Tumblr’s subscription product Post+ enters open beta after much scrutiny from users

Tumblr is entering open beta for its subscription product Post+, meaning that all U.S. users can now try out the monetization feature. The product launched in closed beta in July, allowing users hand-picked by Tumblr to place some of their content behind a monthly paywall. This marked the first time that Tumblr allowed bloggers to monetize their content directly on the platform, but the feature was met with backlash from users who worried about how the feature would change the site’s culture.

Now, Tumblr has responded to user feedback by removing the blue Post+ badge that appeared next to the names of users who enabled the feature. Tumblr differentiates itself from other sites by not revealing users’ follower and following counts, so users were concerned that this distinction, which looked like a Twitter verification badge, contradicted that key aspect of Tumblr culture. Tumblr is also adding a $1.99/month price point in open beta — before, subscriber-only content could be priced at $3.99, $5.99, and $9.99. Tumblr will only take 5% of creator profits — comparatively, Patreon takes between 5% and 12% depending on the tier. Payments will be processed through Stripe.

Still, Tumblr users were dismayed by the way Post+ was rolled out. Many bloggers were concerned that in the closed beta, Post+ users didn’t have the ability to block paying subscribers without first contacting support — this could potentially expose users to harassment without the tools to manage it. Tumblr corrected that mistake in the open beta, so now, users can block subscribers themselves. Creators can also put existing content behind the Post+ paywall.

Some users upset with the Post+ rollout staged a protest, which — with over 98,000 notes — is the first thing that shows up when you search “post plus” on Tumblr. Many people on Tumblr have amassed followings by posting iterative fan content, like fanfiction. Tumblr cited fanfiction as an example of the kind of content that creators can put behind a paywall, but users remain concerned that they will be subject to legal action if they were to do so. Archive of Our Own, a major fanfiction site, prohibits its users from linking to sites like Patreon or Ko-Fi, since some intellectual property rights holders can be litigious about the monetization of fanfiction. While it’s considered fair use to make fan content, profiting from it can be considered a violation of copyright.

When Tumblr banned pornographic content in 2018, monthly page views decreased by 29% — to date, the blogging platform hasn’t regained that traffic. After being sold to Automattic in 2019, Tumblr has committed to capturing the attention of Gen Z audiences, who the platform says make up about 48% of its users. Tumblr says it’s catering Post+ to serve Gen Z audiences, but the results of the open beta will begin to reveal whether or not this is what users on the platform want.

Alan acquires Jour and launches mental health service Alan Mind

French startup Alan is better known for its health insurance products — they now insure 200,000 people. But it has been slowly building a superapp for your health and expanding with new services. Today, the company announced its first acquisition ever with the acquisition of Jour for $20 million. This is going to be the foundation for a new service called Alan Mind.

“More than 13 million people in France are facing a mental health issue. If you look at people under 35, it’s 3 out of 4 people — so it’s basically everybody,” co-founder an CEO Jean-Charles Samuelian-Werve said in a press conference earlier today.

And if you look at the past 18 months, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a tremendous impact on mental health. Depressive moods and anxiety issues have basically doubled. 66% of people are dealing with sleep disorders.

“The question we asked ourselves is: How did we get there?” Samuelian-Werve said. “We see two important topics. First, there has been a chronic lack of prevention that is quite obvious. Mental health has been neglected by public health policies.”

“The second pillar that led us where we are is poor care. There are disparities between regions that are very high. In Paris, it can take up to 8 months in some hospitals if you want to see a therapist. In the Rhône-Alpes area, it takes 67 days on average to book an appointment,” he added.

And even if you can find the right person, you’ll often end up spending a lot of money. France’s national healthcare system doesn’t cover mental health that well.

With Alan Mind, the startup wants to work on these two areas of improvement. It’s a B2B service, so the company is selling access to Alan Mind to its B2B clients, who can then recommend Alan Mind to their employees.

“Do companies have a role to play in mental health? We believe that they do. Companies are responsible for protecting their employees’ health,” Samuelian-Werve said. In particular, they reached that conclusion when they realized that lockdowns have affected work-life balance. It’s hard to say when your work day ends and your personal time starts.

Image Credits: Alan

By acquiring Jour, Alan is betting on cognitive behavioral therapy. Employees can install an app and start answering questions to evaluate their current state of mind. They can find content in the app, put words on their feelings and work on themselves. There are videos, a dashboard feature, breathing exercises, etc.

If employees feel like that’s not enough, they can start an individual therapy with a health professional. Alan Mind lets you book a telehealth appointment. The company has hired a handful of psychologists so that you can get an appointment in just a few days.

Of course, companies never know that someone in the team has used Alan Mind. But HR teams receive an anonymized report every month. It’s not about spying on employees, but more about identifying common issues and providing ideas for prevention workshops.

Alan Mind is just getting started as the company only has five clients for this service — BioSerenity, Brut, Joone, Opal and Talk. Companies pay €5 per month per employee if they’re already Alan customers, or a bit more if they just want Alan Mind.

As for Jour, the B2C app will remain available in the App Store. The startup has attracted 2 million downloads before its acquisition. It has a slightly different positioning and it’s going to be useful to identify areas of improvement for Alan Mind.

Screenshots of Jour. Image Credits: Alan

Netflix launches free plan in Kenya to boost growth

Netflix said on Monday it is launching a free mobile plan in Kenya as the global streaming giant looks to tap the East African nation that is home to over 20 million internet users.

The free plan, which will be rolled out to all users in Kenya in the coming weeks, won’t require them to provide any payment information during the sign-up, the company said. The new plan is available to any user aged 18 or above with an Android phone, the company said. It will also not include ads.

Netflix, available in over 190 countries, has experimented with a range of plans in recent years to lure customers in developing markets. For instance, it began testing a $3 mobile-only plan in India in 2018 — before expanding it to users in several other countries.

