This Week in Apps: TikTok viral hit breaks Spotify records, inauguration boosts news app installs, judge rules against Parler

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

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

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

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

This week, we’re looking into how President Biden’s inauguration impacted news apps, the latest in the Parler lawsuit, and how TikTok’s app continues to shape culture, among other things.

Top Stories

Judge says Amazon doesn’t have to host Parler on AWS

logos for AWS (Amazon Web Services) and Parler

Logos for AWS (Amazon Web Services) and Parler. Image Credits: TechCrunch

U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein in Seattle this week ruled that Amazon won’t be required to restore access to web services to Parler. As you may recall, Parler sued Amazon for booting it from AWS’ infrastructure, effectively forcing it offline. Like Apple and Google before it, Amazon had decided that the calls for violence that were being spread on Parler violated its terms of service. It also said that Parler showed an “unwillingness and inability” to remove dangerous posts that called for the rape, torture and assassination of politicians, tech executives and many others, the AP reported.

Amazon’s decision shouldn’t have been a surprise for Parler. Amazon had reported 98 examples of Parler posts that incited violence over the past several weeks before its decision. It told Parler these were clear violations of the terms of service.

Parler’s lawsuit against Amazon, however, went on to claim breach of contract and even made antitrust allegations.

The judge shot down Parler’s claims that Amazon and Twitter were colluding over the decision to kick the app off AWS. Parler’s claims over breach of contract were denied, too, as the contract had never said Amazon had to give Parler 30 days to fix things. (Not to mention the fact that Parler breached the contract on its side, too.) It also said Parler had fallen short in demonstrating the need for an injunction to restore access to Amazon’s web services.

The ruling only blocks Parler from forcing Amazon to again host it as the lawsuit proceeds, but is not the final ruling in the overall case, which is continuing.

TikTok drives another pop song to No. 1 on Billboard charts, breaks Spotify’s record

@livbedumb♬ drivers license – Olivia Rodrigo

We already knew TikTok was playing a large role in influencing music charts and listening behavior. For example, Billboard last year noted how TikTok drove hits from Sony artists like Doja Cat (“Say So”) and 24kGoldn (“Mood”), and helped Sony discover new talent. Columbia also signed viral TikTok artists like Lil Nas X, Powfu, StaySolidRocky, Jawsh 685, Arizona Zervas and 24kGoldn. Meanwhile, Nielsen has said that no other app had helped break more songs in 2020 than TikTok.

This month, we’ve witnessed yet another example of this phenomenon. Olivia Rodrigo, the 17-year-old star of Disney+’s “High School Musical: The Musical: the Series” released her latest song, “Drivers License” on January 8. The pop ballad and breakup anthem is believed to be referencing the actress’ relationship with co-star Joshua Bassett, which gave the song even more appeal to fans.

Upon its release the song was heavily streamed by TikTok users, which helped make it an overnight sensation of sorts. According to a report by The WSJ, Billboard counted 76.1 million streams and 38,000 downloads in the U.S. during the week of its release. It also made a historic debut at No. 1 on the Hot 100, becoming the first smash hit of 2021.

On January 11, “Drivers License” broke Spotify’s record for most streams per day (for a non-holiday song) with 15.17 million global streams. On TikTok, meanwhile, the number of videos featuring the song and the views they received doubled every day, The WSJ said.

Charli D’Amelio’s dance to it on the app has now generated 5 million “Likes” across nearly 33 million views, as of the time of writing.

@charlidamelio♬ drivers license – Olivia Rodrigo

Of course, other TikTok hits have broken out in the past, too — even reaching No. 1 like “Blinding Lights” (The Weeknd) and “Mood” (24kGoldn). But the success of “Drivers License” may be in part due to the way it focuses on a subject that’s more relevant to TikTok’s young, teenage user base. It talks about first loves and being dumped for the other girl. And its title and opening refer to a time many adults have forgotten: the momentous day when you get your driver’s license. It’s highly relatable to the TikTok crowd who fully embraced it and made it a hit.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

  • Apple stops signing iOS 12.5, making iOS 12.5.1 the only versions of iOS available to older devices.
  • A report claims Apple’s iOS 15 update will cut support for devices with an A9 chip, like the iPhone 6, iPhone 6s Plus and the original iPhone SE.
  • New analysis estimates Apple’s upcoming iOS privacy changes will cause a roughly 7% revenue hit for Facebook in Q2. The revenue hit will continue in following quarters and will be “material.”

Platforms: Google

  • Google adds “trending” icons to the Play Store. New arrow icons appeared in the Top Charts tab, which indicate whether an app’s downloads are trending up or down, in terms of popularity. This could provide an early signal about those that may still be rising in the charts or beginning to fall out of favor, despite their current high position.
  • Google appears to be working on a Restricted Networking mode for Android 12. The mode, discovered by XDA Developers digging in the Android Open Source Project, would disable network access for all third-party apps.

