This Week in Apps: Twitter targets creators, Clubhouse security, Spotify’s plans for paid podcasts

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. A new forecast this week expects consumer spend to grow to $270 billion by 2025.

Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.

This week, we’re looking into what’s next for the future of one of the top social apps (Twitter), as well as Spotify’s latest announcements around its future plans for podcasts and subscriptions, along with other top stories, including the Clubhouse security problem.

Top Stories

Twitter wakes up

Image Credits: Twitter

Twitter over the years has been slow to roll out new features that dramatically impact its platform — even going so far at one time to build an entirely separate app just to test a new way to link together conversation threads. Its slow momentum and failure to build features users actually want, like an edit button, has left Twitter feeling a lot like the same experience it was in its earlier years — a public SMS of sorts (albeit one with more utilities for tweet discovery and management).

This has also contributed slow user growth, which opened up Twitter last year to pressure from activist investors to oust CEO Jack Dorsey, who was then planning to move to Africa, while also still running Square. (He decided not to go because of the pandemic… and, well, to keep his job, we’d guess.) Following this more intensive scrutiny of Twitter’s operations, the company in recent months has begun to speed things up on the product front.

Last year, it rolled out to its global audience a stories-like feature called Fleets, offering a place for more ephemeral content to live on its platform. It began development on a Clubhouse rival, Twitter Spaces, which is surging ahead with updates and new features. And it’s working on a community-led misinformation debunking effort, Birdwatch.

Twitter also began to make a series of acquisitions to build out its product teams, with additions like social app Squad, stories template maker Chroma Labs and podcasting app Breaker. And more recently, it bought newsletter platform Revue, which is already integrated on the Twitter website.

And it’s not done. This week, Twitter announced even more new products were in the works.

One, a new product called “Super Follow,” represents Twitter’s first-ever paid feature. The idea with the Super Follow is to turn Twitter into a platform where creators can monetize their fan base — with a “Super Follow” subscription, fans can access member-only perks. These can include whatever the creator wants — newsletters, videos, deals, community access and even paywalled content like tweets, fleets and audio chats in Twitter Spaces.

Along with this, Twitter introduced “Communities,” which, in addition to allowing social networking around interests, give Super Follow-using creators a place to organize their own private networks.

And it’s finally working on tools to auto-block and mute the trolls, too. 🙌

To put it mildly, this strategy represents one of the more radical shake-ups to Twitter’s platform to date. It not only challenges other networks — like Facebook, Discord, Patreon, Substack and Clubhouse — it positions Twitter’s slew of new features not just as fun add-ons, but rather as general-purpose tools that allow anyone to build and grow their own communities whichever way they want.

The one big miss on this front is that Twitter no longer has its own social video app to throw in the mix, too. Sadly, the company shut down both Vine and now, Periscope. Though Twitter itself supports video, Vine’s closure led to a hole in the market that’s since been filled by TikTok. And unfortunately, sharing TikTok links on Twitter is poor experience — they just display as previews that take you to a new TikTok tab when clicked. To get TikTok videos to play in-line, you have to download them first — something not all creators permit.

Nevertheless, Twitter is expecting the changes to help it to double its revenues by 2023, and grow its daily user base to 315 million, up from the 192 million it has today.

Spotify looks to new subscriptions for revenue growth

Image Credits: Spotify/Anchor

Twitter isn’t the only one looking to new subscriptions to make more money. Spotify this week also announced a good handful of updates, including a high-end Premium add-on for higher-quality music streams, called Spotify HiFi.

The company also confirmed its plans to test paid podcast subscriptions. The big bet here is that some podcasts are so compelling and have such a loyal fanbase that listeners will pay for their content, or maybe just their extras. These, of course, will no longer really be “podcasts” at this point — they’re paid audio programs. The feature will be introduced to Spotify’s creation app Anchor this spring.

But overeager adoption of paywalls by podcasters (who can’t make a living from their ad sales) could push more users to new social audio platforms, like Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces, where content is free and conversations are more participatory. Anchor’s solution for audience engagement is to roll out Q&As and polls. But why bother clicking, when you can hit up a Clubhouse room and talk?

Clubhouse’s exclusivity leads to discovery of security problems

The demand for Clubhouse access is becoming so high that people are figuring out ways to reverse-engineer the experience, TechCrunch reported this week. A developer found a way to broadcast Clubhouse audio feeds in real time to users who couldn’t get in because they didn’t have an invite or an iPhone. Though Clubhouse blocked the effort later in the week, the fact that a developer was able to gain access to Clubhouse audio feeds in the first place was an indication that the app isn’t as locked down as one might think.

In addition, other researchers have figured out ways to “ghost listen” to rooms without displaying user profiles — essentially, eavesdropping. And users in China appear to be able to listen to a room conversation facilitated by Clubhouse’s service provider Agora by using a VPN — even though they can’t technically “join” a room due to the app itself being banned.

Clubhouse’s appeal has a lot to do with how its social audio spaces aren’t recorded, so people can be themselves. There’s an expectation that you are only speaking to a group who’s listening and there’s no way to go back for a transcript or recording later. In other words, it’s not a podcast — it’s live. It’s social. And it’s semi-private.

These security breaches prove that’s not entirely true.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

Apple added guidance for app developers to help them complete App Store privacy labels. Specifically, it added information about data types, like email and messages, and gameplay content. Not coincidentally, I’m sure, Google added a privacy label to Gmail this week, too.

Apple’s “Sign in with Apple” button is now a part of the U.S. DoJ antitrust investigation against the company, reports The Information. Apple requires the option on all apps that offer sign-in buttons from other companies, like Facebook and Google, which has upset some developers. Investigators are looking to better understand how use of the button makes it more difficult for Apple device users to switch to other platforms.

Apple Entrepreneur Camp applications opened up for female founders and developers. The camp will run online July 20-29, 2021, offering attendees code-level guidance, mentorship, plus access to Apple engineers.

