25 March 2010

Battle of the Twitter beasts

With the world gradually moving towards the cloud, not only for storage or applications, but entire operating systems, it’s about time clients also broke free from the desktop and lived entirely on the web as applications inside browser windows. Lately, web-based Twitter clients have been evolving at a faster pace, introducing more and more new features to match wider-used desktop clients. Three of them usually get the most attention, and incidentally they all have animal logos: the Brizzly bear, the HootSuite owl and the Seesmic racoon. Over time I have tried them all, as prefer not to install a desktop app just for Twitter. This is how they compare in terms of features and interface.

a. Integration of standard Twitter features

In this area, Seesmic web is currently in the lead, offering basically all of the features you get in the Twitter web interface. In some cases, Seesmic even does a better job: for example on Twitter, the list view doesn’t have a Retweet button, but Seesmic does. The biggest feature missing from the two competitors is the new retweet system. On the other hand, HootSuite has a better contacts manager: you can block or report users for spam or even move your subscription from one Twitter account to another.

b. Extra features

This is the area where the competition should be most intense, because here is where each client can differentiate itself from the competition. With regular Twitter features, the race is about being the first to implement something, but ultimately the clients will end up more or less with the same functionality; building original extra features gives them the chance to stand out in the crowd.

Here, Seesmic is clearly in last place, with the fewest extensions in addition to the Twitter features. Brizzly and HootSuite have more or less the same number of “Yes-points”, although each is stronger in different areas. The choice comes down to what features each of us uses more frequently. It also worth pointing out that Brizzly was the first to introduce many of the innovations adopted later by the other apps, like inline URL and media expansion, trend explanations muting and drafts.

A big disadvantage of HootSuite still remains the lack of OAuth support. For an app that markets itself as The Professional Twitter Client, this is a big oversight. I imagine companies would not take it very lightly if someone would break through HootSuite’s security and hijack their Twitter accounts with the passwords retrieved there…

c. Miscellaneous features

Besides the Twitter integration on the web, each of these sites has expanded into other areas. Seesmic offers the widest variety of desktop and mobile apps (no iPhone though), while HootSuite lets you access a lot of other social networks, like , LinkedIn and Foursquare. I suspect the large number of versions is one of the reasons why Seesmic web doesn’t get that much attention and is lagging behind the others in terms of innovative features.

d. Interface

This is the most subjective point when choosing an app, so feel free to ignore my opinions if you prefer something else.

Brizzly has a clean and simple look, a single column for the timeline, so your attention doesn’t stray all the time to other areas of the interface, with links on the left to switch to other views. It’s perhaps the closest to the Twitter interface and also keeps the most used controls visible and accessible all the time. I would like to see a link to ‘Favorites’ somewhere more visible, like in the sidebar or on top of the timeline, next to ‘Draft’, right now you can only access them through your profile.

Seesmic also keeps it relatively simple, but introduces columns for replies, lists, etc., something I’m not really fond of. I also don’t like that the tweet-level actions are grouped together in a list box, it makes it harder to access them, especially if your most common action is to retweet. ‘Report Spam’ doesn’t really belong in this menu, it should be a user-level action inside the hovercard. I would suggest to them to let users customize this action list, to change the order or remove some of the actions.

From the three clients discussed here, I like HootSuite the least. It takes more effort for about every action and has a steeper learning curve than other applications. From the moment you first log in, you have to define your columns and tabs, filling them with replies, searches and lists, while in other clients you can start tweeting right away with almost no configuration. It’s like having a collection of Lego pieces you must fit together or buying furniture from IKEA. Many probably enjoy the high level of customization, but I would prefer a quick start. And that doesn’t stop there: to reply or retweet, you first have to select your account, even if you only configured a single one! This is getting even more annoying when you schedule tweets: the app doesn’t remember your last choice, so for every tweet you have to choose the account, the date and time. There are better apps for scheduling on the Internet; ShareFeed comes to mind. There are a number of bad interface choices in their Facebook implementation as well, but I talked about them before.

Another bad interface choice, from my point of view, is the way both Seesmic and HootSuite are previewing links, images and videos. They aren’t expanded inline, you have to click on them to get a mini-preview and click a second time it you want to visit the link or dismiss the preview. This can add up to a lot of unnecessary clicking during the day. With Brizzly, media and links are a natural component of the timeline, the previews are larger, so you can browse much more comfortably through the updates. The downside of this approach is that the application can eat up a lot of RAM and become slow on older computers, but the team recently made this feature optional.

Seesmic and HootSuite have also a similar approach to conversation threads. It’s a nice feature, but it doesn’t always work as expected. It assumes you have a strictly linear conversation: if one of the tweets receives two replies, they are interpreted as two different conversations. Of course, this problem starts from Twitter itself, because it’s not really built for complex conversations. There are other applications that do a little better at surfacing related tweets, see Cadmus for example.

Right now, you can probably guess what is my client of choice and has been for some time now. Brizzly is the best suited for me in terms of features and ease of use, keeping my two Twitter accounts well separated. HootSuite is probably a better choice for power users who need to keep an eye on multiple keywords and update several accounts and networks simultaneously. And Seesmic is more for the beginners, who only have an account to manage and don’t need a lot of extra features. Whatever you are using, I think it’s safe to assume the feature “war” won’t stop anytime soon and the tables I made will become obsolete right after the next big announcement from any of this three players. I think Brizzly is next in line to bring something new to the table, as long as Twitter doesn’t steal the show with their rumored amazing internal features.


  1. Its funny how you completely leave the market leader out....

  2. The problem is that the market leader (I presume you mean Tweetdeck), doesn't handle lists...

  3. @Anonymous No. 1: The article is only about web-based Twitter clients. If you refer to TweetDeck, it is an Adobe Air application, so it doesn't qualify. Besides, I never used it, so I don't really have an opinion about it.

    @Anonymous No. 2: As far as I can see, TweetDeck added lists about 6 months ago: List-en very carefully, here's what's new with us.