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

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the TechCrunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion downloads and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019. People are now spending three hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

In this series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

Top Stories

iOS 14 Home screen Customization Craze

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

App makers team up to take on Apple and Google

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TikTok deal chaos continues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weekly News Round-up

Platforms

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

Services

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

Trends

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

Other News

  • Telepath launches a “kinder” social networking app. It aims to promote quality conversation and ban harassment and fake news. Easier said than done on today’s internet.
  • Child tips off security researchers about scam apps with 2.4 million downloads. The scam involved apps posing as entertainment, wallpaper images or music download apps targeting young users. Some served intrusive ads even when the app wasn’t active. Others charged users, gaining revenues of over $500K. The apps were available across iOS and Android.
  • Epic rejects Apple’s attempts to disparage its business. Apple tried to claim that interest in Fortnite declined 70% from October 2019 to July 2020. Epic said, no actually, daily active players grew 39% during those dates. The two sides are fighting over Apple’s right to commission Epic’s business in a continuing legal battle.

Funding and M&A (and IPOs)

  • Apple acquires Scout FM. Apple bought a startup called Scout FM that turns podcast listening into more of a traditional radio-like experience by leveraging the user’s listening history to know what sort of programming they like. Deal terms are unknown.
  • Epic Games acquires SuperAwesome. Epic acquired the kidtech pioneer whose digital engagement tools are used by 500 million kids per month across thousands of apps, including those from Lego, NBCU and Hasbro. Deal terms were not disclosed.
  • IRL app raises $16 million. Event discovery network IRL raised $16 million in Series B funding after refocusing its social calendar on virtual events during the pandemic. The move made the app, now with 5.5 million MAUs, accessible by a wider audience.
  • GoodRx IPO raises $1 billion+. GoodRx, an app that helps users comparison shop prices for prescription drugs, sold roughly 34.6 million shares at its IPO price to raise $1.14 billion at a valuation of $12.67 billion, sending its stock up 50%.
  • Robinhood raises $660 million. Stock trading app Robinhood raised $660 million in an extension of its Series G round announced last month when D1 Capital Partners invested $200 million. Robinhood is now valued at $11.7 billion.
  • Class for Zoom raises $16 million. Class for Zoom from ClassEDU is designed to make online teaching more engaging. The company was founded by former Blackboard CEO and former PrecisionHawk CEO Michael Chasen.
  • Mobile Premier League raises $90 million. Indian mobile gaming platform Mobile Premier League (MPL) raised $90 million as the company looks to expand its esports and gaming platform outside India.
  • Rappi raises over $300 million. Colombian delivery app Rappi raised over $300 million in a round from T. Rowe Price Associates and others.

Downloads

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

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

 

This Week in Apps: The App Store’s new rules, Epic’s battle continues, TikTok’s time is up

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the TechCrunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion downloads and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019. People are now spending three hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

In this series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

Top Stories

App Store get new rules

app store icon 2

Image Credits: screenshot via TechCrunch

Apple on Friday released updated App Store Guidelines with the goal of clarifying how it will approach new technologies, like game streaming services, App Clips and widgets, in addition to better detailing its stance over how and when it will collect in-app purchases from certain categories of apps. The changes arrive at a time when Apple is battling in court with Epic over its requirements regarding the use of in-app purchases. The company is also seeing its App Store business scrutinized by regulators over monopolistic practices in the  U.S., E.U. and Australia, and elsewhere.

Among the most critical changes is the new rule that effectively permits game streaming services like Microsoft’s xCloud and Google Stadia. These services will now be allowed so long as each individual app that can be streamed has its own App Store listing offering a playable (even if a demo), experience. A separate “catalog” app can also be offered where users sign up and subscribe. Who wants to bet Facebook will soon use this new permission to its advantage with Facebook Gaming?

Other notable changes involve clarifications around in-app purchases, including exceptions for enterprise apps, app companions for some web apps and a rule that says one-to-one experiences (think: telehealth) aren’t required to use only IAP. Another rule says personal loan apps must spell out their terms more clearly and puts restrictions on the max APR.

Apple and Epic continue fight

The Apple vs. Epic battle continued to heat up this week. Epic tweeted on Wednesday that Apple will no longer allow Fortnite users to sign in using “Sign In with Apple” starting on September 11, 2020. That meant Apple was using its power to make sure that even those iOS users who already had Fortnite installed before the game’s ban from the App Store could no longer log in.

Less than a day later, Epic announced that Apple decided to provide an indefinite extension on blocking players from logging in. However, the company warned that players should prepare their accounts for the eventual removal of “Sign In with Apple” support.

The move, if true, is another example of how Apple can use its ecosystem power to harm businesses, and ultimately its own customers — in this case, Fortnite players — in the process. As a result, iOS developers are beginning to realize that all the technologies Apple pushes them to use could become ways to control them, as Apple can easily yank them away the minute they cross the line. This move on Apple’s part (if true and not an exaggeration by Epic), could impact developers’ desire to adopt future Apple technologies.

Apple has the legal right to enforce the App Store terms that Epic agreed to, but doing so in the middle of multiple antitrust investigations around the world is surprisingly bold.

Plus, the approach Apple has been taking also comes across as incredibly petty — to the point that it’s burning through its own developer community’s goodwill in the process.

Developers are tuning into this courtroom drama, which this week includes Apple also suing for damages on breach of contract, and noticing the callous language Apple is using in its legal documents. As former Tumblr CTO and developer Marco Arment pointed (see above), people buy iPhone for its ability to run apps.

Ultimately, Apple needs a thriving developer community to succeed, so it’s not clear why Apple — which already offered a discounted commission to Amazon — won’t negotiate with other large players of significance, like Epic.

That said, Epic doesn’t come off too great in this fight, either. It has leveraged its own user base as a weapon, for starters, knowing that Apple would likely act aggressively and ban its app and maybe even worse. Meanwhile, Epic acts as if it’s on some great crusade against developer abuse, when really this battle is about Epic’s desire to keep more money. If Apple cut it Epic deal, it’s not like Epic would hold out until all other developers were treated fairly, too.

Still, Epic’s response to Apple’s claims that it wants a “free ride” makes a good point.

Epic has paid out $257 million in commission fees in two years’ time over in-app purchases that Apple doesn’t help to generate, beyond being the platform where they occur and the way they’re processed. Epic could have generated that money itself, via alternative payment mechanisms, if allowed. Apple gets its cut because it ties IAP to the App Store. And you can’t distribute to iPhone without the App Store.

Even Mark Zuckerberg this week suggested the App Store is a monopoly (isn’t that rich?), because of its control over the App Store.

“Well I certainly think that they have the unilateral control of what gets on the phones in terms of apps,” Zuckerberg said. “So, I do think that there are questions that people should be looking into about that control of the App Store and whether that is enabling as robust of a competitive dynamic,” he said.

TikTok’s time is up

Trump says TikTok won’t get an extension. The Beijing-based social video app still has only until September 20 to sell off TikTok’s U.S. operations in order for its app to remain in the country. The app will be banned if TikTok isn’t able to reach an agreement with a potential buyer before the deadline passes. And from the latest reports, it seems China doesn’t even want that to happen.

TikTok had run into new complications in recent days that would make a sale to Microsoft, Oracle or any other buyer more challenging. China introduced restrictions on the export of AI technology, which forced TikTok owner ByteDance to re-evaluate how it could even proceed with a sale. In light of the news, ByteDance began discussing possible agreements with the U.S. government that would allow TikTok to avoid a full sale of its U.S. operations. It’s not clear those have had any success, as Trump has said the deadline stands.

As it stands now, ByteDance will likely miss the September 20th deadline. And according to Reuters, Beijing would rather see the app shut down in the U.S. than a forced sale.

