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Third-Party Twitter Clients Remove Features as API Changes Loom

The latest chapter in Twitter’s contentious relationship with third-party developers is coming to a close. In April 2017, Twitter announced plans to eventually deprecate certain parts of its API that third-party apps rely on.

Fast forward one year to April 2018, roughly 10 weeks before the scheduled API transition of mid-June. Twitter’s new API still hadn’t been made available to third-party developers. The Iconfactory, Tapbots, and other makers of Twitter clients created a website called Apps of a Feather…Stick Together to explain how the looming changes would affect customers. The ensuing uproar among users caused Twitter to delay the API transition until tomorrow, August 16, 2018. Although Twitter has not flipped the switch on the changes yet, apps like Twitterrific and Tweetbot have already taken steps to deal with the changes.

Twitter is replacing its streaming API, on which third parties relied, with a new API, but it’s problematic for a couple of reasons. First, the new API does not include all of the functionality of the API it replaces. Second, it’s a paid API that, according to Apps of a Feather, would be cost-prohibitive to implement:

The free API allows us to implement some push notifications, but they would be limited to 15 Twitter accounts – our products must deliver notifications to hundreds of thousands of customers. Pricing for Premium access is $2,899 per month for 250 users. To cover this cost, a third-party app would need to charge over $16 per month to break even.

As a result, third-party developers have spent the summer preparing their apps for the transition. In July, The Iconfactory updated Twitterrific:

Sometime after August 16th, 2018, Twitterrific won’t be able to receive and display notifications natively.

When this happens, you won’t be notified when someone likes one of your tweets, quotes you, replies to you, retweets, sends a direct message, or follows you. Since these notifications also power the Today view and Twitterrific’s Apple Watch app, we will be retiring both.

Today, Tapbots joined The Iconfactory with an update to Tweetbot that accommodates the API changes. Among the changes:

  • Timeline streaming has been removed, replaced with automatic refreshes every couple of minutes.
  • Retweet, quote tweet, like, and follow notifications are gone.
  • Mention and direct message push notifications have been reworked, which can delay them several minutes.
  • Tweetbot’s Stats and Activity view that displayed aggregate like, retweet, and follower data along with chronological like, mention, reply, and follow information has been removed.
  • The Tweetbot Apple Watch app has been discontinued.

I will particularly miss the Stats and Activity view of Tweetbot, which has long been one of my favorites. Twitterrific’s Today view, which was similar to Tweetbot’s Activity view, was removed from sale as a premium feature in July, will stop working when the API changes take effect, and will be retired in the future.

Whichever app you use, the biggest changes are to timeline streaming and push notifications. Twitterrific used to allow you to live-stream your timeline over WiFi, which is no longer possible. Instead, your timeline will refresh every two minutes or so over WiFi or a mobile data connection when the app is running. Tweetbot doesn’t support streaming anymore either, but it too will periodically refresh your timeline when the app is open.

Notifications are more limited as well. Tweetbot and Twitterrific used to allow users to turn on notifications for mentions, direct messages, retweets, quote tweets, likes, and follows, but don’t anymore.

As a result of Twitter’s API changes, push notifications for Tweetbot are limited to direct messages and mentions, the delivery of which may be delayed up to several minutes. In my testing, Tweetbot notifications usually took about 5 minutes to arrive after I sent one to myself from another account.

Twitterrific has taken a different approach to push notifications, eliminating them completely and suggesting that users turn on notifications in the official Twitter app instead. It’s a clever hack that allows for more kinds of notifications than Twitterrific can deliver itself. I know there’s nothing The Iconfactory can do about it, but it’s still a shame to have to install a second app just to get notifications.

How these changes shake out for third-party clients remains to be seen. I’ve used the beta update for Tweetbot over the past week, and the elimination of its Stats and Activity section has left me feeling like there is something missing from the app. I still prefer it to the official app, but the removal of that section is a meaningful loss. A similar hole will be left in Twitterrific when the Today section no longer works. Both apps have also lost their Apple Watch apps and live-streaming. If those are critical features to your use of Twitter, you may want to give the official client another try.

The changes made to Tweetbot and Twitterrific are similar, so they shouldn’t impact whether you use one over the other. The primary difference is how push notifications are handled. If you haven’t enabled push notifications, these changes aren’t meaningful. However, if you do use push notifications, the ones you use will determine which app serves your needs best. Using the official Twitter client as a substitute for native push notifications in Twitterrific makes the best of a bad situation, but relying on a second app just for notifications isn’t ideal. Still, it’s a solution that allows for a broader set of notifications than Twitterrific can deliver. For those who rely only on mention and direct message notifications, Tweetbot is a simpler approach that may be preferable.

How long third-party clients will continue to be a viable alternative to Twitter’s official app is anyone’s guess, but for now, I still prefer the experience delivered by Twitterrific and Tweetbot despite their limitations. I turned off all Twitter notifications except for direct messages a few months ago, and I haven’t missed timeline streaming during the Tweetbot beta. Notification delays for direct messages, which are noticeable, will probably affect my Twitter usage the most, but I have plenty of other ways to carry on similar conversations. As a result, these changes don’t make third party clients unusable for me, but it has caused me to reevaluate which Twitter client I will use going forward, which is a process that is ongoing.

I wish I could be more optimistic about where the future of third-party clients is headed, but I’ve written far too many stories about the many ways Twitter has undermined them, and I don’t see any end to that in sight. Twitter owes much of its early innovation and evolution to third-party developers. Where once we had a vibrant, competitive category of apps that sparked new and creative ways to use the platform, now, I’m left wondering how much longer apps like Twitterrific and Tweetbot will be around with each new story like this one. It’s a shame, but unfortunately, Twitter has never recognized the value of third-party Twitter clients.

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