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

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

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

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

Top Stories

iOS 14 Home screen Customization Craze

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

App makers team up to take on Apple and Google

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TikTok deal chaos continues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weekly News Round-up

Platforms

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

Services

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

Trends

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

Other News

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

Funding and M&A (and IPOs)

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

Downloads

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Top Stories

App Store get new rules

app store icon 2

Image Credits: screenshot via TechCrunch

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

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

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

Apple and Epic continue fight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TikTok’s time is up

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

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

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

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

Weekly News

Image Credits: Apple

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

Funding and M&A

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

Downloads

Poolside.fm

Image Credits: Poolside.fm

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

Google Maps returns to Apple Watch

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

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

NewNew

Image Credit: NewNew

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top Stories

Apple delays the mobile ad apocalypse

Image Credits: Apple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

app store icon 2

Image Credits: TechCrunch

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

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

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

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

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

TikTok deal gets more complicated

a TikTok logo is seen displayed on a smartphone

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

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

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

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

Weekly News

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

Apple Developer Round-up

Funding and M&A (and IPOs)

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

Downloads

The Last Campfire

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

Facebook to warn third-party developers of vulnerable code

Facebook has announced a policy change that will see the company notify third-party developers if it finds a security vulnerability in their code.

In a blog post announcing the change,Facebook said it “may occasionally find” critical bugs and vulnerabilities in third-party code and systems. “When that happens, our priority is to see these issues promptly fixed, while making sure that people impacted are informed so that they can protect themselves by deploying a patch or updating their systems.”

Facebook has previously notified third-party developers of vulnerabilities, but the policy shift formally codifies the company’s policy toward disclosing and revealing security vulnerabilities.

Vulnerability disclosure programs, or VDPs, allow companies to set the rules of engagement for finding and disclosing security bugs. VDPs also help guide the disclosure and publication of vulnerabilities once a bug is fixed. Companies often use a bug bounty to pay hackers who follow the company’s reporting and disclosure rules.

The policy change is not entirely altruistic. Facebook, like many other tech companies, relies on a ton of third-party code and open-source libraries. But by putting the change in writing, it also puts third-party developers on notice if they don’t fix vulnerabilities in a timely fashion.

Casey Ellis, founder and chief technology officer at vulnerability disclosure platform Bugcrowd, said the policy shift was becoming increasingly popular for companies with a “large, user-centric, third-party attack surface,” and echoes similar efforts by Atlassian, Google and Microsoft.

Facebook said when it finds a vulnerability, it will give third-party developers 21 days to respond and 90 days to fix the issues, a widely accepted time frame to report and remediate security issues. The company says it will make a reasonable effort to find the right contact for reporting a vulnerability, including, but not limited to, emailing security reporting emails, filing bugs without confidential details in bug trackers or filing support tickets. But the company said it reserves the right to disclose sooner if the vulnerability is actively being exploited by hackers, or delay its disclosure if it’s agreed that more time is needed to fix an issue.

Facebook said it will generally not sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) specific to the security issues it reports.

Katie Moussouris, founder of Luta Security, told TechCrunch that the “devil will be in the details.”

“The test will be the first time they have to pull the trigger and drop a zero-day — with mitigation guidance — on a competitor,” she said, referring to unpatched vulnerabilities where companies have zero days to patch them.

The new policy is focused specifically on how Facebook handles disclosure of issues in third-party code. If researchers find a security vulnerability on Facebook, or within its family of apps, they will continue to report it through the existing Bug Bounty Program.

As part of the policy change, Facebook said it would also disclose vulnerabilities once they are fixed. In a separate blog post, Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, disclosed six vulnerabilities in the messaging app — since fixed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top Stories

Apple gets petty in fight with Epic Games

Image credit: Kyle Grillot/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How times have changed.

TikTok nears U.S. deal and loses CEO 

TikTok office building

(Photo by CHRIS DELMAS/AFP via Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

Other News

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

Funding and M&A

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

Downloads

Bingie helps you find new things to watch.

