Apple launches its online store in India

For the first time in more than 20 years since Apple began its operations in India, the iPhone-maker has started selling its products directly to consumers in the world’s second largest smartphone market.

Apple launched its online store in India on Wednesday, which in addition to offering nearly the entire line-up of its products, also brings a range of services for the first time to consumers in the country. India is the 38th market for Apple where it has launched its online store.

Consumers in India can now purchase AppleCare+, which extends warranty on products, and access the trade-in program to get a discount on new hardware purchases. The company said it will also offer customers support through chat or telephone, and let users consult its team of specialists before they make a purchase. The company is also letting customers order customized versions of iMac, MacBook Air, Mac Mini and other Mac computers — something it started offline through its authorized partners only in late May in India.

The company is also offering customers the ability to pay for their purchases in monthly instalments. TechCrunch reported in January that the company was planning to open its online store in India in the quarter that ends in September. The company plans to open its first physical retail store in the country next year, it has said.

Jayanth Kolla, chief analyst at consultancy firm Convergence Catalyst, argued that the launch of the Apple’s online store in India is a bigger deal for the company than consumers in the country.

Apple typically starts investing in marketing, brand building and other investments in a market only after it launches a store there, he told TechCrunch.

Apple does oversee billboards and ads of iPhones and other products that are displayed in India, but it’s the third-party partners that are running and bankrolling them, said Kolla. “Apple might provide some marketing dollars, but those efforts are always led by their partners,” he said.

In recent years, Apple has visibly grown more interested in India, one of the world’s fastest growing smartphones markets. The company’s contract manufacturers today locally assemble the latest generation of iPhone models and some accessories — an effort the company kickstarted two years ago.

The move has allowed Apple to lower prices of some iPhone models in India, where for years the company has passed custom duty charges to customers. The starting price of iPhone 11 Pro Max is $1,487 in India, compared to $1,099 in the U.S. (It started to assemble some iPhone 11 models in India only recently.) The AirPods Pro, which sells at $249 in the U.S., was made available in India at $341 at the time of launch.

Unlike most foreign firms that offer their products and services for free in India or at some of the world’s cheapest prices, Apple has focused entirely on a small fraction of the population that can afford to pay big bucks, Kolla said. And that strategy has worked fine for the company, Kolla argued.

That’s not to say that Apple has not made some changes to its price strategy for India. The monthly cost of Apple Music is $1.35 in India, compared to $9.99 in the U.S. Its Apple One bundle, which includes Apple Music, TV+, Arcade, and iCloud, costs $2.65 a month in India.

Some Apple customers say that even as they prefer the iPhone-maker’s ecosystem of products over Android makers’ offerings, they wish Apple made more of its services available in the country. A range of Apple services including Apple News and Apple Pay are still not available in India.

More to follow…

How to make the most of iOS 14 widgets and iPhone home screen customization

You’ve probably seen the screenshots going around that show iOS home screens that differ considerably from the stock options that Apple provides. Yes, if you’re an Android user you’re probably laughing at iPhone owners for finally (nearly) catching up to the customization features they’ve had for years, but if you’re an iOS fan, you probably just want to know how to join in. It’s actually relatively easy — provided you’ve got some time to spare, and you don’t mind a few slightly hacky workarounds (don’t worry, no jailbreaking required).

Widgets

The big new addition that’s prompting all the shared screens across social media are home screen widgets, which are supported under iOS 14 for the first time. These can be either first or third-party, and are included with apps you download from the App Store. There are a number of developers who pushed to ensure they were ready at or near the launch of iOS, and Sarah has created a growing list of some of the best for you to check out if you’re not sure where to start.

One of my personal favorite widget apps is Widgetsmith, an app that, as its name suggests, was created pretty much entirely for the purpose of making them. It allows you a range of customization options, has a number of handy, useful functions, including calendar, weather and clock, and comes with different font choices to best suit your style. I’ve always aimed to create a clean, single-tone look with iOS as much as possible, and Widgetsmith is the best I’ve found so far for creating home screen displays that look like they’re borderless (provided your iOS wallpaper is a solid color that matches one of those the app supports).

Widgets are great at providing right on your home screen (where you need it) at-a-glance information that you don’t typically want to dive into an app to retrieve. Some can shortcut to useful features, like the search widget built into Google’s iOS app, but most are made primarily to reduce the amount of time you spend actually inside the apps themselves.

