Kleeen raises $3.8M to make front-end design for business applications easy

Building a front-end for business applications is often a matter of reinventing the wheel, but because every business’ needs are slightly different, it’s also hard to automate. Kleeen is the latest startup to attempt this, with a focus on building the user interface and experience for today’s data-centric applications. The service, which was founded by a team that previously ran a UI/UX studio in the Bay Area, uses a wizard-like interface to build the routine elements of the app and frees a company’s designers and developers to focus on the more custom elements of an application.

The company today announced that it has raised a $3.8 million seed round led by First Ray Venture Partners. Leslie Ventures, Silicon Valley Data Capital, WestWave Capital, Neotribe Ventures, AI Fund and a group of angel investors also participated in the round. Neotribe also led Kleeen’s $1.6 million pre-seed round, bringing the company’s total funding to $5.3 million.

Image Credits: Kleeen

After the startup he worked at sold, Kleeen co-founder, CPO and President Joshua Hailpern told me, he started his own B2B design studio, which focused on front-end design and engineering.

“What we ended up seeing was the same pattern that would happen over and over again,” he said. “We would go into a client, and they would be like: ‘we have the greatest idea ever. We want to do this, this, this and this.’ And they would tell us all these really cool things and we were: ‘hey, we want to be part of that.’ But then what we would end up doing was not that. Because when building products — there’s the showcase of the product and there’s all these parts that support that product that are necessary but you’re not going to win a deal because someone loved that config screen.”

The idea behind Kleeen is that you can essentially tell the system what you are trying to do and what the users need to be able to accomplish — because at the end of the day, there are some variations in what companies need from these basic building blocks, but not a ton. Kleeen can then generate this user interface and workflow for you — and generate the sample data to make this mock-up come to life.

Once that work is done, likely after a few iterations, Kleeen can generate React code, which development teams can then take and work with directly.

Image Credits: Kleeen

As Kleeen co-founder and CEO Matt Fox noted, the platform explicitly doesn’t want to be everything to everybody.

“In the no-code space, to say that you can build any app probably means that you’re not building any app very well if you’re just going to cover every use case. If someone wants to build a Bumble-style phone app where they swipe right and swipe left and find their next mate, we’re not the application platform for you. We’re focused on really data-intensive workflows.” He noted that Kleeen is at its best when developers use it to build applications that help a company analyze and monitor information and, crucially, take action on that information within the app. It’s this last part that also clearly sets it apart from a standard business intelligence platform.

Epic Games takes its Apple App Store fight to Europe

Epic Games has taken its fight against Apple’s App Store rules to the European Union where it’s lodged a complaint with the bloc’s antitrust regulators.

In a blog post today the maker of the popular online game Fortnite said it’s extending its battle for what it dubbed “fairer digital platform practices for developers and consumers” to Europe, noting the bloc is already looking into competition concerns attached to the Apple App Store (and its payment service, Apple Pay).

The EU opened a formal probe into certain Apple practices last year.

Regional lawmakers have also recently set out a plan to expand platform regulation to put specific strictures on ‘gatekeeper’ platforms with the aim of ensuring fairness and accountability vis-a-vis third parties. And the issue of platform power is certainly one that’s now under close scrutiny by regulators and lawmakers around the world.

“The complaint, filed with the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Competition, alleges that through a series of carefully designed anti-competitive restrictions, Apple has not just harmed but completely eliminated competition in app distribution and payment processes,” Epic writes, adding: “Apple uses its control of the iOS ecosystem to benefit itself while blocking competitors and its conduct is an abuse of a dominant position and in breach of EU competition law.”

It’s not seeking damages against Apple but wants EU competition authorities to impose remedies against what it describes as the iPhone maker’s “monopoly channels”.

“What’s at stake here is the very future of mobile platforms,” said Epic Games founder and CEO, Tim Sweeney, in a statement. “Consumers have the right to install apps from sources of their choosing and developers have the right to compete in a fair marketplace. We will not stand idly by and allow Apple to use its platform dominance to control what should be a level digital playing field. It’s bad for consumers, who are paying inflated prices due to the complete lack of competition among stores and in-app payment processing. And it’s bad for developers, whose very livelihoods often hinge on Apple’s complete discretion as to who to allow on the iOS platform, and on which terms.”

Epic launched a US lawsuit against Apple last August after Apple banned Fortnite from the App Store.

The tech giant made the move after Epic tried to bypass its in-app purchase framework (and circumvent the cut Apple takes) by adding its own payment mechanism to Fortnite to let users purchase in-game currency directly — in direct contravention of Apple’s rules.

As well as banning Fortnight, Apple said it would go further and revoke Epic’s developer account and access to developer tools for its Unreal Engine — a move that would have affected third party app makers that rely on Epic’s engine. However it was barred from going that far.

A US judge quickly denied Epic’s motion to force Apple to unblock the game but Cupertino was ordered not to block Epic’s ability to provide and distribute its Unreal Engine on iOS — limiting Apple’s ability to take a scorched earth approach to try to shut Epic’s battle down.

Since then Epic has filed legal complaints against Apple in Australia and the UK. It’s now also petitioning EU regulators.

The EU’s antitrust division, meanwhile, opened a formal investigation of Apple last summer — more than a year after the Europe-based music streaming service Spotify had made a similar complaint over ‘restrictive’ App Store rules and the 30% cut Cupertino takes on iOS in-app payments.

The Commission said at the time that an unnamed e-book/audiobook distributor had also complained about the impact of App Store rules on competition.

It confirmed today that it has received a complaint by Epic Games against Apple. We will assess it based on our standard procedures,” a Commission spokesperson told us. 

Epic’s argument is that Apple is denying Fortnight users on iOS a choice between Apple payment and Epic direct payment — claiming savings would be passed to direct purchasers (although Epic of course stands to gain money if it can open up a channel that bypasses Apple’s cut on in-app payments).

Epic has also tried to push Apple to let it operate an Epic Games Store on iOS — a move Apple refused, citing the “exacting standards for security, privacy, and content” which it argues are predicated on the App Store rules (although Apple’s claims of curation equaling ‘quality’ don’t always live up to the reality of what it allows to operate on its App Store).

Back in 2019, Apple also launched its own gaming distribution service, Apple Arcade — a pure-play content play that offers access to new and exclusive games playable across Apple’s device ecosystem.

That move was perhaps the straw the broke the camel’s back vis-a-vis Epic Games deciding to go all in on an antitrust brawl with Apple. (Its blog post references Apple Arcade, and notes that Apple has barred competitors, including itself, from doing the same).

It’s worth noting that Epic has also squared up to Google, which similarly takes a cut of in-app payments of Android apps distributed via its Play Store — and which also removed Fortnight from the Play Store last year.

However Google’s Android platform allows sideloading of third party apps and alternative app stores, arguably making it harder to make an antitrust case stick vs the tighter restrictions applied by Apple.

At the same time, though, Android dominates smartphone marketshare — while Apple’s cut of the global market is less than a fifth.

Epic Games takes its Apple App Store fight to Europe

Epic Games has taken its fight against Apple’s App Store rules to the European Union where it’s lodged a complaint with the bloc’s antitrust regulators.

In a blog post today the maker of the popular online game Fortnite said it’s extending its battle for what it dubbed “fairer digital platform practices for developers and consumers” to Europe, noting the bloc is already looking into competition concerns attached to the Apple App Store (and its payment service, Apple Pay).

The EU opened a formal probe into certain Apple practices last year.

Regional lawmakers have also recently set out a plan to expand platform regulation to put specific strictures on ‘gatekeeper’ platforms with the aim of ensuring fairness and accountability vis-a-vis third parties. And the issue of platform power is certainly one that’s now under close scrutiny by regulators and lawmakers around the world.

“The complaint, filed with the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Competition, alleges that through a series of carefully designed anti-competitive restrictions, Apple has not just harmed but completely eliminated competition in app distribution and payment processes,” Epic writes, adding: “Apple uses its control of the iOS ecosystem to benefit itself while blocking competitors and its conduct is an abuse of a dominant position and in breach of EU competition law.”

It’s not seeking damages against Apple but wants EU competition authorities to impose remedies against what it describes as the iPhone maker’s “monopoly channels”.

