A bug in a popular iPhone app exposed thousands of call recordings

A security vulnerability in a popular iPhone call recording app exposed thousands of users’ recorded conversations.

The flaw was discovered by Anand Prakash, a security researcher and founder of PingSafe AI, who found that the aptly named Call Recorder app allowed anyone to access the call recordings from other users — by knowing their phone number.

But using a readily available proxy tool like Burp Suite, Prakash could view and modify the network traffic going in and out of the app. That meant he could replace his phone number registered with the app with the phone number of another app user, and access their recordings on his phone.

TechCrunch verified Prakash’s findings using a spare phone with a dedicated account.

The app stores its user’s call recordings on a cloud storage bucket hosted on Amazon Web Services. Although the public was open and lists the files inside, the files could not be accessed or downloaded. The bucket was closed by press time.

At the time of writing, the cloud storage bucket had more than 130,000 audio recordings, amounting to some 300 gigabytes. The app says it has more than 1 million downloads to date.

TechCrunch contacted the app developer and held this story until the flaw was fixed. A new version of the app was submitted to Apple’s app store on Saturday. The release notes said the app update was to “patch a security report.”

Despite a brief response to our initial email acknowledging the security issue, the app developer Arun Nair has not returned several requests for comment.


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Clubhouse is now blocked in China after a brief uncensored period

Thousands of Chinese users suddenly found themselves unable to access Clubhouse on early Monday evening as the country prepared to start the week-long Lunar New Year holiday. Inside WeChat groups, Clubhouse users rushed to report the situation and help each other with ways to get back onto the red hot live audio app.

Audio drop-in startup Clubhouse was rapidly gaining steam in China, attracting a bevy of users early on to conversations on a wide range of topics. The app seemed likely to meet the fate of other U.S.-based apps and services, however – namely, a ban – and as of Monday, that indeed what Clubhouse faces, as confirmed by TechCrunch. Clubhouse is no longer available to users in China, and is unlikely to return given how much the app’s model would have to change to comply with Chinese internet regulation.

Notice received by users in China when trying to access Clubhouse as of Monday.

Clubhouse has faced criticism at home in the U.S. for its lack of effective moderation and abuse-prevention practices, so it’s hardly a surprise that it has fallen afoul of China’s rather more strict enforcement of measures designed to stifle the spread information the government deems inappropriate for discussion. The app was also not officially available via Apple’s China App Store, though access to it and its audio rooms was, before today, freely available without use of a VPN provided a user had the app installed on their device.

As Clubhouse was not listed on the Chinese App Store, so it’s unclear how many people from mainland China were on the platform. A room discussing the 1989 pro-democracy Tiananmen protest, a taboo topic in China, reached the maximum number of participants at 5,000 on Friday. Some users are reporting inside WeChat groups that they can no longer receive verification codes at their Chinese phone numbers, which could provide additional clues to the level of blockage. Users in China used their Chinese phone numbers to sign up for Clubhouse, and those are linked to their real ID in the country, which means there are potential risks for those who registered.

In the past two weeks, Clubhouse soared in popularity within a few communities in mainland China, including people in startups, investment, academic, or those with overseas background. Many of them were aware the app wouldn’t last long in China given free and often political debates frequented the platform. Clubhouse rooms titled “How long will Clubhouse last in China” and “Have you been invited to have tea for using Clubhouse?” attracted big crowds. “Having tea” is a euphemism for being taken away for interrogation by the police.

As TechCrunch noted on Saturday, Clubhouse’s early success prior to this shutdown has already prompted the creation of a number of homegrown alternatives designed around drop-in audio networking. Clubhouse’s popularity in China, however, may be difficult to replicate for any of these similar efforts – for the same reasons the original app itself is now inaccessible within the country.

 

 

With a Great Firewall circumvention tool like a virtual private network (VPN), some users on mainland China managed to regain access to Clubhouse.

We will update with more information about the ban….

Apple Music, Books, iTunes, App Store and more are experiencing outages

Several high-level Apple services are experiencing issues and outages on Wednesday morning, Apple has confirmed. These issues are impacting a number of consumer-facing services including Apple Music and Radio, Apple Books, and the App Store platforms across both iOS devices and Mac.

For some users, the services are down. For example, there were reports circulating this morning that users were having problems streaming music through Apple Music or using iTunes. Other have noticed strange problems cropping up on the App Store — like app search results that only returned a small handful of top apps related to the search term.

