App.net Becomes iCloud Of The Web, Could Make Twitter-Like Service Free

Paid social network App.net is about to become the iCloud of the Web. And with the freemium economics of a cloud storage service, it could end up making the Twitter-like part of App.net free for anyone.

App.net Monday released its application programming interface (API) for Files, so apps built on the service can now read and write files like photos, videos, documents or whatever else to every user account. App.net users now have 10GB of all-purpose storage attached to their account. This opens up the service to virtually any kind of application, all backed by the cloud.

"I think it's a big deal for the future of the platform," says App.net founder Dalton Caldwell. It makes possible new applications that are much less Twitter-like. For example, App.net could now host full-fledged blogs with hosting for images, audio, video, and everything. Caldwell says it's "about as powerful as the Facebook API in terms of the kinds of stuff you can build."

App.net's browser-based demo clients — Alpha for the public timeline and Omega for private messaging — will now get photo sharing using the Files API, storing the photos in user accounts.

Free Accounts Coming Soon?

Though this hasn't happened yet, the announcement of the Files API makes possible a future App.net story that would be the most interesting so far. By providing the 10GB of cloud storage to paid accounts, App.net makes a new tier of pricing possible that could allow social-only accounts to be free. In that scenario, App.net would be just like Twitter, only with a thriving ecosystem of client apps, the possibility of upgrading to a powerful, cloud-backed service, and no ads whatsoever.

You can already try the service for free by invitation. Cloud-backed file storage might make it economical to use App.net for free indefinitely.

Is App.net A Good Deal?

App.net's 10GB per account is more space than Microsoft's SkyDrive, Apple's iCloud, Google Drive, and Dropbox provide with their lowest tiers of service, and App.net costs $36 per year for users (or $5 per month on a monthly basis).

The fairest comparison is to Dropbox's Pro tier, since Dropbox, like App.net, has a powerful API for applications on all major platforms. For $9.99 per month, Dropbox users get 100GB of storage, which they can access through applications or as a file system on their devices. For half the price, App.net users get only 10GB, but the use case is very different. App.net users get a name on a real-time social network as nimble as Twitter but with an ever-changing growing of applications providing new ways to interact with it. And those apps can now handle big files as well as 256-character messages.

From the user's perspective, the most apt comparison is actually iCloud. Rather than browsing through folders in the desktop metaphor like one does on Dropbox, App.net's file storage will just be a handy but invisible back end that syncs the files and data from various applications. But instead of the closed Apple ecosystem, App.net's cloud back-end is open to the entire Web. In fact, it's actually more flexible than iCloud, since you can easily move your files between applications.

"It's a different metaphor," explains Caldwell. "It's your bucket of content, and you can give access to different applications for it." If you try a photo-sharing app for a while and decide to switch to a new one, you just switch apps. Your photos are attached to your App.net account, and they're portable. If you've recently tried to switch from Instagram to Flickr, for example, you know it's not as easy as a similar move will be within App.net.

A New Web With The Right Incentives

When App.net first appeared, it was seen as a paid Twitter clone. That was an enticing concept only to hyper-geeks. But the Files API makes clear just how different — perhaps better — the Web could be if it spread.

App.net has a login button for Web applications just like Google, Facebook and Twitter do. Any website or application could let users log in with their App.net accounts, even if they were just free, social-only accounts. But App.net doesn't use those logins for ad tracking. It doesn't have ads. It just gives connected applications access to the user's data, which the user can revoke at any time.

That means App.net users can bring a huge amount of their files and data with them to try out new Web services. And it's not hard to imagine that App.net could make its authenticated payment services available to applications as well, just like Apple's iTunes accounts.

Imagine everything that works about Apple's closed ecosystem, but made available on any platform, including the open Web. Imagine the basic level of participation being free forever. That's why I'm excited about App.net.