“What’s at stake here is the very future of mobile platforms,” said Epic Games founder and CEO, Tim Sweeney, in a statement. “Consumers have the right to install apps from sources of their choosing and developers have the right to compete in a fair marketplace. We will not stand idly by and allow Apple to use its platform dominance to control what should be a level digital playing field. It’s bad for consumers, who are paying inflated prices due to the complete lack of competition among stores and in-app payment processing. And it’s bad for developers, whose very livelihoods often hinge on Apple’s complete discretion as to who to allow on the iOS platform, and on which terms.”

Epic launched a US lawsuit against Apple last August after Apple banned Fortnite from the App Store.

The tech giant made the move after Epic tried to bypass its in-app purchase framework (and circumvent the cut Apple takes) by adding its own payment mechanism to Fortnite to let users purchase in-game currency directly — in direct contravention of Apple’s rules.

As well as banning Fortnight, Apple said it would go further and revoke Epic’s developer account and access to developer tools for its Unreal Engine — a move that would have affected third party app makers that rely on Epic’s engine. However it was barred from going that far.

A US judge quickly denied Epic’s motion to force Apple to unblock the game but Cupertino was ordered not to block Epic’s ability to provide and distribute its Unreal Engine on iOS — limiting Apple’s ability to take a scorched earth approach to try to shut Epic’s battle down.

Since then Epic has filed legal complaints against Apple in Australia and the UK. It’s now also petitioning EU regulators.

The EU’s antitrust division, meanwhile, opened a formal investigation of Apple last summer — more than a year after the Europe-based music streaming service Spotify had made a similar complaint over ‘restrictive’ App Store rules and the 30% cut Cupertino takes on iOS in-app payments.

The Commission said at the time that an unnamed e-book/audiobook distributor had also complained about the impact of App Store rules on competition.

It confirmed today that it has received a complaint by Epic Games against Apple. We will assess it based on our standard procedures,” a Commission spokesperson told us. 

Epic’s argument is that Apple is denying Fortnight users on iOS a choice between Apple payment and Epic direct payment — claiming savings would be passed to direct purchasers (although Epic of course stands to gain money if it can open up a channel that bypasses Apple’s cut on in-app payments).

Epic has also tried to push Apple to let it operate an Epic Games Store on iOS — a move Apple refused, citing the “exacting standards for security, privacy, and content” which it argues are predicated on the App Store rules (although Apple’s claims of curation equaling ‘quality’ don’t always live up to the reality of what it allows to operate on its App Store).

Back in 2019, Apple also launched its own gaming distribution service, Apple Arcade — a pure-play content play that offers access to new and exclusive games playable across Apple’s device ecosystem.

That move was perhaps the straw the broke the camel’s back vis-a-vis Epic Games deciding to go all in on an antitrust brawl with Apple. (Its blog post references Apple Arcade, and notes that Apple has barred competitors, including itself, from doing the same).

It’s worth noting that Epic has also squared up to Google, which similarly takes a cut of in-app payments of Android apps distributed via its Play Store — and which also removed Fortnight from the Play Store last year.

However Google’s Android platform allows sideloading of third party apps and alternative app stores, arguably making it harder to make an antitrust case stick vs the tighter restrictions applied by Apple.

At the same time, though, Android dominates smartphone marketshare — while Apple’s cut of the global market is less than a fifth.

Clubhouse is now blocked in China after a brief uncensored period

Thousands of Chinese users suddenly found themselves unable to access Clubhouse on early Monday evening as the country prepared to start the week-long Lunar New Year holiday. Inside WeChat groups, Clubhouse users rushed to report the situation and help each other with ways to get back onto the red hot live audio app.

Audio drop-in startup Clubhouse was rapidly gaining steam in China, attracting a bevy of users early on to conversations on a wide range of topics. The app seemed likely to meet the fate of other U.S.-based apps and services, however – namely, a ban – and as of Monday, that indeed what Clubhouse faces, as confirmed by TechCrunch. Clubhouse is no longer available to users in China, and is unlikely to return given how much the app’s model would have to change to comply with Chinese internet regulation.

Notice received by users in China when trying to access Clubhouse as of Monday.

Clubhouse has faced criticism at home in the U.S. for its lack of effective moderation and abuse-prevention practices, so it’s hardly a surprise that it has fallen afoul of China’s rather more strict enforcement of measures designed to stifle the spread information the government deems inappropriate for discussion. The app was also not officially available via Apple’s China App Store, though access to it and its audio rooms was, before today, freely available without use of a VPN provided a user had the app installed on their device.

As Clubhouse was not listed on the Chinese App Store, so it’s unclear how many people from mainland China were on the platform. A room discussing the 1989 pro-democracy Tiananmen protest, a taboo topic in China, reached the maximum number of participants at 5,000 on Friday. Some users are reporting inside WeChat groups that they can no longer receive verification codes at their Chinese phone numbers, which could provide additional clues to the level of blockage. Users in China used their Chinese phone numbers to sign up for Clubhouse, and those are linked to their real ID in the country, which means there are potential risks for those who registered.

In the past two weeks, Clubhouse soared in popularity within a few communities in mainland China, including people in startups, investment, academic, or those with overseas background. Many of them were aware the app wouldn’t last long in China given free and often political debates frequented the platform. Clubhouse rooms titled “How long will Clubhouse last in China” and “Have you been invited to have tea for using Clubhouse?” attracted big crowds. “Having tea” is a euphemism for being taken away for interrogation by the police.

As TechCrunch noted on Saturday, Clubhouse’s early success prior to this shutdown has already prompted the creation of a number of homegrown alternatives designed around drop-in audio networking. Clubhouse’s popularity in China, however, may be difficult to replicate for any of these similar efforts – for the same reasons the original app itself is now inaccessible within the country.

 

 

With a Great Firewall circumvention tool like a virtual private network (VPN), some users on mainland China managed to regain access to Clubhouse.

We will update with more information about the ban….

This Week in Apps: Warnings over privacy changes, Parler CEO fired, Clubhouse goes mainstream

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.

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 taking a look at Clubhouse’s breakout moment — or moments, to be fair. Also, the App Store’s rules were updated, Parler’s CEO was fired and other companies began raising their own red flags about Apple’s privacy changes.

This Week in Apps will soon be a newsletter! Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters

Top Stories

Clubhouse goes mainstream

The invite-only audio platform has been on a roll, and has already hosted big names in tech, media and entertainment, including Drake, Estelle, Tiffany Haddish, Kevin Hart, Jared Leto, Ashton Kutcher, and others in the Silicon Valley tech scene. But this week was a breakout if there ever was one, when on Monday, Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk showed up on Clubhouse, topping the app’s limit of 5,000 people in a single room. With others unable to get in, fans livestreamed the event to other platforms like YouTube, live-tweeted, and set up breakout rooms for the overflow. Musk was later joined by “Vlad The Stock Impaler,” aka Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev, who of course talked about the GameStop saga — and was then interviewed by Musk himself.

Then on Thursday, Clubhouse saw yet another famous guest: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who casually went by “Zuck23” when he joined “The Good Time Show” talk show on the app, as Musk had done before him.

The format of the social media network allowed the execs to informally address a wide audience of listeners with whatever they want to talk about — in Musk’s case, that was space travel, crypto, AI and vaccines, among other things. Zuckerberg, meanwhile, used the time to talk about AR/VR and its future in business and remote work. (If you thought Zoom meetings were bad…).

(And who knows, maybe he wanted give the app a try for other reasons, too.)

There is something unsettling about this whole arrangement, of course. Soft-balled questions lobbed at billionaires, journalists blocked from rooms, and so on — all on an app financed by a VC firm, Andreessen Horowitz (a16z), that’s said to be interested in cutting out the media middleman, to “go direct” instead. (Not coincidentally, the room inviting the big name guests was co-hosted by a16z’s Andreessen and its new GP, Sriram Krishnan, who is described as having an “optimistic” outlook — perhaps a valuable commodity when much of the media does not.)

Regardless of the machinations behind the scenes that made it happen, it’s hard to ignore an app where the biggest names in tech show up to just chat — or even interview one another.

Where is all this going?, is a valid question to be raised. Some have described Clubhouse as the late-night talk show equivalent. A place where interviews aren’t about asking the hard questions, but rather about whatever the guest came there to say or promote. And that’s fine, of course — as long as everyone understands that when big names arrive, they may do so with an agenda, even when it seems they’re just there for fun.

In any event, Clubhouse proved this week it’s no longer a buzzy newcomer. For now, at least, it’s decidedly in the game.