Even when the services are partially up, they’re sometimes much slower to load than usual — meaning users may see blank pages for several seconds before the page is populated with its usual content.

Image Credits: Apple

At the time of the initial reports, Apple’s Status page didn’t reflect these issues, as it showed all services as being available. That has since changed. Now, the page displays outages are occurring across the App Store, Apple Book, Apple Music, Apple Music Radio, iTunes Store, Mac App Store, and Radio.

The Apple Support Twitter account has also posted about the outage, but has yet to provide details about what has happened or when it might be resolved.

What’s concerning is that the account replied to a tweet with a complaint from a user who said they couldn’t reset their password — an indication that the outages could be impacting other types of backend services, as well.

Apple says it’s working to provide us with more information on this, and we’ll update when the company has more to share.

Augmented reality and the next century of the web

Howdy friends, this is the web version of my Week in Review newsletter, it’s here to entice you to sign up and get it in your inbox every week.

Last week, I showcased how Twitter was looking at the future of the web with a decentralized approach so that they wouldn’t be stuck unilaterally de-platforming the next world leader. This week, I scribbled some thoughts on another aspect of the future web, the ongoing battle between Facebook and Apple to own augmented reality. Releasing the hardware will only be the start of a very messy transition from smartphone-first to glasses-first mobile computing.

Again, if you so desire you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny


The Big Thing

If the last few years of new “reality” tech has telegraphed anything, it’s that tech companies won’t be able to skip past augmented reality’s awkward phase, they’re going to have to barrel through it and it’s probably going to take a long-ass time.

The clearest reality is that in 2021 everyday users still don’t seem quite as interested in AR as the next generation of platform owners stand to benefit from a massive transition. There’s some element of skating to where the puck is going among the soothsayers that believe AR is the inevitable platform heir etc. etc., but the battle to reinvent mobile is at its core a battle to kill the smartphone before its time has come.

A war to remake mobile in the winner’s image

It’s fitting that the primary backers of this AR future are Apple and Facebook, ambitious companies that are deeply in touch with the opportunities they could’ve capitalized on if they could do it all over again.

While Apple and Facebook both have thousands of employees toiling quietly in the background building out their AR tech moats, we’ve seen and heard much more on Facebook’s efforts. The company has already served up several iterations of their VR hardware through Oculus and has discussed publicly over the years how they view virtual reality and augmented reality hardware converging. 

Facebook’s hardware and software experiments have been experimentations in plain sight, an advantage afforded to a company that didn’t sell any hardware before they started selling VR headsets. Meanwhile Apple has offered up a developer platform and a few well-timed keynote slots for developers harnessing their tools, but the most ambitious first-party AR project they’ve launched publicly on iOS has been a measuring tape app. Everything else has taken place behind closed doors.

That secrecy tends to make any reporting on Apple’s plans particularly juicy. This week, a story from Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman highlights some of Apple’s next steps towards a long-rumored AR glasses product, reporting that Apple plans to release a high-end niche VR device with some AR capabilities as early as next year. It’s not the most surprising but showcases how desperate today’s mobile kingpins are to ease the introduction of a technology that has the potential to turn existing tech stacks and the broader web on their heads.

Both Facebook and Apple have a handful of problems getting AR products out into the world, and they’re not exactly low-key issues:

  1. hardware isn’t ready
  2. platforms aren’t ready
  3. developers aren’t ready
  4. users don’t want it yet

This is a daunting wall, but isn’t uncommon among hardware moonshots. Facebook has already worked its way through this cycle once with virtual reality over several generations of hardware, though there were some key difference and few would call VR a mainstream success quite yet.

Nevertheless, there’s a distinct advantage to tackling VR before AR for both Facebook and Apple, they can invest in hardware that’s adjacent to the technologies their AR products will need to capitalize on, they can entice developers to build for a platform that’s more similar to what’s coming and they can set base line expectations for consumers for a more immersive platform. At least this would all be the case for Apple with a mass market VR device closer to Facebook’s $300 Quest 2, but a pricey niche device as Gurman’s report details doesn’t seem to fit that bill quite so cleanly.

The AR/VR content problem 

The scenario I’d imagine both Facebook and Apple are losing sleep over is that they release serviceable AR hardware into a world where they are wholly responsible for coming up with all the primary use cases.

