Twitter goes anywhere - but keeps advertising plans under wraps

For thousands of webheads gathered in Texas, the past few days have been a dizzying whirlwind of at South By South West Interactive - a conference/festival that is essentially Glastonbury for geeks. And while the event's panel sessions and parties have been skewered by erstwhile Guardian columnist Paul Carr, plenty of people were looking forward to an on-stage appearance by Twitter chief executive Evan Williams.

Why? Because the company was expected to talk about how it was going to make money - chiefly by showing off its rumoured advertising system.

Instead, Williams did something different: he unveiled a new platform called "@anywhere" that it says will weave it even deeper into the fabric of the web.

Confused? Let's look at what @anywhere lets you do.

According to Williams, it will allow third party websites to pull information from Twitter very easily, letting sites implement actions such as "follow me" links or show profile information without much hassle. It will also let people log in to other websites using their Twitter credentials, in the same way many sites have latched on to Facebook Connect.

"Discovery is one of the hardest challenges," he said in a Q&A with London-based economist and blogger Umair Haque that drew plenty of brickbats from the assembled crowd.

Williams characterised @anywhere as a door into Twitter. "A window is transparent, but a door is open. A door lets you come in and mess with what you're doing".

Still not clear? I'm not surprised. Here's a little more detail from Twitter's blog:

Our open technology platform is well known and Twitter APIs are already widely implemented but this is a different approach because we've created something incredibly simple. Rather than implementing APIs, site owners need only drop in a few lines of javascript. [...] Imagine being able to follow a New York Times journalist directly from her byline, tweet about a video without leaving YouTube, and discover new Twitter accounts while visiting the Yahoo! home page—and that's just the beginning.

So technically, this is a way to package certain actions that are currently possible using the API in a way that non-developers can easily implement. Dropping a line of JavaScript into a web page is an awful lot easier than using your API credentials.

A lot of this was already possible, if somewhat obscured, by using a variety of widgets and other techniques (you'll notice we have a "Tweet this" link at the top of each story). And while it seems like it will be great for expanding the integration of Twitter into a variety of websites - important for breaking the service out of the silo it currently sits in and making it far more mainstream - it doesn't really answer the big question everybody was looking at: how does Twitter make money.

Indeed, according to CNet, Williams sidestepped questions about Twitter's plans for advertising by using the rather cringeworthy line "it's not an ad platform, it's an '@' platform".

Still, leaving that aside, @anywhere raises a number of questions:

What's the impact going to be on Twitter developers? Will this have any adverse affect on the ecosystem of application developers and engineers who are working on services that hook into Twitter?

Is this Twitter fighting with Facebook, Google and others for the universal login? And what is the point of a universal login if everybody thinks their service is it? Will being more integrated into other websites bring more users Twitter's way?

Will this allow Twitter to make money? There doesn't seem to be any indication that money is likely to change hands here. But the service is clearly being aimed at publishing sites and media companies who, one might expect, could be a revenue source in the future (even if not all of them are swimming in pools of cash right now).

And, most importantly:

What's going on with Twitter's ad platform? Suggestions are that it's going to be fairly similar to Google's AdSense programme - advertise against keyword search terms. Is this a step towards getting that more traction, simply because it might bring in more users and therefore give Twitter more opportunity to show adverts?

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