This Week in Apps: WWDC20 highlights, App Store antitrust issues, tech giants clone TikTok

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the Extra Crunch 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 Extra Crunch series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

This week, we’re looking at the highlights from Apple’s first-ever virtual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) and what its announcements mean for app developers. Plus, there’s news of the U.S. antitrust investigation into Apple’s business, a revamp of the App Store review process, and more. In other app news, both Instagram and YouTube are responding to the TikTok threat, while Snapchat is adding new free tools to its SDK to woo app developers. Amazon also this week entered the no-code app development space with Honeycode.

WWDC20 Wrap-Up

Image Credits: Apple

Apple held its WWDC developer event online for the first time due to the pandemic. The format, in some ways, worked better — the keynote presentations ran smoother, packed in more content, and you could take in the information without the distractions of applause and cheers. (If you were missing the music, there was a playlist.)

Of course, the virtual event lacked the real-world networking and learning opportunities of the in-person conference. Better online forums and virtual labs didn’t solve that problem. In fact, given there aren’t time constraints on a virtual event, some might argue it would make sense to do hands-on labs in week two instead of alongside all the sessions and keynotes. This could give developers more time to process the info and write some code.

Among the bigger takeaways from WWDC20 — besides the obvious changes to the Mac and the introduction of “Apple silicon” — there was the introduction of the refreshed UI in iOS 14 that adds widgets, an App Library and more Siri smarts; plus the debut of Apple’s own mini-apps, in the form of App Clips; and the ability to run iOS apps on Apple Silicon Macs — in fact, iOS apps will run there by default unless developers uncheck a box.

Let’s dig in.

  • The iPad’s influence over Mac. There are plenty of iOS apps that would work on Mac, but making the choice an opt-out instead of an opt-in experience could lead to poor experiences for end users. Developers should think carefully about whether they want to make the leap to the Mac ecosystem and design accordingly. There’s also a broader sense that the iPad and the Mac are starting to look very similar. The iPad already gained support for a proper trackpad and mouse, while the Mac with Big Sur sees the influence of design elements like its new iPad-esque notifications, Control Center, window nav bars and rounded rectangular icons. Are the two OS’s going to merge? Apple’s answer, thankfully, is still “NO.”

Why AWS built a no-code tool

AWS today launched Amazon Honeycode, a no-code environment built around a spreadsheet-like interface that is a bit of a detour for Amazon’s cloud service. Typically, after all, AWS is all about giving developers all of the tools to build their applications — but they then have to put all of the pieces together. Honeycode, on the other hand, is meant to appeal to non-coders who want to build basic line-of-business applications. If you know how to work a spreadsheet and want to turn that into an app, Honeycode is all you need.

To understand AWS’s motivation behind the service, I talked to AWS VP Larry Augustin and Meera Vaidyanathan, a general manager at AWS.

“For us, it was about extending the power of AWS to more and more users across our customers,” explained Augustin. “We consistently hear from customers that there are problems they want to solve, they would love to have their IT teams or other teams — even outsourced help — build applications to solve some of those problems. But there’s just more demand for some kind of custom application than there are available developers to solve it.”

Image Credits: Amazon

In that respect then, the motivation behind Honeycode isn’t all that different from what Microsoft is doing with its PowerApps low-code tool. That, too, after all, opens up the Azure platform to users who aren’t necessarily full-time developers. AWS is taking a slightly different approach here, though, but emphasizing the no-code part of Honeycode.

“Our goal with honey code was to enable the people in the line of business, the business analysts, project managers, program managers who are right there in the midst, to easily create a custom application that can solve some of the problems for them without the need to write any code,” said Augustin. “And that was a key piece. There’s no coding required. And we chose to do that by giving them a spreadsheet-like interface that we felt many people would be familiar with as a good starting point.”

A lot of low-code/no-code tools also allow developers to then “escape the code,” as Augstin called it, but that’s not the intent here and there’s no real mechanism for exporting code from Honeycode and take it elsewhere, for example. “One of the tenets we thought about as we were building Honeycode was, gee, if there are things that people want to do and we would want to answer that by letting them escape the code — we kept coming back and trying to answer the question, ‘Well, okay, how can we enable that without forcing them to escape the code?’ So we really tried to force ourselves into the mindset of wanting to give people a great deal of power without escaping to code,” he noted.

Image Credits: Amazon

There are, however, APIs that would allow experienced developers to pull in data from elsewhere. Augustin and Vaidyanathan expect that companies may do this for their users on tthe platform or that AWS partners may create these integrations, too.

Even with these limitations, though, the team argues that you can build some pretty complex applications.

“We’ve been talking to lots of people internally at Amazon who have been building different apps and even within our team and I can honestly say that we haven’t yet come across something that is impossible,” Vaidyanathan said. “I think the level of complexity really depends on how expert of a builder you are. You can get very complicated with the expressions [in the spreadsheet] that you write to display data in a specific way in the app. And I’ve seen people write — and I’m not making this up — 30-line expressions that are just nested and nested and nested. So I really think that it depends on the skills of the builder and I’ve also noticed that once people start building on Honeycode — myself included — I start with something simple and then I get ambitious and I want to add this layer to it — and I want to do this. That’s really how I’ve seen the journey of builders progress. You start with something that’s maybe just one table and a couple of screens, and very quickly, before you know, it’s a far more robust app that continues to evolve with your needs.”