Custom app icons

While Widgets are new, another big component of this customization push is not — the ability to create custom home screen icons for iOS apps. That’s been around ever since Apple introduced its Shortcuts app on iOS a couple of years ago, but many people are discovering the feature for the first time as a result of the increased attention around home screen customization with the introduction of Widgets in iOS 14.

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Creating custom icons on iOS isn’t actually doing that, strictly speaking — what you’re in fact doing is creating new Shortcuts that trigger the launch of an app, and using a custom image for that bookmark that then lives on your home screen instead. This is not an ideal solution, because it means that A) you won’t have any notification badges on your “apps,” and B) the system first directs you to Apple’s Shortcuts app, which opens for a split-second before bumping you into the actual app you selected for the shortcut.

Apple clearly didn’t design this Shortcuts feature for this use (opening a target app is meant to be the start of a string of automated actions), but Apple also hasn’t really ever seemed interested in letting users choose their own custom icons, so it’s the best we can do for now. Luckily, the process is relatively simple. Unluckily, there are a lot of steps involved, so it’s pretty time-consuming to customize your entire home screen.

Here’s a video of how to do this as simply as possible:

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

There are some fantastic examples out there of what creative individuals have been able to do with this, given a little time and some elbow grease. With more widget options coming online all the time, we’ve probably only begun to see the limits of testing the boundaries of what’s possible under Apple’s rules, too.

On lying AIs

A yellow-eyed cat tilts its eyes at the camera, gazing up from a grey bedspread. ‘London Trip’, is the AI’s title for this photo-montage ‘Memory’ plucked from the depths of my iPhone camera-roll. It’s selected a sad score of plinking piano and sweeping violin. The algorithm has calculated it must tug at the heart strings. 

Cut to a crop of a desk with a 2FA device resting on a laptop case. It’s not at all photogenic. On to a shot of a sofa in a living room. It’s empty. The camera inclines toward a radio on a sidetable. Should we be worried for the invisible occupant? The staging invites cryptic questions.

Cut to an outdoor scene: A massive tree spreading above a wrought iron park fence. Another overcast day in the city. Beside it an eccentric shock of orange. A piece of public art? A glass-blown installation? There’s no time to investigate or interrogate. The AI is moving on. There’s more data clogging its banks. 

Cut to a conference speaker. White, male, besuited, he’s gesticulating against a navy wall stamped with some kind of insignia. The photo is low quality, snapped in haste from the audience, details too fuzzy to pick out. Still, the camera lingers, panning across the tedious vista. A wider angle shows conference signage for something called ‘Health X’. This long distant press event rings a dim bell. Another unlovely crop: My voice recorder beside a brick wall next to an iced coffee. I guess I’m working from a coffee shop.

On we go. A snap through a window-frame of a well kept garden, a bird-bath sprouting from low bushes. Another shot of the shrubbery shows a ladder laid out along a brick wall. I think it looks like a church garden in Southwark but I honestly can’t tell. No matter. The AI has lost interest. Now it’s obsessing over a billboard of a Google Play ad: “All the tracks you own and millions more to discover — Try it now for free,” the text reads above a weathered JCDecaux brand stamp.

There’s no time to consider what any of this means because suddenly it’s nighttime. It must be; my bedside lamp is lit. Or is it? Now we’re back on the living room sofa with daylight and a book called ‘Nikolski’ (which is also, as it happens, about separation and connection and random artefacts — although its artful narrative succeeds in serendipity).

Cut to a handful of berries in a cup. Cut to an exotic-looking wallflower which I know grows in the neighbourhood. The score is really soaring now. A lilting female vocal lands on cue to accompany a solitary selfie.

I am looking unimpressed. I have so many questions. 

The AI isn’t quite finished. For the finale: A poorly framed crop of a garden fence and a patio of pot plants, washing weeping behind the foliage. The music is fading, the machine is almost done constructing its London trip. The last shot gets thrust into view: Someone’s hand clasping a half-drunk punch. 

Go home algorithm, you’re drunk.

Footnote: Apple says on-device machine learning powers iOS’ “intelligent photos experience” which “analyzes every 
photo in a user’s photo library using on-device machine learning [to] deliver 
a personalized experience for each user” — with the advanced processing slated to include scene classification, composition analysis, people and pets identification, quality analysis and identification of facial expressions

Here’s everything Apple revealed at its September hardware event today

Apple announced a ton of new devices and features today at its September hardware event, but no word on its upcoming iPhones. That’s expected later in the month, maybe next.

