I'll start out by saying that while this post will probably come across as cynical, I do genuinely want App.net to work. Competition is always healthy and what I've seen of the Alpha platform so far is encouraging. Anyone who can raise $750,000 on Kickstarter is clearly onto something and should be taken seriously. There are, however, fundamental issues with the project's approach that are at odds with successful user-based services on the web.
Let's get this one out of the way first. While App.net doesn't claim to be a competitor to Twitter, people will always compare the two. Describing App.net to a layperson in these early stages always results in the response: “Oh, a micro-blogging service? Like Twitter?". Now I'm not suggesting that Twitter's dominance of this medium should go unchallenged. The problem is this: Twitter is fine. It has its flaws, sure; the API is a little hokey and not amazingly well documented, it goes down from time to time, etc. But it's not doing anything badly enough to make users cry out for an alternative. As a developer (and historically amongst the main audience for the project) I really don't have any major problems with Twitter. In fact, if nothing else, App.net would simply become yet another platform to cater for, and as a lazy person I am opposed to this.
Dalton Caldwell is building for Dalton Caldwell
Watching the introductory video for App.net, presented by their founder and CEO, one thing jumped out at me. He says the words ‘me’, ‘I’ and ‘we’ a hell of a lot. This project hasn't arisen from some great outcry amongst web users, it's arisen as a personal solution for Caldwell's own sense of feeling ‘let down’ by free web 2.0 services. There's nothing wrong with building for yourself, as long as you don't expect anyone else to care. I don't doubt that there are people out there that share his sentiment, and clearly there must be given the project's overwhelmingly popular response on Kickstarter; but when building a social network, solipsism isn't a great starting point.
Kickstarter investment isn't real value
While App.net did raise a hugely impressive three-quarters of a million on Kickstarter, this figure isn't really as significant as it sounds. Because it is made up of thousands of small donations, as opposed to several large ones, the money doesn't carry as much weight as that raised through VC or angel investment. The donators aren't looking for good ROI and therefore aren't evaluating it as a business venture, just as something they'd like to see. Lots of things raise money on Kickstarter, and they aren't always profitable.
It isn't open source
Despite the obvious attempt to appeal to developers, bizarrely App.net have overlooked what would surely be the best way to get people on board: open sourcing it. All the developers I know are cynical when it comes to branding and spiel, but give them an opportunity to tear something apart and figure out how it works and they'll be more likely to get on board. What's more is that a developer account for access to the API currently stands at $100 p/a - surely a huge barrier to casual developers and hackers looking to play around.
It will never go mainstream
One of the big selling points of App.net is that they are ‘selling their product, not their users’. By using a subscription payment model, there is no catering to advertisers or selling off data to third parties. This is certainly a healthy ideology, and there's no denying that there are serious issues facing data privacy on social networks. The problem is that most people simply don't care about data privacy. Facebook's questionable approach to data protection has been blown open in the past few months, but has it affected user figures?
As for as advertising is concerned, advertisements invade our privacy every day, across every imaginable form of media. They are often well-targeted and invasive but we learn to filter them out. Premium models do work: mobile apps offering an ad-supported but free version or a no-ad premium version are becoming the norm; but the majority will always go for the free version. In this instance, the free version is Twitter.
In fact, I'd go so far as to say that even if App.net were free, it would still not attract a paradigm-shiftingly large user base. Take Google+ as an example - it's a better product than Facebook in almost every way, but it hasn't attracted a large user-base because Facebook is so well established. For the average user it would be a hassle to migrate over to a new platform, and would mean bringing a substantial quotient of contacts with them (I tried this last year with Google+ and believe me, it doesn't work).
None of this is a problem if App.net is only interested in cultivating a niche, developer-centric community, but do developers really just want to build things for other developers? Given the choice between building an app for a potential platform of 100,000 or 100m, I know which one I'd choose - especially if it has commercial intent.
I'd love to look back on this post in a couple of years time in the way we know scoff at news videos from the 80s saying nothing will ever come of the Internet. Sadly though, that's not going to happen until App.net start talking to more users and fewer Silicon Valley gentry.