Despite TikTok’s troubles, which also include a ban in India, demand for the app remains strong. The app was the most downloaded non-gaming app in August 2020, according to Sensor Tower data. The company also this week revealed more about how its algorithm works, claiming it wanted to be transparent about its use of machine learning techniques and other technologies.

Weekly News

Image Credits: Apple

  • Apple to host an event on September 15, where it’s expected to focus on iPad and Apple Watch.
  • Android 11 makes its debut. The new OS was in public preview and will now roll out to select devices, including Pixel phones, to start. The updated OS is not a major overhaul, but offers several new consumer-facing features around messaging, privacy and smart devices. Built-in screen recording and revamped media controls are also included. (Frederic Lardinois/TechCrunch)
  • Android Go 11, meanwhile, now works better on budget devices, up to 2GB of RAM, up from 1.5GB in Android Go 10. (Steve Dent/Engadget)
  • Apple confirms the “Apple One” subscription bundle in its own Apple Music app’s code. The subscription will bundle Apple Music and Apple TV+. In higher tiers, consumers can bundle in other Apple services like Apple News+, Apple Arcade and iCloud. (Kyle Bradshaw/9to5Google)
  • Apple releases iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 beta 8 to developers, followed by a release to public testers. We’re getting closer! (Apple)
  • U.S. homebuying app installs grew 21% year-over-year in August, setting 2020 record. (Stephanie Chan/Sensor Tower)
  • Google and Apple’s app stores are being investigated by Australia’s competition watchdog. (Josh Taylor/The Guardian)
  • Apple agrees to meet with advertising coalition over iOS 14 concerns. The news follows last week’s announcement that the changes to IDFA were to be delayed. (Stephen Warwick/iMore)
  • Apple announces enhancements to sandbox testing. Developers can now test upgrades, downgrades and cancellations for subscriptions, as well as reset the introductory offer eligibility for a test account from Settings on devices running iOS 14 or later, and more. (Apple)
  • U.S. holiday shopping season on mobile expected to be largest to date, topping 1B hours on Android. (Sarah Perez/TechCrunch)
  • AppsFlyer launches an ad spend tool designed to help app marketers better budget. (AppsFlyer)
  • Ahead of Apple’s expected launch of AirTags, Tiles launches a subscription that reimburses for lost items. (Nicole Lee/Engadget)
  • PUBG Mobile Generates $500 million in just over 2 months, passes $3.5 billion in lifetime revenue. (Craig Chapple/Sensor Tower)
  • Smart banners in iOS 14 beta now point users to open stories in the Apple News app, at least for Apple News+ partners, not third-party publisher apps. (Mike Peterson/AppleInsider)
  • Developers behind popular mobile game Alto’s Adventure have started a new studio, Land & Sea. The team describes the first, yet to be announced, game as “an accessible, coming-of-age folktale set against an ancient pastoral landscape.” (Andrew Webster/Verge)

Funding and M&A

  • Groww, an investment app for millennials in India, raises $30 million led by YC Continuity
  • Lokalise raises $6 million to make it easier to localize your product
  • Curio, a curated audio platform for journalism, raises $9 million Series A led by Earlybird

Downloads

Poolside.fm

Image Credits: Poolside.fm

If you mashup feel-good summer music, ridiculous 80s-inspired imagery and retro tech, you’ll get the lighthearted and fun web radio service Poolside.fm. The service was already available on the web and, recently, as a Mac app. With the iOS launch, the team created a new design that references old mobile devices, like the Nokia 3310, and doused it in pink. It’s the most fun you’ll have with an app all week. Check it out via cellular.poolside.fm.

Google Maps returns to Apple Watch

Image Credits: 9to5Google (photo of Google Maps app)

But why? Google Maps first launched on Apple Watch in 2015 but was pulled two years later without explanation. Now it’s back, 9to5Google spotted this week. The new version doesn’t let you search for new locations from the Watch — you still have to use your phone. The app can then provide navigation instructions by car, bike, public transport or walking.

NewNew

Image Credit: NewNew

Former Drake personal assistant Courtne Smith launches NewNew, a social network based on the video its users like and share. The app, a combination of TikTok and Facebook, allows users to create networks based on the videos, memes and images they’re sharing.

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

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the TechCrunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion downloads and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019. People are now spending three hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

In this series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

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

Top Stories

Apple delays the mobile ad apocalypse

Image Credits: Apple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

app store icon 2

Image Credits: TechCrunch

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

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

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

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

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

TikTok deal gets more complicated

a TikTok logo is seen displayed on a smartphone

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

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

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

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

Weekly News

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

Apple Developer Round-up

Funding and M&A (and IPOs)

  • Bambuser raises $45 million for its live video shopping platform. The company’s offering, which works on mobile similar to Instagram Live, has been used H&M, Motivi, Moda Operandi, Frame, LUISAVIAROMA and Showfields.
  • Toss Lab raises $13 million for its cross-platform collaboration platform, JANDI, the ‘Slack of Asia.’
  • San Francisco-based Skillz will IPO at a $3.5 billion valuation. The company offers a platform for making mobile games competitive, allowing users to play with friends or strangers for cash, prizes or points. It also enables esports tournaments.
  • Dating app Bumble reportedly talking to bankers about a 2021 IPO at a valuation of $6 to $8 billion.
  • Shopping app Wish submitted its draft registration to the SEC for an IPO. The company has raised $1.6 billion from investors to date, and was worth $11.2 billion as of last summer’s financing round.
  • Bangalore-based online learning startup Unacademy announced it has raised $150 million in a new financing round that valued the Facebook-backed firm at $1.45 billion (post-money).

Downloads

The Last Campfire

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

Snapchat had a big August amid TikTok uncertainty

The continual uncertainty around TikTok’s future may have provided a big boost to Snapchat in August. Or maybe it was just the Disney eyes filter that went viral. In any event, preliminary estimates from app store intelligence firm Sensor Tower indicate that Snapchat’s mobile app across both iOS and Android saw approximately 28.5 million new installs last month — its single largest month for first-time downloads since May 2019, when it had then seen 41.2 million new installs.

May 2019, however, was an outlier in Snapchat’s history. The only other month, besides May 2019, where Snapchat had seen more monthly downloads than it did in August was December 2016, Sensor Tower data indicates.

Based on the firm’s findings, Snapchat downloads were up 29% year-over-year in August 2020 compared with 9% growth in July.

It’s unclear what combination of trends or changes may have shaped Snapchat’s download data over the past month.

But one significant area of interest in the social apps space has been the ongoing news around a possible TikTok ban in the U.S. News coverage of the ban already had a notable impact on the app stores’ top charts in recent weeks. Earlier in August, a number of direct TikTok competitors — including Likee, Byte, Dubsmash, Triller and others — saw sizable increases in weekly active users in the U.S. But none have grown to the point where they’re an obvious shoo-in to take TikTok’s place if the Chinese-owned video app is banned from the U.S., per Trump’s executive order.

It’s been more difficult, however, to pinpoint how larger TikTok competitors — like Snapchat and Instagram –were impacted by the news of a TikTok ban. These broader social apps tend to continually grow on a month-over-month basis and they regularly add new features which could impact downloads and usage. For example, Instagram in recent weeks has been expanding features around live streaming, shopping and debuted its own TikTok alternative, Reels.

Though not a direct TikTok rival, Snapchat has also been working to attract the same young demographic that now favors the short-form video app.

This month, Snapchat announced its plans to launch a new music-powered feature that would appeal to TikTok users. The feature, due to arrive this fall, will allow users to set their Snaps to music, similar to TikTok. Snap also confirmed it has deals in place with top music industry partners, including Warner Music Group, Warner Chappell, Universal Music Publishing Group, NMPA publisher members, Merlin and others, who have licensed their content for use in the Snapchat app.

