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This Week in Apps: Redesigning the iOS 14 home screen, app makers form ‘fairness’ coalition, latest on TikTok ban

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.

iOS 14 Home screen Customization Craze

The release of iOS 14 included one of the biggest updates to the iPhone’s user interface in years. Apps can now be stored off screen in the new App Library where they’re organized for you, as opposed to you being forced to categorize apps yourself into various folders. And Apple finally allows for home screen widgets — a development that left Android users snickering about how “behind” their iPhone-using counterparts have been all this time.

But as with iOS apps, Apple’s design constraints and rules around widgets mean there’s a standard that all widgets have to meet to be approved. As a result, widgets have a consistent look-and-feel, thanks to things like size limitations and other design guidelines. They can’t be stretched out indefinitely or moved all over the screen, either.

Apple may have originally envisioned widgets as a way for existing iOS apps to gain a larger presence on users’ home screens, while delivering key information like news, weather or stock updates, for example. But a handful of iOS developers instead built apps that allowed users to design widgets themselves — by selecting colors, fonts, sizes, backgrounds and what information the widget would display.

Meanwhile, TikTok users and other Gen Z’ers began teaching each other how to create custom icons for their apps using Apple’s Shortcuts app. These tutorials were starting to trend even before iOS 14’s release, but the addition of the App Library and widgets meant users could now finally customize their entire home screen. That prompted a more enthusiastic adoption of the icon customization technique.

On the Twitter hashtag #iOS14homescreen, users shared their creations — a showcase of creativity where home screens looked fully themed at last, with custom icons, widgets, decorative photos, matching wallpapers and more. The results have been fantastic.

And at the top of the App Store, there now sit a trio of must-have tools for this new era: Widgetsmith, Color Widgets and Photo Widget today continue to claim the top three spots on the free apps chart.

Users are also now demanding Apple to change how app shortcuts open. Currently, an app shortcut first launches Apple’s Shortcuts app, which then opens the target app. With the popularity of custom icons, users want that intermediate step cut out.

Apple is aware of the customization craze as it has in the days since iOS 14’s release run App Store editorial features about iOS 14’s design changes, suggested widgets to try, creative tools and more. It also featured apps at the top of the App Store, which are benefiting from the trend, like apps offering great widgets, like Fantastical, or those that are booming, like Pinterest — which recently broke its daily download record.

App makers team up to take on Apple and Google

A number of top app makers have banded together to fight against Apple’s control of its App Store and, to a lesser extent, Google’s control of the Play Store — a topic of increased regulatory scrutiny in recent months. Today, 13 app publishers, including Epic Games, Deezer, Basecamp, Tile, Spotify and others, have launched the Coalition for App Fairness.

The new organization formalizes efforts the companies already have underway that focus on either forcing app store providers to change their policies, or ultimately pushing the app stores into regulation.

On the coalition’s website, the group details its key issues, which include anti-competitive practices, like the app stores’ 30% commission structure, and the inability to distribute software to billions of Apple devices through any other means but the App Store, which the group sees as an affront to personal freedom.

Google allows apps to be side-loaded, so it’s not as much of a target on this front. In fact, much of the focus of the coalition’s efforts have to do with Apple’s business, given its stricter guidelines.

The group has also published a list of 10 “App Store Principles” it would like to see enacted industry-wide. These include the ability to distribute apps outside of app stores, protections from having their own data used against them to compete, timely access to developer documentation, the right to communicate with users through its app for legitimate business purposes, no requirements to use the app store’s payment systems, no requirements to pay unfair fees and more.

The website is also aiming to recruit new members to join the coalition. App makers who feel similarly oppressed by Apple’s practices are able to fill out a form to request to join.

Apple responded to the hardball tactics with a barrage of new material and data meant to highlight the benefits of its App Store platform. The company on Thursday revealed the number of rejections it enforces is quite low compared to the number of submissions. It said it rejected 150,000 apps in 2020 but sees 100,000 submissions per week. It also has removed more than 60 million user reviews it believed to be spam.

The company noted its Developer program has over 28 million developers worldwide, whose apps have seen over 50 billion promotions — meaning when a user sees an app Apple has promoted on the App Store, in emails, on social media or in other general advertising.

However, the backlash has also forced Apple to be more transparent about some of its until-now fairly secretive programs. For example, Apple has now published a page that clarifies how its Video Partner program works — a program that had before only been detailed via background conversations with reporters who then relayed the information to readers. The page reveals the program’s requirements and that over 130 premium subscription video entertainment providers have since joined. If the guidelines are followed, these providers can pay only a 15% commission to Apple instead of 20%.

Current members include Amazon Prime Video, Binge, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), Claro, C More, DAZN, Disney+, Globo, HBO Max, Joyn, Molotov, MUBI, myCanal, STARZ and Viaplay, the website said.

TikTok deal chaos continues

No, seriously, what is going on with the TikTok deal? (We feel you, Walmart.)

The deal that Trump was poised to approve solved some but not all concerns by making Oracle a trusted technology partner responsible for hosting U.S. user data and ensuring other security requirements were in place. But issues around how the TikTok algorithm could be used to influence U.S. users or censor content were not addressed.

The ban got a week’s extension as a result of promising progress and the announcements that seemed to indicate the parties were in agreement on terms.

But this week, China jumped in to say it won’t approve a TikTok sale. In China Daily, an official English-language newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, an editorial slammed the deal that would see Oracle and Walmart effectively taking over TikTok in the U.S. as one based on “bullying and extortion.”

