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This Week in Apps: Snapchat clones TikTok, India bans 43 Chinese apps, more data on App Store commission changes

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications, and the overall app economy.
The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion downloads and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019. People now spend three hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.
This week, we’re digging into more data about how the …

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This Week in Apps: Conservative apps surge, Instagram redesigned, TikTok gets ghosted

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the TechCrunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion downloads and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019. People are now spending three hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

Trump administration backs down on TikTok ban

(Photo by AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)

The Trump administration seemingly forgot it had banned the TikTok app in the U.S., as the president focused this week instead on sowing doubt over the integrity of the U.S. elections — which the Dept. of Homeland Security just called the “most secure in American History,” by the way.

The inaction on the Trump administration’s part revealed what many suspected all along: that the TikTok ban was largely performative.

Earlier this week, TikTok went public with the fact that it hadn’t heard anything about its ban for weeks, despite the fact that it had a deadline of November 12 to divest its U.S. assets. The company filed a petition in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit on Tuesday, calling for a review of actions by CFIUS (Trump’s committee on foreign investment in the United States).

TikTok had earlier asked for an extension, but never heard back, it said.

Or, as the winning headline put it, courtesy of The Verge: “TikTok says the Trump administration has forgotten about trying to ban it, would like to know what’s up.”

In a statement, TikTok said:

“For a year, TikTok has actively engaged with CFIUS in good faith to address its national security concerns, even as we disagree with its assessment. In the nearly two months since the President gave his preliminary approval to our proposal to satisfy those concerns, we have offered detailed solutions to finalize that agreement – but have received no substantive feedback on our extensive data privacy and security framework.

Facing continual new requests and no clarity on whether our proposed solutions would be accepted, we requested the 30-day extension that is expressly permitted in the August 14 order. Today, with the November 12 CFIUS deadline imminent and without an extension in hand, we have no choice but to file a petition in court to defend our rights and those of our more than 1,500 employees in the US. We remain committed to working with the Administration — as we have all along — to resolve the issues it has raised, but our legal challenge today is a protection to ensure these discussions can take place.”

After getting the reminder, the Commerce Dept. on Thursday said it wouldn’t enforce the order that required TikTok to shut down, citing a preliminary injunction against the shutdown last month that came about as a result of the lawsuit by TikTok stars, who claimed the app’s closure would impact their ability to make an income. However, it also appealed that same ruling, leading to further confusion.

The question now is how will the incoming Biden administration proceed with regard to the Trump TikTok ban. Though Biden has criticized Trump’s China policy, concern over TikTok was one that saw bipartisan support. Biden even said during a campaign stop in September that it was worrisome that a Chinese operation would have access to over 100 million young people in the U.S.

Election results send conservative apps up the charts

After a nerve-wracking week of election results which devolved into political chaos as Trump rallied his base to believe baseless claims of fraud, a number of right-wing Trump supporters turned to alternative apps for social media and news.

The App Store’s top charts, which are determined by a combination of downloads and velocity, among other factors, soon featured a new set of alternative apps, led by free speech network Parler, which found itself in the No. 1 spot. (It’s since slipped thanks to Walmart’s Black Friday sales, which sent the retailer’s app flying up to No. 1.)

Image Credits: Screenshot from App Store

According to one estimate, Parler saw 980K downloads from November 3 through November 8. Other apps also benefitted from the election drama, including social network MeWe (now No. 10 on the iPhone Top Free Apps chart in the U.S. and right-wing news network Newsmax TV (No. 7).

Unlike Facebook and Twitter — which increasingly use fact-checking services to label or, in extreme cases, hide false claims behind an extra click — alternative apps do not. But they are not neutral platforms by any means. The verified account from “Team Trump” was among those that automatically greeted new Parler users, for example. Right-wing politicians like senator Ted Cruz and representative Devin Nunes as well as other conservative personalities have set up shop on Parler, too.

As a result, the community is lopsided. Users are posting to amplify their beliefs among those who largely feel the same as they do. And, because Parler does not combat misinformation and conspiracy theories with fact-checking, it’s already been targeted by a conspiracy theory of its very own. A Photoshopped image of a Fox News ticker spread confusion on Parler this week, as the modified image claimed that George Soros owned the social network. The conspiracy got enough traction that Parler founder John Matze had to post that it was not true. But Parler’s true origins and ownership are still being discussed.

It’s unclear to what extent the conservative apps represent a new wave of social media with long-term staying power, given that any relative newcomer to the space will still ultimately have to compete with very large networks, like Facebook’s 2 billion users. Though smaller than Facebook, Twitter’s 330 million monthly active users is still much larger than Parler’s monthly active user base of about 4 million (its active users are around half of its registered users, which is now 8 million.)

