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This Week in Apps: Quibi dies, Snapchat soars, Halide upgrades for iPhone 12

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.

Quibi dies…and no one was surprised

There was so much wrong with Quibi’s premise that it’s sometimes hard to even know where to start. But at the core, its problem was that it fundamentally misunderstood how, when and why users would watch video on their phones.

The company’s thinking was that you could fund high-production value content ($100K/minute, yikes) then chop it up into smaller “bites,” add a technology layer, then call this a reinvention of cinema.

The reality is there was little demand for this sort of content, and it didn’t fit with how people want to be entertained on their phones.

When people want to appreciate high-quality filmmaking (or even TV production), they tend to want a bigger screen — they’ve spent money for their fancy high-def or 4K TV, after all. Pre-COVID, they might even pay to go a movie theater. On mobile, the production value of content is far less of a concern, if it even registers.

Quibi also misunderstood what users want to watch in terms of video on their phones when they have a few minutes to kill.

By positioning its app in this space, it had to compete with numerous and powerful sources for “short-form” content — existing apps like YouTube, TikTok, Facebook (e.g. News Feed content, Watch feeds), Instagram Stories, Snapchat and so on. This is content you don’t have to get invested in, since you’re just distracting yourself from a few minutes of boredom. It’s not a time or place to engage with a longer story — chopped or otherwise.

Quibi also cut the length of content to serve its artificial limitations — at the expense of story quality and enjoyment.

A reality show dumbed down to just its highlights is almost unwatchable, as it exposes the editors’ machinations and manipulations that are better hidden among longer stretches of fluff. And there was simply no reason to cut down movies — like Quibi’s “The Dangerous Game,” for example — into pieces. It didn’t elevate the storytelling; it distracted from it. And if you wanted a quick news update (e.g. Quibi’s “Daily Essentials”), you didn’t need a whole new app for that.

Quibi content may have been considered “high quality,” but it often wasn’t good. (I still can’t believe I sat through an episode of “Dishmantled,” where chefs had to recreate dishes of food that were thrown in their face. And Quibi had the nerve to shame YouTube’s low-quality and lack of talent?!)

Quibi also wanted to charge for its service, but its catalog wasn’t designed for families, with content that ranged from kids to adult programming. It didn’t offer parental controls. This immediately limited its competitiveness.

At launch, Quibi also limited itself to the phone, which meant it limited your ability to use the phone as a second screen while you watched a show. (There was no PiP support). TechCrunch has been writing about phones as the second screen for the better part of a decade, often with a focus on startups. But in Quibi’s case, it killed the second screen experience, seemingly forgetting that people text friends, order food, check Twitter and peek in on other apps while a TV show plays in the background. Did it really think that a reboot of “Punk’d” deserved our full attention?

Quibi naturally blamed COVID for its failure to thrive. It had imagined a world where users had ample time to kill while out and about: commuting on the subway, standing in long lines, that sort of thing.

But even this premise was flawed. It would have eventually caught up to Quibi, too; COVID just accelerated it. The issue is that Quibi imagined the U.S. as only a swath of urban metros where public transportation is abundant and standing in lines is the norm. In reality, more than half (52%) the U.S. is described as suburban, 27% is urban and 21% is rural. Non-urban commuters often drive themselves to work. Sure, they could stream Quibi during those commutes, but not really look at it. So why burn high-production value on them? And standing in long lines, believe it or not, is not actually that common in smaller cities and towns, either. If it only takes two minutes to grab a coffee or a burrito before you hop back in your car, do you really want to start a new show?

So where would that have left Quibi? Hoping for Gen Z’ers attention as they lounge around their bedrooms looking for something to do? And yet it wanted to appeal to these kids using Hollywood A-Listers they don’t even know? As COVID pressed down, it left Quibi in competition with (often arguably better) content that streamed natively on the TV from apps like Netflix, HBO, Hulu, Prime Video, Disney+, and others where you could binge through seasons at once instead of waiting every week for a new “quick bite” to drop.

There’s more, so much more that could still be said, including the fact that a former eBay and HP CEO may not be the right person to lead a company that wanted to dazzle a younger demographic. Or how its video-flipping TurnStyle feature was clever, but added complexity to filmmaking, and was not enough of a technological leap to build a business around. Or how, no matter how much money it had raised, it was still not enough, compared with the massive budgets of competitors like Netflix and Amazon.

You can read a further post-mortem round-up here. And another here. Because we can’t get enough post-mortems, apparently.

In the meantime, TikTok still isn’t banned.

Snap hits record $50B valuation

Snapchat’s maker was forecast to bring around $555 million in revenues in Q3 but posted $679 million instead, a 52% YoY increase, in a surprise earnings beat. EPS were an adjusted $0.01, beating an expected loss of $0.04. The company also grew daily active users by 4% (11 million) to 249 million, an 18% YoY increase. Snap’s net loss of $200 million was a 12% improvement over last year, too.

As a result of the earnings, shares jumped nearly 30% the next day and its valuation cracked $50 billion for the first time, a record high.

During earnings, the company touted it now reaches 90% of the Gen Z population and 75% of millennials in the U.S., U.K. and France. User growth was attributed to new products, including Profiles, Minis, Lens creation tools and AR ads. In particular, Snap leveraged the Facebook ad boycott to reach out to brands that wanted to “realign their marketing efforts” with companies that “share their corporate values,” the company said.

Snap also just launched its TikTok competitor, Sounds on Snapchat, which lets users add licensed music to their Stories.

Platforms

  • Apple releases iOS and iPadOS 14.1. The first major update to iOS 14 delivers multiple bug fixes, including those impacting widgets, streaming video and Family Setup on Apple Watch, among others. It also added support for 10-bit HDR video playback and editing in Photos on iPhone 8 and later.
  • iOS 14 bug continues to reset default email and browser apps. After updating your preferred email or browser app, iOS 14 forgets what third-party app you’ve set as the default. Yes, it was doing this before. Are we still so sure it’s a bug?
  • DOJ antitrust lawsuit goes after the multibillion-dollar deal that positioned Google as the default search engine on browsers, phones and other Apple devices.
  • AirTags patent applications describe use cases like locating the nearest defibrillator, monitoring users’ posture and playing avatar-based games, giving a little more insight into how Apple envisions the future of its smartphone-findable tags.
  • Google embraces iOS 14 widgets. Google already offered one of the more useful widgets for iOS 14 with its Search widget, which has been downloaded by “millions.” This week, it introduced more, including a Google Photos widget that let you revisit your memories, and a YouTube Music widget.
  • RCS support in Android Messages expands. Following the U.S. debut, RCS has rolled out to a number of new countries, and can now be found in Italy, Portugal, Singapore, Argentina, Pakistan, Poland, Turkey, Denmark, Netherlands, Austria, Bangladesh, Belgium, Croatia, Czechia, Greece, Ireland, Israel, Kosovo, Lithuania, New Zealand, Serbia, Slovenia, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, Australia, Bulgaria, Indonesia, Japan, Kenya, Latvia, Lebanon, Uganda and Ukraine. The last nine were just this month.

