Apple and Google block dozens of Chinese apps in India

Two days after India blocked 59 apps developed by Chinese firms, Google and Apple have started to comply with New Delhi’s order and are preventing users in the world’s second largest internet market from accessing those apps.

UC Browser, Shareit, and Club Factory and other apps that India has blocked are no longer listed on Apple’s App Store and Google Play Store. In a statement, a Google spokesperson said that the company had “temporarily blocked access to the apps”on Google Play Store as it reviews New Delhi’s interim order.

Apple, which has taken a similar approach as Google in complying with New Delhi’s order, did not respond to a request for comment. Some developers including ByteDance have voluntarily made their apps inaccessible in India, a person familiar with the matter told TechCrunch. India’s Department of Telecommunications has also ordered telecom networks and other internet service providers to block access to those 59 apps.

Thursday’s move from Apple and Google, whose software power nearly every smartphone on the planet, is the latest escalation in an unprecedented tension in recent times between  China and India.

A skirmish between the two neighbouring nations at a disputed Himalayan border site last month left 20 Indian soldiers dead, stoking historical tension between them. Earlier this week, India ordered to block 59 Chinese apps including ByteDance’s TikTok citing national security concerns.

The Indian government has invited executives at these companies to give them an opportunity to answer their concerns. Kevin Mayer, the chief executive of TikTok, said on Wednesday that his app was in compliance with Indian privacy and security requirements and he was looking forward to meeting with various stakeholders.

On Thursday, Chinese social network Weibo said it had deleted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s account at the request of the Indian embassy. Modi had amassed about 200,000 followers on Weibo before his account was deleted.

India has emerged as the biggest open playground for Silicon Valley and Chinese firms in recent years. Like American technology groups Google, Facebook, and Amazon, several Chinese firms including Tencent, ByteDance, and Alibaba Group also aggressively expanded their presence in India in the last decade. TikTok, which has 200 million users in India, counts Asia’s third largest economy as its biggest overseas market.

The 59 blocked apps that include Likee, Xiaomi’s Mi Community, and Tencent’s WeChat, had a combined monthly active user base of over 500 million users in India last month, according to mobile insights firm App Annie — data of which an industry executive shared with TechCrunch. (A significant number of smartphone users in India use several of these apps so there’s a lot of overlap.)

More to follow…

AR 1.0 is dead: Here’s what it got wrong

The first wave of AR startups offering smart glasses is now over, with a few exceptions.

Google acquired North this week for an undisclosed sum. The Canadian company had raised nearly $200 million, but the release of its Focals 2.0 smart glasses has been cancelled, a bittersweet end for its soft landing.

Many AR startups before North made huge promises and raised huge amounts of capital before flaring out in a similarly dramatic fashion.

The technology was almost there in a lot of cases, but the real issue was that the stakes to beat the major players to market were so high that many entrants pushed out boring, general consumer products. In a race to be everything for everybody, the industry relied on nascent developer platforms to do the dirty work of building their early use cases, which contributed heavily to nonexistent user adoption.

A key error of this batch was thinking that an AR glasses company was hardware-first, when the reality is that the missing value is almost entirely centered on missing first-party software experiences. To succeed, the next generation of consumer AR glasses will have to nail this.

Image Credits: ODG

App ecosystems alone don’t create product-market fit

Apple device management company Jamf files S-1 as it prepares to go public

Jamf, the Apple device management company, filed to go public today. Jamf might not be a household name, but the Minnesota company has been around since 2002 helping companies manage their Apple equipment.

In the early days, that was Apple computers. Later it expanded to also manage iPhones and iPads. The company launched at a time when most IT pros had few choices for managing Macs in a business setting.

Jamf changed that, and as Macs and other Apple devices grew in popularity inside organizations in the 2010s, the company’s offerings grew in demand. Notably, over the years Apple has helped Jamf and its rivals considerably, by building more sophisticated tooling at the operating system level to help manage Macs and other Apple devices inside organizations.

Jamf raised approximately $50 million of disclosed funding before being acquired by Vista Equity Partners in 2017 for $733.8 million, according to the S-1 filing. Today, the company kicks off the high-profile portion of its journey toward going public.

Apple device management takes center stage

In a case of interesting timing, Jamf is filing to go public less than a week after Apple bought mobile device management startup Fleetsmith. At the time, Apple indicated that it would continue to partner with Jamf as before, but with its own growing set of internal tooling, which could at some point begin to compete more rigorously with the market leader.

