App.net, the ad-free social network founded by Dalton Caldwell, celebrates its first birthday today and the quest to build a better, more encompassing social network than what’s already out there continues.

To recap, Caldwell began the project last year after becoming disillusioned with the way that social networks — and Twitter in particular — prioritized revenue generation over serving developers whose creations have helped them gain popularity.

Using a paid-for membership model (which has since expanded to include a limited but free option), App.net is designed to provide an alternative that supports developers 100 percent, rather than being reliant on advertising cash.

So, how is it faring 12 months later?

In brief, App.net isn’t challenging Twitter and Facebook on user numbers — we don’t have a current figure for its user base; Caldwell himself has around 15,000 followers — but the site has a clear community vibe and an ecosystem of high-quality apps have sprouted up for the service.

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The vision behind App.net remains compelling: to provide a platform on which developers can build services, while putting the user experience first without fear of being cut out of APIs or running into limitations — as Twitter and Facebook have been accused of doing in the past.

Then there’s an aim to go beyond just microblogging.

Twitter, for example, arguably missed a trick by failing to focus on Direct Messages (DM) as a service. A standalone DM app could have taken the place occupied by WhatsApp — the messaging app that, with 300 million monthly active users, is bigger than Twitter itself — but instead DMs feel like a feature that is just tacked on to Twitter.

App.net, on the other hand, aspires to being much more than a social network. Caldwell and his team have released a series of APIs — including Messaging, Files, Search and Places — that lets apps like check-in service Ohhai, messaging service Patter and microblogging app Felix hook into App.net to provide functionality, or let them operate as standalone services.

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Developers whom I’ve spoken are passionate about the vision, and praise Caldwell and his team for the support they are providing. Caldwell says App.net is paying out $30,000 per month via its Developer program — a system that measures feedback from users — while many of the apps are paid-for, providing another income stream.

What’s next?

“We are just getting started,” Caldwell writes in a blog post, which also announces the company has raised a further $2.5 million to show it is “on strong financial ground and here to stay”.

“In year two, as our focus expands from simply trying to deliver basic “1.0″ versions of our API, our overall mission remains the same: building a social platform with better aligned incentives with both users and developers,” he adds.

Caldwell reveals a few details of what users can expect to come soon, including an Android version of Passport — an app that manages and showcases App.net mobile services — more APIs, an expansion on messaging (allowing chat messages to be up 2,048 characters long — hinting at a potential blogging platform, perhaps) and, of course, support for iOS 7.

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The past year has seen App.net go from nothing to a service with a vibrant community, though it still remains unclear whether it can attract the volume of users and level of developer interest to truly rival the social networking big guns.

The addition of the Files API, which gives all App.net users 10GB of storage, is one hook that gives developers the potential to build a very powerful service. Like the other APIs, it’s an addition that takes App.net away from just being a social network; in future people could use App.net without even realizing they are doing so, as is the case with Ohhai.

In reality, it could very well be that App.net remains a niche: but if that niche is one where users are happy with the experience, and developers can make a living by building for new apps and services, then Caldwell has arguably succeeded with his vision, even if it doesn’t impact millions.

Headline image via Thinkstock

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