This is also not the first time Netflix is offering its service for free — or at little to no price. The company has previously supported free trials in many markets, offered a tiny portion of its original movies and shows to non-subscribers, and has run at least one campaign in India when the service was available at no charge over the course of a weekend.

But its latest offering in Kenya is still remarkable. The company told Reuters that it is making about one quarter of its movies and television shows catalog available to users in the free plan in the East African nation.

“If you’ve never watched Netflix before — and many people in Kenya haven’t — this is a great way to experience our service,” Cathy Conk, Director of Product Innovation at Netflix, wrote in a blog post.

“And if you like what you see, it’s easy to upgrade to one of our paid plans so you can enjoy our full catalog on your TV or laptop as well.”

The company didn’t disclose how long it plans to offer this free tier in Kenya — and whether it is considering expanding this offering to other markets.

On its past earnings calls, Netflix executives have insisted that they study each market and explore ways to make their service more compelling to all. The ability to sign up without a payment information lends credibility to such claims. Many individuals in developed countries don’t have a credit or debit card, rendering services requiring such payment instruments at the sign-up unattractive to them.

The new push to win customers comes as the company, which is also planning to add mobile games to its offering, added only 1.5 million net paying subscribers in the quarter that ended in June this year, lower than what it had forecast. Netflix, which has amassed over 209 million subscribers, as well as Amazon Prime Video and other streaming services are increasingly trying to win customers outside of the U.S. to maintain faster growth rates.

Earlier this year, Amazon introduced a free and ad-supported video streaming service within its shopping app in India to tap more customers.

iOS 15 adds all the little features that were missing

The release of iOS 15 should be a major event for mobile operating systems. And yet, this year, there’s no breakthrough feature or overarching theme that makes this release stand out. Apple has focused on quality-of-life updates as well as new features for its own apps.

The result is a solid update that is not going to be controversial. Some people are going to take advantage of the new Focus feature. They’ll spend a lot of time customizing their phone to make it as personal as possible. Other people are just going to miss or dismiss the new features.

This year’s update is also a bit different because you don’t have to update to iOS 15. If you’re fine with iOS 14, Apple won’t force you to make the jump to iOS 15. You’ll still receive security patches. Some people will simply dismiss iOS 15 altogether.

It seems like a small change but it actually says a lot about the current state of iOS. Apple considers iOS as a mature platform. Just like you don’t have to update your Mac to the latest version of macOS if you don’t want to, you can now update at your own pace.

iOS should also be considered as a mature platform for app developers. iOS 15 adoption will be slower than usual as people won’t necessarily update to iOS 15 right away. Apps should potentially work on older iOS versions for longer.

Of course, users will ‘update’ to a new version of iOS when they buy a new iPhone and replace their old iPhone. But Apple has And people who pre-ordered the iPhone 13 will get iOS 15.

Image Credits: Apple

Focusing on you instead of your phone

One of the biggest change in iOS 15 is the ability to change your Focus from Control Center. It’s a surprisingly powerful feature with a lot of options and tweaks. I would say it doesn’t feel like an Apple feature.

But it’s definitely one of the most interesting features of iOS 15. Chances are you spend a lot of time with your phone and your device requires a lot of attention from you. With this new feature, it reverses the balance and puts you back in charge.

‘Do Not Disturb’ users are already quite familiar with the idea that you can silence notifications when you don’t want them. If you want to keep using ‘moon mode’ with iOS 15, you don’t have to change anything.

But you can now create additional Focuses. By default, Apple suggests a few Focuses — Work, Sleep, Driving, Fitness, Gaming, Mindfulness, Personal and Reading. Each Focus is customizable to your needs and you can create new Focuses from scratch.

When you turn on a specific Focus, it basically blocks notifications by default. You can then add people and apps so that notifications from those people and apps still go through. App developers can also mark a notification as time sensitive so that it always goes through. I hope they won’t abuse that feature.

There are three more settings that you can activate. First, you can optionally share that your notifications are currently silenced in Messages and compatible third-party apps. Second, you can hide home screen pages altogether. Third, you can hide notifications from the lock screen and hide badges from the home screen.

Focus gets particularly interesting when you realize that you can couple specific Focuses with automation features. For instance, you can automatically turn on ‘Sleep’ at night or you can automatically turn on ‘Work’ when you arrive at work.

Power users will also have a lot of fun setting up a Focus and pairing it with a Shortcut. For instance, you could use Shortcuts to open the Clock app when you turn on Sleep mode. You get it, this new feature has a lot of depth and beta users have just started scratching the surface.

Image Credits: Apple

Update all apps

With iOS 15, Apple has improved nearly all the default apps. Some additions are definitely nice improvements. Others have been a bit more controversial.

Let’s start with the controversial one, Safari’s design has been updated. But what you saw at WWDC in June doesn’t look at all like what’s shipping today. Essentially, Apple has listened to feedback and changed the user interface of its web browser during the summer.

By default, the address bar is now at the bottom of the screen, right above the row of buttons that let you open bookmarks, share the current page or go to the previous page. I think it works better. But if you really don’t want the address bar at the bottom, you can move it back to the top of the screen.

Other than that, Safari changes are all good improvements. For instance, the browser now supports traditional web extensions. It’s going to be interesting to see if popular Google Chrome extensions eventually come to Safari. Another nice new feature is the ability to create tab groups and find your tab groups from your other devices.

FaceTime has become a versatile video-conferencing service. You can now create links, share them with friends and add them to calendar invites. For the first time, people who don’t own an Apple device will be able to join FaceTime calls from a web browser. There’s also a new Zoom view… I mean, grid view.

Unfortunately, the big new FaceTime feature is not ready for prime time just yet. SharePlay, the feature that lets you sync audio and video playback with your friends, is going to be released later this Fall.