Other companies in the space managing Apple devices besides Jamf and Fleetsmith include Addigy and Kandji. Other more general offerings in the mobile device management (MDM) space include MobileIron and VMware Airwatch among others.

Vista is a private equity shop with a specific thesis around buying out SaaS and other enterprise companies, growing them, and then exiting them onto the public markets or getting them acquired by strategic buyers. Examples include Ping Identity, which the firm bought in 2016 before taking it public last year, and Marketo, which Vista bought in 2016 for $1.8 billion and sold to Adobe last year for $4.8 billion, turning a tidy profit.

Inside the machine

Now that we know where Jamf sits in the market, let’s talk about it from a purely financial perspective.

Jamf is a modern software company, meaning that it sells its digital services on a recurring basis. In the first quarter of 2020, for example, about 83% of its revenue came from subscription software. The rest was generated by services and software licenses.

Now that we know what type of company Jamf is, let’s explore its growth, profitability and cash generation. Once we understand those facets of its results, we’ll be able to understand what it might be worth and if its IPO appears to be on solid footing.

We’ll start with growth. In 2018 Jamf recorded $146.6 million in revenue, which grew to $204.0 million in 2019. That works out to an annual growth rate of 39.2%, a more than reasonable pace of growth for a company going public. It’s not super quick, mind, but it’s not slow either. More recently, the company grew 36.9% from $44.1 million in Q1 2019 to $60.4 million in revenue in Q1 2020. That’s a bit slower, but not too much slower.

Turning to profitability, we need to start with the company’s gross margins. Then we’ll talk about its net margins. And, finally, adjusted profits.

Gross margins help us understand how valuable a company’s revenue is. The higher the gross margins, the better. SaaS companies like Jamf tend to have gross margins of 70% or above. In Jamf’s own case, it posted gross margins of 75.1% in Q1 2020, and 72.5% in 2019. Jamf’s gross margins sit comfortably in the realm of SaaS results, and, perhaps even more importantly, are improving over time.

Getting behind the curtain

When all its expenses are accounted for, the picture is less rosy, and Jamf is unprofitable. The company’s net losses for 2018 and 2019 were similar, totaling $36.3 million and $32.6 million, respectively. Jamf’s net loss improved a little in Q1, falling from $9.0 million in 2019 to $8.3 million this year.

The company remains weighed down by debt, however, which cost it nearly $5 million in Q1 2020, and $21.4 million for all of 2019. According to the S-1, Jamf is sporting a debt-to-equity ratio of roughly 0.8, which may be a bit higher than your average public SaaS company, and is almost certainly a function of the company’s buyout by a private equity firm.

But the company’s adjusted profit metrics strip out debt costs, and under the heavily massaged adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) metric, Jamf’s history is only one of rising profitability. From $6.6 million in 2018 to $20.8 million in 2019, and from $4.3 million in Q1 2019 to $5.6 million in Q1 2020, with close to 10% adjusted operating profit margins through YE 2019.

It will be interesting to see how the company’s margins will be affected by COVID-19, with financials during the period still left blank in this initial version of the S-1. The Enterprise market in general has been reasonably resilient to the recent economic shock, and device management may actually perform above expectations, given the growing push for remote work.

Completing the picture

Something notable about Jamf is that it has positive cash generation, even if in Q1 it tends to consume cash that is made up for in other quarters. In 2019, the firm posted $11.2 million in operational cash flow. That’s a good result, and better than 2018’s $9.4 million of operating cash generation. (The company’s investing cash flows have often run negative due to Jamf acquiring other companies, like ZuluDesk and Digita.)

With Jamf, we have a SaaS company that is growing reasonably well, has solid, improving margins, non-terrifying losses, growing adjusted profits and what looks like a reasonable cash flow perspective. But Jamf is cash poor, with just $22.7 million in cash and equivalents as of the end of Q1 2020 — some months ago now. At that time, the firm also had debts of $201.6 million.

Given the company’s worth, that debt figure is not terrifying. But the company’s thin cash balance makes it a good IPO candidate; going public will raise a chunk of change for the company, giving it more operating latitude and also possibly a chance to lower its debt load. Indeed Jamf notes that it intends to use part of its IPO raise to “to repay outstanding borrowings under our term loan facility…” Paying back debt at IPO is common in private equity buyouts.