Apple tweaked the subscription “buy sheet” in iOS 14.5 beta. The new screen aims to make the price of an app’s subscription more clear to end users.

Apple hid an Easter egg in its Apple Store app to celebrate its 10-year anniversary.

Platforms: Google

Google this week announced the next set of features coming to Android in its spring 2021 release. Flagship items include a password checkup tool and a way to schedule your texts (!!!). The latter means you can compose a message at any time, then pick the time you want it to send. iMessage, your turn! Other improvements included updates to the screen reader TalkBack, Maps (which gets a dark mode default option), Assistant and Android Auto.

Google launches an Android Sleep API for use in health and wellness apps. The new API will use the phone’s light and motion sensors in combination with an onboard API model to generate information like a “sleep confidence” determination and daily sleep segments.

Food & Drink

Food delivery app DoorDash stock falls after its first earnings. The company reported $970 million in revenue versus $938 million expected and a loss per share of $2.67. But shares dropped as much as 13% on DoorDash’s forecast, which said some of the earlier tailwinds it saw under stay-at-home orders in the U.S. will turn around as the country gets the vaccine under control.

Food delivery apps got a boost during the Lunar New Year holiday week in China, thanks to COVID-19 travel restrictions that kept people at home and prompted more remote gift deliveries, in particular food orders from services like Meituan and Alibaba’s Ele.me.

Augmented Reality

An iPhone app called Museum Alive, reviewed by The Verge, includes narration from Sir David Attenborough as an extension of his Natural History Museum Alive film. The app includes interactive AR exhibits with extinct animals in their own habitats.

Fintech

Mobile investing app Robinhood reports seeing 6 million new customers on Robinhood Crypto just this year. By comparison, the number peaked at 401,000 customers in a single month in 2020, with a monthly average of 200,000 customers trading on Robinhood Crypto for the first time.

Google emailed users of the old Google Pay app and website that they’ll lose transactional capabilities on April 5 and will need to switch to the updated Google Pay app instead.

Social

Image Credits: Snap

At Snap’s investor day, the company projected 50% annual revenue growth for the next several years. The company spoke of the app’s main features — Camera, Map, Chat, Stories and Spotlight — each which it believes to be multibillion-dollar revenues streams in the long-term. It also talked about its investments in AR, Snap Ads, Shows, Stories and its TikTok rival, Spotlight. Investors responded favorably to the news, with shares up 11% on Tuesday, pushing the company’s valuation over $100 billion.

Instagram adds its TikTok rival, Reels, to its slimmed-down Instagram Lite app aimed at emerging markets. Some are already dubbing it “bloatware.”

TikTok partners with Portland Timbers and Thorns FC in its first U.S. soccer deal. The multi-year deal will have the clubs distributing video content in collaboration with TikTok, and will see the clubs featuring the TikTok logo on their jerseys.

TikTok owner ByteDance agrees to $92 million privacy settlement with U.S. TikTok users after a year of litigation. The claims in the lawsuits said TikTok was using a broad array of biometric data and content from user devices for ad targeting and profit. TikTok said it disagrees with the assertions but wanted to put an end to the lengthy litigation.

TikTok’s latest transparency report for H2 2020 said the app removed over 300,000 election misinformation videos, and another 400,000 from the For You page. The percentage of deletions were in line with the prior report, despite the busy election season it covered.

The Washington Post reports conservative backer Rebekah Mercer, whose family also funds Breitbart, now controls two of the three board seats at right-wing Twitter alternative, Parler. The app’s founding CEO John Matze was pushed out last month, and Mercer has since exerted more control over the company’s direction.

Twitter banned 100 accounts linked to Russian troll farms. The accounts were caught up in part of a larger enforcement action Twitter took against 373 accounts with connections to Armenia, Iran and Russia. The Russian accounts were being used to amplify talking points in favor of the Russian government.

Facebook tests new tools to combat child exploitation. One tool will pop up a message for people who use search terms linked to child exploitation that reminds them of the consequences and points them to resources to get help from offender diversion organizations. Another will alert users to the legal ramifications of sharing viral, meme child exploitative content. The company also updated its child safety policies and updated its reporting menu across FB and IG to include a section for a report that “involves a child.”

Top social apps including TikTok, Instagram and Pinterest added new features to support those with eating disorders as part of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (February 22-28). Among the changes, TikTok and Instagram added features to encourage body inclusivity; TikTok now redirects some eating disorder searches to point to support resources; Instagram added links to local helplines in Australia, Canada and the U.K.; Pinterest donated credits to encourage people to tune into NED Awareness events; and more.

Photos

Flickr rolled out a widget for both iOS and Android devices. The widget lets you enjoy a rotating selection of photos from Explore on your home screen — great for someone looking for variety, instead of a static home screen.

Messaging / Communications

Telegram adds an auto-delete option for all messages, which lets users automatically delete messages after either 24 hours or seven days. The feature was previously available only for its encrypted Secret Chats. It also added expiring invite links and an option to create broadcast-only groups.

WhatsApp details what will happen when users don’t agree to the privacy changes by the May 15, 2021 deadline. It said for a short time (a few weeks), the users will be able to receive calls and notifications, but won’t be able to read or send messages, to give them more time to agree.

More Google Hangouts users are being migrated over to the Google Chat “preview” experience. The company had said it would split Hangouts into two services, Chat and Meet. The transition began last year, but personal account holders had only been told “early 2021” for their migration date. Early reports (see below) say the new experience is lacking when it comes to video call integration and lack of SMS support.

Streaming & Entertainment

Image Credits: YouTube

YouTube announced it will roll out parental control features for families with tweens and teens that will allow them to graduate more safely from the YouTube Kids app to “real YouTube.” Parents will be able grant kids more access through their “supervised” Google Account, then choose from one of of three levels of YouTube access ranging from a selection that’s more tween-friendly to another that’s more appropriate for older teens. By using the account, parents are also agreeing to allow YouTube to collect personal data from the kids — something it couldn’t do in YouTube Kids.