Trends

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

  • Buy Now, Pay Later app usage in the U.S. up 186% year-over-year as of Sept. According to Sensor Tower, apps that let consumers make purchases on payment plans have been climbing steadily this year since the COVID-19 pandemic. The report looked at Klarna, Affirm, Afterpay and QuadPay, which together have generated 18 million lifetime installs across the App Store and Google Play. Installs were up 115% YoY in September, while monthly actives were up 186%.
  • U.S. contact-tracing apps are a disjointed wreck. The WSJ examined the state of COVID-19 contact-tracing apps in the U.S. and found that states focusing on their own efforts, due to the lack of a national plan, has left a disjointed patchwork of tools. Only 10 states, plus D.C., have used the framework built by Google and Apple; 11 are piloting or building apps. The EU, meanwhile, switched on cross-border interoperability for its first batch of tracing apps.
  • Gen Z spends 10% more time using top non-game apps than older users, at 4.1+ hours per month. The figure excludes pre-installed apps and was calculated on Android devices in select markets, including the U.S. Gen Z users also engaged with non-game apps more often than older users, at 120 sessions per month per app.
  • U.S. consumers spend $20.78/mo on average on their app subscriptions, according to new data from Adjust. The 25 to 34-year-old age group spends the most on subscription apps at $25.85/mo, while those 55 and over spend the least, at $13.97/mo. In addition, more than a quarter of millennials and Gen Z consumers said they have stopped paying for other services in order to buy subscriptions on mobile app services (e.g. option for fitness apps over going to the gym).
  • Dating apps are on the rise in the U.S., says Apptopia. New users for Hily, Match, BLK, Bumble and Grindr are on pace to grow month-over-month at 32%, 28%, 20%, 18% and 11%, respectively.

Services

  • Amazon’s Luna game streaming service opens in early access to its first customers. The service offers a library of 50 games and works on Mac, PC, Amazon Fire TV, and iOS devices, courtesy of a web app to work around the App Store rules. Initial reviews describe the service as sometimes struggling with performance over Wi-Fi, but offering a good web app experience. Luna features some big titles but xCloud still has the better lineup. Its real killer feature, however, may be the promised Twitch integration, arriving in the future.
  • SoundCloud launches a $19.99/month DJ plan, SoundCloud DJ, that offers unlimited offline access to its catalog. Users can also stream high-quality audio and mix tracks using select DJ apps, including Virtual DJ, Cross DJ and Denon DJ.
  • Put your five-star reviews on your home screen. IMore spotted a must-have motivational tool for developers: a way to put your app’s five-star reviews as a widget on your home screen; $1.99 for this happiness boost.

Security/Privacy

Deadpool

  • Apple quietly discontinues its Apple TV Remote app. The app was removed from the App Store on Wednesday. Users are now expected to use the Remote feature built into the Control Center since iOS 12 instead.
  • Google will end support for its location-sharing Trusted Contacts app in December, and removes it from the Play Store. Users are directed to use similar features in Google Maps instead for finding friends and family.

Policies and Politics

  • Coalition for App Fairness more than doubles a month after its debut. The Coalition for App Fairness (CAF), a newly formed advocacy group pushing for increased regulation over app stores, has more than doubled in size with this week’s announcement of 20 new partners. The organization, led by top app publishers and critics, including Epic Games, Deezer, Basecamp, Tile, Spotify and others, debuted in late September to fight back against Apple and Google’s control over app stores, and particularly the stores’ rules around in-app purchases and commissions.

App News

  • Facebook to increase investments in WhatsApp for business. The company said it will expand Shopping on WhatsApp and will charge businesses for some of the services it offers on the chat app, in order to grow revenues. This includes offering to manage businesses’ WhatsApp messages via Facebook’s own hosting services. Facebook offered this info as more of a look into its roadmap, but without specifics on new services or pricing.
  • Facebook is cloning Nextdoor. The feature is in testing in Canada and sees Facebook automatically generating neighborhood groups to connect local users with people, activities and items for sale.
  • Court approves Kik’s settlement with SEC. The ruling ends a multi-year court battle by allowing Kik to pay a one-time $5 million fine for its violation of securities law for failing to register its 2017 distribution of its Kin tokens in its ICO.
  • Roblox passes $2B in mobile player spending ahead of its planned IPO. The company’s revenues, accelerated by the pandemic, crossed the $1.5 billion mark in May 2020, then picked up another $500 million in five months, says Sensor Tower.
  • Cameo enters B2B sales. The custom celebrity video app repositions its business of personalized greetings for B2B sales through an integration and rev share agreement with corporate gifting platform Sendoso.
  • Adobe adds a chain of custody tool in the beta release of Photoshop and Behance that will fight misinformation and keep content attributed properly.
  • Stitcher’s podcasts come to Pandora as acquisition completes. The Stitcher app also got a revamp following the deal’s finalization. The move brought several bigger podcast titles in house, thanks to Earwolf, including “Freakonomics Radio,” “My Favorite Murder,” “SuperSoul Conversations from the Oprah Winfrey Network,” “Office Ladies,” “Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend,” “Literally! with Rob Lowe,” “LeVar Burton Reads” and “WTF with Marc Maron.”
  • NYT has an iOS 14 widget now. The new widget will put NYT headlines on your home screen. Note that while the widget can be installed by anyone, if you want to click through to read, you’ll still need to be a subscriber.
  • PicsArt brings its app-based design tools to the web. The creative platform is chasing business users with the launch of its AI tools on picsart.com. The debut suite includes a template editor, background and object remover, video slideshow maker, text editor, and others.
  • Chinese tutoring app Yuanfudao has raised $2.2 billion from investors, surpassing Byju’s as the most valuable edtech company in the world, as it’s now worth $15.5 billion.
  • Retool raises $50M in funding, led by Sequoia, for its low-code tools for building internal apps that work on either desktop or mobile. The new round values the business at nearly $1 billion. Other backers include GitHub CEO Nat Friedman, Stripe founders Patrick and John Collison, Brex Inc. founders Henrique Dubugras and Pedro Franceschi and Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham.
  • Syte raises $40M to bring visual shoppers to e-commerce retailers. Visual search is already popular in apps like Google, Pinterest and eBay, but Syte wants under retailers to have the option. The round was led by return investor Viola Ventures.
  • 98point6 raises $118M for its AI-powered telemedicine platform that works on web and mobile (iOS and Android).

Halide Mark II

Image Credits: Lux

The developers of popular pro iPhone camera apps Halide and Spectre this week launched their latest creation, the Halide Mark II camera app. The new interface has been designed for one-handed operation and includes a range of new features.