Another feature that sets Honeycode apart is that a spreadsheet sits at the center of its user interface. In that respect, the service may seem a bit like Airtable, but I don’t think that comparison holds up, given that both then take these spreadsheets into very different directions. I’ve also seen it compared to Retool, which may be a better comparison, but Retool is going after a more advanced developer and doesn’t hide the code. There is a reason, though, why these services were built around them and that is simply that everybody is familiar with how to use them.

“People have been using spreadsheets for decades,” noted Augustin. “They’re very familiar. And you can write some very complicated, deep, very powerful expressions and build some very powerful spreadsheets. You can do the same with Honeycode. We felt people were familiar enough with that metaphor that we could give them that full power along with the ability to turn that into an app.”

The team itself used the service to manage the launch of Honeycode, Vaidyanathan stressed — and to vote on the name for the product (though Vaidyanathan and Augustin wouldn’t say which other names they considered.

“I think we have really, in some ways, a revolutionary product in terms of bringing the power of AWS and putting it in the hands of people who are not coders,” said Augustin.

This Week in Apps: App Store outrage, WWDC20 prep, Android subscriptions change

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the Extra Crunch 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 Extra Crunch series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

This week, one story completely took over the news cycle: Hey vs. Apple. An App Store developer dispute made headlines not because Apple was necessarily in the wrong, per its existing rules, but because of a growing swell of developer resentment against those rules. We’re giving extra bandwidth to this story this week, before jumping into the other headlines.

Also this week we look at what’s expected to arrive at next week’s WWDC20, the TikTok clone Zynn getting banned from both app stores (which is totally fine, I guess!), Facebook’s failed attempts to get its Gaming app approved by Apple, as well as some notable Android updates and other app industry trends.

Main Story: Hey vs. Apple

One story dominated this week’s app news. Unless you were living under the proverbial rock, there’s no way you missed it. After Basecamp received App Store approval for its new email app called Hey, the founders, David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried, turned to Twitter to explain how Apple had now rejected the app’s further updates. Apple told Basecamp it had to offer in-app purchases (IAP) for its full email service within the app, in addition to offering it on the company website. They were not happy, to say the least.

This issue came to a head at a time when regulators are taking a closer look at Apple’s business. The company is facing antitrust investigations in both the U.S. and the E.U. which, in part, will attempt to determine if Apple is abusing its market power to unfairly dominate its competitors. In Hey’s case, the subscription-based app competes with Apple’s built-in free Mail app, which could put this case directly in the regulators’ crosshairs.

But it also brings up the larger concerns over how Apple’s App Store rules have evolved to become a confusing mess which developers — and apparently even Apple’s own App Store reviewers — don’t fully understand. (Apple reportedly told Basecamp that Hey should have never been approved in the first place without IAP.)

Apple has carved out a number of conditions where apps don’t have to implement IAP, by making exceptions for enterprise apps that may have per-seat licensing plans for users and for a set of apps that more directly compete with Apple’s own. These, Apple calls “reader” apps, as they were originally directed making an exception for Amazon’s Kindle. But now this rule offers exceptions to the IAP rule for apps focused on magazines, newspapers, books, audio, music, video, VoIP, access to professional databases, cloud storage, and more.

That leaves other digital service providers wondering why their apps have to pay when others don’t.

Apple didn’t help its argument, when earlier in the week it released a report that detailed how its App Store facilitated $519B in commerce last year. The company had aimed to prove how much business flows through the App Store without Apple taking a 30% commission, positioning the portion of the market Apple profits from as a tiny sliver. But after the Hey debacle, this report only drives home how Apple has singled out one type of app-based business — digital services — as the one that makes the App Store its money.

Apple’s decision to squander its goodwill with the developer community the week before WWDC is an odd one. Heinemeier Hansson, a content marketing expert, easily bested the $1.5 trillion dollar company by using Apple’s hesitance to speak publicly against it. He set the discussion on fire, posted App Store review email screenshots to serve as Apple’s voice, and let the community vent.

Amid the Twitter outrage, large publishers’ antitrust commentary added further fuel to the fire, including those from Spotify, Match, and Epic Games.

