IBM launches its first quantum developer certification

IBM today announced the launch of its first developer certification for programming quantum computers.

While quantum computing may still be in its infancy, most pundits in the industry will tell you that now is the time to learn the basic concepts. And while there is little that’s immediately intuitive on the hardware side of quantum computing, the actual software tools that most players in the industry are developing today should feel somewhat familiar to virtually any developer.

Unsurprisingly, the ‘IBM Quantum Developer Certification,’ as it’s officially called, focuses on IBM’s own software tools and especially Qiskit, its SDK for working with quantum computers. Qiskit has already proven quite popular, with more than 600,000 installs and when IBM Quantum and the Qiskit team hosted a quantum summer school last year, almost 5,000 developers participated.

But on top of knowing their way around the basics of Qiskit (think defining and executing quantum circuits) developers also need to learn some of the basics of quantum computing itself. Once you know your way around Bloch spheres, Pauli matrices and Bell states, you’ll probably be in good shape for taking the certification exam, which will be administered on the Pearson VUE platform.

Abe Asfaw, the global lead for Quantum Education and Open Science at IBM, told me that this is just the first of a series of planned quantum certifications.

“What we’ve built is a multi-tiered developer certification,” he told me. “The first tier is what we’re releasing in this announcement and that tier gets developers introduced to how to work with quantum circuits. How do you use Qiskit […] and how do you run it on a quantum computer? And once you run it on a quantum computer, how do you look at the results and how do you interpret the results? This sets the stage for the next series of certifications that we’re developing, which are then going to be attached to use cases that are being explored in optimization, chemistry and finance. All of these can now be sort of integrated into the developer workflow once we have enabled someone to show that they can work with quantum circuits.”

Image Credits: IBM

Asfaw stressed that IBM has focused on education developers about quantum computing for quite a while now, in part because it takes some time to develop the skills and intuition to build quantum circuits. He also noted that the open-source Qiskit project has integrated a lot of the tools that developers need to work at both the circuit level — which is a bit closer to writing in C or maybe even assembly in the classical computing world — and at the application level, where a lot of that is abstracted away.

“The idea is to make it easy for someone who is currently developing, whether it’s in the cloud, whether it’s using Python, to be able to run these tools and integrate quantum computing into their workflow,” Asfaw said. “I think the hardest part, to be very honest, is just giving someone the comfort to know that quantum computing is real today and that you can work with quantum computers. It’s as easy as opening up a Jupyter notebook and writing some code in Python.”

He noted that IBM already often helps upskill developers in its partner companies who are interested in quantum computing. So far, though, this has been a very ad hoc process. With the new certification program, developers can now formally demonstrate their skills and show that they are in a position to utilize quantum computing in their workflow.

This Week in Apps: App Store bills gets ghosted, Dispo drama, Facebook’s Clubhouse clone

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy. The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020.

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

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

This week we’re looking at the case of the missing Arizona app store bill, the latest on the Dispo drama and Facebook’s new audio efforts, among other things.

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Top Stories

So…where did that App Store legislation go?

Arizona’s Senate was supposed to vote on a controversial bill, HB2005, that would make it the first state to regulate the Apple and Google app stores. But though the vote was listed first on the Senate’s livestream agenda on Wednesday, March 24th, the vote never came up.

Basecamp co-founder and Apple critic David Heinemeier Hansson, who submitted testimony in support of HB 2005, basically called the lobbying system corrupt.

It’s true that Apple and Google had hired lobbyists to combat the bill, which would have threatened the companies’ ability to continue collecting their 15% or 30% commissions by allowing app developers to use third-party payment processors for sales and in-app purchases.

Apple had its own lobbyist, Rod Diridon, working on the Arizona bill, and was said to have hired Kirk Adams, a former chief of staff to Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, to negotiate directly with the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Regina Cobb (R).

However, others countered the narrative being laid out by Hansson, saying that the bill’s existence in the first place was the result of lobbying from Epic Games and others, and many lawmakers didn’t even know what they were voting on. A similar bill was already voted down in North Dakota and HB2005 didn’t seem to have much support either, ahead of the would-be vote.

The Coalition for App Fairness (CAF), a group backing these bills, told us it didn’t know what happened to the bill, but was trying to find out.

Dispo loses investor support, Dobrik

Once-hot mobile photos app Dispo is becoming a case study as to why partnering with high-profile influencers and YouTuber-types without due diligence is just a bad idea. When a recent investigation exposed that a member of YouTuber David Dobrik’s “Vlog Squad” sexually assaulted her, Dispo’s early investors have been distancing themselves from the app.

Initially, lead investor Spark Capital said it would “sever all ties” with the company, TechCrunch’s Natasha Mascarenhas reported earlier this week. Dobrik also left the board and the company hours later. Two other investors, Seven Seven Six and Unshackled, said they would donate any potential profits from their Dispo investment into organizations working with survivors of sexual assault. (Cynically, one could argue, the firms don’t expect there to be much left to donate with this much of a stain on Dispo’s public image and the loss of its big-name backer in Dobrik).

Dispo had been valued at $200 million after its $20 million Series A, led by Spark Capital only weeks ago. The company released a statement saying it would continue to work on the platform.

Facebook’s Clubhouse rival looks like Clubhouse

New screenshots of Facebook’s unreleased audio product, still under development, show what appears to be a live audio broadcast experience that’s more of an extension of Facebook’s existing Messenger Rooms, rather than a standalone app experience. Facebook confirmed the images are examples of the company’s “exploratory audio efforts,” but cautioned that they don’t represent a live product at this time. The images show Clubhouse-like audio rooms with rounded profile icons and a listener section led by the speakers’ friends — very much like Clubhouse.

While the company said not to jump to any conclusions about what this all means in terms of a final product, it’s interesting to see how Facebook is thinking about social audio experiences and where they could fit in on its platform. In this case, it sees it as a third option in Messenger Rooms — users could start either a private video chat with friends or a private audio chat, or they could go live to the public on audio only.

Mark Zuckerberg (rather boldly) went on Clubhouse to praise Clubhouse for what it had pioneered, saying it would end up “being one of the modalities around live audio broadcast.” It seems Facebook sees Clubhouse as just another networking format to be knocked off, like TikTok’s vertical videos or Snapchat Stories — both of which Facebook later adopted for its own platforms.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

People noticed that recently created Shortcuts links broke this week, displaying a message “Shortcut Not Found,” instead of opening the Shortcuts app. The issue impacted everyone who has shared shortcuts. Apple said it was aware of the issue and working on a fix.

Apple rolled out its fifth developer betas for iOS 14.5, iPadOS 14.5 and other platforms, which was then shortly followed by the release of the public betas. These may be the last betas before the public launch, though Apple has gone beyond five betas in the past.

Apple responded to Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC), which is investigating the potential anti-competitive nature of the App Store, by saying that there were other options for developers to reach iOS users — like using a website. Some developers were not amused.

Apple also defended its App Review process to the ACCC, saying that it reviews 73% of prospective apps within 24 hours of being submitted by a developer, and offers details as to why an app didn’t comply with its guidelines. It also argued that it offers a worldwide support line that facilitates 1,000 calls per week in all 175 countries where the App Store operates.

A tentative initial witness list in Apple’s courtroom battle with Epic Games over Apple’s alleged monopolist practices includes Apple CEO Tim Cook, Software Engineering SVP Craig Federighi and Apple Fellow Phil Schiller (who helped launch and run the App Store). Epic will be calling its CEO Tim Sweeney and VP Mark Rein. Executives from Microsoft, Facebook and Nvidia are also included.

Platforms: Google

Google announced the Android Ready SE Alliance to make sure that new phones will be ready to support digital alternatives to things like car keys, house keys, wallets (think national IDs, mobile driver’s licenses, passports) and more. This requires that phones include tamper-resistant hardware called a Secure Element (SE) and StrongBox, an implementation of the Keymaster HAL that resides in a hardware security module, which launched with the Pixel 3 in 2018.

A bunch of Android apps, including Gmail and Google Pay, began crashing this week due to an issue with Android System WebView. Google addressed the problem by issuing updates for the standalone WebView app and Google Chrome.

E-commerce

H&M was removed from major e-commerce apps and platforms in China, including Alibaba’s Taobao, JD.com and Pinduoduo, Meituan’s shop-listing app Dianping, map apps from Tencent and Baidu, among other major online platforms. The Swedish retailer had decided to stop buying cotton from Xinjiang, where over 1 million members of the Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities have been confined to detention camps, which are accused of imposing forced labor. Nike, Adidas, Burberry, Uniqlo and Lacoste also criticized China for expressing concern over Xinjiang, leading dozen of celebs to cancel endorsement deals.

NBCU struck a deal with Facebook and Instagram to extend its “shoppable opportunities” to social media platforms. The e-commerce partnership will put pitches from the TV company’s clients on its social handles on Facebook and Instagram.

Fintech

Robinhood, the free trading app and recent home to the GameStop frenzy, confidentially filed for an IPO. The company confirmed the filing in a blog post after several media outlets broke the news.

Social

TikTok belatedly banned some Myanmar accounts that posted violent videos supporting the military’s violent coup, saying that it was aggressively cracking down on accounts promoting violence. The takedowns of the video — some of which threatened protesters with death or spread hate-fueled claims — didn’t start until early March, a month after the coup began.

TikTok added an Ad Library tool that allows marketers to view the top performing ad campaigns taking place across the app. The “top ads” feature can also be filtered by vertical and region, then by time (last seven or 30 days), and performance (CTR, impressions, video view rate).

Snapchat is developing its own take on TikTok Duets with the test of a Snap Remix feature. Duets are a core part of what makes TikTok feel like a social network, rather than just a platform for more passive video viewing. Remix — which shares the name with an Instagram Duets-style feature that’s soon to launch publicly — lets users repurpose others’ Snaps for use in their own through a variety of formats.

Facebook is testing an app for prisoners who are re-entering society, Bloomberg reports. The “Re-Entry App” was shared at the top of some users’ Instagram feeds this week, offering early access.

Axios reported that Trump was in talks with no-name app vendors about creating his own social networking app. One of the companies he spoke to was the largely unknown platform called FreeSpace, which claims its network is designed to “reinforce good habits and make the world a better place.” The app includes a news feed, user profiles and group messaging features.

Parler says it sent the FBI over 50 posts about the Capitol riot ahead of January 6, The NYT reports. If accurate, it raises the question of whether or not the FBI took the threats seriously. The FBI has refused to comment on Parler’s statement. Meanwhile, Parler is facing a lawsuit by former CEO John Matze who claims he was forced out by conservative donor Rebekah Mercer.

U.K. watchdog says Facebook’s acquisition of Giphy raises competition concerns. The Competition and Markets Authority launched the first phase of its investigation in January, and notes that Giphy had competed with Facebook outside the U.K. in digital ad deals.

Twitter seems to be working on an audience picker for its upcoming communities feature, reports Jane Manchun Wong. This would be accessible from within the tweet composer screen.

Streaming & Entertainment

Spotify updated its mobile app with several changes to the Home hub. These include a way to rediscover recently played songs as far back as three months ago; a way for Premium users to view new and unfinished podcasts with a blue dot (new) and progress bar (unfinished); and a new section of personalized music recommendations. The company later in the week updated its desktop and web app, as well.

Triller forges licensing agreements with music publishers, Variety reports. The agreement with the National Music Publishers’ Association, which represents most American publishers, follows Universal withdrawing its entire library from the app last month, claiming Triller withheld payments. Triller claimed to have no idea why UMG would do this.