So what?

Jamf’s march to the public markets adds its name to a growing list of companies. The market is already preparing to ingest Lemonade and Accolade this week, and there are rumors of more SaaS companies in the wings, just waiting to go public.

There’s a reasonable chance that as COVID-19 continues to run roughshod over the United States, the public markets eventually lose some momentum. But that isn’t stopping companies like Jamf from rolling the dice and taking a chance going public.

Global app revenue jumps to $50B in the first half of 2020, in part due to COVID-19 impacts

Consumer spending on mobile apps and app installs grew significantly during the first half of 2020, in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new data from Sensor Tower. In the first half of the year, consumers spent $50.1 billion worldwide across the App Store and Google Play — a figure that’s up 23.4% from the first half of 2019. Previously, revenue had grown 20% between the first half of 2018 and 2019, for comparison. In addition, first-time app installs were up 26.1% year-over-year in the first half of 2020 to reach 71.5 billion downloads.

Apple’s App Store accounted for 18.3 billion of those downloads, up 22.8% year-over-year, while Google Play delivered 53.2 billion new app installs, up 27.3%.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Though Google Play saw far more app installs, Apple’s App Store continued to outpace its rival on consumer spending.

During the first half of the year, the App Store generated $32.8 billion from in-app purchases, subscriptions, and premium apps and games, Sensor Tower estimates. This figure is up 24.7% year-over-year from the $26.3 billion spent during the first half of 2019. It’s also nearly twice the estimated gross revenue on Google Play, which was $17.3 billion, an increase of 21% year-over-year.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

The pandemic’s impacts are only somewhat reflected in the top-earning (non-game) apps of the first half of 2020. The biggest earner, for example, was Match’s online dating app Tinder — an app that, one would think, would have dropped out of the top 5 due to social distancing requirements.

During the first half of the year, Tinder generated an estimated $433 million in spending across both app stores, combined. However, this number does represent a decrease of about 19% from the first half of 2019, or $532 million. It’s unclear how much that decline is related to consumers’ changing behavior and spending habits during the pandemic. Though shelter-in-place orders and quarantines kept people indoors and social distancing, social networking apps — and particularly those focused on online communication — have boomed amid lockdowns.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Tinder embraced the growing interest in online networking by making its “Passport” feature free. This setting allows users to match with other singles around the world, turning Tinder into more of a social app than one focused on real-world dating. But this change could have also led to a decrease in Tinder’s total revenues for the first half of the year.

The No. 2 top grossing app during the first half of 2020 was YouTube, bringing in an estimated $431 million globally. This was followed by ByteDance’s TikTok with $421 million. The social video app, which includes Douyin in China, had also broken download records during the first half of the year, passing 2 billion total global downloads, Sensor Tower earlier reported.

Tencent Video and Netflix were the No. 4 and No. 5 top grossing apps, respectively.

Meanwhile, consumers stuck at home during the pandemic have been downloading apps and games in greater numbers. During the first half of the year, consumers installed 71.5 billion apps for the first time, up 26.1% from the first half of 2019.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

TikTok was the most-downloaded app in the first half of the year with 626 million downloads. But its position may look quite different in the second half of year, given the recent changes in India where the government has now banned 59 Chinese apps, including TikTok.

The No. 2 and No. 3 apps were WhatsApp and Zoom, respectively — the latter an indication of the rapid shift to work-from-home and consumers’ embrace of online video conferencing, in general. In addition to WhatsApp, Facebook snagged the No. 4, No. 5, and No. 6 positions in the top 10, with Facebook, Instagram and Messenger, in that order.

Snapchat’s social app was No. 7 and No. 8 was video app Likee, which is similar to TikTok but offers a variety of face effects and filters. Netflix and YouTube rounded out the top 10.

Mobile gaming also saw a boost during the pandemic, with game spending up 21.2% year-over-year to reach an estimated $36.6 billion during the first half of the year, Sensor Tower found. Spending on the App Store grew 22.7% year-over-year to reach $22.2 billion, while Google Play game spending grew 19% to reach $14.4 billion.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Tencent’s PUBG Mobile beat out Honor of Kings as the top-grossing game for the first half of the year. Tencent’s game, which includes its localized versions (Game for Peace and Peacekeeper Elite) generated $1.3 billion across both app stores, not including China’s third-party Android app stores. Honor of Kings, meanwhile, pulled in roughly $1 billion.