Gaming

  • Goama (or Go Games) introduced a way for developers to integrate social games into their apps, which was showcased at CES. The company focuses on Asia and Latin America and has more than 15 partners, including GCash and Rappi, for digital payments and communications.
  • Fortnite maker Epic Games is getting into movies. The animated feature film Gilgamesh will use Epic’s Unreal Engine technology to tell the story of the king-turned-deity. The movie is not an in-house project, but rather is financed through Epic’s $100M MegaGrants fund.

Augmented Reality

  • Patents around Apple’s AR and VR efforts describe how a system could be identified in a way that’s similar to FaceID, then either permitted or denied the ability to change their appearance in the game.
  • Pinterest launches AR try-on for eyeshadow in its mobile app using Lens technology and ModiFace data. The app already offered AR try-on for lipsticks.

Entertainment

  • The CW app became the No. 1 app on the App Store this week, topping TikTok, Instagram and YouTube, thanks to CW’s season premieres of Batwoman, All American, Riverdale and Nancy Drew.
  • Users of podcasting app Anchor, owned by Spotify, say the app isn’t bringing them any sponsorship opportunities, as promised, beyond those from Spotify and Anchor itself.
  • YouTube launches hashtag landing pages on the web and in its mobile app. The pages are accessible when you click hashtags on YouTube, not via search, and weirdly rank the “best” videos through some inscrutable algorithm.
  • Apple’s Podcasts app adds a new editorial feature, Apple Podcasts Spotlight, meant to increase podcast listening by showcasing the best podcasts as selected by Apple editors.

E-commerce

  • WeChat facilitated 1.6 trillion yuan (close to $250 billion) in annual transactions through its “mini programs” in 2020. The figure is more than double that of 2019.

Fintech

  • Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, launched an e-wallet, Douyin Pay. The wallet will supplement the existing payment options, Alipay and WeChat Pay, and will help to support the Douyin app’s growing e-commerce business.
  • Neobank Monzo founder Tom Blomfield left the startup, saying he struggled during the pandemic. “I think [for] a lot of people in the world…going through a pandemic, going through lockdown and the isolation involved in that has an impact on people’s mental health,” he told TechCrunch.
  • New estimates indicate about 50% of the iPhone user base (or 507 million users) now use Apple Pay. 
  • Samsung’s newest phones drop support for MST, which emulates a mag stripe at terminals that don’t support NFC.

Social

  • Indian messaging app, StickerChat, owned by Hike, is shutting down. Founder Kavin Bharti Mittal said India will never have a homegrown messenger unless it bars Western companies from its market. Hike pivoted this month to virtual social apps, Vibe and Rush, which it believes have more potential.
  • Instagram head Adam Mosseri, in a Verge podcast, said he’s not happy with Reels so far, and how he feels most people probably don’t understand the difference between Instagram video and IGTV. He says the social network needs to simplify and consolidate ideas.
  • Facebook and Instagram improve their accessibility features. The apps’ AI-generated image captions now offer far more details about who or what is in the photos, thanks to improvements in image recognition systems.
  • TikTok launches a Q&A feature that lets creators respond to fan questions using text or videos. The feature, rolled out to select creators with more than 10,000 followers, makes it easier to see all the questions in one place.

Health & Fitness

  • Health and fitness app spending jumped 70% last year in Europe to record $544 million, a Sensor Tower report says. The year-over-year increase is far larger than 2019, when growth was just 37.2%. COVID-19 played a large role in this shift as people turned to fitness apps instead of gyms to stay in shape.

Government & Policy

  • Biden’s inauguration boosted installs of U.S. news apps up to 170%, Sensor Tower reported. CNN was the biggest mover, climbing 530 positions to reach No. 41 on the App Store, and up 170% in terms of downloads. News Break was the second highest, climbing 13 positions to No. 65. Right-wing outlet Newsmax climbed 43 spots to reach No. 108. In 2020, the top news apps were: News Break (23.7 million installs); SmartNews (9 million); CNN (5 million); and Fox News (4 million). This month, however, News Break saw 1.2 million installs, followed by Newsmax with about 863,000 installs, the report said.
  • Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) sent a draft decision to fellow EU Data Protection Authorities over the WhatsApp-Facebook data sharing policy. This means a decision on the matter is coming closer to a resolution in terms of what standards of transparency is required by WhatsApp.
  • German app developer Florian Mueller of FOSS Patents filed a complaint with the EU, U.S. DOJ and other antitrust watchdogs around the world over Apple and Google’s rejection of his COVID-related mobile game. Both stores had policies to only approve official COVID-19 apps from health authorities. Mueller renamed the game Viral Days and removed references to the novel coronavirus to get the app approved. However, he still feels the stores’ rules are holding back innovation.

Productivity

  • Basecamp’s Hey, which famously fought back against Apple’s App Store rules over IAP last year, has launched a business-focused platform, Hey for Work, expected to be public in Q1. The app has more App Store ratings than rival Superhuman, a report found. Currently, Hey has a 4.7-star rating across 3.3K reviews; Superhuman has 3.9 rating across only 274 reviews.

Trends

  • Baby boomers are increasingly using apps. Baby boomers/Gen Xers in the U.S. spent 30% more time year-over-year in their most used apps, App Annie reports. That’s a larger increase than either Millennials or Gen Z, at 18% and 16%, respectively.