Image Credits: App Store, screenshot by TechCrunch

In addition, Snapchat in late July turned on a new feature called “Minis,” which are basically lightweight, simplified versions of apps that live within Snapchat’s chat section. The apps, built using HTML, allow users to engage with a range of tasks — like buying tickets, meditating with Headspace, collaborating with friends, and more — without having to leave the app.

Snapchat has been benefitting, too, from a prominent position on the App Store. Apple currently has it featured in an editorially curated list of app suggestions called “New to iPhone?” which is on the App Store’s “App” homepage. The collection, which you don’t even have to scroll down to find, recommends apps that first-time iPhone users will want to download.

Other bumps in downloads could be attributed to increased marketing spend, as is common among larger app publishers. Snapchat, however, isn’t commenting on what, specifically, may have changed in August.

And maybe it was just those 66.4 million TikTok videos tagged #disneyfilter that gave Snapchat a bump this past month!

Sensor Tower’s new Snapchat data is considered preliminary because it’s only been finalized through August 26th. When the remaining days of August are also finalized, there may be some changes to the resulting numbers. But those changes will likely be minor, at best.

These figures were also initially reported by one of Sensor Tower’s financial services customers in an analyst note. They were not publicized by Sensor Tower’s data reporting team. But the company confirmed the data’s accuracy with TechCrunch.

Snapchat, as of its Q2 earnings in July, reported its daily active users had grown to 238 million, up nearly 4% from the 229 million the company reported in April. The company won’t comment on the new download data.

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

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the TechCrunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion downloads and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019. People are now spending three hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

In this series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

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

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

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

Top Stories

Apple gets petty in fight with Epic Games

Image credit: Kyle Grillot/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How times have changed.

TikTok nears U.S. deal and loses CEO 

TikTok office building

(Photo by CHRIS DELMAS/AFP via Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

Other News

  • Apple releases new betas. Apple’s 6th developer betas for iOS 14, iPadOS 14, watchOS 7 and tvOS 14 rolled out this week, as did the latest public betas for iOS an iPadOS. The company typically releases its software updates in September, so these are getting close to the final versions.
  • Facebook and Instagram expand Shopping features. Facebook this week introduced a new “Shop” section in its app, which aims to redirect Facebook users to sellers’ storefronts without leaving Facebook, similar to Instagram’s existing shopping experience. Instagram also began testing live shopping, where businesses can show off content in live videos. Dozens of live video shopping startups will be impacted by the new competition.
  • YouTube is testing Picture-in-Picture mode on iOS. But will supporting the feature impact YouTube’s ability to upsell subscriptions to those who want access to background play?
  • Ever shuts down app after building facial recognition tech using customer data. Cloud photo storage app Ever is shutting down. The company last year was the subject of an NBC News report which found Ever had been using its customers’ photos to develop facial recognition technology that it turned around and offered for sale by way of the Ever API to business clients, including law enforcement and the military. Unfortunately, that ill-gotten business lives on, rebranded as Paravision.
  • Amazon launches a fitness band and app called Halo. The service will sell for $64.99 for a six-month membership at launch. Oh, do we trust Amazon with our health data now?
  • Facebook warns Apple’s upcoming ad tracking restrictions will significantly impact app developers’ ability to target ads. The company says that without targeting and personalization, mobile app install campaigns brought in 50% less revenue for publishers and it expects the impact to Audience Network on iOS 14 will be even greater. Consumers, sick of being tracked everywhere on the web, are going to be fine with this. Facebook will also be OK. Small startups that used highly targeted ads to save themselves from having to pay for tons more impressions to reach their desired audience, however…
  • Android security bug let malicious apps siphon user data. Google confirmed the bug was patched in March after a security researcher reported it.

Funding and M&A

  • LaunchNotes raised a $1.8 million seed round to help companies better communicate their software updates. No more “bug fixes and performance improvements.”
  • Berlin-based Delivery Hero acquired InstaShop for $360 million. The latter is based in Dubai and has half a million users in five markets.
  • Unity files to go public. A rival to Epic Games’ Unreal Engine with its own Unity Game Engine, Unity claims its engine powers over half the top games on mobile, PC and consoles, and 53% of the top 1,000 games on iOS and Android. Not surprisingly, its numbers look strong.

Downloads

Bingie helps you find new things to watch.

Bingie

Image Credits: Bingie

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

Firefox Daylight for Android 

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

Flipboard gets into video

Image Credits: Flipboard

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

This Week in Apps: Apple’s antitrust war, TikTok ban, alt app ecosystems

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the TechCrunch series* that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion downloads and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019. People are now spending three hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

In this series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

* This Week in Apps was previously available only to Extra Crunch subscribers. We’re now making these reports available to all TechCrunch readers.

We missed some Epic news while This Week in Apps was on vacation, but this week the backlash against the App Store continues.

Top Stories

Apple at war with developers 

Fortnite maker Epic may be one of the few companies with pockets deep enough to fund a battle with Apple over its App Store policies. And Google, while it’s at it. But it’s not the only company that would benefit from a change to App Store policy.

Critics call Epic a hypocrite because it’s not fighting console makers who take the same 30% cut of revenues, just app stores. They say that the move is anti-consumer, because it hurts the end user when Epic’s top game is removed. (And it may potentially impact other games made with Epic’s Unreal Engine, as well, when Apple bans Epic’s developer accounts.)

Image Credits: Epic

But, clearly, Epic is looking at these App Store issues from a long-term perspective. Gaming is shifting to mobile and that makes it a market to fight for: 2.7 billion gamers will spend $159.3 billion on games in 2020, and mobile will account for $77.2 billion of that, up 13.3% year-over-year. Mobile gaming is growing faster than PC and consoles, as well. This is also why Apple is swatting down alternative gaming platforms like Facebook Gaming, Microsoft’s xCloud and Google Stadia from running their businesses on its App Store.

At this point, the argument about whether Apple is entitled to its 30% cut or not is becoming secondary to the concern that Apple is now dictating what type of businesses are being allowed to operate on Apple mobile devices, period. The company may eventually be forced to allow developers a way to install apps directly on iOS/iPad OS, with the App Store as an option, not a must. You know, like on Mac.

At the antitrust drama continues, this week Epic announced a #FreeFortnite tournament will be held on August 23, where it will dole out prizes like #FreeFortnite hats and non-Apple hardware, like gaming laptops, Android phones and tablets, and other gaming consoles. News publishers also banded together to complain that they deserve the same sort of sweetheart deal that Apple gave Amazon (a 15% commission from day 1, Congress’ antitrust investigation revealed.)

One has to wonder how Apple would have handled such a problem in years past. Maybe it would have just lowered its commission a bit and moved on — knowing that eventually the growth in mobile gaming would help to make up for the near-term losses. Or that an all-in-one subscription could drive services revenue in other ways.

More Opinions: How Apple’s and Google’s defenses to Fortnite maker Epic Games’ antitrust lawsuits over their app store policies will likely differ (FOSS Patents); Apple might win the battle with Epic Games but it’s losing the war (Pando); App stores, trust and anti-trust (Benedict Evans).

TikTok ban could have big repercussions for Apple 

The Trump administration’s decision to ban TikTok and WeChat due to national security concerns could have further impacts beyond just the loss of the apps themselves. According to The Information, Chinese regulators are closing loopholes that allows the App Store and other services to operate without government licenses and local partners in China. Already, Apple removed thousands of unlicensed mobile games from the App Store in China. As pressure tenses between the U.S. and China, Apple could be required to partner with a local business to run the App Store as a joint venture — a Chinese law it had managed to skirt. This would give China editorial control over the China App Store, and they would likely find a large number of apps were non-compliant. Apple also operates other services in China that could be threatened by a tit-for-tat battle with the U.S. Apple Music, for example, is the only music service owned by a foreign company that operates in China without a Chinese partner.