Larger platforms have resources to pour into more than just the basics of keeping the servers running. And, to date, that’s led to the demise of numerous other would-be Facebook rivals. The few apps that manage to grow a following these days are those that get a majority of younger, mainstream users, like TikTok and Snapchat.

Regardless of your political leanings, I think we can all agree there was a lot of this going on this week:

Instagram Redesign

Image Credits: Instagram

Instagram this week put its TikTok competitor Reels front-and-center in a redesigned version of its app by giving it the center position on its new navigation bar. The update also replaced the Activity tab (heart icon) with the Shop tab, following a test that had changed this aspect of the app’s home screen earlier this summer. And it revamped the Camera interface and did away with the IGTV button.

In the redesigned app, both the Compose button and the Activity tab have been relocated to the top-right of the home screen, while the center middle button now belongs to Reels.

Image Credits: Instagram

The redesign is an aggressive attempt on Instagram’s part to direct users to its short-form video feed, Reels, which has so far seen only a lukewarm reception from reviewers, who have called it stale, lacking in effects and another contributor to Instagram bloat.

The changes were also a big push to make the Instagram app more of an online shopping destination at a critical time for the e-commerce market. The coronavirus pandemic accelerated the shift to e-commerce by at least five years, according to some analysts. That means any plans Instagram had to become a major player in online commerce were also just expedited.

Both moves signal a company that’s worried about the impact TikTok may have on the long-term future of its business. TikTok is now projected to top 1.2 billion monthly active users in 2021. And as its recent partnership with Shopify on social commerce indicates, it could be a new home for social commerce soon too.

Platforms

  • Apple at its Mac event detailed that its new Apple Silicon Macs would be able to run iOS apps. The news was first announced at WWDC, but is now officially going to roll out with Big Sur and the new Macs. Apple showed off Among Us and HBO Max apps during a demo, but it’s unclear if others are being allowed to opt out.
  • Apple’s TestFlight beta testing app now supports automatic updates. At last!
  • iOS 14.3 and iPadOS 14.3 beta 1 releases arrived.
  • Android added support for PyTorch for on-device AI processing.
  • Epic Games scores a point in the App Store legal battle over in-app purchase fees. A judge dismissed Apple’s claims that Epic’s actions were wrong, which reduces the potential risk of its lawsuit, limiting Apple’s counterclaims to breach of contract. (Punitive damages have not yet been discussed.)
  • Apple to suggest third-party apps during setup, with iOS 14.3, according to details found in the app’s code. This appears to be there for compliance with local laws in select countries where antitrust issues are a concern.
  • Android Enterprise Recommended program adds Samsung and others. The program, launched in 2018, helps enterprise customers evaluate and approve devices that meet Google’s requirements for hardware, software and updates. This change brings Samsung Galaxy devices and others into the fold.
  • Time to vote for Google Play’s “Best of 2020.” You can vote through November 23 to help pick Google’s Users’ Choice winners.

Security & Privacy

  • Zoom settled with FTC after making deceptive security claims. The company had claimed its video calls were protected by “end-to-end” encryption that made it impossible for anyone, including Zoom to listen in. This wasn’t true, as Zoom maintained the cryptographic keys that could allow it to access the content of its customers’ meetings.

Apps in the News

Image Credits: Facebook

  • Facebook copies Snapchat…again. Messenger and Instagram are getting a new “Vanish Mode” feature that lets you enable disappearing messages from within a conversation. The upgrade on Instagram is only part of the big messaging update that unifies the inbox with Facebook.
  • Apple cracked down on iOS terminal apps. a-Shell and iSH, two terminal apps popular with developers, were blocked from the App Store because they…drum roll…execute scripts. Oh c’mon, Apple. iSH appealed and was returned to the App Store. a-Shell has appealed as well. Apple ended up apologizing.
  • No more free storage for your Google Photos. Google this week said all your photo uploads will now count towards your Google account’s 15GB of free storage. Get ready to pay for Google One.
  • TikTok expands fundraising features. The company already allowed users to fundraise from donation stickers. Now you can do so directly from your profile, too.
  • Disney+ app reaches 100M+ global downloads, with 62% coming from the U.S., according to Apptopia data. 
  • TikTok to top 1.2B MAUs by 2021, per App Annie’s forecast.
  • Bumble’s new feature prevents bad actors from using “unmatch” to avoid being reported for harassment and other issues. The change came following reports of victims of harassment and crime, including rape, were unable to report their abusers because they had unmatched their victims.
  • Zynga recorded a 46% rise in revenue in Q3 2020, to reach $503 million, an increase in DAUs of 53% to 31 million, and a 23% increase in MAUs to 83 million.