Bingie

Image Credits: Bingie

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

Firefox Daylight for Android 

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

Flipboard gets into video

Image Credits: Flipboard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top Stories

Apple at war with developers 

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

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

Image Credits: Epic

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

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

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

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

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

TikTok ban could have big repercussions for Apple 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other News

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

Funding and M&A

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

Downloads

Google Kormo Jobs (India)

Image Credits: Kormo Jobs/Google

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

Reface

Image Credits: Reface

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

Melbourne-based CI/CD platform Buildkite gets $28 million AUD Series A led by OpenView

Buildkite’s founding team–Lachlan Donald, Keith Pitt and Tim Lucas–working remotely

Buildkite, a Melbourne-based company that provides a hybrid continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD) platform for software developers, announced today that it has raised AUD $28 million (about USD $20.2 million) in Series A funding, bring its valuation to more than AUD $200 million (about USD $145 million).

The funding was led by OpenView, an investment firm that focuses on growth-stage enterprise software companies, with participation from General Catalyst.

This round is the company’s first since Buildkite raised about AUD $200,000 in seed funding when it was founded in 2013.

Co-founder and chief executive officer Lachlan Donald told TechCrunch that Buildkite didn’t seek more funding earlier because it was growing profitably. In fact, the company turned away interested investors “because we wanted to focus on sustainable growth and maintain control of our destiny.”

But Donald said they were open to investment from OpenView and General Catalyst because they see the two investors as “true partners as we enter and define this next generation of CI/CD.”

Buildkite’s team is small, with just 26 employees. “We’re a lean, focused team, so their expert advice and guidance will help more software teams around the world discover Buildkite,” Donald said. He added that part of the funding round will be used to give 42X returns to early investors and shareholders, and the rest will be used on product development.

In a statement about the funding, OpenView partner Mackey Craven said, “The global pandemic and the resulting economic uncertainty underlines the importance for companies to maximize efficiencies and build for growth. As the world continues to build digital-first applications, we believe Buildkite’s unique approach will be the new enterprise standard of CI/CD and we’re excited to be supporting them in realizing this ambition.”

Continuous integration gives software teams an automated way to develop and test applications, making collaboration more efficient, while continuous delivery refers to the process of pushing code to environments for further testing by other teams, or deploying it to customers. CI/CD platforms make it easier for fast-growing tech companies to test and deliver software. Buildkite says it now has more than 1,000 customers, including Shopify, Pinterest and Wayfair.

As part of the round, Jean-Michel Lemieux, Shopify’s chief technology officer, and Ashley Smith, chief revenue officer at Gatsby and OpenView venture partner, will join Buildkite’s board.

The increased use of online applications caused by the COVID-19 pandemic means there is more demand for CI/CD platform, since engineering teams need to work more quickly.

“A good example is Shopify, one of our longstanding partners. They came to us after they outgrew their previous hosted CI provider,” Donald said. “Their challenge is one we see across all of customers—they needed to reduce build time and scale their team across multiple time zones. Once they wrapped Buildkite into their development flow, they saw a 75% reduction in build wait times. They grew their team by 300% and have still been able to keep build time under 10 minutes.”

Other CI platforms available include Jenkins, CircleCI, Travis, Codeship and GitLab. Co-founder and chief technology officer Keith Pitt said one of the ways that BuildKite differentiates from its rivals is its focus on security, which prompted his interest in building the platform in the first place.

“Back in 2013, my then-employer asked that I stop using a cloud-based CI/CD platform due to security concerns, but I found the self-hosted alternatives to be incredibly outdated,” Pitt said. “I realized a hybrid approach was the solution for testing and deploying software at scale without compromising security or performance, but was surprised to find a hybrid CI/CD tool didn’t exist yet. I decided to create it myself, and Buildkite was born.”

Parental control app Boomerang repeatedly blocked from Play Store, losing business

Apple isn’t the only one accused of kicking out competitive solutions from its App Store. Google did the same — for over a month at least — or so alleges parental control app maker Boomerang. The company’s product competes with Google’s own Family Link solution for controlling screen time and children’s use of mobile devices. The company claims Google repeatedly removed its application from the Play Store for a variety of issues, including violations of Google’s “Deceptive Behavior Policy,” which relates to users’ inability to easily remove the application from their Android device.

The issue itself is complicated and an indication of how poor developer communication processes can make an existing problem worse, leading developers to complain of anti-competitive behaviors.

Like Apple, Google also has a set of rules developers have to agree to in order to publish apps on the Google Play store. The difficulty is that those rules are often haphazardly or unevenly enforced, requests for appeals are met with no replies or automated responses and, at the end of the day, there’s no way for a developer to reach a human and have a real discussion.