Companies (besides Facebook) warn investors about Apple’s privacy changes

So far, it may have seemed as if the only two businesses taking real issue with Apple’s privacy changes, including the coming changes to IDFA, were Facebook and Google. Facebook took out full-page ads and weighed lawsuits. Google delayed iOS app updates while it figured out privacy labels. But as other companies reported their fourth-quarter earnings, IDFA impacts were also topping their list of concerns.

In Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel’s prepared remarks, he alerted investors to the potential disruption to Snap’s ad business, saying that the privacy changes “will present another risk of interruption” to advertising demand. He noted that it was unclear what the long-term consequences of those changes may be, too. Unity, meanwhile, attached a number to it: IDFA changes would reduce its revenue by about 3%, or $30 million, in 2021.

Image Credits: Facebook

It may be that no one really knows how damaging the IDFA update will be until it rolls out. These are only estimates based on tests and assumptions about user behavior. Plus, there are reports poking holes in Facebook’s claims, which had said that small businesses would suffer a 60% cut in revenues. Those are surely overstated, Harvard Business Review wrote, saying Facebook had cherry-picked and amplified its numbers.

Nevertheless, Facebook is already testing ways to encourage users to accept its tracking. The company on Monday began showing some users prompts that explained why it wants to track and asked users to opt in so Facebook can “provide a better ads experience.” Users could tap “allow” or “don’t allow” in response to the prompt.

Apple updates its App Store Rules

Apple said these were moderate changes — just clarifications and tweaks that had been under way for some time. For example, the new App Store Guidelines now include instructions about how developers should implement the new App Tracking Transparency rules. Another section details how developers can now file an appeal upon an app review rejection.

Other changes are more semantic in nature — changing person-to-person experiences to “services” to broaden the scope, for example, or to clarify how gaming companies can offer a single subscription that works across a variety of standalone apps.

To see what actually changed, go here.

Parler CEO fired

Parler — the app banned from the App Store, Google Play, Amazon AWS, using Okta, etc., etc. — fired its CEO, John Matze, this week after struggling to bring the app back online. According to reports from NPR and others, the firing was due to his disagreement with conservative donor Rebekah Mercer, who controls Parler’s board. Matze argued the app would need to crack down on domestic terrorism and groups that incite violence in order to succeed, he says, but claims he was met with silence. Parler, meanwhile, said those statements were misleading.

After Parler’s rapid deplatforming following the events at the Capitol, other alternative social networks climbed up the charts to take its place. But these apps have not proven themselves to have much staying power. Instead, the top charts are once again filled with the usual: Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat, etc.

Maybe it’s actually no fun yelling about the world when no one is around to challenge you or fight back?

Weekly News

Apps with earnings news

  • Snap beats with revenue of $911 million in Q4, up 62% YoY, versus $857.4 million expected. Snap’s DAU’s climbed 22% YoY to 265M. But stock dropped over a weak Q1 forecast.
  • PayPal reported stronger-than-expected, pandemic-fueled earnings with EPS up 25.58% YoY to $1.08, beating the estimate of $1.00. Revenue was $6.12 billion up 23.28% YoY year, which beat the estimate of $6.09 billion. The company added 16 million net new accounts, bringing the total to 277 million.
  • Related, Venmo’s TPV grew 60% year over year to $47 billion, and its customer base grew 32%, ending just shy of 70 million accounts. The company expects its revenues will approach $900 million in 2021.
  • Spotify reports revenue growth of 17% YoY to €2.17 billion; 345M MAUs, up 27% YoY; and paid subs to 155 million, up by 24%.

Platforms: Apple

  • Code in the iOS 14.5 beta also suggests new financial features like Apple Card Family for multiuser accounts and a new framework FinHealth that gives automated suggestions to improve your finances.
  • Apple rolls out new and updated design resources for building apps across its platforms, including iOS 14 and iPad OS 14, tvOS 14 and macOS Bir Sur. On mobile, the new design resources for Sketch have been rebuilt to support color variables, and include numerous minor improvements and bug fixes.
  • Apple’s services saw a significant outage this week that impacted, among other things, the App Store, leading to blank pages, broken search results and more.
  • Certain U.S. states will allow casino, sports and lottery games from March 1, 2021. Google already announced a change to Play Store policies, to allow these. In Apple’s updated App Store Guidelines, out this week, it also added “gambling” as one of the app categories that had to be submitted by a legal entity — an indication that it was opening its doors, too.
  • App Store growth hit a six-month high in January 2021, Morgan Stanley said, citing Sensor Tower data that indicated App Store net revenue grew 35% YoY in the month. In Japan and Germany, growth reached 60% and in the U.S. it was 42% YoY, due to pandemic impacts.
  • Some users are saying third-party apps have been crashing after syncing an iPad or iPhone with an M1 Mac.

Platforms: Google

  • Google is said to be exploring its own alternative to Apple’s new anti-tracking feature, which may seem counterintuitive, as Google is in the ads business. But according to a report from Bloomberg, the company is looking into a solution that’s “less stringent” than Apple’s. That could provide some pushback in terms of setting an industry standard.

Gaming

  • YouTube launches Clips, a short-form video feature that lets users clip 5 to 60 seconds of a video and share with others, similar to Twitch’s clips feature. The feature is in limited alpha testing.
  • Epic Games is warning Australia’s market regulator to take action against Apple for using its market power to force developers to pay a 30% commission on paid apps and IAP. Epic is suing Apple in the country, but wants the regulator to step in now.
  • In the U.S., a judge orders a 7-hour deposition from Tim Cook in the Epic vs. Apple lawsuit.
  • Google hasn’t killed game streaming service Stadia yet, but it did announce this week it’s stepping away from first-party games. The company also announced the Stadia Games and Entertainment head Jade Raymond was leaving the company, while the existing staff would be moved to other projects.
  • Amazon Luna’s game streaming service expands to more Android devices, including Pixel 3, 3XL, 3a, 3a XL; Samsung S9, S9+, Note 9. The service was already available on new Pixel, Samsung and OnePlus devices, among others.

Augmented Reality

  • Color of Change launches The Pedestal Project, an AR experience on Instagram that allows users to place statues of racial justice leaders on the empty pedestals where confederate leaders once stood (or anywhere else). At launch, there are three featured leaders included: Rep. John Lewis, Alicia Garza and Chelsea Miller.
  • TikTok partners with WPP to give WPP agencies access to ad products and APIs that are still in development, including new AR formats.

Security & Privacy

  • YouTube adds its App Store privacy label, detailing the data it uses to track users. This includes your physical address, email address, phone number, user and device ID, as well as data linked to you for third-party advertising and for app functionality, product personalization and more.

Fintech

  • Venmo is turning into a financial super app with additions that include crypto, budgeting, saving and shopping with Honey — all of which are planned for this year.
  • Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev has been asked to testify before the House Financial Services Committee on February 18, over the GameStop debacle. The app still hasn’t recovered its reputation — Play Store reviews have gone back down to 1.0 stars, even after a purge.
  • Reddit has its best-ever month in terms of installs, thanks to the “meme stocks” frenzy driven by users of the r/wallstreetbets forum. The app gained 6.6 million downloads in January 2021, up 43% month-over-month, growing its total installs to date to 122.5 million across iOS and Android.
  • Cash App also this week had to halt buying meme stocks like GameStop, AMC, and Nokia after being notified by its clearing broker of increased capital requirements.
  • Robinhood raises another $2.4 billion from shareholders after its $1 billion raise from investors to help it ride out the meme stock trading frenzy.
  • Joompay, a European rival to Venmo and TransferWise, has now launched in the market after obtaining a Luxembourg Electronic Money Institution (EMI) license.

Social & Photos

Image Credits: Snap

  • Snapchat’s TikTok rival “Spotlight” now has 100 million MAUs, the company said during earnings, and is receiving an average of 175,000 video submissions per day. But Snap is heavily fueling this growth by paying out over $1 million per day to the top-performing videos — everyone wants to be TikTok, it seems.
  • TikTok says it will now downrank “unsubstantiated” claims that fact checkers can’t verify. The app will also place a warning banner overtop these videos and discourage users from sharing them with pop-up messages.
  • TikTok owner ByteDance sues Tencent over alleged monopoly practices. The suit claims that Tencent’s WeChat and QQ messaging services won’t allow links to Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok.
  • Instagram confirms it’s developing a “Vertical Stories” feed that will allow users to flip through users’ stories vertically, similar to TikTok.
  • IRL, an events website and mobile app, has topped 10 million monthly users as it revamps itself into a social network for events, now including user profiles, group events, and chat.
  • Instagram bans around 400 accounts linked to hacker forum OGUsers, where members buy and sell stolen social media accounts. The hackers used SIM-swapping attacks, harassment and extortion to take over the accounts of  “OG” Instagram users who have coveted short usernames or those with unique words. Twitter and TikTok also took action to target OGUsers members, the companies confirmed.

