Elon Musk’s Twitter took another turn for the worst this past week when the company announced an update to its developer agreement which reads in part that “you will not or attempt to (and will not allow others to)… use or access the Licensed Materials to create or attempt to create a substitute or similar service or product to the Twitter Applications.” The translation from legalese to plain English is simple: third-party clients can get bent—forever. The news came a week after notable Twitter clients like Tweetbot and Twitterrific unceremoniously and mysteriously stopped working, leading Twitter’s official @TwitterDev account to tweet confirming the outage saying its “enforcing its longstanding API rules” while acknowledging some apps may break as a result of the newly-implemented policy.
As noted by Engadget’s Karissa Bell last week, the clause (in the Restrictions section) was the only substantive change to Twitter’s 5,000-word document.
In the wake of the hubbub, particularly acute for members of the Apple community where Tweetbot maker Tapbots and Twitterrific owner The Iconfactory have long served, much digital ink has been spilled in eulogizing both pieces of software out of respect of their sudden and undignified demise. It’s well known in nerdy circles that Twitterrific was responsible for nearly every bit of the Twitter nomenclature, down to the adoption of a blue bird for the service’s mascot. Although it makes complete business sense for Twitter to send client apps to the guillotine, the loss of Twitterrific (and Tweetbot and many others) is a great communal loss artistically as well. This goes for the people who not only built the products, but also for innovation in terms of truly game-changing UI design.
As ever, one aspect of this situation that goes largely overlooked is accessibility, (An exception is this Twitter thread by my friend Karissa.) For The Iconfactory in particular, Twitterrific’s journey to the afterlife hurts even more when considering the accessibility ramifications. The app has long been beloved by members of the disability community; AppleVis, a well known community-run website for Blind and low vision Apple users, inducted Twitterrific into their eponymous Hall of Fame in May 2016 for their exemplary VoiceOver integration, amongst other traits. In an interview with me coincident with the App Store’s tenth birthday in 2018, Twitterrifc’s lead developer, Sean Heber, explained that although the recognition is deeply appreciated, the reward is not in the award. “[Working on accessibility] doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that should have to be rewarded,” he said, while adding support for assistive technologies “should be expected and having to provide them should not be resented” by software developers.
When reached for comment for this story, The Iconfactory co-founder Craig Hockenberry told me Heber and fellow co-founder Gedeon Maheux deserve the lion’s share of the credit for pushing for disability inclusion vis-a-vis Twitterrific.
“I just stood by and applauded [the work they did],” Hockenberry said.
For his part, Maheux told me in an recent interview conducted over email “accessibility should be important to any developer” but added The Iconfactory’s resolve to support it to the fullest extent possible certainly has strengthened over time. The company, he said, has garnered much feedback from people in the disability community over the years, who continually have asked for improved accessibility in Twitterrific. Moreover, Maheux explained it “really means the world to us” to have members of the community get in touch and thank them for all the hard work put into making the app as accessible as it can be to everyone.
“We listened [to feedback from customers],” he said. “It matters that your app is able to be used by those who [are disabled]. The benefits of doing it are their own rewards and the support of the accessibility community is something we treasure.”
As for the Hall of Fame honor, Maheux said news of it “kind of floored us, honestly.” He went on to tell me it’s “gratifying” to know something they built had made the lives of others better; that feeling pushed the team to live up to such a high standard and become developers at crafting every piece of software The Iconfactory makes. “It made us better developers for sure,” Maheux said.
Part of what makes The Iconfactory a better development shop is, of course, Apple. As the platform owner, the onus is on Apple to provide the APIs and the documentation necessary for App Store developers—on iOS or any other operating system—to create their app(s). Maheux said Apple does “an admirable job” in providing best-in-class tools for software creators, although bugs can weak havoc and cause accessibility to break. To that end, consistent reporting (through Apple’s Radar tool) is an important step in squashing the bugs, thus improving usability and reliability. “Reporting those bugs is important especially because they touch so many parts of the interface and how people interact with them,” he said.
The loss of Twitterrific is one The Iconfactory, and especially disabled Twitter users, will mourn for some time. To its credit, Twitter’s own first-party app used to be pretty solid in terms of adopting system accessibility features like Dynamic Type and Increase Contrast on both iOS and the Mac. Of course, that all changed drastically and (likely) irreparably when Musk inexplicably and unconscionably gutted the company’s entire accessibility team as part of the layoffs that occurred in early November. Above all else, Musk’s decision sent a strong message that disabled people and our needs aren’t welcome on his platform any longer. Couple that with the loss of perhaps the most accessible indie client in Twitterrific and it’s easy to see there’s nowhere to go short of leaving altogether for Mastodon—which is an option many have chosen, but remains problematic in itself since quitting services on principle alone is a cost not all marginalized people can afford to pay.
Maheux and The Iconfactory are empathetic towards people’s plight here.
“Losing Twitterrific is indeed a blow to all of us, but especially to our users. I received more than a few emails from Blind users who were upset and outraged because they would most likely have to stop using Twitter without accessible third party clients like Twitterrific,” he said. “It honestly breaks my heart to read messages like this and it makes me even angrier at Musk for what he’s done. Not only that, but the accessibility team at Twitter has also been let go or severely downsized so it seems it’s even less of a priority than it was at Twitter before he took over. I feel for every one of these people and all the others who feel abandoned by their social network of choice. It royally stinks, but puts into perspective just how important accessibility is in the grand scheme of things.”