You may recall a similar situation involving screen time apps hit a group of screen time app makers last year. Apple then had suddenly removed a host of third-party screen time and parental control apps, shortly after introducing its own Screen Time solution within iOS 12. The company’s move was brought up during last week’s antitrust hearings in Congress, where Apple CEO Tim Cook insisted Apple’s decision was due to the risk to user privacy and security these apps caused.

The case with Boomerang is not that different. A developer gets kicked out of the Play Store and seems to have no way to escalate the appeal to an actual human to discuss the nuances of the situation further.

The Boomerang Ban

For starters, let’s acknowledge that it makes sense that the Play Store would have a policy against apps that are difficult to uninstall, as this would allow for a host of malware, spam and spyware applications to exist and torment users.

However, in the case of a parental control solution, the reality is that parents don’t want their kids to have the option to simply uninstall the program. In fact, Boomerang added the feature based on user feedback from parents.

Google itself puts its Family Link controls behind a parental PIN code and requires parents to sign into their Google account to remove the child’s account from a device, for instance.

Boomerang’s app required a similar course of action. In “Parent Mode,” parents would toggle a switch that says “prevent app uninstallation” in the app’s Settings to make the protection on the child device non-removable.

Image Credits: Boomerang

But despite the obvious intended use case here, Boomerang’s app was repeatedly flagged for the same “can’t uninstall app” reason by the Play Store’s app review process when it submitted updates and bug fixes.

This began on May 8th, 2020 and took over a month to resolve. The developer, Justin Payeur, submitted the first appeal on May 11th to test if the ban had just been triggered by Google’s “app review robots.” On May 13th, the app was re-approved without any human response or feedback to the appeals message he had sent to Google.

But then on June 30th, Boomerang was again flagged for the same reason: “can’t uninstall app.” Payeur filed a second appeal, explaining the feature is not on by default — it’s there for parents to use if they choose.

On July 6th, Boomerang had to inform users of the problem, as they had become increasingly frustrated they couldn’t find the app on Google Play. In a customer email that didn’t mince words, Boomerang wrote: “Google has become evil.” Complaints from users said that if the app didn’t offer the “prevent uninstall” feature, it wouldn’t be worth using.

On July 8th, Boomerang received a reply from Google with more information, explaining that Google doesn’t allow apps that change the user’s device settings or features outside the app without user’s knowledge or consent. Specifically, it also cited the app’s use of the “Google Accessibility Services API” in a manner that’s  in violation with the Play Store terms. Google said the app wouldn’t be approved until it removed functionality that prevented a user from removing or uninstalling the app from their device.

This requirement, though rooted in user security, disadvantages parental control apps compared with Google’s own Family Link offering. As Google’s help documentation indicates, removing a child’s account from an Android device requires parents to input a passcode — it can’t simply be uninstalled by the end user (the child).

Boomerang later that day received a second violation notification after it changed the app to be explicitly clear to the end user (the child) that the Device Administrator (a parent) would have permission to control the device, mimicking other apps Boomerang said were still live on Google Play.

After two more days with no reply from the Appeals team, Boomerang requested a phone call to discuss the situation. Google sent a brief email, saying it was merging the two active Appeals into one but no other information about the Appeal was provided.

On July 13th, Boomerang was informed Google was still examining the app. The company replied again to explain why a parental control app would have such a feature. The same day, Boomerang was alerted that older versions of its app in its internal testing area in the Play Console were being rejected. These versions were never published live, the company says. The rejections indicated Boomerang was “degrading device security” with its app.

The next day, Boomerang informed its user base that it may have to remove the feature they wanted and emailed Google to again point out the app now has clear consent included.

Image Credits: Boomerang; Email complains of “material impact” to business

Despite not having made any changes, Google informed Boomerang on July 16th it’s in violation of the “Elevated Privilege Abuse” section of the Google Play Malware policy. On July 19th, the company removed the additional app protection feature and on July 21st, Google again rejected the app for the same violation — over a feature that had now been removed.

Despite repeated emails, Boomerang didn’t receive any message from Google until an automated email arrived on July 24th. Again, Google sent no response to the emails where Payeur explains the violating feature had now been removed. Repeated emails through July 30th were also not responded to.