  • Instagram adds “Recently Deleted,” a new feature that lets you review and recover deleted content. The company says it added protections to stop hackers from accessing your account to reach these items. Deleted stories that are not in your archive will stay in the folder for up to 24 hours. Everything else will be automatically deleted 30 days later.
  • Triller ditches its plans to do a Super Bowl ad and will now host a fan contest instead. The app has struggled to present a challenge to TikTok in the U.S. market.
  • Daily Twitter usage remained consistent despite Trump ban, according to data from Apptopia.

Image Credits: Apptopia

Communication and Messaging

  • Element, a client for federal chat protocol Matrix, was removed from the Play Store this week, for abusive content. But Google made a mistake. This was a third-party client, not the content’s host. And it had already removed the content, based on its own rules. For those unfamiliar, Element is an open network that offers both unencrypted public chatrooms as well as E2EE content. Eventually, the developer got a call from a Google VP who helped the app get reinstated. But the situation, which resulted in 24 hours of downtime, raised a question of how well app stores are prepared to moderate issues that crop up in decentralized platforms and services.
  • Clubhouse CEO Paul Davison confirmed the company will introduce a subscription tool that will allow creators to make money from their rooms.
  • Telegram, benefitting from the shift to private messaging and the WhatsApp backlash, became the most-downloaded app overall in January 2021, across both app stores and on Google Play. On the App Store, it was No. 4 and TikTok was No. 1.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Streaming Services and Media

  • Apple-owned Shazam adds iOS 14 widgets for the first time, allowing you to quickly ID any song that’s playing and see your history.
  • Spotify adds new playlists, podcasts and takeovers for Black History Month, and creates a new “Black History Is Now” hub in the app.
  • The U.S. version of the Discovery+ mobile app gets more first-month downloads (3.3 million) than HBO Max did (3.1 million), Apptopia found. But it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, as existing HBO NOW users were upgraded to Max.

Health & Fitness

  • The Google Fit app on Pixel devices is getting an update that will allow your phone’s camera to measure pulse and breathing rates.

Productivity

  • Microsoft rebrands its document scanner app Office Lens to Microsoft Lens and adds new features, including Image to Text, an Immersive Reader, a QR Code Scanner and the ability to scan up to 100 pages. Lens also now integrates with Teams, so users can record short videos to be sent through Team chats. Uh, TikTok’s about documents, I guess?

Government & Policy

  • Myanmar’s military government orders telecoms to block Facebook until February 7, following coup. The government, which seized power following an election, said the social network is contributing to instability in the country.
  • TikTok will recheck the age of every user in Italy, following an emergency order from the GPDP issued after the January 22 death of a 10-year-old girl who tried the “blackout challenge” she saw on the app. On February 9, every user will have to go through the TikTok age-gate again.

Funding and M&A

  • Uber buys alcohol delivery service Drizly for $1.1 billion. Drizly’s website and app let users order alcohol in markets across the U.S. but is often hampered by local liquor laws. Gross bookings were up 300% YoY, ahead of the deal.
  • Vivino, a wine recommendation and marketplace app, raises $155 million Series D led by Sweden’s Kinnevik. The app now has 50 million users and data set of 1.5 billion photos of wine labels.
  • Mobile ad platform and games publisher AppLovin acquires Berlin-based mobile ad attribution company Adjust in what’s being reported as a $1 billion deal, but is reportedly less. The deal comes at a time when the ad attribution market is being dramatically altered by Apple’s ATT. Mobile Dev Memo explains the deal will give Applovin visibility into which games and driving conversions for Adjust customers, to benefit its own ad campaigns.
  • Latitude, a startup that uses AI to build storylines for games, raises $3.3 million in seed funding. Its first title is AI Dungeon, an open-ended text adventure game.
  • Chinese social gaming startup Guangzhou Quwan Network Technology raises $100 million Series B from Matrix Partners China and Orchid Asia Group Management. The company provides instant voice messaging, social gaming, esports and game distribution and operates voice chat app TT Voice, which has over 100 million users.
  • Consumer trading app Flink, a sort of Robinhood for the Mexican market, raises $12 million Series A led by Accel.
  • Commuting platform Hip, which offers both an online dashboard and mobile app, raises $12 million led by NFX and Magenta Venture Partners. The app works with bus and shuttle providers to plan routes for commuters and offers COVID-19 tracing services.
  • Bot MD, a Signapore-based app that offers doctors an AI chatbot for looking up important information, raises $5 million Series A led by Monk’s Hill Ventures. The funds will help the app to expand elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region, including Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and India.
  • Meditation and sleep app Expectful raises $3 million in seed funding for its app aimed at new mothers. The company plans to expand the app to become a broader wellness resource for hopeful, expecting and new parents.
  • Brightwheel, an app that allows preschools, daycare providers and camps to communicate with parents raises $55 million in a round led by Addition, valuing the business at $600+ million. Laurene Powell Jobs’s Emerson Collective and Jeff Weiner’s Next Play Ventures also participated.
  • ELSA, a Google-backed language learning app co-founded in 2015 by Vietnamese entrepreneur Vu Van and engineer Xavier Anguera, raises $15 million a round co-led by Vietnam Investments Group and SIG.
  • Financial super app Djamo gets Y Combinator backing for its solution for consumers in Francophone Africa.
  • Bumble IPO filing sets price range for up to $1B. The dating app makers aims to sell 34.5 million shares at $28 to $30 apiece, valuing the business potentially at $6.46B.

Downloads

Reese’s Book Club

Image Credits: Hello Sunshine Apps

Actress and producer Reese Witherspoon’s media company Hello Sunshine has launched an app for Reese’s Book Club — the book club that focuses on diverse voices where women are the center of their stories. The book club today has nearly 2 million Instagram followers and 38 book picks that made The New York Times bestseller list. Its books have also been adapted into film and TV projects, including Hulu’s “Little Fires Everywhere,” upcoming Amazon series “Daisy Jones and the Six, Netflix’s “From Scratch,” and forthcoming film “Where the Crawdads Sing.”

The new app lets users keep track of the new monthly picks, browse past selections, join community discussions with fellow readers, hear from authors, compete for prizes and, soon, buy exclusives items that will help fund The Readership, a pay-it-forward platform aimed at amplifying diverse voices and promoting literacy, which may include efforts like installing book nooks in local communities and supporting indie booksellers.

The app is a free download on the App Store and Google Play.

Carrot Weather

Image Credits: Carrot Weather

Everyone’s favorite snarky weather app received a major overhaul toward the end of January, which includes a redesigned interface, new icons, tools to design the UI how you want it (an “interface maker”), new “secret locations” (a fun Easter egg) and more. The app has also switched to a vertical layout that fills the screen with information, which also includes smart cards that bubble up with weather info when it’s needed. Carrot Weather is also now a free download with subscriptions, instead of a paid app.

Apple Music, Books, iTunes, App Store and more are experiencing outages

Several high-level Apple services are experiencing issues and outages on Wednesday morning, Apple has confirmed. These issues are impacting a number of consumer-facing services including Apple Music and Radio, Apple Books, and the App Store platforms across both iOS devices and Mac.

For some users, the services are down. For example, there were reports circulating this morning that users were having problems streaming music through Apple Music or using iTunes. Other have noticed strange problems cropping up on the App Store — like app search results that only returned a small handful of top apps related to the search term.

Even when the services are partially up, they’re sometimes much slower to load than usual — meaning users may see blank pages for several seconds before the page is populated with its usual content.

Image Credits: Apple

At the time of the initial reports, Apple’s Status page didn’t reflect these issues, as it showed all services as being available. That has since changed. Now, the page displays outages are occurring across the App Store, Apple Book, Apple Music, Apple Music Radio, iTunes Store, Mac App Store, and Radio.

The Apple Support Twitter account has also posted about the outage, but has yet to provide details about what has happened or when it might be resolved.

What’s concerning is that the account replied to a tweet with a complaint from a user who said they couldn’t reset their password — an indication that the outages could be impacting other types of backend services, as well.

Apple says it’s working to provide us with more information on this, and we’ll update when the company has more to share.

