What’s not surprising isn’t simply the fact that Tapbots released an app that sets the bar higher for the competition; at first, it’s the fact that Netbot is basically Tweetbot re-engineered to work for App.net.
Join The Movement
Before I take a look at the App.net-exclusive features Netbot has to offer, allow me to take a step back and quickly re-evaluate the current state of App.net. Officially announced 12 weeks ago, the “movement” quickly see 10,000 users become members of a service that promised to re-imagine social feeds with a solid business plan and third-party developers in mind. In spite of its evident similarities with Twitter, CEO Dalton Caldwell and his team immediately started working on some key areas that could differentiate App.net from Twitter. They added things like annotations, kept on improving the API spec and Alpha webapp, and promised more features like private messages would come relatively soon.
Let’s face it: some people would be perfectly fine with having a “Twitter with a paid model” service. That’s what they have been asking for years (yours truly included). Yet App.net wants to go beyond simply copying Twitter and adding paid plans on top of it; some aren’t sure that’s exactly what they need, but they’re backing the project anyway.
There’s a joke to be made about App.net having more apps than users. Because of its developer-friendly nature, developers have quickly jumped on board creating mobile clients, desktop apps, and web tools that leverage the App.net API to do standard things like displaying a user stream, or more forward-thinking ideas like…playing chess.
John Gruber once said Twitter clients were a UI design playground. In following the App.net scene for the past weeks, I’ve felt like it’s 2009 all over again. There are already a dozen App.net-enabled apps available on the App Store. I can tell you I’ve been offered to beta test another dozen, and the public third-party development page shows many more for just about any platform out there.
Yet iOS is “where it’s at”. The majority of developers willing to build software for App.net understands the big opportunity of being first on a new platform that’s perfect for mobile access. App.net by itself is a service that encourages the creation of software with business plans, so developers aren’t afraid of charging users who had no problems paying $50 to join a Twitter-like service. All these factors combined have led to a promising third-party scene that’s getting bigger by the day. With a new pricing model, App.net could have found the right mix between “premium” and quicker user adoption, which had somewhat slowed down recently.
With this background, it’s easy to understand why Tapbots decided to embrace App.net right away rather than waiting. As Twitter keeps getting more hostile to third-party developers, Tapbots is in the strange position of having a powerful and feature-rich client that could be hampered by the decisions of Twitter the company. And make no mistake, Tapbots did build a very powerful client for iPhone and iPad.
On the other hand, App.net works for the most part like Twitter; its users don’t have a problem with paying for value; and they’re looking for a solid client to settle with. Playing around with clients is cool, but eventually people will grow tired with spending $5 every two days. They’ll want something that works. And Tweetbot has proved that it can work for a vast portion of Twitter users. So why not App.net?
I think Tapbots is making a good call here. They have refactored a great app for a platform that:
- Is friendlier to developers
- Promises to remain friendly
- Has a decent userbase that is okay with the idea of “paying for software”
- Lacks “the best” third-party client
- Hopefully won’t screw developers over policy changes any time soon.
We could argue all day on the value proposition of App.net and their long-term plans, but I don’t think it’s difficult to see why Tapbots decided to make a Netbot out of Tweetbot. In plain business terms, even if 10,000 users out of 20,000+ bought the iPhone app, that would still be good revenue for Tapbots. And I think more people will buy it. Not to mention there's a standalone iPad app, too.
App-savvy iPhone and iPad users have a knack for finding what’s good.
Whereas the average iOS user might prefer the free app that’s doing well in the charts, we tend to look at fine pieces of software that have been carefully crafted by developers who care about making great products. We support indie developers and we’re always curious to check out new apps that might improve our workflows. Sometimes, we fiddle.
Other times, though, an app becomes so entrenched in our system we develop a habit of sticking with it. For me, such app is a Twitter client like Tweetbot. I constantly check Twitter, and I find it extremely hard at this point to even try another client that doesn’t look or behave like Tweetbot. I can’t tell you how hard it was from me to switch from Tweetie to Tweetbot. Tapbots figured that, with a service that shares the same basic functionalities of Twitter, now is the right time to get people hooked to a go-to client. Because these things tend to stick around.
I don’t need to review Netbot. If you’ve read my previous reviews of Tweetbot for iPhone and iPad and coverage of updates, you know how Netbot looks and works. The UI elements are the same; the gestures are the same; the entire navigation structure is the same. Netbot is Tweetbot reworked for App.net – Tapbots obviously had to change the whole underlying code to migrate from Twitter to the App.net API. It is different inside, it looks the same on the outside. There are, though, some differences and exclusive features that App.net users will have to consider.
Notably, some options had to be removed from Tweetbot in its transition to Netbot. The App.net API doesn’t yet support Places for geo-location, so Tapbots decided to exclude location from this first version. Similarly, App.net doesn’t support push and direct messages yet, so Netbot doesn’t have those for now. Other features that are specific to Twitter – such as t.co URL shortening and trends – are obviously missing from Netbot as well. I am told that Tapbots plans to support push and DMs once ADN makes them available, and I have reason to believe Tapbots is truly committed to supporting the future key features of App.net. Right now, Netbot supports almost every part of the API that was live as of a couple of weeks ago; annotations were announced too late, and I don’t know whether Tapbots will support them in the future.