Clubhouse says its Android launch will “take a couple of months.” Before, the company had said it would be “soon” without promising any sort of time frame.

Gaming

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Genshin Impact tops $1 billion on mobile in less than six months following its September 2020 launch, says Sensor Tower. During the last 30 days, the game ranked No. 3 on the App Store and Google Play combined, behind Tencent’s PUBG Mobile and Honor of Kings.

Gaming voice and text chat service Discord, which has expanded into other forms of social networking, is said to be exploring a sale that could be worth over $10 billion. Bloomberg reported Microsoft was in talks to buy the service for more than $10 billion but no deal was imminent and Discord may choose to go public instead.

PUBG Mobile has grossed $5 billion in revenue after generating an average of $7.4 million per day in 2020, Sensor Tower reports. Like many games, PUBG Mobile’s revenue soared during the height of the pandemic with record spending of $300 million last March, during lockdowns.

Google Stadia may soon get touchscreen controls on Android, 9to5Google found by digging into the Android app’s code. The controls would allow users to use gestures like tapping, swiping and pinching.

Education

Image Credits: Apple

Apple updated its Schoolwork and Classroom apps with a few more features aimed at making it easier to share projects and support remote learning, among other things. The company also announced a Teacher Portfolio badge that would be awarded to teachers who completed a series of lessons focused on learning foundational skills on iPad and Mac.

Health & Fitness

Image Credits: Tile

Tile’s lost item-tracking service arrived on wearables for the first time thanks to a new partnership with Google’s Fitbit. Through a Fitbit app update, new and existing Fitbit Inspire 2 owners will gain access to Tile’s Bluetooth-based finding network to locate their misplaced Fitbit.

Health and fitness apps’ downloads increased 20% in 2020 due to the pandemic and users shifting to at-home workouts, says App Annie. In the IoT and fitness-tracking app space, Mi Fit, Strava, MyFitnessPal, Google Fit, Fitbit, BetterMe, Runtastic, Nike Training Club, Step Tracker by Leap Fitness and Samsung Health saw the most downloads last year.

Data shared by Uswitch notes that demand for sleep apps increased by 104% during the pandemic, while demand for wellness apps grew 26% since March 2020.

Productivity

Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield teased new Slack features were in beta testing: an asynchronous audio messages feature, a Clubhouse-like drop-in voice chat and Slack Stories. The exec announced the news in the PressClub show on Clubhouse, adding “good artists copy, great artists steal.”

Slack also this week launched a new universal DM system called Connect DMs, which allows any Slack user to direct message any other Slack user. The system was immediately called out for potentially enabling harassment and abuse, leading the company to pull the ability to customize the invite message.

Cortana has begun to warn its iOS and Android users that it will be shut down on March 31st. Microsoft pulled back on Cortana last year, but Cortana is still accessible on Windows. The company is also discontinuing Cortana support on the Harman Kardon Invoke speaker, as well.

Opera’s Touch iOS web browser app, now rebranded just Opera, released a major update that modernized the UI with a more flat look, a new color palette, reworked text and new icons in the bottom bar and in the “Fast Action” button, which lets you get to favorite destinations quickly. It also adds a built-in Ethereum wallet.

Privacy & Security

China defined new rules over information apps can collect, saying that users of short video, news, browser and utility apps can access basic services on these platforms without providing their personal info. The new regulation goes into effect May 1 and covers 39 app categories — including also messaging, online shopping, payments, ride hailing, short video, livestream and mobile games — where it specifies what information is necessary to use the app (e.g. if e-commerce, a user’s phone number, name, address, and payment info).

The Indian government is trying to stop WhatsApp’s controversial privacy policy update with an antitrust investigation into the policy changes, in order to determine the full extent of the app’s data-sharing practices enabled through the “involuntary consent” of WhatsApp users.

An investigation by The NYT found that Britain’s top gambling app, Sky Bet, was compiling extensive records about users. Either the app or one of the data providers it hires to collect info on users had access to users’ banking records, mortgage details, location and gambling habits.

Apple responded to ProtonVPN’s claims that Apple was standing in the way of human rights by rejecting one of its app updates. The VPN maker attempted to tie the rejection to the coup in Myanmar, saying that people in the country use its app to bypass internet crackdowns and share information about the ongoing “crimes against humanity” taking place in the country. Apple responded to the attack by noting that it had only asked the developer to reword its description so it doesn’t read like it’s encouraging users to bypass geo-restrictions or content limitations (you know, which would be illegal). And it pointed out that all Proton’s apps have remained available in Myanmar this whole time.

Facebook caught Chinese hackers using fake personas to target Uyghurs abroad. The social network caught the network of China-based hackers using fake Facebook accounts where they posed as activists, journalists and other sympathetic figures to send the targets to compromised websites. The hacking groups are aiming to gain access to the targets’ devices by getting them to install malicious apps for surveillance purposes.

A cybersecurity review of TikTok by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab says it’s not worse than Facebook in either data privacy or security. This, however, may be a low bar.

Scam apps have stolen more than $400 million from users across the App Store and Google, according to a study by Avast. The company reported 204 so-called “fleeceware apps” with over a billion combined downloads that trick users into free trials but then overcharge them with subscriptions that are as high as $3,432 per year.

Funding and M&A

💰 Messaging app Telegram raised over $1 billion through bond sales to multiple investors, including a combined $150 million investment by Mubadala Investment Co. and Abu Dhabi Catalyst Partners, which is part-owned by the Abu Dhabi state fund. Last week, this column noted that the app had owed its creditors around $700 million by the end of April, per The WSJ’s report.

💰 Fortnite and Houseparty owner Epic Games is reportedly closing on $1 billion in new funding that will value its business at $28 billion.

🤝 Twitter acqui-hired the team from API integration platform Reshuffle to work on its own developer API platform. The team of seven, including two co-founders, will immediately begin work on building tools for Twitter developers while Reshuffle’s business is wound down.

💰 Link-in-bio company Linktree, whose mini websites get linked to by creators in your favorite social apps, raised $45 million to develop new social commerce tools. The company says a third of its 12 million users have signed up within the last four months — a trend partially driven by the pandemic.

📈 South Korea’s largest travel app Yanolja is in talks with banks to go public through a dual listing in Seoul and overseas. The company is aiming for a $4 billion valuation.

📈 ironSource, a business platform for the app economy, reached an agreement with Thoma Bravo’s blank-check firm to go public via a SPAC at a $11.1 billion valuation.

💰 Ryu Games raised a seed round of $2.3 million for its service that helps developers add cash tournaments to their mobile games. The company is aiming to be present on a few dozen games this year.

💰 Nigerian fintech Bankly raised $2 million for its app that digitizes cash for the unbanked, in a round led by led by Vault.

💰 Mumbai-headquartered Indian fantasy sports app Dream11’s parent firm, Dream Sports, raised $400 million in a round led by TCV, D1 Capital Partners and Falcon Edge, valuing the business at nearly $5 billion.

💰 Indian social network Public App raised $41 million just six months after its $35 fundraise, valuing the business at over $250 million — or more than double the valuation since the prior fundraise. The app now has over 50 million users, including over 50,000 elected officials, government authorities and citizen journalists.

💰 U.K.-based stock trading app Freetrade raised a $69 million Series B from Left Lane Capital. The Robinhood-like app offers free trades and the ability to buy fractional shares. The company is now valued at $366 million.

💰 Indonesian savings and investment app Pluang raised $20 million in pre-Series B funding led by Openspace Ventures. The company offers savings and investments products that allow users to make contributions starting at 50 cents (USD).

💰 AR pioneer Blippar returns with $5 million in funding after 18 months of repositioning as a B2B company in the AR space. Blippar’s AR Studio can help brands with AR on the web and inside their apps or Blippar’s own app.

Downloads

Avatarify

Image Credits: Avatarify

Avatarify is another app benefitting from the current interest in bringing photos to life. We’ve already seen apps like MyHeritage, TokkingHeads, Wombo and Piñata Farms introduce their own ideas in this space — whether it’s recalling long-lost relatives or just making a celeb lip sync to Michael Jackson. Avatarify, meanwhile, will let you record a short video which it then uses to animate any photo of your choice — even photos of art, babies or pets. The app is moving up the charts to now No. 28 on the App Store.

Vinyls

Image Credits: Vinyls

Vinyls, reviewed this week by iMore and recently by 9to5Mac as well, is a minimalist music player for Apple Music subscribers. The app was built by the developer behind the Twitter client Aviary, and displays a spinning vinyl record when music is playing. The app also animates a tonearm that aligns itself with the current playback time and moves in and out when playing and pausing the music. You can also “scrub” the vinyl to seek forwards and backwards. Vinyls is available on Mac, iPhone and iPad.

Stack Overflow adds a free tier to its fast-growing Teams service

Stack Overflow is the default Q&A site for programmers (though the overall Stack Exchange network goes well beyond helping you answer your basic PHP questions). But over the course of the last year and a half, with its new CEO Prashanth Chandrasekar coming on board, the company has also kickstarted its SaaS business with a new focus on its StackOverflow for Teams product. Teams offers businesses something akin to a private Stack Overflow for managing and sharing knowledge across a company. Until now, Teams was only available through a paid subscription (or a time-gated trial), but starting today, Stack Overflow will move to a freemium model with a perpetually free plan.

As Chandrasekar told me ahead of today’s announcement, Stack Overflow’s $85 million Series E funding round this summer was all about Teams and accelerating its SaaS growth. “We wanted to double down on eams,” he said. “And that is very much — as we transform into a product-led SaaS company from our foundation of the community and the public platform — that’s a huge, huge focus.”

Image Credits: Stack Overflow

Like so many products in this space, Stack Overflow for Teams experienced rapid growth in 2020. Its annual recurring revenue grew 72% last year, the company tells me, and it added over 1,500 Teams customers, including 70 that opted for its high-end Enterprise tier. Teams customers now include the likes of Box, Microsoft, Bloomberg, Instacart and Zapier.

The new freemium offering will be limited to 50 seats, but for the most part, it’s quite a fully-featured solution, with support for all of the core Teams features. It also includes support for the service’s ChatOps integrations with Slack and Microsoft Teams (side note: maybe there are too many products with the name ‘Teams’ right now?). The free service also includes support for single sign-on solutions, which isn’t always a given for a freemium SaaS offering. And while the enterprise tier is SOC II certified and runs on single-tenant instances, that’s not the case for the free, basic and business tiers.

“At Unqork, we use Stack Overflow for Teams and its Slack integration to empower our creators to learn from each other in a productive way and to support our clients building solutions on top of our platform,” said Olga Gomonova, head of enablement at Unqork. “Since implementing Stack Overflow for Teams for internal and external use cases, we’ve been able to reduce the time to respond to client and internal questions from 60 to 30 minutes, and have been able to onboard new hires faster as our company grows.”

Image Credits: Stack Overflow

Some of the missing features, however, are access to Stack Overflow for Teams’ Articles format for longer-form content and Collections, a feature that allows users to group together sets of similar questions that can be used for an onboarding workflow or in place of a traditional FAQ document, for example. Stack Overflow CPO Teresa Dietrich tells me that the company has seen over 50% adoption of Articles since its launch in  August 2020. The company also recently introduced a private feedback option for Teams.

“We found that, unlike on the public Q&A sites, people weren’t comfortable giving downvotes to content on the Teams product until we introduced private feedback,” she said. “So now they give feedback to the content writer in a private way that says it’s incomplete, it’s out of date, or it’s wrong. And then they can put text around that feedback and only the owner of that content sees it.”