The remaining top 10 included, in order, Monster Strike ($632M), Roblox, Coin Master, Candy Crush Saga, AFK Arena, Gardenscapes, Fate/Grand Order, and Pokémon Go. The latter recently adapted to indoor gaming amid government lockdowns.

Roblox, in particular, has been surging due to the pandemic as kids stuck indoors have gone online to play and socialize with friends in its virtual environment. In June, Sensor Tower reported Roblox had surpassed a milestone of $1.5 billion in lifetime player spending, for instance. Coin Master, meanwhile, is approaching the $1 billion lifetime player milestone, the firm found.

In terms of top game installs, PUBG Mobile came out on top here as well, followed by another battle royale title, Garena Free Fire. Ruby Game Studio’s Hunter Assassin, Eyewind Limited’s Brain Out, and Playrix’s Gardenscapes — which many found to be a relaxing distraction during a stressful time — rounded out the top five.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Across all of the mobile gaming market, downloads grew 42.5% year-over-year to reach 28.5 billion first-time installs in the first half of 2020. Of those, Google Play downloads grew 46.2% year-over-year to 22.8 billion while App Store downloads grew 29.5% to 5.7 billion.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

 

COVID-19 impacts more apparent in Q2 

Indications of COVID-19’s impact on the app market can be found among the figures for the first half of the year — like the growth seen by Zoom or social gaming platforms like Roblox, for example. But a closer look at the second quarter of 2020 alone makes the COVID-19 impacts more apparent.

Sensor Tower’s initial projections show consumer spending on apps and games jumped 11% on a quarterly basis from Q1 to Q2, and grew 28.8% year-over-year to reach $26.4 billion worldwide. This is a sizable increase from the 1.4% growth between Q1 2019 and Q2 2019. Downloads were up 12% on a quarterly basis and up 31.7% year-over-year to reach 37.8 billion worldwide. Again, a large increase from the 2.5% growth between Q1 2019 and Q2 2020.

Apple launches ‘Path to Apple Card,’ a 4-month credit worthiness improvement program

Apple is launching an interesting new Apple Card program for people who have their application declined.

Declined Apple Card applicants may begin seeing notifications on their device later today that offer them the Path to Apple Card program. It’s an opt-in program that can run for up to 4 months. It leverages the information that Goldman Sachs used determine their credit worthiness to outline why they were declined and to help them improve the specific financial markers that would make them more likely to get approved next time.

Once a user opts in on their device, they get a once-a-month update on their progress on specific tasks that are personalized to their rating.

Examples include:

  • Resolving past due balances
  • Making payments to secured and unsecured debt accounts on time
  • Lowering credit card and personal loan debt

The updates also include specific steps to take to improve each of those markers.

Once a customer has completed the program, they are invited to re-apply to Apple Card.

Doubtless the points above seem pretty straightforward to anyone with strong basic knowledge of how credit works. But I encourage anyone to whom those seem simple to consider how many people do not have a real window into the factors that determine whether an underwriting process at a financial firm accepts or rejects their application. No other interactive program like this exists in the credit card world as far as I know

Normally, when you get a decline from a major credit card bureau, you get a message that you’ll get a letter in the mail days from now with ‘reasons’ why you’ve been declined. The result is usually a bunch of paper with a relatively unhelpful single sentence telling you the factor that was an issue. Nothing proactive.

On the privacy front, Apple only knows whether you have chosen to participate in the program. It does not retain personally identifiable information or know details about the participants’ financial situation. Goldman Sachs is also not sharing this data with third parties for advertising or marketing. Pretty much the same deal as the Apple Card itself.

I’ve been bullish before on the way that Apple Card handles fiscal transparency. The ‘payment wheel’ inside the card’s interface on iOS devices is one of the clearest, most well made interfaces for any credit card ever offered. The approach Apple takes — an all out effort to make it as easy as possible not to pay interest on purchases unless you absolutely feel you want to — is wildly different from the industry norms.

This additional financial health tool fits well within that overall philosophy. And, as a side benefit, these steps will doubtless result in an overall credit score improvement for participants.