Disney’s adult-friendly Star channel launched outside the U.S. to Disney+ subscribers in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. The additional channel combines content from Disney Television Studios, FX, 20th Century Studios and 20th Television, and bumps Disney+ price up by a small amount (a few pounds in the U.K., e.g.). Parental controls were also added to block kids from accessing the more adult fare.

South Korean media reported the country’s current prime minister, Chung Sye-kyun, has joined Clubhouse, making him the most senior political leader to join the growing app.

Gaming

Image Credits: GameSnacks

Google’s mobile-friendly online games, GameSnacks, developed by its Area 120 in-house incubator, are being integrated into Chrome on iOS and Android Pay in select emerging markets. The HTML5-powered games are a way that Google is routing around app stores, and instead delivering gaming content to users without the associated app store fees. It’s also a more lightweight model for gaming, which helps in some markets where storage space and bandwidth are concerns. The company is experimenting with bringing the games to Google Assistant next.

Chinese mobile games released on the U.S. App Store and Google Play Store raked in $5.8 billion during Q24 2020, up 34.3% from a year ago, and accounting for over a quarter of the world’s mobile gaming revenues, per Sensor Tower data. Top titles include big names like Call of Duty (a collaboration between Tencent and Activision) and Tencent’s PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. as well as those from smaller studios such as Mihoyo’s Genshin Impact and Magic Tavern’s Project Makeover.

In the ongoing Epic Games versus Apple legal showdown in the U.S., Epic is now trying to locate former iOS software chief Scott Forstall to testify, after Apple said Forstall didn’t respond to its request to appear.

Meanwhile, a U.K. court blocked Epic Games from challenging Apple’s Fortnite ban. The court said Epic’s lawsuit against Apple would be better to pursue in the U.S., but allowed the suit against Google to continue.

Epic Games is sending players V-Bucks to settle its Fornite loot box class action lawsuit. The settlement is supposed to be for U.S. players only, but Epic is offering the V-Bucks to global players.

Amazon’s Luna cloud gaming service, which lets users stream games across platforms including Windows, Mac, Android, web browsers on iPhone and iPad and desktop, has now arrived on Amazon’s Fire TV devices in an expansion of its early access program.

App Annie announces new features to help customers discover gaming launches, as well as measure and visualize performance of games. The features include RPD (revenue per download), Align Apps by Launch, Cumulative Downloads and Cumulative Revenue, and a Soft Launches Report.

A floating gaming toolbar has been found in the code of the Android 12 Developer Preview. Full details are not available but one button is a picture of a game controller while the other is suspected to be some sort of option to record your current gaming session.

Social casino game Coin Master from Moon Active tops $2 billion in lifetime player spending, reports Sensor Tower. The title booked $1.2 billion in 2020 alone, up 122.4% year-over-year, boosted by pandemic boredom and in-game spending.

Zynga is creating its own first-party walled garden for ad tech, due to Apple’s push for app tracking transparency. More companies could do the same, argues Mobile Dev Memo.

Health & Fitness

The New York Department of Financial Services said in an investigative report that Facebook has now taken steps to prevent it from collecting unauthorized data about people’s medical conditions, The WSJ reported. The company had been collecting the data through its SDK installed in numerous apps, then matches the sensitive, personal data to users’ Facebook accounts for ad targeting. One app involved, period tracker Flo, separately settled with the FTC in January over its involvement.

Media

Australia’s ABC News app hit the top of the App Store following the upheaval related to Facebook’s ban of Australian news sources on its platform. The app become No. 1 in News and No. 2 Overall, ahead of Facebook and its other apps, including Messenger and Instagram.

Funding and M&A

💰 YouTuber David Dobrik’s retro photo app raised $20 million in a Series A round led by Spark Capital. The app’s gimmick is that it allows you to snap photos in an old-fashioned camera interface where photos don’t “develop” until the next morning. The TestFlight, capped at 10,000 users, was full within a weekend of launching.

💰 Celebrity video platform memmo raised $10 million Series A, in a round led by Left Lane Capital. The concept is similar to U.S.-based Cameo, but Stockholm-based memmo’s strategy is both global and localized.

💰 Snack, a TikTok-like dating app, raised $3.5 million in a round led by Kindred Ventures and Coelius Capital. The startup was founded by early (Match Group-owned) Plenty of Fish exec Kimberly Kaplan, and targets Gen Z by way of a video feed with likes and comments that lead to DMs.

💰 AI-powered transcription service Otter, available on web and mobile, raised $50 million ($40 million in new funds) Series B. The service got a boost from the pandemic and its Zoom integration.

💰 Spain’s Wallapop raised $191 million at an $840 million valuation for its classifieds marketplace. The funding was led by Korelya Capital, a French VC fund backed by Korea’s Naver. The app was previously going to merge with U.S.-based LetGo, but later shelved those plans. (LetGo instead was bought by OfferUp.)

🤝 Austrian app marketer App Radar acquired Spanish rival TheTool. At the time of the deal, TheTool provided data insights for some 400 app marketing clients. The assets-only deal will allow App Radar to expand its presence across Europe.

💰 Indian edtech startup Doubtnut raised $31 million for its website and app that help students learn math and science. The app lets students take a photo of the problem, then uses ML and image recognition to deliver the answer in the form of short videos.

🤝 Design platform Canva, which works on both web and mobile, acquired Kaleido, the maker of a drag-and-drop background removal service, remove.bg, for photos and videos. It also bought Smartmockups in the Czech Republic, which lets anyone create mockups for t-shirts, mugs and other items.

🤝 Podcast host and ad network Acast bought RadioPublic, a maker of tools for podcasters, including a website maker, marketing tools, and the RadioPublic podcast app. The latter will remain live and the team will stay in the U.S.

💰 Copenhagen-based Podimo, a subscription service for podcasts, raised €11.2 million in funding. The app offers access to over 600 exclusive shows, and shares its revenue from subscriptions with its creators.