Vivino raises $155 million for wine recommendation and marketplace app

If you’re at all interested in wine, chances are you’ve turned to Vivino at least a few times for recommendations. The app and the company behind it have been helping people enjoy better wine since 2010, and now the startup has raised $155 million with its Series D round – a sum over twice as large as all of its previous funding to date. Spurred by rapid growth that has seen its user base grow from 29 million in 2018, to 50 million currently, Vivino wants to use the large cash injection to significantly boost its core tech and personalized recommendation engine, while also expanding its presence in key growth markets globally.

Vivino is an interesting company for many reasons, but chief among them might be just how similar its vision today is to the one it started out with. Founder and CEO Heini Zachariassen told me in an interview that the app has been remarkably immune to the pivot – something as natural as breathing in the fast-flowing startup world.

“I can look at my slide, from when I pitched this 10 years ago,” he told me. “It says, ‘Hey, you scan a bottle of wine, then you can buy it.’ That just makes a lot of sense to anybody, so it really hasn’t changed much.”

“It’s been very, very difficult to build much – much harder to build than building that slide,” he joked. But it’s always been the same – we always knew that was going to be the model.”

That core value proposition is what leads to a lot of Vivino’s initial downloads and subsequent usage. The scenario is likely familiar: You’re sitting in a restaurant and browsing the wine menu, or staring at a crowded shelf in a wine store. For myself, I think I likely searched for something like ‘wine recommendation app’ and found Vivino via the App Store, installed it and was snapping photos of labels or menus within minutes. The recommendations provided somewhere to start, and since then the app has grown more personalized as I’ve provided input about my tastes.

Image Credits: Vivino

Vivino’s marketplace component means you can often buy the wines you find and enjoy directly from the app, via partnerships the company fosters and maintains with merchants large and small around the world. Zachariassen explained that they strive to maintain high standards when it comes to these partners, since the experience a user has with them is largely a reflection on Vivino itself because the app provides the means for the purchase.

Building more relationships with more merchants in more geographies is one part of their expansion goal for addressing their primary growth markets, but the company is also going to put a lot more capital behind improving and extending its recommendation engine. A lot of the building blocks are in place to make big improvements there, not least of which is the wine database that Vivino spent a decade building essentially from zero.

“Stage one of the hurdles we faced, even before we got commercial, was really building the data,” Zachariassen told me. “There is no aggregated data anywhere. So we’ve basically built this data totally from scratch. So it means taking a picture of bottle of wine, then having people just entering info every single day to fill it. We have 1.5 billion pictures of wine labels right now, so building that mass of data in a good and structured way really is 10 years of work.”

He adds that wine is a particularly long-tail marketplace, with highly individual tastes and very little indication in the company’s history that that’s likely to change in any significant way. Vivino’s marketplace approach, which is highly local on both the supply and the demand side, is particularly well-suited to addressing the sector’s needs, and Zachariassen believes Vivino has only really begun to scratch the surface on that thus far. I asked him why now was the right time to take on this sizeable round, given they’ve been very modest with prior funding amounts.

Vivino wine app in San Francisco. Photo Copyright Nader Khouri 2018.

“I think we we’ve reached sort of a critical mass,” he said. “We saw last year massive growth, and actually reaching […] like a quarter of a billion dollars in sales, and we’ve really seen that the unit economics are healthy for us. At the same time, unlike other marketplaces – you know, the order of things when you have a marketplace might be if you’re like Uber, is that you go into market, you spend money, do marketing, a lot of money to build up the demand, and then you build the supply on top. We’re a little bit different in the way that demand is already there, because we have 50 million users around the world. So we just follow our demand.”

“But the hardest thing about that is that we’re now a 200 person company that sells wine in 17 countries,” he continued. “Which means we’re relatively thin in all these markets. So so one of the big things here, is actually to go much deeper in each market and say, okay, we now know it works here, let’s put more resources in every single market.”

Zachariassen also added that the company spends very little on marketing to date, so it’s going to begin spending more on that to extend its organic growth. Finally, it wants to really build out product engineering, since he says that while users love the existing app, they really “want to do so much more with it.”

Vivino has worked to modernize a product category that has long relied on local expertise and individual storehouses of highly-specific information, with an approach that provides all the benefits of a connected and global marketplace, while retaining regional and particular appeal at the granola level of the individual user. Now, the company is read to tap the rest of the massive submerged demand it has identified, and this fresh fundings would help it do just that.

The $155 million series D round was led by Sweden’s Kinnevik, and also includes participation by Sprints Capital, GP BullHound, and existing investor Creandum which led its Series A. This brings the company’s total funding to $221 million to date.

How Roblox’s creator accelerator helps the gaming giant build new platform opportunities

As Roblox eyes what could be a historic debut on public markets in the coming months, investors who have valued the company at $29.5 billion are certainly eyeing the gaming company’s dedicated and youthful user base, but it’s the 7 million active creators and developers on the Roblox platform that they are likely most impressed by. 

Since 2015, Roblox has been running an accelerator program focused on enabling the next generation of game developers to be successful on its platform. Over the years, the program has expanded from one annual class to now three, each with now around 40 developers participating. That means over 100 developers per year are working directly with Roblox to gain mentorship, education, and funding opportunities to get their games off the ground.  

As the company’s efforts on this front have grown more formalized, Roblox in 2018 hired a former Accelerator alumni Christian Hunter, a Roblox gamer since age 10 and game developer since 13, to run the program full-time. Having been through the experience himself, Hunter brought to the program an understanding of how the Accelerator could improve, based on a developer’s own perspective. 

However, the COVID-19 pandemic threw the company’s plans to run the program into disarray. Instead of being able to invite developers to spend three months participating in classes hosted at Roblox’s San Mateo office, the company had to revamp the program for remote participation. 

As it turned out, developers who were used to playing and building games taking place in virtual worlds quickly adjusted to the new online experience. 

“Before COVID, everyone was together. It was easier to talk to people. [Developers] could just walk up to someone that was on our product or engineering team if they were running into issues,” explains Roblox Senior Product Manager Rebecca Crose. “But obviously, with COVID-19, we had to switch and think differently.”  

The remote program, though differently structured, offered several benefits. Developers could join the program’s Discord server to talk to both current participants and previous classes, and reach out and ask questions. They could also participate in the Roblox company Slack to ask the team questions, and there were more playtests being scheduled to gain reactions and feedback from Roblox employees.

Meanwhile, to get to know one another when they couldn’t meet in person, developers would have game nights where they’d play each other’s games or others that were popular on Roblox, and bond within the virtual environment instead of in face-to-face meetings and classes. 

The actual Accelerator content, however, remained fairly consistent during the remote experience. Participants had weekly leaders standup, talks on topics like game design and production, and weekly feedback sessions where they asked Roblox engineers questions. 

But by its nature, a remote Accelerator broadend who could attend. Instead of limiting the program to only those who could travel to San Mateo and stay for three months, the program was opened up to a more global and diverse audience. This drove increased demand, too. 

The 2020 program saw Roblox receiving the largest number of applications ever — 5 times the usual number.

As a result, the class included participants from five countries: The Philippines, South Korea, Sweden, Canada, and the U.S. 

The developers at IndieBox Studios saw the program as a chance to double down on their game development side hustles. The young friends spread across the UK and Kentucky spent their time during the accelerator scaling up their photorealistic title called Tank Warfare.

“We’ve actually never once met in real life, like we’ve been friends for going on what nine years now,” Michael Southern tells TechCrunch. “We met on Roblox.”

IndieBox is representative of many of Roblox’s early developer teams, younger gamers that have spent more than a decade learning the ins and outs of the evolving Roblox gaming platform.

“We all joined Roblox way back in 2008,” IndieBox’s Frank Garrison says. “But we only started developing on the platform in 2019. And for us, the decision to choose Roblox was more down to like, well it’s what we know, why not give it a bash?” 

The demographics of the accelerator have been shifting in other ways as the developer base grows more diverse.

“I would say, in the beginning, it was mostly young males. But as we’ve watched the program evolve, we’ve been getting so many new interesting teams,” notes Program Manager Christian Hunter. 

The 2020 program had more women participants than ever, for example, with 12 in a class of 50. And one team was all women. 

The age of participants, who are typically in the 18 to 22 year-old range, also evolved. 

“We’ve seen a lot more older folks,” Hunter says. “With [the COVID-19 pandemic], we actually saw our first 50-year old in the program. We’ve never had anyone older than, I’d say, 24. And in 2020, we had 12 individuals over the age of 30,” he notes. 