Trends

Image Credits: Netflix/TechCrunch

  • Netflix tries a TikTok-like feature. Netflix experiments with a full-screen vertical video feed featuring comedy clips. The company says the goal is to help users discover new shows and add them to their watch list.
  • U.S. Elections boosted mental wellness app installs by 30%. According to Sensor Tower data, the top five meditation apps (Calm, Headspace, Pray.com, Breethe and Insight Timer) saw their installs collectively grow 30% week-over-week in the period from November 3 to November 5 as compared to October 27 to October 29.
  • App Annie 2021 forecast: Remote business apps (e.g. Zoom) are expected to see a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 57% and remote learning apps will see 62% growth in 2021. Total time in mobile banking and finance apps will surpass 31 billion hours annually in 2021, representing a four-year CAGR of 35%. Fitness and e-commerce will grow as well, at +23% and +40%, respectively.
  • Chinese e-commerce platforms are gamifying Single’s Day, the world’s largest shopping festival, to keep consumers in their apps longer. Friends can join each other’s teams to get even bigger deals. Some people, however, criticize.
  • JumpCloud raises $75M in Series E funding for its cloud directory and Apple MDM expansion
  • Nigeria’s Kuda raises $10M to be the mobile-first challenger bank for Africa.
  • Food delivery app and website DoorDash filed to go public. The company has raised $2.5 billion in capital to date.
  • Personal finance app Truebill raises $17M. The app and website help users track down subscriptions they no longer want to pay for, negotiate to lower bills and more.

HBO’s “His Dark Materials: My Daemon”

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HBO teamed up with creative studio Framestore to create a new iOS and Apple Watch app that lets fans of the show “His Dark Materials” interact with their own “daemons” — the magical animal companions that serve as an extension of characters’ souls, TechCrunch reported. The app uses AR to allow the daemon to interact with the world around you.

NightWare for Apple Watch treats PTSD

Image Credits: NightWare

The FDA approved an Apple Watch app for the treatment of PTSD. The app, NightWare, is only available with a prescription, and uses Apple Watch sensors to track body movements and the heart rate during sleep to create a profile. When it detects a PTSD nightmare, the watch vibrates to disrupt the the user’s sleep and bring them out.

OmniFocus launches iOS 14 widgets 

Image Credits: OmniFocus

Productivity app OmniFocus launched new iOS 14 widgets this week, including a forecast widget with a calendar view for today and the days ahead and a perspective items widget with a list of upcoming items in a perspective of your choice. The widgets are available in small, medium, and large sizes, and can have their font size customized.

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This Week in Apps: Apple’s big event, lidar comes to iPhone, Android gets a new IDE

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the TechCrunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion downloads and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019. People are now spending three hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

In this series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

Apple introduces four new iPhones (and more)

Apple hosted its iPhone event this week, where it introduced the new iPhone 12… and the iPhone 12 mini, the iPhone 12 Pro and the iPhone 12 Pro Max — effectively plugging all the holes in the market. With the release of the four new iPhones, app developers will have a range of devices to build for, from small to very large — the 12 Pro Max, for example, introduces the iPhone’s biggest-ever screen and the highest resolution, at nearly 3.5M pixels.

It also, of course, includes serious camera improvements, from a redesign of the three-lens system to including a new deeper telephoto camera, now a 65 mm-equivalent instead of 52 mm, as on previous models. There’s also an improved wide-angle lens, larger sensor, the addition of sensor-level image stabilization and a revamped Night Mode. Photographers will appreciate the new Apple ProRAW format, as well. (More on that here).

The iPhone 12 mini, meanwhile, aims to serve the customer base that prefers a smaller phone, like the iPhone SE, but without sacrificing functionality.

All the devices share some key features, including 5G connectivity, the new MagSafe connector for wireless charging and snap-on magnetic accessories, OLED displays and the A14 chip. They also have a more classic look, with straight edges that allow for additional antennas, providing next-gen wireless connectivity.

One of the bigger differences, however, between the Pro models and the regular iPhone 12 is the addition of the LiDAR Scanner, which is also found in the latest iPad Pro. The scanner measures how long it takes for light to reach an object and reflect back. The new depth-sensing technology has big implications for AR, as it allows augmented reality objects to interact with objects in the real world. AR apps will be more user-friendly, too, as they won’t need to first scan the room to place the AR object in the real world. It can be placed instantly.