❓Beijing-based tutoring app Yuanfudao is said to be raising funding at a $20 billion+ valuation. The funding would follow a prior $2.2 billion round that valued the business at $15.5 billion.

📈 Roblox shares to begin trading March 10. The cross-platform gaming service, which is popular on mobile, has opted for a direct listing instead of an IPO.

Downloads

Quill

Image Credits: Quill

A new Slack competitor, Quill, launched out of stealth this week, TechCrunch reported, with its apps for the web, Mac, Windows, Linux and Android and iOS on mobile. Like Slack, Quill lets co-workers communicate through channels, video and voice. But it also addresses some of the issues Slack overlooks. One, “structured channels,” lets admins enforce threads, for example. It also automatically moves up active conversations, limits notifications, has improved pinning, supports moving threads between channels and places video and chat side-by-side, to name a few. You can even interact with Quill via SMS and email.

ANDY’s apps

Image Credits: ANDY

Andy Allen, former head of Product at WeTransfer, teamed up with Mark Dawson, the lead graphics engineer from Allen’s former prior company Fifty Three, to create a new set of “default” apps with ANDY. That is, the company’s new apps aim to update your basic set — like weather, calculator and timer.

“Most of the default apps haven’t changed over the last 10 years. Yet we’re still using them. I see that as a sign that we’ll still need basic apps like weather, calculator and timer in another 10 years,” notes Allen.

Image Credits: ANDY

What makes ANDY apps different is that they’re built inside a game engine to unlock new experiences that makes them feel more like games themselves. They’re also skinnable, with three skins available at launch and more to come every few months. The apps require a subscription to work — either $14.99/yr for all apps and basic skins or $69.99/yr for all apps plus basic and limited-edition skins, as well as limited-edition collector cards. The company plans to expand its app collection over time.

YouWidget

Image Credits: YouWidget

Spotted this week by the folks at iMore, the new YouWidget delivers a YouTube iOS widget that puts a live video feed on your home screen along with other stats. For YouTubers and fans alike, the app could be useful in helping to track a specific channel’s releases and their other subscriptions. But even if you don’t need live videos, the app offers a widget with statistics for any channel — including subscriber counts, views and video counts.

Facebook launches BARS, a TikTok-like app for creating and sharing raps

Facebook’s internal R&D group, NPE Team, is today launching its next experimental app, called BARS. The app makes it possible for rappers to create and share their raps using professionally created beats, and is the NPE Team’s second launch in the music space following its recent public debut of music video app Collab.

While Collab focuses on making music with others online, BARS is instead aimed at would-be rappers looking to create and share their own videos. In the app, users will select from any of the hundreds of professionally created beats, then write their own lyrics and record a video. BARS can also automatically suggest rhymes as you’re writing out lyrics, and offers different audio and visual filters to accompany videos as well as an autotune feature.

There’s also a “Challenge mode” available, where you can freestyle with auto-suggested word cues, which has more of a game-like element to it. The experience is designed to be accommodating to people who just want to have fun with rap, similar to something like Smule’s AutoRap, perhaps, which also offers beats for users’ own recordings.

Image Credits: Facebook

The videos themselves can be up to 60 seconds in length and can then be saved to your Camera Roll or shared out on other social media platforms.

Like NPE’s Collab, the pandemic played a role in BARS’ creation. The pandemic shut down access to live music and places where rappers could experiment, explains NPE Team member DJ Iyler, who also ghostwrites hip-hop songs under the alias “D-Lucks.”

“I know access to high-priced recording studios and production equipment can be limited for aspiring rappers. On top of that, the global pandemic shut down live performances where we often create and share our work,” he says.

BARS was built with a team of aspiring rappers, and today launched into a closed beta.

Image Credits: Facebook

Despite the focus on music, and rap in particular, the new app in a way can be seen as yet another attempt by Facebook to develop a TikTok competitor — at least in this content category.

TikTok has already become a launchpad for up-and-coming musicians, including rappers; it has helped rappers test their verses, is favored by many beatmakers and is even influencing what sort of music is being made. Diss tracks have also become a hugely popular format on TikTok, mainly as a way for influencers to stir up drama and chase views. In other words, there’s already a large social community around rap on TikTok, and Facebook wants to shift some of that attention back its way.

The app also resembles TikTok in terms of its user interface. It’s a two-tabbed vertical video interface — in its case, it has  “Featured” and “New” feeds instead of TikTok’s “Following” and “For You.” And BARS places the engagement buttons on the lower-right corner of the screen with the creator name on the lower-left, just like TikTok.

However, in place of hearts for favoriting videos, your taps on a video give it “Fire” — a fire emoji keeps track. You can tap “Fire” as many times as you want, too. But because there’s (annoyingly) no tap-to-pause feature, you may accidentally “fire” a video when you were looking for a way to stop its playback. To advance in BARS, you swipe vertically, but the interface is lacking an obvious “Follow” button to track your favorite creators. It’s hidden under the top-right three-dot menu.

The app is seeded with content from NPE Team members, which includes other aspiring rappers, former music producers and publishers.

Currently, the BARS beta is live on the iOS App Store in the U.S., and is opening its waitlist. Facebook says it will open access to BARS invites in batches, starting in the U.S. Updates and news about invites, meanwhile, will be announced on Instagram.

Facebook’s recent launches from its experimental apps division include Collab and collage maker E.gg, among others. Not all apps stick around. If they fail to gain traction, Facebook shuts them down — as it did last year with the Pinterest-like video app Hobbi.

Newness raises $3.5 million for its ‘Twitch for beauty streamers’

Newness, a startup co-founded by former Twitch employees, has raised $3.5 million in a Sequoia-led seed round for its live-streaming platform aimed at beauty creators and their fan communities. Though today’s creators are not without options when it comes to livestreaming — Twitch, YouTube, TikTok, Instagram and Facebook are all popular choices — Newness is focused on building differentiated tools and features that work well for the beauty streamer market in particular. This includes offering options for both public and private streams, engagement mechanisms that reward positive contributions, moderation features, and the ability for fans to earn access to free beauty products by community participation.