The freemium offering has been in the works for a while. As Chandrasekar and Dietrich both noted, the company removed the credit card requirement to get started with the 30-day Teams trial that had been in place before. “We realized through that experience, that it was actually not enough time to allow companies to create a community internally and that’s basically what we’re trying to do,” Chandrasekar said. “So that was a huge learning for us to say it didn’t make a lot of sense for us to keep a free trial that was timeboxed. And that really expanded to just make it free for life.”

Dietrich added that before launching this free offering, the company also wanted to make sure that it had optimized its onboarding flow for these free users as well.

This Week in Apps: Parler denied App Store re-entry, Walmart doubles down on TikTok live shopping, Instagram Lite rolls out worldwide

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

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020.

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

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

This week, we’re taking a look at some of the buzzier stories from the world of apps, including the latest around Parler’s attempted return to the App Store, a review of Walmart’s second livestream shopping event, and Instagram Lite’s global rollout. We also have new Clubhouse data on its total installs and its global footprint and info about Disney’s new service that could replace your MagicBand, among other things.

Top Stories

✨ Parler tries and fails to re-enter App Store

The right-wing social app was booted from the App Store, Google Play and Amazon AWS following the U.S. Capitol riot, for violations of community guidelines. Apple had specifically asked Parler to change its moderation policies, which had been fairly hands-off prior to its removal from the App Store. Though Apple has a number of rules about what apps can and cannot do, Parler’s own policies were guided by the First Amendment’s approach to free speech — basically, users could say almost anything without consequence.

According to documents obtained by Bloomberg, Parler again tried to gain entry into the App Store after the original ban, and was again denied. Following the new review, Apple reportedly told Parler’s chief policy officer on Feb. 25, there was no place for “hateful, racist, discriminatory content” on the App Store. The review had also included several offensive images, including profile pictures with swastikas and other white nationalist imagery, as well as misogynistic, homophobic and racist usernames and posts.

Parler last month had said negotiations with Apple were underway, and it expected to get back in the App Store. But with this new rejection, Parler cut its three remaining iOS developers from its team, out of a total of seven who were let go, Bloomberg reported.

The controversy around Parler is reflective of a larger conversation underway in the U.S. over tech’s responsibility to moderate the content on its platforms, as users’ posts and comments are increasingly leading to real-world violence. The U.S. government has not yet regulated these platforms, leaving decisions like this up to tech itself. Parler, in a statement, said it had added filters and human review to address threats of violence, as well as optional tools that let users filter and block certain kinds of hate speech. But this didn’t go far enough to address Apple’s claims about hate symbols and offensive speech still present on the network.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

Apple released important security patches across all platforms. The patches fix a vulnerability — a memory corruption bug in WebKit, the engine that powers Apple’s Safari browser. An attacker can exploit the vulnerability via a malicious web page.

E-commerce

Image Credits: Walmart

✨ Walmart again teamed up with TikTok to host a new livestream shopping event on Thursday night. The event, co-hosted by Gabby Morrison and Nabela Noor, focused on beauty products, offering demos and tutorials where viewers could buy the products through an integrated shopping cart. The content itself was engaging, feeling very much like the makeup tutorials and “get ready with me” vlogs users already watch across social media platforms. Gabby, who demoed all the products, was adept at balancing the more casual makeup try-on portions of the live event with the QVC-like call-to-action to actually buy the item being shown.

At times, there were as many as 8,000+ concurrent viewers participating in the live event, we noticed during our viewing. (We joined about 20 mins. after its start). During the event, we saw high engagement in the stream’s comments, including a number of positive comments — like jokes from users who lamented they were buying everything, shout-outs from those who just added an item to their cart, or compliments directed at the hosts. But there were also some trolling remarks that should have violated TikTok’s guidelines over cyberbullying, which were not moderated out — an issue TikTok will need to address as these events grow larger and more common.

Image Credits: screenshot of Walmart’s account on TikTok

Walmart last year had run an apparel-focused live shopping holiday event — the first pilot of TikTok’s live shopping feature in the U.S. The retailer has not commented on sales from its first event, but says they hit Walmart’s projections. Walmart also said the event drove a 25% increase in TikTok follower growth, and 7x more views than anticipated.

Social

Facebook is targeting emerging markets with launch of Instagram Lite, a lightweight Android version of the app that takes up just 2MB of space. The app was made available across 170 countries this week, offering the ability to view and share photos and videos, Stories, IGTV, discover content through Explore, and more. However, the app lacks the ability to film Reels — Instagram’s TikTok rival — users can only view them.

Image Credits: Facebook

The app is not Facebook’s first attempt to develop a lightweight version of Instagram. The company previously released an Progressive Web App, which was pulled in 2020. A new app was then launched in December in India in a limited test, ahead of this broader release.

✨ Clubhouse has now reached 12 million worldwide downloads, an increase of 600K since March 1, according to new data from App Annie. The largest market for the app is still the U.S. which accounts for 3.1 million downloads. But the app has a strong global footprint, with 1.8m downloads in Japan, 710K in Germany, 600K in Brazil, 505K in Russia, 420K in Italy, 375K in the U.K., 370K in South Korea, 350K in Turkey, and 107K in France, the firm said. Clubhouse was said to have 8 million global downloads just in February, so this is notable growth.

Facebook expands creator monetization options with the addition of ads for short-form video content — including videos as short as 1 minute, instead of previous minimum of 3 minutes. Those ads will now play 30 seconds after the start of a shorter video. It also opened its in-stream ads program for Live videos out of invite-only mode. The move could encourage creators to make content for Facebook instead of rival platforms like TikTok, by wooing them with more money-making opportunities.

TikTok rolled out new commenting features aimed at preventing bullying. Creators will now be able to control which comments can be posted on their content, before those comments go live. Another new addition, aimed at users who are commenting, will pop up a box that prompts the user to reconsider posting a comment that may be inappropriate or unkind.

Image Credits: TikTok

Pakistan again bans TikTok over “immoral and objectionable” videos. The app, which has around 33 million users in the country, was blocked by the Pakistan Telecom Authority after Peshawar High Court’s Chief Justice Qaiser Rashid Khan said some TikTok videos were “unacceptable for Pakistani society,” and were “peddling vulgarity.”

A new app called Limit App is offering an Instagram-like service but only for those ages 18 to 25. Reviewed by Geekwire, the app’s creator said it’s not about ageism, but rather about giving young people a place to be themselves. The app uses a secure ID and age verification process to onboard users and, when they turn 26, they’re giving 30 days to download their content before being booted out. Begone, boomers.

Pinterest saw over 193M downloads worldwide in 2020, according to App Annie — a 50% YoY increase, driven by consumers using the platform for product discovery, design ideas, and shopping.

Instagram can now automatically add captions to Stories for better accessibility. Captions are already a commonly used feature on Instagram rival, TikTok, not only for accessibility but also because many people now prefer to have captions on when watching video content.

Facebook tests a feature in India that will share Instagram Reels on the Facebook News Feed. The move is an indication of how seriously Facebook is taking the TikTok threat — it’s now leveraging not just one, but two of the world’s largest social networks to fight back.

TikTok in the U.K. launched a new “music hub” that highlights trending artists and tracks. The company has already been driving music streams and sales through the social app, and the hub will now offer a dedicated section to keep up with what’s currently trending.

Twitter’s head of consumer product, Kayvon Beykpour, defended Apple’s App Store commission rates in recent interview. The exec said the commission isn’t a “highway tax,” but reflects the cost and effort that goes into accepting online payments, including issues with fraud and risk, and the customer service flow around refunds.

India’s government threatened to jail Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter employees if they don’t comply with data and takedown requests related to the protests by Indian farmers over agricultural law changes.

Photos

Image Credits: Twitter

Twitter began a test to make photos look better on its platform. The company is trying out a new way to display images which offer sa more accurate preview of what the photo looks like, instead of automatically cropping the image as before. The change, in part, is also meant to address issues around the baked-in racial bias in Twitter’s algorithm that decided which part of the image to focus on when cropping.

Messaging and Communications

Google will link Android phones with Chromebooks through a new Phone Hub feature, allowing Chrome OS users to respond to texts, check their battery life, enable a Wi-Fi hotspot and locate a misplaced device, among other things.

Dating Apps

✨ Bumble launched “Night In,” a new feature in the U.S. and Canada that lets online daters play games together from the app. At launch, users can play trivia games but the company says it plans more virtual experiences in the future. The timing of the launch is interesting — it comes a year into the pandemic which has forced people to stay home and social distance. But as “Night In” arrives, vaccinations are ramping up and, likely, so will real-world, in-person dating. That Bumble still invested in virtual dating experiences indicates the company sees the feature as something with longer-term potential, rather than a temporary stand-in for that first drink or coffee date.

Bumble also filed its first quarterly report since its Feb. 2021 IPO, topping Wall St. estimates with $165.6 million in revenue and 2.7 million paid users (up 32.5% YoY) in the fourth quarter.

Streaming & Entertainment

Amazon adds a merch store to its streaming music app. The company’s Amazon Music app is now offering in-app product sales from Billie Eilish, Selena Gomez, and other artists via a Merchbar integration. (Just wait until it actually remembers it has a whole retail website it could connect.)

YES Network debuts an app that will live stream New York Yankees, Brooklyn Nets, NYFC, and New York Liberty games via a TV Everywhere integration. This is the first live streaming app from the network. Sure, we need another one.

Apple Podcasts is replacing the “subscribe” button with a “follow” button for keeping up with favorite podcasts. The change, first reported by Podnews, came about because people increasingly think of subscribe as referring to a paid option. I’m sure they didn’t get that idea from…THE APP STORE.

Spotify this week updated its app with support for 36 new languages, as promised during last month’s “Stream On” event, including: Afrikaans, Amharic, Azerbaijani, Bengali, Bhojpuri, Bulgarian, Simplified Chinese, Croatian, Danish, Estonian, Filipino, Gujarati, Hindi, Icelandic, Kannada, Latvian, Lithuanian, Malayalam, Marathi, Nepali, Norwegian, Odia, Persian, Portuguese for Portugal, Eastern Punjabi, Western Punjabi, Romanian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian, Swahili, Tamil, Telugu, Ukrainian, Urdu, and Zulu. The app is now available in 62 languages in total, and is expanding to over 80 global markets.

New streaming service Paramount+ saw its app downloaded 277K+ times in the first 5 days, reports Apptopia. The app launched similarly to how HBO Max did — it took an existing app and transitioned it to a new one. In its case, the CBS All Access app transitioned to Paramount+. This impacts the number of early downloads, as many users are just upgraded. Thanks to a pre-launch sale, the app also saw $86.7K in IAP revenue on March 2, the highest single-day revenue to date.

Image Credits: Apptopia

Gaming

✨ Epic Games takes its app store legal fight to Australia with a new anti-competitive claim against Google, over the 30% commissions on in-app purchases. The company is fighting Apple and Google in many markets now, including the U.S., E.U., and U.K.

The average size of the U.S. App Store’s top games has grown 76% in the past 5 years, says Sensor Tower. The average game file size in 2016 was approximately 264 megabytes across the top 100 revenue generating games on the U.S. App Store. This has grown to 465 MB in 2020. Top games driving the file size growth include DoubleDown, Fortnite, Clash of Clans, Roblox and Homescapes.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Food & Drink

Data from App Annie indicates app sessions in food and drink apps grew 105% YoY in 2020, as the pandemic led to a surge of adoption for food delivery apps. Deliveroo in particular had a standout year in 2020, as the No. 2 “breakout” food & drink app in France and No. 3 in the U.K. — a metric App Annie uses to track growth in total sessions. App sessions grew from their lowest point of 1.81 billion on March 22, 2020 to 3.02 billion by the end of Dec. 2020, the firm said.