Apple has also recently launched an additional website that details the exact criteria that Goldman Sachs uses to determine acceptance and credit limit. It also offers additional details about things like how interest is calculated for the platform.

Article updated to note that the invites to participate are received on devices.

This Week in Apps: WWDC20 highlights, App Store antitrust issues, tech giants clone TikTok

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the Extra Crunch 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 Extra Crunch series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

This week, we’re looking at the highlights from Apple’s first-ever virtual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) and what its announcements mean for app developers. Plus, there’s news of the U.S. antitrust investigation into Apple’s business, a revamp of the App Store review process, and more. In other app news, both Instagram and YouTube are responding to the TikTok threat, while Snapchat is adding new free tools to its SDK to woo app developers. Amazon also this week entered the no-code app development space with Honeycode.

WWDC20 Wrap-Up

Image Credits: Apple

Apple held its WWDC developer event online for the first time due to the pandemic. The format, in some ways, worked better — the keynote presentations ran smoother, packed in more content, and you could take in the information without the distractions of applause and cheers. (If you were missing the music, there was a playlist.)

Of course, the virtual event lacked the real-world networking and learning opportunities of the in-person conference. Better online forums and virtual labs didn’t solve that problem. In fact, given there aren’t time constraints on a virtual event, some might argue it would make sense to do hands-on labs in week two instead of alongside all the sessions and keynotes. This could give developers more time to process the info and write some code.

Among the bigger takeaways from WWDC20 — besides the obvious changes to the Mac and the introduction of “Apple silicon” — there was the introduction of the refreshed UI in iOS 14 that adds widgets, an App Library and more Siri smarts; plus the debut of Apple’s own mini-apps, in the form of App Clips; and the ability to run iOS apps on Apple Silicon Macs — in fact, iOS apps will run there by default unless developers uncheck a box.

Let’s dig in.

  • The iPad’s influence over Mac. There are plenty of iOS apps that would work on Mac, but making the choice an opt-out instead of an opt-in experience could lead to poor experiences for end users. Developers should think carefully about whether they want to make the leap to the Mac ecosystem and design accordingly. There’s also a broader sense that the iPad and the Mac are starting to look very similar. The iPad already gained support for a proper trackpad and mouse, while the Mac with Big Sur sees the influence of design elements like its new iPad-esque notifications, Control Center, window nav bars and rounded rectangular icons. Are the two OS’s going to merge? Apple’s answer, thankfully, is still “NO.”

Fleetsmith customers unhappy with loss of third-party app support after Apple acquisition

When Apple confirmed it had acquired Fleetsmith, a mobile device management vendor, on Wednesday, it seemed like a straightforward purchase, but Fleetsmith customers quickly learned a key piece of functionality had stopped working  — and many weren’t happy about it.

Apple systems administrators began complaining on social media on the morning of the acquisition announcement that the company was no longer allowing them to connect to third-party applications.

“Primarily Fleetsmith maintained a third-party app catalog, so you could deploy things like Chrome or Zoom to your Macs, and Fleetsmith would maintain security updates for those apps. This was the main reason we purchased Fleetsmith,” a Fleetsmith customer told TechCrunch.

The customer added that the company described this functionality as a major feature in a company blog post:

For apps like Chrome, which are managed through the Fleetsmith Catalog, we handle all aspects of testing, packaging, triage, and deployment automatically. Whenever there’s an update (including security patches), we quickly add them to the Catalog so that our customers can enforce the latest version. In this case, we had the Chrome 78.0.3904.87 patch up within a couple hours of the update dropping.

As one system administrator pointed out, being able to manage Chrome browser security in an automated way was a huge part of this, and that was also removed along with third party app support.

As it turned out, Apple had made it clear that it was discontinuing this feature in an email to Fleetsmith customers on the day of the transition. The email included links to several help articles that were supposed to assist admins with the transition. (The email is included in full at the end of this article.)

The general consensus among admins that I spoke to was that these articles were not terribly helpful. While they described a way to fix the issues, they said that Apple has turned what was a highly automated experience into a highly manual one, effectively eliminating the speed and ease of use advantage of having the update feature in the first place.

Apple did confirm that it had responded to some help ticket requests after the changes this week, saying that it would soon restore some configurations for Catalog apps, and was working with impacted customers as needed. The company did not make clear, however, why they removed this functionality in the first place.

