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IM: Not coming soon 6 years ago

In October 2006, just three months after Twitter launched publicly, we added IM support—i.e., the ability to get and send tweets via XMPP/Jabber/Google Talk. I was a big fan of this feature, because this interface, which millions of people were already familiar with, seemed a perfect fit for Twitter’s real-time nature.

In December of 2006, we extended that support to AIM, enabling a much bigger number of users to interface with Twitter via the same system they talk to their friends on all day.

While off to an early start, since then, our IM feature has been, well…spotty. We first killed AIM support after struggling for months to make it reliable (which was a side-project to trying to keep the service as a whole reliable). And our Jabber support has been up and down until about four-and-a-half months ago when it’s just been…down.

We’ve been unclear about its status and what to expect; I want to clarify that now.

First: I know a lot of people love this feature. I’ve heard personally from many folks who say it’s critical for their enjoyment of Twitter. So it kills me that we haven’t been able to deliver on this consistently. And the bad news is, we don’t have a quick fix.

A New Way of Doing Things
If you’ve been using Twitter for a while, you’ve probably noticed that things have gotten much more steady on the Twitter ship in the last few months. There’s a lot of reasons for this. Besides some key hires and herculean efforts from top-notch engineers, there’s been a conscious decision to try and not make promises we can’t keep. That is, we want to be solid on our current offerings before adding to the load and getting in a precarious situation again.

The fact is, our infrastructure for IM was never ready for prime time. Like a lot of things, it was built rapidly when we were small and had to be completely re-thought in order to support a much bigger user base. Since we were (famously) having trouble keeping up with that demand in the core service, IM, which was used by a minority of users, always got the shaft.

Startups are all about launching things that are not ready for prime time—because startups don’t live in prime time. You can always rush to make something ready if people like it. Except when you can’t. The process of going from being able to throw things at the wall and see if they stick, to really thinking carefully about how something’s going to scale and effect the system as a whole, is an inevitable evolution that companies go through (if they’re successful). Sometimes they do it gracefully, sometimes less so.

To summarize, we want to bring IM back. We intend to bring IM back. But we’ve officially moved it from our Things That are Broken list to our Things We Want to Build list. Based on our analysis, the cost-to-benefit for IM for the most users is not as high as some other things—so it will be a while before we tackle it. Like any budget (in this case, the budget of our limited engineering time), tough calls need to be made—especially in these times. And while we don’t expect everyone to agree with this decision, we at least want to be straightforward with you.

Sorry we haven’t been very communicative on this before. Saying it was “coming soon” was more of a case our our wishful thinking (that we would get to it real soon now) than wanting to mislead.

Thank you for your understanding and patience.

-Evan Williams

p.s. - Like other features that Twitter doesn’t have natively, IM support could be built by a third party using our API. In fact, it has been: Check out excla.im. It may or may not be ready for prime-time either, but it’s very promising. (Hi, @harper!). (There may be others.)