Two of the teams were also a combination of a kid and a parent. 

Shannon Clemens learned about the Roblox platform from her son Nathan, learning to code and bringing her husband Jeff in to form a studio called Simple Games. Nathan’s two sisters help the studio part time, as well as his friend Adrian Holgate.

“Seeing [my son’s] experience on Roblox getting involved with the platform, I thought it would be neat to learn how to make our own games,” Shannon Clemens told TechCrunch.

Their title Gods of Glory has received more than 13.5 million visits from Roblox players since launching in September.

“Our whole family is kind of creatively bent towards having fun with games and coming up with things like that,” Jeff Clemens tells us. “Why would we not try this? So, that’s when we applied to the program and said, ‘well, we’ll try and see if we get accepted,’ and we did and it’s been awesome.”

In addition to the changes facilitated by a remote environment, Roblox notes there were other perks enabled by remote learning. For one thing, the developers didn’t have to wake up so early to benefit from the experience.  

“With it being remote, the developers were working their hours,” says Crose. “As a developer, we tend to work later and stay up at night. Having them come in at 9 AM sharp was very difficult. It was hard for them because they’re just like…a zombie. So we definitely saw that by letting them work their own hours, [there is] less burnout and they increase their productivity,” she says. 

Though the COVID-19 crisis may eventually end as the world gets vaccinated, the learnings from the Accelerator and the remote advantages it offers will continue. Developers from the program hope that the growth seen on gaming platforms like Roblox continues as well.

“The pandemic has been great for most game studios,” developer Gustav Linde tells TechCrunch. “Obviously, it’s a very weird time, but the timing was good for us.”

The Gang Stockholm, a Swedish game development studio co-founded by Linde, has been building branded experiences for clients exclusively on the Roblox platform. The team of 12 has used the accelerator to slow down development deadlines and dig into some unique areas of the platform.  

“If you look at Steam and the App Store and Google Play, those markets are extremely crowded, and Roblox is a very exciting platform for developers right now.” said Linde. “Roblox is also getting a lot of attention and a lot of big brands are interested in entering the platform.”

Roblox says that going forward, future Accelerator programs will feature a remote element inspired by the COVID experience. The company plans to continue to make its program globally available, with the limitation for now, of English-speaking participants. But it’s looking to expand to reach non-English speakers with future programs.

The fall 2020 Accelerator class graduated in December 2020, and the next Spring class will start in February 2021. The applications are being reviewed now with a decision to be finalized soon. The next class will have some 40 participants, as is now usual, and Roblox will again aim to diversify the group of participants.

Augmented reality and the next century of the web

Howdy friends, this is the web version of my Week in Review newsletter, it’s here to entice you to sign up and get it in your inbox every week.

Last week, I showcased how Twitter was looking at the future of the web with a decentralized approach so that they wouldn’t be stuck unilaterally de-platforming the next world leader. This week, I scribbled some thoughts on another aspect of the future web, the ongoing battle between Facebook and Apple to own augmented reality. Releasing the hardware will only be the start of a very messy transition from smartphone-first to glasses-first mobile computing.

Again, if you so desire you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny


The Big Thing

If the last few years of new “reality” tech has telegraphed anything, it’s that tech companies won’t be able to skip past augmented reality’s awkward phase, they’re going to have to barrel through it and it’s probably going to take a long-ass time.

The clearest reality is that in 2021 everyday users still don’t seem quite as interested in AR as the next generation of platform owners stand to benefit from a massive transition. There’s some element of skating to where the puck is going among the soothsayers that believe AR is the inevitable platform heir etc. etc., but the battle to reinvent mobile is at its core a battle to kill the smartphone before its time has come.

A war to remake mobile in the winner’s image

It’s fitting that the primary backers of this AR future are Apple and Facebook, ambitious companies that are deeply in touch with the opportunities they could’ve capitalized on if they could do it all over again.

While Apple and Facebook both have thousands of employees toiling quietly in the background building out their AR tech moats, we’ve seen and heard much more on Facebook’s efforts. The company has already served up several iterations of their VR hardware through Oculus and has discussed publicly over the years how they view virtual reality and augmented reality hardware converging. 

Facebook’s hardware and software experiments have been experimentations in plain sight, an advantage afforded to a company that didn’t sell any hardware before they started selling VR headsets. Meanwhile Apple has offered up a developer platform and a few well-timed keynote slots for developers harnessing their tools, but the most ambitious first-party AR project they’ve launched publicly on iOS has been a measuring tape app. Everything else has taken place behind closed doors.

That secrecy tends to make any reporting on Apple’s plans particularly juicy. This week, a story from Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman highlights some of Apple’s next steps towards a long-rumored AR glasses product, reporting that Apple plans to release a high-end niche VR device with some AR capabilities as early as next year. It’s not the most surprising but showcases how desperate today’s mobile kingpins are to ease the introduction of a technology that has the potential to turn existing tech stacks and the broader web on their heads.

Both Facebook and Apple have a handful of problems getting AR products out into the world, and they’re not exactly low-key issues:

  1. hardware isn’t ready
  2. platforms aren’t ready
  3. developers aren’t ready
  4. users don’t want it yet

This is a daunting wall, but isn’t uncommon among hardware moonshots. Facebook has already worked its way through this cycle once with virtual reality over several generations of hardware, though there were some key difference and few would call VR a mainstream success quite yet.

Nevertheless, there’s a distinct advantage to tackling VR before AR for both Facebook and Apple, they can invest in hardware that’s adjacent to the technologies their AR products will need to capitalize on, they can entice developers to build for a platform that’s more similar to what’s coming and they can set base line expectations for consumers for a more immersive platform. At least this would all be the case for Apple with a mass market VR device closer to Facebook’s $300 Quest 2, but a pricey niche device as Gurman’s report details doesn’t seem to fit that bill quite so cleanly.

The AR/VR content problem 

The scenario I’d imagine both Facebook and Apple are losing sleep over is that they release serviceable AR hardware into a world where they are wholly responsible for coming up with all the primary use cases.

The AR/VR world already has a hefty backlog of burnt developers who might be long-term bullish on the tech but are also tired of getting whipped around by companies that seem to view the development of content ecosystems simply as a means to ship their next device. If Apple is truly expecting the sales numbers of this device that Bloomberg suggests — similar to Valve’s early Index headset sales — then color me doubtful that there will be much developer interest at all in building for a stopgap device, I’d expect ports of Quest 2 content and a few shining stars from Apple-funded partners.

I don’t think this will me much of a shortcut for them.

True AR hardware is likely going to have different standards of input, different standards of interaction and a much different approach to use cases compared to a device built for the home or smartphone. Apple has already taken every available chance to entice mobile developers to embrace phone-based AR on iPhones through ARKit, a push they have seemed to back off from at recent developer-centric events. As someone who has kept a close eye on early projects, I’d say that most players in the space have been very underwhelmed by what existing platforms enable and what has been produced widely.

That’s really not great for Apple or Facebook and suggests that both of these companies are going to have to guide users and developers through use cases they design. I think there’s a convincing argument that early AR glasses applications will be dominated by first-party tech and may eschew full third-party native apps in favor of tightly controlled data integrations more similar to how Apple has approached developer integrations inside Siri.

But giving developers a platform built with Apple or Facebook’s own dominance in mind is going to be tough to sell, underscoring the fact that mobile and mobile AR are going to be platforms that will have to live alongside each other for quite a bit. There will be rich opportunities for developers to create experiences that play with 3D and space, but there are also plenty of reasons to expect they’ll be more resistant to move off of a mutually enriching mobile platform onto one where Facebook or Apple will have the pioneer’s pick of platform advantages. What’s in it for them?

Mobile’s OS-level winners captured plenty of value from top-of-funnel apps marketplaces, but the down-stream opportunities found mobile’s true prize, a vastly expanded market for digital ads. With the opportunity of a mobile do-over, expect to find pioneering tech giants pitching proprietary digital ad infrastructure for their devices. Advertising will likely be augmented reality’s greatest opportunity allowing the digital ads market to create an infinite global canvas for geo-targeted customized ad content. A boring future, yes, but a predictable one.

For Facebook, being a platform owner in the 2020s means getting to set their own limitations on use cases, not being confined by App Store regulations and designing hardware with social integrations closer to the silicon. For Apple, reinventing the mobile OS in the 2020s likely means an opportunity to more meaningfully dominate mobile advertising.

It’s a do-over to the tune of trillions in potential revenues.