At the same time, TikTok is chasing a legal means of preventing its ban in the U.S.

TikTok filed a motion to stop the Commerce Department from enforcing the Trump administration’s ban that would otherwise be set to start this weekend. The move came shortly after WeChat users were granted an injunction in a federal court last week that blocked the app from being banned. TikTok’s filing asks the court to set a hearing before the rules take effect at 11:59 PM on September 27, 2020. But unlike the WeChat case, TikTok is the one asking the court to stop the ban, not its users.

A federal judge said Thursday that the Trump administration must either delay the ban on U.S. app stores or file its legal response to defend the decision by 2:30 PM Friday. The Justice Department filed its opposition Friday, saying that U.S. user data being stored outside the country is a “significant” risk.  The judge will still need to rule on the injunction — that is, whether the ban should go into effect Sunday, as planned.

Stay tuned to TechCrunch for the latest on this never-ending saga.

Platforms

  • Google will increase its push for apps to give it a cut of in-app purchases. Following Apple’s lead, Google will begin to push harder to demand a cut of transactions on Android by enforcing a requirement for apps to use Google’s billing service, Bloomberg reports.
  • New Google Play Console arrives on November 2, 2020. Over 350K developers now use the new Play Console today. On November 2, it exits beta — meaning you’ll be redirected to the updated experience when you log in. The console features reorganized navigation, speed and performance improvements, personalized messaging, a new Publishing overview page, acquisition reports and more.
  • Apple temporarily waived App Store fees for Facebook’s online events. Facebook last month launched paid online events to help businesses impacted by the pandemic. But at the time, Apple wouldn’t waive its own fees. The company has now changed its mind, and will waive fees until December 31, but says this won’t apply to gaming creators.
  • Apple and Facebook fight over messaging. But all is not well between the two tech giants on other fronts. Now that Apple has lifted its rules over default apps for email and web browsing, Facebook is pushing the company to allow Messenger to become a default messaging app too.
  • iOS 14.0.1 and iPadOS 14.0.1 released. The update patches the bug that reset web browser and email apps back to Apple’s defaults after a restart, and other fixes.
  • iOS 14 adoption surpasses 25% in five days after release. According to data from Mixpanel, iOS 14 (including iPadOS 14) reached 25% of active devices by Monday, September 21. As of the time of writing, it has reached 30.7%.
  • Apple’s Swift comes to Windows. The programming language is available on Windows for the first time, six years after its debut on Apple platforms.
  • Schoolwork 2.1 beta released. The updated iPad app for teachers and students is now in beta. Apps that use the latest ClassKit will be more discoverable by teachers in Schoolwork.

Services

  • Amazon announces a gaming streaming service, Luna. A competitor to Microsoft xCloud and Google Stadia, Luna will allow gamers to stream titles to play across PC, Mac and iOS mobile web. Over 50 titles will be included at launch, including a Sonic game and Remedy Entertainment’s Control. Ubisoft titles will be available on subscription. Twitch integration will be a key selling point.
  • Microsoft launches Xbox remote play streaming on Android. This is not xCloud, but rather a rebrand of the service previously called Console Streaming. The games stream directly from your Xbox One console to your Android courtesy of Microsoft’s new Xbox app for Android.
  • UK launches a COVID-19 exposure notification app for England and Wales. Northern Ireland and Scotland had already launched official apps. All apps use smartphones’ Bluetooth radios to generate alerts of potential exposure to COVID-19.
  • Samsung TV+ comes to phones. Free, ad-supporting streaming service makes the leap to Samsung devices.
  • Adobe rolls out new ‘Liquid Mode’ in Adobe’s Acrobat Reader app for iOS and Android. The feature uses Adobe’s AI engine, Sensei, to analyze a PDF and automatically rebuild it for mobile devices. Adobe says it’s working on an API that will allow similar functionality for non-Adobe apps in the future.

Trends

  • Fintech apps top 1.2B installs worldwide in Q2 (report).
  • Time spent in education apps was up 90% year-over-year during the week of September 6, 2020, compared to last year, on a global basis. The numbers, via App Annie, were calculated on Android devices online. In the U.S., time spent was up 30%.
  • Home screen customization apps top the App Store. Top 20 iOS home screen customization apps reached at least 13.7 million installs and more than $1 million in consumer spending in the seven days following the iOS 14 release. Pinterest also broke its daily download record as users sought new inspiration.

