Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

A review of app.net

So, as I wrote on Thursday last week, I joined app.net on a one month free trial. I’ve now had a few days to actually use the service, so this serves as something of a sequel to last October’s ‘Thoughts on app.net‘ post which was written from the perspective of an outsider.

So far I’ve only tried a couple of clients: NetBot, by Tapbots, which I’ll be doing a more detailed review of tomorrow, and Alpha, which is the default web-based interface (like twitter.com is to Twitter). Naturally Alpha supports all of app.net’s API features, including image upload which uses the 10 GB of storage that now comes with every app.net account (although my trial account was limited to 100 MB). It also uses responsive design, so there’s no separate desktop and mobile version. There’s not much to say other than that – it’s clean and straightforward.

The inevitable comparison with Twitter

From here on in it’s probably worth listing the things that app.net doesn’t yet do, when compared to Twitter. There’s no built-in link shortening, and the ability to add an image to a post has only just been added – for these, you would otherwise use a third-party service, as you would in the early days of Twitter. Posts (as opposed to tweets) can’t have a location attached to them, although it’s fair to say that most people don’t attach locations to their tweets either so it’s easy to see why this wouldn’t be a priority feature.

In October I noted there was no direct messaging – this has since been added, and on the web, confusingly uses a client called ‘Omega‘ rather than Alpha. However, messages can be sent to multiple, rather than individual users, so it looks like it could be more like Facebook chat than Twitter’s DM feature which nowadays is somewhat buried in their official apps.

The other major features that app.net doesn’t have are private accounts (everything is public), lists, a streaming system that pushes new tweets (although this is coming soon) and an easy way to see which of your tweets have been reposted, or what reposts you have posted.

What makes app.net stand out

As to what it does do, the major difference is that posts can be 256 characters long, as opposed to 140. It takes a little time to get used to the longer posts, when compared with Twitter, but does mean that you don’t need to commit so many crimes against grammar if what you want to say takes more than 140 characters. There are no promoted posts, and because everyone is either a paying customer or has been invited to use a free account, there’s no spam.

You can also ‘mute’ users to stop them appearing in your stream. You may want to do this if, for example, someone is live-posting an event that doesn’t interest you – you could mute them for an hour to avoid being inundated with posts from them. I believe that these settings should be shared amongst different clients, but muting someone in NetBot didn’t affect my overall account settings, so I’m not sure how effective this feature is.

There is also built-in support for ‘Stream Marker’, which saves your place in your stream between clients. This is very similar to the third-party Tweet Marker service which some, but not all Twitter clients use. If you like to read everything in your stream then this is very welcome.

Finally, all users can export their data from app.net from day one. Twitter is slow in this regard and only started rolling out its ‘Tweet Archive’ feature late last year to a small number of users, which doesn’t yet include me. But it does mean that you can keep your own backup of all of your data.

What it’s like to actually use

So that’s an overview of the features, and how it differs from Twitter. But what is it like to use?

Firstly, it’s a bit slower than Twitter. Retrieving posts in my stream takes a little longer than retrieving tweets in my timeline, even though there is less data to download as I follow fewer people. But then Twitter has a multi-year head start on building a fast and scalable platform which I’m sure app.net will eventually catch up to.

When you first create your account, app.net will present you with a list of suggested users to follow; a number of these are app.net developers and others are people who have already managed to build-up a decent number of followers on the nascent service. You are also asked if you would like to essentially ‘migrate’ your follows from Twitter, using one of three services. I personally found Friendfind.co to be the best of these.

Once you’re up and running, it’s basically the same as Twitter – you can @reply people, and use #hashtags. Because app.net is quite small, you can even open the ‘Global‘ view to see all of the new posts across the network.

Third party app support

I was pleasantly surprised at how many of the apps I already use integrated with app.net. I’m an avid user of Pocket and Reeder, and both of these permit sharing on app.net. Naturally there’s an app.net channel on IFTTT, so I have a couple of recipes set up to automatically post new blog entries and new shared links on Delicious. Buffer and Pushr, two apps that I already use to cross-post content to Facebook and LinkedIn, support app.net as well. Consequently I’ve been able to post quite a bit to my app.net profile without too much effort, although it is mostly stuff cross-posted from other social networks. Still, it’s better than Google+ in this regard which I have to tend to manually and usually forget about.

Beyond Alpha, there are no official desktop or mobile clients for app.net so this is left to third-party developers; thankfully, there’s at least one client for pretty much all common desktop and mobile operating systems.

The big question

So is it actually worth signing up for? If you can blag an invite for a free trial account, then go for it – there’s no obligation to subscribe and it doesn’t even ask you for payment details. I’m not so sure whether I will switch to a paid account at the end of the trial period, however.

app.net user accounts number in the tens of thousands, but it seems a number of people have signed up, posting one or two things and then given up. I follow 25 people, but only 4-5 of those post on a regular basis. And most of those are people whom I also follow on Twitter, so I’m not really getting anything unique from app.net at the moment.

There’s no real variety either. All kinds of people tweet, but there’s a very narrow demographic on app.net. Discounting brands, only three of the people I follow are female – @katbairwell, @girlonetrack and @giagia, none of whom are currently active (but do regular tweet on Twitter). And I’ve only found one celebrity so far – Professor Brian Cox (inactive). It’s a bit like the internet was before the Eternal September, I suppose.

I really want to like app.net – I agree with what it stands for and hope that it has a bright future ahead of it. But it’s low level of adoption means that it offers less value to me than Twitter, and yet it costs more.

I have three more weeks to make up my mind.

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