140 Characters Plus an Internet

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The official Twitter app finally went universal with its iPad version yesterday, pushing the iPad one step closer to being my most useful computer. (Next milestone: the OS 4.2 update, and a good blogging client).

I’ve been using Twitterrific, and its iPad version really is great, but it was understood between the both of us that I’d be jumping ship as soon as Atebits released its app. Tweetie basically defined what features a desktop Twitter client should have, then did it again on the iPhone version, and now once again on the iPad. There’s a reason Twitter bought it as its official client — not necessarily because it’s the best one, but because it’s the best one for what Twitter wants the service to be.

I’m not interested in writing a review, because there are already dozens of reviews out there (a lot of us were waiting, apparently), and because the app is free. If you’ve got an iPad and use Twitter, there’s no reason not to download it. My review is just that “hey, it’s great.” What’s interesting to me is how much thought went into the design of the app, and even more importantly, how significantly the design of one app can change how I perceive the entire device.

A lot of people seem to be dismissing the new approach as “nice UI touches” (or alternatively, “annoying gimmicks”). And the gesture stuff — pinching and two-finger dragging — is pretty gratuitous. But the big change isn’t just a new, slick, presentation. The change is the notion that absolutely everything in the app has context.

Everything you tap on causes a new panel to slide out with more information. There’s no new information here that you couldn’t get via the older clients, but the app is constantly making predictions about what you’ll want to see based on the content of the tweet — single tweets open the user’s profile, replies display the entire conversation, tweets with a photo link open the picture, tweets with a hashtag do a search on all the other tweets with that hashtag. Since none of the information is all that new, it may not seem like that big a deal. What formerly took two or three clicks now just takes one tap. But in practice, it feels like a leap from mid 80s text-chat technology to the bridge of the Enterprise.

I’m still not sure anyone really gets what Twitter is, exactly — even Twitter doesn’t or they wouldn’t be asking “How do you use it?” A lot of people, myself included, have always seen it as just instant messaging for lonely narcissists. I’ve got lots of interesting things to say about the state of my beard and bowel movements that are far too boring to tell a single real-life friend, but are just perfect for sharing with hundreds of strangers. As a result, Twitter clients have always tended to look like IM clients. That’s why I believe if you think of Twitter as global public IM, Twitterrific is still the best client for that.

But lots of other people, who are every bit as boring as I am but a billion times more famous, are using it for advertising or self-promotion. That’s where any hope of monetizing the service comes in, and that’s (I’m assuming) why the official Twitter app emphasizes the external content in tweets instead of just the text itself. When you first start the iPad version, the main timeline (what used to be the focus in older clients) looks awkwardly small on the screen. As soon as you start scrolling and tapping, though, you can see what the designers want the Twitter service to be: a stream — or, I suppose, firehose — of information.

The only feature from Twitterrific that I miss is that there’s no quick and easy way to look at a person’s profile and find out if they’re following you. I can imagine that’s intentional, too — they’re not pushing individual conversations as much as individually tailored public streams of news and links. Part of the appeal of twitter is that contacts are asynchronous and not fake “friends”; if someone’s saying stuff you want to hear, it shouldn’t really matter whether or not they want to hear what you have to say. But that’s about the only place so far where Twitter’s enforced idea of how I should be using their service has been an annoyance.

The rest of the time, I’m just impressed by how dense the average Twitter feed is, all the stuff streaming by that I never bothered to click on before. And impressed by how the iPad app just seems to know what I want to look at. Presenting relevant information automatically instead of making you look for it seems like just a convenience (or annoyance, depending on how slow your internet connection is). But the more I use the iPad Twitter app, the more I get the sense that this is exactly the kind of presentation that will make tablet computers come into their own.