Funding and M&A

  • Curtsy, a clothing resale app for Gen Z women, raised an $11 million Series A led by Index Ventures. The app tackles some of the problems with online resale by sending shipping supplies and labels to sellers, and by making the marketplace accessible to new and casual sellers.
  • Storytelling platform Wattpad acquired by South Korea’s Naver for $600 million. The reading apps whose stories have turned into book and Netflix hits will be incorporated into Naver’s publishing platform Webtoon.
  • On-demand delivery app Glovo partnered with Swiss-based real estate firm, Stoneweg, which is investing €100 million in building and refurbishing real estate in key markets to build out Glovo’s network of “dark stores.”
  • Pocket Casts app is up for sale. The podcast app was acquired nearly three years ago by a public radio consortium of top podcast producers (NPR, WNYC Studios, WBEZ Chicago and This American Life). The owners have now agreed to sell the app, which posted a net loss in 2020. (NPR’s share of the loss was over $800,000.)
  • Travel app Maps.me raised $50 million in a round led by Alameda Research. The funding will go toward the launch of a multi-currency wallet. Cryptocurrency lender Genesis Capital and institutional cryptocurrency firm CMS Holdings also participated in the round, Coindesk reported.
  • Bangalore-based hyperlocal delivery app Dunzo raised $40 million in a round that included investment from Google, Lightbox, Evolvence, Hana Financial Investment, LGT Lightstone Aspada and Alteria.
  • London-based food delivery app Deliveroo raised $180 million in new funding from existing investors, led by Durable Capital Partners and Fidelity Management, valuing the business at more than $7 billion.
  • Dating Group acquired Swiss startup Once, a dating app that sends one match per day, for $18 million.

Downloads

Bodyguard

Image Credits: Bodyguard

A French content moderation app called Bodyguard, detailed here by TechCrunch, has brought its service to the English-speaking market. The app allows you to choose the level of content moderation you want to see on top social networks, like Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Twitch. You can choose to hide toxic content across a range of categories, like insults, body shaming, moral harassment, sexual harassment, racism and homophobia and indicate whether the content is a low or high priority to block.

Beeper

Image Credits: Beeper

Pebble’s founder and current YC Partner Eric Migicovsky has launched a new app, Beeper, that aims to centralize in one interface 15 different chat apps, including iMessage. The app relies on an open-source federated, encrypted messaging protocol called Matrix that uses “bridges” to connect to the various networks to move the messages. However, iMessage support is more wonky, as the company actually ships you an old iPhone to make the connection to the network. But this system allows you to access Beeper on non-Apple devices, the company says. The app is slowly onboarding new users due to initial demand. The app works across MacOS, Windows, Linux‍, iOS and Android and charges $10/mo for the service.

 

MIT aims to speed up robot movements to match robot thoughts using custom chips

MIT researchers are looking to address the significant gap between how quickly robots can process information (relatively slowly), and how fast they can move (very quickly thanks to modern hardware advances), and they’re using something called ‘robomorphic computing’ to do it. The method, designed by MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence (CSAIL) graduate Dr. Sabrina Neuman, results in custom computer chips that can offer hardware acceleration as a means to faster response times.

Custom-built chips tailored to a very specific purpose are not new – if you’re using a modern iPhone, you have one in that device right now. But they have become more popular as companies and technologists look to do more local computing on devices with more conservative power and computing constraints, rather than round-tripping data to large data centers via network connections.

In this case, the method involves creating hyper-specific chips that are designed based on a robot’s physical layout and and its intended use. By taking into account the requirements a robot has in terms of its perception of its surroundings, its mapping and understanding of its position within those surroundings, and its motion planning resulting from said mapping and its required actions, researchers can design processing chips that greatly increase the efficiency of that last stage by supplementing software algorithms with hardware acceleration.

The classic example of hardware acceleration that most people encounter on a regular basis is a graphics processing unit, or GPU. A GPU is essentially a processor designed specifically for the task of handling graphical computing operations – like display rendering and video playback. GPUs are popular because almost all modern computers run into graphics-intensive applications, but custom chips for a range of different functions have become much more popular lately thanks to the advent of more customizable and efficient small-run chip fabrication techniques.

Here’s a description of how Neuman’s system works specifically in the case of optimizing a hardware chip design for robot control, per MIT News:

The system creates a customized hardware design to best serve a particular robot’s computing needs. The user inputs the parameters of a robot, like its limb layout and how its various joints can move. Neuman’s system translates these physical properties into mathematical matrices. These matrices are “sparse,” meaning they contain many zero values that roughly correspond to movements that are impossible given a robot’s particular anatomy. (Similarly, your arm’s movements are limited because it can only bend at certain joints — it’s not an infinitely pliable spaghetti noodle.)

The system then designs a hardware architecture specialized to run calculations only on the non-zero values in the matrices. The resulting chip design is therefore tailored to maximize efficiency for the robot’s computing needs. And that customization paid off in testing.