Digital Passes

✨ Disney is bringing the service that powers its existing MagicBands to Apple devices with the launch of Disney MagicMobile. The service, which will launch in phases starting later this year, will allow guests to create a mobile pass using the My Disney Experience app, then add it to their smart device’s digital wallet. Users can then hold up their smart device, including their Apple iPhone or Watch, to check into rides at the access points.

Image Credits: Disney

This doesn’t necessarily mean the end for MagicBands, though. The bands still make sense for kids without devices or for anyone who doesn’t want to worry about pulling out their phone for every ride (or who doesn’t own an Apple Watch). Plus, some Disney fans like collecting MagicBands in new styles. Disney said it will soon release a new set with favorite characters.

Fintech

India’s Paytm will turn Android phones into POS terminals by introducing a card acceptance feature in the NFC-enabled Paytm Business app. Once activated, merchants will be able to process transactions by tapping a payment card to their smartphone.

The new Google Pay app exited beta this week, to replace the older version that will close down on April 5 in the U.S. The updated version include NFC tap-to-pay functionality and p2p payments, but an Ars Technica review slams the app as being less convenient and laden with more fees, among other things.

Chinese beauty app Meitu bought $40 million worth of cryptocurrency, including 15,000 units of Ether and 379.1214267 units of Bitcoin — worth around $22.1 million and $17.9 million, respectively. Meitu chairman Cai Wensheng has been bullish on cryptocurrency and believes in diversifying beyond holding just cash.

Security & Privacy

Apple must face a consumer lawsuit over FaceTime and iMessage privacy in court, not through private arbitration. The case, Ohanian v Apple Inc. focuses on an iOS bug coupled with T-Mobile’s approach to recycling phone numbers that gave third-parties access to users’ communications, despite Apple’s marketing of iMessage and FaceTime as secure features.

Apple is also now facing a privacy complaint in Europe from startup lobby group, France Digitale. The complaint focuses on the IDFA changes, which will required third-party apps to have to ask to track users, while Apple’s own apps are able to track user activity and run personalized ads by default without a similar opt-in pop-up, giving it an unfair advantage.

Funding and M&A

💰 Social networking app Wefarm, aimed at independent farmers in Africa, raised $11 million in an extension of its 2019 Series A  led by Octopus Ventures. The London-based company now has 2.5 million users and has hosted over 37 million conversations via SMS.

📈 Gaming platform Roblox made its stock market debut on Wednesday under the ticker symbol RBLX. The stock closed the day at $69.50 per share, giving the business a market cap of $38.26 billion. The cross-platform gaming service works across a range of devices, including mobile.

💰 Chatbot startup Heyday raised $5.1 million from existing investors Innovobot and Desjardins Capital for its system that lets businesses respond to customers’ messages across apps like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Google Business Messages or even email.

💰 Songclip raised $11 million in new funding to bring music to more social media apps. The company is working to popularize the short audio clip media format, and make it accessible across a range of services.

🤝 Real estate software and data firm VTS acquired Chicago-based Rise Buildings, the makers of a property tech mobile app used in over 130 million sq ft of office space.

💰 Japan’s SoftBank Group announced this week it will invest $4.7 billion into Tokyo-based messaging app Line, owned by Naver. The investment aims to help develop Line into a “super app,” similar to China’s WeChat, by integrating online news and entertainment from Yahoo Japan (which it owns) as well as financial services from SoftBanks’s mobile payments app PayPay, and more.

🤝 Mobile payments service PayPal to acquire cryptocurrency security startup Curv in a deal valued at less than $200 million. PayPal has recently partnered with Paxos to allow U.S. users to buy, hold and sell cryptocurrencies in its app.

🤝 TikTok competitor Triller bought livestream music competition Verzuz, created by Timbaland and Swizz Beatz. To date, the competition has hosted 43 artists including RZA, Nelly, Ludacris, 2 Chainz, DMX, and Gucci Mane. The program will continue to air on IG Live in addition to now, Triller.

💰 Detail raised $2 million in pre-seed funding led by Connect Ventures for its app that that will turn your iPhone into a software-optimized camera for live video.

💰 Krafton, the developer of PUBG Mobile, invested $22.4 million into the Indian esports firm Nodwin Gaming, a subsidiary of gaming giant Nazara and one of the largest esports firms in India.

💰 Eco, a startup building a personal finance app for saving and spending money, raised $26 million led by a16z Crypto. Uber co-founder Garrett Camp came up with the idea and now advises Eco as a board member. His startup studio, Expa, is also an investor, Fortune reported.

Runway gets YC backing for its service aimed at streamlining mobile app releases. The app was built by the first iOS team for Rent the Runway, and focuses on automating many common pain points that can stop an app release’s progress.

Downloads

Fer.al

Image Credits: WildWorks

A new game, Fer.al, has entered the market to compete for Gen Z’s time and attention which is currently spent in virtual worlds like Roblox, Minecraft and Fortnite. The game was developed by WildWorks, the makers of what’s often kids’ first virtual world game, Animal Jam. It also continues the animal-as-avatar metaphor, but this time with fantasy creatures you customize yourself, and a storyline about a animal-themed reality show, dueling queens, factions, and adventures. The game is available across platforms including Mac, PC, iOS and Android.

Wombo

Last week, “deep nostalgia” was going viral as people animated their long-lost relatives or even closer family members using apps like MyHeritage or TokkingHeads. But this week, everyone’s trying out Wombo — an AI-powered deepfake app that can animate any face to lip sync to songs like “Thriller” or “I Will Survive,”  as well as many meme songs, like “Never Gonna Give You Up” or “Numa Numa.” The results are…ugh, cringe. But the attention sent a surge of downloads to the app, moving it up to (as of the time of writing) No. 30 Overall on the App Store. Since its Feb. 2020 launch, the app has been downloaded 2M+ times across iOS and Android.

Fueled by the pandemic, Daily raises $15M Series A for its real-time video platform

Daily, the makers of a developer platform for real-time audio and video, has been booming in recent months — in part, due to the pandemic’s impact on remote work, virtual events, telehealth and more. Over the past year, Daily saw around a 20x increase in the number of paying customers and a 30x increase in revenue, it says. Though the team was initially hesitant to raise funds in light of this growth, they have now closed on $15 million Series A funding.

The new round was led by early Stripe employee-turned-investor Lachy Groom, who became connected with the startup via his portfolio company Interval.com, a Daily customer. Tiger Global, other angels and most of Daily’s seed investors also participated, bringing Daily’s total raise to date to $22 million.

Daily itself was founded in 2016 as a big bet on video, and WebRTC in particular, but has been boosted by the pandemic and the market shifts that resulted.

“We believed back then and have believed for a while that video would be everywhere. It would be a crucial part of how we live and work and engage with all sorts of products,” explains Daily co-founder Nina Kuruvilla. “We thought that this shift would require new platforms and tools to make working with video as easy as possible,” she says.

As it turns out, Daily’s bet was a good one — though it took a few years and a global pandemic to see the hockey stick growth that startups aspire to.

Today, Daily is used by a number of companies focused on the future of work, like virtual office startup Tandem, virtual HQ platform Teamflow, presentation startup Pitch, pair programming tool GitDuck, virtual recruiting startup Flo Recruit and others. It’s also been adopted by enterprises in spaces like healthcare and customer support.

With Daily’s platform, developers can either use a prebuilt UI to integrate video calls with just two lines of code, or they can opt to build out their own custom video UI and UX. With the former, developers can embed a video call widget that features video chat, screen sharing and recording capabilities. Meanwhile, the latter gives developers more control over the layout, workflow and video and audio tracks.

Image Credits: Daily website

“Video is a big challenging problem — real-time video and real-time audio. You need some set of tools to help you do it — especially if you’re going to roll it out quickly and you’re going to then scale it,” explains Daily co-founder Kwindla Kramer. “We give you the APIs that let you develop really quickly, [that are] flexible enough for you to keep improving the product over time. And then we also have this global infrastructure that makes it possible for our customers to scale without having to, you know, build a whole equivalent of AWS themselves,” he says.

With Daily, developers gain access to servers spread out in different regions all over the world, to protect against latency issues. Daily also does the heavy lifting in terms of making sure the product works well across all platforms and devices.

From a security and privacy standpoint, it’s HIPAA compliant and doesn’t capture customer data. It’s also transparent about when and how encryption is applied. For example, Daily’s peer-to-peer calls are end-to-end encrypted, while calls routed through media servers are encrypted to and from the servers, but are decrypted on the servers in order to do things like forwarding and recording.

The technology itself is flexible, too. Daily lets customers specify if they don’t want audio and video packets to move outside the EU, for regulatory reasons. Customers can choose to integrate with their preferred transcription engine or other major recording and live streaming APIs.

Through Daily’s developer dashboard, customers can view call quality insights and visualizations.

Image Credits: Daily

To attract customers, Daily kept its pricing model simple. It has introductory plans for smaller customers that grow to the larger “Scale” plan at $199 per month for 10,000 minutes. From there, customers just pay an additional rate per minute as they grow.

The company was already seeing steady demand for video ahead of COVID, particularly in areas like remote work and healthcare. But COVID accelerated those use cases and impacted others, as well. After March 2020, the world quickly woke up to the need to prioritize video.

“Productivity and the future of work is rapidly changing. Online events, healthcare, customer support, interactive live streaming. IoT and robotics use cases. Social and gaming,” Kuruvilla says, rattling off the various Daily use cases.

During the first six months of the pandemic, Daily’s adoption grew as customers looked to get up-and-running with video quickly. Later, they began to shift toward innovating around what it means to build a digitally native service with video.

That’s helped to advance new models for how video can be used — like virtual fitness classes where people not only see the instructor, but also their friends who signed up with them. Or hybrid video and audio experiences for live events; real-time video conversations during livestreams; live e-commerce events; and more.

The company believes that this leap forward means Daily has a future even when, post-pandemic, things “go back to normal.”

“I think some traditional video call usage is probably going to stagnate or go down, but all of these new use cases just feel like they’re ramping up — because it’s early innings and they’re really genuinely useful,” notes Kramer.

The team says they chose to work with Lachy Groom because — unlike the dozens of investors they pitched during their seed stage who thought video was a niche market — Lachy understood what Daily was doing.

“It’s only after we got to know Lachy that we really felt like there was another investor, like [seed investor] Jenny [Lefcourt from Freestyle], who really understood what we needed to do as a company to be the best possible company we could be. And that was worth raising a round with,” says Kramer.

With the additional funds, Daily will hire more engineers and focus on various product initiatives around call quality and reliability, expanding its global infrastructure and supporting larger calls and more hybrid use cases.

In addition to Lachy Groom and Tiger, Daily is backed by Freestyle Capital, Root Ventures, Y Combinator, Slack Fund, Moxxie Ventures, Haystack Ventures, TenOneTen Ventures, Ground Up Ventures, Offline Ventures, Work Life Ventures, Basement Fund, Compound, and numerous angel investors.

Stream raises $38M as its chat and activity feed APIs power communications for 1B users

A lot of our communication these days with each other is digital, and today one of the companies enabling that — with APIs to build chat experiences into apps — is announcing a round of funding on the back of some very strong growth.