There’s an alt App Store outside the App Store, powered by TestFlight 

A fascinating report from Protocol dug into the growing ecosystem of non-App Store apps. A Square product designer couldn’t get his minimally functional “lil apps” published on the App Store, so they’re now distributed through TestFlight instead. TestFlight is meant to serve as an app beta testing platform, but it’s turning into an alternative app store platform of sorts. This lets users try out pre-release apps from developers big and small. Some will remain in TestFlight indefinitely, with no need to serve a user base of more than the TestFlight limit of 10,000 users. But not all TestFlight apps are meant to forever live outside the App Store. The buzzy voice-based networking app Clubhouse, for example, has been leveraging the power of its invite-only status for building clout and a core user base before a public release.

There are even online communities popping up to help connect users with unreleased apps. One, called Departures, has several big-name apps listed as well. People also find links through social media to TestFlight builds.

This alt app universe isn’t only about testing. It’s about building things that don’t — for whatever reason — fit the App Store paradigm. Maybe it’s an app that serves a niche user need or one that will only work for a large audience once the app’s core community gets built first. Or maybe it’s more experimental in nature. Maybe it’s evolving as users offer feedback. Maybe the app was built for fun, not for longevity. The App Store limits these different types of ideas by declaring every app has to be ready for the millions of users its ecosystem could potentially deliver.

The alt app community’s existence represents another argument for allowing developers to distribute apps outside the App Store and through their own websites. TestFlight, after all, has limits that a more open ecosystem would not.

Other News

  • Massive Adobe gaffe wiped out Lightroom app users’ photos and presets that weren’t synced to the cloud. There’s no way to get them back. What ever happened to no single point of failure? Redundant backups? Maybe they should have used iCloud sync instead?
  • Did you hear the one about the Michigan college that forced students to use a contact-tracing app that tracks the students’ real-time locations around the clock? When people fear and reject contact-tracing technology designed with privacy in mind, it’s because of incidents like these. Nice work, Albion College.
  • David Dobrik wants to turn his gimmicky disposable camera app into a social network. I’d joke, but maybe the world needs a new Instagram now that Instagram has become Facebook’s junk drawer instead of the photo-focused social network it once was. So sure, why not go try to build whatever Disposable 2.0 is.
  • The Hidden Album toggle switch you’ve always needed has arrived in iOS 14, public beta 5.
  • Pure Sweat Basketball is the latest developer to leverage tech giants’ antitrust investigations for its own legal battle. The company filed a suit against Google over its 30% app store fees on Google Play and wants others to join.
  • Android 11 removes the option to choose your preferred third-party camera app in the camera picker. Google says it’s to prevent geotag hijacking and protect user privacy. Fans says this is a good move that doesn’t impact most of the ways users leverage third-party camera apps. Critics say the reason many buy Android phones is for broader choice — and limiting apps to only opening the default camera impacts their experience.
  • Apple and Google’s coronavirus contact-tracing tech is coming to Pennsylvania. But will anyone use it?
  • Samsung is bringing its promise of at least 3 Android updates to low-end phones too.

Funding and M&A

  • Take-Two Interactive acquires Two Dots game developer, Playdots, for $192 million ($90 million is cash). Playdots spun out of betaworks in 2014. Its games include Dots, Two Dots and Dots & Co.
  • Restaurant rewards booking app Seated raised $30 million and acquired VenueBook to add events.
  • Conversational commerce platform Yalochat raised $15 million Series B led by B Capital Group, co-founded by Facebook’s Eduardo Saverin. Existing investor Sierra Ventures participated. The tech allows businesses to manage sales and customer service over messaging apps, like WhatsApp, Messenger and iMessage.
  • Apple acquired Israel’s Camerai, formerly Tipit, an AR and camera tech specialist. The deal took place quietly sometime between 2018 and 2019 but has only just been discovered.
  • Robinhood raised $200 million more at a $11.2 billion valuation for its mobile investing app. The company has raised capital multiple times this year, including an initial $280 million round at an $8.3 billion valuation, and a later $320 million addition that brought its valuation to $8.6 billion.
  • U.K.-based Hammock raised £1 million in seed funding for its fintech app for landlords and property managers.

Downloads

Google Kormo Jobs (India)

Image Credits: Kormo Jobs/Google

Google’s latest app helps people in India find entry-level jobs. The app first launched Kormo Jobs in Bangladesh in 2018 and expanded it to Indonesia last year. The app highlights the different approach Google is taking in emerging markets, where the company sees an opportunity to build services outside of just an ad business.

Reface

Image Credits: Reface

The AI-powered deep fake app Reface, previously known as Doublicat, makes face-swapping tech easily accessible. Whether that’s a good thing or not remains to be seen. In the meantime, the app is worth a look from a pure tech perspective as to how far we’ve come. You can read a TC profile about Reface here.

Triller threatened to sue over report suggesting it inflated its downloads

A new report disputing the validity of Triller’s recently announced download figures led Triller to respond with the threat of a lawsuit. Triller, a newly litigious TikTok rival that could potentially benefit from a TikTok ban in the U.S., has been pushing to capitalize on the recent turn of events regarding its chief competitor. Earlier this month, Triller issued a press release claiming it saw a surge of new downloads following the news of a possible TikTok ban, bringing Triller’s app to a total of 250 million global downloads across iOS and Android. The company also separately reported 65 million monthly active users. Estimates from third-party mobile data and analytics firms call these figures into question, however.

Initially, the app store intelligence firm Apptopia crunched the numbers around Triller’s downloads and found the claim of 250 million downloads to be inflated. According to its analysis, Apptopia had estimated Triller’s app has been downloaded 52 million times since launch across both iOS and Google Play worldwide, not 250 million times, as Triller had said.

TechCrunch reached out to Triller for comment on Apptopia’s findings. Triller and Apptopia then ended up independently getting in touch with one another, through a shared investor. After some back-and-forth between the two, Apptopia decided to pull its report.

During this time, Triller also threatened to sue Apptopia for providing false information in a comment provided to TechCrunch.

Triller CEO Mike Lu told TechCrunch, via an emailed statement, that Apptopia “clearly have allowed themselves to become a pawn of these giant conglomerates, especially those like TikTok who we are in active litigation with for stealing our patents.” (Lu was referring to the recent lawsuit Triller filed against TikTok over patent infringement.)

“We would have welcomed Apptopia with open arms had they just reached out to us, and helped them understand our numbers, and now they have just made themselves part of our TikTok litigation,” Lu threatened. “We will be pursuing a claim against them for spreading harmful, false and knowingly damaging information,” he said.

This is a fairly aggressive response over a dispute about app store downloads. Industry insiders understand that none of the app store analytics firms have perfectly accurate figures. Meanwhile, regular consumers can get a sense of how popular an app is just by looking at the app store’s top charts, which are public.

For further context around the now heavily disputed download number, we asked mobile data and analytics firm App Annie and app store intelligence firm Sensor Tower for their own Triller data. App Annie declined to share downloads, but shared ranking data. Sensor Tower’s data, meanwhile, indicated Triller had reached 45.6 million total global installs across iOS and Android since its launch. That’s even lower than the 52 million figure Triller had vehemently disputed.

Sensor Tower suggested the discrepancies between third-party estimates and Triller’s own numbers could have to do with how Triller counted its installs. Some publishers count other forms of installs, like re-installs, updates and direct installs of Android APKs (meaning, installs outside of Google Play). Third-party firms don’t see these figures. Third-party firms also don’t count things like re-installs because that’s effectively counting the same user twice. Sensor Tower, of course, doesn’t know how Triller was counting installs internally.

