Busy Twitter a poster child for new communications

Microblogging site Twitter had its busiest day ever on Tuesday but didn't slow down, its founder said.

Microblogging site Twitter had its busiest day ever Tuesday and needs more than 30 servers to help its thousands of users keep each other posted about their lives, founder Blaine Cook said.

Cook's brief presentation was a highlight of opening day at the first Emerging Communications Conference (EComm) in Mountain View, California. The fast-paced, three-day meeting is focused on new communications applications for both the wired and mobile Internet. Along with nascent ideas, participants talked about looming challenges.

One of Twitter's hardest jobs is scaling up, according to Cook. The site, launched in 2006, lets users post 140-character statements about what they're doing or thinking in real time. In response to a question from the audience, Cook wouldn't say exactly how many people use Twitter or how many servers it takes to host it. But he did say that until recently the company had 30 servers, and that wasn't enough. Scaling features is another challenge: It would be hard to add groups and maintain Twitter's simple interface, he said.

The peak day of Twitter activity on Tuesday coincided with the popular South By Southwest media conference, where some participants reportedly complained about the service's performance sagging under heavy message-posting by participants. Cook said he was closely monitoring site performance that day and believes it was the Wi-Fi network at the conference that ran out of breath.

Several presenters at EComm focused on bringing together data networking and voice. One was Irv Shapiro, CEO and chief technology officer of startup IfByPhone, which showcased a platform for making applications available to any phone. For example, users could call a toll-free number, say phone numbers for a starting point and a destination, and then get directions over the phone. The system could make a Web site accessible by phone without the Web developer having to do any voice-recognition programming, because that function would be hidden in IfByPhone's infrastructure, he said. Also on the program was OpenMoko, a spin-off of First International Computer that is developing a mobile phone with both open-source hardware and software. This will let developers create both applications and specialized devices for niche markets, said Michael Shiloh, an evangelist for OpenMoko.

Independent telecommunications analyst David Isenberg cut into all the excitement by warning developers that politics could put an end to such conferences. The one-time AT&T Bell Labs researcher said carriers want to effectively dictate what applications can go on the network. Their lobbying already stifled competitive local exchange carriers that wanted to sell services over existing lines, he said. Today, carriers such as Verizon and AT&T are rolling out services such as TV to their broadband subscribers.

"If you guys care about your jobs, you should care about the politics in Washington, DC, because the telephone companies will shut you down or buy you out," Isenberg said.

IDC analyst Will Stofega shares that concern.

"Telcos need to figure out what they want to be," Stofega said. "There has to be some sort of agreement on how this will work," or carriers will form a bottleneck to getting innovative services out to consumers and businesses, he said. Developers of mobile applications already voice this complaint about US cellular operators.

However, Stofega believes that where there's a hot application, there's a way. Motivated developers will always find a way to get some applications out to the network and consumers will pick up on them, he said.

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Stephen Lawson

IDG News Service

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