In case you missed Apple’s hour-long keynote, here’s everything that was announced — including some things you might have missed.

Apple Watch

One of Apple’s big announcements is the new Apple Watch Series 6, priced at $399. The new wearable comes with a new Apple S6 silicon chip with an always-on energy-saving display. It also lands with a blood oxygen sensor.

Apple also announced a newer low-cost wearable, Apple Watch SE, which it priced at $279.

Family Setup: The new Family Setup option lets families stay connected, even when some members of the family don’t have an iPhone. It also comes with a family tracking feature, which lets parents make sure their kids have checked into school or sports practice, for example.

Fitness+: Apple is launching a new fitness subscription, landing at $9.99 a month or $79.99 a year. The service is available from inside the Activity app, and takes aim at in-home fitness services, which have taken off in part because of the ongoing pandemic. But so far, the fitness market doesn’t seem too flustered by the move.

Solo Loop: You can now get a Solo Loop for your Apple Watch, a single band that drops the standard clasp in favor of stretchy silicon. It comes in seven colors and a range of sizes.

The new Apple Watch Series 6 arrives September 18.

Apple iPad

Next up, the iPad. Apple said it’s refreshing the iPad line-up with a new fourth-generation iPad Air. The new slimline iPad Air lands with a 10.9-inch 2360×1640 resolution Retina display and replaces the Lightning port with a USB-C cable. The new iPad Air comes with a Touch ID fingerprint sensor embedded in the power button, and a new 12-megapixel, 4K-capable rear camera.

New A14 Bionic chip: Apple unveiled its new, super-fast five nanometer A14 Bionic chip, landing in the new iPad Air. It’s packed with close to 12 billion transistors, 40% up on the previous iteration of chips, and has a 16-core neural engine for apps that rely on machine learning and artificial intelligence.

New colors: Apple has two new colors on top of the existing silver, space gray and rose gold to now include green and sky blue.

New eighth-generation iPad: The new eighth-generation iPad got a refresh, too, packed with an earlier A12 Bionic chip, giving the iPad a much-needed performance boost.

Apple One

With an Apple subscription for TV, music, games, as well as iCloud storage charges, Apple is rolling its subscriptions into one place under its new Apple One plan. There are three tiers — one for individuals, another for families, and the top-tier includes the full package of Apple’s subscription services.

iOS 14, iPadOS 14, watchOS 14, and tvOS 14

Apple said its long-awaited software updates will arrive tomorrow — September 16. That includes iOS 14 for iPhones, iPadOS 14 for iPads, watchOS 14 for Apple Watch wearables and tvOS14 for Apple TV boxes.

And iOS 14 comes with new privacy and security features, a new and improved Maps, a redesigned Siri and a new in-built translator app.

No word yet on macOS Big Sur, Apple’s next desktop and laptop operating system. A release date is expected out in the next few weeks ahead of the holiday season.

As the smartphone market declines, 5G models are set to see continued growth in 2020

Things have gone from bad to worse for a stumbling smartphone market in 2020. Already plateauing and decline figures have taken a big hit from COVID-19. The pandemic has hampered sales of non-essential items, particularly those best enjoyed outside of the home. According to new figures from Canalys, smartphone shipments are set to experience a 10.7% decline for the year.

There are a couple of silver linings worth noting. For starters, 5G adoption continues to growth. The firm projects that some 280 million units will be shipped in 2020, with the Greater China market making up a majority at 62% of the total figure, thanks in part to lower cost devices like the Realme V3, which retails for less than $150 U.S. — a remarkable price for a product with next-gen wireless.

Image Credits: Canalys

North America is in second place, with around 15% of shipments, while EMEA and Asia Pacific (sans Greater China) are projected to each make up around 11%. A 5G-enabled iPhone 12 should help speed up adoption as well, when it’s launched in the next month or so.

“Smartphone vendors have relentlessly pushed new product launches, as well as online marketing and sales during the post-lockdown period, generating strong consumer interest for the latest gadgets,” analyst  Ben Stanton says in a release. “Gradual reopening of offline stores, improving logistics and production have provided necessary uplift for most markets to move into a more stabilized second half of 2020.”

5G was expected to have a rebounding effect for the industry — though the pandemic quickly hampered those plans. Likely it has gone a ways toward helping prohibit a further slide in sales. And numbers are still expected to rebound somewhat in the 2021, at 9.9% year over year. That’s not quite enough to return things to pre-2020 levels, but would no doubt be a welcome sign for an industry that has shown signs of decline for some time now.