Made for App.net
While some parts of Tweetbot got lost in translation, Netbot gained a few App.net-specific functionalities and design ideas. The profile page, for instance, shows both the profile picture and cover photo, allowing you to tap on both to view them in full-screen (you can also pull down the cover photo to make it "grow"). At first I thought cover photos looked funny, now I wish Tweetbot supported them for Twitter accounts.
The Search screen has been tweaked. App.net doesn’t have public search yet, so Netbot’s search will allow you to search for users or go to a specific username. However, the search screen has two new features: Find Twitter Friends and Global Stream. The latter is a simple visualization of App.net’s global stream of all posts, which is still manageable because of the relatively low volume. Remember when Twitter had a global stream? Good times.
Find Friends is more interesting. It plugs directly into the Twitter accounts configured in iOS’ Settings to compare users that you follow on Twitter who are also on App.net. This feature relies on plain username comparison to find people that are using both services; in my tests, it took a few minutes to analyze the 900+ people I follow on Twitter, but after that, I was presented a nice screen listing all the found users. Knowing Twitter, they’ll probably find a way to block this option. In the meantime, it is a clever addition that leverages a native element of iOS to make for a more intuitive experience – I found many people to follow on App.net thanks to this.
Using the same idea, Netbot comes with cross-posting to Twitter built-in. Now, I am not a fan of cross-posting: I find it annoying when people post the same status on multiple social networks. I think every social network is unique, and so should be the behavior of its users. However, I understand that some people like this, and that there are some cases in which it comes in handy (example: you’re looking for help on something).
Cross-posting in Netbot is off by default and also quite hidden. To cross-post to Twitter, you have to create a new post, then tap on New Post in the top bar to bring up a menu that’s similar to Tweetbot’s timeline selector (on the iPad, tap on your profile picture in the New Post screen). Here, you can select the App.net account you want to post with, and additional Twitter accounts for cross-posting. If you activate cross-posting, your post will be sent to App.net and Twitter. You can select multiple Twitter accounts, too.
Another feature that Tapbots built specifically for Netbot is the repost and star count. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished Tweetbot allowed me to easily see how many retweets or faves a tweet of mine (or any other tweet) had received. Thanks to the App.net API, the post detail screen of Netbot features small black popups for repost and star counts. Tapping on them will reveal the users that have reposted or starred a post. The great thing about this little feature is that it indirectly promotes discovery of new users. By seeing who else is starring a post, I can find people with tastes similar to mine. Twitter has some kind of similar functionality for retweets, but I always found it clumsy and not as elegant as this one. Plus, I’m a sucker for stars, so Netbot helps in sating my thirst for social ego stats (that is, until Favstar will support App.net).
Obviously, the implementation of reposts and stars is native, although Netbot offers “quote formats” for reposts in the Settings.
From The Past and Into The Future
Be honest: aside from 256 characters, have you used App.net that differently from Twitter?
For me, App.net is, right now, a Good Guy Twitter. On the outside, the service is essentially the same, but its creators have bigger (and different) plans for its API and third-party support. These new APIs still have to reveal their full potential, so, like I said, for now I’m using App.net as “another Twitter”. I think we all are.
As more people keep switching from Twitter to ADN and the service gets more exclusive functionality, Caldwell’s vision will mature into a more “complete” and unique product.
As ADN grows and distances itself from Twitter, the gap between Tweetbot and Netbot will have to grow bigger as well. Netbot can't be similar to Tweetbot forever. Once ADN finds its unique path (both in terms of interactions and feature set), Netbot will have to adapt.
Right now, Netbot looks like Tweetbot because App.net still looks like Twitter. But new things are coming. I, for one, have big hopes for annotations, which will let developers attach useful information to posts. Here's an example.
Should you buy Netbot? If you like Tweetbot, yes. If you’re not a fan of Tapbots’ take on Twitter clients, Netbot won’t make you change your mind. Netbot has some features that are built only for App.net, but they aren’t enough to justify a full-on reconsideration of Tweetbot. If you, however, do use and like Tweetbot, then go ahead. You won’t regret the purchase.
Personally, I’ve been looking for a truly powerful client for App.net. Over time, third-party clients have come to define the services we use. I wouldn’t be able to go back to using the Twitter app or Twitter website because my thumbs now automatically reach out to Tweetbot’s buttons or swipe actions. And I believe this explains why, in trying the first App.net clients that came out, I had a strange feeling of incompleteness. It felt like Twitter, but with a less powerful app to go with.
Netbot solves my issues. It’s got iCloud sync across the iPhone and iPad so I can pick up where I left off; it’s got the same tap & hold actions I’m used to for copying links and URLs; the interface is the same, so I already know how to navigate around it. Netbot feels like a natural implementation of an App.client. At the moment, Netbot is the full-featured, fast, reliable, and stable client App.net users were looking for.
It’s not completely new, but does it matter?
Looking ahead, I think the future of Tweetbot is Netbot. Tapbots had an idea for what a “real-time social feed” client should look like, and they started with Tweetbot because Twitter was the cool-and-friendly real-time social network. But Twitter has changed. At some point, Twitter the company decided it was time to start making money, and took the necessary steps to get there. As in every Trilemma, out of three options (the company, the developers, the users), one had to be the least favorable. Twitter made a series of choices that caused developers to grow increasingly uncomfortable with the service. And that point, developers had to make their move.
For Tapbots, Netbot is an investment into the future.