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Tweetbot for Mac: Public Alpha Review

Today, Tapbots released the first public alpha of Tweetbot for Mac. This is not a final review of the app: being in the development stage – albeit ready to be tested by the public – Tweetbot for Mac is still lacking several features that will be available in the final Mac App Store version (such as iCloud sync and Notification Center support), and for this reason I’ll save my full analysis of the app for the future.

However, I have been testing Tweetbot for the past week, and I can say that it already is the best Twitter client available on the Mac.

Gimme Shelter

Ever since Loren Brichter (creator of the original Tweetie, who sold his app to Twitter and went on to work there) left the company, Twitter for Mac – what I had deemed as the best Twitter client for OS X – fell into an unexplainable state of abandon and lack of updates. You would think it’s in Twitter’s best interest to keep a native client up to date with the latest features of the service; and yet, after a solid first version – which came after years of speculation on Tweetie 2 – Twitter started ignoring the app, failing to bring several of Twitter’s new features (such as inline media and updated search) to the desktop. It only got worse recently: after many updates to Lion, Twitter for Mac has started showing new bugs and glitches that haven’t been fixed by Twitter, alongside the ones that have always been there and were never corrected. And then with the release of the Retina MacBook Pro, Twitter’s lack of support for high-res text and graphics became the proverbial final nail in the coffin of what used to be a great app.

The saddest part, however, is that in spite of its current state and overall “what could have been” feeling attached to it, Twitter for Mac still is, for many, the best shot at a decent native Twitter experience on the Mac. On OS X, there aren’t as many Twitter third-party apps as on iOS, but still software like Twitterrific, Hibari and Osfoora have provided good options to users looking outside the classic Tweetie environment. The problem is, there is a whole segment of Twitter for Mac users that, like me, have been stuck with Tweetie’s paradigms and features for more or less three years now, as other desktop apps – while promising – have always lacked that feature or two that would make them a must-have. And it’s likely that those users have only been able to use another equally feature-rich Twitter client on another platform: Tweetbot.

Thus, Tweetbot for Mac. I won’t go into any more detail about Tapbots’ success with Tweetbot on the iPhone and iPad: I have reviewed both apps extensively here at MacStories, and their success is very much history at this point. Tweetbot, for me, is the best Twitter client ever produced on iOS; its design, feature set, and care for the details contribute to providing a fantastic Twitter experience for users looking for more than just scrolling the timeline or casually checking out a link or two. Tweetbot is made for people who see the richness in the information that travels across Twitter, and Tweetbot for Mac wants to offer the same powerful iOS experience on the Mac, with no compromises. As Cody wrote in his review of Twitter 4.3, Tweetbot users want features – and Tweetbot for Mac aims at delivering on this premise, for all those users who have been impatiently waiting for it.

Like I said, it would be unfair to judge Tweetbot for Mac for what it is now as the app is still lacking several functionalities both because of Apple’s own limitations (only Mac App Store apps can use iCloud and Notification Center; the latter is also exclusive to the upcoming Mountain Lion) and due to the ongoing development of the client. For instance, there is limited support for keyboard shortcuts, there are some rough edges around the interface, and one of my favorite features of Twitter for Mac – being able to navigate and switch sections with gestures – isn’t yet available. Indeed, Tapbots say that features like better management of multiple windows will be coming in the future, and they confirmed in a blog post that they are planning “ on making everything as beautiful and pixel perfect” as they can. Don’t be surprised if, in this version, some pixels will look misaligned or out of place. Eventually, it will all be fixed.

Notably, Tapbots wants you to keep in mind that this is a public alpha – a free trial of a piece of software that will be sold for a price on the App Store. While feedback and crash reports are welcome now, when the app hits 1.0, you’ll have to decide whether or not it’s worth your cash. According to Tapbots, a final price hasn’t been set yet.

Today’s public alpha of Tweetbot is definitely what it sounds like: an unfinished product that needs feedback and more testing before being ready for primetime. And yet the essence of what Tweetbot for Mac will be like is already here, and I can tell it’ll make for a fantastic app.

Back to the Mac

Tweetbot for Mac acts like Tweetbot for iPad for the most part. It looks like Tweetbot for iPad with a sidebar on the left for Timeline, Mentions, Messages, Favorites, Search, Profile, Lists, Retweets, and Filters; the timeline design is the same, sections inside the app look the same, user profiles and conversations look just like their iOS counterparts.

Tweetbot is a consistent experience across platforms.

Some features of Tweetbot for iOS have been ported to the Mac with no modifications. Double-clicking on the title bar will scroll to the top of any timeline, and clicking on one of the sections on the left when inside a conversation or multiple levels into navigation will go back to the “root” of the section, just like iOS. Unlike Twitter for Mac, navigation isn’t implemented with breadcrumbs – it uses an iOS-like back button. Those familiar with Favstar and the double-tap action on Tweetbot’s Profile tab will appreciate the same option available as double-click on Tweetbot for Mac.