Other News

  • Telepath launches a “kinder” social networking app. It aims to promote quality conversation and ban harassment and fake news. Easier said than done on today’s internet.
  • Child tips off security researchers about scam apps with 2.4 million downloads. The scam involved apps posing as entertainment, wallpaper images or music download apps targeting young users. Some served intrusive ads even when the app wasn’t active. Others charged users, gaining revenues of over $500K. The apps were available across iOS and Android.
  • Epic rejects Apple’s attempts to disparage its business. Apple tried to claim that interest in Fortnite declined 70% from October 2019 to July 2020. Epic said, no actually, daily active players grew 39% during those dates. The two sides are fighting over Apple’s right to commission Epic’s business in a continuing legal battle.
  • Apple acquires Scout FM. Apple bought a startup called Scout FM that turns podcast listening into more of a traditional radio-like experience by leveraging the user’s listening history to know what sort of programming they like. Deal terms are unknown.
  • Epic Games acquires SuperAwesome. Epic acquired the kidtech pioneer whose digital engagement tools are used by 500 million kids per month across thousands of apps, including those from Lego, NBCU and Hasbro. Deal terms were not disclosed.
  • IRL app raises $16 million. Event discovery network IRL raised $16 million in Series B funding after refocusing its social calendar on virtual events during the pandemic. The move made the app, now with 5.5 million MAUs, accessible by a wider audience.
  • GoodRx IPO raises $1 billion+. GoodRx, an app that helps users comparison shop prices for prescription drugs, sold roughly 34.6 million shares at its IPO price to raise $1.14 billion at a valuation of $12.67 billion, sending its stock up 50%.
  • Robinhood raises $660 million. Stock trading app Robinhood raised $660 million in an extension of its Series G round announced last month when D1 Capital Partners invested $200 million. Robinhood is now valued at $11.7 billion.
  • Class for Zoom raises $16 million. Class for Zoom from ClassEDU is designed to make online teaching more engaging. The company was founded by former Blackboard CEO and former PrecisionHawk CEO Michael Chasen.
  • Mobile Premier League raises $90 million. Indian mobile gaming platform Mobile Premier League (MPL) raised $90 million as the company looks to expand its esports and gaming platform outside India.
  • Rappi raises over $300 million. Colombian delivery app Rappi raised over $300 million in a round from T. Rowe Price Associates and others.

How could you not be customizing your iOS 14 home screen this week? The launch of the new mobile OS has delivered an entirely new category of apps — widget design tools. And alongside these apps, there are others that can help you get started creating a whole new look for your home screen. These could be creative tools, those for sourcing inspiration or those for building custom icons. Want a weekend project? These apps below can get you going:

  • Pinterest: Search for ideas and inspiration to get your motivation. Download wallpapers and other photos you may want to use with your icons.
  • Widgetsmith: The current No. 1 app lets you build all sorts of customized widgets in a range of colors and sizes.
  • Color Widgets: The current No. 2 app offers a customizable widget that can feature the date, time, day of the week and battery percentage for the top of your home screen.
  • Photo Widget: Simple: Another top app that lets you pick a single photo for placement on your home screen.
  • Motivation – Daily Quotes: A top 30 app lets you pin some daily inspirational quotes to your home screen.
  • Launcher and Launch Center Pro: these two apps include tools for creating custom icons.
  • PicsArt: For more creative types, PicsArt is great for sourcing photos and designing backgrounds and icons either from scratch or by remixing those others have already made.
  • Canva: The DIY design tool has added a collection of iOS home screen templates.
  • TuneTrack: If you want a Spotify widget, this app is your best option for now as no official widget is available.
  • Fonts: Why stop at the home screen? customize your keyboard theme to match your new design.
  • Fantastical: Now includes a dozen widgets for date, weather, calendar, events and more.
  • Etsy: Can’t DIY? Designers are turning to Etsy to sell packs of icons and widget cover photos that will let you create a beautiful home screen without doing all the creative work yourself.

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Apple is (temporarily) waiving its App Store fee for Facebook’s online events

Last month, Facebook introduced support for paid online events — and because many of the businesses offering those events have struggled during the coronavirus pandemic, the company also said it would not collect fees for the next year. At the same time, it complained that Apple had “dismissed” its requests to waive the App Store’s customary 30% fee on in-app purchases.

Today, Facebook is announcing a reversal on Apple’s part: Online event fees will be processed through Facebook Pay, without Apple collecting its 30% cut, meaning businesses will receive all of the earnings from their online events, minus taxes. This arrangement will last until December 31 and will not apply to gaming creators.

The news comes after Facebook publicly pressured Apple to change its stance. It even submitted an iOS app update stating that “Apple takes 30% of this purchase” in the events payments flow. (Facebook said Apple rejected the update for including information that’s “irrelevant” to users.)

And while the two companies appear to have come to an agreement, today’s statements from Facebook are still a bit barbed.

“This is a difficult time for small businesses and creators, which is why we are not collecting any fees from paid online events while communities remain closed for the pandemic,” said Facebook spokesperson Joe Osborne. “Apple has agreed to provide a brief, three-month respite after which struggling businesses will have to, yet again, pay Apple the full 30% App Store tax.”

Similarly, in discussing the exception for gaming creators, Facebook Gaming Vice President Vivek Sharma said, “We unfortunately had to make this concession to get the temporary reprieve for other businesses.”

When asked about the change, Apple provided the following statement: “The App Store provides a great business opportunity for all developers, who use it to reach half a billion visitors each week across 175 countries. To ensure every developer can create and grow a successful business, Apple maintains a clear, consistent set of guidelines that apply equally to everyone.”

More specifically, Apple said it’s giving Facebook until the end of the year to implement in-app payments for these events and bring them into compliance with App Store rules.

This also comes as Fortnite-maker Epic Games is waging a legal battle and publicity campaign against Apple’s App Store fees, with Fortnite removed from the iOS App Store. Epic is also part of a just-announced group of publishers called the Coalition for App Fairness, which is pushing for app store changes or regulation.

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Indonesian cloud kitchen startup Yummy gets $12 million Series B led by SoftBank Ventures Asia

Yummy Corporation, which claims to be the largest cloud kitchen management company in Indonesia, has raised $12 million in Series B funding, led by SoftBank Ventures Asia. Co-founder and chief executive officer Mario Suntanu told TechCrunch that the capital will be used to expand into more major cities and on developing its tech platform, including data analytics.

Other participants in the round included returning investors Intudo Ventures and Sovereign’s Capital, and new backers Vectr Ventures, AppWorks, Quest Ventures, Coca Cola Amatil X and Palm Drive Capital. The Series B brings Yummy Corporation’s total raised so far to $19.5 million.

