June 26, 2008

Twitter Gets Funding from Bezos and Spark

When the news broke on June 24 that microblogging sensation Twitter picked up new venture investors, including Amazon (AMZN) founder Jeff Bezos, the company -- as luck would have it -- was suffering a service outage. "Twitter is stressing out a bit right now, so this feature is temporarily disabled," read the message.

Trouble is, that message and others like it have become all too common on Twitter. The site, a tool that lets some one million people exchange brief 140-character messages, seems to be as unreliable as it is popular. In fact, it's the surging traffic, in part, that leads to failures.

Noises About Forsaking Twitter

The new investments, from Bezos and Boston's Spark Capital, will give the company "some runway and breathing room" as it invests in a big technology upgrade, says Biz Stone, a Twitter co-founder. He would not disclose the dollar or equity amounts of the investments. The goal, he says, is to rebuild the architecture "piece by piece." The process is already underway and "will take months," Stone adds. Existing Twitter backers Union Square Ventures in New York and Tokyo-based Digital Garage also participated in the most recent round.

Bijan Sabet, a partner at Spark who landed a Twitter board seat through the investment, says the "highest priority is providing rock-solid service." He envisions Twitter becoming "a global communication utility system," though he didn't elaborate on what that will look like. Bezos didn't respond to a phone call seeking comment.

More crucial to Twitter's future than deep-pocketed investors and dependable machines are its throngs of users around the world. And it's not clear these devotees will stick around through months of hiccups. Some are tempted to bail for rivals and related offerings [BusinessWeek, 4/10/2008], such as Plurk and FriendFeed, which appear to suffer fewer outages. As blogger Rafe Needleman asked on FriendFeed on June 25: "How unreliable does Twitter have to get before people like me give up on it totally?"

A lot more, apparently. Many of the responses validate investors' confidence in Twitter. "So have I moved on?" asks Dave Winer, a prominent blogger and technology developer. "Not exactly, because nothing has come along to replace it. [FriendFeed] is very different, and most of the people I connected with on Twitter aren't [on FriendFeed]. I've always said it's about the people."

Engineers? Twitter Wants You

Many of Twitter's users cope with the downtime by following their feeds on other sites that link to Twitter, including FriendFeed, social network Facebook, and the search engine Summize. In that way, users can maintain their communities on Twitter in anticipation of improved service down the road. An entire galaxy of Twitter services also bolster support [BusinessWeek.com, 5/15/08] for the microblogging site. They range from mapping and cell phone apps to a site called Twistori, which streams the posts that include the words "I hate,""I love," and "I feel."

As the Twitter universe digests the investment news, many users hope the arrival of Bezos signals tech help is on the way. Bezos' Amazon, after all, is among the most dependable e-commerce sites. And its data centers are so powerful and large that they rent out capacity to other Web sites. Twitter already uses Amazon's service to host its user photos and will weigh further moves, Stone says. Yet he notes that Bezos' investment is personal, through Bezos Expeditions, and not connected directly to Amazon.

Meantime, Twitter is on the hunt for engineers and is offering packages including stock options and free Apple (AAPL) iPhones. The most recent catch: Rudy Winnacker, a systems administrator for Google (GOOG) for five years, has signed on as a Twitter operations engineer. He starts July 14. As Twitter rebuilds its architecture, he and his new teammates are sure to have a lively summer.