These include a new gesture-based automatic and manual switcher; tactile touch for enabling and disabling features like exposure warnings, focus peaking, and loupe as you adjust exposure or focus; an overhauled manual mode; new dynamic labeling of controls and actions to explain features to new users; support for the edge-to-edge interface of the iPhone 12 models; a redesigned reviewer with a full metadata read-out; in-app memberships for photo lessons; and over 40 more changes.

A new “Coverage” feature can take a photo with Smart HDR 2/3 and Deep Fusion for maximum quality and computational processing as well as a RAW file — with only a slight delay between captures.

Image Credits: Lux

Halide Mark II also uses machine learning to process an iPhone RAW file in the app (ProRAW) with 17 steps, including detail enhancement, contrast and color adjustment and more. This feature, called Instant RAW, intelligently develops the file to get the best possible results.

And the app includes top pro tools, like a new waveform and color exposure warnings (zebras) that use XDR (Extended Dynamic Range) 14-bit RAW sampling, for accurate exposure previews and readings.

The app is $36 (currently $30 during a promo period) if you want to only pay once. Otherwise it’s $11.99 per year on subscription (currently $9.99 per year if you lock in the price now during the promo period). Subscribers to the membership plan also get perks, like custom icons. Existing Halide 1 users, unbelievably, are upgraded for free but are asked to support the app with a membership.

ClipDrop — AR Copy Paste

A new app called ClipDrop launches on iOS, Android, macOS and Windows as a new sort of “copy and paste” experience. The app uses state-of-the-art vision AI to copy images from your desktop with a screenshot to any other app (e.g. Docs, Photoshop, Canva, etc.) and it allows you to extract anything — objects, people, drawings or text.

The mobile app lets you snap photos of real-world items and then digitally transfer them to other apps or websites. In the below demo, the company shows how you could “clip” an image of an article of clothing using the camera, then import the photo into a document.

The company also just released a plugin for Photoshop that lets you drop the image into its app as a new layer with an editable mask.

The app is $39.99 per year (until November 2020, when it ups to $79.99 per year.)

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Adobe Illustrator on iPad + Adobe Fresco on iPhone

Image Credits: Adobe

As part of Adobe’s virtual MAX 2020 conference this week, the company launched the first public version of its Illustrator vector graphics app on the iPad and brought its Fresco drawing and painting app to the iPhone. In time, the company plans to bring more effects, brushes and AI features to Illustrator. Fresco 2.0, meanwhile, includes new smudge brushes and support for personalized brushes, among other things.

Party Squasher

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Designed for landlords, Airbnb owners or other vacation rental property owners, Party Squasher offers a hardware device and paired mobile app that counts the number of people at your house by counting the mobile phones in or around a house. The phones can be counted even if they’re not connected to the home’s Wi-Fi.

Because the device doesn’t include cameras or microphones, it’s ideal for ensuring that renters aren’t hosting large (and these days, potentially illegal) parties without violating privacy.

In the event that a large gathering is present, you’re sent a text or email so you can take action.

The device is $249 and the app charges a $199 per year subscription.

The No. 1 game in the App Store is now Among Us!.

Can you guess why?

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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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Apple reveals the $99 HomePod Mini

Today, during its iPhone hardware event, Apple unveiled the $99 HomePod Mini.

The HomePod Mini is clearly a reach for a broader swath of new users. The original HomePod managed to impress audiophiles but its high price served as a high barrier of entry to new users looking for a new smart speaker. Complicating that “smart speaker” designation is the face that Siri was and is several years behind the intelligence of both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, leaving the speaker as a more compromised choice for users who might have been hoping to embrace the fully smart home ecosystem.

The new device starts shipping the week of November 16. The device comes in white and space grey colors.

The HomePod Mini ditches the trashcan Mac Pro design of its bigger relative and is much more spherical in shape, still covered in a mesh fabric. It boasts the same onboard screen that allows users to summon Siri and adjust volume, while giving the device a more interesting visual look than smart devices from other companies. Also differentiating the device is Apple’s S5 chip which the company says helps the HomePod Mini bring users its “computational audio.”

Like with the original HomePod, users can arrange a stereo pair of two of the HomePod Minis and will also be able to utilize multiple HomePod devices in a home to operate a new “Intercom” experience.

Image Credits: Apple

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Live from Apple’s virtual 2020 iPhone event

Apple’s big iPhone event is finally here – virtually, which is to be expected these days. This is already the second virtual event Apple has hosted this fall, following one in September at which it revealed the Apple Watch Series 6 and a new iPad Air. This time around, we’re going to see what the iPhone 12 looks like, as well as how many colors and sizes it comes in.

There’s also supposed to be plenty of other news, including a new smaller HomePod mini, maybe an updated Apple TV, possibly a number of different headphone products and more. Will we get our first glance at the first shipping ARM-based Mac to use Apple’s in-house processors? Probably not, but maybe!

We’re going to be following along live and offering commentary below, and you can also tune in live to the video stream right here. Everything gets underway at 10 AM PT/ 1 PM ET.

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Instagram’s 10th birthday release introduces a Stories Map, custom icons and more

Instagram today is celebrating its 10th birthday with the launch of several new features, including a private “Stories Map,” offering a retrospective of the Stories you’ve shared over the last three years, a pair of well-being updates, and the previously announced IGTV Shopping update. There’s even a selection of custom app icons for those who have recently been inspired to redesign their home screen, as is the new trend.

The icons had been spotted earlier in development within Instagram’s code, and it was expected they would be a part of a larger “birthday release.” That turned out to be true.

With the update, Instagram users across both iOS and Android can opt between a range of icons in shades of orange, yellow, green, purple, black, white and more. There’s also a rainbow-colored Pride icon and several versions of classic icons, if you want a more nostalgic feel.

The new Stories Map feature, meanwhile, introduces a private map and calendar of the Instagram Stories you’ve shared over the past three years, so you can look back at favorite moments. Though this may surprise some users who thought Instagram Stories’ ephemeral nature meant they were deleted from Facebook servers over time, it’s not the first time Instagram has pulled up your old Stories to build out a new feature.

Instagram’s “Story Highlights,” for example, first introduced in 2017, allowed users to create a permanent home for some of their formerly ephemeral content.

Image Credits: Instagram

Two other new features also rolling out with the latest release are timed alongside the kickoff of National Bullying Prevention Month. The first, which will begin as a test, will automatically hide comments similar to others that have already been reported. These will still be visible under the label “View Hidden Comments” if you want to see what’s been removed from the main comment feed.

Image Credits: Instagram

This feature is somewhat similar to Twitter’s “Hide Replies” feature that launched globally last year. Like Twitter, the feature will place the inappropriate or abusive remarks behind an extra click, which supposedly helps to disincentivize this sort of content, as it could be hidden from view. Except in Twitter’s case, the original poster had to manually hide the replies. The Instagram feature, however, is attempting to automate this functionality.