The Weather app has also been redesigned. It is now packed with a lot more information, such as precipitation maps, next-hour precipitation notifications and a new UV index. It has become a solid alternative to third-party weather apps. I still use Snowflake but differences are smaller and smaller.

Messages is now better integrated with other Apple apps. Whenever someone sends you an article, a photo album, a podcast or a song, you’ll see those recommendations in Apple’s other apps — Apple News, Photos, Apple Podcasts, Apple Music, etc. Once again, this is a nice addition in my testings but it’s not going to change the way you use your phone.

Apple Maps is getting better and better, especially if you live in San Francisco. If you haven’t used it in a few years, I encourage you to try it again. It’s now a solid alternative to Google Maps.

Some cities, such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and London, are receiving new detailed maps with 3D buildings, bus lanes, sidewalks and more. It feels like navigating a video game given how detailed it is. The app has also been redesigned with new place cards, a new driving user interface and settings in the app.

Photos is also receiving a bunch of improvements. Every year, the company is refining Memories. I’m not sure a ton of people are using this feature, but it’s better than before. There are now more information if you swipe on a photo as well, such as the shutter speed and lens that were used.

But the biggest change to your photo library is that you can now search for text in your photo. iOS is scanning your photos to find text and save it for Spotlight searches.

Similarly, you can now point your camera at text and select text from there. It is incredibly convenient if you’re looking for the restaurant address on the menu and want to share it with a friend or if you’re traveling and you want to translate some text.

Image Credits: Apple

Tips and tricks

There are a ton of small changes that make iOS 15 better than iOS 14. Let me list some of them:

  • If you have a compatible home key, hotel key, office key or ID card, you can now add all of those to the Wallet app.
  • You can share some health data with someone else. It can be useful if you’re living far away from your loved ones or if you want to update your healthcare team.
  • If you pay for iCloud, you’re now an iCloud+ users. In addition to storage, you get additional features. iCloud Private Relay, which is available as a beta feature, lets you browse the web with increased privacy. Hide My Email lets you create randomly generated email addresses to create new accounts around the web.
  • Similarly, if your family is using iCloud for their email addresses, you can now set up a personal domain name and set it up in iCloud.
  • iOS uses on-device speech recognition, which means that you can dictate text much faster.
  • But that’s not all, iOS processes some Siri requests on your device directly, which means that you can start a timer, set an alarm or change the music instantly. It has changed the way I use Siri.
  • You can add an account recovery contact in case you get locked out of your iCloud account. This is important to convince more people to use two-factor authentication.
  • Talking about two-factor authentication, Apple’s built-in password manager called ‘Passwords’ can now save 2FA details and auto-fill 2FA fields. It works pretty much like 2FA in 1Password.
  • You can set up a legacy person for your Apple ID. I encourage you to look at that feature carefully. I’ve talked with several persons who couldn’t get their loved one’s photos after they passed away because Apple couldn’t just hand out the photos.
  • Apple has added tags to Reminders and Notes. You can also @-mention people in Notes.

As you can see, the list of changes in iOS 15 is quite long. But it’s up to you to decide whether you want to update to iOS 15. When Apple added cut, copy and paste with iPhone OS 3, it was an obvious decision. I personally like the new features and it was worth updating. And I hope this review can help you decide whether to update or not.

iOS 15 is now available to download

Apple has just released the final version of iOS 15, the next major version of the operating system for the iPhone. It is a free download and it works with the iPhone 6s or later, both generations of iPhone SE and the most recent iPod touch model. iPad users will also be able to update to iPadOS 15 and watchOS 8 today.

The biggest change of iOS 15 is a new Focus mode. In addition to “Do not disturb,” you can configure various modes — you can choose apps and people you want notifications from and change your focus depending on what you’re doing. For instance, you can create a Work mode, a Sleep mode, a Workout mode, etc.

There are many new features across the board, such as a new Weather app, updated maps in Apple Maps, an improved version of FaceTime, and more. Safari also has a brand-new look.

The new version of iOS also scans your photos for text. Called Live Text, this feature lets you highlight, copy and paste text in photos. It could be a nice accessibility feature as well; iOS is going to leverage that info for Spotlight. You can search for text in your photos directly in Spotlight and it’ll pull out relevant photos. These features are handled on-device directly.

Paid iCloud users have been upgraded to iCloud+. In addition to more storage, iCloud+ subscribers get a handful of new features. iCloud Private Relay, which is available as a beta feature, lets you browse the web with increased privacy. Hide My Email lets you create randomly generated email addresses to create new accounts around the web. iCloud email users can also switch to a personal domain name.

The update is currently rolling out and is available both over-the-air in the Settings app, and by plugging your device to your computer for a wired update. But first, back up your device. Make sure your iCloud backup is up to date by opening the Settings app on your iPhone or iPad and tapping on your account information at the top and then on your device name. Additionally, you can also plug your iOS device to your computer to do a manual backup in Finder or iTunes for Windows (or do both, really).

Don’t forget to encrypt your backup in iTunes. It is much safer if somebody hacks your computer. And encrypted backups include saved passwords and health data. This way, you don’t have to reconnect to all your online accounts.

Once this is done, you should go to the Settings app, then ‘General’ and then ‘Software Update.’ You should see ‘Update Requested…’ It will then automatically start downloading once the download is available.

9am.health launches with $3.7M to tackle virtual diabetes care

Founders like to create companies around what they know, and Frank Westermann and Anton Kittelberger know diabetes.

They met and bonded over both having type 1 diabetes — Westermann was diagnosed over 25 years ago — and started the MySugr app for diabetes self-management in 2012 (they won a TC pitch-off back in 2011). Four years later, Westermann moved to the U.S. from Austria to introduce MySugr stateside before the company was acquired by Roche for $100 million in 2017.