Launched in June 2019, Yummy Corporation’s network of cloud kitchens, called Yummykitchen, now includes more than 70 HACCP-certified facilities in Jakarta, Bandung and Medan. It partners with more than 50 food and beverage (F&B) companies, including major brands like Ismaya Group and Sour Sally Group.

During COVID-19 movement restrictions, Suntanu said Yummykitchen’s business showed “healthy growth” as people, confined mostly to their homes, ordered food for delivery. Funding will be used to get more partners, especially brands that want to digitize their operations and expand deliveries to cope with the continuing impact of COVID-19.

The number of cloud kitchens in Southeast Asia has grown quickly over the past year, driven by demand for food deliveries that began increasing even before the pandemic. But for F&B brands that rely on deliveries for a good part of their revenue, running their own kitchens and staff can be cost-prohibitive. Sharing cloud kitchens with other businesses can help increase their margins.

Other cloud kitchen startups serving Indonesia include Hangry and Everplate, but these companies and Yummy Corporation are all up against two major players: “super apps” Grab and Gojek, which both operate large networks of cloud kitchens that have the advantage of being integrated with their on-demand delivery services.

Suntanu said Yummy’s main edge compared to other cloud kitchens is that it also offers fully-managed location and kitchen operation services, in addition to kitchen facilities. This means Yummy’s partners, including restaurants and and F&B brands, don’t need to hire their own teams. Instead, food preparation and delivery is handled by Yummy’s workers. The company also provides its clients with a data analytics platform to help them with targeted ad campaigns and making their listings more visible on food delivery apps.

In a statement, Harris Yang, Souteast Asia associate at SoftBank Ventures Asia, said the firm invested in Yummy because “given the company’s strong expertise in the F&B industry and unique value proposition to brands, we believe that Yummy will continue to be the leader in this space. We are excited to support the team and help them scale their business in this emerging sector.”

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Facebook gives more details about its efforts against hate speech before Myanmar’s general election

About three weeks ago, Facebook announced will increase its efforts against hate speech and misinformation in Myanmar before the country’s general election on November 8, 2020. Today, it gave some more details about what the company is doing to prevent the spread of hate speech and misinformation. This includes adding Burmese language warning screens to flag information rated false by third-party fact-checkers.

In November 2018, Facebook admitted it didn’t do enough to prevent its platform from being used to “foment division and incite offline violence” in Myanmar.

This is an understatement, considering that Facebook has been accused by human rights groups, including the United Nations Human Rights Council, of enabling the spread of hate speech in Myanmar against Rohingya Muslims, the target of a brutally violent ethnic cleansing campaign. A 2018 investigation by the New York Times found that members of the military in Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country, instigated genocide against Rohingya, and used Facebook, one of the country’s most widely-used online services, as a tool to conduct a “systematic campaign” of hate speech against the minority group.

In its announcement several weeks ago, Facebook said it will expand its misinformation policy and remove information intended to “lead to voter suppression or damage the integrity of the electoral process” by working with three fact-checking partners in Myanmar—BOOM, AFP Fact Check and Fact Crescendo. It also said it would flag potentially misleading images and apply a message forwarding limit it introduced in Sri Lanka in June 2019.

Facebook also shared that it in the second quarter of 2020, it had taken action against 280,000 pieces of content in Myanmar that violated it Community Standards against hate speech, with 97.8% detected by its systems before being reported, up from the 51,000 pieces of content it took action against in the first quarter.

But, as TechCrunch’s Natasha Lomas noted, “without greater visibility into the content Facebook’s platform is amplifying, including country specific factors such as whether hate speech posting is increasing in Myanmar as the election gets closer, it’s not possible to understand what volume of hate speech is passing under the radar of Facebook’s detection systems and reaching local eyeballs.”

Facebook’s latest announcement, posted today on its News Room, doesn’t answer those questions. Instead, the company gave some more information about what its preparations for the Myanmar general election.

The company said it will use technology to identify “new words and phrases associated with hate speech” in the country, and either remove posts with those words or “reduce their distribution.”

It will also introduce Burmese language warning screens for misinformation identified as false by its third-party fact-checkers, make reliable information about the election and voting more visible, and promote “digital literacy training” in Myanmar through programs like an ongoing monthly television talk show called “Tea Talks” and introducing its social media analytics tool, CrowdTangle, to newsrooms.

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Top 20 iOS homescreen customization apps reach 5.7M installs after iOS 14 release

The iOS 14 homescreen customization trend is driving a new set of apps to the top of the App Store charts, and delivering record downloads for sources of inspiration, like Pinterest. According to new data from app store market intelligence firm Sensor Tower, installs of the top 20 homescreen customization apps reached 5.7 million total downloads worldwide in the first four days following the release of iOS 14 on September 16.

Remarkably, the three most-downloaded apps — Widgetsmith, Color Widgets, and Photo Widget — account for 95% of these 5.7 million downloads. That indicates that the rest of the app customization market today is much smaller. But this could still change over time if more apps embrace the trend and expand to include innovative and unique features.

Sensor Tower’s study on the homescreen customization market only focused on those apps that were used to create homescreen widgets or existed primarily to service them, like calendars, clocks, memos, and others.

To determine if the app offered homescreen customization tools, Sensor Tower analyzed the app metadata of all the apps that ranked at any point on the App Store after September 16, then manually reviewed those apps to confirm their functionality was homescreen customization related.