Neuman’s team used an field-programmable gate array (FPGA), which is sort of like a midpoint between a fully custom chip and an off-the-shelf CPU, and it achieved significantly better performance than the latter. That means that were you to actually custom manufacture a chip from scratch, you could expect much more significant performance improvements.

Making robots react faster to their environments isn’t just about increase manufacturing speed and efficiency – though it will do that. It’s also about making robots even safer to work with in situations where people are working directly alongside and in collaboration with them. That remains a significant barrier to more widespread use of robotics in everyday life, meaning this research could help unlock the sci-fi future of humans and robots living in integrated harmony.

Apple said to be working a high-priced standalone VR headset as debut mixed reality product

Apple is reportedly working on developing a high-end virtual reality headset for a potential sales debut in 2022, per a new Bloomberg report. The headset would include its own built-in processors and power supply, and could feature a chip even more powerful than the M1 Apple Silicon processor that the company currently ships on its MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro, according to the report’s sources.

As is typical for a report this far out from a target launch date, Bloomberg offers a caveat that these plans could be changed or cancelled altogether. Apple undoubtedly kills a lot of its projects before they ever see the light of day, even in cases where they include a lot of time and capital investment. And the headset will reportedly cost even more than some of the current higher-priced VR headset offerings on the market, which can range up to nearly $1,000, with the intent of selling it initially as a low-volume niche device aimed at specialist customers – kind of like the Mac Pro and Pro Display XDR that Apple currently sells.

The headset will reportedly focus mostly on VR, but will also include some augmented reality features, in a limited capacity, for overlaying visuals on real world views fed in by external cameras. This differs from prior reports that suggested Apple was pursuing consumer AR smart glasses as its likely first headset product in the mixed reality category for consumer distribution. Bloomberg reports that while this VR headset is at a late prototype stage of development, its AR glasses are much earlier in the design process and could follow the VR headset introduction by at least a year or more.

The strategy here appears to be creating a high-tech, high-performance and high-priced device that will only ever sell in small volume, but that will help it begin to develop efficiencies and lower the production costs of technologies involved, in order to pave the way for more mass-market devices later.

The report suggests the product could be roughly the same size as the Oculus Quest, with a fabric exterior to help reduce weight. The external cameras could also be used for environment and hand tracking, and there is the possibility that it will debut with its own App Store designed for VR content.

Virtual reality is still a nascent category even as measured by the most successful products currently available in the market, the Oculus Quest and the PlayStation VR. But Facebook at least seems to see a lot of long-term value in continuing to invest in and iterate its VR product, and Apple’s view could be similar. The company has already put a lot of focus and technical development effort into AR on the iPhone, and CEO Tim Cook has expressed a lot of optimism about AR’s future in a number of interviews.

PopSockets announces its MagSafe-compatible iPhone 12 accessories

In October, TechCrunch broke the news that PopSockets was developing its own line of MagSafe-compatible products that will support the new wireless charging capabilities of the iPhone 12 devices. Today, at the (virtual) 2021 Consumer Electronics Show, the company formally introduced its upcoming products for the first time. The new line will include three MagSafe-compatible PopGrips, a wallet with an integrated grip, and two mounts.

The first of these is the new PopGrip for MagSafe, which will magnetically attach to MagSafe-compatible cases for iPhone 12 devices.

The design of this PopGrip clears up some confusion over how a PopGrip (the round, poppable dongle that people normally think of when they think of “PopPockets”) will work with a MagSafe device. Instead of attaching just at the base of the grip itself, the grip is integrated into a larger base which attaches to the case.

Meanwhile, the grip has a swappable top so you can change the style of your PopGrip whenever you want without having to buy a whole new accessory.

This grip will also be compatible with PopSockets PopMount 2 phone mounts, including the new PopMount 2 for MagSafe, introduced today.

The PopMount 2 for MagSafe will launch as two solutions: PopMount for MagSafe Multi-Surface and PopMount for MagSafe Car Vent. As described by their name, both products will magnetically attach to iPhone 12 devices either at home or while on-the-go.

For those who use the new PopGrip for MagSafe grip, they’ll be able to leave the grip on then let the mount’s magnets attach to the base.

Image Credits: PopMount Multi Surface for MagSafe

Also new is an updated PopWallet+ for MagSafe, which is combination wallet and grip that lets users carry up to 3 cards that now attaches magnetically to MagSafe-compatible phone cases for iPhone 12 devices. The wallet has an elastic sock so you can extract your cards without having to remove the wallet from the back of the device, and it now includes a shield to protect credit cards from magnetic damage. The grip here is swappable, too.

Image Credits: PopWallet+ for MagSafe

There are also two versions of the PopGrip Slide becoming available. One, the PopGrip Slide Stretch will have expanding arms that attach mechanically to the sides of most phone cases, including iPhone 12 cases. You can slide this grip to the bottom of the phone to serve as a portrait stand or to attach MagSafe accessories, without having to remove the grip.

Image Credits: PopGrip Slide Stretch for MagSafe

The PopGrip Slide for iPhone 12 is basically the same thing, but designed to fit the Apple Silicone cases for iPhone 12 devices, more specifically.