Apple won’t force developers to let users opt out of tracking until next year

At its global developer conference in June, Apple said its forthcoming iOS 14 update would allow users to opt out of in-app ad tracking, a privacy feature that quickly drew ire from advertising giants over fears that it would make it harder to deliver targeted ads to users.

But now Apple is delaying enforcing the feature until “early next year”, the company confirmed.

iOS 14, expected out later this year, will contain a new prompt that asks users whether they would like to opt into this kind of targeted ad tracking. Developers will be able to integrate this prompt into their apps as soon as iOS 14 is released, but they will not be required to, as Apple indicated they would earlier.

In a statement, Apple said:

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

Although Apple cites the necessity of giving developers time, major advertising companies like Facebook have warned that the change could severely impact their operations. “Apple’s updates may render Audience Network so ineffective on iOS 14 that it may not make sense to offer it on iOS 14,” the company said in a statement last week.

Putting these lucrative partnerships in jeopardy could hit Apple’s bottom line as well and may even affect whether some apps or services are available at all.

The exact date when the policy would be enforced, and other details of this compromise, will be announced later.

Fearing coronavirus, a Michigan college tracks its students with a flawed app

Schools and universities across the United States are split on whether to open for the fall semester, thanks to the ongoing pandemic.

Albion College, a small liberal arts school in Michigan, said in June it would allow its nearly 1,500 students to return to campus for the new academic year starting in August. Lectures would be limited in size and the semester would finish by Thanksgiving rather than December. The school said it would test both staff and students upon their arrival to campus and throughout the academic year.

But less than two weeks before students began arriving on campus, the school announced it would require them to download and install a contact-tracing app called Aura, which it says will help it tackle any coronavirus outbreak on campus.

There’s a catch. The app is designed to track students’ real-time locations around the clock, and there is no way to opt out.

The Aura app lets the school know when a student tests positive for COVID-19. It also comes with a contact-tracing feature that alerts students when they have come into close proximity with a person who tested positive for the virus. But the feature requires constant access to the student’s real-time location, which the college says is necessary to track the spread of any exposure.

The school’s mandatory use of the app sparked privacy concerns and prompted parents to launch a petition to make using the app optional.

Worse, the app had at least two security vulnerabilities only discovered after the app was rolled out. One of the vulnerabilities allowed access to the app’s back-end servers. The other allowed us to infer a student’s COVID-19 test results.

The vulnerabilities were fixed. But students are still expected to use the app or face suspension.

Track and trace

Exactly how Aura came to be and how Albion became its first major customer is a mystery.

Aura was developed by Nucleus Careers in the months after the pandemic began. Nucleus Careers is a Pennsylvania-based recruiting firm founded in 2020, with no apparent history or experience in building or developing healthcare apps besides a brief mention in a recent press release. The app was built in partnership with Genetworx, a Virginia-based lab providing coronavirus tests. (We asked Genetworx about the app and its involvement, but TechCrunch did not hear back from the company.)

The app helps students locate and schedule COVID-19 testing on campus. Once a student is tested for COVID-19, the results are fed into the app.

If the test comes back negative, the app displays a QR code which, when scanned, says the student is “certified” free of the virus. If the student tests positive or has yet to be tested, the student’s QR code will read “denied.”

Aura uses the student’s real-time location to determine if they have come into contact with another person with the virus. Most other contact-tracing apps use nearby Bluetooth signals, which experts say is more privacy-friendly.

Hundreds of academics have argued that collecting and storing location data is bad for privacy.

The Aura app generates a QR code based on the student’s COVID-19 test results. Scan the QR code to reveal the student’s test result status. (Image: TechCrunch)

In addition to having to install the app, students were told they are not allowed to leave campus for the duration of the semester without permission over fears that contact with the wider community might bring the virus back to campus.

If a student leaves campus without permission, the app will alert the school, and the student’s ID card will be locked and access to campus buildings will be revoked, according to an email to students, seen by TechCrunch.

Students are not allowed to turn off their location and can be suspended and “removed from campus” if they violate the policy, the email read.

Private universities in the U.S. like Albion can largely set and enforce their own rules and have been likened to “shadow criminal justice systems — without any of the protections or powers of a criminal court,” where students can face discipline and expulsion for almost any reason with little to no recourse. Last year, TechCrunch reported on a student at Tufts University who was expelled for alleged grade hacking, despite exculpatory evidence in her favor.