The report’s focus was also more on widget apps, rather than apps than helped users make custom icons or existing apps that added widget functionality, as Sensor Tower decided it wouldn’t be able to determine how many had done so based on their metadata. It’s also difficult to determine, in some cases, if an app with a larger purpose beyond widgets is moving up the charts simply because it has now added widgets.

The top 20 list, in order, includes the following:

Widgetsmith, Color Widgets, Photo Widget, Photobox Widget, MemoWidget, Home Photo Widget, Motivation Widget, Ermine, Date Today, Hey Weather, TimeDeck, Widgeridoo, Glimpse 2, Widget Wizard, Widget Web, Locket, ItemMemo, OMDZ, Clock Widget for Home Screen, and Photo Widgets.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Combined, the group has generated a collective $400,000 in consumer spending in four days — from September 17 through September 20. Widgetsmith dominated the group, accounting for $370,000 of that total, followed by an app called Date Today with close to $20,000, per Sensor Tower estimates. (We should note Widgetsmith’s figure comes in a bit lower than some of the other estimates that were floating around.)

Though Sensor Tower’s study had a narrower focus, there are signals that plenty of apps have benefitted from the customization craze beyond the widget makers themselves.

Design inspiration resource Pinterest, as noted above, saw record daily downloads. TuneTrack, now the No. 18 free (non-game) app on the U.S. App Store appears to be gathering steam in the absence of an official Spotify widget. Its app offers both Apple Music and Spotify widgets for showing off favorite music on your homescreen.

Sensor Tower says TuneTrack saw 552,000 installs between Sept. 17 and 20, for example — a figure up 1,840% from the prior week (9/10-9/13). The Motivation widget saw 431,000 installs, up 798%.

Meanwhile, design tool Procreate Pocket is now the No. 2 paid (non-game) app in the U.S., and PicsArt is No. 31 free app. An app that simplifies icon changing, Icon Changer+, is No. 40 on the Top Free Apps charts in the U.S., followed by an app called Shortcuts, which is not the same Shortcuts app from Apple. (And surprisingly being allowed to use the same name!)

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Because there’s not a specific category for homescreen customization tools, some of the new apps can be found in the Productivity category, while others categorized themselves as Utility apps or something else entirely. This makes it more difficult for a consumer who wants to compare the rankings of all top apps offering homescreen customization functionality in one place.

Given that iOS 14 has effectively created an entire new category of apps, it’s possible that Apple would consider adding a customization category to the App Store in the future, if the trend continues long-term.

For now, however, Apple is addressing the discoverability issues with new App Store editorial content. A featured story on the App Store’s “Today” page, for example, is titled “How to Set Up Widgets,” and recommends a number of apps that have added widgets — like Todoist, Carrot Weather, Timepage, Apollo, Spark Mail, and others, in addition to Widgetsmith.

There are new widgets still arriving, as well, as developers roll out their iOS 14 updates. Fantastical, for example, just launched 12 homescreen widgets today.

What’s unfortunate is that Apple didn’t give its developer community enough time to prepare for launch day. The company announced iOS 14’s release with less than 24 hours’ notice and without the final version of Xcode available to developers. As a result, when users began to customize their homescreens, they may not have found all the widgets they would have wanted.

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Singapore-based Syfe, a robo-advisor with a human touch, raises $18.6 million led by Valar Ventures

Dhruv Arora, the founder and CEO of Singapore-based investment platform Syfe

Syfe, a Singapore-based startup that wants to make investing more accessible in Asia, announced today that it has closed a SGD $25.2 million (USD $18.6 million) Series A led by Valar Ventures, a fintech-focused investment firm.

The round also included participation from Presight Capital and returning investor Unbound, which led Syfe’s seed funding last year.

Founded in 2017 by chief executive officer Dhruv Arora, Syfe launched in July 2019. Like “robo-advisors” Robinhood, Acorns and Stash, Syfe’s goal is to make investing more accessible. There is no minimum amount required to start investing and its all-inclusive pricing structure ranges from .4% to .65% per year.

Syfe serves customers based in 23 countries, but currently only actively markets it services in Singapore, where it is licensed under the Monetary Authority of Singapore. Part of its new funding will be used to expand into new Asian countries. The startup hasn’t disclosed its exact user numbers, but says the number of its customers and assets under management have increased tenfold since the beginning of the year, and almost half of its new clients were referred by existing users.

Other Valar Ventures portfolio companies include TransferWise, Xero and digital bank N26. In a statement about Syfe, founding partner Andrew McCormack said, “The potential of Asia as a region, with a fast-growing number of mass-affluent consumers aiming to grow their wealth, combined with the pedigree of the team and strong traction, makes Syfe a very compelling opportunity.”

Before starting Syfe, Arora was an investment banker at UBS Investment Bank in Hong Kong before serving as vice president of product and growth at Grofers, one of India’s largest online grocery delivery services. While at UBS, Arora worked with exchange-traded funds, or ETFs.

“I could see how a lot of institutions and some ultra-high-net worth individuals who are clients of the bank were using the product, and I thought it was a great tool for individuals, too,” Arora told TechCrunch. “But what I realized was that people are actually not very aware of how to use ETFs.”

In many Asian countries, people prefer to put their money away in bank accounts or invest in real estate. As interest rates and property prices stagnate, however, consumers are looking for other ways to invest. Syfe currently offers three investment products. The first is a global diversified portfolio with a mix of stocks, bonds and ETFs that is automatically managed according to each investor’s chosen risk level. The second is a REIT portfolio based on the Singapore Exchange’s iEdge S-REIT Leaders Index. Finally, Syfe’s Equity100 portfolio consists of ETFs that include stocks from more than 1,500 companies around the world.