Though Apptopia is no longer standing behind its original report and estimate of 52 million installs, its report contained some other interesting insights that are still worth looking at, as they don’t rely on its forecasting technology.

For instance, Triller recently told CNBC it had 65 million monthly active users (MAUs). Counting an app’s MAUs is a way to measure its current usage and popularity. This tends to be a much smaller figure than an app’s total downloads, as not everyone who tries out an app sticks with it as a regular user.

Using Triller’s own download figure of 250 million and its own 65 million MAU figure, it’s claiming a lifetime retention rate of 26%. (The lifetime retention rate is determining the percentage of the app’s total downloads the current MAU number represents.) Triller’s rate is well above what the best apps in the industry are able to achieve.

Snapchat has a lifetime retention rate of 20%, for example. TikTok has an 11% lifetime retention rate. Triller’s is higher, based on its own figures.

Triller’s response to this part of the claim is that its app has changed a lot since its 2015 launch. It didn’t become a social media platform, for example, until 2018. It says if you look at the 90-120 day retention figures for TikTok or Snap, they would be above 30%, which is how its numbers should be compared.

Image Credits: Apptopia

Apptopia’s report also pointed to Triller’s App Store and Google Play chart rankings as another data point in questioning Triller’s download claims.

For those unfamiliar, the app store chart rankings are driven by downloads combined with other factors, like velocity of downloads, ratings, user retention and more.

Image Credits: Apptopia

To analyze Triller’s claim in the context of its chart rankings, Apptopia examined several other popular U.S. apps for comparison’s sake, including Twitter, Pinterest, Gmail and Twitch.

These apps were selected because they had a similar number of U.S. downloads to Triller for the time period Apptopia used to analyze Triller’s claim: July 23, 2015-August 2, 2020. The former is the date of Triller’s launch and the latter is when it issued a press release stating its 250 million download figure.

Image Credits: Apptopia

Simply put, if Triller’s 250 million figure was correct, then the app would seemingly appear much higher on the U.S. App Store and Google Play charts than it does.

On iOS, the average overall ranking for Gmail during this time period was No. 17, Twitter was No. 35, Pinterest was No. 33 and Twitch was No. 233. Triller, meanwhile, was No. 353. (Twitch is lower than the others because it’s a less-used app, because chart rankings aren’t entirely download-dependent and because many Twitch users stream on the desktop, not mobile. But even it ranks higher than Triller.)

You can see that Triller consistently trends well below the others in the U.S. charts. This trend is even clearer when zoomed into the last 90 days (see below).

Apptopia’s estimate here is also in line with App Annie’s data. Though App Annie couldn’t pull a lifetime average rank, as Apptopia did, it was able to pull Triller’s average U.S. iPhone App Store Overall rank for the past 90 days, which was No. 303.

Image Credits: Apptopia

A similar trend can be seen on Google Play, where Triller doesn’t even rank in the Overall category enough days during the given time frame to be statistically relevant. (Gmail didn’t either, but that’s because the app is preinstalled on many Android phones, so users don’t need to download it.)

Triller’s response to this claim is that it, again, was a different app before 2018 and it has hit No. 1 in many non-U.S. markets, including Korea, where it’s currently No. 1. In the last 10 days, it has been No. 1 in Pakistan, Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, Italy and France, and in the last 30 days in India, U.S., South Africa, Nigeria and dozens of others.

“Our growth and numbers are very fresh and very new, so taking anything long term or just the U.S. is neither relevant nor applicable to us,” said Triller CEO Mike Lu.

Image Credits: App Annie

The timing of Triller’s claim of 250 million downloads follows reports that said the startup is raising hundreds of millions in new funding. Fox Business recently reported Triller has “commitments from investors of $200 million to $300 million.” Pegasus Tech Ventures, a Triller investor, emailed journalists in early August to pitch Triller coverage, saying the app was “now raising around $250m at a $1B valuation.”

Triller also recently made news for suing TikTok over patent infringement, verified in court filings TechCrunch pulled from PACER. 

None of this is coincidental. Triller has been angling to become the TikTok alternative that wins the U.S. market in the event TikTok can’t get a deal done in the time allotted by Trump’s executive order requiring TikTok to sell its U.S. operations or be banned in the country.

Mr. Lu disputed claims made by third-party mobile data firms, when reached for comment. The company stands by its numbers.

“No app intelligence firm has been provided our data,” Lu said. “Any numbers they provide have no relevance or accuracy to our numbers. We are able to validate each and every one of our users. They should also disclose which of our competitors are paying them hundreds of thousands of dollars such as TikTok,” he added.

Lu also openly wondered if a Triller competitor was feeding false information. His full statement is below:

The biggest app intelligence firms have less than 1M total users/customers and less than a few hundred large companies actually providing them real data, any numbers they present are based solely on guessing based on a very small sample group and are far from accurate. The terms of service of all app intelligence firms state that any numbers they provide come from their own guesstimates. While certain companies pay upwards of a few hundred thousand dollars to these firms and give them access to their numbers, we have not provided such access. Any numbers provided by them are wholly inaccurate and they themselves state they have no actual way of validating without us providing them access. These is clearly just a transparent attack by one of our competitors who pays them handsomely to disseminate this false information. It’s sad to see firms that are supposed to be neutral and claim to be pro entrepreneurial and pro American allow themselves to become a pawn of these giant conglomerates, especially those like TikTok who we are in active litigation with for them stealing our patents.”

Following their conversation with Triller, Apptopia tells us it will soon have access to more accurate figures for Triller and will release those at a later time. The companies seem to be working things out.

Apptopia says:

We are working closely with Triller who has been very transparent and is opening up all of their analytics accounts to Apptopia. We are working on internal reports and working with Triller to create the most accurate and up to date data over the short term. Between their tremendous success in emerging mobile markets, which are typically hard to model, (i.e. India, Africa, etc.) and the fact that Triller’s growth is very recent, it is especially hard to compare to peers who have years of growth and history. We feel strongly about publishing the most accurate estimates, and the best way for us to do that is to work hand in hand with Triller and authenticate their real data. We plan to do this over the coming weeks and do our best to be the source of truth on the matter.

Apple boots Fortnite from the App Store after Epic adds direct payments

After its creator Epic Games implemented a workaround to duck Apple’s hefty developer fees, Fortnite has vanished from the App Store. The popular game’s disappearing act came the same day that Epic added a new direct payment option for in-game currency on mobile, offering an enticing 20% discount for players who pay the company for its virtual V-Bucks rather handing that money to intermediaries Apple or Google.

“Currently, when using Apple and Google payment options, Apple and Google collect a 30% fee, and the up to 20% price drop does not apply,” Epic wrote in a blog post introducing the new option. “If Apple or Google lower their fees on payments in the future, Epic will pass along the savings to you.”

In a statement to TechCrunch, Apple confirms that it removed Fortnite for taking the “unfortunate step” of violating App Store rules:

“Epic enabled a feature in its app which was not reviewed or approved by Apple, and they did so with the express intent of violating the App Store guidelines regarding in-app payments that apply to every developer who sells digital goods or services.

“Epic has had apps on the App Store for a decade, and have benefited from the App Store ecosystem – including [its] tools, testing, and distribution that Apple provides to all developers. Epic agreed to the App Store terms and guidelines freely and we’re glad they’ve built such a successful business on the App Store. The fact that their business interests now lead them to push for a special arrangement does not change the fact that these guidelines create a level playing field for all developers and make the store safe for all users. We will make every effort to work with Epic to resolve these violations so they can return Fortnite to the App Store.”

