Local shots fired in Twitter technology wars

Every week Techvibes will be republishing an article from Business in Vancouver newspaper.

This article was originally published in issue #1037 – September 8-15, 2009.

Vancouver’s Nambu Network Inc. was hit with a flurry of public feedback and was caught in the midst of a nasty online dispute after it announced plans to deactivate its popular tr.im URL shortener.

But a few days later, on August 11, Nambu reversed course. It said that tr.im, which receives up to four million hits a day from visitors who use the site to shorten URLs that are put into Twitter feeds, will live on.

Nambu’s founder Eric Woodward made the decision after being inundated with feedback from Twitter users who feared that their shortened links would cease to work or be hijacked by marketers who redirect links to advertising pages.

“The blogosphere just went nuts,” said Woodward.

But in a move that some consider brilliant public relations and others view as bitterness toward competitors, Woodward is spinning tr.im out into a non-profit organization and opening up the site to other developers.

They will have free access to tracking statistics, such as how many clicks a link receives and who is showing an interest in it, which is valuable marketing information.

Woodward said he’s opening up the site to shed responsibility for its costs.

Like other companies that operate URL shorteners, Nambu has been unable to monetize tr.im, which was distracting the company from its lead social media product.

Over the past month, Woodward had been shopping the site around for $100,000, but couldn’t find a buyer.

However, Woodward’s decision to open the site to other developers is also a direct shot across the bow of bit.ly, the leading URL shortener.

Twitter has made bit.ly its default URL shortener, which Woodward said has given bit.ly a monopoly, reducing tr.im’s market share and making it impossible for Nambu to sustain tr.im.

Woodward said he was also insulted by bit.ly’s offer to buy the site for $10,000.

By opening up tr.im, Woodward could potentially reduce the value of bit.ly and other URL shorteners, whose real value lies in the tracking statistics that they don’t freely share with the public.

“[Bit.ly has] a pretty dominant position, and it’s not clear that an open-source project can, over the long run, compete with [it],” said Woodward.

“If I can give away the data, and do what I can to stick a knife in bit.ly’s back, I’m more than happy to do that.”

Woodward said he was surprised by the attention tr.im has received and surprised by what he perceives as negative coverage Nambu received from leading technology blogs such as Techcrunch.

“I don’t think I could raise venture capital right now, given what’s gone on with tr.im.”

Tr.im and ow.ly, which was created by Vancouver’s Invoke Media, are rated in the top 10 most-used URL shorteners.

Ryan Holmes, founder of Invoke, commended Woodward’s move to open-source tr.im.

“Nobody can legally hold you to maintaining that to a cost to yourself,” said Holmes. “It’s a free service, but I think [Woodward] feels like it’s a responsibility, and I applaud him for that.”

Invoke has yet to monetize ow.ly, but Holmes said the company has plans to create a number of revenue streams through the site.

“Any time there are eyeballs and traffic, there is value,” he said. “You just need to be creative in terms of exposing that.”

As to the relationship between bit.ly and Twitter, Holmes was more diplomatic than Woodward.

He said the Twitter team should maintain the culture of openness upon which the company was founded.

“I think it would behoove them to continue with their philosophy and open up their URL-shortening services.”