Why Twitter Is Banking On Phone Numbers For Its Future Developers

End users hate having to create new accounts and passwords every time they sign up for a service. Is linking everything into their phone number the answer? That’s the bet Twitter is making with its new mobile platform, Fabric.

Picture: Twitter

The Fabric software development kit (SDK) was launched at Twitter’s day-long TwitterFlight mobile development conference in San Francisco yesterday. As we noted in our initial report, it includes a number of components, including the Crashlytics bug-tracking tool and the MoPub advertising platform. Both of those already existed as independent services, but have been rolled into Fabric (and in the case of Crashlytics, made free for all developers).

The new element of Fabric is Digits, an authentication service which relies on your mobile phone number as the key source of ID. Want to sign up for a new app? Rather than having to create a new identity or rely on an existing third party, Digits lets you connect the service to your mobile number. We’re familiar with the idea of using our mobile phones for two-factor authentication — this takes that a step further.

Part of the appeal of that approach is that it means your signing into an app isn’t connected to an existing social service such as Facebook, or indeed Twitter itself. “Users are increasingly particular about the persona they want to be in every app they use,” says Jeff Seibert, Fabric platform manager for Twitter. More bluntly: no-one wants to sign into something with Facebook or Twitter and then find their every action on that platform broadcast to the entire world.

If you’re using your mobile phone to sign up for a new service, then text confirmation is typically much quicker than waiting for a confirmation email. Twitter’s internal tests suggest that the median time for an SMS to be delivered is about 10 seconds.

The biggest benefit, though, is that you don’t have to remember an explicit password associated with your signup, nor do you have to remember exactly what your name is on the service. It’s also much harder for your mobile number “identity” to be stolen. (It’s not impossible for a mobile number to be transferred erroneously or with criminal intent, but it’s much more difficult than taking over a single account on a password-based online service.)

The platform works on both Android and iOS. Seibert told Lifehacker that extending it to other platforms would be relatively easy, but that the two dominant platforms are more than enough to cover most of the developer market.

For Digits to succeed, Twitter will need to persuade developers that it is a useful idea. It has signed up some high-profile early adopters, including speaker manufacturer Jambox and fast food giant McDonald’s. McDonald’s has already been experimenting with using the SMS signup for an alarm app that also offers discount vouchers, and says it can see considerable appeal in using phone numbers as a means for customers to sign up.

Part of the appeal of that option is likely to be because it will work with customers who have a mobile phone, but who don’t use other services such as email or social networks. That group covers both customers in emerging third-world markets (where phones are common but computers much less so) and younger consumers, who increasingly view email and older social networks as irrelevant.

That doesn’t mean that Digits will totally replace those options. “This is a really interesting way to bring new customers into our world,” McDonald’s chief digital officer Atif Rafiq said. “It doesn’t [totally] replace the standard registration process.”

Not having to set up your own infrastructure to handle mobile phone traffic is also a potential boon to smaller developers. At launch, Digits will be available in 216 countries and 28 languages, and Twitter is bearing all the costs associated with the service. So what does it get in return?

CEO Dick Costolo says that Twitter is merely looking to make life easier for developers. “Some SDKs are optimised for a single platform or one particular capability, all resulting in lots of cross platform variation in your app profiles, when what you really want is cross platform consistency and homogeneity at the services layer so you can concentrate on app quality and delivering delightful user experiences,” he said.

The most obvious advantage for Twitter is that if it persuades developers to use some of its stack capabilities, it’s more likely to persuade them to also integrate Twitter into their apps. The data provided by a service such as Crashlytics could also potentially be mined and used for new developer-oriented products. And if it can achieve a dominance in providing a SMS-based sign-up platform for users, it won’t be disappearing from our mobile devices any time soon.

Evolve is a weekly column at Lifehacker looking at trends and technologies IT workers need to know about to stay employed and improve their careers. Disclosure: Angus Kidman travelled to San Francisco as a guest of Twitter.

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