Among the first of the new accessories to hit the market will be the PopGrip for MagSafe and PopWallet+ for MagSafe in spring 2021.

The PopGrip Slide Stretch will launch March 21st on PopSockets.com and in select Target locations ahead of a broader rollout. The PopGrip Slide will launch May 1st on PopSockets.com and in Apple Stores. And the PopMount for MagSafe line will launch in summer 2021.

The company also announced a few other non-MagSafe products, including the PopGrip Pocketable, which streamlines the grip when collapsed so the the surface is flat; the PopGrip Antimicrobial, which has an embedded silver-based treatment for protection; and the PopSockets x SOG PopGrip Multi-Tool, made in collaboration with SOG Speciality Knives, which includes a PopGrip with a detachable multi-tool.

The company didn’t share an exact timeframe for these products besides “early 2021.”

Noopl’s iPhone plug-in is designed to improve hearing in noisy environments

Noopl looks like one of the more interesting hardware startups to come out of CES day one. The Sacramento-based company has designed an accessory that it says can help drown out background noise for users in a loud environment.

The little accessory sports a Lightning plug (it’s currently iOS only), which connects to the bottom of an iPhone. The little dongle features a trio of microphones, coupled with an audio signal processor designed to reduce background noise.

Image Credits: Noopl

The Noopl app launches when the device is plugged in, setting up a connection with a pair of AirPods Pro. It’s designed to utilize head tracking to determine the direction the wearer is facing, in order to offer clearer sound in that direction. The app can then be used to broaden the direction beam and adjust volume.

The company was founded by Steven Verdooner and Kevin Snow, building on technology from Sydney’s National Acoustic Laboratories (NAL).

“The genesis for the idea occurred when Verdooner was at a noisy restaurant with his father and both of them experienced challenges hearing each other, even with the father’s state-of-the-art hearing aids in ‘restaurant mode,’ ” it writes in a press release. “Realizing an immense opportunity to potentially help millions of people, Verdooner partnered with NAL and a small team of seasoned scientists and engineers to create Noopl. Hearing industry veteran, Tim Trine, was brought on in 2020 as President and CEO to create a scalable technology platform, commercialize products, and grow the company.”

Image Credits: Noopl

The device is currently up for pre-order from Noopl’s site, priced at $199.

Teledyne to acquire FLIR in $8 billion cash and stock deal

Industrial sensor giant Teledyne is set to acquire sensing company FLIR in a deal valued at around $8 billion in a mix of stock and cash, pending approvals with an expected closing date sometime in the middle of this year. While both companies make sensors, aimed primarily at industrial and commercial customers, they actually focus on different specialties that Teledyne said in a press release makes FLIR’s business complimentary to, rather than competitive with, its existing offerings.

FLIR’s technology has appeared in the consumer market via add-on thermal cameras designed for mobile devices, including the iPhone. These are useful for things like identifying the source of drafts and potential plumbing leaks, but the company’s main business, which includes not only thermal imaging, but also visible light imaging, video analysts and threat detection technology, serves deep-pocketed customers including the aerospace and defense industries.

Teledyne also serves aerospace and defense customers, including NASA, as well as healthcare, marine and climate monitoring agencies. The company’s suite of offerings include seismic sensors, oscilloscopes and other instrumentation, as well as digital imaging, but FLIR’s products cover some areas not currently addressed by Teledyne, and in more depth.

Not even 5G could rescue smartphone sales in 2020

This was going to be the year of 5G. It was going to be the year the next-generation wireless technology helped reverse some troubling macro trends for the industry — or at the very least helped stem the bleeding some.

But the best laid plans, and all that. With about a week left in the year, I think it’s pretty safe to say that 2020 didn’t wind up the way the vast majority of us had hoped. It’s a list that certainly includes the lion’s share of smartphone makers. Look no further than a recent report published by Gartner to answer the question of just how bad 2020 was for smartphone sales.

It was so bad that a 5.7% global decline year-over-year for the third quarter constituted good news. In a normal year, that wouldn’t qualify as good news for too many industries outside of wax cylinder and asbestos sales. But there are few standards by which 2020 was a normal year, so now we’ll take some respite in the fact that a 5.7% drop was a considerably less pronounced drop than the ~20% we saw in Qs 1 and 2.

Some context before we get into the whys here. A thing that’s important to note up front is that mobile wasn’t one of those industries where everything was smooth sailing before everything got upended by a pandemic. In 2019 I wrote a not insignificant number of stories with headlines like “Smartphone sales expected to drop 2.5% globally this year” and “Smartphone sales declined again in Q2, surprising no one.” And even those stories were a continuation of trends from a year prior.

The reasons for the decline should be pretty familiar by now. For one thing, premium handsets got expensive, routinely topping out over $1,000. Related to that, phones have gotten good. Good news for consumers doesn’t necessarily translate to good news for manufacturers here, as upgrade cycles have slowed significantly from their traditional every two years (also an artifact of the carrier subscription model). Couple that with economic hardships, and you’ve got a recipe for slowed growth.