In the new round, Jess Lee invested on behalf of Sequoia Capital. Other investors in Newness include Cowboy Ventures (Aileen Lee), Upside Partnership (Kent Goldman), Dream Machine (former TechCrunch editor Alexia Bonatsos), Index Ventures (Nina Achadjian), Twitch co-founder Kevin Lin, former Twitch execs Jonathan Shipman and John Sutton, Eventbrite founders Kevin and Julia Hartz, Incredible Health co-founder and CEO Iman Abuzeid, and other angel investors from Twitch.

The idea for Newness comes from CEO Jenny Qian, an early Twitch employee who held a number of roles at the game-streaming site over the years, most recently as the Senior Director of Business Strategy for Twitch’s video platform. She’s joined by CTO Youri Park, who also previously worked at Twitch, as well as Blizzard and Facebook Gaming.

Though always an avid gamer herself, Qian says she began getting into skincare after she turned 30. She then soon realized the potential in the live-streaming beauty space.

“I was so used to the format from Twitch. And, in some ways, I feel like I was spoiled with live-streaming,” she explains. Being able to hang out with streamers, ask questions, and learn from them was something that made the live format so compelling, she believes.

Image Credits: Newness

“It made me scratch my head and think: why didn’t something like this exist for the beauty community? It’s a community that is just as passionate, if not more so…and it’s a content category that is so incredibly popular. How come there isn’t a live medium available?,” she wondered.

But at the same time, Qian admits she didn’t feel comfortable going live on Twitch.

“It’s one thing to be made fun of for my gameplay. But I think it’s another if I take my makeup off, and people are making fun of me for how I look. It just cuts to a whole new level,” she says.

With Newness, the goal is to create a sort of anti-Twitch, in a way. It aspires to be a wholesome, positive community for beauty creators and fans, where moderation is a key focus and fans get rewarded for quality participation, not trolling.

When creators go live, Newness will pair them with an in-house moderator to help them feel more comfortable and to keep the content flowing. Once they’re a more established streamer, Newness will work with the creator to locate and elevate a moderator from their own fan community to help out with future streams.

Meanwhile, fans are awarded virtual items called crystals for positive participation and good behavior — for example, for watching your favorite stream and engaging in chat. In Newness, every chat message also has a little heart next to it. And the more hearts you earn over time for higher-quality comments, the more crystals you also earn.

Image Credits: Newness

These crystals can be redeemed for full-size beauty products, which Newness will source through brand deals. Because moderators spend more time on the platform, they’ll also earn more crystals — and that means more opportunities for products.

The positive reward system has so far proven successful during beta tests, as around 66% of Newness viewers, on average, end up chatting during live streams, Qian says.

Another differentiating feature for Newness is the ability for creators to host both public and private streams. The latter is not meant to be some sort of OnlyFans equivalent, but is instead focused on allowing creators to host more professional and exclusive live events. With private streams, creators can sell both general admission and even pricier VIP tickets that could come with some sort of reward — like a goodie bag of beauty supplies.

In addition to events, Newness supports an in-app tipping mechanism called “gifting” on everyday streams.

Eventually, the startup plans to take a share of the revenue these transactions generate, but it hasn’t yet rolled that out as it’s still beta testing.

At present, the Newness community its small. And it still chooses which creators are allowed to live stream.

“We handpick the creators that we let on to our platform and keep it invite-only because we want to make sure that our earliest creators are helping to set the tone and building the culture of the community,” she says. The startup wants to ensure there are enough community members to sustain itself, while also not allowing the community to become toxic as it scales.

“We really care about cultivating an incredibly wholesome community. So for us, safety, moderation — all that is really important to us,” Qian notes.

The creators produce a range of content, including more expert advice and product reviews to more casual “get ready with me” videos and vlogs.

Newness, of course, will face steep competition from larger, existing platforms for streamers, like YouTube and Instagram, as well as from newcomers more focused on beauty videos, like Supergreat.

The startup has been in beta testing since last year, and is only available on the web for the time being. With the seed funding, Newness expects to build out its iOS consumer app in 2021, to complement its dedicated streaming app for creators. (Creators can also opt to stream from their DSLRs, if they prefer.)

It also aims to hire engineering talent and build out its 14-person team that’s now spread out across San Francisco, New York (thanks to some ex-Glossier hires), and L.A.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Streamlabs launches a ‘link in bio’ website builder that includes tipping

A number of online creators and influencers have adopted mobile-friendly “link in bio” websites, like Linktree, to point their fans to their social profiles or other content they want to promote. Today, live streaming software company Streamlabs launched its own product in this market with its new mobile website builder Willow. Its tool differentiates itself from others in this space by integrating a tipping feature directly on the landing page.

“Link in bio” websites have grown in popularity because social platforms like TikTok and Instagram only allow users to feature one main URL on user profiles. But online creators and influencers often have a presence on multiple sites they want their fans to know about. That’s where these custom websites come in.

Like most “link in bio” website builders, Willow offers a simple way to add a list of links to a customized, mobile-optimized webpage.

The product itself is somewhat basic compared to those being offered by newer startups — like Beacons, for example, which lets users add links for donations, affiliate shopping, paid downloads, and more. In Willow’s case, you just enter a URL and it appears on your website. You can also pick from a handful of colorful designs, each with their own style and font.

The online website builder lets you view your site in progress as you add links or update the design, and you can preview how it looks on mobile, tablet and desktop by clicking a button.

But Willow’s more interesting feature is the ability to add tipping to your website.

To do so, you’ll just toggle on the Tips feature from the website builder interface and then connect your PayPal account to Willow. This places a “Donate!” button at the top of your link list, so you can encourage fans to leave a tip.

Image Credits: Streamlabs

This feature will be the new website builder’s key selling point, given that today, creators who receive tips through social and streaming platforms often have to share the revenue from those transactions back with the platform itself. Tips through PayPal will be a more direct form of payment between fans and creators, beyond any applicable PayPal fees.

