.

The thing that hits home the most here, I’d say, is that Twitter doesn’t seem to be the brainchild of any one person alone; not Jack Dorsey, not Biz Stone, not Evan Williams, not Noah Glass. That’s an especially important point lately, as more employees come out of the woodwork to deliver Twitter origin stories, all leading up to the release of “Hatching Twitter,” the book written by New York Times reporter and columnist Nick Bilton, which hits shelves next month.

I like to think of it in the same terms as one person close to Twitter put it to me recently: “Twitter isn’t any one person. It wouldn’t have existed without all of those guys together back then.”


Updated 10:11 p.m. PST: What a difference a day makes! Since this story’s publishing on Friday morning, a number of people familiar with Blogger Mobile at its inception offered more details on the project.

That includes early mobile product testing at Blogger, before the final, finished Mobile product shipped and before Stone joined Google. Again — another example of a product that came from the ideas of many.

My favorite new detail, however, is the Blogger Mobile jingle, drummed up by Stone and Grant Shellen, younger brother to Jason. (Or click here to listen to the “extended cut,” both courtesy of former Googler Mihai Parparita.)

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