A Thought About Twitter: Protocol versus Product

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This isn’t fully baked, so feedback is most welcome and appreciated. I want to make a comment about email and the web. As you know, they aren’t products, nor are they interfaces. They are protocols.

A protocol, just as in vernacular english, is simply a set of guidelines or rules to follow. As it relates to computing, and in particular communication protocols, these are a set of guidelines about how a computer is meant to communicate messages to itself, or to another computer. Early internet thinker and computer science professor Douglas Comer expressed it this way: just like a programming language makes sense of computation, protocols make sense of communication.

Email as a protocol establishes rules allowing information to be transmitted across the web. The web itself is a a series of built on low-level technical protocols ( TCP/IP at the Transport & Internet Layer & HTTP on the application layer) to share data packets between computers. SMS is another communication protocol. The FTP stands for file transfer protocol. You get the picture.

When Twitter launched, many detractors, myself included, didn’t understand why anyone would want to use SMS to send a message to anyone who felt like reading it. But today, Twitter is a global media giant, and that behavior has become so ubiquitous, that it is almost a protocol unto itself (despite their best efforts). But it’s clearly not synonymous with SMS. It just uses SMS (and since it’s evolved, other protocols) to create a new user experience. In the same way, Dropbox didn’t invent anything new. If you’re reading this, you probably used FTP in college or high-school to share files long before Dropbox. They simply created a user experience and interface that made use of the communication protocol manifest in ways that were unique, and continue to be more and more unique as the company grows.

Outlook, Hotmail/Yahoo, Gmail, Mailbox are all clients, putting their own user interfaces atop the same protocol (or, well, a small set of email protocols in IMAP, POP3, SMTP). Netscape, IE, Chrome, Firefox, are all the web, using the exact same interface on the web protocol (or, well very similar interfaces, all derivative from a few layout engines in Trident, WebKit, Gecko, Mosaic).

But think about how unique of an experience Twitter is, how transformative in culture. You have to conclude that we’re not re-imagining the other protocols with enough courage. Seriously. Why does the web on an iPad look the same way that it does on a desktop? Is the only noteworthy innovation in the web really tabbed browsing? Or, Lord, in the right click button? The same goes for email. A lot of companies are “re-imagining email” but really they’re just building the same old clients with the same old features. Perhaps by breaking down the infrastructure this way, you can see why pg thinks there’s as much opportunity in email as he does. It goes deeper than the fact that we email too much. We think of it as a product, but it’s just a protocol; a variety of products can, and should, work on it.

Thanks Ismail, for putting a quick set of eyes on this post.

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