Epic Games Founder and CEO Tim Sweeney has attacked Apple repeatedly in recent tweets over the cut it takes on the App Store, calling its decisions deliberately anti-competitive and declaring that Apple has “outlawed the metaverse.” A spicy tweet on Fortnite’s Twitter account evoking authoritarianism also suggests that Epic has no intention of backing down.

In making the decision to add direct payments, which it calls “permanent,” Epic was well aware that being removed from Apple’s marketplace was likely in the cards. In adding the payment system anyway, the hit game maker is planting a flag in the recent roiling controversy over Apple’s App Store fees. What happens next in a showdown between Apple and such a prominent software maker is anyone’s guess, but we’ll be following this story as it develops.

This Week in Apps: A guide to the US antitrust case against Apple, Microsoft in talks to buy TikTok

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the TechCrunch series* that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion downloads and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019. People are now spending three hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

In this series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

* This Week in Apps was previously available only to Extra Crunch subscribers. We’re now making these reports available to all TechCrunch readers.  

This week, we’re focused on rounding up the news from the U.S. antitrust investigation into Apple, as it pertains to apps, the App Store and developers.

Let’s dive in.

Apps and the Antitrust Hearings

app store icon 2

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Developers’ concern over Apple’s alleged anti-competitive behavior with regard to how it runs the App Store was one of the many topics that came up during this week’s antitrust hearings. Apple CEO Tim Cook defended the company’s App Store commission structure and treatment of developers in his sworn testimony before the House Antitrust Subcommittee.

But the documents the committee had collected indicate that there were times, in fact, when developers had not all been treated equally, nor did they all have the same terms. Though it’s not surprising, or even unusual, to hear that Apple had carved out special deals for larger companies, the company has continued to insist the App Store is an even playing field for all developers, both large and small. That’s not the case, the documents reveal, as larger companies got deals allowing them to pay less in commission or had access to faster app reviews and dedicated personnel for their needs.

In addition, the documents detail how Apple’s control of the App Store allows it to unilaterally make decisions about app pauses and removals. This impacts large companies, like Spotify, as well as small developers, like those detailed in these emails:

Documents from the US antitrust investigation into Apple by TechCrunch on Scribd

Here are key sections that pertain to Apple & the App Store:

  • Apple Cut a Special Deal with Amazon, pp. 34-51; 67-69: Though Apple claims an even playing field for developers, its rules didn’t apply to larger companies. As part of an extensive deal with Amazon over its Prime Video app and Apple device sales on Amazon.com, Amazon agreed to remove “tens of thousands” of unauthorized (not necessarily counterfeit) sellers of Apple products, to give Apple control over its experience on the retail site, among other things. Apple let Amazon pay a 15% commission for in-app sign-ups on Prime Video subscriptions, instead of the 30% apps have to pay during their first year.
  • Apple Cut a Special Deal with Baidu, pp. 52-54: Apple also negotiated with Baidu to make it the default search engine in China, and as part of that agreement, offered it access to an “App Review Fast Track,” where Baidu would be allowed to send Apple a beta app for review to speed up the approval process. Apple also assigned two key contacts to work with Baidu. Again, not surprising that a big company got special treatment, but the party line is that all developers are treated equally. Access to faster app reviews is not something accessible to all developers, under certain conditions, or even publicly documented.
  • Apple Considered a 40% Commission, pp. 107-109: Apple in 2011 debated raising its commission to 40%. “I think we may be leaving money on the table if we just asked for about 30% of the first year of sub,” one exec said. Tim Cook, in the hearing, said Apple wouldn’t raise commissions because it competed for developer interest, too.
  • Requiring Apple’s Apps as the Default, pp. 32-33: Apple, until recently, never allowed iOS users to make a different app from a third-party developer their default app for that task on their device. That means map links open in Apple Maps and Calendar appointments lead to Apple’s Calendar app, and so on. The upcoming iOS 14 release will allow users to change their default browser and email apps, however. The documents indicate Apple was in possession of complaints from users who wanted to be able to personalize their device to their own needs. Today, Apple still has no plans to allow third-party apps to be set as the default for maps, music, voice assistance, messages, reminders, notes and others, which impacts startups and indie developers who make quality products but can’t gain a foothold on iOS/iPadOS.
  • Requiring WebKit for all browsers, pp. 55-56: Apple emails discussed Opera’s 2010 plans to submit a browser it claimed was “up to 6 times faster than Safari,” noting that “it is unlikely that this Opera release is using our webkit, which is required.” Opera, a much smaller company than Apple, was hoping to challenge Apple’s control over the browser experience by taking claims to the press — a tactic often used to demonstrate the limits of developers’ rights to distribute apps on iPhone.
  • Banning Apps for Spam, pp. 1-5: Apple banned a developer for spamming the App Store, despite the developer’s claim that he was only creating separate apps because of issues with discoverability on the App Store. The developer, which published a series of maps/guides apps, said people could search for a city by name and find the standalone maps app for that city. But they weren’t being directed to the consolidated app that Apple demanded replace the individual ones, for those same searches. The developer said he would much rather use one single app, as that would be easier to maintain, but had built separate ones because of discoverability issues. Internal Apple emails indicate that Apple stopped accepting the developer’s submissions, forcing them to migrate to a consolidated app.
  • App Store Fraud, pp. 6-18: The NYT in 2012 reported on issues around fraudulent charges hitting developers’ apps, which had amounted to millions of dollars for at least one developer over the course of a year. Though fraud is a prevalent problem with digital purchases, the developers’ larger complaint was not that fraud occurred — they didn’t blame Apple for that, necessarily — but that Apple was unresponsive to their requests for help. Apple didn’t reply to emails and didn’t offer a dedicated phone line for complaints, they said. Apple’s internal emails indicated the company didn’t believe there was a real issue with fraud. (“We’ve repeatedly answered this question and haven’t yet identified a case where there is an actual issue,” one exec said.) Apple execs also said the issue had to do with developers who had high levels of refunds and the timing of their refunds. The emails indicated that Apple would “intentionally reply with a standard and rather vague response” about how reporting won’t reconcile due to timing differences and noted that “we do not individually investigate each query.” But the company was aware that some developers had issues. “It is unfortunate as the issue is very small as a percentage of our business and impacts a very small percentage of our developers,” Apple said. Of course, at Apple’s scale, anything that happens to a handful of developers will be a “small percentage” of its business. But for developers, it could be their entire business.
  • App Store Search Changes, pg. 21; pg. 28: A November 2015 email indicated that App Store Search changes implemented that month made it harder to find some apps. For example a search for keyword “Twitter” never returned the app “Tweetbot for Twitter,” at all, despite the app’s high ranking and general popularity, evidenced by reviews. Meanwhile, an app that hadn’t been updated since 2008 (Tweeter) would appear in the search results. Phil Schiller forwarded the email to Apple execs with a note “FYI.” (TechCrunch had also reported at the time the changes had impacted the rankings of several iPad apps.) Search issues continued in 2017, as another email indicated that the developer’s app wasn’t being returned for critical App Store keyword search terms in the first 100 results, even for an exact keyword match. While Apple may experience technical problems when it makes changes, developers are left with no resource when those changes effectively “disappear” them from the App Store.
  • Apple Removes Parental Control Apps, pp. 70-76, 80-87: Tim Cook was directly questioned about Apple’s removal of screen time apps, and responded that the removals were related to those apps’ use of privacy-invading MDM technology. The documents indicate even Apple was concerned about its move to ban the apps, given their removal directly followed the launch of Apple’s own Screen Time solution. “This is quite incriminating. Is it true?” one exec asked after The NYT covered the story (four months after TechCrunch broke the news!). The apps that were banned didn’t all use MDM, we reported. In addition, Apple didn’t offer a pathway to compliance with regard to apps’ off-brand use of MDM until June 2019. In Congress’ stash of emails from impacted developers, one said they spent an additional $30K trying to fix the problem, but was specifically told “we no longer support Parental Control Apps” even though the App Store still had several listed. A number of consumers also complained about how the apps they relied on had disappeared.
  • Apple used App Store to Block Large Companies’ Apps, Too, pp. 77-79, 80-98, 97-98, 102-106: Indie developers weren’t the only ones at the mercy of Apple’s control over the App Store. Verizon (Disclosure: TechCrunch’s parent company’s parent), Spotify, T-Mobile, Amazon and Valve (Steam) also had submitted complaints about their apps not being allowed in or being paused, due to terms violations, and being forced to use Apple’s in-app purchases. Spotify, for example, said it had built a special landing page just for compliance with App Store Rules about not directing users to non-App Store purchase mechanisms. But Apple rejected its app updates for sending an email after a trial period to users directing them to upgrade from Spotify’s website. “Apple claimed that Spotify could not communicate with its own customers, inside its own app, about the existence of its own Premium service — even if there was no link, button, or mention of any offer of any kind,” Spotify legal wrote to Apple legal. “Shortly after our meeting in early July, Apple objected to an out-of-app welcome email to free users, claiming that this email violated the App Store Rules because it mentioned the Premium service,” it said. Apple directly competes with Spotify, which has money to pay expensive lawyers. What are indie developers to do when met with similar situations?