The pair moved on to their next journey, also in diabetes, starting 9am.health in April, a virtual diabetes clinic designed to provide people living with prediabetes and type 2 diabetes access to personalized care and affordable medications from their homes. 9am.health’s clinic was launched in August.

Today, the San Diego-based company announced a $3.7 million seed round from Founders Fund, Define Ventures, Speedinvest and iSeed Ventures to target the 1 in 3 people living with diabetes in the United States, Westermann told TechCrunch.

“We understand the day-to-day challenges that people with prediabetes and type 2 diabetes have,” he added. “Access to care is the real issue, and rather than have patients wait weeks to get an appointment, we send a kit with tests to your home, and you send it back to us.”

9am.health kicked off in Texas and California, and is now available in 33 states. It is finding patients through digital outreach, community work and hospitals.

Even with insurance, the average person living with diabetes spends about $16,750 per year on medical expenses and has approximately 2.3 times higher the costs than if they didn’t have the disease. Instead, patients can subscribe to 9am.health for $40 per month; that includes online prescription shipping, unlimited personal medical care, medications to manage diabetes, hypertension or hyperlipidemia and at-home lab tests.

Westermann sees other companies working in the diabetes space, but says 9am.health is unique in providing “a digital front door for entire diabetes care,” while others focus on specific pain points. By taking that whole approach, he sees opportunity in going beyond diabetes to the general chronic disease realm as many living with diabetes — 98% of Americans in fact — also have other comorbidities like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and mental health issues, he added.

The new funding will enable the company to grow its team and carve out some of the digital diabetes market share that was valued at $13 billion in 2020 and is forecasted to grow annually by 18.8% through 2027. 9am.health will also invest in advancing its virtual screening ability and expand the types of medication it can offer.

9am.health diabetes kit

“We want to tear down the barriers and make care as easy as possible and managing diabetes part of life,” Westermann said. “When you live with chronic illness, it is an everyday thing, and sometimes you feel good, and others days you don’t. That’s why we named the company 9am.health because you can wake up at 9 a.m. and start your diabetes journey all over again.”

Lynne Chou O’Keefe, founder and managing partner at Define Ventures, says the future of healthcare is going to be more consumer-focused and will be wrapped around the patient’s care journey. She considers 9am.health to be leading this type of care with a platform that bundles education, community, coaching and care that is direct-to-consumer.

Chou O’Keefe has been investing in healthcare her entire VC career, and sat on the board of Livongo for four years. Through that experience she learned how patients struggle with their care decisions, and finds 9am.health’s founders to have a similar deep expertise and understanding in diabetes, especially with the success they had with MySugr.

“The last place you should receive healthcare is in the doctor’s office, while the first place should be wherever you are,” she added. “This is a very different way than what the healthcare system is today. We feel that people want to manage their diabetes, but then go on and live their lives.”

 

Amazon bets on Hindi voice shopping to reach wider India

Speaking of Amazon — which is reportedly conducting an investigation to find whether its lawyers bribed government officials in India — the company announced today it plans to roll out the voice shopping experience feature in the Hindi language in the South Asian market ahead of the Diwali festival in early November.

The e-commerce giant, which rolled out the voice shopping experience in English last year, said the feature in the Hindi language — which will roll out in “coming weeks” — will enable users to search for products and check their order status using voice commands such as “joote dikhao,” which is Hindi for ‘show me shoes.’

Only 10% of India’s 1.3 billion people speak English. And in recent years, voice search has dramatically surged in India as many new internet users find it difficult to type on virtual keyboards. Scores of tech companies — including Amazon’s rival, Flipkart — have in recent years made push to add support for more regional languages, or introduce support for voice queries — and in some cases, do both.

Amazon’s voice shopping experience will be available to only Android users, the company said.

“Since the launch of voice shopping in 2020, we are humbled to see by the adoption of voice by Amazon.in customers to fulfil their shopping needs has grown by 2X year-on-year. We will continue to focus on bringing new features for our customers on voice to make their shopping experience exciting and fulfilling,” said Kishore Thota, Director of Customer Experience and Marketing at Amazon India, in a statement.

The new rollout is part of a broader localization push from the company. Amazon said today that its website and apps are now also available in Marathi and Bengali. The website already supports five additional regional languages — Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu.

“Our aim with regional language shopping experience is to make ecommerce accessible, relevant and convenient for customers. Every month, tens of millions of customers visit Amazon.in in regional languages and 90% of the customers are from tier 2 and below cities. This festive season we are happy to expand the Amazon.in experience for our customers in Marathi and Bengali,” said Thota.

Indian news outlet The Ken reported last week that Amazon was also working on building a voice-based payments authentication system. The company declined to comment.

This Week in Apps: Apple’s iPhone event, App Annie hit with securities fraud, OpenSea goes mobile

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

The app industry continues to grow, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

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

This Week in Apps offers a way to keep up with this fast-moving industry in one place, with the latest from the world of apps, including news, updates, startup fundings, mergers and acquisitions, and suggestions about new apps and games to try, too.

Do you want This Week in Apps in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters

Top Stories

Apple Event wrap-up

It’s official, new iPhones are here. But everyone is talking about the iPad mini instead.

(Photo by Brooks Kraft/Apple Inc.)

Apple this week introduced its updated iPhone 13 lineup, which includes iPhone 13 in pretty new shades, an iPhone mini, and the more powerful iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max. Consumers may care most about the battery life improvements — 1.5 hours longer on iPhone 13 mini and iPhone 13 Pro; 2.5 hours more on iPhone 13 and Pro Max, compared with their respective iPhone 12 models. Cameras got a decent upgrade, powered by the A15 Bionic, which enables additions like “Cinematic Mode” (a mode that allows you to change focus between subjects). Plus, Pro models can do macro photography and now include support for ProRes video recording at 1080p 30 fps with the 128GB storage option and up to 4K 30 fps with 256GB, 512GB and 1TB storage options. (Yes, there’s a 1TB iPhone now, and no more 64GB models. Hooray!)