Other Asia-focused “robo-advisor” services include Stashaway and Kristal.ai, and Grab Financial also recently announced a “micro-investment” product. Arora acknowledges that in the future, there may be more entrants to the space. Right now, however, Syfe’s main competitor is the mindset that banks are still the best way to save money, he added. Part of Syfe’s work is consumer education, because “it was culturally ingrained in a lot of us, myself included, to keep your money in the bank.”

Syfe differentiates with a team of financial advisors, including former employees of Goldman Sachs, Citibank and Morgan Stanley, who are on hand for user consultations. Arora said most Syfe users talk to advisors when they first join the platform, and about 20% of them continue using the service. Questions have included if people should use a credit card to invest, which Arora said advisors dissuade them from doing because of high interest rates.

“We definitely want to be a tech-first platform, but we understand there is a value, especially as you deal with some of the older audiences who are in their 50s and 60s, who are still adapting to these technologies,” he said. “They need to know that you know there is somebody out there to look after their products.”

While Syfe’s average user is aged between 30 to 45, one growing bracket is people in their 50s who are motivated to save for retirement, or want to create a supplement to their pension plan. Users typically start with an initial investment of about SGD $10,000 (about USD $7,340), and about four out of five users regularly top up that amount.

Some users have tried other investment products, like investment-linked insurance plans, but for many, Arora says Syfe is their first introduction to investing in stocks, bonds and ETFs.

“We’ve realized that a fair number of them are quite well-to-do professionals in their field, in their mid- to late 30s, who amassed a significant amount of wealth but never really had a chance to invest, or the right advice on how to invest,” said Arora. “I think this has been one of the biggest revelations for us and it made us realize we should have a human touch in our platform.”

The platform manages its products with a mix of an investment team and algorithms that help avoid human bias, said Arora. Syfe’s algorithms take into account growth versus value, the market cap of a stock, volatility and sector momentum. To balance risk, it also analyzes how individual assets correlate with other assets in the same portfolio.

Arora said Syfe is currently in advanced talks with regulators in several countries and expects to be in at least two new markets by the end of next year. It also plans to double the size of its team and create more consumer financial products.

During COVID-19, Arora said Syfe’s portfolios experienced significantly lower corrections than indexes like the S&P, so only a few users withdrew their money. In fact, many invested more.

“I feel people have been rethinking their finances and the future,” he said. “As banks cut interest rates across the world, including in Singapore, many of them have started looking at other options.”

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Amazon adds support for Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu in local Indian languages push ahead of Diwali

More than seven years after Amazon began its e-commerce operations in India, and two years after its shopping service added support for Hindi, the most popular language in the country, the American giant is embracing more local languages to court hundreds of millions of new users.

Amazon announced on Tuesday its website and apps now support Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu in a move that it said would help it reach an additional 200-300 million users in the country.

Localization is one of the most crucial — and popular — steps for companies to expand their potential reach in India. Netflix added support for Hindi last month, and Amazon’s Alexa started conversing in the Indian language last year. (Amazon’s on-demand video streaming service, Prime Video, also supports Hindi, in addition to Tamil and Telugu.)

The company said the usage of Hindi, which it rolled out on its website and apps in India in 2018, has grown by three times in the past five months, and “hundreds of thousands” of Amazon customers have switched to Hindi shopping experience.

Amazon’s further language push comes months after its chief rival in India, Walmart -owned Flipkart, added support for Tamil, Telugu and Kannada, three languages that are spoken by roughly 200 million people in India.

Like Flipkart, Amazon worked with expert linguists to develop an accurate and comprehensible experience in each of the languages, the American e-commerce firm said.

But simple translation is not enough to make inroads with users in India. YouTube and YouTube Music, for instance, understand when Bollywood fans in India search for music by the name of the movie character or actor who played the part instead of the actual musician or song title — a phenomenon unique among Indian users.

Amazon appears to have incorporated similar learnings into its shopping experience. The company said for translations it preferred using commonly used terms from daily life over perfectly translated words.

Kishore Thota, Director of Customer Experience and Marketing at Amazon India, termed the availability of Amazon India shopping experience in four new languages a “major milestone.”

The move comes weeks ahead of Diwali, the biggest festival in India that sees hundreds of millions of Indians spend lavishly. “We are super excited to do this ahead of the upcoming festive season,” said Thota.

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Daily Crunch: This TikTok deal is pretty confusing

Companies send out conflicting messages about the TikTok deal, Microsoft acquires a gaming giant and the WeChat ban is temporarily blocked. This is your Daily Crunch for September 21, 2020.

The big story: This TikTok deal is pretty confusing

This keeps getting more confusing. Apparently TikTok’s parent company ByteDance has reached a deal with Walmart and Oracle that will allow the Chinese social media app to continue operating in the United States, and the deal has been approved by Donald Trump. But it’s hard to tell exactly what this agreement entails.

ByteDance said it would retain 80% control of TikTok, while selling 20% of the company to Walmart and Oracle as “commercial partner” and “trusted technology partner,” respectively. However, Oracle released a seemingly conflicting statement, claiming that Americans will have majority ownership and “ByteDance will have no ownership in TikTok Global.”

So what’s going on here? We’re trying to figure it out.

The tech giants

Microsoft set to acquire Bethesda parent ZeniMax for $7.5B — ZeniMax owns some of the biggest publishers in gaming, including Bethesda Game Studios, id Software, ZeniMax Online Studios, Arkane, MachineGames, Tango Gameworks, Alpha Dog and Roundhouse Studios.