Breaking News

Trump administration to order China-based ByteDance to sell TikTok’s U.S. Operations

Image Credit: Costfoto / Barcroft Media (Photo credit should read Costfoto / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

The Trump administration said on Friday it will sign an order directing ByteDance to divest its ownership of the U.S. app, TikTok, if it wants to continue to operate in the U.S., Bloomberg reported. The app’s associations with China have been under increased scrutiny in the U.S., along with other Chinese tech firms. Most recently, the app has been undergoing a national security review for potential risks. After the initial news, reports bubbled up that Microsoft is in talks to buy the Chinese social network

TikTok has become one of the largest apps in the world and is valued at $50 billion, Reuters reported. The company has been looking for alternative options, including a proposal from some investors, like Sequoia and General Atlantic, to transfer majority control to them. TikTok also fielded acquisition offers from other companies and investment firms, the report had said.

In the meantime, TikTok has recently promised to open its algorithm and fund U.S. creators. It also made another key U.S. hire, with Sandie Hawkins, former VP and head of Americas for Adobe’s Advertising Cloud, now GM of global business solutions for both TikTok and its parent ByteDance.

Hoping to capitalize on the chaos, Triller sued TikTok over patent infringement.

Other Headlines

GettyImages 688189016

Image credit: Carl Court/Getty Images

Funding and M&A

  • YC alum Paragon snags $2.5 million seed for low-code app integration platform. Investors include Y Combinator, Village Global, Global Founders Capital, Soma Capital and FundersClub.
  • Revolut extends Series D round to $580 million with $80 million in new funding. The fintech startup had raised $500 million led by TCV at a $5.5 billion valuation in February.
  • Huuuge Games acquired games studio Double Star, Apptopia reported, citing Gamesindustry.biz. The studio’s top title is the game Bow Land, which has generated $3.7k via in-app purchases this year, the firm said.
  • Toppr raises $46 million to scale its online learning platform in India. Toppr is one of the largest online learning startups in India and offers apps for iOS, Android and web.
  • Delightree raises $3 million to help franchise business owners simplify their operations. The startup aims to move much of what currently happens through pen-and-paper over to smartphones.

Downloads

Google One 

Image Credits: Google

Google introduced a mobile utility for its cloud storage service Google One. The app will automatically back up your phone’s contents, like photos, videos, contacts and calendar events, using the 15 GB of free storage that comes with a Google account.

Facetune Video

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Lightricks, the startup behind a suite of photo and video editing apps — including most notably, selfie editor Facetune 2 — is taking its retouching capabilities to video. Today, the company is launching Facetune Video, a selfie video editing app, that allows users to retouch and edit their selfie and portrait videos using a set of AI-powered tools.

This Week in Apps: Apple argues for commissions, ‘Find My’ NDA, Alexa to open apps

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the TechCrunch series* that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion downloads and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019. People are now spending three hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

In this series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

* This Week in Apps was previously available only to Extra Crunch subscribers. We’re now making these reports available to all TechCrunch readers.  

Let’s dive in.

Headlines

Top Story: Apple doubles down on its right to take a 30% cut

app store icon 2

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Ahead of Apple CEO Tim Cook’s testimony before Congress, Apple on Thursday again took to the press to fight back against claims of anti-competitive practices on its App Store.

Last month, the company detailed the results of a commissioned study that showed how Apple wasn’t receiving a cut of revenue on the majority of App Store transactions — $519 billion in commerce. This time, Apple is touting the results of another study by the same analyst group that is meant to demonstrate how Apple’s App Store commission rate is similar to those of other app stores and digital content marketplaces.

The study exhaustingly compares the App Store’s 30% commission to all other forms of storefronts, online and off. This includes other app stores, game stores, e-commerce marketplaces, digital platforms and even brick-and-mortar retail. Apple’s conclusion is that it’s not doing anything different from the others, so what’s the big deal?

Of course, this misses the point. The antitrust issues surrounding Apple’s App Store are not about whether Apple is charging more than other digital marketplaces. It’s about whether that commission structure is hindering competition, given Apple’s size, wealth and power.

As indie developer Brent Simmons (of NetNewsWire) put it this week, the cut limits developers’ ability to hire and retain talent.

To an app on the App Store it might mean being able to lower prices — or hire a designer or a couple junior developers. It might be the difference between abandoning an app and getting into a virtuous circle where the app thrives.

Quality costs money, and profitability is just simple arithmetic: anything that affects income — such as Apple’s cut — goes into that equation.

To put it in concrete terms: the difference between 30% and something reasonable like 10% would probably have meant some of my friends would still have their jobs at Omni, and Omni would have more resources to devote to making, testing, and supporting their apps.

Apple’s opening of ‘Find My’ to third-parties isn’t as nice as it seems

5 find my

Image Credits: Apple

Apple announced at WWDC 2020 that third-party developers, like Tile, would be able to tap into Apple’s “Find My” technology platform to locate lost items and gadgets that aren’t made by Apple. The move was meant to counteract Tile’s ongoing complaints and testimony to U.S. antitrust investigators that Apple favored its first-party services at the expense of competitors’ businesses.

Tile was particularly concerned over Apple’s plans to announce a direct competitor, AirTags, which would be allowed to leverage the “Find My” technology at a deeper level. The move could potentially have wiped out Tile’s business with a better product — at least from a consumer standpoint.

The Washington Post reported this week that Apple’s opening of “Find My” is not the olive branch it seems, however. The publication acquired the 50-page confidentially agreement that all developers would have to sign, which indicates there are a lot of restrictions on how this integration works. For instance, Apple customers using “Find My” to locate a device will be barred from using competing services simultaneously, the document said. This is an unusual restriction — and one that makers of Bluetooth devices and smart home products don’t have to agree to for their own products.

Amazon turns Alexa into a mobile app launcher

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

How often do you think Amazon kicks itself over its smartphone failures? Given that the company hasn’t been able to compete directly on mobile, it’s finding another angle by way of Alexa. Amazon this week announced a bevy of new developer tools for its Alexa virtual assistant, including one that will allow the digital helper to launch iOS and Android apps using voice commands.

For example, you’d be able to say things like, “Alexa, start recording a TikTok,” or “Alexa, ask Twitter to search for #BLM.”