For more reading on this topic, here are some of the key articles:

  • TechCrunch’s exclusive interview with iOS App Store head, Phil Schiller. The exec said Apple’s position on the Hey app is unchanged and no changes to App Store rules are imminent. “You download the app and it doesn’t work, that’s not what we want on the store,” he argued. (Except of course, at those times when such an experience is totally fine with Apple, as in the case of “reader” apps.) Schiller also said Basecamp could have avoided the problems if Hey had offered a free version with paid upgrades, or if it offered IAP at a higher price than on its own website.
  • Daring Fireball’s comments on the “flimsiness” of Business vs. Consumer as a justification for Apple’s rejection of Hey. John Gruber points out that the line between what’s a business app and a consumer app is too blurred. Apple allows some business apps to forgo IAP if they sell enterprise plans (e.g. per seat plans) that often involve upgraded feature sets that aren’t even iOS-specific. But in this day and age, who’s to say that an email service doesn’t deserve the same ability to opt out of IAP in order to serve its own business user base? After all, what if it upgrades its paid service with web-only features — why should Apple get a cut of that business, too?
  • App Store policy criticism from The Verge. Nilay Patel sat down with Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) and Basecamp CTO David Heinemeier Hansson to discuss the plight of Hey for its The Vergecast podcast. Cicilline said Apple’s fees were “exorbitant” and amounted to “highway robbery, basically.” He said Apple bullied developers by charging 30% of their business for access to its market — a decision which crushes smaller developers. “If there were real competition in this marketplace, this wouldn’t happen,” he added. The Verge’s Dieter Bohn also argued that Apple’s interpretation and enforcement of its App Store policies is terrible.
  • Basecamp CEO’s take on Apple’s App Store payment policies: Basecamp, the makers of the Hey app, put out a company statement about the App Store rules. The statement doesn’t add anything new to the conversation that wasn’t already in the tweetstorm, except the Basecamp response to Schiller’s suggestions which was something along the lines of 😝. The bottom line is that Hey wants to make the choice for its own business whether it needs the benefit of being able to acquire its users through the App Store or not. One way requires IAP and the other does not.
  • Vox’s Recode examines the antitrust case against Apple. The article doesn’t reference Hey, but lays out some of the other antitrust arguments being leveraged against Apple, including its “sherlocking” behavior,

Headlines

Apple has denied Facebook’s Gaming app at least 5 times since February

The Hey debacle is only one of many examples of how Apple exerts its market power over rivals. It has also repeatedly denied Facebook’s Gaming app entry to its App Store, citing the rule (Apple Store Review Guidelines, section 4.7) about not allowing apps whose main purpose is to sell other app, The NYT revealed this week.

Facebook’s Gaming app, which launched on Android in April, isn’t just another app store, however. The app offers users a hub to watch streamers play live, social networking tools, and the ability to play casual games like Zynga’s Words with Friends or Chobolabs Thug Life, for example. The latter is the point of contention, as Apple wants all games sold directly on the App Store, where it’s able to take a cut of their revenues.

One of the iterations Facebook tried was a version that looked almost exactly like how Facebook games are presented within the main Facebook iOS app — a single, alphabetized, unsortable list. The fact that this format was rejected when Apple already allows it elsewhere is an indication that even Apple doesn’t play by its own rules.

Zynn gets kicked out of App Store

Image Credits: Zynn

Zynn, the TikTok clone that shot to the top of the app store charts in late May, was pulled from Apple’s App Store on Monday. Before its removal, Sensor Tower estimates Zynn was downloaded 5 million times on iOS and 700,000 times on Google Play.

Apple doubles down on its right to profit from other businesses

Apple this week is getting publicly dragged for digging in its heels over its right to take a cut of subscription-based transactions that flow through its App Store. Almost unbelievably, it’s doing so so in the middle of antitrust investigations both in the E.U. and the U.S. — the latter which CEO Tim Cook may decide to skip— in which lawmakers will attempt to determine if Apple abuses its market position and power to disadvantage its competitors.

This is not a new complaint, but one that came to a head this week over Apple’s decision to reject app updates from Basecamp’s newly launched subscription-based email app called “Hey.”  

Hey offers a $99-per-year subscription for access to its nouveau email service that works across web, Mac, Windows, Linux, iOS and Android, but not via standard email protocols. The Hey iOS app was initially approved by Apple, but then put on pause — meaning Basecamp couldn’t submit any updates or bug fixes until it added an option for users to subscribe to Hey’s service through an in-app purchase.

This decision on Apple’s part was met with shock, horror and outrage by Basecamp co-founder and Chief Technology Officer David Heinemeier Hansson and, to some extent, the broader iOS developer community.

Heinemeier Hansson has been a vocal opponent to Apple’s policies well before the launch of Hey. He testified before Congress as part of a series of hearings over online platforms and market power. Last year, he called out Apple Card for discriminatory practices. Of all people for Apple to antagonize amid multiple antitrust probes — and the week before Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference — this was certainly a bold choice.

In a series of tweets, Heinemeier Hansson made the case as to why Apple’s reasoning made no sense.

Arguably, the whole debacle served as a nice bit of high-profile marketing for a brand-new app that would have otherwise flown under the radar. But, nonetheless, his larger points appear correct: Apple’s policies are confusing, inconsistently applied, and anti-competitive.

For starters, Basecamp’s new email app Hey competes with Apple’s built-in Mail app. That means it already has to convince users to forgo the iPhone’s free email experience for its differentiated one. And when it does acquire a user, Apple wants it to hand over a commission no matter if the new user discovered the app for the first time on the App Store or somewhere else. (Like a TechCrunch article!)