This March, I wrote an article titled “5G devices were less than 1% of US smartphone purchases in 2019.” There was, perhaps, a certain level of cognitive dissonance there, after many years of 5G hype. There are myriad factors at play here. First, there just weren’t a ton of different 5G models available in the States by year’s end. Second, network rollout was far from complete. And, of course, there was no 5G iPhone.

I concluded that piece by noting:

Of course, it remains to be seen how COVID-19 will impact sales. It seems safe to assume that, like every aspect of our lives, there will be a notable impact on the number of people buying expensive smartphones. Certainly things like smartphone purchases tend to lessen in importance in the face of something like a global pandemic.

In hindsight, the answer is “a lot.” I’ll be the first to admit that when I wrote those words on March 12, I had absolutely no notion of how bad it was about to get and how long it would last (hello month nine of lockdown). In the earliest days, the big issue globally was on the supply side. Asia (China specifically) was the first place to get hit and the epicenter of manufacturing buckled accordingly. Both China and its manufacturing were remarkably fast to get back online.

In the intervening months, demand has taken a massive hit. Once again, there are a number of reasons for this. For starters, people aren’t leaving their homes as much — and for that reason, the money they’ve allotted to electronics purchases has gone toward things like PCs, as they’ve shifted to a remote work set-up. The other big issue here is simple economics. So many people are out of work and so much has become uncertain that smartphones have once again been elevated to a kind of luxury status.

There are, however, reasons to be hopeful. It seems likely that 5G will eventually help right things — though it’s hard to say when. Likely much of that depends on how soon we’re able to return to “normal” in 2021. But for now, there’s some positive to be seen in early iPhone sales. After Apple went all in on 5G this year, the new handset (perhaps unsurprisingly) topped sales for all other 5G handsets for the month of October, according to analysts.

The company will offer a more complete picture (including the ever-important holiday sales) as part of its earnings report next month. For now, at least, it seems that thing are finally heading in the right direction. That trend will, hopefully, continue as the new year sees a number of Android launches.

Perhaps 2021 will be the year of 5G — because 2020 sure wasn’t.

Dozens of journalists’ iPhones hacked with NSO ‘zero-click’ spyware, says Citizen Lab

Citizen Lab researchers say they have found evidence that dozens of journalists had their iPhones silently compromised with spyware known to be used by nation states.

For more than the past year, London-based reporter Rania Dridi and at least 36 journalists, producers and executives working for the Al Jazeera news agency were targeted with a so-called “zero-click” attack that exploited a now-fixed vulnerability in Apple’s iMessage. The attack invisibly compromised the devices without having to trick the victims into opening a malicious link.

Citizen Lab, the internet watchdog at the University of Toronto, was asked to investigate earlier this year after one of the victims, Al Jazeera investigative journalist Tamer Almisshal, suspected that his phone may have been hacked.

In a technical report out Sunday and shared with TechCrunch, the researchers say they believe the journalists’ iPhones were infected with the Pegasus spyware, developed by Israel-based NSO Group.

The researchers analyzed Almisshal’s iPhone and found it had between July and August connected to servers known to be used by NSO for delivering the Pegasus spyware. The device revealed a burst of network activity that suggests that the spyware may have been delivered silently over iMessage.

Logs from the phone show that the spyware was likely able to secretly record the microphone and phone calls, take photos using the phone’s camera, access the victim’s passwords, and track the phone’s location.

Citizen Lab analyzed the network logs of two hacked iPhones and found it could record ambient calls, take photos using the camera, and track the device’s location without the victim knowing. (Image: Citizen Lab)

Citizen Lab said the bulk of the hacks were likely carried out by at least four NSO customers, including the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, citing evidence it found in similar attacks involving Pegasus.

The researchers found evidence that two other NSO customers hacked into one and three Al Jazeera phones respectively, but that they could not attribute the attacks to a specific government.

A spokesperson for Al Jazeera, which just broadcast its reporting of the hacks, did not immediately comment.

NSO sells governments and nation states access to its Pegasus spyware as a prepackaged service by providing the infrastructure and the exploits needed to launch the spyware against the customer’s targets. But the spyware maker has repeatedly distanced itself from what its customers do and has said it does not who its customers target. Some of NSO’s known customers include authoritarian regimes like China and Russia. Saudi Arabia allegedly used the surveillance technology to spy on the communications of columnist Jamal Khashoggi shortly before his murder, which U.S. intelligence concluded was likely ordered by the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Citizen Lab said it also found evidence that Dridi, a journalist at Arabic television station Al Araby in London, had fallen victim to a zero-click attack. The researchers said Dridi was likely targeted by the UAE government.

In a phone call, Dridi told TechCrunch that her phone may have been targeted because of her close association to a person of interest to the UAE.

Dridi’s phone, an iPhone XS Max, was targeted for a longer period, likely between October 2019 and July 2020. The researchers found evidence that she was targeted on two separate occasions with a zero-day attack — the name of an exploit that has not been previously disclosed and that a patch is not yet available — because her phone was running the latest version of iOS both times.

“My life is not normal anymore. I don’t feel like I have a private life again,” said Dridi. “To be a journalist is not a crime,” she said.