Instagram says it’s also expanding its nudge warnings feature to include an additional warning when people repeatedly try to post offensive remarks. Already, Instagram provides an AI-powered feature that notifies people when their comment may be considered offensive by giving them a chance to reflect and make changes before posting. Now this feature will target repeat offenders, suggesting that they take a moment to step back and reflect on their words and the potential consequences.

Image Credits: Instagram

The company also released new data about trends across its platform as well as an editorial look back at Instagram’s major milestones.

Here, it revealed trends across music — like how KPOP is the No. 1 most-discussed genre — along with other trends, like top songs, AR effects, top Story Fonts and more. Instagram said more than a million posts mentioning “meme” are shared on its platform daily, 50% of users see a video on Instagram daily, there are over 900 million emoji reactions sent daily and the average person sends 3x more DMs than comments.

The updated app is available across iOS and Android.

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On lying AIs

A yellow-eyed cat tilts its eyes at the camera, gazing up from a grey bedspread. ‘London Trip’, is the AI’s title for this photo-montage ‘Memory’ plucked from the depths of my iPhone camera-roll. It’s selected a sad score of plinking piano and sweeping violin. The algorithm has calculated it must tug at the heart strings. 

Cut to a crop of a desk with a 2FA device resting on a laptop case. It’s not at all photogenic. On to a shot of a sofa in a living room. It’s empty. The camera inclines toward a radio on a sidetable. Should we be worried for the invisible occupant? The staging invites cryptic questions.

Cut to an outdoor scene: A massive tree spreading above a wrought iron park fence. Another overcast day in the city. Beside it an eccentric shock of orange. A piece of public art? A glass-blown installation? There’s no time to investigate or interrogate. The AI is moving on. There’s more data clogging its banks. 

Cut to a conference speaker. White, male, besuited, he’s gesticulating against a navy wall stamped with some kind of insignia. The photo is low quality, snapped in haste from the audience, details too fuzzy to pick out. Still, the camera lingers, panning across the tedious vista. A wider angle shows conference signage for something called ‘Health X’. This long distant press event rings a dim bell. Another unlovely crop: My voice recorder beside a brick wall next to an iced coffee. I guess I’m working from a coffee shop.

On we go. A snap through a window-frame of a well kept garden, a bird-bath sprouting from low bushes. Another shot of the shrubbery shows a ladder laid out along a brick wall. I think it looks like a church garden in Southwark but I honestly can’t tell. No matter. The AI has lost interest. Now it’s obsessing over a billboard of a Google Play ad: “All the tracks you own and millions more to discover — Try it now for free,” the text reads above a weathered JCDecaux brand stamp.

There’s no time to consider what any of this means because suddenly it’s nighttime. It must be; my bedside lamp is lit. Or is it? Now we’re back on the living room sofa with daylight and a book called ‘Nikolski’ (which is also, as it happens, about separation and connection and random artefacts — although its artful narrative succeeds in serendipity).

Cut to a handful of berries in a cup. Cut to an exotic-looking wallflower which I know grows in the neighbourhood. The score is really soaring now. A lilting female vocal lands on cue to accompany a solitary selfie.

I am looking unimpressed. I have so many questions. 

The AI isn’t quite finished. For the finale: A poorly framed crop of a garden fence and a patio of pot plants, washing weeping behind the foliage. The music is fading, the machine is almost done constructing its London trip. The last shot gets thrust into view: Someone’s hand clasping a half-drunk punch. 

Go home algorithm, you’re drunk.

Footnote: Apple says on-device machine learning powers iOS’ “intelligent photos experience” which “analyzes every 
photo in a user’s photo library using on-device machine learning [to] deliver 
a personalized experience for each user” — with the advanced processing slated to include scene classification, composition analysis, people and pets identification, quality analysis and identification of facial expressions

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This Week in Apps: Apple delays mobile ad apocalypse, app review changes, TikTok deal gets complicated

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.

This week, a handful of top stories lead our coverage. TikTok deal talks this week got hung up over whether or not TikTok can export the app’s algorithms as part of any acquisition of its U.S. operations by an American firm. Apple also made headlines for delaying the rollout of a potentially disastrous iOS 14 change that’s been panicking the advertising community. It also announced that it will no longer ban apps from pushing out security updates and bug fixes, even when App Review has blocked their app updates over policy non-compliance.

Apple delays the mobile ad apocalypse

Image Credits: Apple

Apple this week announced it would delay a controversial change that would impact how ads are targeted to iOS and iPadOS mobile users. In a move aimed at protecting consumer privacy, Apple was poised to introduce a new, in-app prompt in iOS 14 that would ask users whether they would like to allow targeted ad tracking or not. Because most consumers generally don’t like the stalker-ish nature of digital ads, you know what they’d choose!

The change involves an identifier known as IDFA (Identifier for Advertisers) that allows advertisers to track how well their ad performs, including which channels drove what quality of users. This lets advertisers make better, more informed choices on their digital ad spend. It’s a key part of app marketing today.

Overall, we’re talking about a massive industry being disrupted. According to eMarketer, the U.S. mobile advertising reached $87.3 billion in 2019. Globally, app install ad spend was $57.8 billion in 2019 and was poised to grow to $118 billion in 2022, per AppsFlyer data. And yet, Apple doesn’t really participate here. Instead, it only offers Search Ads in its App Store. But to promote apps, Apple relies on editorial — like curated collections in the App Store and stories about apps on the Today tab. These can help direct traffic to apps, as can outside press, but the most efficient way to acquire users is paid spend on app install ads.

The mobile ad industry built itself up around the IDFA, offering tools focused on making it easier to measure ad performance and optimize ad spend. Apple was ready to wipe that industry out of existence. And marketers, as you can imagine, were panicking. Even calling it an apocalypse.

As an alternative, Apple was offering SKAdNetwork, introduced in 2018. But it lacked a lot of the information marketers rely on, like attribution or information on impressions, creative, remarketing, in-app events, lookback windows, user lifetime value, ROI, retention or cohort analysis.

This photo illustration taken on March 22, 2018 shows apps for Facebook and other social networks on a smartphone in Chennai. (Photo credit: ARUN SANKAR/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week, Facebook spoke up about how serious the change would be to its own business, saying that, in testing, it found that without targeting and personalization, mobile app install campaigns brought in 50% less revenue for publishers. “The impact to Audience Network on iOS 14 may be much more,” the company noted, referencing the ad network that uses Facebook data to target ads on publishers’ websites and apps.

A few days later, Apple announced the change was being put on hold, saying:

We believe technology should protect users’ fundamental right to privacy, and that means giving users tools to understand which apps and websites may be sharing their data with other companies for advertising or advertising measurement purposes, as well as the tools to revoke permission for this tracking. When enabled, a system prompt will give users the ability to allow or reject that tracking on an app-by-app basis. We want to give developers the time they need to make the necessary changes, and as a result, the requirement to use this tracking permission will go into effect early next year.