Streamlabs tells us it doesn’t keep any of the tip money — everything goes to the creator.

However, it does plan to soon monetize the new product in a different way. In a few weeks’ time, the company will introduce a paid version for $5 per month that will include enhanced analytics like click-through rates and which days see the most clicks and views. The pro version will also include more custom themes.

Image Credits: screenshot of Willow

Because Willow only launched today, it doesn’t have a large number of users at this time. However, a top streamer FaZe Mew has already signed up, per the short Willow link (wlo.link) found on his various social media bios.

“Our experience building tools for live streamers inspired us to build products that cater to the greater content creator ecosystem,” said George Kurdin, Streamlabs GM. “To deliver on this mission and grow our business, we are building products that cater to more brands, businesses, and individuals,” he said.

Android’s latest update will let you schedule texts, secure your passwords and more

Google today announced the next set of features coming to Android, including a new password checkup tool, a way to schedule your texts, along with other improvements to products like its screen reader TalkBack, Maps, Assistant and Android Auto. This spring 2021 release is latest in a series of smaller update bundles, similar to iOS “point releases,” that add new functionality and features to Android outside of the larger update cycle.

One the security front, this update will integrate a feature called Password Checkup into devices running Android 9 and above to alert you to passwords you’re using that have been previously exposed.

The feature works with Autofill with Google, which lets you quickly sign in to apps and other services on Android. Now, when you use Autofill, Password Checkup will check your credentials against a list of known compromised passwords, then notify you if your credentials appear on that list and what to do about it.

Image Credits: Google

The prompt can also direct you to your Password Manager page on Google, where you can review all your other saved Autofill passwords for similar issues.

To use this feature, you’ll need to have Autofill enabled. (Settings > System > Languages & Input > Advanced, the tap Autofill. Tap Google to ensure the setting is enabled.)

The new Messages feature rolling out this update could see prolific texters considering a switch to Android, as it’s one of the most in-demand features since SMS was invented: the ability to schedule your texts.

Image Credits: Google

Android’s new scheduled send feature will allow you to compose a message ahead of time, whenever it’s convenient for you, then schedule it to be sent later when it’s a more appropriate time. This can be particularly helpful if you have friends, family or coworkers and colleagues in other timezones, and are hesitant to bother them when they could be sleeping or enjoying family time after work. It can also help those who often remember something they meant to text when it’s late at night and too late to send the message.

To use this feature, you’ll just write the text as usual, then press and hold the send button to select a date and time to deliver the message. You’ll need the latest version of the Android Messages app for this feature to work.

Another flagship feature arriving in this Android release is aimed at making Android’s screen reader, known as TalkBack, easier to use for those users who are blind or have low vision. TalkBack today allows users to navigate their device with their voice and gestures in order to read, write, send emails, share social media, order delivery and more.

Image Credits: Google

The updated version (TalkBack 9.1) will now include a dozen new multifinger gestures to interact with apps and perform common actions, like selecting and editing text, controlling media or getting help. This will work on Pixel and Samsung Galaxy devices from One UI 3 onwards, Google says.

Google is also responding to user feedback over TalkBack’s confusing multiple menu system and has returned to the single menu system users wanted. This single menu will adapt to context while also providing consistent access to the most common functions.

Other TalkBack improvements includes new gestures — like an up and right swipe to access over 25 voice commands — and new reading controls that let users either skim a page, read only headlines, listen word-by-word or even character-by-character.

Users can also now add or remove options from the TalkBack menu or the reading controls to further customize the interface to their needs. Plus, TalkBack’s braille keyboard added support for Arabic and Spanish.

The spring update also adds more minor improvements to Maps, Assistant and Android Auto.

Maps is getting a dark mode that you can enable as the default under Settings > Theme and then selecting “Always in Dark Theme.”

 

Image Credits: Google

Google Assistant’s update will let you use the feature when the phone is locked or further away from you, by turning on Lock Screen Personal Results in Assistant’s Settings then saying “Hey Google,” as needed.

The new cards that appear when the phone is locked are meant to be easier to read with just a glance, Google says.

And finally, Android Auto will now include custom wallpapers and voice-activated games like trivia and “Jeopardy!” that you can ask for via the “Hey Google” command.

Image Credits: Google

There are also now shortcuts on the launch screen for accessing your contacts, or using Assistant to complete tasks like checking the weather or adjusting the thermostat, for example. Cars with wider screens will gain access to a split screen view with Google Maps on one side and media controls on the other.

Android Auto’s features will roll out in the “coming days” on phones running Android 6.0 and higher and work with compatible cars, Google notes.

Twitter relaunches test that asks users to revise harmful replies

Twitter is running a new test that will ask users to pause and think before they tweet. According to the company’s announcement, when Twitter detects what appears to be a potentially harmful or offensive reply to someone else’s tweet, it will prompt you to consider revising your text instead of tweeting.

Users whose tweets are flagged in this way will see a pop-up message appear on their screen, which asks, “Want to review this before Tweeting?” There are three buttons to then choose from: one to tweet the reply anyway, an Edit button (this is as close as we’ll get, apparently), and a delete button to discard the tweet entirely. There is also a small link to report if the system got things wrong.

This is not the first time Twitter has run a test like this.

In May 2020 and again in August 2020, Twitter ran variations on this same experiment. In those cases, the text on the pop-up screen was largely the same, but the layout of the three buttons looked different and were less colorful.

The earlier tests ran on Android, iOS and web, but this current iteration is only on iOS, for the time being.

At the time of the initial test, Twitter explained its systems were able to detect harmful language based on the kind of language that had been used in other tweets that had been reported in the past.

It’s been shown that these sorts of built-in small nudges can have an impact.

For example, when Twitter began prompting users to read the article linked in a tweet before retweeting it, the company found that users would open the articles 40% more often than without the nudge. Twitter has also built similar experiments to try to slow down the pace of online conversation on its platform, by doing things like discouraging retweets without commentary or slow down “Likes” on tweets containing misinformation.