Fleetsmith offered a couple of key features that appealed to Mac system administrators. For starters, it let them set up new Macs automatically out of the box. This allows them to ship a new Mac or other Apple device, and as soon as the employee powers it up and connects to Wi-Fi, it connects to Fleetsmith, where systems administrators can track usage and updates. In addition, it allowed System Administrators to enforce Apple security and OS updates on company devices.

What’s more, it could also do the same thing with third-party applications like Google Chrome, Zoom or many others. When these companies pushed a new update, system administrators could make sure all users had the most recent version running on their machines. This is the key functionality that was removed this week.

It’s not clear why Apple chose to strip out these features outlined in the email to customers, but it seems likely that most of this functionality isn’t coming back, other than restoring some configurations for Catalog apps.

Email that went out to Fleetsmith customers the day of the acquisition outlining the changes:

 

Attempts to reach Fleetsmith founders for comment were unsuccessful. Should that change we will update the article.

Apple temporarily re-closes 14 more Florida stores as COVID-19 numbers surge

After closing stores across four states, this was no doubt a bit of an inevitable: Following reporting earlier today, Apple has confirmed that it will be shutting down an additional 14 stores in Florida, joining the two it closed last week.

The company sent a statement to TechCrunch that is essentially identical to the one it gave us last week, reading, “Due to current COVID-19 conditions in some of the communities we serve, we are temporarily closing stores in these areas. We take this step with an abundance of caution as we closely monitor the situation and we look forward to having our teams and customers back as soon as possible.”

The move comes as COVID-19 cases continue to surge in the southern states. On Wednesday, state officials reported north of 5,000 new infections for the second straight day. In all, Florida has experienced more than 114,000 COVID-19 cases and 3,000 deaths, ranking sixth among all states by number of infections.

As noted last week, Apple had earlier confirmed the possibility of closed locations as soon as it began to reopen select locations in May. The full list of newly closed Florida stores includes:

  • The Galleria
  • The Falls
  • Aventura
  • Lincoln Road
  • Dadeland
  • Brickell City Centre
  • Wellington Green
  • Boca Raton
  • The Gardens Mall
  • Millenia
  • Florida Mall
  • Altamonte
  • International Plaza
  • Brandon

The Waterside Shops and Coconut Point stores were closed last week. Locations in Arizona and North and South Carolina have also been closed following reopening.

Four perspectives: Will Apple trim App Store fees?

The fact that Apple takes a 30% cut of subscriptions purchased via the App Store isn’t news. But since the company threatened to boot email app Hey from the platform last week unless its developers paid the customary tribute, the tech world and lawmakers are giving Apple’s revenue share a harder look.

Although Apple’s Senior Vice President of worldwide marketing Phil Schiller denied the company was making any changes, a new policy will let developers challenge the very rules by which they were rejected from the platform, which suggests that change is in the air.

According to its own numbers, the App Store facilitated more than $500 billion in e-commerce transactions in 2019. For reference, the federal government has given out about $529 billion in loans to U.S. businesses as part of the Paycheck Protection Program.

Given its massive reach, is it time for Apple to change its terms? Will it allow its revenue share to go gently into that good night, or does it have enough resources to keep new legislation at bay and mollify an increasingly vocal community of software developers? To examine these questions, four TechCrunch staffers weighed in:

Devin Coldewey: The App Store fee structure “seems positively extortionate”

Apple is starting to see that its simplistic and paternalistic approach to cultivating the app economy may be doing more harm than good. That wasn’t always the case: In earlier days it was worth paying Apple simply for the privilege of taking part in its fast-expanding marketplace.

But the digital economy has moved on from the conditions that drove growth before: Novelty at first, then a burgeoning ad market supercharged by social media. The pendulum is swinging back to more traditional modes of payment: one-time and subscription payments for no-nonsense services. Imagine that!

Combined with the emergence of mobile platforms not just as tools for simple consumption and communication but for serious work and productivity, the stakes have risen. People have started asking, what value is Apple really providing in return for the rent it seeks from anyone who wants to use its platform?

Surely Apple is due something for its troubles, but just over a quarter of a company’s revenue? What seemed merely excessive for a 99-cent app that a pair of developers were just happy to sell a few thousand copies of now seems positively extortionate.

Apple is in a position of strength and could continue shaking down the industry, but it is wary of losing partners in the effort to make its platform truly conducive to productivity. The market is larger and more complicated, with cross-platform and cross-device complications of which the App Store and iOS may only be a small part — but demanding an incredibly outsized share.