It’s unclear if Apple plans to respond to any of the industry’s concerns during this delay, or if it’s just given mobile marketers more time to figure out how to proceed in a data-less future. But at the very least, it’s the latter. Apple only announced the change to IDFA at WWDC this year — not enough time for an entire industry to retool itself around SKAdNetwork or implement other workarounds. The bigger question has to do with Apple’s long-term goals? It’s rewriting the rules to give itself a seat at the table, after all.

Apple puts an end to App Store Jail…for bug fixes

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Apple often put iOS users at risk when it blocked developers from publishing their apps to the App Store over policy violations. In some cases, developers have urgently needed to release security patches and other bug fixes that could cause major problems for their users.

As Apple has increasingly begun to crack down on App Store violations, including those that require apps to use Apple Pay for in-app purchases, more developers have been caught in desperate situations. Apple put Basecamp’s new email app on ice almost immediately after it launched, and even temporarily rejected the free WordPress app, because in some web views, users could make their way to a page where they could upgrade to a paid plan:

WordPress’ Matt Mullenweg took to Twitter looking for help as a last alternative, after realizing the company couldn’t even ship its bug fixes until the issue had been resolved. The move caught Apple’s attention, and the situation was addressed. Apple even apologized.

A change to App Review, now live, will give developers caught in similar situations a way to keep pushing out their most critical updates, but not other app improvements. Apple’s plans had been previously announced at WWDC, but the rollout is timely as Apple steps up its policing of the App Store. However, making these rejections less of a potential disaster for developers may also see fewer developers talking publicly about their rejections or running to the press. With the urgency of a critical bug fix to drive them, the everyday rejection may go unnoticed.

Developers in the past had been scared of punitive actions for talking to the press about their troubles. But in the new antitrust era, more have begun to speak up when they feel Apple is unfairly punishing their business. That’s been good for U.S. regulators, at least. Congress has been collecting testimonies from developers that could ultimately impact the government’s decision to regulate the App Store. One has to wonder why Apple thinks the fight is worth it. It’s battling in the courtroom with Epic Games and it’s risking regulation, when the whole problem could have gone away with a small cut to its commission structure. Guess “services” really is the future of Apple’s business if it’s willing to take this sort of risk.

TikTok deal gets more complicated

CHINA – 2020/08/05: In this photo illustration, a TikTok logo is seen displayed on a smartphone. (Photo Illustration by Sheldon Cooper/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Everyone is waiting for the next shoe to drop on the topic of TikTok’s fate. One of the world’s biggest mobile apps, TikTok is going to be banned in the U.S. if it fails to get a deal by the September 20 deadline. China has now thrown a wrench in deal negotiations, when it issued new restrictions over the export of AI technology. The order could possibly complicate a TikTok deal, as it could mean that TikTok needs to get Chinese government approval to transfer TikTok’s algorithms along with other IP to any potential U.S. acquirer.

That leaves buyers to either pursue a deal without the algorithms in order to meet the deadline, or try to negotiate some sort of transition period for the deal with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). The latter would take some of the pressure off by dialing back on the immediacy required by the Trump E.O. Buyers could also try to get China to approve the export (which isn’t a timely option, really) or maybe license the algorithm from TikTok parent ByteDance.

Anyone who downplays the success of the continued success of TikTok without its algorithm has clearly not spent enough time on the app. While it now has the reach, its addictiveness comes from its eerily accurate algorithm that learns exactly what you want to see by way of using more than just basic signals. It’s non-trivial to spin that up again from scratch, but not an insurmountable hurdle, either, given the right investment and talent. Still, that’s not what buyers were looking for. Walmart engineers rebuilding TikTok? Can you imagine?

  • Snapchat had a big August amid TikTok uncertainty. The continual uncertainty around TikTok’s future may have provided a big boost to Snapchat in August. The app saw approximately 28.5 million new installs last month — its single largest month for first-time downloads since May 2019, according to Sensor Tower, when it had then seen 41.2 million new installs. The only other month, besides May 2019, where Snapchat had seen more monthly downloads than it did in August was December 2016. Downloads were up 29% year-over-year in August 2020, compared with 9% growth in July. (Sarah Perez/TechCrunch)
  • India bans PUBG Mobile, and over 100 other Chinese apps.Geopolitical tensions between India and China again spilled over into the app economy this week, as India banned 118 more Chinese apps that it deemed “prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order.” The country had banned 59 Chinese apps, including TikTok, in June. Newly banned apps include Baidu, WeChat Work, Tencent Weiyun, Rise of Kingdoms, APUS Launcher, a VPN for TikTok, Mobile Taobao, Youko, Sina News, Cam Card, PUBG Mobile and many others. (Manish Singh/TechCrunch)
  • Pakistan blocks five dating apps including Tinder and Grindr. Pakistan said on Tuesday it had blocked Tinder, Grindr and three other dating apps for not adhering to local laws around “immoral content.” (Gibran Naiyyar Peshimam/Reuters)
  • Fortnite leaves a $1.2 billion hole in the market. Fortnite has picked up slightly more than $1.2 billion in player spending since launching in March 2018, according to Sensor Tower estimates. On Google Play, it has generated $9.7 million following its release on the storefront in April 2020. In 2020, Fortnite generated $293 million in player spending, with close to $283 million spent on the App Store alone. (Craig Chapple/Sensor Tower)
  • Robinhood faces SEC probe for not disclosing deals with high-speed traders. Stock-trading app popular with millennials Robinhood is facing a civil fraud investigation over its failure to fully disclose its practice of selling clients’ orders to high-speed trading firms. (Dave Michaels; Alexander Osipovich/The Wall Street Journal).
  • Amazon’s big redesign on iOS to reach all US users by month-end. Amazon has given its iOS app a significant makeover featuring new colors, updated navigation, a floating quick access bar and other changes designed to make it easier to browse the app using one hand. The rollout will reach 100% of U.S. iOS users by the end of September 2020. The changes come at a time when more consumers are shopping online due to health concerns around the coronavirus outbreak. (Sarah Perez/TechCrunch)
  • Apple launches COVID-19 ‘Exposure Notification Express’ with iOS 13.7 — Android to follow later this month. Apple and Google are introducing new tools that make it easier for public health authorities to implement digital exposure notification, without the need for developing and maintaining their own individual apps. The iOS 13.7 update launched this week, with Android 6.0 arriving this month. (Darrell Etherington/TechCrunch)
  • Introducing Game IQ. App Annie introduced a new game analytics product, Game IQ, that uses data science to create and maintain a customizable taxonomy that automates game analysis at scale. Game IQ will deliver visual reports that include answers to questions like market size, class, genre, subgenre, tags and more. (App Annie)
  • Google launches Google Kids Space, a ‘kids mode’ feature for Android, initially on Lenovo tablets. The feature offers a dedicated kids mode on Android tablets which will aggregate apps, books and videos for kids to enjoy and learn from. Kids Space will launch first on the Lenovo Smart Tab M10 HD Gen 2, but Google aims to bring Kids Space to more devices in time. (Sarah Perez/TechCrunch)
  • Play Store, App Store revenue may be capped at 20% in Russia. A lawmaker in Russia submitted draft legislation that would cut the app store revenue of Apple and Google. If enacted, the law would limit commissions to 20% on both app stores, including paid downloads and in-app purchases. (Rei Padla/Android Community)
  • Apple-Epic row being closely watched by German antitrust chief. Germany’s Federal Cartel Office said the Apple-Epic lawsuit in the U.S. “has most certainly attracted our interest,” and is considering opening its own inquiry into Apple. “We are at the beginning, but we are looking at this very closely,” said Andreas Mundt, head of the Federal Cartel Office. (Douglas Busvine/Reuters)
  • Bambuser raises $45 million for its live video shopping platform. The company’s offering, which works on mobile similar to Instagram Live, has been used H&M, Motivi, Moda Operandi, Frame, LUISAVIAROMA and Showfields.
  • Toss Lab raises $13 million for its cross-platform collaboration platform, JANDI, the ‘Slack of Asia.’
  • San Francisco-based Skillz will IPO at a $3.5 billion valuation. The company offers a platform for making mobile games competitive, allowing users to play with friends or strangers for cash, prizes or points. It also enables esports tournaments.
  • Dating app Bumble reportedly talking to bankers about a 2021 IPO at a valuation of $6 to $8 billion.
  • Shopping app Wish submitted its draft registration to the SEC for an IPO. The company has raised $1.6 billion from investors to date, and was worth $11.2 billion as of last summer’s financing round.
  • Bangalore-based online learning startup Unacademy announced it has raised $150 million in a new financing round that valued the Facebook-backed firm at $1.45 billion (post-money).