Image Credits: Apple

The bigger news in terms of hardware, however, was the iPad mini ($499+), aka the BIG iPhone, which got a significant update. The new device has an 8.3-inch display, front and rear-facing 12-megapixel cameras, 80% faster performance with the A15 Bionic, 40% faster CPU, support for 5G, and it adds a USB-C port and a relocated Touch ID that’s now on the top button. It also now supports Center Stage and Apple Pencil (2nd generation.) It’s also available in new finishes: space gray, pink, purple and starlight.

Apple noted there are more than 1 million apps designed specifically for iPad devices. The full App Store has 2.22 million or more, according to various estimates. A popular and affordable iPad mini could encourage more development beyond the iPhone.

Other announcements included a new standard iPad with spec bumps, a new Apple Watch Series 7 with a slightly bigger screen and fall detection for cyclists, an updated Fitness+ with Pilates and meditation, and a nifty MagSafe Wallet that will track the location where it was separated from your iPhone.

Apple sherlocks Watch keyboard apps

Image Credits: FlickType

Frustrated iOS developer Kosta Eleftheriou, who is already engaging in a legal battle with Apple over money lost to App Store scams and other matters, couldn’t hold back his frustration when he saw Apple announce its new Apple Watch Series 7 would now sport a familiar-looking keyboard. Eleftheriou’s own FlickType keyboard app for Apple Watch was repeatedly rejected from the App Store for months on end, causing a lengthy delay in getting his app to market. The developer also claims to have had conversations with Apple execs about his keyboard app, which he says was once even considered an acquisition target.

Apple’s position on the matter is that it had to remove Eleftheriou’s app due to guidelines it had at the time prohibiting keyboard extensions, which the company had on the books due to what it believed would offer a poor consumer experience on earlier versions of Apple Watch, which had a smaller screen. These guidelines were later dropped once Apple learned of the app’s accessibility functions, which allowed the app to be published.

One question — which would have to either be worked out through the discovery process in court or through some sort of congressional investigation — is how long Apple had a Watch keyboard design on its product roadmap? Was Apple rejecting a third-party Watch keyboard app (and others like it, to be clear) over this purported “poor experience” at a time when Apple was actively designing its own keyboard UI? And how could there be a corporate firewall in place between App Store review activity and the company’s own plans, if Apple was considering an acquisition of FlickType at the time, as the lawsuit alleges?

Eleftheriou has a difficult path ahead of him going up against Apple’s legal team, but he’s more motivated than ever now. “See you in court, @Apple” he tweeted after the Watch reveal.

App Annie charged with securities fraud

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) charged App Annie, as well as its co-founder and former CEO and Chairman Bertrand Schmitt, with securities fraud. App Annie and Schmitt have agreed to pay over $10 million to settle the fraud charges which are related to “deceptive practices and making material misrepresentations about how App Annie’s alternative data was derived,” the SEC said. The charges have to do with how App Annie used non-aggregated and non-anonymized data to alter its model-generated estimates to be more accurate, while telling trading firms that protections were in place against the misuse of confidential data. (More details and the full complaint can be read here on TechCrunch.)

In response to the bombshell news, one competitor has spoken up. Apptopia co-founder and CEO Jonathan Kay wrote about how his firm took the time to build the company and data estimates “the right way,” which is why some of its estimates in the past hadn’t been accurate. (It wasn’t cheating the system.) This proved to be the better strategy. “We did not take shortcuts to spur breakneck scale; oftentimes founders feel the pressure to do so to meet unrealistic Board, VC or Market expectations. We haven’t and we don’t,” he said.

Meanwhile, Appfigures shared a similar sentiment, adding they were disappointed to hear the news and hoped the actions didn’t erode trust in the industry. “Strict privacy has been one of our founding principles and has served our users and us well for 12 years. We believe the trust of our users is our most valuable asset,” their statement read.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

  • The Epic Games/Apple lawsuit will drag on. After last week’s ruling, which will now allow developers to add to iOS apps links to their website and other ways to pay, Epic said it would appeal. The Fortnite maker wanted Apple to be dubbed a monopolist, which would force iOS to be opened up to alternative app stores, like its own, or at least allow side-loading. But the judge said Apple’s success was “not illegal.”
  • Developers were invited to submit their iOS 15, iPadOS 15, tvOS 15 and watchOS 8 apps to the App Store, ahead of the public launch on Monday.
  • Apple introduced new marketing tools for app developers. Developers can now create custom marketing assets, including banners and images, to promote apps across social media and elsewhere. To get started, you select an app and a template, then customize the design and add present messages. The assets will be immediately available in the right sizes and can be shared with short links or codes that direct users to the App Store product page.

Image Credits: Apple

Android Updates

  • A leaked document points toward an Android 12 release date of October 4th. The document informs OEM partners when to stop approving builds for prior versions of Android.
  • Meanwhile, Samsung released an Android 12 beta to Galaxy S21 owners. The beta is for Samsung’s One UI 4, its version of Android, and arrives on September 14 — the same day Apple announced the iPhone 13.
  • Google announced it would port a privacy-focused feature from Android 11 to older phones running Android 6 and higher. The feature automatically restricts apps’ permissions to sensitive phone features, like the storage or camera, if the app hasn’t been used for several months.
  • Google delivered the first five stable Jetpack Wear OS libraries (wear, wear-input, wear-ongoing, wear-phone-interactions and wear-remote-interaction), to help developers build high-quality Wear OS apps. The company recently updated the Android Jetpack Wear OS libraries as well.
  • Google invited users to join its Pixel Superfans group, which was previously kept under wraps. The pilot program provides insider access and a VIP experience, including access to a private Facebook Group, and perks like private Q&As and events, opportunities to share ideas with the Google team, limited-edition swag and more to come.