What comes next

The AR/VR industry has been stuck in a cycle of seeking out saviors. Facebook has been the dearest friend to proponents after startup after startup has failed to find a speedy win. Apple’s long-awaited AR glasses are probably where most die-hards are currently placing their faith.

I don’t think there are any misgivings from Apple or Facebook in terms of what a wild opportunity this to win, it’s why they each have more people working on this than any other future-minded project. AR will probably be massive and change the web in a fundamental way, a true Web 3.0 that’s the biggest shift of the internet to date.

That’s doesn’t sound like something that will happen particularly smoothly.

I’m sure that these early devices will arrive later than we expect, do less than we expect and that things will be more and less different from the smartphone era’s mobile paradigms in ways we don’t anticipate. I’m also sure that it’s going to be tough for these companies to strong-arm themselves into a more seamless transition. This is going to be a very messy for tech platforms and is a transition that won’t happen overnight, not by a long shot.


Other things

The Loon is dead
One of tech’s stranger moonshots is dead, as Google announced this week that Loon, it’s internet balloon project is being shut down. It was an ambitious attempt to bring high-speed internet to remote corners of the world, but the team says it wasn’t sustainable to provide a high-cost service at a low price. More

Facebook Oversight Board tasked with Trump removal
I talked a couple weeks ago — what feels like a lifetime ago — about how Facebook’s temporary ban of Trump was going to be a nightmare for the company. I wasn’t sure how they’d stall for more time of a banned Trump before he made Facebook and Instagram his central platform, but they made a brilliant move, purposefully tying the case up in PR-favorable bureaucracy, tossing the case to their independent Oversight Board for their biggest case to date. More

Jack is Back
Alibaba’s head honcho is back in action. Alibaba shares jumped this week when the Chinese e-commerce giant’s billionaire CEO Jack Ma reappeared in public after more than three months after his last public appearance, something that stoked plenty of conspiracies. Where he was during all this time isn’t clear, but I sort of doubt we’ll be finding out. More

Trump pardons Anthony Levandowski
Trump is no longer President, but in one of his final acts, he surprisingly opted to grant a full pardon to one Anthony Levandowski, the former Google engineer convicted of stealing trade secrets regarding their self-driving car program. It was a surprising end to one of the more dramatic big tech lawsuits in recent years. More

Xbox raises Live prices
I’m not sure how this stacks in importance relative to what else is listed here, but I’m personally pissed that Microsoft is hiking the price of their streaming subscription Xbox Live Gold. It’s no secret that the gaming industry is embracing a subscription economy, it will be interesting to see what the divide looks like in terms of gamer dollars going towards platform owners versus studios. More

Musk offers up $100M donation to carbon capture tech
Elon Musk, who is currently the world’s richest person, tweeted out this week that he will be donating $100 million towards a contest to build the best technology for carbon capture. TechCrunch learned that this is connected to the Xprize organization. More details


Extra Things

I’m adding a section going forward to highlight some of our Extra Crunch coverage from the week, which dives a bit deeper into the money and minds of the moneymakers.

Hot IPOs hang onto gains as investors keep betting on tech
“After setting a $35 to $39 per-share IPO price range, Poshmark sold shares in its IPO at $42 apiece. Then it opened at $97.50. Such was the exuberance of the stock market regarding the used goods marketplace’s debut.
But today it’s worth a more modest $76.30 — for this piece we’re using all Yahoo Finance data, and all current prices are those from yesterday’s close ahead of the start of today’s trading — which sparked a question: How many recent tech IPOs are also down from their opening price?” More

How VCs invested in Asia and Europe in 2020
“Wrapping our look at how the venture capital asset class invested in 2020, today we’re taking a peek at Europe’s impressive year, and Asia’s slightly less invigorating set of results. (We’re speaking soon with folks who may have data on African VC activity in 2020; if those bear out, we’ll do a final entry in our series concerning the continent.)” More

Hello, Extra Crunch Community!
“We’re going to be trying out some new things around here with the Extra Crunch staff front and center, as well as turning your feedback into action more than ever. We quite literally work for you, the subscriber, and want to make sure you’re getting your money’s worth, as it were.” More


Until next week,
Lucas Matney

This Week in Apps: TikTok viral hit breaks Spotify records, inauguration boosts news app installs, judge rules against Parler

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.

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 how President Biden’s inauguration impacted news apps, the latest in the Parler lawsuit, and how TikTok’s app continues to shape culture, among other things.

Top Stories

Judge says Amazon doesn’t have to host Parler on AWS

logos for AWS (Amazon Web Services) and Parler

Logos for AWS (Amazon Web Services) and Parler. Image Credits: TechCrunch

U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein in Seattle this week ruled that Amazon won’t be required to restore access to web services to Parler. As you may recall, Parler sued Amazon for booting it from AWS’ infrastructure, effectively forcing it offline. Like Apple and Google before it, Amazon had decided that the calls for violence that were being spread on Parler violated its terms of service. It also said that Parler showed an “unwillingness and inability” to remove dangerous posts that called for the rape, torture and assassination of politicians, tech executives and many others, the AP reported.

Amazon’s decision shouldn’t have been a surprise for Parler. Amazon had reported 98 examples of Parler posts that incited violence over the past several weeks before its decision. It told Parler these were clear violations of the terms of service.

Parler’s lawsuit against Amazon, however, went on to claim breach of contract and even made antitrust allegations.

The judge shot down Parler’s claims that Amazon and Twitter were colluding over the decision to kick the app off AWS. Parler’s claims over breach of contract were denied, too, as the contract had never said Amazon had to give Parler 30 days to fix things. (Not to mention the fact that Parler breached the contract on its side, too.) It also said Parler had fallen short in demonstrating the need for an injunction to restore access to Amazon’s web services.

The ruling only blocks Parler from forcing Amazon to again host it as the lawsuit proceeds, but is not the final ruling in the overall case, which is continuing.

TikTok drives another pop song to No. 1 on Billboard charts, breaks Spotify’s record

@livbedumb♬ drivers license – Olivia Rodrigo

We already knew TikTok was playing a large role in influencing music charts and listening behavior. For example, Billboard last year noted how TikTok drove hits from Sony artists like Doja Cat (“Say So”) and 24kGoldn (“Mood”), and helped Sony discover new talent. Columbia also signed viral TikTok artists like Lil Nas X, Powfu, StaySolidRocky, Jawsh 685, Arizona Zervas and 24kGoldn. Meanwhile, Nielsen has said that no other app had helped break more songs in 2020 than TikTok.

This month, we’ve witnessed yet another example of this phenomenon. Olivia Rodrigo, the 17-year-old star of Disney+’s “High School Musical: The Musical: the Series” released her latest song, “Drivers License” on January 8. The pop ballad and breakup anthem is believed to be referencing the actress’ relationship with co-star Joshua Bassett, which gave the song even more appeal to fans.

Upon its release the song was heavily streamed by TikTok users, which helped make it an overnight sensation of sorts. According to a report by The WSJ, Billboard counted 76.1 million streams and 38,000 downloads in the U.S. during the week of its release. It also made a historic debut at No. 1 on the Hot 100, becoming the first smash hit of 2021.

On January 11, “Drivers License” broke Spotify’s record for most streams per day (for a non-holiday song) with 15.17 million global streams. On TikTok, meanwhile, the number of videos featuring the song and the views they received doubled every day, The WSJ said.

Charli D’Amelio’s dance to it on the app has now generated 5 million “Likes” across nearly 33 million views, as of the time of writing.

@charlidamelio♬ drivers license – Olivia Rodrigo

Of course, other TikTok hits have broken out in the past, too — even reaching No. 1 like “Blinding Lights” (The Weeknd) and “Mood” (24kGoldn). But the success of “Drivers License” may be in part due to the way it focuses on a subject that’s more relevant to TikTok’s young, teenage user base. It talks about first loves and being dumped for the other girl. And its title and opening refer to a time many adults have forgotten: the momentous day when you get your driver’s license. It’s highly relatable to the TikTok crowd who fully embraced it and made it a hit.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

  • Apple stops signing iOS 12.5, making iOS 12.5.1 the only versions of iOS available to older devices.
  • A report claims Apple’s iOS 15 update will cut support for devices with an A9 chip, like the iPhone 6, iPhone 6s Plus and the original iPhone SE.
  • New analysis estimates Apple’s upcoming iOS privacy changes will cause a roughly 7% revenue hit for Facebook in Q2. The revenue hit will continue in following quarters and will be “material.”