Apple argues its policies around the use of in-app purchases are not new. In fact, they’ve been in place since the first set of App Store Review Guidelines were published in September 2010, the company told TechCrunch when questioned about its decision.

The section around in-app purchases was relocated to 3.X from 11.X in 2016, but today states that multi-platform apps can allow access to subscriptions provided elsewhere so long as in-app purchases are also offered with the iOS app. The rules also state that developers can’t directly or indirectly tell iOS users how to make a purchase outside the app. (Hey has a Help screen that says you can’t sign up in the app and “we know that’s a pain.”) The rules also say you can’t discourage the use of in-app purchases.

In other words, Apple seems to argue, Basecamp should have known better.

That argument would hold up if Apple enforced its rules uniformly, but it does not.

As Apple observer John Gruber of Daring Fireball pointed out, Apple makes a distinction between business services and consumer apps when enforcing in-app purchase policies. This has to do with how business software is often paid for — by the company, not the end user, as a report by Protocol first noted. That’s why Basecamp’s flagship service for businesses can be offered in the App Store without a subscription sign-up, but its consumer app Hey cannot.

That’s a confusing distinction to make — and one not documented by Apple’s rules — as the line between software meant for business versus consumer use has long since been blurred. In fact, that blurring comes about, in part, because of the democratized access to business-grade software made possible through platforms like the Apple App Store.

Business apps aren’t the only exception Apple makes.

Apple also carves out exceptions for a type of apps it broadly refers to as “reader” apps, even though they aren’t necessarily about parsing the printed word.

This set does include reading apps — like magazines, newspapers, and books. And it’s why the Kindle app lets you read your ebooks, but doesn’t tell you how to buy more or offer a way to do so in the app. The group has also expanded to include audio, music, video, access to professional databases, VoIP, cloud storage, and other approved services, like classroom management apps.

Not surprisingly, this group of apps where Apple permits the companies to forgo the in-app purchase option (so long as they never ever mention how else to subscribe) are also among those with a direct competitor to an Apple paid service.

For example, Spotify, which competes with Apple Music, is considered a “reader” app. The group also includes rivals to Apple TV+, iCloud, Podcasts, Classroom, Books, and others.

Spotify has been among the most vocal about how Apple’s policy negatively impacts its business. Last year, it filed an antitrust complaint against Apple in the E.U. That investigation is now underway which Spotify says is great news for consumers.

“Apple’s anticompetitive behavior has intentionally disadvantaged competitors, created an unlevel playing field, and deprived consumers of meaningful choice for far too long,” Spotify’s statement read. “We welcome the European Commission’s decision to formally investigate Apple, and hope they’ll act with urgency to ensure fair competition on the iOS platform for all participants in the digital economy,” it added.

But for the most part, only larger companies have been willing to stand up to Apple publicly on this front.

Among these is Fortnite maker Epic Games, which wants to sell software through its own iOS app. Its CEO, Tim Sweeney, said he wants all iOS developers to have the option to process payments directly and install software from any source, and won’t seek out any “special deal just for ourselves.”

More recently, ebook seller Kobo added its voice to growing list of anticompetitive complaints, saying it can’t fairly compete against Apple Books when it has to share 30% of revenue from purchases with Apple. (The company, like many others, currently sells only from its website to avoid this fee.)

Tinder parent Match has also released a lengthy statement against Apple’s in-app purchase policy, saying it’s “acutely aware of [Apple’s] power over us.” Match also said it’s unfair how only digital service providers have to share revenue with Apple when others — like ride-share apps and social networking apps — do not.

But many developers bite their tongue and play along with Apple’s rules out of fear. Stratechery founder Ben Thompson posted to Twitter on Tuesday how he’s hearing from a number of developers who claim Apple is refusing to update their app until they add an in-app purchase option for their SaaS (software as a service) business. It’s unclear, given these developers didn’t go on record, how many of their apps had been mistakenly approved by App Store reviewers in the first place.

Of course, the line between Apple enforcing an existing policy it’s been lax on and a change in direction around enforcement of App Store policies has always been a gray area at best. (Remember how all of a sudden Amazon’s Prime Video app could rent and sell movies once Apple had its own Apple TV+ app it wanted to distribute on Fire TV? And Apple said that fell under an existing policy — one that magically now included permission for Amazon?)

In a third exception, Apple also turns a blind eye towards companies that incentivize users to pay for access to their upgraded features outside the App Store. For example, Google sells its YouTube Premium service for $11.99 per month via the web, but for $15.99 per month on the App Store to account for Apple’s commission. Apple allows this, despite its rule about about companies that discourage the use of in-app purchases. (Apparently, giving users a way to save nearly $50 per year by shopping outside the App Store doesn’t count as “discouraging” an in-app purchase?)

The solution to this whole matter is tricky, of course.

As much as developers want to sell directly to consumers without sharing a cut with Apple, it would be wrong to say that apps don’t benefit from Apple’s distribution platform. Would iOS apps ever have found as large an audience if they were all side-loaded bits of software instead of being organized, ranked, curated and featured in a built-in App Store?