Trump administration’s WeChat ban is blocked by US district court — More news about the Trump administration’s efforts to ban some high-profile Chinese apps: A district court judge in San Francisco has temporarily stayed the nationwide ban on WeChat.

Nikola’s chairman steps down, stock crashes following allegations of fraud — This comes in the wake of a report from a noted short-seller accusing the electric truck company of fraud.

Startups, funding and venture capital

With $100M in funding, Playco is already a mobile gaming unicorn — Playco is a new mobile gaming startup created by Game Closure co-founder Michael Carter and Zynga co-founder Justin Waldron.

Indian mobile gaming platform Mobile Premier League raises $90 million — Mobile Premier League operates a pure-play gaming platform that hosts a range of tournaments.

A meeting room of one’s own: Three VCs discuss breaking out of big firms to start their own gigs — We talked to Construct Capital’s Dayna Grayson, Renegade Partners’ Renata Quintini and Plexo Capital’s Lo Toney.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Edtech investors are panning for gold — At Disrupt, investors told us how they separate the gold from the dust.

Despite slowdowns, pandemic accelerates shifts in hardware manufacturing — China continues to be the dominant global force, but the price of labor and political uncertainty has led many companies to begin looking elsewhere.

The Peloton effect — Alex Wilhelm examines the latest VC activity in connected fitness.

(Reminder: Extra Crunch is our subscription membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Ireland’s data watchdog slammed for letting adtech carry on ‘biggest breach of all time’ — The Irish Council for Civil Liberties is putting more pressure on the country’s data watchdog to take enforcement action.

Pandemic accelerated cord cutting, making 2020 the worst-ever year for pay TV — According to new research from eMarketer, the cable, satellite and telecom TV industry is on track to lose the most subscribers ever.

Original Content podcast: ‘Wireless’ shows off Quibi’s Turnstyle technology — I interviewed the director of the new Quibi series.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

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Indian mobile gaming platform Mobile Premier League raises $90 million

Mobile Premier League (MPL) has raised $90 million in a new financing round as the two-year-old Bangalore-based esports and mobile gaming platform demonstrates fast-growth and looks to expand outside of India.

SIG, early-stage tech investor RTP Global, and MDI Ventures led MPL’s $90 million Series C financing round, with participation from existing investors Sequoia India, Go-Ventures, and Base Partners. Times Internet and actor Salman Khan are also early investors in MPL. The new investment brings MPL’s to-date raise to $130.5 million. It was valued between $375 million to $400 million pre-money, according to a person familiar with the matter.

MPL operates a pure-play gaming platform that hosts a range of tournaments. The app, which has amassed over 60 million users, also serves as a publishing platform for other gaming firms. MPL, which does not develop games of its own, hosts about 70 games across multiple sports on the app today.

The Bangalore-based startup also offers fantasy sports, a segment that has taken off in many parts of India in recent years.

Because fantasy sports is only one part of the business, the coronavirus outbreak that has shut most real-world matches has not impeded the startup’s growth in recent months. The startup claimed it has grown four times since March this year and more than 2 billion cash transactions have been recorded on the app to date.

Sai Srinivas, co-founder and chief executive of Mobile Premier League, told TechCrunch in an interview that the new financing round validates that esports is here to stay and it is beginning to see its e-commerce moment.

“I believe that esports will be inducted by the Olympics way before than cricket does. And the market cap of esports will most probably will exceed those of all physical sports combined in the next 10 years,” he said.

“Even in an environment as challenging as the current one, we are impressed with the success and accessibility of the platform concept – giving users a unique variety of experiences and social interaction. MPL’s track record speaks for itself, so we’re excited to support the team as they grow and expand,” said Galina Chifina, Managing Partner at RTP Global, in a statement.

But since an aspect of MPL is about fantasy sports, its app is not available on the Google Play Store. Google Play Store prohibits online casino, and other kinds of betting, a guideline Google reiterated last week as it pulled Indian financial services platform Paytm from the app store for eight hours. Srinivas declined to comment on Google and Paytm’s episode. 

The startup plans to expand outside of India in the following months, said Srinivas. He did not name the new markets, but suggested that India’s neighboring countries as well as Japan and South Korea will likely be part of it. 

The startup also plans to expand its gaming catalog and offer more marketing support to third-party developers, who currently either sell license to MPL or work through revenue-sharing agreement with the Indian startup.

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Thanks to Google, app store monopoly concerns have now reached India

Last week, as Epic Games, Facebook, and Microsoft continued to express concerns about Apple’s “monopolistic” hold over what a billion people can download on their iPhones, a similar story unfolded in India, the world’s second largest internet market, between a giant developer and the operator of the only other large mobile app store.

Google pulled Paytm, the app from India’s most valuable startup, off of the Play Store on Friday. The app returned to the store eight hours later, but the controversy and acrimony Google has stirred up in the country will linger for years.

TechCrunch reported on Friday that Google pulled Paytm app from its app store after a repeat pattern of violations of Google Play Store guidelines by the Indian firm.

Paytm, which is locked in a battle against Google to win India’s payments market, has been frustrated at Google’s policies — which it argues gives Google an unfair advantage — for several past quarters over how the Android-maker is limiting its marketing campaigns to acquire new users, sources familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

The explanation provided by Google to Paytm for why it pulled the Indian firm’s app this week from its app store is the latest attempt by the company to thwart the Noida-headquartered firm’s ability to acquire new users, Paytm executives said.