Augmented Reality

Image Credits: Snap

  • Snapchat launched a new global portal Lens in partnership with Sotheby’s and the Estate of Christo. The Lens, “The Last Christo: Original Works for The Arc de Triomphe,” overlays Snap’s AR onto Christo’s work to give viewers an entirely new experience of the installation. The experience will also come to Snap’s main Camera and the Snap Map early next week.

Fintech

MassMutual will have to pay a $4 million fine as part of a settlement with Massachusetts regulators involving the conduct of former employee Keith Gill, also an online trader who goes by “Roaring Kitty.” Gill was heavily involved with the GameStop meme-stock drama from earlier this year. The stock was a favorite with day traders on Reddit’s WallStreetBets message board. Trading app Robinhood had restricted the trading of this and other meme stocks, leading to a congressional investigation.

Social

Image Credits: Twitter

  • Twitter Super Follows have only generated around $6,000 in the U.S. in the first two weeks the feature has been live across the U.S. and Canada. Canadian in-app revenue was around $600. Some small portion may be attributed to Ticketed Space, so true adoption figures may be even lower. Fewer than 100 creators in the U.S. have been offered access to Super Follows, which is impacting these figures. But all iOS users in these markets are able to subscribe to the participating creators.
  • A Dept. of Homeland Security report warned law enforcement agencies that domestic extremists had used TikTok to recruit people to their causes and share tactical guidance in the lead up the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
  • TikTok blocked content related to the “devious licks” viral challenge which was encouraging students to create havoc at schools by stealing things, including soap dispensers, hand sanitizer, COVID test kits, bathroom sinks and doors, classroom tech and more. As a result, schools across the U.S. have locked down access to bathroom facilities.
  • A Facebook whistleblower has shared a damning set of internal docs with The Wall Street Journal, including how Instagram’s own internal research indicated how the app impacted teenage girls’ mental health over body image, leading them to have, in some cases higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. Following the news, Senators Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) announced a probe into Facebook’s lack of transparency around its internal research.
  • As news of Instagram’s impact on teens leaked, TikTok added more mental health resources of its own, including a “well-being guide” in its Safety Center, a primer on eating disorders, expanded search interventions and opt-in viewing screens on potentially triggering searches.
  • LinkedIn announced a $25 million creator fund ahead of its plans to test a Clubhouse-style audio feature.
  • Snap hired Jacqueline Beauchere, the chief online safety officer at Microsoft, to be its first-ever global head of platform safety. In her role, Beauchere will advise the company’s decisions on policies, guidelines, features and tools focused on safety and well-being.

Messaging

  • The beta version of the Signal for Android app expanded its privacy-focused crypto payments feature first introduced in April. The feature, MobileCoin, was previously only available in the U.K. It’s now offered in Switzerland, France and Germany. The app saw a few other design tweaks as well.
  • WhatsApp launched the first test of a public directory for businesses within its app, starting in São Paulo, Brazil. The feature allows users to find shops and services through a directory in the app, which could then kick off their mobile commerce transactions.
  • A report from The Financial Times (non-paywalled summary here) details how the Telegram app has exploded as a hub for cybercriminals who buy and sell stolen data and hacking tools. One channel featuring data dumps had more than 47,000 subscribers before being shut down.
  • Emarketer reports the number of monthly messaging app users worldwide will rise 6.1%, to 3.09 billion, in 2021. This is a deceleration of growth from 2020, when the number grew nearly 14%, but an increase from a pre-pandemic estimate of 5.5% growth. By 2024, the firm predicts more than three-fourths of internet users will use a mobile messaging app.

Image Credits: eMarketer

Dating

  • Tinder announced it’s rolling out video profiles to more markets across Europe, Asia and Latin America. The feature was first introduced to a handful of countries earlier this year, allowing users to express themselves using video instead of just photos.

Image Credits: Tinder

Streaming & Entertainment

  • Jeffrey Katzenberg’s failed streaming app Quibi settled its lawsuit with interactive video firm Eko, which alleged Quibi had infringed on its patents. Both parties have agreed to dismiss their legal claims, and QBI Holdings LLC, which holds the remaining Quibi assets, will transfer the intellectual property and technology for its “Turnstyle” mobile-video viewing feature to Eko.
  • Clubhouse hired a head of News from NPR, Nina Gregory, to help it build out publisher relationships. Gregory led NPR’s Arts Desk for the last seven years.
  • Apple announced new streaming partners for its upcoming iOS 15 SharePlay feature that allows for co-watching content through FaceTime. At WWDC, Apple said the feature would work with video apps Apple TV+, Disney+, HBO Max+, ESPN+ Paramount+, Pluto TV, NBA App, Twitch and TikTok. This week Apple said it was adding STARZ, BET+, TV Everywhere Apps from ViacomCBS (MTV, Paramount Network, & Comedy Comedy Central), and Chinese streaming service Youku. On the music side, it’s adding Spotify, TuneIn and SoundCloud, which join Apple Music.
  • Apple’s Shazam app announced it has been used in the iOS Control Center over 1 billion times. The company previously noted it had passed one billion songs being recognized every month in June 2021. Both metrics paint a picture of the massive traction Apple’s first-party apps can gain based on their platform advantage.
  • Celeb-to-fan connections app Cameo adds a new feature, Cameo Calls, that aims to digitize the fan “meet-and-greet” experience. At launch, fans can now connect with over 500 celebs for one-on-one, face-to-face calls by buying a ticket from their phone. The talent sets the pricing, which averages up to $31 minutes per call.