Plus, consumers want the convenience of making easy purchases inside an app with a payment card they keep on file. Amazon proved consumer demand for this with 1-click checkout, which allowed it to capture massive ecommerce market share over the years. In other words, take away the option to make purchases directly in iOS apps via Apple Pay and prepare for a consumer backlash.

A better compromise would be a reduction in the cut that Apple takes. Today, Apple currently charges a 30% commission on subscriptions in year 1 which drops to 15% in year 2. These commissions are often for apps that have built sizable brands without Apple’s help — Spotify, YouTube, Pandora, Hulu, Netflix, Tinder, Fortnite, etc. These apps don’t need the App Store to be “discovered” by users or curated into “must” lists by App Store editors, they simply need to serve their existing users who happen to carry an iPhone.

Apple may deserve to stick its hand in the pot to some extent for making apps easy to find, install and pay for, but it’s getting much harder to argue that 30% is the right price for such a system.

Ahead of WWDC, Apple’s Developer app adds Mac support, new features, iMessage stickers

Ahead of Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference starting next week, the company has today launched a new version of its Apple Developer App to better support its plans for the virtual event. Notably, the app has been made available for Mac for the first time, in addition to a redesign and other minor feature updates.

With the needs of an entirely virtual audience in mind, Apple has redesigned the app’s Discover section to make it easier for developers to catch up on the latest stories, news, videos, and more, the company says. This section will be regularly updated with “actionable” content, Apple notes, including the latest news, recommendations on implementing new features, and information about inspiring engineers and designers, alongside new videos.

It has also updated its Browse tab where users search for existing sessions, videos, articles, and news, including the over 100 technical and design-focused videos found in the WWDC tab. The WWDC tab has also been updated in preparation for the live event starting on Monday, June 22.

The redesign has added a way to favorite individual articles, in addition to session content and videos. Plus it includes new iMessage stickers along with other enhancements and bug fixes.

The app, which was previously available on iPhone, iPad, and Apple TV, is also now offered on Mac.

“Over the last 30 years, developers around the world have been creating amazing apps that entertain, influence culture, and change lives,” said Apple in announcing the updated app. “The Apple Developer app helps everyone stay current and learn about the newest technologies and techniques to make their apps even better.”

Apple had first introduced its Apple Developer app in November 2019, as an update for its existing WWDC app. The company explained at the time the app would make it easier for Apple’s third-party developer community to access key resources, like design articles, developer news, videos and more, instead of just its WWDC-related content. The new app was also aimed at helping connect developers in growing international markets — like India, Brazil and Indonesia — to Apple’s resources.

However, Apple didn’t at the time realize its Developer app would play as large a role as it now will, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In March, Apple announced the cancellation of its in-person developer event in favor of an online version where all the session content would be shared as videos. Last week, it revealed the WWDC agenda, which includes virtual versions of its labs and an updated version of its Apple Developer forums, in addition to its Special Event and Platforms State of the Union keynotes. Much of this content will be housed in the Apple Developer app. But now it’s not supplementing the real-world event — it is the event. That means the app will have to remain stable and be ready for a large influx of developer use in the weeks ahead.

This Week in Apps: Protests impact app stores, FTC fines app developer, kids’ app trends

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the Extra Crunch 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 Extra Crunch series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

This week, we’re taking a look at how the civil unrest and George Floyd protests played out across the app stores. The events led some apps — including private messaging apps, police scanners and alerting apps, and other social communication apps — to surge, and even break records. Google decided to delay the launch of Android 11 beta 1 in light of the recent events.

We’re also keeping up with COVID-19 apps and how the pandemic is changing app usage and consumer behavior. Plus, the FTC fined an app developer over privacy violations in a warning shot for the app industry; Zoom faced criticism for its encryption plans; Apple launched an open-source resource for password managers; and more.

How the George Floyd protests impacted the app stores

Protests drive downloads of police scanners 

Downloads of police scanner apps, tools for private communication and mobile safety apps hit record numbers last weekend in the U.S., amid the nationwide protests over the police killing of George Floyd, as well as the systemic problems of racial prejudice that plague the American justice system. According to data from app store intelligence firm Apptopia, top U.S. police scanner apps were downloaded a combined 213,000 times last weekend, including Friday — a 125% increase from the weekend prior and a record number for this group of apps.

The group of top apps included those with similar, if somewhat generic, titles, such as Scanner Radio – Fire and Police Scanner, Police Scanner, 5-0 Radio Police Scanner, Police Scanner Radio & Fire and Police Scanner +.

Citizen, Signal and others spike during protests

In addition to tracking police movements with scanners, protestors organized and communicated on secure messaging app Signal. Meanwhile, community safety app Citizen, which sends out police alerts, also saw a jump in usage.

According to Apptopia, Citizen and Signal both set daily download records, Vox noted earlier this week.