It will loosen the grip, but there’s no hurry. It would be a costly indignity to be too permissive and have its new rules be gamed and hastily revised. Allowing developers to push back on rules they don’t like gives Apple a lot to work with but no commitment. Big players will get a big voice, no doubt, and the new normal for the App Store will reflect a detente between moneyed interests, not a generous change of heart by Apple.

iOS 14 lets deaf users set alerts for important sounds, among other clever accessibility perks

The latest version of iOS adds a few smart features intended for use by people with hearing and vision impairments, but some of which may be helpful to just about anybody.

The most compelling new feature is perhaps Sound Recognition, which creates a notification whenever the phone detects one of a long list of common noises that users might want to be aware of. Sirens, dog barks, smoke alarms, car horns, doorbells, running water, appliance beeps — the list is pretty extensive. A company called Furenexo made a device that did this years ago, but it’s nice to have it built in.

Users can have notifications go to their Apple Watch as well, in case they don’t always want to be checking their phone to check if the oven has gotten up to temperature. Apple is working on adding more people and animal sounds as well, so the system has room to grow.

The utility of this feature for hearing-impaired folks is obvious, but it’s also nice for anyone who gets lost in their music or podcast and forgets they let the dog out or are expecting a package.

Also new in the audio department is what Apple is calling a “personal audiogram,” which amounts to a custom EQ setting based on how well you hear different frequencies. It’s not a medical tool — this isn’t for diagnosing hearing loss or anything — but a handful of audio tests can tell whether certain frequencies need to be boosted or dampened. Unfortunately the feature only works, for some reason, with Apple-branded headphones.

Real Time Text conversations is an accessibility standard that basically sends text chat over voice call protocols, allowing seamless conversations and access to emergency services for nonverbal people. It’s been supported by iPhones for some time, but now users don’t need to be in the calling app for it to work — do a call while you play a game or watch a video, and the conversation will appear in notifications.

A last feature intended for use by the hearing impaired is an under-the-hood change to group FaceTime calls. Normally the video automatically switches to whoever is speaking — but of course sign language is silent, so the video won’t focus on them. Until iOS 14 anyway, in which case the phone will recognize the motions as sign language (though not any specific signs) and duly switch the view to that participant.

VoiceOver makeover

Apple’s accessibility features for those with low or no vision are solid, but there’s always room to grow. VoiceOver, the smart screen-reading feature that’s been around for more than a decade now, has been enhanced with a machine learning model that can recognize more interface items, even if they haven’t been properly labeled, and in third-party apps and content too. This is making its way to the desktop as well, but not quite yet.

iOS’s descriptive chops have also been upgraded, and by analyzing a photo’s contents it can now relate them in a richer way. For instance, instead of saying “two people sitting,” it might say, “two people sitting at a bar having a drink,” or instead of “dog in a field,” “a golden retriever playing in field on a sunny day.” Well, I’m not 100% sure it can get the breed right, but you get the idea.

The Magnifier and Rotor controls have been beefed up as well, and large chunks of Braille text will now auto-pan.

Developers with vision impairments will be happy to hear that Swift and Xcode have received lots of new VoiceOver options, as well as making sure common tasks like code completion and navigation are accessible.

Back tappin’

The “back tap” is a feature new to Apple devices but familiar to Android users who have seen things like it on Pixel phones and other devices. It enables users to tap the back of the phone two or three times to activate a shortcut — super handy for invoking the screen reader while your other hand is holding the dog’s leash or a cup of tea.

As you can imagine, the feature is useful to just about anyone, as you can customize it to perform all sorts of shortcuts or tasks. Unfortunately the feature is for now limited to phones with FaceID — which leaves iPhone 8 and SE users, among others, out in the cold. It’s hard to imagine that there is no secret tap-detection hardware involved — it’s almost certain that it uses accelerometers that have been in iPhones since the very beginning.

Apple is no stranger to holding certain features hostage for no particular reason, such as the notification expansions that aren’t possible in a brand-new phone like the SE. But doing so with a feature intended for accessibility is unusual. The company did not count out the possibility that the back tap would make its way to button-bearing devices, but would not commit to the idea either. Hopefully this useful feature will be more widely available soon, but only time will tell.