Other social networks use small nudges like this, too, to influence their users’ behavior. Instagram back in 2019 launched a feature that would flag potentially offensive comments before they were posted, and later expanded this to captions. TikTok more recently launched a banner that would ask users if they were sure they wanted to share a video that contains “unverified content.”

It’s unclear why Twitter hasn’t simply rolled out the pop-up to combat online abuse — still a serious issue on its platform — and then iterated on the design and style of the message box, as needed.

Compared with the much larger engineering and design efforts the company has had underway — including its newer Stories feature known as Fleets and a Clubhouse rival called Spaces — a box asking users to pause and think seems like something that could have graduated to a full product by now.

Twitter relaunches test that asks users to revise harmful replies

Twitter is running a new test that will ask users to pause and think before they tweet. According to the company’s announcement, when Twitter detects what appears to be a potentially harmful or offensive reply to someone else’s tweet, it will prompt you to consider revising your text instead of tweeting.

Users whose tweets are flagged in this way will see a pop-up message appear on their screen, which asks, “Want to review this before Tweeting?” There are three buttons to then choose from: one to tweet the reply anyway, an Edit button (this is as close as we’ll get, apparently), and a delete button to discard the tweet entirely. There is also a small link to report if the system got things wrong.

This is not the first time Twitter has run a test like this.

In May 2020 and again in August 2020, Twitter ran variations on this same experiment. In those cases, the text on the pop-up screen was largely the same, but the layout of the three buttons looked different and were less colorful.

The earlier tests ran on Android, iOS and web, but this current iteration is only on iOS, for the time being.

At the time of the initial test, Twitter explained its systems were able to detect harmful language based on the kind of language that had been used in other tweets that had been reported in the past.

It’s been shown that these sorts of built-in small nudges can have an impact.

For example, when Twitter began prompting users to read the article linked in a tweet before retweeting it, the company found that users would open the articles 40% more often than without the nudge. Twitter has also built similar experiments to try to slow down the pace of online conversation on its platform, by doing things like discouraging retweets without commentary or slow down “Likes” on tweets containing misinformation.

Other social networks use small nudges like this, too, to influence their users’ behavior. Instagram back in 2019 launched a feature that would flag potentially offensive comments before they were posted, and later expanded this to captions. TikTok more recently launched a banner that would ask users if they were sure they wanted to share a video that contains “unverified content.”

It’s unclear why Twitter hasn’t simply rolled out the pop-up to combat online abuse — still a serious issue on its platform — and then iterated on the design and style of the message box, as needed.

Compared with the much larger engineering and design efforts the company has had underway — including its newer Stories feature known as Fleets and a Clubhouse rival called Spaces — a box asking users to pause and think seems like something that could have graduated to a full product by now.

Spotify to test paid podcast subscriptions this spring via new Anchor feature

During its live-streamed event today, Spotify officially confirmed its plans to launch paid podcast subscriptions on its platform. As a first step, the company will this spring begin beta testing a new feature in its Anchor podcast creation tool that will allow U.S. creators to publish paid podcast content aimed at their “most dedicated fans.” It also opened up signups for this and other new features, starting today.

Spotify had hinted at its plans for paid podcast content during its fourth-quarter earnings call earlier this month, when it said it was exploring ideas like paid podcast subscriptions and à la carte payments. But it didn’t detail when these new options would go live or how they would work.

At its online event today, Spotify more formally announced its plans to enter the market of paid podcasts, initially with a new service that would allow Anchor creators the ability to offer paid podcast subscriptions supported by their listeners.

This sort of idea is not new, to be clear. Already, some podcasters offer paid access to bonus material — for example, through a service like Stitcher Premium, which promises both an ad-free experience and bonus episodes. Some creators may even independently offer paid feeds through their own platforms.

But until now, a similar option was not available to Spotify creators.

Anchor co-founder Michael Mignano said the company believes paid bonus material can work well as a means of podcast monetization, in addition to ads.

Image Credits: Spotify

“We have found that, through our research, it seems to work especially well for creators who have really engaged and dedicated audiences — regardless of the audience size,” he told TechCrunch in an interview following Spotify’s event. “We’ve also found that podcast listeners do tend to be open to financially supporting the shows they love,” he added.

The company was hesitant to detail some of the specifics of how paid subscriptions would work at launch, but did say that the model would involve a revenue share between creators and Anchor, where creators keep the majority of the earnings. Anchor will also allow creators to determine what price to charge their listeners for the paid experience and what that experience would include — like bonus episodes or interviews, or even ad-free content, if they prefer.

It will then use its understanding of what creators actually do with paid subscriptions to inform its product product launch and its “best practices” recommendations in the future.

We also understand the offering will be limited to those who use Anchor to record and publish across podcast platforms. However, it will more immediately benefit creators with a strong Spotify presence and a loyal listenership.

But Mignano points out that creators may be able to grow their paid subscriber base thanks to Spotify’s tools for podcast discovery.

“The problem is the system for doing this type of paid subscription so far in podcasts has been really disjointed,” he explained. “It hasn’t been a really seamless experience for the listener, and it hasn’t really been a great experience for the creator. We feel like that’s really held this model back and hindered creators’ reach and ability to gain paid subscribers,” he said.

Image Credits: Spotify/Anchor

In other words, users may be open to the idea of paid bonus material, but they don’t necessarily want to switch between apps to gain access, nor do they want to figure out how to get paid RSS feeds into some third-party podcast listening app.

Spotify, meanwhile, will try to make discovery easier. It will highlight the paid content alongside the free material on the podcast’s main page, for example. Plus, in the same way that Spotify today helps users discover new podcasts they may like to try, it will also point to paid subscription-based podcasts in the future as the new model rolls out further.

Anchor says it will initially open up the beta test in the U.S. to a small number of creators, but aims to expand access to more creators as soon as reasonably possible. The test, for the time being, will only focus on paid subscriptions, but Mignano told us the company may explore the à la carte model in the future.