Apple is leveraging the sensor for the iPhone 12 Pro camera to offer up to 6x faster focus in low-light conditions. Developers, meanwhile, can leverage lidar for use cases like AR-enabled games that work in the real world, social media (like Snapchat’s new lidar-powered Lens), home design and improvement apps involving room scans, spatial layout planning (like JigSpace), better AR shopping experiences and more.

The company also announced an affordable version of its HomePod smart speaker, the $99 HomePod Mini. The item works best for those fully locked inside the Apple universe, as it will stream a handful of music services, but not one of the most popular — Spotify. However, Apple also introduced a nifty feature for the HomePod devices, Intercom, which lets you send announcements across the speakers. While Apple and Google have offered a similar feature for their smart speakers, Intercom also works across other Apple devices, including iPhone, iPod, AirPods and even CarPlay. (What, no Mac?)

If Apple isn’t too late to capture smart speaker market share, the new speaker could see more users adopting smart home devices they can voice control through the HomePod Mini.

During the event, Apple also subtly snubbed its nose at Epic’s Fortnite with the announcement that
League of Legends: Wild Rift would be coming to iPhone 12 to take advantage of its new 5G capabilities and A14 Bionic chip.

Platforms

  • Lidar comes to iPhone 12 Pro. Developers can now build AR experiences that interact with real-world objects, and AR apps can now instantly place AR objects in the real world without scanning the room. The update will mean a huge increase in the usability of AR apps but is limited to the Pro model of iPhone for now. Snapchat is already using it.
  • Apple developers can now make their apps available for pre-order even earlier — up to 180 days before release on the App Store.
  • Android Studio 4.1 launches. The new, stable version of the IDE for building Android apps introduces better TensorFlow Lite support and a new database inspector. The team also fixed a whopping 2,370 bugs during this release cycle and closed 275 public issues.
  • Google introduces the Android for Cars library. The library, now in open beta, gives developers tools to design, develop and test new navigation, parking or charging apps for Android Auto. The Google Play Store will be enabled for publishing beta apps in the “coming months.”
  • Google stops selling music. The company no longer sells tracks and albums on its Play Store, shifting all its focus to YouTube Music. The latter also just launched on Apple Watch this week.

Trends

  • Shopping apps forecast. U.S. consumers were expected to spend 60M hours in Android shopping apps during Prime Day week, (which just wrapped) according to one forecast from App Annie.
  • Prime Day downloads grow. Sensor Tower estimates global installs of the Amazon app grew 23% year-over-year, to 684K, as Prime Day neared. Installs on Wednesday were up 33% to 750K. However, U.S. installs were down by 22% 10/13-10/14. Apptopia noted that app sessions, however, were up 27% year-over-year.
  • Shopping, Food & Drink app launches up more than 50% year-over-year. Shopping apps grew 52% while Food & Drink apps grew 60%, due to COVID-19 impacts, according to Sensor Tower.
  • Subscriptions. U.S. consumers spend $20.78 per month on app subscriptions, Adjust study says.
  • TikTok sale impact on ad industry. 73% of marketers said a TikTok sale in the U.S. would impact their 2021 advertising plans. 41% also believed the deal could allow Walmart to overtake Amazon in e-commerce.
  • Amazon expands AR experimentation to its boxes. The retailer launched a new AR application that works with QR codes on the company’s shipping boxes to create “interactive, shareable” AR experiences, like a pumpkin that comes to life.

Security

  • Robinhood said a “limited number” of its users’ accounts were hacked. The service itself was not hacked, but around 2,000 customers had accounts compromised by cybercriminals who first compromised users’ personal emails outside the trading app.

