How app developers went from superstars to serfs

March 2, 2010, 2:30 PM UTC

Once upon a time, app developers were the toast of the tech world. Now that there are 140,000 apps in Apple’s app store and Twitter’s open API has spawned 50,000 applications, have the app programmers lost their cachet?

On Saturday, Twitter employee Alex Payne posted a tweet praising site features that are being developed internally, and suggested that once they become publicly available, users might not want to use a desktop client anymore to manage their Twitter feed. Such software, like Tweetdeck, Brizzly, and SeesmicWeb, are  products of third-party developers.

The post disturbed some of those outside developers, who tweeted anxious responses. The tech blogs only fanned the flames. Twitter’s Payne, an API developer, tried to calm everyone down by posting that the new stuff coming from Twitter’s web client team uses the same data and API (application programming interface) methods available to outside developers. “It’s going to inspire desktop app developers,” he contended. Later he actually removed the contentious tweet that sparked the frenzy.

The situation underscores the tenuous relationships between the platforms and the developers who help them grow in relevance and popularity.

“When you build on someone else’s platform, you’re at their mercy,” says Michael Lazerow, CEO of Buddy Media, which builds Facebook and Twitter apps for corporate clients. “If they want to copy your functionality or turn you off, they can.”

When platforms began opening their APIs to outside developers, starting with Facebook in 2007 and Apple in 2008, app developers were hotly pursued. On the mobile front, Apple (AAPL), Google (GOOG), Palm (PALM) and BlackBerry’s Research in Motion (RIMM) courted programmers to build apps for their platforms so they could attract consumers who wanted access to the coolest and widest variety of apps.

But the platforms can be fickle friends. Just last week, Apple — which no longer really needs to woo developers, thanks to the success of the iPhone — expunged as many as 6,000 apps for content it deemed inappropriate. Other developers have complained about the tech giants celebrating their creations, only to copy the programs and roll them into their own products.

Twitter has a reputation for being extremely friendly to outside programmers, acknowledging on its site that “a majority of Twitter’s use comes through third-party applications that lets users tweet and read tweets wherever they choose.”

But now that these developers have helped Twitter grow into a legitimate platform, it wants a piece of the game. Not that we should be surprised — this is what software companies do when they reach scale. It’s been happening ever since Microsoft (MSFT) rolled out the Office suite in 1989, squashing all independent consumer word processing and database software contenders.

So if anything, this could be a sign that Twitter has finally reached adulthood (as could this data, showing that Twitter’s growth and usage is declining).  But even if Twitter does take on its third-party developers, it’s not clear it will win.

Having opened up its API so early in order to grow, Twitter allowed outside developers to create core applications it should have owned from the beginning. As a result, the mindshare belonging to Tweetdeck and its brethren may be too far gone for Twitter to reclaim.

“With a lot of the stuff Twitter is looking to do, there’s some functionality that’s pretty core to their business,” explains Lazerow. But, he says, Tweetdeck’s easy-to-use dashboard may have the edge. “The best applications rise to the top and those apps often aren’t built by the platforms themselves.”

Subscribe to Well Adjusted, our newsletter full of simple strategies to work smarter and live better, from the Fortune Well team. Sign up today.