The Last Campfire

Apple in 2018 approached Hello Games, the studio behind the hit title No Man’s Sky, to ask about titles that would work on Apple Arcade. The Last Campfire is the result of those talks. The game offers an artistic story of a lost ember trapped in a puzzling place, searching for meaning and a way home. The game supports controllers in addition to native touch controls,

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Apple won’t force developers to let users opt out of tracking until next year

At its global developer conference in June, Apple said its forthcoming iOS 14 update would allow users to opt out of in-app ad tracking, a privacy feature that quickly drew ire from advertising giants over fears that it would make it harder to deliver targeted ads to users.

But now Apple is delaying enforcing the feature until “early next year”, the company confirmed.

iOS 14, expected out later this year, will contain a new prompt that asks users whether they would like to opt into this kind of targeted ad tracking. Developers will be able to integrate this prompt into their apps as soon as iOS 14 is released, but they will not be required to, as Apple indicated they would earlier.

In a statement, Apple said:

We believe technology should protect users’ fundamental right to privacy, and that means giving users tools to understand which apps and websites may be sharing their data with other companies for advertising or advertising measurement purposes, as well as the tools to revoke permission for this tracking. When enabled, a system prompt will give users the ability to allow or reject that tracking on an app-by-app basis. We want to give developers the time they need to make the necessary changes, and as a result, the requirement to use this tracking permission will go into effect early next year.

Although Apple cites the necessity of giving developers time, major advertising companies like Facebook have warned that the change could severely impact their operations. “Apple’s updates may render Audience Network so ineffective on iOS 14 that it may not make sense to offer it on iOS 14,” the company said in a statement last week.

Putting these lucrative partnerships in jeopardy could hit Apple’s bottom line as well and may even affect whether some apps or services are available at all.

The exact date when the policy would be enforced, and other details of this compromise, will be announced later.

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This Week in Apps: Unreal Engine saved, Fortnite banned and TikTok talks to everyone

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.

This week, two big stories dominated the news: Apple’s fight with Fortnite maker Epic Games and TikTok’s negotiations with top U.S. tech firms over a sale. The former story saw Microsoft coming to Epic Games’ aid in court, in a surprise move.

Meanwhile, TikTok deal talks are happening quickly as both Oracle and Microsoft’s names have emerged as top suitors. But this week, we saw Walmart joining in the talks, too. Yes, Walmart!

One has to wonder if the TikTok that emerges from an acquisition like this will even be the TikTok that people today love to use, what with all these new corporate synergies that come into play.

Apple gets petty in fight with Epic Games

Image credit: Kyle Grillot/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Sorry, Apple, but this is not a good look.

On Friday, the $2 trillion company took its battle with Fortnite maker Epic Games to a whole new level of petty. Just as Fortnite for iOS and Mac was officially blocked from being able to issue updates for its apps, Apple featured Fortnite top competitor PUBG Mobile in the App Store in an editorial story on the Today tab. Apple’s App Store Twitter account also posted about PUBG Mobile’s New Era.

This isn’t coincidental, but a conscious decision on Apple’s part to demonstrate its market power. That is: if you don’t want to play by our rules, fine — we’ll just give business to your competitor instead. Being featured on the App Store drives downloads for an app, which helps an app find new users and reconnect with existing ones.

Apple made its point, but it sure was an ugly way to do it.

In a surprise move, Microsoft came out in support of Epic Games this week. Microsoft GM of gaming developer experiences Kevin Gammill submitted a letter to the court that said Apple’s move to cut ties with Epic would harm game developers. Microsoft uses Epic’s Unreal Engine for its own title, “Forza Street,” but the company understands the damage Apple can do to the gaming industry if it stopped Epic from being able to work on Unreal Engine by disabling its Apple developer account.

Plus, if there’s a battle between the gaming industry and Apple, Microsoft will probably take game developers’ sides these days. After all, Microsoft is in the gaming business and its own cloud gaming service xCloud is banned from the App Store, too, as is Google’s Stadia. Apple’s decision to disallow cloud gaming is anti-consumer and fairly unpopular.

The judge in the Apple v. Epic case this week gave Epic Games a temporary restraining order against Apple, but only to stop Apple from retaliating against Epic Games by blocking the company’s Unreal Engine. Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers also chastised Apple for the move, saying that Epic and Apple were free to litigate against each other, but “their dispute should not create havoc to bystanders.”

It’s becoming pretty clear that Apple’s way of running the App Store is not just a set of rules, it’s become a way for Apple to control other businesses, and even limit their growth. Apple’s ban on cloud gaming looks a lot like a way for Apple to protect its own gaming business at the expense of rivals. In the meantime, a patent reveals Apple is working on its own cloud gaming system. Yikes.

Unfortunately, in battles of this size we’re not exactly left with a hero to root for. Epic Games is no indie underdog being crushed by the big guy. It is the big guy. Microsoft is doing okay too. And when Facebook complains that Apple wouldn’t allow its gaming app into the store, or when it rejected Facebook’s app for informing users of Apple’s 30% cut, it’s easy enough to shrug and move on. Oh poor Facebook is not a sentiment people are capable of feeling these days.