Citizen

Citizen’s app lets users see “incidents,” based on radio communications with 911 dispatchers, police, fire departments and other emergency responders. The app uses high-powered scanners to tune into public radio channels, then digitizes and transcribes the audio, and turns those into incidents placed on the map. But the app is popular because it’s more than a police scanner; it includes a social networking layer where users can react and comment. 

Based on more recent data provided to TechCrunch by Sensor Tower, Citizen was installed around 620,000 times by first-time users in the U.S. during the past week, an increase of about 916% compared to the week prior. First-time installs reached a record 150,000 on June 2, nearly 12x the app’s average of 13,000 daily first-time installs during May. On average, the app was downloaded close to 86,000 times per day, or 6.6x larger than May’s daily average. The app grew to be as high as No. 4 on Tuesday, June 2 on the U.S. App Store, and is now No. 32 Overall on the top free charts.

Signal

Image Credits: Signal

The firm also estimated that Signal had been installed by approximately 135,000 first-time users in the U.S. during the past week across the app stores. This figure represented growth of 165% from the preceding seven days, or about 2.6x that total of approximately 51,000 new installs. Signal averaged about 19,000 installs per day over the past seven days.

For comparison’s sake, Signal was downloaded around 269,000 times in all of May and its average daily number of installs was 9,000. That makes the average for the past week about 2x higher.

Signal is currently ranked at No. 137 among the top free iPhone apps on the U.S. App Store. Earlier, it was ranked at No. 107 on Tuesday, June 2.

This week, Signal also added built-in face blurring for photos, to help better secure the sharing of sensitive information across its network.

Nextdoor and Neighbors by Ring

The civil unrest also impacted neighborhood networking app installs, as communities looked to share information about the protests with one another. Social networking app for neighbors Nextdoor was installed by 185,000 first-time users in the U.S. over the past week, an increase of 26% from 147,000 installs in the week prior. The app also jumped up nearly 50 places in the U.S. App Store rankings, moving from No. 2,014 to No. 156 in the top free iPhone apps chart.

Amazon-owned Neighbors by Ring, where neighbors share alerts, including security camera footage, was installed by 36,000 first-time users in the past week, an increase of 89% from its approximately 19,000 installs the week prior.

Twitter has a record-breaking week as users looked for news of protests and COVID-19

Civil unrest due to the nationwide George Floyd protests drove Twitter to see a record number of new installs this week, according to data from two app store intelligence firms, Apptopia and Sensor Tower. While the firms’ exact findings differed in terms of the total number of new downloads or when records were broken, the firms agreed that Twitter’s app had its largest-ever week, globally.

The app saw at least 677,000 installs at its highest point, Apptopia said. Sensor Tower said it topped 1 million. Twitter also broke a record for daily active users on Twitter in the U.S., when some 40 million people in the U.S. logged into the app on June 3, Apptopia noted. For comparison’s sake, Twitter reported its app had 31 million “monetizable” daily active users (mDAUs) in the U.S. in Q4 2019, which grew to 33 million in Q1 2020.

The spike in installs was attributed to the protests, which were being watched by a global audience, and COVID-19, which continued to spread in worldwide markets.

Apps turn their icons black in support of George Floyd protests 

A small handful of apps did the equivalent of the Instagram black square by turning their icons black this week as a gesture of support toward the protests and civil rights. Participating apps included Reddit, Joss & Main and Shop Avani, for instance. Moves like this can be criticized as being merely performative, but one of the companies involved — Reddit — later followed up with real action. Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanion on Friday announced he was resigning as a member of the Reddit board, and is now urging them to fill his seat with a black candidate. He also said he would use his future gains from Reddit stock to serve the black community, starting with a $1 million pledge to Colin Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights Camp.

COVID-19 app updates and news

FTC fines kids’ app developer HyperBeard $150K for use of third-party ad trackers

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) today announced a settlement of $150,000 with HyperBeard, the developer of a collection of children’s mobile games over violations of U.S. Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act Rule (COPPA Rule). The company’s applications had been downloaded more than 50 million times on a worldwide basis to date, according to data from app intelligence firm Sensor Tower.

A complaint filed by the Dept. of Justice on behalf of the FTC alleged that HyperBeard had violated COPPA by allowing third-party ad networks to collect personal information in the form of persistent identifiers to track users of the company’s child-directed apps. And it did so without notifying parents or obtaining verifiable parental consent, as is required. These ad networks then used the identifiers to target ads to children using HyperBeard’s games.

The company’s lineup included games like Axolochi, BunnyBuns, Chichens, Clawbert, Clawberta, KleptoCats, KleptoCats 2, KleptoDogs, MonkeyNauts and NomNoms (not to be confused with toy craze Num Noms).

The FTC determined HyperBeard’s apps were marketed toward children because they used brightly colored, animated characters like cats, dogs, bunnies, chicks, monkeys and other cartoon characters, and were described in child-friendly terms like “super cute” and “silly.” The company also marketed its apps on a kids’ entertainment website, YayOMG, published children’s books and licensed other products, including stuffed animals and block construction sets, based on its app characters.

Unbelievably, the company would post disclaimers to its marketing materials that these apps were not meant for children under 13.