Gaming

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

  • U.S. mobile casino game spending grew by 16.4% to $4.8 billion during the last 12 months, according to a new Sensor Tower report. The No. 1 title from September 1, 2020 to August 31, 2021 was Coin Master from Moon Active, which generated $650.5 million. This was followed by Bingo Blitz from Playtika, then Slotomania from Playtika.
  • Zynga announced ReVamp, the first “social deception” gaming title on Snapchat. The vampire-themed, multiplayer game is a spin on “Among Us,” as players work to unveil the imposter. The game takes place inside an old mansion where players have to complete renovation tasks, while the vampire players must avoid suspicion.

Productivity

Image Credits: Google

Health & Fitness

  • The FTC warned health apps, like those tracking fitness or menstrual cycles, to notify consumers impacted by data breaches. The Commission voted 3-2 to clarify that health apps were included in the agency’s 2009 Health Breach Notification Rule, which required vendors to notify customers of data breaches.

Travel

  • Downloads of top Travel apps in the U.S. reached 61.4 million on Apple’s App Store and 23.8 million on Google Play in Q2 2021, according to a new report by Sensor Tower. This represented the highest number of quarterly downloads since the outbreak of COVID-19.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Government & Policy

  • Russia was considering fining Google and Apple over their hosting of a tactical voting app from opposition leader Alexei Navalny, but the “Smart Voting” app was removed by both stores. The companies had previously been warned to remove the app over claims of “election interference.” Apple’s upcoming iCloud Private Relay privacy feature also won’t be available in Russia, a support document recently noted in an update.
  • Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) said it has opened two investigations into the video-sharing platform TikTok. The first covers how TikTok handles children’s data and whether it complies with Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation. The DPC will also examine TikTok’s transfers of personal data to China.
  • South Korea fined Google $177 million for blocking Android customization by device makers, saying this was an abuse of its dominant position in the market.
  • Chinese police are using a new fraud prevention app installed on more than 200 million mobile phones to identify and question people who have browsed foreign financial news sites, The FT reported. The police claimed they were working to combat the surge in fraud often carried out by foreign businesses controlled by Chinese and Taiwanese.
  • Tencent and Alibaba said they will open up their apps to competitors, following a meeting with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) last week. For eight years, the two companies have split China’s internet in two, The FT reported, replicating each other’s services and even blocking the posting of links in each other’s apps. That will now change in the weeks ahead.

Security & Privacy

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

  • Apple patched a zero-day flaw that was impacting its top devices, including iPhone, iPad, Mac and Watches. Citizen Lab discovered the vulnerability and was credited with the find. The iMessage flaw was actively exploited by Pegasus, a spyware app developed by the Israeli company NSO Group, which gives government customers complete access to a target device, including data, photos, messages and location. The vulnerability was used to hack the iPhones belonging to at least one Bahraini activist.
  • A new Android app, Nahoft, allows Iranians to speak freely by turning up to 1,000 characters of Farsi text into a jumble of random words. The text can then be sent to anyone over other messaging apps, but the recipient has to use Nahoft on their own device to read it. 
  • Apple reportedly threatened to remove Facebook from the App Store over human trafficking concerns following a 2019 BBC report about the matter, The WSJ reported.
  • An untethered iOS 14.5.1 jailbreak was demoed working on the iPhone 12 Pro Max, in the days ahead of the iOS 15 release.

Funding and M&A

smartnews

Image Credits: SmartNews

💰 Tokyo-based news aggregator SmartNews raised $230 million in Series F funding, valuing its business at $2 billion. The funding included U.S. investors Princeville Capital and Woodline Partners, as well as JIC Venture Growth Investments, Green Co-Invest Investment and Yamauchi-No.10 Family Office in Japan.

💰 Venice, California-based Elodie Games raised $32.5 million for its cross-play, co-op games that run on PCs, consoles and mobile devices. The round was led by Galaxy Interactive and Andreessen Horowitz (a16z). The company, founded by mobile gaming vets Christina Norman and David Banks, two veterans of Riot Games, had previously raised $5 million in 2020.

💰 Livestream shopping platform Whatnot, which focuses on collectibles like Pokémon cards and Funko Pops, confirmed the close of its $150 million Series C, valuing its business at $1.5 billion. Returning investors a16z and Y Combinator’s Continuity Fund joined new investor CapitalG (Google Capital) in the round. The Information previously reported the fundraise.

💰 Bangalore-based Byju’s acquired California-headquartered coding platform Tynker for $200 million. The platform, which is available across platforms, including mobile, counts BBC Learning, Google, Microsoft, Mattel and NASA among its partners.

💰 San Francisco-based fantasy sports startup Sleeper is now valued at $400 million after raising $40 million in a round led by Andreessen Horowitz. The company has over 3 million users, most of whom are aged between 18 and 35. It has expanded into esports during the pandemic, after initially focusing on the NFL and the NBA.

💰 India-based networking app Apna, which helps blue-collar workers upskill and find jobs, raised a $100 million Series C led by Tiger Global. The round values the business at $1.1 billion and makes the company India’s youngest unicorn.

💰 Chat app Discord raised $500 million in a new round of funding led by Dragoneer Investment Group, valuing the business at $15 billion — more than double the valuation it was given at its last round of funding in 2020. The platform, which is particularly popular with gamers, has over 150 million monthly active users.

💰 India’s Mobile Premier League (MPL) raised $150 million in a round of funding led by Legatum Capital, valuing its business at $2.3 billion. The three-year-old company connects game publishers with players on its app platform, allowing users to access a range of free gaming titles.

💰 Streetwear resale platform Grailed raised $60 million in Series B funding in a round led by competitor Goat Group, which also included Gucci CEO Marco Bizzarri, Groupe Artémis, Thrive Capital and Index Ventures. The company had 7 million users and 3 million listings at the time of the deal, but only 20% of users are female.

💰 Indonesian investment app for retailer investors Pluang announced $55 million in new funding led by Square Peg, with participation from SIG, UOB Venture Management, Go-Ventures and Openspace Ventures. The app has 3 million users.