Albion said in an online Q&A that the “only time a student’s location data will be accessed is if they test positive or if they leave campus without following proper procedure.” But the school has not said how it will ensure that student location data is not improperly accessed, or who has access.

“I think it’s more creepy than anything and has caused me a lot of anxiety about going back,” one student going into their senior year, who asked not to be named, told TechCrunch.

A ‘rush job’

One Albion student was not convinced the app was safe or private.

The student, who asked to go by her Twitter handle @Q3w3e3, decompiles and analyzes apps on the side. “I just like knowing what apps are doing,” she told TechCrunch.

Buried in the app’s source code, she found hardcoded secret keys for the app’s backend servers, hosted on Amazon Web Services. She tweeted her findings — with careful redactions to prevent misuse — and reported the problems to Nucleus, but did not hear back.

A security researcher, who asked to go by her handle Gilda, was watching the tweets about Aura roll in. Gilda also dug into the app and found and tested the keys.

“The keys were practically ‘full access’,” Gilda told TechCrunch. She said the keys — since changed — gave her access to the app’s databases and cloud storage in which she found patient data, including COVID-19 test results with names, addresses and dates of birth.

Nucleus pushed out an updated version of the app on the same day with the keys removed, but did not acknowledge the vulnerability.

TechCrunch also wanted to look under the hood to see how Aura works. We used a network analysis tool, Burp Suite, to understand the network data going in and out of the app. (We’ve done this a few times before.) Using our spare iPhone, we registered an Aura account and logged in. The app normally pulls in recent COVID-19 tests. In our case, we didn’t have any and so the scannable QR code, generated by the app, declared that I had been “denied” clearance to enter campus — as to be expected.

But our network analysis tool showed that the QR code was not generated on the device but on a hidden part of Aura’s website. The web address that generated the QR code included the Aura user’s account number, which isn’t visible from the app. If we increased or decreased the account number in the web address by a single digit, it generated a QR code for that user’s Aura account.

In other words, because we could see another user’s QR code, we could also see the student’s full name, their COVID-19 test result status and what date the student was certified or denied.

TechCrunch did not enumerate each QR code, but through limited testing found that the bug may have exposed about 15,000 QR codes.

We described the app’s vulnerabilities to Will Strafach, a security researcher and chief executive at Guardian Firewall. Strafach said the app sounded like a “rush job,” and that the enumeration bug could be easily caught during a security review. “The fact that they were unaware tells me they did not even bother to do this,” he said. And, the keys left in the source code, said Strafach, suggested “a ‘just-ship-it’ attitude to a worrisome extreme.”

An email sent by Albion president Matthew Johnson, dated August 18 and shared with TechCrunch, confirmed that the school has since launched a security review of the app.

We sent Nucleus several questions — including about the vulnerabilities and if the app had gone through a security audit. Nucleus fixed the QR code vulnerability after TechCrunch detailed the bug. But a spokesperson for the company, Tony Defazio, did not provide comment. “I advised the company of your inquiry,” he said. The spokesperson did not return follow-up emails.

In response to the student’s findings, Albion said that the app was compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, which governs the privacy of health data and medical records. HIPAA also holds companies — including universities — accountable for security lapses involving health data. That can mean heavy fines or, in some cases, prosecution.

Albion spokesperson Chuck Carlson did not respond to our emails requesting comment.

At least two other schools, Bucknell University and Temple University, are reopening for the fall semester by requiring students to present two negative COVID-19 tests through Genetworx. The schools are not using Aura, but their own in-house student app to deliver the test results.

Albion students, meanwhile, are split on whether to comply, or refuse and face the consequences. @Q3w3e3 said she will not use the app. “I’m trying to work with the college to find an alternative way to be tested,” she told TechCrunch.

Parents have also expressed their anger at the policy.

“I absolutely hate it. I think it’s a violation of her privacy and civil liberties,” said Elizabeth Burbank, a parent of an Albion student, who signed the petition against the school’s tracking effort.

“I do want to keep my daughter safe, of course, and help keep others safe as well. We are more than happy to do our part. I do not believe however, a GPS tracker is the way to go,” she said. “Wash our hands. Eat healthy. And keep researching treatments and vaccines. That should be our focus.

“I do intend to do all I can to protect my daughter’s right to privacy and challenge her right to free movement in her community,” she said.


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UK class action style claim filed over Marriott data breach

A class action style suit has been filed in the UK against hotel group Marriott International over a massive data breach that exposed the information of some 500 million guests around the world, including around 30 million residents of the European Union, between July 2014 and September 2018.

