June 26, 2007

Twitter.com CEO: With open source, it's all about the people

Author: Tina Gasperson

Jack Dorsey wants to change the way people communicate on the Internet. Are you used to updating your blog once every 24 hours? If Dorsey has his way, you'll soon be thinking about lots of tiny blog posts from wherever you are, whenever you want. Dorsey, a former software developer for a courier and dispatch service, is the founder and CEO of Twitter.com, a social networking Web site with a twist: in the clipped style of a taxi drivers radioing a status report to the dispatcher, Twitter users post mini-updates throughout the day and night to let friends (and the world) know the minute details of what they're doing.

Too trivial, some say, but Twitter is growing in popularity everyday. Since February of this year, the site has experienced a 439% increase in visitors, and since the end of 2006, it has jumped from the 10,000th most popular site on the Internet to the 628th.

Twitter was built on open source software, and Dorsey says the site has become more and more open as he and his team have learned important lessons from the open source world. "It's all about the people," he says.

Dorsey comes to his role at Twitter with solid credentials. Previously he was part of the team at Odeo.com, a podcast aggregation service founded by Evan Williams, one of the co-creators of Blogger.com. "We created Odeo using Ruby on Rails," Dorsey says. He was one of five programmers working on the site when he grew restless. He had an idea about using cell phones and instant messenger technology to facilitate a new kind of social networking site. He and Odeo colleague Biz Stone started working on it as a side project, and convinced Williams and others to participate, forming Obvious, LLC, as a parent company for Twitter, Odeo, and other future endeavors. Surprised and slightly overwhelmed by the recent success of Twitter, the team decided to divest itself of Odeo, selling it to SonicMountain.com for an undisclosed sum a couple of weeks ago. "I wouldn't have guessed that by March it would be consuming all our resources (our weekends, our servers)," Williams wrote at Obvious.com.

Twitter is also coming out from under the umbrella of Obvious to emerge as a standalone company. "As Twitter continues to grow, it will gain less from being under the Obvious umbrella and perhaps even push that umbrella until it flips inside out," Williams wrote.

There was never any question about the platform on which Twitter would operate -- it would have to be open source software. Even back when Dorsey was working with the dispatch company, he convinced management it needed to switch to open source software. "It was a lot of arm-wrestling. There was worry from people with more of a legacy mindset about intellectual property and the [perceived] risk involved with open source. But it panned out because we could tailor the performance whatever way we needed to."

Dorsey says they built Twitter "to completion" in two weeks. "We then spent four or five weeks grappling with the phone company trying to get our short code," he says. A short code is the special telephone number used to send text messages from cell phones in applications like television voting, or in this case, Twittering. Dorsey's original vision was that Twitter users would send the majority of their "tweets," as the messages posted on Twitter are called, from mobile devices. After all, that's where the most obvious and ready income stream is. Twitter gets "minor revenue" from every incoming message, according to Dorsey, but the minor becomes major as the numbers stack up -- especially when Twitter gets noticed by a giant like MTV. At the recent MTV Movie Awards, cast members from MTV's Human Giant were shown twittering before and during the show. "They flashed our short code on the screen," Dorsey says, "and had people texting to get live updates [from the Human Giant cast]."

Dorsey has also learned to be more open in his vision about how Twitter is used. While site membership used to be limited only to mobile device users, "we decided to get more open," Dorsey says. "We've learned that it's all about people in the open source world. That is the entire background of the system. You could be sitting right next to the person who wrote some major aspect of the Linux kernel and not ever realize it. So it is all about the relationships you form. Twitter has so much to learn, and we've really changed a lot of our thinking accordingly." For example, when Twitter released a simple API recently, "it took off, and now we have more developer activity than user activity," he says. "They're making all these cool little tools for how they want to interact with Twitter, and we just keep looking for ways to open the system more -- more entry and exit points in the system." For example, Twitter recently made it possible to "tweet" using instant messaging, and it is working now on email client tweetability.

Even with all the openness, Dorsey and his team still need to find ways to increase revenue, but maybe not right away. They received some startup "bootstrapping" from Williams, and would like to find a willing venture capitalist to fund the rest of their needs. "We're focused on growing the system as large as possible first," he says. "Then we can start experimenting with revenue. We have a number of models in mind, including fee-based usage and more commercial usage" of the system as a promotional tool similar to what MTV did. "I think we can do a lot better in exposing the mobile aspect. In this culture, text messaging and the relationship with the cell phone is just starting. People are just getting used to interacting with devices in this way. So more and more, Twitter will go mobile."

Twitter launched on a Debian-based LAMP stack, then moved to OpenSolaris on Sun hardware, which now encompasses 10 quad core servers. "We moved away from Debian when we moved to a new hosting provider. But we'll be introducing more Debian boxes later on. It's a good platform. We want to be more platform agnostic," Dorsey says. "We're still testing the waters -- OpenSolaris has served us extremely well but I want to be open to experimentation."

Dorsey says building a Web property on open source takes some effort if you want to do it correctly. "You'll have a good community helping to build your system, but you have to really interact and engage that community. It's not something you can just buy and have someone 'fix your plumbing' for you. This is give and take. If you plan to take, you should be prepared to give a lot. That's the only way you're going to get the support you need to build."

Twitter is giving back to the open source community. "We've released some improvements and libraries, specifically to interact with Jabber, and we've been doing a lot of optimizing of Ruby on Rails by committing some performance fixes to the core. We'll continue to do so."


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