Other News

  • Zoom’s new events platform brings apps to video conferencing calls.
  • Messenger update brings new features, including cross-app communication with Instagram. The app gets fun features like chat themes, custom reactions and, soon, selfie stickers and vanish mode. But the bigger news is the (potentially anti-competitive) merging of Facebook’s chat platforms.
  • Life360 leverages TikTok teens’ complaints to start a dialogue and invent a new feature, “Bubbles,” which allows teens (or anyone) to share a generalized location instead of an exact one. The feature gives teens a bit more freedom to roam and make choices without so much parental oversight. Parents, meanwhile, can still be sure their teen is OK, as features like emergency SOS and crash alerts remain functional.
  • Must-read: The MacStories iOS and iPadOS 14 Review. Federico Viticci offers a 23-page deep dive into the latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system.
    • Future raises $24M Series B for its $150/mo workout coaching app amid at-home fitness boom. The app pairs users with real-life fitness coaching for personal training at home. The round was led by Trustbridge Partners with Caffeinated Capital and Series A investors Kleiner Perkins participating.
    • River raises $10.4M for its app offering news, events and other happenings from around the web, ranging from news stories from top publishers to sports to even notable tweets. The app presents the information in a real-time stream, browsed vertically. There’s also a “For You” page, similar to TikTok.
    • Roblox confidentially filed with the SEC to go public. This cross-platform gaming platform has boomed during coronavirus lockdowns. According to reports, the listing could double Robox’s $4B valuation.
    • Robo Adviser Wealthsimple raises $87M. The funding for the investing app with comparisons to Robinhood was led by Menlo Park-based Technology Crossover Ventures (TCV), valuing the business at $1B.
    • Fitness platform Playbook raises $9.3M. The company offers tools for personal trainers who want to make their own videos, which consumers then browse in Playbook’s mobile app. Backers include E.ventures, Michael Ovitz, Abstract, Algae Ventures, Porsche Ventures and FJ Labs.
    • Live streaming app Moment House raises $1.5M seed. The startup aims to recreate live events in a digital format. LA area investors invested, including Scooter Braun, Troy Carter, Kygo’s Palm Tree Crew and Jared Leto. Patreon chief executive Jack Conte and Sequoia Capital partner Jess Lee also participated.
    • Twilio acquires Segment for $3.2B to help developers build data-fueled apps.
    • E-learning platform Kahoot raises $215M from SoftBank. The Norwegian startup claims to have hosted 1.3 billion “participating players” in the last 12 months. The company’s gamified e-learning platform is used both in schools and in enterprise environments.

Mycons

Mycons is a new app that makes it easier for users, including non-designers, to create and buy custom icons for their iOS home screen makeovers. In the app’s “Icon Studio,” users can create icons by swapping out the background, choosing a symbol and placing it on the icon accordingly. You can also create a whole set of icons in a batch export. If you don’t feel like designing your own, you can opt to purchase premade packs instead.

The app is a free download with a one-time, in-app purchase to unlock the fully functionality of the icon designer. The icon packs, which include different variations and matching wallpaper, range from $7.99-$9.99.

Spotify’s new iOS 14 widget

Image Credits: TechCrunch screenshot of Spotify widget

It’s here! The widget a number of people have waited for since the launch of the new version of iOS has arrived. 

The widget, which arrives in the latest version of the Spotify iOS app, comes in two sizes. The smaller widget will display just your most recently listened to item, while the medium-sized widget will instead show the five most recent items — four in a horizontal row and the most recent at the top. In that case, you can actually tap on the small thumbnail for which of the five you want to now stream to be taken directly to that page in the Spotify app. The widget also automatically updates its background color to match the thumbnail photo.

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Judge denies Epic’s request to force Apple to bring Fortnite back to App Store

The California judge in the legal skirmish between Epic Games and Apple has denied Epic’s request that Apple be forced to reinstate Fortnite in the App Store, but did affirm that Apple cannot take action against the Epic Games developer accounts used to bring Unreal Engine developers access to Apple devices.

The court’s decision re-affirmed its proclamation from late August in a court hearing where Epic Games’ lawyers sought to obtain a temporary restraining order after Apple informed the Fortnite developer that they would be kicking the company off the App Store and terminating all of their company accounts.

The judge noted that “[p]reliminary injunctive relief is an extraordinary measure rarely granted,” and detailed that they were granting in part and denying in part Epic’s request, noting that “Epic Games bears the burden in asking for such extraordinary relief.”

From the filing:

Epic Games has strong arguments regarding Apple’s exclusive distribution through the iOS App Store, and the in-app purchase (“IAP”) system through which Apple takes 30% of certain IAP payments. However, given the limited record, Epic Games has not sufficiently addressed Apple’s counter arguments. The equities, addressed in the temporary restraining order, remain the same.

This confirms that Fortnite will not return to the App Store before the trial begins; a court filing this week signaled that the two companies will go to trial on May 3, 2021.

Both sides aimed to take their win and ignore their loss in the mixed decision.

“Epic Games is grateful that Apple will continue to be barred from retaliating against Unreal Engine and our game development customers as the litigation continues. We will continue to develop for iOS and Mac under the court’s protection, and we will pursue all avenues to end Apple’s anti-competitive behavior,” an Epic Games spokesperson said in a statement.

“Our customers depend on the App Store being a safe and trusted place where all developers follow the same set of rules,” an Apple spokesperson told TechCrunch in an emailed statement. “We’re grateful the court recognized that Epic’s actions were not in the best interests of its own customers and that any problems they may have encountered were of their own making when they breached their agreement. For twelve years, the App Store has been an economic miracle, creating transformative business opportunities for developers large and small. We look forward to sharing this legacy of innovation and dynamism with the court next year.”

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