The app makes use of an iOS-inspired popover to load lists that you can use as your main timeline: just click on the lists button in the title bar and choose between your lists, private lists, or followed ones. If you want to keep tabs on multiple timelines, you can open a separate window by hitting CMD-Shift-N; I found this option particularly handy to keep my personal account in one window, and a special list (or the @macstoriesnet account) in another one. Tapbots said that, in future versions of the app, window management will be “much more elegant”.

A popover is also used for the compose widget, which resembles Twitter’s one but adds the typical options you’re used to seeing in Tweetbot: switching accounts and adding location and images to tweets. The popover can be detached, and you can keep multiple ones on screen simultaneously (notice how the little arrow disappears as you detach the popover).

You can add images through the action button in the compose widget, or via drag & drop. Once attached, an image will be displayed as a thumbnail in the compose area; images are also displayed inline in the timeline, and clicking on one will first display a new loading indicator, then a floating preview that you can resize and move around on screen.

Other features that underline the consistency of functionality and design choices chosen by Tapbots are shown in the Settings, which include more already-seen stuff like Tweet Marker sync, new tweets bar, font size options, and various online accounts to configure.

When you reach the top of the timeline, like on iOS, Tweetbot will show that it’s streaming, with no need to manually refresh.

If you’re familiar with Tweetbot on iOS, you’ll instantly know how to use Tweetbot for Mac.

That’s not to say, though, that Tapbots is simply taking a successful iOS app and putting a native Mac wrapper around it. Tweetbot for Mac wants to be a native Mac application, and for this reason Tapbots had to rethink some of the interactions that couldn’t be suitable for a point-and-click system such as the Mac.

Because on the Mac it is possible to implement the concept of “hover” through the cursor, the tweet drawer’s options (reply, retweet, fave, share, more) are shown when hovering over a tweet, and they are presented inside contextual menus: this helps reducing the number of clicks needed to navigate around tweets, and it stays true to the nature of OS X while adapting Tweetbot’s existing feature to different patterns and possible scenarios.

I hope the final version of Tweetbot will allow us to assign keyboard shortcuts to sharing actions, much like Reeder for Mac does for RSS articles (tweets can already be scrolled using the keyboard).

Similarly, direct messages are presented like on iOS, but as you click on a conversation the cursor automatically focuses on the text field, so you can start typing, then send a message with CMD-Return (this also works with normal tweets). There are other instances of iOS features being slightly modified to work on OS X already, such as dictionary definitions with three-finger taps that work on any word in a tweet directly from the timeline, or keyboard shortcuts for switching sections. I’m sure there will be more cases of features coming from Tweetbot for iOS being slightly tweaked to work better on the Mac come the final version of the app.

What’s really interesting for now, I believe, is the reason behind Tapbots’ decision to do a public alpha. Typically extremely secretive about their releases, Tweetbot for Mac hasn’t been Tapbot’s best concealed effort to date, but there’s a long way between teasing app screenshots and icon and doing a public alpha testing period. According to Tapbots’ blog post, they released the public alpha to get the motivation to finish faster, and receive valuable feedback, as developing for the Mac is no easy task. I have no inside knowledge about Tapbots’ decision, but I suspect it’s somewhat related to Twitter’s controversial stance on its API and letting developers build applications that compete with the native Twitter experience, offering apps that mimic functionality found in Twitter’s own apps.

I don’t think Twitter will ever completely kill off existing products like Tweetbot or Twitterrific, but they may start looking into disapproving future new apps that don’t comply with Twitter’s policies. If this theory is correct, Twitter may keep the existing ecosystem intact by “grandfathering” apps, but there could be problems for developers of new apps. And again, if this will be the case, Tapbots may be thinking that, in order to fall into the category of apps that “Twitter can’t kill”, it was necessary to speed up development, build up a userbase in the meantime, and combine the benefits of public alpha testing (lots of feedback) with becoming an established player in the current Twitter API ecosystem.

As things stand right now, even if Tweetbot isn’t available on the Mac App Store, I think it’s here to stay no matter what Twitter decides to do in the future.

Wrap-Up (For Now)

Tweetbot for Mac’s first alpha feels good. Very good. It still doesn’t offer some of the functionalities that former Tweetie/Twitter users may have become accustomed to, and, as I mentioned above, I’ll be watching the development of the app closely, saving my complete review for the Mac App Store version. At the same time, however, this public alpha already sports a number of features and little touches that have enabled me to forego the need of using Twitter for Mac. In an unordered list of importance:

  • Streaming
  • Reliable gap detection
  • View followers inside the app
  • View conversations and replies to tweets separately
  • Copy tweets and links to tweets
  • Mute people, hashtags, keywords, and clients
  • View retweets for a specific tweet
  • Send to Instapaper and Tweet URL as contextual actions
  • View any profile in Favstar

Right now, Tweetbot for Mac is, in my opinion, already superior to any other client for OS X – and it still can be improved. More importantly, Tweetbot makes better use of Twitter features than Twitter’s own Mac app, and that says a lot about the importance of third-party clients in this ecosystem.

If Tweetbot for Mac is an example of “iOS-ification” of Mac software, then I’m glad developers are bringing iOS-inspired features and design ideas back to the Mac. The strategy is working.

Download Tweetbot for Mac here.

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