But it’s important to remember that what Apple is doing to these big guys, it’s also doing to the smaller ones. We already saw that with the Basecamp Hey debacle. More recently, Apple rejected the free, open-source WordPress app from the App Store for failing to add Apple’s in-app purchase system and because some of the app’s web views could lead to information about WordPress’s pricing plans.

The issue was resolved and Apple even apologized, but it’s clear that something is very, very broken at the App Store. And the ultimate loser is the consumer. 

In Steve Jobs’ day, GV General Partner M.G. Siegler pointed out in a recent blog post, Apple believed in its App Store and payment systems would win on their own merits, not because they were forced. In Jobs’ own words: “Our philosophy is simple — when Apple brings a new subscriber to the app, Apple earns a 30 percent share; when the publisher brings an existing or new subscriber to the app, the publisher keeps 100 percent and Apple earns nothing.”

How times have changed.

TikTok nears U.S. deal and loses CEO 

(Photo by CHRIS DELMAS/AFP via Getty Images)

TikTok is busy. On Monday, the world’s biggest app sued the U.S. government over Trump’s executive order, claiming it had been enacted without evidence and without any due process. Meanwhile, Vietnamese technology firm VNG also sued TikTok over music licensing issues and the U.K. began readying governmental restrictions on TikTok’s activities. TikTok is also still trying to come up with a deal that will allow its app to return to India.

On Thursday, things went from bad to worse as TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer resigned. The former Disney executive had joined the social network just over 100 days ago, but said this was not the job he signed up for. His hiring now increasingly looks like a way what many had suspected all along — a way for TikTok’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance, to point to Americans in exec roles at TikTok as a way to reassure U.S. regulators about its business.

According to reports, Mayer was left out of the negotiations to sell TikTok, which were instead headed by ByteDance founder and CEO Zhang Yiming. Mayer was also said to be scheduled to leave TikTok as part of a planned sale, as his role would no longer exist. But the exec’s sudden departure is bad for morale at a time when TikTok’s existence in the U.S. market remains in question.

Meanwhile, the question of who is talking to TikTok would be easier to answer by who is not. Only Apple went on record to say it’s not interested. Microsoft and Oracle have emerged as top suitors in the days since Trump’s E.O. Oracle is reportedly nearing a $20 billion deal. But this week, Walmart also expressed interest in TikTok, teaming up with Microsoft, before trying to first team up with Alphabet and SoftBank. Walmart…yes really. It imagines it could sell to customers on the platform and expand its ad business.

  • Apple releases new betas. Apple’s 6th developer betas for iOS 14, iPadOS 14, watchOS 7 and tvOS 14 rolled out this week, as did the latest public betas for iOS an iPadOS. The company typically releases its software updates in September, so these are getting close to the final versions.
  • Facebook and Instagram expand Shopping features. Facebook this week introduced a new “Shop” section in its app, which aims to redirect Facebook users to sellers’ storefronts without leaving Facebook, similar to Instagram’s existing shopping experience. Instagram also began testing live shopping, where businesses can show off content in live videos. Dozens of live video shopping startups will be impacted by the new competition.
  • YouTube is testing Picture-in-Picture mode on iOS. But will supporting the feature impact YouTube’s ability to upsell subscriptions to those who want access to background play?
  • Ever shuts down app after building facial recognition tech using customer data. Cloud photo storage app Ever is shutting down. The company last year was the subject of an NBC News report which found Ever had been using its customers’ photos to develop facial recognition technology that it turned around and offered for sale by way of the Ever API to business clients, including law enforcement and the military. Unfortunately, that ill-gotten business lives on, rebranded as Paravision.
  • Amazon launches a fitness band and app called Halo. The service will sell for $64.99 for a six-month membership at launch. Oh, do we trust Amazon with our health data now?
  • Facebook warns Apple’s upcoming ad tracking restrictions will significantly impact app developers’ ability to target ads. The company says that without targeting and personalization, mobile app install campaigns brought in 50% less revenue for publishers and it expects the impact to Audience Network on iOS 14 will be even greater. Consumers, sick of being tracked everywhere on the web, are going to be fine with this. Facebook will also be OK. Small startups that used highly targeted ads to save themselves from having to pay for tons more impressions to reach their desired audience, however…
  • Android security bug let malicious apps siphon user data. Google confirmed the bug was patched in March after a security researcher reported it.
  • LaunchNotes raised a $1.8 million seed round to help companies better communicate their software updates. No more “bug fixes and performance improvements.”
  • Berlin-based Delivery Hero acquired InstaShop for $360 million. The latter is based in Dubai and has half a million users in five markets.
  • Unity files to go public. A rival to Epic Games’ Unreal Engine with its own Unity Game Engine, Unity claims its engine powers over half the top games on mobile, PC and consoles, and 53% of the top 1,000 games on iOS and Android. Not surprisingly, its numbers look strong.

Bingie helps you find new things to watch.

Image Credits: Bingie

Bingie aims to turn getting Netflix recommendations from friends into a more structured experience. The app for streamers let them get together with friends to discuss, discover and share recommendations across services. The app looks well-built, but overlooks the fact that not all friend groups share common interests. It would be interesting to see it expand to include fellow fans, like TV Time offers, in a later update. Bingie is free on iOS. Read the full review on TechCrunch.

Firefox Daylight for Android 

[embedded content]

Mozilla this week launched Firefox 79 for Android, aka Firefox Daylight, after more than a year of development. The new browser is faster and entirely overhauled, offering a new user interface, Mozilla’s browser engine GeckoView, enhanced tracking protection, a private mode (based on the privacy browser Firefox Focus), a new bookmarking tools, support for add-ons and more.

Flipboard gets into video

Image Credits: Flipboard

News magazine app Flipboard has been around for years, but its latest update introduces a big change. The app now allows users to follow video content from hundreds of publishers, including national/global news outlets, local news and (carefully vetted) indie producers. Users can even build out their own video-only collections to stay on top of the latest news in the form of video, or they can add video-only feeds into existing magazines. Publishers can also add video to their static round-ups known as Storyboards. Flipboard TV, as the new feature is called, was previously a Samsung exclusive. Now the ad-supported version is available to all.

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Apple goes to war with the gaming industry

Most gamers may not view Apple as a games company to the same degree that they see Sony with PlayStation or Microsoft with Xbox, but the iPhone-maker continues to uniformly drive the industry with decisions made in the Apple App Store.

The company made the news a couple times late this week for App Store approvals. Once for denying a gaming app, and the other for approving one.

The denial was Microsoft’s xCloud gaming app, something the Xbox folks weren’t too psyched about. Microsoft xCloud is one of the Xbox’s most substantial software platform plays in quite some time, allowing gamers to live-stream titles from the cloud and play console-quality games across a number of devices. It’s a huge effort that’s been in preview for a bit, but is likely going to officially launch next month. The app had been in a Testflight preview for iOS, but as Microsoft looked to push it to primetime, Apple said not so fast.