Stream, which lets developers build chat and activity streams into apps and other services by way of a few lines of code, has raised $38 million, funding that it will be using to continue building out its existing business as well as to work on new features.

Stream started out with APIs for activity feeds, and then it expanded to chat, which today can be integrated into apps built on a variety of platforms. Currently, its customers integrate third-party chatbots and use Dolby for video and audio within Stream, but over time, these are all areas where Stream itself would like to do more.

“End-to-end cryption, chatbots: we want to take as many components as we can,” said Thierry Schellenbach, the CEO who co-founded the startup with the startup’s CTO Tommaso Barbugli in Amsterdam in 2015 (the startup still has a substantial team in Amsterdam headed by Barbugli, but its headquarters is now in Boulder, Colorado, where Schellenbach eventually moved).

The company already has amassed a list of notable customers, including Ikea-owned TaskRabbit, NBC Sports, Unilever, Delivery Hero, Gojek, eToro and Stanford University, as well as a number of others that it’s not disclosing across healthcare, education, finance, virtual events, dating, gaming and social. Together, the apps Stream powers cover more than 1 billion users.

This Series B round is being led by Felicis Ventures’ Aydin Senkut, with previous backers GGV Capital and 01 Advisors (the fund co-founded by Twitter’s former CEO and COO, Dick Costolo and Adam Bain) also participating.

Alongside them, a mix of previous and new individual and smaller investors also participated: Olivier Pomel, CEO of Datadog; Tom Preston-Werner, co-founder of GitHub; Amsterdam-based Knight Capital; Johnny Boufarhat, founder and CEO of Hopin; and Selcuk Atli, co-founder and CEO of social gaming app Bunch (itself having raised a notable round of $20 million led by General Catalyst not long ago).

That list is a notable indicator of what kinds of startups are also quietly working with Stream.

The company is not disclosing its valuation but Schellenbach hints that it is “6x its chat revenues.”

Indeed, the Series B speaks of a moment of opportunity: it is coming only about six months after the startup raised a Series A of $15 million, and in fact Stream wasn’t looking to raise right now.

“We were not planning to raise funding until later this year but then Aydin reached out to us and made it hard to say no,” Schellenbach said.

“More than anything else, they are building on the platforms in the tech that matters,” Senkut added in an interview, noting that its users were attesting to a strong return on investment. “It’s rare to see a product so critical to customers and scaling well. It’s just uncapped capability… and we want to be a part of the story.”

That moment of opportunity is not one that Stream is pursuing on its own.

Some of the more significant of the many players in the world of API-based communications services like messaging, activity streams — those consolidated updates you get in apps that tell you when people have responded to a post of yours or new content has landed that is relevant to you, or that you have a message, and so on — and chat include SendBird, Agora, PubNub, Twilio and Sinch, all of which have variously raised substantial funding, found a lot of traction with customers, or are positioning themselves as consolidators.

That may speak of competition, but it also points to the vast market there for the tapping.

Indeed, one of the reasons companies like Stream are doing so well right now is because of what they have built and the market demand for it.

Communications services like Stream’s might be best compared to what companies like Adyen (another major tech force out of Amsterdam), Stripe, Rapyd, Mambu and others are doing in the world of fintech.

As with something like payments, the mechanics of building, for example, chat functionality can be complex, usually requiring the knitting together of an array of services and platforms that do not naturally speak to each other.

At the same time, something like an activity feed or a messaging feature is central to how a lot of apps work, even if they are not the core feature of the product itself. One good example of how that works are food ordering and delivery apps: they are not by their nature “chat apps” but they need to have a chat option in them for when you do need to communicate with a driver or a restaurant.

Putting those forces together, it’s pretty logical that we’d see the emergence of a range of tech companies that both have done the hard work of building the mechanics of, say, a chat service, and making that accessible by way of an API to those who want to use it, with APIs being one of the more central and standard building blocks in apps today; and a surge of developers keen to get their hands on those APIs to build that functionality into their apps.

What Stream is working on is not to be confused with the customer-service focused services that companies like Zendesk or Intercom are building when they talk about chat for apps. Those can be specialized features in themselves that link in with CRM systems and customer services teams and other products for marketing analytics and so on. Instead, Stream’s focus are services for consumers to talk to other consumers.

What is a trend worth watching is whether easy-to-integrate services like Stream’s might signal the proliferation of more social apps over time.

There is already at least one key customer — which I am now allowed to name — that is a steadily growing, still young social app, which has built the core of its service on Stream’s API.

With just a handful of companies — led by Facebook, but also including ByteDance/TikTok, Tencent, Twitter, Snap, Google (via YouTube) and some others depending on the region — holding an outsized grip on social interactions, easier, platform-agnostic access to core communications tools like chat could potentially help more of these, with different takes on “social” business models, find their way into the world.

Stream’s technology addresses a common problem in product development by offering an easy-to-integrate and scalable messaging solution,” said Dick Costolo of 01 Advisors, and the former Twitter CEO, in a statement. “Beyond that, their team and clear vision set them apart, and we ardently back their mission.”

This Week in Apps: Bumble’s IPO, Google’s missing privacy labels, a developer crusades against scams

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

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020.

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

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

This week, we’re taking a look at the Bumble IPO, app store subscription revenue and talk to a developer on a crusade against the fake ratings plaguing the App Store. We’re also checking in on the missing Google privacy labels…with a spreadsheet of all 100 apps.

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

Top Stories

Bumble IPO

Bumble, the dating app positioned as one of Tinder’s biggest rivals, began trading on public markets on Thursday. The company priced its shares at $43, above its earlier target range of $37 to $39. But once live, BMBL began trading up nearly 77% at $76 per share on Nasdaq, closing the day with a market cap of $7.7 billion and the stock at $70.55.

The app itself was founded in 2014 by early Tinder exec Whitney Wolfe Herd, who now, at 31, is the youngest woman founder to take a U.S. company public and, thanks to the IPO, the world’s youngest self-made woman billionaire, as well, said Fortune.

Wolfe Herd successfully leveraged her knowledge of the online dating market, then combined that with an understanding of how to position a dating app to make it more appealing to women.

On Bumble, women message first, for example, and the company often touts features and updates designed to protect women from bad actors. A lot of what Bumble does is just marketing and spin overlaid on the Tinder model. Like other dating apps, Bumble uses a similar format to connect potential matches: a swipeable “people catalog,” where users look at photos, primarily, to determine interest. Bumble, like others, also makes money by charging for extra features that give users a better shot or more efficient experience.

But all this works because users believe Bumble to be different. They believe Bumble is also capable of delivering higher-quality matches than Tinder, which has increasingly re-embraced its persona as a hook-up app.

The IPO’s success also sends a signal that investors are expecting in-person dating to rebound post-pandemic, and getting in early on the next big mass market dating app is an easy win.

Developer crusades against scammy subscription apps

Developer Kosta Eleftheriou, a Fleskly co-founder, has been on a crusade against the scammy and spammy apps overrunning the App Store, as well as Apple’s failure to do much about it.

Earlier this month, Kosta complained that copycat apps were undermining his current business, as the developer of an Apple Watch keyboard app, FlickType. Shady clones boosted by fake ratings and reviews promised the same features as his legit app, but then locked their customers into exorbitant subscriptions, earning the scammers hundreds of thousands per month.

In his eyes, the problem wasn’t just that clones existed, but that Apple’s lack of attention to fake reviews made those apps appear to be the better choice.

Although Apple finally removed most of his fraudulent competitors after his rants gained press attention, he’s frustrated that the system was so broken in the first place.

This week, Kosta returned with another Twitter thread detailing the multimillion-dollar scams that pretend to be the best Roku remote control app. One app, “Roku Remote Control – Roki,” for example, had a 4.5 stars across 15K+ ratings. The app was a free download, but immediately tries to lock users into a $4.99/week subscription or a lifetime payment of $19.99. However, the app offers a “buggy, ad-infested, poorly designed” experience, Kosta says.

He then used AppFigures to see only those reviews of the Roki app that also had text. When displayed like this, it was revealed that “Roki” was really just a 1.7-star app, based on consumers who took the time to write a review.

What’s worse, Kosta has also argued, that even when Apple reacts by removing a bad actor’s app, it will sometimes allow the developer to continue to run other, even more profitable scams.

Kosta says he decided to spearhead a campaign about App Store scams to “get the word out about how all these scams manage to sustain themselves through a singular common flaw in the App Store — one that has been broken for years.”

He also notes that although Apple responded to him, he believes the company is hoping for the story to blow over.

“The way Apple tried to communicate with me also didn’t help ease my concern — they either don’t get it, or are actively trying to let the story fizzle out through some token gestures. But what they need to do first and foremost, is acknowledge the issue and protect their customers,” Kosta told TechCrunch.

One potential argument here is that because Apple financially benefits from successful subscription app scams, it’s not motivated to prioritize work that focuses on cleaning up the App Store or fake ratings and reviews. But Kosta believes Apple isn’t being intentionally malicious in an effort to grow the subscription business, it’s just that fake App Store reviews have become “a can that’s been perpetually kicked down the road.” Plus, since Apple touts the App Store as a place users can trust, it’s hard for them to admit fault on this front, he says.

Since the crusade began, Kosta has heard from others developers who have sent him examples “dozens and dozens of scams.”

“I will just keep exposing them until Apple acknowledges the problem,” he says.

Top subscription apps grew 34% to $13B in 2020

Apps saw record downloads and consumer spending in 2020, globally reaching somewhere around $111 billion to $112 billion, according to various estimates. But a growing part of that spend was subscription payments, a report from Sensor Tower indicates. Last year, global subscription app revenue from the top 100 subscription apps (excluding games), climbed 34% year-over-year to $13 billion, up from $9.7 billion in 2019.

The App Store, not surprisingly, accounted for a sizable chunk of this subscription revenue, given it has historically outpaced the Play Store on consumer spending. In 2020, the top 100 subscription apps worldwide generated $10.3 billion on the App Store, up 32% over 2019, compared with $2.7 billion on Google Play, which grew 42% from $1.9 billion in 2019. (Read more here.)

Google-Apple Privacy Label war drags on

Google said it would update its iOS apps with privacy labels weeks ago. While it did roll out some, it has yet to update top apps with Apple’s new labels, including key apps like the Google search app, Google Pay, Google Assistant, Google One, Google Meet, Google Photos, Google Calendar, Google Maps, Google News, Google Drive, Gmail and others. (Keep track of this with me here. Want to help? Email me.)

Overall, the majority of Google’s apps don’t have labels. While Google probably needed some time (and a lot of lawyers) to look this over, it’s now super late to put its labels out there. At this point, its iOS apps are out of date — which Google accidentally alerted users to earlier this week. This is awful optics for a company users already don’t trust, and a win for Apple as a result. (Which, of course, means we need to know for sure that Apple isn’t delaying Google’s submissions here…)

Still, Google had time to get this done. Its December code freeze is long over, and everyone else, for the most part, has gotten on board with the new labels. Why can’t Google?

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

Apple may soon allow users to set a different default music service. The company already opened up the ability to choose a different default browser and email app, but now a new feature in the iOS 14.5 beta indicates it may allow users to set another service, like Spotify, as the default option when asking Siri to play tunes. This, however, could be an integration with HomePod and Siri voice control support in mind, rather than something as universal as switching from Mail app to Gmail.