After hearing about Boomerang’s issues, TechCrunch asked Google on July 27th to explain its reasoning.

The company, after a few follow-ups, told TechCrunch on August 3rd that the issues with Boomerang — as later emails to Boomerang had said — were related to how the app implemented its features. Google does not allow apps to engage in “elevated privilege” abuse. And it doesn’t allow apps to abuse the Android Accessibility APIs to interfere with basic operations on a device.

Google also said it doesn’t allow any apps to use the same mechanism Boomerang does, including Google’s own. (Of course, Google’s own apps have the advantage of deep integrations with the Android OS. Developers can’t tap into some sort of “Family Link API,” for example, to gain a similar ability to control a child’s device.)

“We recognize the value of supervision apps in various contexts, and developers are free to create this experience with appropriate safeguards,” a Google spokesperson said.

More broadly, Boomerang’s experience is similar to what iOS parental control apps went through last year. Like those apps, Boomerang too bumped up against a security safeguard meant to protect an entire app store from abusive software. But the blanket rule leaves no wiggle room for exceptions. Google, meanwhile, argues its OS security is not meant to be “worked around” like this. But it has also at the same time offered no official means of interacting with its OS and own screen time/parental control features. Instead, alternative screen time apps have to figure out ways to basically hack the system to even exist in the first place, even though there’s clear consumer demand for their offerings.

Boomerang’s particular case also reveals the complexities involved with of having a business live or die by the whims of an app review process.

It’s easy enough to argue that the developer should have simply removed the feature and moved on, but the developer seemed to believe the feature would be fine — as evidenced by prior approvals and the approval received upon at least one of its appeals. Plus, the developer is incentivized to fight for the feature because it’s something users said they wanted — or rather, what they demanded, to make the app worth paying for.

Had someone from Google just picked up the phone and explained to Boomerang what’s wrong and what alternative methods would be permitted, the case may not have dragged on in such a manner. In the meantime, Boomerang likely lost user trust, and its removal definitely impacted its business in the near-term.

Reached for a follow-up, Payeur expressed continued frustration, despite the app now being re-approved for Play Store distribution.

“It took Google over a month to provide us with this feedback,” he said, referencing the forbidden API usage that was the real problem. “We are currently digesting this” he said, adding how difficult it was to not be able to talk to Google’s teams to get proper communication and feedback over the past several weeks.

Boomerang has begun collecting the names of other similarly impacted apps, like Filter Chrome, Minder Parental Control and Netsanity. The company says other apps can reach out privately to discuss, if they prefer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s dive in.

Apps and the Antitrust Hearings

app store icon 2

Image Credits: TechCrunch

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking News

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Headlines

GettyImages 688189016

Image credit: Carl Court/Getty Images

Funding and M&A

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

Downloads

Google One 

Image Credits: Google

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

Facetune Video

Image Credits: TechCrunch

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

GitHub starts publishing a public roadmap

GitHub today announced that it will start publishing a public roadmap to help its users understand when it will ship new features across its various versions of the GitHub code repository and products like GitHub Actions, its mobile app and its security tools.

“What we’re trying to do is provide a way for people to see what’s coming, join in that dialogue and give us feedback and be able to collaborate with us,” GitHub’s SVP of Product Shanku Niyogi told me.

He also noted that as the company’s enterprise business has grown, the need for customers to be able to prepare for what’s coming next has also increased. Until now, GitHub often provided this information to some of its larger customers directly (through good old slide decks), but that same information will now be available to all. To Niyogi, this is essentially about “building GitHub more the way that people build software on GitHub already.”

Image Credits: GitHub

Unsurprisingly then, the roadmap lives in a GitHub repo. Everything will be tagged based on the feature, the product it affects and its development stage. Over time, GitHub plans to attach more artifacts to every item, including screenshots, for example.

The company is also using its own product to give users the ability to give feedback through GitHub’s recently launched Discussions feature, for example.

Image Credits: GitHub

In its current iteration, the roadmap looks about a year ahead. “We’re not going to necessarily go throw things on here that we’re looking at five, six years ahead,” Niyogi said. “But as things start to kind of get into that horizon for us, we’ll have that. As happens with software development, you can always expect changes, so we want to be comfortable with that.”

Users can also sign up for notifications when anything on the roadmap changes.

The new roadmap is now live on GitHub.