The app that was approved was the Facebook Gaming app which Facebook has been trying to shove through the App Store for months to no avail. It was at last approved Friday after the company stripped one of its two central features, a library of playable mobile games. In a curt statement to The New York Times, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said, “Unfortunately, we had to remove gameplay functionality entirely in order to get Apple’s approval on the stand-alone Facebook Gaming app.”

Microsoft’s Xbox team also took the unusually aggressive step of calling out Apple in a statement that reads, in-part, “Apple stands alone as the only general purpose platform to deny consumers from cloud gaming and game subscription services like Xbox Game Pass. And it consistently treats gaming apps differently, applying more lenient rules to non-gaming apps even when they include interactive content.”

Microsoft is still a $1.61 trillion company so don’t think I’m busting out the violin for them, but iOS is the world’s largest gaming platform, something CEO Tim Cook proudly proclaimed when the company launched its own game subscription platform, Apple Arcade, last year. Apple likes to play at its own pace, and all of these game-streaming platforms popping up at the same time seem poised to overwhelm them.

Image Credits: Microsoft

There are a few things about cloud gaming apps that seem at odds with some of the App Store’s rules, yet these rules are, of course, just guidelines written by Apple.  For Apple’s part, they basically said (full statement later) that the App Store had curators for a reason and that approving apps like these means they can’t individually review the apps which compromises the App Store experience.

To say that’s “the reason” seems disingenuous because the company has long approved platforms to operate on the App Store without stamping approval on the individual pieces of content that can be accessed. With “Games” representing the App Store’s most popular category, Apple likely cares much more about keeping their own money straight.

Analysis from CNBC pinned Apple’s 2019 App Store total revenue at $50 billion.

When these cloud gaming platforms like xCloud scale with zero iOS support, millions of Apple customers, myself included, are actually going to be pissed that their iPhone can’t do something that their friend’s phone can. Playing console-class titles on the iPhone would be a substantial feature upgrade for consumers. There are about 90 million Xbox Live users out there, a substantial number of which are iPhone owners I would imagine. The games industry is steadily rallying around game subscription networks and cloud gaming as a move to encourage consumers to sample more titles and discover more indie hits.

I’ve seen enough of these sagas to realize that sometimes parties will kick off these fights purely as a tactic to get their way in negotiations and avoid workarounds, but it’s a tactic that really only works when consumers have a reason to care. Most of the bigger App Store developer spats have played in the background and come to light later, but at this point the Xbox team undoubtedly sees that Apple isn’t positioned all that well to wage an App Store war in the midst of increased antitrust attention over a cause that seems wholly focused on maintaining their edge in monetizing the games consumers play on Apple screens.

CEO Tim Cook spent an awful lot of time in his Congressional Zoom room answering question about perceived anticompetitiveness on the company’s application storefront.

The big point of tension I could see happening behind closed doors is that plenty of these titles offer in-game transactions and just because that in-app purchase framework is being live-streamed from a cloud computer doesn’t mean that a user isn’t still using experiencing that content on an Apple device. I’m not sure whether this is actually the point of contention, but it seems like it would be a major threat to Apple’s ecosystem-wide in-app purchase raking.

The App Store does not currently support cloud gaming on Nvidia’s GeForce platform or Google’s Stadia which are also both available on Android phones. Both of these platforms are more limited in scope than Microsoft’s offering which is expected to launch with wider support and pick up wider adoption.

While I can understand Apple’s desire to not have gaming titles ship that might not function properly on an iPhone because of system constraints, that argument doesn’t apply so well to the cloud gaming world where apps are translating button presses to the cloud and the cloud is sending them back the next engine-rendered frames of their game. Apple is being forced to get pretty particular about what media types of apps fall under the “reader” designation. The inherent interactivity of a cloud gaming platform seems to be the differentiation Apple is pushing here — as well as the interfaces that allows gamers to directly launch titles with an interface that’s far more specialized than some generic remote desktop app.

All of these platforms arrive after the company already launched Apple Arcade, a non-cloud gaming product made in the image of what Apple would like to think are the values it fosters in the gaming world: family friendly indie titles with no intrusive ads, no bothersome micro-transactions and Apple’s watchful review.

Apple’s driver’s seat position in the gaming world has been far from a wholly positive influence for the industry. Apple has acted as a gatekeeper, but the fact is plenty of the “innovations” pushed through as a result of App Store policies have been great for Apple but questionable for the development of a gamer-friendly games industry.

Apple facilitated the advent of free-to-play games by pushing in-app purchases which have been abused recklessly over the years as studios have been irresistibly pushed to structure their titles around principles of addiction. Mobile gaming has been one of the more insane areas of Wild West startup growth over the past decade and Apple’s mechanics for fueling quick transactions inside these titles has moved fast and broken things.

Take a look at the 200 top grossing games in the App Store (data via Sensor Tower) and you’ll see that all 199 of them rely solely on in-app micro-transaction to reach that status — Microsoft’s Minecraft, ranked 50th costs $6.99 to download, though it also offers in-app purchases.

In 2013, the company settled a class-action lawsuit that kicked off after parents sued Apple for making it too easy for kids to make in-app purchases. In 2014, Apple settled a case with the FTC over the same mechanism for $32 million. This year, a lawsuit filed against Apple questioned the legality of “loot box” in-app purchases which gave gamers randomized digital awards.

“Through the games it sells and offers for free to consumers through its AppStore, Apple engages in predatory practices enticing consumers, including children to engage in gambling and similar addictive conduct in violation of this and other laws designed to protect consumers and to prohibit such practices,” read that most recent lawsuit filing.

This is, of course, not how Apple sees its role in the gaming industry. In a statement to Business Insider responding to the company’s denial of Microsoft’s xCloud, Apple laid out its messaging.

The App Store was created to be a safe and trusted place for customers to discover and download apps, and a great business opportunity for all developers. Before they go on our store, all apps are reviewed against the same set of guidelines that are intended to protect customers and provide a fair and level playing field to developers.

Our customers enjoy great apps and games from millions of developers, and gaming services can absolutely launch on the App Store as long as they follow the same set of guidelines applicable to all developers, including submitting games individually for review, and appearing in charts and search. In addition to the App Store, developers can choose to reach all iPhone and iPad users over the web through Safari and other browsers on the App Store.

The impact has — quite obviously — not been uniformly negative, but Apple has played fast and loose with industry changes when they benefit the mothership. I won’t act like plenty of Sony and Microsoft’s actions over the years haven’t offered similar affronts to gamers, but Apple exercises the industry-wide sway it holds, operating the world’s largest gaming platform, too often and gamers should be cautious in trusting the App Store owner to make decisions that have their best interests at heart.


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