The representative legal action against Marriott has been filed by UK resident, Martin Bryant, on behalf of millions of hotel guests domiciled in England & Wales who made reservations at hotel brands globally within the Starwood Hotels group, which is now part of Marriott International.

Hackers gained access to the systems of the Starwood Hotels group, starting in 2014, where they were able to help themselves to information such as guests’ names; email and postal addresses; telephone numbers; gender and credit card data. Marriott International acquired the Starwood Hotels group in 2016 — but the breach went undiscovered until 2018.

Bryant is being represented by international law firm, Hausfeld, which specialises in group actions.

Commenting in a statement, Hausfeld partner, Michael Bywell, said: “Over a period of several years, Marriott International failed to take adequate technical or organisational measures to protect millions of their guests’ personal data which was entrusted to them. Marriott International acted in clear breach of data protection laws specifically put in place to protect data subjects.”

“Personal data is increasingly critical as we live more of our lives online, but as consumers we don’t always realise the risks we are exposed to when our data is compromised through no fault of our own. I hope this case will raise awareness of the value of our personal data, result in fair compensation for those of us who have fallen foul of Marriott’s vast and long-lasting data breach, and also serve notice to other data owners that they must hold our data responsibly,” added Bryant in another supporting statement.

We’ve reached out to Marriott International for comment on the legal action.

A claim website for the action invites other eligible UK individuals to register their interest — and “hold Marriott to account for not securing your personal data”, as it puts it.

Here are the details of who is eligible to register their interest:

The ‘class’ of claimants on whose behalf the claim is brought includes all individuals who at any date prior to 10 September 2018 made a reservation online at a hotel operating under any of the following brands: W Hotels, St. Regis, Sheraton Hotels & Resorts, Westin Hotels & Resorts, Element Hotels, Aloft Hotels, The Luxury Collection, Tribute Portfolio, Le Méridien Hotel & Resorts, Four Points by Sheraton, Design Hotels. In addition, any other brand owned and/or operated by Marriott International Inc or Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide LLC. The individuals must have been resident in England and Wales at some point during the relevant period prior to 10 September 2018 and are resident in England and Wales at the date the claim was issued. They must also have been at least 18 years old at the date the claim was issued.

The claim is being brought as a representative action under Rule 19.6 of the Civil Procedure Rules, per a press release, which also notes that everyone with the same interest as Bryant is included in the claimant class unless they opt out.

Those eligible to participate face no fees or costs, nor do affected guests face any financial risk from the litigation — which is being fully funded by Harbour Litigation Funding, a global litigation funder.

The suit is the latest sign that litigation funders are willing to take a punt on representative actions in the UK as a route to obtaining substantial damages for data issues. Another class action style suit was announced last week, alongside a class action in the Netherlands — targeting tracking cookies operated by data broker giants, Oracle and Salesforce.

Both lawsuits follow a landmark decision by a UK appeals court last year which allowed a class action-style suit against Google’s use between 2011 and 2012 of tracking cookies to override iPhone users’ privacy settings in Apple’s Safari browser to proceed, overturning an earlier court decision to toss the case.

The other unifying factor is the existence of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) framework which has opened the door to major fines for data protection violations. So even if EU regulators continue to lack uniform vigour in enforcing data protection law, there’s a chance the region’s courts will do the job for them if more litigation funders see value in bringing cases to them to pursue class damages for privacy violations.

The dates of the Marriott data breach means it falls under GDPR — which came into force in May 2018.

The UK’s data watchdog, the ICO, proposed a $123M fine for the security failing in July last year — saying then that the hotel operator had “failed to undertake sufficient due diligence when it bought Starwood and should also have done more to secure its systems”.

However it has yet to hand down a final decision. Asked when the Marriott decision will be finalized, an ICO spokeswoman told us the “regulatory process” has been extended until September 30. No additional detail was offered to explain the delay.

Here’s the regulator’s statement in full:

Under Schedule 16 of the Data Protection Act 2018, Marriott has agreed to an extension of the regulatory process until 30 September. We will not be commenting until the regulatory process has concluded.

Apple said to soon offer subscription bundles combining multiple of its services

Apple is reportedly getting ready to launch new bundles of its various subscription services, according to Bloomberg. The bundled services packages, said to be potentially called ‘Apple One,’ will include Apple services including Apple Music, Apple Arcade, Apple TV+, Apple News+ and iCloud in a number of different tiered offerings, all for one fee lower that would be lower than subscribing to each individually.