Apple Maps to gain Waze-like features for reporting accidents, hazards and speed traps. Another new feature in the iOS 14.5 beta will allow drivers to report road issues and incidents by using Siri on their iPhone or through Apple’s CarPlay. For example, during navigation, they’ll be able to tell Siri things like “there’s a crash up head,” “there’s something on the road,” or “there’s a speed trap here.”

Apple tests a new advertising slot on the App Store. Users of Apple’s new iOS 14.5 beta have reported seeing a new sponsored ad slot that appears on the Search tab of the App Store, under the “Suggested” heading (the screen that shows before you do a search). The ad slot is also labeled “Ad” and is a slightly color to differentiate it from the search results. It’s unclear at this time if Apple is planning to launch the ad slot or is just testing it.

The App Store announces price changes for Cameroon, Zimbabwe, Germany and the Republic of Korea.

Apple alerts developers to Push Notification service server certificate update, taking place on March 29, 2021.

Platforms: Google

Image Credits: XDA Developers

Alleged Android 12 screenshots snagged from an early draft document by XDA Developers show Google could be borrowing some ideas from Apple’s iOS for its next update. One feature may put colored dots in the status bar to indicate when the camera or microphone are being accessing, for example. Users may also be able to toggle off their camera, microphone or location access entirely. Google may also add a “conversations” widget to show recent messages, calls and activity statuses, among other things.

Google bans data broker Predicio that was selling user data collected from a Muslim prayer app to Venntel, a government contractor that sells location data from smartphones to ICE, CBP and the FBI, following a Motherboard investigation. Google alerted developers they had a week to remove the SDK from their apps or they’d be removed from Google Play.

Google updated its instructor-led curriculum for Android Development with Kotlin, a major update for the course materials that were first released in 2018. The new materials are designed for either in-person or virtual learning, where educators combine lectures and codelabs.

Google briefly notified users that their Google iOS apps were “out of date”an embarrassing mistake that was later corrected server-side. The bug arrived at a time when Google has yet to have updated its privacy labels for many of its largest apps, including Google, Gmail, Assistant, Maps, Photos and others.

Augmented Reality

Apple released a new iOS app, For All Mankind: Time Capsule, to promote its Apple TV+ series, “For All Mankind.” The app was built using Apple’s ARKit framework, offering a new narrative experience told in AR format featuring the show’s star. In the app, users join Danny as he examines keepsakes that connect to stories about impacting events in the lives of his parents, Gordo and Tracy Stevens, in the alternative world of the TV show.

E-commerce

✨ TikTok is expanding its e-commerce efforts. The company told marketers it’s planning a push into livestreamed e-commerce, and will also allow creators to share affiliate links to products, giving them a way to earn commissions from their videos. The company also recently announced a partnership with global ad agency WPP that will give WPP agencies and clients early access to TikTok ad products. It will also connect top creators with WPP for brand deals.

The Single Day Shopping festival drove high mobile usage. Consumers spent 2.3 billion hours in Android shopping apps during week of November 8-15, 2020, reports App Annie.

Social

CULVER CITY, CA - OCTOBER 13: General view of the TikTok headquarters on October 13, 2020 in Culver City, California. (Photo by AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)

Image Credits: AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

✨ TikTok’s sale of its U.S. operations to Oracle and Walmart is shelved. The Biden administration undertook a review of Trump’s efforts to address security risks from Chinese tech firms, including the forced sale of TikTok’s U.S. operations. The Trump administration claimed TikTok was a national security threat, and ordered TikTok owner ByteDance to divest its U.S. operations if it wanted to continue to operate in the country. Several large tech companies stepped up to the plate to take on the potential windfall. But Biden’s review of the agency action puts Trump’s plan on an indefinite pause. As a result, the U.S. government will delay its appeal of of federal district court judge’s December 2020 injunction against the TikTok ban. Discussions between U.S. national security officials and ByteDance are continuing, however.

✨ Facebook is said to be building its own Clubhouse rival. Mark Zuckerberg made a brief appearance on Clubhouse earlier this month, which now seems more like a reconnaissance mission, if The NYT’s report is true. Facebook will have to tread lightly, given its still under regulatory scrutiny for anticompetitive practices, which included cloning and acquiring its competition.

✨ Microsoft reportedly approached Pinterest about an acquisition of the $51 billion social media platform, but those talks are no longer active.

TikTok partnered with recipe app Whisk to add a way for users to save recipes featured in TikTok videos. The feature is currently in pilot testing with select creators.

Mark Cuban is co-founding a new podcast app, Fireside. The Shark Tank star and investor has teamed up with Falon Fatemi, who sold customer intelligence startup Node to SugarCRM last year. Fireside is basically Clubhouse, but adds the ability to export live conversations as podcasts.

TikTok expands its Universal Music Group deal just days after UMG pulled its song catalog from Triller, saying the app was withholding artist payments.

Indian firm ShareChat will integrate Snapchat’s Camera Kit technology into its Moj app to enable AR features. The move will give Snap a foothold in a key emerging market.

Instagram said it will impose stricter penalties against those who send abusive messages, including account bans, and develop new controls to reduce the abuse people see in their DMs. The announcement followed a recent bout of racist abuse targeted at footballers in the U.K. A joint statement from Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Manchester City condemned the abuse, saying “there is no room for racism, hate or any form of discrimination in our beautiful game.”

Instagram tells creators that it won’t promote their recycled TikToks. The company announced via its @creators account a set of best practices for Reels, noting that those featuring a watermark or logo (which TikTok smartly attaches to its content), won’t be recommended frequently on Instagram’s platform. Of course, TikTok creators are already circulating videos with tips about how to cut out the logo from TikTok videos by first exporting the video as a Live Photo, then going to their iOS Photos app, clicking on the Live Photo and choosing “Save as Video.” Problem solved.

Photos

Image Credits: Google

Google Photos for Android adds previously Pixel-only features — but only if users subscribe to Google One. The paywalled features include machine learning-powered editing tools like Portrait Blur, Portrait Light and Color Pop. There’s also a new video editor on iOS with an Android update planned. The editor now lets you crop, change perspective, add filters, apply granular edits (including brightness, contrast, saturation and warmth) and more.

Adobe adds collaboration and asynchronous editing to Photoshop, Illustrator and Fresco. The update will be supported across platforms, including desktop, iPad and iPhone.

Streaming and Entertainment

Waze adds Audible to its list of in-app audio players. The integration allows you to easily play your audiobooks while driving. Waze already supported in-app music integrations, like YouTube Music and Spotify, thanks to developer integrations with the Waze Audio Kit.

HBO Max is going international. The app will be expanded to 39 Latin American and Caribbean territories in June, replacing the existing HBO GO app.

Picture-in-picture mode returned to YouTube on iOS with the launch of the iOS 14.5 beta.

Messaging

Facebook Messenger added a new feature that makes it easier to block and mass-delete Message Requests from people you don’t know. It also said it’s working on new ways to report abuse and providing better feedback on the status of those reports.

The Biden administration pauses the Trump ban on WeChat. The administration asked a federal appeals court to place a hold on proceedings over the WeChat a day after it asked for a similar delay over the TikTok case, saying it needed time to review the previous administration’s efforts, which are now in the appeals stage.

Health & Fitness

NHS Covid-tracing app has prevented 600,000 infections in England and Wales, researchers estimated in one of the first studies of smartphone-based tracing. The app used the tracing system built by Apple and Google.

Fintech

The Robinhood backlash hasn’t stopped the downloads. Many users downrated the app after it halted meme stock trading earlier this month — a move that’s now under Congressional investigation and has prompted multiple lawsuits. But the app continues to receive downloads. The day after it halted trades was its second-largest by downloads ever, and downloads remained high in the days that followed. In January 2021, the app was installed 3.7 million times in the U.S., or 4x the installs of January 2020.

Government & Policy

Image credits: Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images

The Chinese government blocked Clubhouse, which had been rapidly gaining attention in the country. The app itself had only briefly been made available in Apple’s China App Store last fall, but those had it installed could access its audio chat rooms without a VPN. Prior to the ban, a group discussing the 1989 pro-democracy Tiananmen protest reached 5,000 participants — the max number of participants Clubhouse supports.

A new North Dakota Senate bill proposes to ban app stores like Apple and Google from requiring developers to exclusively use their store and payment mechanisms to distribute apps, and would prevent them from retaliating, at the risk of fines. Apple’s Chief Privacy Engineer Erik Neuenschwander said the bill “threatens to destroy the iPhone as you know it,” and that Apple succeeds because it “works hard to keep the bad apps out of the App Store.”

The Coalition for App Fairness (CAF) announced that Meghan DiMuzio has now joined as its first executive director. The advocacy group fighting against app store anticompetitive behavior is made up of over 50 members, including Spotify, Tile, Basecamp, Epic Games and others.

Security & Privacy

The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce has asked Apple to improve the credibility of App Store privacy labels, so consumers aren’t harmed. The request was made after an investigation by The Washington Post revealed that many labels were false, leading to questions as to whether the labels could be trusted at all.

Apple will begin to proxy Google’s “Safe Browsing” service used by Safari through its own servers starting with iOS 14.5. Safari on iPhone and iPad includes a “Fraudulent Website Warning” feature that warns users if they’re visiting a possible phishing site. The feature leverages Google’s “Safe Browsing” database and blocklist. Before, Google may have collected user’s IP address during its interaction with Safari, when the browser would check the website URL against Google’s list. Now, Apple will proxy the feature through Apple’s own servers to limit the risk of information leaks. The change was reported by The 8-bit, MacRumors and others, after a Reddit sighting, and confirmed by Apple’s head of Engineering for WebKit.

A generically named app “Barcode Scanner” on the Google Play Store had been operating as a legit app for years before turning into malware. Users of the app, which had over 10 million installs, began to experience ads that would open their browser out of nowhere. The malware was traced to the app and Google removed it from the Play Store. Unfortunately, users review-bombed a different, innocent app as a result, leaving it 1-star reviews and accusing it of being malware.

Google Chrome’s iOS app is testing a feature that would lock your Incognito tabs with either Touch ID or Face ID to add more security to the browser app.

Google Fi VPN for Android exits beta and expands to iPhone. The VPN app, designed for Google Fi users, is meant to encrypt connections when on public Wi-Fi networks or when using sites that don’t encrypt data. Users, however, question the privacy offered by VPN from Google.

Twitter said the iOS 14 privacy update will have a “modest impact” on its revenue. The companies joins others, including Facebook and Snap, in saying that Apple is impacting their business’s monetization.

Funding and M&A

💰 Quilt, a “Clubhouse” focused self-care, raised $3.5 million seed round led by Mayfield Fund. The app has a similar format to audio social network, Clubhouse, but rooms are dedicated less to hustle culture and more to wellness, personal development, spirituality, meditation, astrology and more.

🤝  Match Group, owner of dating apps like Match and Tinder, will buy Korean social media company Hyperconnect for $1.73 billion. The company runs two apps, Azar and Hakuna Live, both which focus on video, including video chats and live broadcasts.

🤝 Electronic Arts buys Glu Mobile, maker of the “Kim Kardashian: Hollywood” mobile game in a $2.4 billion deal. The all-cash deal will also bring other games, like “Diner Dash” and “MLB Tap Sports Baseball” to EA, which said it made the acquisition because mobile is the “fastest-growing platform on the planet.”

💰 French startup Powder raised $12 million for its social app for sharing clips from your favorite games, and follow others with the same interests. The app can capture video content from both desktop and mobile games.