In a blog post Paytm posted Sunday evening (local India time), the Indian firm said Google took issue with the company for giving customers cashbacks and scratch cards for initiating transactions over UPI, a government-backed payments infrastructure in India that has become the most popular way for people to exchange money digitally in the country.

Paytm said it rolled out this new version of scratch cards that are linked to cricket on September 11. Users collected these cricket-themed stickers for sending money to others, or making transactions such as topping up credit on their phone or paying their broadband or electricity bill.

In a statement on Sunday evening, a Google spokesperson said, “offering cashbacks and vouchers alone do not constitute a violation of our Google Play gambling policies” and that Play Store “policies are applied and enforced on all developers consistently.”

But it’s arguably anything but consistent.

On September 18, Google told Paytm that it had pulled its app for not complying with Play Store’s “gambling policy” as it offered games with “loyalty points.” Paytm said that Google had not expressed any concerns over Paytm’s new marketing campaign prior to its notice on Friday, in which it revealed that Paytm app had been temporarily removed from the Play Store.

But Google itself is running a similar campaign linked to cricket in India, Paytm argues. (Why cricket? Cricket is immensely popular in India and one of the biggest cricket tournaments globally, Indian Premier League, kicked off its latest season on Saturday.)

Cricket-themed cashback offered by Paytm (left) and Google Pay (right) in India

Google Play Store in India has long prohibited apps that promote gambling such as betting on sporting events, and Google has raised concerns about Paytm’s marquee app promoting Paytm First Games, a fantasy sports app run by Paytm, in the past.

Paytm executives argued that PhonePe, a Walmart-owned payments app in India, also promoted Dream11, the most popular fantasy sports app in the country, and got away without any action.

Google also permits fantasy sports app operators — including Paytm — to advertise on Search in India.

“This is bullshit of a different degree,” Paytm chief executive Vijay Shekhar Sharma said of Google’s objection to Paytm offering cashback in a televised interview Friday. The removal of Paytm app was only on the grounds of Paytm offering cricket-themed cashback, he claimed. “Google is not allowing us to acquire new customers right now. That’s all what this is,” he added.

Google’s payments app, Google Pay, competes with Paytm in India. In fact, Google Pay is the largest payments app for peer-to-peer transaction between users in India and holds the largest market share in UPI.

Without identifying any names, Sharma, the poster child of Indian startup ecosystem, claimed that many founders in India have just accepted that it is Google that has the final say on any matter in India — and not the country’s regulatory agencies.

For Google, which reaches more users than any other company in India and whose Android operating system commands 99% of the local smartphone market, this kind of accusation is exactly what it needs to avoid in the country. The Silicon Valley search and advertising giant has launched a charm offensive in India, including a recently commitment to invest $10 billion — more than any other American or Chinese technology firm.

The timing for Google’s parent company, Alphabet, couldn’t be worse. Google is currently the subject of an antitrust complaint in India over an allegation that it has abused its market position to unfairly promote its mobile payments app in the country; and in the U.S., Congress has intimidated that it may pursue antitrust regulatory action against Alphabet and Apple over app store concerns.

In India, Google’s moves could have a devastating impact on businesses and everyday consumers.

Paytm is not just a payments app. It is also a fully licensed digital bank. And just an eight-hour of absence from the Play Store created a panic among a portion of its users. A source familiar with the matter told TechCrunch that Paytm saw several people withdraw their fixed deposit in Paytm Payments Bank on Friday.

Anecdotally, TechCrunch heard of instances where vendors who previously preferred Paytm for accepting money digitally asked their customers to use a different payments method as they had heard that Paytm was “banned” in India.

Sharma said Google’s monopoly on Indian app ecosystem is of a magnitude unparalleled elsewhere in the world.

“If paying someone and getting a cashback is gambling, then the same rule should be applied to everyone,” said Sharma. “It’s disgraceful that we are standing here at the cusp of an internet revolution in India and we are being sanctioned by companies that are not governed by the law of this country.”

If this sentiment gained traction in India it could create challenges for Google’s future in the world’s second largest internet market.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is forcing a Chinese company to sell stakes to local firms to continue operations in the country. In a recent episode of Dithering podcast, Ben Thompson cautioned that Trump administration’s move — which some have argued is a long due tit for tat against Chinese companies (as China has long prevented U.S. firms from meaningfully operating in the world’s largest  internet market) — might encourage other open markets to do to American firms what it is doing to TikTok.

Several U.S. tech executives share these concerns.

“I’ve said this before, but a US TikTok ban would be quite bad for Instagram, Facebook, and the internet more broadly,” Instagram chief executive Adam Mosseri tweeted earlier this week. “If you’re skeptical keep in mind that most of the people who use Instagram are outside the US, as is most of our potential growth. The long term costs of moods countries making aggressive demands and banning us over the next decade outweigh slowing down one competitor today.”

India, which Google, Facebook, and many other tech giants count as their biggest market by users, has made several proposals in the past three years — including mandates that foreign firms store payments information of users locally in India and companies help local enforcement agencies identify the originator of questionable messages circulating on their platforms — that are widely seen as protectionist moves.

And India is not even that open anymore. New Delhi has also banned more than 200 Chinese apps including TikTok, UC Browser, and PUBG Mobile citing cybersecurity concerns in recent months. India has not made public what those cybersecurity concerns are and in its orders acknowledged that users had expressed concerns.

Enough noise against a foreign firm might just be enough to face an avalanche of serious troubles in India.

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