Bloomberg says that these could launch as early as October, which is when the new iPhone is said to be coming to market. Different package options will include one entry-level offering with Apple Music and Apple TV+, alongside an upgrade option that adds Apple Arcade, and other that also includes Apple News+. A higher-priced option will also bundle in extra iCloud storage, according to the report, though Bloomberg also claims that these arrangements and plans could still change prior to launch.

While the final pricing isn’t included in the report, it does say that the aim is to save subscribers between $2 and $5 per month depending on the tier, vs. the standard cost of subscribing to those services currently. All subscriptions would also work with Apple’s existing Family Sharing system, meaning up to six members of a single household can have access through Apple’s existing shared family digital goods infrastructure.

Apple is also said to be planning to continue its strategy of bundling free subscriptions to its services with new hardware purchases – a tactic it used last year with the introduction of Apple TV+, which it offered free for a year to customers who bought recently-released Apple hardware.

Service subscription bundling is move that a lot of Apple observers have been calling for basically ever since Apple started investing more seriously in its service options. The strategy makes a lot of sense, especially in terms of helping Apple boost adoption of its services which aren’t necessarily as popular as some of the others. It also provides a way for the company to begin to build out a more comprehensive and potentially stable recurring revenue business similar to something like Amazon Prime, which is a regular standout success story for Amazon in terms of its fiscal performance.

Apple goes to war with the gaming industry

Most gamers may not view Apple as a games company to the same degree that they see Sony with PlayStation or Microsoft with Xbox, but the iPhone-maker continues to uniformly drive the industry with decisions made in the Apple App Store.

The company made the news a couple times late this week for App Store approvals. Once for denying a gaming app, and the other for approving one.

The denial was Microsoft’s xCloud gaming app, something the Xbox folks weren’t too psyched about. Microsoft xCloud is one of the Xbox’s most substantial software platform plays in quite some time, allowing gamers to live-stream titles from the cloud and play console-quality games across a number of devices. It’s a huge effort that’s been in preview for a bit, but is likely going to officially launch next month. The app had been in a Testflight preview for iOS, but as Microsoft looked to push it to primetime, Apple said not so fast.

The app that was approved was the Facebook Gaming app which Facebook has been trying to shove through the App Store for months to no avail. It was at last approved Friday after the company stripped one of its two central features, a library of playable mobile games. In a curt statement to The New York Times, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said, “Unfortunately, we had to remove gameplay functionality entirely in order to get Apple’s approval on the stand-alone Facebook Gaming app.”

Microsoft’s Xbox team also took the unusually aggressive step of calling out Apple in a statement that reads, in-part, “Apple stands alone as the only general purpose platform to deny consumers from cloud gaming and game subscription services like Xbox Game Pass. And it consistently treats gaming apps differently, applying more lenient rules to non-gaming apps even when they include interactive content.”

Microsoft is still a $1.61 trillion company so don’t think I’m busting out the violin for them, but iOS is the world’s largest gaming platform, something CEO Tim Cook proudly proclaimed when the company launched its own game subscription platform, Apple Arcade, last year. Apple likes to play at its own pace, and all of these game-streaming platforms popping up at the same time seem poised to overwhelm them.

Image Credits: Microsoft

There are a few things about cloud gaming apps that seem at odds with some of the App Store’s rules, yet these rules are, of course, just guidelines written by Apple.  For Apple’s part, they basically said (full statement later) that the App Store had curators for a reason and that approving apps like these means they can’t individually review the apps which compromises the App Store experience.

To say that’s “the reason” seems disingenuous because the company has long approved platforms to operate on the App Store without stamping approval on the individual pieces of content that can be accessed. With “Games” representing the App Store’s most popular category, Apple likely cares much more about keeping their own money straight.

Analysis from CNBC pinned Apple’s 2019 App Store total revenue at $50 billion.

When these cloud gaming platforms like xCloud scale with zero iOS support, millions of Apple customers, myself included, are actually going to be pissed that their iPhone can’t do something that their friend’s phone can. Playing console-class titles on the iPhone would be a substantial feature upgrade for consumers. There are about 90 million Xbox Live users out there, a substantial number of which are iPhone owners I would imagine. The games industry is steadily rallying around game subscription networks and cloud gaming as a move to encourage consumers to sample more titles and discover more indie hits.