Paid podcasts were only one of several new features Anchor announced today at the Spotify event.

The company also announced the launch of a WordPress partnership that makes it easier for bloggers to turn their posts into posts, either by reading the blog posts themselves or leveraging third-party text-to-speech technology Anchor provides.

Anchor will also expand beta testing of video podcasts, which so far have been tested by only a handful of creators, including Higher Learning from The Ringer.

And it will begin beta testing new, interactive features, like polls and Q&A, with a small number of creators in the months ahead.

These features could potentially overlap with paid subscriptions. For example, some podcast creators may choose to make their videos a paid feature, or perhaps other interactive features. It remains to be seen how they’re put to use.

But more broadly, features like polls and Q&As could help Spotify better differentiate an interactive podcast from a live audio program, like those popularized by the buzzy new app Clubhouse. The advantage of the latter is that it allows for audience participation in the “show,” rather than being a one-way street where hosts control the experience. But on the flip side, Clubhouse rooms can also have folks who drone on and on, or they can become boring, when not carefully managed.

Anchor says it doesn’t intend to charge creators for access to its tools, beyond taking a rev share on subscriptions.

“I think our vision with Anchor and Spotify has always been to really empower creators. In the Anchor suite of tools, we’ve never charged creators for any features because we believe that charging creators can often represent friction that stands in the way of them trying to actually make something and getting it out into the world,” Mignano said. “We want to enable creators to do whatever they want, as far as expressing themselves through these new tools,” he added.

 

Spotify to launch Spotify Audience Network, an audio ad marketplace

Spotify provided more details today about how it plans to monetize its investments in podcasts. The company said it’s launching a new audio advertising marketplace, the Spotify Audience Network, which will allow advertisers to reach listeners across Spotify’s own Originals and Exclusives, as well as podcasts via Megaphone and creation tool Anchor, and its ad-supported music, all in one place. The company also said it plans to offer podcasts on its self-serve ad platform, Spotify Ad Studio, starting with Spotify Originals and Exclusives in the U.S., in a beta test phase.

This will expand to include third-party podcasts in the future, the company noted today during its live online event, “Stream On.”

Currently, Spotify Ad Studio is being used by advertisers across 22 markets following its 2017 launch, to reach Spotify music listeners with both audio and video advertisements. Spotify said the service is its fastest-growing buying channel, but didn’t provide specific figures to detail that growth.

Image Credits: Spotify

However, the larger news on the advertising side was the launch of the new audio ad marketplace, Spotify Audience Network. Similar to some of its other forward-looking announcements today, Spotify was light on details about how exactly Spotify Audience Network would work — saying only that it’s in the “early stages of developing the offering,” and it expects to be able to share more at a later date.

However, the company positioned the marketplace as a “game changer,” particularly for podcasters looking to make money from ads, as well as for advertisers who want to reach Spotify’s audience of hundreds and millions, both on and off Spotify.

This news follows an investigative report by The Verge earlier this year which found Spotify was the main sponsor for Anchor advertising to date — despite its promises to find sponsors for smaller podcasters. It now appears Spotify has been in the process of building out its ad marketplace and tooling to make good on those promises, and may not have prioritized advertiser outreach in the meantime.

Image Credits: Spotify

Spotify today also spoke about how its recent acquisition of Megaphone would allow it to scale its Streaming Ad Insertion (SAI) technology, launched in early 2020, to publishers beyond its own Originals and Exclusives audio programs. Today, SAI is available in the U.S., Canada, Germany, and the U.K., and will expand to other new markets in 2021.

Since its debut, SAI has been rolling out new features like audience-based buying, native ad placements, and reporting on creative performance. Later this year, Spotify says it will make SAI available to Megaphone podcast publishers and “leading” Anchor creators.

But Anchor creators won’t be limited to advertising to grow revenues.

Spotify also briefly noted it will, in a few months, begin beta testing a new feature that will allow Anchor creators to publish paid podcast content to Spotify aimed at their most dedicated fans, as TechCrunch previously reported.

 

Spotify announces beta launch of audience development tool for artists, self-serve ‘Marquee’ ads

As part of its news announced at its live event today, Spotify announced a set of new creator tools and resources, including the expansion of Marquee, the launch of a tool called “Discovery Mode” into beta testing, the opening of the Canvas looping visual feature to all artists, and its plans to expand its Spotify for Artists platform to be available in 25 additional languages.

Marquee, launched in 2020, is a tool that allows artists and their teams to promote their new releases through full-screen, sponsored recommendations to both free and paid subscribers. Spotify says that users who see a Marquee pop-up are twice as likely to save the music.

Now, Marquee will be available as a self-serve buying experience for artists, allowing their teams to book campaigns at any time, as easily as they update their artist profile.

This self-serve feature will launch in the U.S., and this summer will expand outside North America, to the U.K. Ireland, Australia and New Zealand, before rolling out more broadly.

Spotify is also launching a beta of its audience development tool, Discovery Mode, a feature that lets artist teams select the music they want to prioritize for discovery, including through Spotify’s recommendations. During its pilot testing, this feature helped labels achieve higher royalty payments through the expanded discovery, the company claimed.

It will also require zero upfront budget to get started.

Finally, Canvas, the artwork feature that shows looping visuals as the music plays, will also now be available to all artists.

spotify canvas

Image Credits: Spotify

Along with the news of Spotify’s global expansion to 85 new markets, Spotify’s dashboard for artists will also expand to include support for 25 more languages.

“From providing new ways for artists to express themselves, to creating more chances to be discovered, to giving artists the ability to pitch their music for playlist consideration, we continue to iterate based on artist feedback, building new ways to surface artists to new fans,” said Spotify’s Head of Marketplace, Charlie Hellman, about the expansions. “We’re seeing greater adoption of our tools by artists and labels of all sizes, and we’ve just scratched the surface of what’s to come,” he added.