It’s unclear how many developers would adopt just a feature, outside of those that already offer one of the more popular Alexa skills. After all, Siri and Google Assistant can already launch and control your apps.

While Amazon is likely hoping that tying Alexa to the world of mobile apps could give it some momentum in terms of building an app ecosystem of its own, consumers so far have seemed to largely prefer using Alexa for first-party activities, like playing music, listening to news, controlling the smart home, asking random questions, making lists, setting reminders and more.

The move, however, may hint that Amazon is thinking about building out a mobile app ecosystem for its Alexa devices with a screen, like forthcoming versions of its Echo Show, for example.

Apple releases beta 3 builds of iOS 14, iPadOS 14

Testers this week received their third set of iOS 14 developer betas, as the software moves closer to its fall launch date. Beyond the usual bug fixes and performance improvements, only small changes were spotted this time around. This includes a new Music app icon, widget and the ability to share music to Snapchat; a new widget from the Clock app; a new pop-up when organizing the home screen that explains how to hide pages; a new pop-up when you use widgets for the first time; an updated design for Memoji masks; and more.

Facebook takes on Zoom with its latest Messenger Rooms update

Image Credits: Facebook

Facebook this week announced a new feature that it hopes will give it a better shot at challenging Zoom’s dominance on web conferencing that came about due to the pandemic. The company upgraded its Messenger Rooms group calls platform to support the ability to live broadcast calls to platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitch — a move that effectively combined Facebook’s live-streaming capabilities with group video chat. Facebook turned around the feature in a relatively short time, given it has only been a matter of months since Zoom has really taken off. That indicates Facebook understands the threat of online chat and socializing exiting its platform.

The goal with the new addition is to make it simpler to broadcast to social platforms, to encourage users to return. Even if they arrive in order to broadcast to competitors’ sites, like YouTube, the company understands that adding Facebook to the list of destinations will increase the output of live broadcasts on its own platform.

In addition, Facebook also this week announced that Messenger now lets you secure your chats with Touch ID or Face ID on iOS. Why don’t more apps offer this feature?

TikTok unveils a $200M fund to back U.S. creators, as it scrambles for a “Plan B”

LOS ANGELES, CA – AUGUST 01: A general view of the atmosphere during the TikTok US launch celebration at NeueHouse Hollywood on August 1, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images)

As the U.S. government weighs a ban on the Chinese-headquartered app over privacy concerns, the company announced plans to hire 10,000 employees across the U.S. over the next three years and launched a $200 million fund to invest in new creators. The new fund is aimed at helping top creators in the U.S. supplement their earnings, and potentially find the next big TikTok star in the process. The platform will begin accepting applications from U.S.-based creators starting next month and will then distribute the capital over the coming year.

Meanwhile, TikTok parent company ByteDance continues to discuss a range of other options to keep its popular and profitable app alive in the U.S. The latest, according to The Information, is one that would have a small group of the company’s U.S. investors joining forces to buy a majority stake in TikTok.

The U.S government — and particularly the Trump administration — continues to be skeptical about TikTok’s China ties. This week, the U.S. House voted to ban federal employees from using the app on government-issued devices. The vote passed 336-71, as part of a package of bipartisan amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act.

Robinhood ends plan for a U.K. launch

Image Credits: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Mobile investing app Robinhood said this week it would not be launching in the U.K., as planned. The company said it was now going to hold off on its global expansion plans to instead focus its efforts in its home market, the U.S. The company had already received over 250,000 sign-ups on its U.K. waitlist, which it says will now be deleted in line with local privacy laws. The company said it will transfer 10 U.K. employees to the U.S., but others will be let go.

The app has been more recently facing criticism in the U.S. for how it lures in young, inexperienced traders who then buy and sell some of the riskiest financial products on the market — at rates higher than other retail brokerage firms. With its hip and youthful design and social app-like features, such as confetti and emoji, Robinhood can make investing feel more like a game, The NYT reported in a recent feature. But the reality is that these inexperienced users are taking more speculative risks, sometimes with devastating results. One Robinhood user killed himself after seeing his balance drop to negative $730,000 — a figure that was higher, in part, due to some of his incomplete trades.

Google has its own ‘Onavo’

Image Credits: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Google today already allows Android app developers to collect usage data from devices where their app is installed, so it comes as no surprise that Google was doing this itself, too. The Information revealed Google’s program that allows it to access usage data on any device that has its Google apps pre-installed. Similar to Facebook’s Onavo, the data wasn’t just used to make improvements to Android, but was also used as a competitive advantage.

According to the report, Google had used the data to show how Google’s own services compared to rivals. This is what Facebook had used Onavo for, too — even leveraging those learnings to inform its acquisition strategy. APIs aren’t the only way large tech companies collect data on smartphone user habits. App intelligence firms like App Annie and Sensor Tower provide similar data to customers, obtained through a number of apps that downplay their true purpose, but really serve as data collection machines.

Data collection like this has been underway for years, but with the antitrust investigations now underway, the time may have come for regulators to actually do something about it.

Funding and M&A

  • Fintech startup Meemo came out of stealth and launched its social finance app with $10 million in seed funding. Investors including Saama Capital, Greycroft, Monashees and Sierra Ventures led the round with additional participation from Amit Singhal, Hans Tung and several former colleagues from Google and Snap.
  • Swiss keyboard startup Typewise raises $1 million seed round to build its “privacy-safe” next word prediction engine that works entirely offline. The round consists of $700,000 from more than a dozen local business angels; and $340,000 via the Swiss government through a mechanism akin to a research grant.
  • China’s Missfresh raises $495 million for its e-grocery app with deep WeChat integrations. The round was led by state-backed China International Capital Corporation. Other investors included ICBC International Securities, Tencent, Abu Dhabi Capital Group, Tiger Global and a fund managed by the government of Changshu county, home to Missfresh’s east China headquarters
  • Levitate raises $6 million for its “keep-in-touch” email marketing solution for small business that works across web and mobile. Investors include Tippet Venture Partners, Durham, North Carolina-based Bull City Venture Partners and angel investor Peter Gassner, the co-founder and CEO of Veeva Systems and investor in Zoom

Downloads

Dilims

Image Credits: Dilims

This beautifully designed indie iOS app called Dilims lets you display different time zones on one screen, and even name them with aliases or view them as a widget. The simple single-purpose utility is useful for anyone who has to work with teams or clients across time zones, and wants an easier way to see what time it is and where. For $2, that’s kind of a steal, too.

Dark Noise 2

Image Credits: Dark Noise

If you like to play ambient noise to help you focus, sleep or just relax, you’ll want to check out Dark Noise 2. This ambient noise app for iOS just got a big update, which adds new sounds, new icons and introduces iCloud syncing. Plus, it now allows you to create your own custom mix of ambient sounds so you can chill to the sounds of rain at the beach, for example, or whatever else you want to blend. The app is $5.99 on the App Store. 

Further Reading (and Listening)

  • Apple Kills IDFA: How Will the Fallout Really Affect Marketers?: Dig into the implications of the IDFA changes in the latest episode of the Mobile Presence podcast, in a discussion with Shamanth Rao, veteran growth marketer and CEO of RocketShip HQ, a full-service mobile user acquisition agency.
  • What Ever Happened to Digital Contact Tracing?: Lawfare takes a look at how the contact-tracing app landscape is shaping up, given the disappearance of contact tracing apps from the headlines. Though Apple and Google’s API was meant to encourage each country to build their own apps, the U.S. has instead taken a patchwork approach due to its fractured response to COVID-19. Today, there are a handful states with their own apps, and only some that plan to use Apple and Google’s technology. Many states have no plans for an app at all, turning instead to human-led contract tracing efforts.
  • Designed for iPad: What makes a good iPad app today? These things, says LookUp Design in a thoughtful post.

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