💰 Reddit’s valuation doubled to $6 billion after raising $250 million in a late-stage funding round led by Vy Capital, following the r/WallStreetBets and GameStop frenzy. The company was previously valued at $3 billion, and is also backed by Andreessen Horowitz and Tencent Holdings Ltd.

💰 SplashLearn raised $18 million for its game-based edtech platform. The startup offers math and reading courses for Pre-K through 5th grade, and over 4,000 games and interactive activities.

💰 Goody raised $4 million for its mobile app that lets you send gifts to friends, family and other loved ones over a text message. The other user can then personalize the gift and share their address, if you don’t have that information.

💰 VerSe Innovation, the Bangalore-based parent firm of news and entertainment app Dailyhunt and short video app Josh, a TikTok rival, raised over $100 million in Series H round led by Qatar Investment Authority and Glade Brook Capital Partners. The round turns the company into a unicorn.

💰 Tickr, an app that lets U.K. consumers make financial investments based on their impact to society and the environment, raised $3.4 million in a round led by Ada Ventures, a VC firm focused on impact startups.

📈 Huuuge Inc., a developer of free-to-play mobile casino games, raised $445 million in its IPO in Warsaw, becoming Poland’s largest-ever gaming industry listing.

💰 Uptime, an educational app that offers 5-minute bits of insight from top books and courses, raised a $16 million “seed” round led by Tesco CEO Sir Terry Leahy; entrepreneur and chairman of N Brown, David Alliance; and members of private equity firm Thomas H Lee.

💰 Modern Health, a mental health services provider for businesses to offer to their employees, raised $74 million, valuing its business at $1.17 billion. The Modern Health mobile app assesses each employee’s need and then provide care options.

💰 Scalarr raised $7.5 million to fight mobile ad fraud. The company offers products to detect ad fraud before an advertiser bids and other tools used by ad exchanges, demand-side platforms, and supply-side platforms.

💰 Dublin-based food ordering app Flipdish, a Deliveroo rival, raised €40 million from global investment firm Tiger Global Management. The app offers a lower commission than other delivery rivals and is even testing drone delivery with startup Manna Aero.

💰 Jackpot, an NYC-based lottery ticket app, raised $50 million Series C. The app allows users to play the lottery games in nine different states, including Arkansas, Colorado, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Texas and Washington, D.C.

Downloads

Insight’s iOS web browser supports “extensions”

Image Credits: Insight

A new startup called Insight is bringing web browser extensions to the iPhone, with the goal of delivering a better web browsing experience by blocking ads and trackers, flagging fake reviews on Amazon, offering SEO-free search experiences or even calling out media bias and misinformation, among other things. These features are made available by way of the browser’s “extensions,” which work by way of a “sub-tab” workflow where you navigate using swiping gestures. For example, when online shopping, you could view the product you’re interested in, then swipe over to see the available coupons, the trusted product reviews or to comparison shop across other sites.

The app is a free download on iOS.

App Annie Pulse

Image Credits: App Annie

App Annie’s new app Pulse is aimed not at the more advanced analyst or marketer immersed in data, but rather at the executive who wants a “more elevated, top-down view” of the app ecosystem, TechCrunch reported. The app offers easy access to the app stores’ top charts, plus tools for tracking apps, and a news feed highlighting recent trends. Another feature, the App Annie Performance score, which aims to distill user acquisition, engagement, monetization and sentiment into a single benchmark.

The app is currently iOS-only.

Top 100 subscription apps grew 34% to $13B in 2020, share of total spend remained the same

Apps saw record downloads and consumer spending in 2020, globally reaching somewhere around $111 billion to $112 billion, according to various estimates. But a growing part of that spend was subscription payments, a new report from Sensor Tower indicates. Last year, global subscription app revenue from the top 100 subscription apps (excluding games), climbed 34% year-over-year to $13 billion, up from $9.7 billion in 2019.

The App Store, not surprisingly, accounted for a sizable chunk of this subscription revenue, given it has historically outpaced the Play Store on consumer spending. In 2020, the top 100 subscription apps worldwide generated $10.3 billion on the App Store, up 32% over 2019, compared with $2.7 billion on Google Play, which grew 42% from $1.9 billion in 2019.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

There are some signs that subscription revenue growth may be hitting a peak. (Or it could be that subscriptions were a luxury some consumers cut in a down economy.)

Globally, subscription app revenue from the top 100 apps was around 11.7% of the total ~$111 billion consumers spent on in-app purchases in 2020 — which is roughly the same share it saw in 2019.

And in the fourth quarter of 2020, 86 of the top 100 earning apps worldwide offered subscriptions, which was down from the 89 that did so in the fourth quarter of 2019.

In addition, subscription app revenue growth in the U.S. is now trailing the global trends.

Although subscription app revenue was still up 26% on a year-over-year basis to reach nearly $5.9 billion in 2020, that was slower growth than the 34% seen worldwide.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

What’s more, subscription app spending in the U.S. last year represented a smaller percentage of the total consumer spend than in 2019, the report found. In 2020, subscription payments from the top 100 subscription apps were 17.6% of the $33 billion U.S. consumers spent on in-app purchases, down from the 21% share they accounted for in 2019.

And out of the 100 top grossing apps in the U.S. in the fourth quarter 2020, 91 were subscription-based, down from 93 in the year ago quarter.

The top subscription apps in the U.S. looked different between the App Store and Google Play. On the former, YouTube was the top grosser in this category, while Google Pay users spent on Google One (Google’s cloud storage product). Tinder, meanwhile, was No. 2 on the App Store, while Disney+ took the second spot on Google Play.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Overall, the top 10 across both stores were YouTube, Disney+, Tinder, Pandora, Google One, Twitch, Bumble, HBO Max, Hulu, and ESPN. These top earners indicate that consumers are willing to pay for their entertainment — like streaming services — on subscription, but it’s more difficult for other categories to break into the top charts. Dating apps. however, remain an exception.

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

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

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020.

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

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

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

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

Top Stories

Clubhouse goes mainstream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credits: Facebook

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

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

Apple updates its App Store Rules

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

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

To see what actually changed, go here.

Parler CEO fired

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

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

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

Weekly News

Apps with earnings news

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

Platforms: Apple

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

Platforms: Google

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

Gaming

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

Augmented Reality

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

Security & Privacy

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

Fintech

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

Social & Photos

Image Credits: Snap

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

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

Image Credits: Apptopia

Communication and Messaging

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

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Streaming Services and Media

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

Health & Fitness

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

Productivity

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

Government & Policy

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

Funding and M&A

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

Downloads

Reese’s Book Club

Image Credits: Hello Sunshine Apps

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

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

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

Carrot Weather

Image Credits: Carrot Weather

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

This Week in Apps: GameStop madness hits trading apps, Apple privacy changes, Clubhouse becomes a unicorn

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, we’re taking a look at the biggest news in the world of apps, including how the GameStop frenzy impacted trading apps, as well as how Apple’s privacy changes are taking shape in 2021, and more.

Top Stories

The internet comes for the stock market, via trading apps

illustration of robinhood feather logo spraypainted on a brick wall

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Was there really any other app news story this week, beside the GameStop short squeeze? That a group of Reddit users took on the hedge funds was the stuff of legends, even if the reality was that Wall Street likely got in on both sides of the trade. Whether you found yourself in the camp of admiring the spectacle or watching the train wreck in horror (or both), what we witnessed — at long last, I suppose — was the internet coming for the stock market. The GameStop frenzy upended the status quo; it rattled the traditional ways of doing things — much like what the internet has done to almost everything else it touches — whether that’s publishing, media, creation, politics, and more.

“This is community,” explained Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian, in an interview on AOC’s Twitch channel on Thursday.

“This is something that spans platforms and the internet, especially in the last 10 years — in particular social media and smartphone ubiquity. All these things have connected us in real-time ways to organize around ideas, around concepts,” he continued. “We seek out those communities. We seek out that sense of identity. We seek out that sense of connection. And the internet supercharges it because of scale,” he said. “I think one of the byproducts of where I think it continues to go is more of a push towards decentralization and more of a push toward individuals being able to take ownership — even individuals being able to get access — to do the same things that institutions, historically, had a monopoly on,” Ohanian noted.

Trading app Robinhood and social app Reddit, home to the WallStreetBets forum driving the GameStop push, immediately benefitted from the community-driven effort to squeeze the hedge funds — and jumped to the top of the App Store.

But Robinhood’s subsequent failure to be transparent as to why it was forced to stop customers from buying the “meme” stocks, like GameStop and others (it needed more cash), quickly damaged its reputation. Some investors have now sued for their losses. Others started petitions. And even more began downranking the app with one-star reviews, which Google then removed.

Other trading apps have gained not only during the frenzy itself, but also after, as Robinhood users looked for alternative platforms after being burned by the free trading app.

As of Friday, Robinhood remained at No. 1 on the App Store, but is now being closely trailed on the Top Free iPhone apps chart by No. 2 Webull, No. 6 Fidelity, No. 7 Cash App, No. 12 TD Ameritrade and No. 15 E*TRADE, among others.

Crypto apps are also topping the charts, as users realize the potential of collective action in markets not yet dominated by the billionaires. Coinbase popped to No. 4, while Binance-run apps were at No. 9 and No. 19, Voyager was No. 23 and Kraken No. 24.

In addition, forums where traders can join communities are also continuing to do well, with Reddit at No. 3, Discord at No. 14 and Telegram at No. 28, as of the time of writing.

Google says it will add those Apple privacy labels…sometime!

Image Credits: Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Google failed to meet its earlier promised deadline of rolling out privacy labels to its nearly 100-some iOS apps. Its initial estimate followed suggestions (aided by Apple’s typical quiet confirmations to press), that Google had been struggling over how to handle the privacy issues the updates would reveal. This week, Google again said its labels were on the way. But now, it’s not making any specific promises about when those labels would arrive. Instead, the company just said the labels would roll out as Google updated its iOS apps with new features and bug fixes, rather than rolling out the labels to all its apps at once.

However, some Google apps have been updated, including Play Movies & TV, Google Translate, Fiber TV, Fiber, Google Stadia, Google Authenticator, Google Classroom, Smart Lock, Motion Stills, Onduo for Diabetes, Wear OS by Google and Project Baseline — but not Google’s main apps like Search, YouTube, Maps, Gmail or its other productivity apps.

Apple’s IDFA changes to begin this spring

Image Credits: Apple (livestream)

Apple announced this week its tracking restrictions for iOS apps are nearing arrival. The changes had initially been pushed back to give developers more time to make updates, but will now arrive in “early spring.”

Once live, the previous opt-out model for sharing your Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA) will change to an opt-in model, meaning developers will have to ask users’ permission to track them. Most users will likely say “no,” and be annoyed by the request. Users will also be able to adjust IDFA sharing in Settings on a per-app basis, or on all apps at once.

Facebook has already been warning investors of the ad revenue hit that will result from these changes, which it expects to see in the first quarter earnings. It may also be preparing a lawsuit. Google, meanwhile, said it would be adopting Apple’s SKAdNetwork framework and providing feedback to Apple about its potential improvements.

For years, Apple has been laying the groundwork to establish itself as the company that cares about consumer privacy. And it’s certainly true that no other large tech company has yet to give users this much power to fight back against being tracked around the web and inside apps.

But this is not a case of Apple being the “good guy” while everyone else is “bad” —  because the multi-billion-dollar ad industry is not that simple. With a change to its software, Apple has effectively carved out a seat at the table for its own benefit.

What many don’t realize is that Apple watches what its users do across its own platform, inside a number of its first-party apps — including in Apple Music, Apple TV, Apple Books, Apple News and the App Store. It then uses that first-party data to personalize the ads it displays in Apple News, Stocks and the App Store.