Above: A disclaimer on the NomNoms game website. 

In HyperBeard’s settlement with the FTC, the company has agreed to pay a $150,000 fine and delete the personal information it illegally collected from children under the age of 13. The settlement had originally included a $4 million penalty, but the FTC suspended it over HyperBeard’s inability to pay the full amount. But that larger amount will become due if the company or its CEO, Alexander Kozachenko, are ever found to have misrepresented their finances.

HyperBeard is not the first tech company to be charged with COPPA violations. Two high-profile examples preceding it were YouTube and Musical.ly (TikTok)’s settlements of $170 million and $5.7 million, respectively, both in 2019. By comparison, HyperBeard’s fine seems minimal. However, its case is different from either video platform as the company itself was not handling the data collection — it was permitting ad networks to do so.

The complaint explained that HyperBeard let third-party advertising networks serve ads and collect personal information in the form of persistent identifiers, in order to serve behavioral ads — meaning, targeted ads based on users’ activity over time and across sites.

This requires parental consent, but companies have skirted this rule for years — or outright ignored it, like YouTube did.

The ad networks used in HyperBeard’s apps included AdColony, AdMob, AppLovin, Facebook Audience Network, Fyber, IronSource, Kiip, TapCore, TapJoy, Vungle and UnityAds. Despite being notified of the issue by watchdogs and the FTC, HyperBeard didn’t alert any of the ad networks that its apps were directed towards kids, not to make changes.

The issues around the invasiveness of third-party ad networks and trackers — and their questionable data collection practices — have come in the spotlight thanks to in-depth reporting about app privacy issues, various privacy experiments, petitions against their use and, more recently, as a counter-argument to Apple’s marketing of its iPhone as a privacy-conscious device.

Last year, these complaints finally led Apple to ban the use of third-party networks and trackers in any iOS apps aimed at kids.

HyperBeard’s install base was below 50 million at the time of the settlement, we understand. According to Sensor Tower, around 12 million of HyperBeard’s installs to date have come from its most popular title, Adorable Home, which only launched in January 2020. U.S. consumers so far have accounted for about 18% of the company’s total installs to date, followed by the Chinese App Store at 14%. So far, in 2020, Vietnam has emerged as leading the market with close to 24% of all installs since January, while the U.S. dropped to No. 7 overall, with a 7% share.

The FTC’s action against HyperBeard should serve as a warning to other app developers that simply saying an app is not meant for kids doesn’t exempt them from following COPPA guidelines, when it’s clear the app is targeting kids. In addition, app makers can and will be held liable for the data collection practices of third-party ad networks, even if the app itself isn’t storing kids’ personal data on its own servers.

“If your app or website is directed to kids, you’ve got to make sure parents are in the loop before you collect children’s personal information,” said Andrew Smith, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a statement about the settlement. “This includes allowing someone else, such as an ad network, to collect persistent identifiers, like advertising IDs or cookies, in order to serve behavioral advertising,” he said.

This Week in Apps: Facebook launches trio of app experiments, TikTok gets spammed, plus coronavirus impacts on app economy

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the Extra Crunch 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 Extra Crunch series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

This week we’re continuing to look at how the coronavirus outbreak is impacting the world of mobile applications, with fresh data from App Annie about trends playing out across app categories benefiting from the pandemic, lockdowns and societal changes. We’re also keeping up with the COVID-19 contact-tracing apps making headlines, and delving into the week’s other news.

We saw a few notable new apps launch this week, including HBO’s new streaming service HBO Max, plus three new app experiments from Facebook’s R&D group. Android Studio 4.0 also launched this week. Instagram is getting better AR tools and IGTV is getting ads. TikTok got spammed in India.

Meanwhile, what is going on with app review? A shady app rises to the top of the iPhone App Store. Google cracks down on conspiracy theory-spreading apps. And a TikTok clone uses a pyramid scheme-powered invite system to rise up the charts.

