The App.net movement starts with an app called Hooha, but how far can it go?
Many people call App.net a competitor to Twitter, and on a functional level that is true, but more accurately App.net wants to be everything that Twitter can never be because of the path the company has taken. When Twitter started life, it wasn't much more than an API and a dream. The potential of the company was fairly limitless. Those of us who are eternal optimists hoped that the company would become something like the broadcast spectrum for the Internet. Imagine a product that was simple, but ultimately flexible, much like the radio spectrum used for other types of broadcast. TV signals go over a certain spectrum that is controlled, but the signals on that spectrum can carry almost anything, and the best part is that it is easily contained for consumption. Just go to a channel, and get what you want.
So far, that's pretty much what you get with Twitter. The hashtags became the channels which you could tune to any topic you want. Media companies, celebrities, entertainers, athletes, and everyone else found that with Twitter, they could create their own public, and speak directly to those who were interested in listening. Twitter became the perfect platform for broadcasting, linking, and sharing. All of this was pushed by a great API and a ton of developers making great apps that innovated the whole platform by adding interesting features like retweeting.
There is a bit of evidence to support the theory. Last month, there was talk that Twitter was planning to launch a reality show, which would shift the company from being a broadcast platform into a content provider. Then, Twitter jumped into bed with NBC for the Olympics, which forced the company to side with the content provider ethos rather than its own. Twitter and NBC meant that rather than promoting Twitter as a tool to gather around real-time events, it became a tool to gather around events aired in prime time, because that's what made more money. The most recent move is one that seems a bit misunderstood, which is version 1.1 of the Twitter API.
There has been doomsaying that Twitter is trying to kill off the 3rd party app ecosystem that built the company. The reality is that the traditional Twitter client market is saturated, and Twitter wants to diversify. Twitter wants to steer the ship in a different direction and that requires building a rudder. Of course, that sort of thing causes people to worry about what direction things are going, and beyond that it makes people resent the restrictions. And, restrictions lead to alternatives.
While the ethos of App.net intends to be different than Twitter, the API allows for Twitter clones to be built, and that's exactly what Hooha is. The app has the same feed, @mentions, replies, and reposts. There are plans to add in hashtag support, background updates, URL shortening, and search options. And, the other big thing that doesn't exist just yet is a social network. Right now, App.net is only allowing in paid members, which are most likely either early adopters with money to burn, or developers.
And, that's what makes it so hard to judge right now. The only people looking for a Twitter alternative are developers. Users don't have any issues with the service, and there has been no indication that the Twitter that we know and love is going to disappear. The rule of platforms is that users go where the developers do, but that isn't a rule that works well with social networks. App.net has already shown that it can attract developers to the platform, but it's up to the developers to pull in users (once App.net is open to all users of course). It's hard for us to imagine what kind of features will be available.
Unless some amazing things happen for App.net, we expect that the best case (realistic) scenario for the platform is to follow a similar trajectory to Google+, where it gets the attention of the geek community, and may even have a better design and feature set than its direct competitor, but it will struggle with wider adoption because of the simple question from the average user: why? Just like the average Facebook user doesn't see any reason to move to Google+, the average Twitter user probably won't see much reason to move to App.net. We may very well see some amazing apps build on App.net, and maybe we'll see major players adopt the platform, which could help move users, but in general it feels like it is destined to always be seen as secondary to Twitter (even if the primary users would argue it should be the other way around.)
In the end App.net may be a bit of a mixed bag. Unlike Google+'s main competitor Facebook, App.net's competitor Twitter isn't completely about connecting with friends (even though Facebook is now trying to change that). Twitter and Google+ have the added use case of following celebrities, thinkers, influencers, and other interesting sources that don't need any connection to your real life. If App.net can pull in those sources, it has a chance to bring in enough users to make a name for itself, but we still doubt it can overtake Twitter.