💰 Indian investment app Groww is in advanced talks to raise $250 million in new funding in a round that would value the business at $3 billion. Deal terms may still change. Tiger Global, Coatue and TCV have held conversations to lead or co-lead the round. The app is on track for around $35 million in ARR.

Downloads

OpenSea: NFT Marketplace

Image Credits: OpeaSea on App Store

Amid an insider trading controversy, in which OpenSea’s Chief Product Officer Nate Chastain was caught buying NFT artwork shortly before they hit the site’s front page, then fired, the NFT marketplace company launched its first mobile app. The app, which is available as of Thursday on both the iOS App Store and Google Play, certainly arrives at a questionable time — why not wait for the dust to settle on the scandal, before moving forward with a mobile experience, sans CPO?

In any event, the new app allows users to connect their current profile, then search, filter, discover and save favorite NFTs, as well as view collections and item stats. The app will also link to blog posts about OpenSea developments and the NFT ecosystem as a whole. And it will link to exclusive releases. What you can’t do with OpenSea’s app, at least not yet, is actually purchase NFTs.

Castlevania: Grimoire of Souls

Image Credits: Konami

The latest reboot of the classic title is an Apple Arcade exclusive. Launched on Friday, September 17, Castlevania: Grimoire of Souls offers a new take on the popular side-scrolling action game — but one that’s free from in-app purchases or ads. The game features character designs and music from series creators Ayami Kojima and Michiru Yamane, and will see players embark on a new adventure where they “hack, slash, whip and blast their way through Dracula’s army using a variety of attacks, weapons, and unique character moves.” Characters available to play include Alucard, Simon Belmont, Charlotte, Shanoa and Maria, with more to come. An Apple Arcade subscription is $4.99 per month or can be purchased with an Apple One subscription plan.

Cameo launches Cameo Calls, a service for fans to video chat with celebs

If you really want to video chat tonight with William Hung of retro American Idol fame… got twenty bucks to spare? Yesterday, Cameo launched its Cameo Calls products, which lets fans video chat for up to 15 minutes one-on-one with their favorite influencers and celebrities. The talent sets the duration, time, and price of their call, which Cameo says averages around $31.

To book a call, users can go to Cameo’s website or app to see a schedule of upcoming Cameo Calls that they can buy. These also appear on individual talent’s Cameo pages. When you purchase a Cameo Call, you get a unique ticket code that you enter on the app to join your call.

In June 2020, Cameo enabled users to book Zoom calls with celebrities as lockdown became a global norm, but Cameo phased out that feature in April. Instead, Cameo Calls now offers a native experience in the app, rather than relying on third-party software. The downside for consumers, though, is that this makes it more difficult to invite your favorite reality star to your office’s Zoom happy hour. But on the bright side, the Cameo Calls includes a dedicated photo opp at the end of the call, so you can get your celebrity selfie without dealing with the awkwardness of asking to take a photo.

Experiences like Cameo Calls make sense in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, when celebrity meet-and-greets might not be safe in many places. But Cameo also thinks this product can stand in for a typical meet and greet even in “normal” times. Often, celebrity meet-and-greets require waiting in a long line to only have 5 or 10 seconds of time with the talent. Even though many Cameo Calls sessions are only a few minutes long, you might be able to get a more personal experience than if you were the 100th fan in a long line in person.

“We foresee Cameo Calls replacing meet and greets at music festivals and world tours, fan conventions, sporting events, and more,” said Cameo Co-founder & CEO Steven Galanis.

Cameo says it tested this product with over 3,000 calls — during testing, talent-hosted themed meet-and-greets, coffee chats, private concerts, and tarot card readings. Some performers who tested the feature include James and Oliver Phelps, who played the Weasley twins in the Harry Potter movies, and David Henrie, a former Disney Channel star.

OpenSea released an app — but it’s for browsing, not buying and selling

It’s a big day for the Amazon of the decentralized internet — OpenSea now has an app for iOS and Android. For most companies, having a mobile app is a milestone you’d reach before hitting a $1.5 billion valuation. But like any store — whether you’re selling NFT art or not — there’s a hefty price to pay for app store transactions, whether you’re on Android or iOS. That’s possibly why OpenSea’s shiny, new app is only for browsing NFTs, not for buying or selling them. For context, OpenSea saw $3.4 billion in trading volume across two million transactions in August. With Apple and Google taking 30% of in-app transactions, if that volume had been traded on the new app… What’s 30% of $3.4 billion?

Perhaps more of a roadblock, there’s still no way to make in-app payments with crypto. If OpenSea wanted to support buying and selling, it would have to build out its infrastructure for USD payments and push more users towards it. But part of the appeal of OpenSea is that it’s a crypto native platform, largely reliant on the Ethereum blockchain which gives people easier access to information about when an NFT was minted, who minted it, how it’s been traded, etc. It could upset the existing ecosystem of users if the startup pushed the platform towards being more dollar-friendly.

On the OpenSea app, users can connect their profile, browse NFTs, favorite NFTs, search and filter NFTs, and view collection and item stats. When you view an NFT in the app, a button appears that lets you share the NFT outside of the app. Rarible, another NFT marketplace, released a mobile app about a month ago. Like OpenSea’s app, on the Rarible app, you can only browse NFTs, not buy, sell, or trade them.

Image Credits: OpenSea

OpenSea hasn’t yet responded to questions from TechCrunch about the company’s plans for the app, including whether or not users might one day be able to buy and sell NFTs in the app. It wouldn’t be the first time that crypto was exchanged on an app, as even PayPal now lets you pay with crypto. Instead, perhaps the app can offer a way to help new users onboard into the NFT space, giving them an easy, user-friendly way to browse NFT art without knowing anything about wallets or blockchains or apes.

This app was unveiled just days after an OpenSea executive was accused of trading NFTs on insider information. The company announced on its blog Wednesday that the employee has since resigned.