COVID-19 contact-tracing apps in the news 

  • Latvia: Reuters this week reported that Latvia aims to become one of the first countries to launch a smartphone app, Stop Covid, using the new toolkit created by Apple and Alphabet’s Google to help trace coronavirus infections.
  • Australia: The role of the country’s Covidsafe app in the recovery appears to be marginal, The Guardian reports. In the month since its launch, only one person has been reported to have been identified using data from it. A survey even found that Australians were more supportive of using telecommunications metadata to track close contacts (79%) than they were of downloading an app (69.8%). In a second survey, their support for the app dropped to 64%. The app has been maligned by the public debate over it and technical issues.
  • France: The country’s data protection watchdog, CNIL, reviewed its contact-tracing app StopCovid, finding there were no major issues with the technical implementation and legal framework around StopCovid, with some caveats. France isn’t using Google and Apple’s contact-tracing API, but instead uses a controversial centralized contact-tracing protocol called ROBERT. This relies on a central server to assign a permanent ID and generate ephemeral IDs attached to this permanent ID. CNIL says the app will eventually be open-sourced and it will create a bug bounty. On Wednesday, the app passed its first vote in favor of its release.
  • Qatar: Serious security vulnerabilities in Qatar’s mandatory contact-tracing app were uncovered by Amnesty International. An investigation by Amnesty’s Security Lab discovered a critical weakness in the configuration of Qatar’s EHTERAZ contact-tracing app. Now fixed, the vulnerability would have allowed cyberattackers to access highly sensitive personal information, including the name, national ID, health status and location data of more than one million users.
  • India: India’s contact-tracing app, Aarogya Setu, is going open-source, according to Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology Secretary Ajay Prakash Sawhney on Tuesday. The code is being published on GitHub. Nearly 98% of the app’s more than 114 million users are on Android. The government will also offer a cash bounty of $1,325 to security experts who find bugs or vulnerabilities.
  • Switzerland: Several thousand people are now testing a pilot version of Switzerland’s contact-tracing app, SwissCovid. Like Lativia, the app is one of the first to use Apple and Google’s contact-tracing API. Employees at EPFL, ETH Zurich, the Army and select hospitals and government agencies will be the first to test the Swiss app before its public launch planned for mid-June.
  • China: China’s health-tracking QR codes, embedded in popular WeChat and Alipay smartphone apps, are raising privacy concerns, Reuters reports. To walk around freely, people must have a green rating. They also now have to present their health QR codes to gain entry into restaurants, parks and other venues. These efforts have been met with little resistance. But the eastern city of Hangzhou has since proposed that users are given a color-coded health badge based on their medical records and lifestyle habits, including how much they exercised, their eating and drinking habits, whether they smoked and how much they slept the night before. This suggestion set off a storm of criticism on China’s Weibo, a Twitter-like platform.

This Week in Apps: Facebook takes on Shopify, Tinder considers its future, contact-tracing tech goes live

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the Extra Crunch 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 Extra Crunch series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

This week we’re continuing to look at how the coronavirus outbreak is impacting the world of mobile applications. Notably, we saw the launch of the Apple/Google exposure-notification API with the latest version of iOS out this week. The pandemic is also inspiring other new apps and features, including upcoming additions to Apple’s Schoolwork, which focus on distance learning, as well as Facebook’s new Shops feature designed to help small business shift their operations online in the wake of physical retail closures.

Tinder, meanwhile, seems to be toying with the idea of pivoting to a global friend finder and online hangout in the wake of social distancing, with its test of a feature that allows users to match with others worldwide — meaning, with no intention of in-person dating.

Headlines

COVID-19 apps in the news

  • Fitbit app: The fitness tracker app launched a COVID-19 early detection study aimed at determining whether wearables can help detect COVID-19 or the flu. The study will ask volunteers questions about their health, including whether they had COVID-19, then pair that with activity data to see if there are any clues that could be used to build an early warning algorithm of sorts.
  • U.K. contact-tracing app: The app won’t be ready in mid-May as promised, as the government mulls the use of the Apple/Google API. In testing, the existing app drains the phone battery too quickly. In addition, researchers have recently identified seven security flaws in the app, which is currently being trialed on the Isle of Wight.

Apple launches iOS/iPadOS 13.5 with Face ID tweak and contact-tracing API

Apple this week released the latest version of iOS/iPadOS with two new features related to the pandemic. The first is an update to Face ID which will now be able to tell when the user is wearing a mask. In those cases, Face ID will instead switch to the Passcode field so you can type in your code to unlock your phone, or authenticate with apps like the App Store, Apple Books, Apple Pay, iTunes and others.

The other new feature is the launch of the exposure-notification API jointly developed by Apple and Google. The API allows for the development of apps from public health organizations and governments that can help determine if someone has been exposed by COVID-19. The apps that support the API have yet to launch, but some 22 countries have requested API access.

This Week in Apps: WWDC goes online, Android 11 delays, Facebook SDK turns into app kill switch

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the Extra Crunch 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 3 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 Extra Crunch series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

This week we’re continuing to look at how the coronavirus outbreak is impacting the world of mobile applications, including the latest on countries’ various contact-tracing apps, the pandemic’s impact on gaming and fintech and more. We’re also looking at that big app crash caused by Facebook, plus new app releases from Facebook and Google, Android 11’s new timeline and Apple’s plans to move WWDC online, among other things.

Headlines

WWDC goes virtual June 22

Apple announced this week its plans for a virtual version of its Worldwide Developer Conference. The company will host its WWDC 2020 event beginning on June 22 in the Apple Developer app and on the Apple Developer website for free for all developers.

It will be interesting to see how successfully Apple is able to take its developer conference online. After all, developers could already access the sessions and keynotes through videos — but the real power of the event was in the networking and being able to talk to Apple engineers, ask questions, get hands-on help and see how other developers are using Apple technologies to innovate. Unless Apple is planning a big revamp of its developer site and app that would enable those connections, it seems this year’s event will lack some of WWDC’s magic.

The company also announced the Swift Student Challenge, an opportunity for student developers to showcase their coding by creating their own Swift playground.