Platforms: Google

  • Google adds “trending” icons to the Play Store. New arrow icons appeared in the Top Charts tab, which indicate whether an app’s downloads are trending up or down, in terms of popularity. This could provide an early signal about those that may still be rising in the charts or beginning to fall out of favor, despite their current high position.
  • Google appears to be working on a Restricted Networking mode for Android 12. The mode, discovered by XDA Developers digging in the Android Open Source Project, would disable network access for all third-party apps.

Gaming

  • Goama (or Go Games) introduced a way for developers to integrate social games into their apps, which was showcased at CES. The company focuses on Asia and Latin America and has more than 15 partners, including GCash and Rappi, for digital payments and communications.
  • Fortnite maker Epic Games is getting into movies. The animated feature film Gilgamesh will use Epic’s Unreal Engine technology to tell the story of the king-turned-deity. The movie is not an in-house project, but rather is financed through Epic’s $100M MegaGrants fund.

Augmented Reality

  • Patents around Apple’s AR and VR efforts describe how a system could be identified in a way that’s similar to FaceID, then either permitted or denied the ability to change their appearance in the game.
  • Pinterest launches AR try-on for eyeshadow in its mobile app using Lens technology and ModiFace data. The app already offered AR try-on for lipsticks.

Entertainment

  • The CW app became the No. 1 app on the App Store this week, topping TikTok, Instagram and YouTube, thanks to CW’s season premieres of Batwoman, All American, Riverdale and Nancy Drew.
  • Users of podcasting app Anchor, owned by Spotify, say the app isn’t bringing them any sponsorship opportunities, as promised, beyond those from Spotify and Anchor itself.
  • YouTube launches hashtag landing pages on the web and in its mobile app. The pages are accessible when you click hashtags on YouTube, not via search, and weirdly rank the “best” videos through some inscrutable algorithm.
  • Apple’s Podcasts app adds a new editorial feature, Apple Podcasts Spotlight, meant to increase podcast listening by showcasing the best podcasts as selected by Apple editors.

E-commerce

  • WeChat facilitated 1.6 trillion yuan (close to $250 billion) in annual transactions through its “mini programs” in 2020. The figure is more than double that of 2019.

Fintech

  • Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, launched an e-wallet, Douyin Pay. The wallet will supplement the existing payment options, Alipay and WeChat Pay, and will help to support the Douyin app’s growing e-commerce business.
  • Neobank Monzo founder Tom Blomfield left the startup, saying he struggled during the pandemic. “I think [for] a lot of people in the world…going through a pandemic, going through lockdown and the isolation involved in that has an impact on people’s mental health,” he told TechCrunch.
  • New estimates indicate about 50% of the iPhone user base (or 507 million users) now use Apple Pay. 
  • Samsung’s newest phones drop support for MST, which emulates a mag stripe at terminals that don’t support NFC.

Social

  • Indian messaging app, StickerChat, owned by Hike, is shutting down. Founder Kavin Bharti Mittal said India will never have a homegrown messenger unless it bars Western companies from its market. Hike pivoted this month to virtual social apps, Vibe and Rush, which it believes have more potential.
  • Instagram head Adam Mosseri, in a Verge podcast, said he’s not happy with Reels so far, and how he feels most people probably don’t understand the difference between Instagram video and IGTV. He says the social network needs to simplify and consolidate ideas.
  • Facebook and Instagram improve their accessibility features. The apps’ AI-generated image captions now offer far more details about who or what is in the photos, thanks to improvements in image recognition systems.
  • TikTok launches a Q&A feature that lets creators respond to fan questions using text or videos. The feature, rolled out to select creators with more than 10,000 followers, makes it easier to see all the questions in one place.

Health & Fitness

  • Health and fitness app spending jumped 70% last year in Europe to record $544 million, a Sensor Tower report says. The year-over-year increase is far larger than 2019, when growth was just 37.2%. COVID-19 played a large role in this shift as people turned to fitness apps instead of gyms to stay in shape.

Government & Policy

  • Biden’s inauguration boosted installs of U.S. news apps up to 170%, Sensor Tower reported. CNN was the biggest mover, climbing 530 positions to reach No. 41 on the App Store, and up 170% in terms of downloads. News Break was the second highest, climbing 13 positions to No. 65. Right-wing outlet Newsmax climbed 43 spots to reach No. 108. In 2020, the top news apps were: News Break (23.7 million installs); SmartNews (9 million); CNN (5 million); and Fox News (4 million). This month, however, News Break saw 1.2 million installs, followed by Newsmax with about 863,000 installs, the report said.
  • Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) sent a draft decision to fellow EU Data Protection Authorities over the WhatsApp-Facebook data sharing policy. This means a decision on the matter is coming closer to a resolution in terms of what standards of transparency is required by WhatsApp.
  • German app developer Florian Mueller of FOSS Patents filed a complaint with the EU, U.S. DOJ and other antitrust watchdogs around the world over Apple and Google’s rejection of his COVID-related mobile game. Both stores had policies to only approve official COVID-19 apps from health authorities. Mueller renamed the game Viral Days and removed references to the novel coronavirus to get the app approved. However, he still feels the stores’ rules are holding back innovation.

Productivity

  • Basecamp’s Hey, which famously fought back against Apple’s App Store rules over IAP last year, has launched a business-focused platform, Hey for Work, expected to be public in Q1. The app has more App Store ratings than rival Superhuman, a report found. Currently, Hey has a 4.7-star rating across 3.3K reviews; Superhuman has 3.9 rating across only 274 reviews.

Trends

  • Baby boomers are increasingly using apps. Baby boomers/Gen Xers in the U.S. spent 30% more time year-over-year in their most used apps, App Annie reports. That’s a larger increase than either Millennials or Gen Z, at 18% and 16%, respectively.

Funding and M&A

  • Curtsy, a clothing resale app for Gen Z women, raised an $11 million Series A led by Index Ventures. The app tackles some of the problems with online resale by sending shipping supplies and labels to sellers, and by making the marketplace accessible to new and casual sellers.
  • Storytelling platform Wattpad acquired by South Korea’s Naver for $600 million. The reading apps whose stories have turned into book and Netflix hits will be incorporated into Naver’s publishing platform Webtoon.
  • On-demand delivery app Glovo partnered with Swiss-based real estate firm, Stoneweg, which is investing €100 million in building and refurbishing real estate in key markets to build out Glovo’s network of “dark stores.”
  • Pocket Casts app is up for sale. The podcast app was acquired nearly three years ago by a public radio consortium of top podcast producers (NPR, WNYC Studios, WBEZ Chicago and This American Life). The owners have now agreed to sell the app, which posted a net loss in 2020. (NPR’s share of the loss was over $800,000.)
  • Travel app Maps.me raised $50 million in a round led by Alameda Research. The funding will go toward the launch of a multi-currency wallet. Cryptocurrency lender Genesis Capital and institutional cryptocurrency firm CMS Holdings also participated in the round, Coindesk reported.
  • Bangalore-based hyperlocal delivery app Dunzo raised $40 million in a round that included investment from Google, Lightbox, Evolvence, Hana Financial Investment, LGT Lightstone Aspada and Alteria.
  • London-based food delivery app Deliveroo raised $180 million in new funding from existing investors, led by Durable Capital Partners and Fidelity Management, valuing the business at more than $7 billion.
  • Dating Group acquired Swiss startup Once, a dating app that sends one match per day, for $18 million.

Downloads

Bodyguard

Image Credits: Bodyguard

A French content moderation app called Bodyguard, detailed here by TechCrunch, has brought its service to the English-speaking market. The app allows you to choose the level of content moderation you want to see on top social networks, like Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Twitch. You can choose to hide toxic content across a range of categories, like insults, body shaming, moral harassment, sexual harassment, racism and homophobia and indicate whether the content is a low or high priority to block.

Beeper

Image Credits: Beeper

Pebble’s founder and current YC Partner Eric Migicovsky has launched a new app, Beeper, that aims to centralize in one interface 15 different chat apps, including iMessage. The app relies on an open-source federated, encrypted messaging protocol called Matrix that uses “bridges” to connect to the various networks to move the messages. However, iMessage support is more wonky, as the company actually ships you an old iPhone to make the connection to the network. But this system allows you to access Beeper on non-Apple devices, the company says. The app is slowly onboarding new users due to initial demand. The app works across MacOS, Windows, Linux‍, iOS and Android and charges $10/mo for the service.