Can Snapchat Prosper Without a Developer API?

If you want a platform to scale, open it up to third-party developers. That’s been a guiding principle for the past several years, with Apple’s iOS and Google Android serving as key examples of how big and influential an ecosystem can grow when it’s open to all. (Windows Phone and BlackBerry, meanwhile, have demonstrated how quickly a platform can shrivel without a high level of third-party support.)

Picking up on the idea, Facebook hosts an annual conference in which it demonstrates how developers and companies can build on its various APIs and features. The more people leverage Facebook for their own services, the thinking goes, the more powerful the social network will become.

But as it slouches its way toward an IPO, Snap Inc., the parent company of Snapchat, shows little sign of opening its signature app to independent developers. That ban is longstanding: back in October 2014, a posting on Snapchat’s official blog noted that “it takes time and a lot of resources to build an open and trustworthy third-party application ecosystem.” There is no public API for apps, and Snapchat suppressed outside use of a private one several years ago.

“We’ll continue to do our part by improving Snapchat’s security and calling on Apple and Google to take down third-party applications that access our API,” Snapchat noted a few years ago. “You can help us out by avoiding the use of third-party applications.”

In mid-2016, Snapchat released an API for third-party advertisers who want to spend money on the platform, but that’s not the same thing as giving developers access to Snapchat’s features. Perhaps an API for devs is coming in the future; but if that’s the case, Snapchat executives have been careful not to mention anything about it.

Another social network, Twitter, offers a lesson in the potential perils of limiting third-party developers. In its early years, Twitter cut off developer access to data and limited tokens; those actions suppressed interest in building for the platform. By October 2015, the company released the error of its ways, and CEO Jack Dorsey tried to extend an olive branch.

“We need to listen, learn, and have this conversation with you,” Dorsey told an audience at that year’s edition of Twitter’s mobile developer conference. “We want you to tweet at us and tell us what you’d like to see more of, see us consider, see us change in our policy.”

None of those efforts, however, really seemed to shift developers’ perception of Twitter as an unfriendly platform. Despite its prominent position in popular culture—thanks in no small part to President Trump’s decision to use his Twitter handle to announce policy and swipe at enemies—Twitter continues to bleed cash and users. The lack of a robust developer ecosystem probably isn’t helping matters very much.

Like Twitter, Snap is a company that’s burning through cash, and faces powerful opponents anxious to crush it. As Snapchat seeks to boost its audience size (and ad revenue), it should pay heed to the third-party developers whose ideas may render the platform stickier and more popular.