I’ve seen enough of these sagas to realize that sometimes parties will kick off these fights purely as a tactic to get their way in negotiations and avoid workarounds, but it’s a tactic that really only works when consumers have a reason to care. Most of the bigger App Store developer spats have played in the background and come to light later, but at this point the Xbox team undoubtedly sees that Apple isn’t positioned all that well to wage an App Store war in the midst of increased antitrust attention over a cause that seems wholly focused on maintaining their edge in monetizing the games consumers play on Apple screens.

CEO Tim Cook spent an awful lot of time in his Congressional Zoom room answering question about perceived anticompetitiveness on the company’s application storefront.

The big point of tension I could see happening behind closed doors is that plenty of these titles offer in-game transactions and just because that in-app purchase framework is being live-streamed from a cloud computer doesn’t mean that a user isn’t still using experiencing that content on an Apple device. I’m not sure whether this is actually the point of contention, but it seems like it would be a major threat to Apple’s ecosystem-wide in-app purchase raking.

The App Store does not currently support cloud gaming on Nvidia’s GeForce platform or Google’s Stadia which are also both available on Android phones. Both of these platforms are more limited in scope than Microsoft’s offering which is expected to launch with wider support and pick up wider adoption.

While I can understand Apple’s desire to not have gaming titles ship that might not function properly on an iPhone because of system constraints, that argument doesn’t apply so well to the cloud gaming world where apps are translating button presses to the cloud and the cloud is sending them back the next engine-rendered frames of their game. Apple is being forced to get pretty particular about what media types of apps fall under the “reader” designation. The inherent interactivity of a cloud gaming platform seems to be the differentiation Apple is pushing here — as well as the interfaces that allows gamers to directly launch titles with an interface that’s far more specialized than some generic remote desktop app.

All of these platforms arrive after the company already launched Apple Arcade, a non-cloud gaming product made in the image of what Apple would like to think are the values it fosters in the gaming world: family friendly indie titles with no intrusive ads, no bothersome micro-transactions and Apple’s watchful review.

Apple’s driver’s seat position in the gaming world has been far from a wholly positive influence for the industry. Apple has acted as a gatekeeper, but the fact is plenty of the “innovations” pushed through as a result of App Store policies have been great for Apple but questionable for the development of a gamer-friendly games industry.

Apple facilitated the advent of free-to-play games by pushing in-app purchases which have been abused recklessly over the years as studios have been irresistibly pushed to structure their titles around principles of addiction. Mobile gaming has been one of the more insane areas of Wild West startup growth over the past decade and Apple’s mechanics for fueling quick transactions inside these titles has moved fast and broken things.

Take a look at the 200 top grossing games in the App Store (data via Sensor Tower) and you’ll see that all 199 of them rely solely on in-app micro-transaction to reach that status — Microsoft’s Minecraft, ranked 50th costs $6.99 to download, though it also offers in-app purchases.

In 2013, the company settled a class-action lawsuit that kicked off after parents sued Apple for making it too easy for kids to make in-app purchases. In 2014, Apple settled a case with the FTC over the same mechanism for $32 million. This year, a lawsuit filed against Apple questioned the legality of “loot box” in-app purchases which gave gamers randomized digital awards.

“Through the games it sells and offers for free to consumers through its AppStore, Apple engages in predatory practices enticing consumers, including children to engage in gambling and similar addictive conduct in violation of this and other laws designed to protect consumers and to prohibit such practices,” read that most recent lawsuit filing.

This is, of course, not how Apple sees its role in the gaming industry. In a statement to Business Insider responding to the company’s denial of Microsoft’s xCloud, Apple laid out its messaging.

The App Store was created to be a safe and trusted place for customers to discover and download apps, and a great business opportunity for all developers. Before they go on our store, all apps are reviewed against the same set of guidelines that are intended to protect customers and provide a fair and level playing field to developers.

Our customers enjoy great apps and games from millions of developers, and gaming services can absolutely launch on the App Store as long as they follow the same set of guidelines applicable to all developers, including submitting games individually for review, and appearing in charts and search. In addition to the App Store, developers can choose to reach all iPhone and iPad users over the web through Safari and other browsers on the App Store.

The impact has — quite obviously — not been uniformly negative, but Apple has played fast and loose with industry changes when they benefit the mothership. I won’t act like plenty of Sony and Microsoft’s actions over the years haven’t offered similar affronts to gamers, but Apple exercises the industry-wide sway it holds, operating the world’s largest gaming platform, too often and gamers should be cautious in trusting the App Store owner to make decisions that have their best interests at heart.


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