Citizen Lab said its latest findings reveal an “accelerating trend of espionage” against journalists and news organizations, and that the growing use of zero-click exploits makes it increasingly difficult — though evidently not impossible — to detect because of the more sophisticated techniques used to infect victims’ devices while covering their tracks.

When reached on Saturday, NSO said it was unable to comment on the allegations as it had not seen the report, but declined to say when asked if Saudi Arabia or the UAE were customers or describe what processes — if any — it puts in place to prevent customers from targeting journalists.

“This is the first we are hearing of these assertions. As we have repeatedly stated, we do not have access to any information related to the identities of individuals upon whom our system is alleged to have been used to conduct surveillance. However, when we receive credible evidence of misuse, combined with the basic identifiers of the alleged targets and timeframes, we take all necessary steps in accordance with our product misuse investigation procedure to review the allegations,” said a spokesperson.

“We are unable to comment on a report we have not yet seen. We do know that CitizenLab regularly publishes reports based on inaccurate assumptions and without a full command of the facts, and this report will likely follow that theme NSO provides products that enable governmental law enforcement agencies to tackle serious organized crime and counterterrorism only, but as stated in the past, we do not operate them. Nevertheless, we are committed to ensuring our policies are adhered to, and any evidence of a breach will be taken seriously and investigated.”

Citizen Lab said it stood by its findings.

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Spokespeople for the Saudi and UAE governments in New York did not respond to an email requesting comment.

The attacks not only puts a renewed focus on the shadowy world of surveillance spyware, but also the companies having to defend against it. Apple rests much of its public image on advocating privacy for its users and building secure devices, like iPhones, designed to be hardened against the bulk of attacks. But no technology is impervious to security bugs. In 2016, Reuters reported that UAE-based cybersecurity firm DarkMatter bought a zero-click exploit to target iMessage, which they referred to as “Karma.” The exploit worked even if the user did not actively use the messaging app.

Apple told TechCrunch that it had not independently verified Citizen Lab’s findings but that the vulnerabilities used to target the reporters were fixed in iOS 14, released in September.

“At Apple, our teams work tirelessly to strengthen the security of our users’ data and devices. iOS 14 is a major leap forward in security and delivered new protections against these kinds of attacks. The attack described in the research was highly targeted by nation-states against specific individuals. We always urge customers to download the latest version of the software to protect themselves and their data,” said an Apple spokesperson.

NSO is currently embroiled in a legal battle with Facebook, which last year blamed the Israeli spyware maker for using a similar, previously undisclosed zero-click exploit in WhatsApp to infect some 1,400 devices with the Pegasus spyware.

Facebook discovered and patched the vulnerability, stopping the attack in its tracks, but said that more than 100 human rights defenders, journalists and “other members of civil society” had fallen victim.

Apple puts contract partner Wistron on probation after violence at India plant

Apple has placed its contract manufacturing partner Wistron on probation and won’t give the Taiwanese firm any new business until it took “complete corrective actions” following lapses at its southern India plant earlier this month.

The iPhone maker said on Saturday that its employees and independent auditors hired by the company to investigate the issues at Wistron’s Narasapura facility found that Apple’s ‘Supplier Code of Conduct’ was violated at the facility and Wistron failed to implement proper working hour management processes. This led to “payment delays for some workers in October and November,” Apple said, citing preliminary findings.

“As always, our focus is on making sure everyone in our supply chain is protected and treated with dignity and respect. We are very disappointed and taking immediate steps to address these issues. Wistron has taken disciplinary action and is restructuring their recruitment and payroll teams in Narasapura,” Apple said in a statement. “Apple employees, along with independent auditors, will monitor their progress.”

Thousands of workers rioted over unpaid salaries — of about $200 a month — on December 12 at Wistron’s Narasapura facility — situated about 40 miles outside of the tech hub Bangalore — destroying windows and other properties, iPhones, and factory equipments. Wistron, a key manufacturing partner for Apple in India, has this year more than quadrupled workers and ramped up its production capacity in the South Asian nation.

A report by the Karnataka state government concluded this week that serious violations of labor laws — including underpayment of wages, and irregular hours and poor working conditions — were taking place at Wistron’s facility in India. The report, which estimated that assets worth $7 million were damaged in the recent riot, said Wistron could not cope up with managing the recent scaling up of manpower at its facility.

In a statement earlier today, Wistron acknowledged that some workers at its plant had not been paid properly. It also announced it was removing a top executive who oversaw Taiwanese firm’s India business. “Some of the processes we put in place to manage labor agencies and payments need to be strengthened and upgraded,” it said.

Wistron assembles older iPhone models at its Indian facility. In recent years, Apple has broadened its partnership with others — including Foxconn — to expand the iPhone production capacity in India. Earlier this year, Foxconn started to assemble the iPhone 11 models at its Indian facilities.