So while other businesses are tracking users around the web and apps to gain data that lets them better personalize ads at scale, Apple only tracks users inside its own apps and services. (But there sure are a lot of them! And Apple keeps launching new ones, too.)

With the new limits that impact the effectiveness of ads outside of Apple’s ecosystem, advertisers who need to reach a potential customer — say, with an app recommendation — will need to throw more money into Apple-delivered advertising instead. This is because Apple’s ads will be capable of making those more targeted, personalized and, therefore, more effective recommendations.

Apple says it will play by the same rules that it’s asking other developers to abide by. Meaning, if its apps want to track you, they’ll ask. But most of its apps do not “track” using IDFA. Meanwhile, if users want to turn off personalized ads using Apple’s first-party data, that’s a different setting. (Settings –> Privacy –> scroll to bottom –> Apple Advertising –> toggle off Personalized Ads). And no, you won’t be shown a pop-up asking you if that’s a setting you want on or off.

Apple, having masterfully made its case as the privacy-focused company — because wow, isn’t adtech gross? —  is now just laying it on. Apple CEO Tim Cook this week blamed the adtech industry for the growth in online extremism, violent incitement (e.g. at the U.S. Capitol) and growing belief in conspiracies, saying companies (cough, Facebook) optimized for engagement and data collection, no matter the damage to society.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

  • Apple releases iOS 14.4 to iPhone and iPad users. The update patches three critical security vulnerabilities, adds Bluetooth audio monitoring to protect users from levels that could damage hearing, improves the ability for the camera to recognize smaller QR codes, adds a warning if the iPhone 12 has been repaired with non-Apple parts and fixes other bugs.
  • Apple reports record-breaking Q1 2021 with $111.4 billion in revenue. The company beat investor expectations on both earnings per share and revenues, with more than the expected $103.3 billion in revenues and $1.68 EPS versus the $1.41 EPS expected. Earnings were driven by new 5G iPhones and a 57% rise in China sales.
  • Apple dominates tablet market with 19.2 million iPads shipped in Q4 2020.
  • Separately, from the IDFA news, Apple announced this week that Private Click Measurement (PCM) will roll out at the same time as the IDFA changes. PCM measures app-to-web conversions, while SKAdNetwork focuses only on app-to-app conversions. This gives advertisers a way to track the performance of apps that run inside ads that send users to websites.
  • A researcher discovered a new iOS security system in iOS 14, BlastDoor, which offers a new sandbox system for processing iMessages data.
  • The Washington Post checks in on Apple’s App Store privacy labels and finds many of them were wrong.

Platforms: Google

  • Google Play Store updates its policies on gamified loyalty programs following confusion in India. Real gambling apps are still not permitted in India, but developers now will have better clarity on rules.
  • Google Play Store opened to Android Auto apps in December, but only for closed testing. This week, it expanded to open testing, meaning there’s no limit to the number of users who can download the app — the next step toward launching to all users in production.

Gaming

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

  • U.S. consumer spend in mobile simulation games up 61.8% in 2020, reports Sensor Tower. Top titles included Roblox and Township by Playrix.

Entertainment & Streaming

  • Netflix can now stream studio-quality audio on Android 9 and newer devices, specifically Extended HE-AAC with MPEG-D DRC (xHE-AAC). This codec improves sound in noisy conditions and adapts to variable cellular connections.
  • Spotify tests audiobooks. The company released a small selection of nine exclusive audiobook recordings from books in the public domain. The narrators included big names like David Dobrik, Forest Whitaker, Hilary Swank and Cynthia Erivo, to determine if there’s consumer demand for this sort of content.
  • Spotify also tests a feature that inserts “slow down” songs in playlists when users approach school zones. The feature was being tried in Australia.
  • YouTube said its TikTok rival, YouTube Shorts, was seeing 3.5 billion views per day during tests in India.

Security & Privacy

  • Apple says iOS 14.4 fixes three security bugs that may have been exploited by hackers. Details were scarce but two of the bugs were found in WebKit. Apple wouldn’t say how many users may have been impacted.
  • TikTok fixed a vulnerability that would have allowed for the theft of private user information.
  • WhatsApp added a biometric authentication to its web and desktop apps to make authentication more secure for its over 2 billion users.
  • A location broker called X-Mode was discovered to still be tracking users via Apple and Android apps, despite app store bans. The broker sold data collected in apps — like unofficial transportation app New York Subway, Video MP3 Converter and Moco — to U.S. military contractors.

Communication

Image Credits: Telegram

  • Telegram adds a new feature that would allow users to import their WhatsApp chats and others, making a switch easier. The feature appears in version 7.4, and supports WhatsApp, Line and KakaoTalk import on iOS and Android.

Social & Photos

Image Credits: Instagram

  • Instagram launches a professional dashboard for creators and small business. The new in-app destination offers centralized access to tools for tracking performance, discovering insights and trends, growing your business and staying informed through access to educational resources.
  • Facebook expands its Facebook News portal to the U.K., its first international market.
  • TikTok owner ByteDance’s revenue more than doubled in 2020, according to The Information, to about $37 billion.
  • Snapchat launched a digital literacy program aimed at educating users about data privacy and security. The program teaches users how to turn on two-factor and introduced a new filter that connects users to privacy resources.
  • Twitter launches Birdwatch, a community-based approach to handling misinformation on its platform. The system allows users to identify misleading info in tweets and write notes that provide information and context, in a sort of Wikipedia-like model. Eventually, these notes will be made visible directly on tweets for all to read, after consensus from a broad and diverse group of editors is achieved.
  • QAnon moves to a free-speech focused TikTok clone called Clapper, which is a new home to some of the Parler crowd. ToS violations coming in 3, 2, 1…
  • TikTok was found to be hosting a number of vape sellers who were clearly marketing toward minors, promising no ID checks and discreet packaging to hide vape purchases from parents.

Health & Fitness

  • Apple expands its new Apple Fitness+ service with “Time to Walk,” a feature that offers inspiring audio stories from guests like country music icon Dolly Parton, NBA player Draymond Green, musician Shawn Mendes, Emmy Award winner Uzo Aduba and others. The launch indicates Apple understands how to make the service more broadly appealing to reach beyond those who are already deeply committed to their regular exercise routines.
  • Health and Fitness app downloads grew 30% in 2020, reports App Annie, from $1.5 billion in consumer spend in 2019 to $2 billion in 2020, and from 2 billion downloads to 2.6 billion. On Android phones, time spent was up 25%.

Government & Policy

  • Italy’s data protection agency gave TikTok a deadline to respond its order to block all users whose age it can’t verify following the death of a 10-year-old girl who repeated a dangerous “challenge” on the social app.
  • Iran blocked the Signal messaging app after the WhatsApp exodus sent a flood of users to the open-source, encrypted communication service.
  • India said it will continue its ban on TikTok, UC Browser and 57 other Chinese apps that the country first banned last June, saying the responses the companies provided didn’t adequately address the cybersecurity concerns. TikTok owner ByteDance said it’s closing its India operations and laying off 1,800 employees.
  • Norway’s data protection agency notified U.S.-based dating app Grindr for violation of GDPR consent violations, which carry a fine of around $12.1 million USD.

Funding and M&A

  • Buzzy voice chat app Clubhouse raises $100 million, valuing the business at $1 billion. Despite being launched under a year ago and remaining an invite-only experience for the time being, the app has been carving out a new form of audio-based social networking. With now over 180 investors and a pandemic coming to an end — perhaps — with the vaccine rollout, Clubhouse will soon have to prove it has value in a reopened world where there’s more to do, including, once again, networking events and conferences. It will also eventually have to contend with what sort of app it becomes when it finally opens up to the public. So far, its private, insiders-only atmosphere has given it something of a protected status. Though conversations have turned toxic at times, only a few users ever heard them — and there’s no transcript. When the world piles in, however, Clubhouse could not only lose its exclusive appeal but also become host to conversations that do real harm.

  • Twitter acquires newsletter platform Revue, a Substack rival, to get its users a way to monetize their Twitter fan base. Despite only announcing this week, the company is already integrating Newsletters on its web app.
  • Edtech app ClassDojo raises $30 million led by Product Hunt CEO Josh Buckley. The app has boomed during the pandemic as schools and teachers needed a new way to communicate with families at home.
  • Scheduling startup Calendly raises $350 million for its cloud-based service that helps people set up and confirm meeting times with one another. The round values the business at $3 billion.
  • Virtual social network IMVU raises $35 million from China’s NetEase and others. The app lets users create virtual rooms and chat with strangers using custom avatars.
  • Short-form video app Clash acquires would-be TikTok rival Byte, created by a former Vine founder.
  • IAC’s Teltech, home to Robokiller, acquires encrypted messaging app Confide, in an unannounced deal. Terms were not revealed but included the app and IP, not the team.

Confide app

Image Credits: Confide

  • Opal raises $4.3 million for its digital well-being assistant for iPhone that blocks you from distracting apps and websites.
  • Finance tracking and budgeting app Brigit raises $35 million Series A led by Lightspeed Venture Partners, with participation from DCM, Nyca, Canaan, DN Capital, CRV, Core, Shasta, Hummingbird, Abstract, Brooklyn Bridge Ventures, Secocha, NBA star Kevin Durant, Ashton Kutcher’s Sound Ventures and Flourish Ventures.
  • SoftBank-backed Travel platform Klook raises $200 million in a round led by Aspex Management. The startup, which helps users book activities in overseas destinations, had been impacted by the pandemic, so pivoted to “staycation” activities and service for local merchants.
  • Video software company Vimeo raises $300 million in equity from funds and accounts advised by T. Rowe Price Associates, Inc. and Oberndorf Enterprises, LLC at a valuation in excess of $5 billion.
  • RuneScape publisher Jagex has been acquired by investment firm The Carlyle Group for at least $530 million. The British video game publisher creates both PC and mobile games, including a mobile version of RuneScape with 8 million installs in 2019.
  • Appointment booking app Booksy raises $70 million to acquire other salon appointment apps and expand internationally. The round was led by Cat Rock Capital with participation from Sprints Capital.
  • Fintech startup Albert raises $100 million in Series C funding led by General Atlantic. The funds will be used to expand its financial wellness service now used by over 5 million people to help save, budget and more.
  • Dating app S’More raises $2.1 million for its concept where users photos’ are initially blurred.
  • Stacker raises $1.7 million seed round for its platform that lets non-developers build apps using spreadsheets from Google Sheets or Airtable.
  • Kuaishou, ByteDance’s main rival in China, raises $5.4B in Hong Kong IPO, valuing the business at $61B

Downloads

Opal

Image Credits: Opal

Opal offers a digital well-being assistant for iPhone that allows you to block distracting websites and apps, set schedules around app usage, lock down apps for stricter and more focused quiet periods and more. The service works by way of a VPN system that limits your access to apps and sites. But unlike some VPNs on the market, Opal is committed to not collecting any personal data on its users or their private browsing data. Instead, its business model is based on paid subscriptions, not selling user data, it says. The freemium service lets you upgrade to its full feature set for $59.99/year.

Charlie

Image Credits: Charlie

Founded by a former mobile game industry vet, Charliegamifies” getting out of debt using techniques that worked in gaming, like progress bars, fun auto-save rules that can be triggered by almost any activity, celebrations with confetti and more. The app plans to expand into a fuller fintech product in time to help users refinance debt at a lower rate and bill pay directly from the app.