“India is democratic. Its unions are vocal, and local politicians have to be responsive. Foreign companies eager to tap the large domestic market and vast labor pool will need to adjust to the reality that workers may be more quick to stand up for their interests. And Cook will need to get used to his company’s name alongside words like riot and uprising. In many respects, it’s unfair to pick on Apple — the latest complaints appear aimed squarely at Wistron — yet the U.S. company is the client and wields the power to force change, something it’s done in China over the past decade,” Bloomberg columnist Tim Culpan wrote.

Apple launches its new app privacy labels across all its App Stores

At Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference in June, the company announced it would soon require developers to disclose their app’s privacy practices to customers via new, glanceable summaries that appear on their apps’ product pages on the App Store. Today, these new app privacy labels are going live across all of Apple’s App Stores, including iOS, iPadOS, macOS, watchOS and tvOS.

On the developers’ side, Apple began requiring developers to submit their privacy practices with the submission of new apps and app updates. However, it hadn’t begun to publish this information on the App Stores until today.

The new labels aim to give Apple customers an easier way to understand what sort of information an app collects across three categories: data used to track you, data linked to you and data not linked to you. Tracking, Apple explains, refers to the act of linking either user or device data collected from an app with user or device data collected from other apps, websites or even offline properties (like data aggregated from retail receipts) that’s used for targeted advertising or advertisement measurement. It can also include sharing user or device data with data brokers.

This aspect alone will expose the industry of third-party adtech and analytics SDKs (software development kits) — basically code from external vendors that developers add to their apps to boost their revenues.

Meanwhile, “data linked to you” is the personal information tied to your identity, through your user account on the app, your device or other details.

Image Credits: Apple

Broken down, there are a number of data types apps may collect on their users, including things like personal contact information (e.g. address, email, phone, etc.); health and fitness information (eg. from the Clinical Health Records API, HealthKit API, MovementDisorderAPIs or health-related human subject research); financial information (e.g. payment and credit info); location (either precise or coarse); contacts; user content (e.g. emails, audio, texts, gameplay, customer support, etc.); browsing and search histories; purchases; identifiers like user or device IDs; usage and diagnostic info; and more.

Developers are expected to understand not only what data their app may collect, but also how it’s ultimately used.

For example, if an app shares user data with a third-party partner, the developer will need to know what data that partner uses and for what purposes — like displaying targeted ads in the app, sharing location data or email lists with a data broker, using data for retargeting users in other apps or measuring ad efficiencies. And while the developer will need to disclose when they’re collecting data from Apple frameworks or services, they aren’t responsible for disclosing data collected by Apple itself.

There are a few exceptions to the new disclosure requirements, including data collected in optional feedback forms or customer service requests. But, in general, almost any data an app collects has to be disclosed. Even Apple’s own apps that aren’t offered on the App Store will have their privacy labels published on the web.

Apps will also be required to include a link to their publicly accessible privacy policy and can optionally now include a link to a page explaining their privacy choices in more detail. For example, they could link to a page where users can manage their data for the app or request deletion.

The privacy information itself is presented on a screen in the app’s product listing page in easy-to-read tabs that explain what data is collected across the different categories, starting with “data used to track you.”

Apple says it will not remove apps from the App Store if they don’t include this privacy information, but it’s no longer allowing apps to update until their privacy information is listed. That means, eventually, all apps that haven’t been abandoned will include these details.

Apple’s decision to implement privacy labels is a big win for consumer privacy and could establish a new baseline for how app stores disclose data.

However, they also arrive at a time when Apple is pushing its own adtech agenda under the banner of being a privacy-forward company. The company is forcing the adtech industry to shift from the identifier IDFA to its own SKAdNetwork — a shakeup that’s been controversial enough for Apple to delay the transition from 2020 to 2021. The decision to delay may have been, as Apple stated, to give marketers panicked about the sizable revenue hit, time to adapt. But Apple is, of course, keenly aware that regulators were weighing whether the App Store was behaving in anticompetitive ways toward third-parties.

Facebook, for example, had warned businesses they would see a 50% drop in Audience Network revenue on iOS as a result of the changes that would remove personalization from mobile app ad install campaigns.

Apple, in the meantime, took some of the regulatory heat off itself by reducing its App Store commissions to 15% for developers making less than $1 million.

As all these consumer privacy changes are underway, Apple itself continues to use its customer data to personalize ads in its own apps, including the App Store and Apple News. These settings, which are enabled by default, can be toggled off in the iPhone’s Settings. App publishers, on the other hand, will soon have to ask permission from users to track them. And Apple now runs plenty of other services it could expand ads to in the future, if it chose.

It will be interesting to see how consumers react to these new privacy labels as they go live. Apps that collect too much data may find their downloads are impacted, as wary users pass them over. Or, consumers may end up ignoring the labels — much as they do the other policies and terms they “agree” to when installing new software.

Details about Apple’s privacy practices were also published today on a new website, Apple.com/privacy, which includes not only the changes to the App Store, but lists all other areas where Apple protects consumer privacy.

The updates to the App Stores rolled out today alongside the new releases of iOS 14.3 / iPadOS 14.3 and macOS Big Sur 11.1, which also deliver updates to support Apple Fitness+, AirPods Max, the new ProRAW format, and more, in addition to the privacy labels.