The AR/VR world already has a hefty backlog of burnt developers who might be long-term bullish on the tech but are also tired of getting whipped around by companies that seem to view the development of content ecosystems simply as a means to ship their next device. If Apple is truly expecting the sales numbers of this device that Bloomberg suggests — similar to Valve’s early Index headset sales — then color me doubtful that there will be much developer interest at all in building for a stopgap device, I’d expect ports of Quest 2 content and a few shining stars from Apple-funded partners.

I don’t think this will me much of a shortcut for them.

True AR hardware is likely going to have different standards of input, different standards of interaction and a much different approach to use cases compared to a device built for the home or smartphone. Apple has already taken every available chance to entice mobile developers to embrace phone-based AR on iPhones through ARKit, a push they have seemed to back off from at recent developer-centric events. As someone who has kept a close eye on early projects, I’d say that most players in the space have been very underwhelmed by what existing platforms enable and what has been produced widely.

That’s really not great for Apple or Facebook and suggests that both of these companies are going to have to guide users and developers through use cases they design. I think there’s a convincing argument that early AR glasses applications will be dominated by first-party tech and may eschew full third-party native apps in favor of tightly controlled data integrations more similar to how Apple has approached developer integrations inside Siri.

But giving developers a platform built with Apple or Facebook’s own dominance in mind is going to be tough to sell, underscoring the fact that mobile and mobile AR are going to be platforms that will have to live alongside each other for quite a bit. There will be rich opportunities for developers to create experiences that play with 3D and space, but there are also plenty of reasons to expect they’ll be more resistant to move off of a mutually enriching mobile platform onto one where Facebook or Apple will have the pioneer’s pick of platform advantages. What’s in it for them?

Mobile’s OS-level winners captured plenty of value from top-of-funnel apps marketplaces, but the down-stream opportunities found mobile’s true prize, a vastly expanded market for digital ads. With the opportunity of a mobile do-over, expect to find pioneering tech giants pitching proprietary digital ad infrastructure for their devices. Advertising will likely be augmented reality’s greatest opportunity allowing the digital ads market to create an infinite global canvas for geo-targeted customized ad content. A boring future, yes, but a predictable one.

For Facebook, being a platform owner in the 2020s means getting to set their own limitations on use cases, not being confined by App Store regulations and designing hardware with social integrations closer to the silicon. For Apple, reinventing the mobile OS in the 2020s likely means an opportunity to more meaningfully dominate mobile advertising.

It’s a do-over to the tune of trillions in potential revenues.

What comes next

The AR/VR industry has been stuck in a cycle of seeking out saviors. Facebook has been the dearest friend to proponents after startup after startup has failed to find a speedy win. Apple’s long-awaited AR glasses are probably where most die-hards are currently placing their faith.

I don’t think there are any misgivings from Apple or Facebook in terms of what a wild opportunity this to win, it’s why they each have more people working on this than any other future-minded project. AR will probably be massive and change the web in a fundamental way, a true Web 3.0 that’s the biggest shift of the internet to date.

That’s doesn’t sound like something that will happen particularly smoothly.

I’m sure that these early devices will arrive later than we expect, do less than we expect and that things will be more and less different from the smartphone era’s mobile paradigms in ways we don’t anticipate. I’m also sure that it’s going to be tough for these companies to strong-arm themselves into a more seamless transition. This is going to be a very messy for tech platforms and is a transition that won’t happen overnight, not by a long shot.


Other things

The Loon is dead
One of tech’s stranger moonshots is dead, as Google announced this week that Loon, it’s internet balloon project is being shut down. It was an ambitious attempt to bring high-speed internet to remote corners of the world, but the team says it wasn’t sustainable to provide a high-cost service at a low price. More

Facebook Oversight Board tasked with Trump removal
I talked a couple weeks ago — what feels like a lifetime ago — about how Facebook’s temporary ban of Trump was going to be a nightmare for the company. I wasn’t sure how they’d stall for more time of a banned Trump before he made Facebook and Instagram his central platform, but they made a brilliant move, purposefully tying the case up in PR-favorable bureaucracy, tossing the case to their independent Oversight Board for their biggest case to date. More

Jack is Back
Alibaba’s head honcho is back in action. Alibaba shares jumped this week when the Chinese e-commerce giant’s billionaire CEO Jack Ma reappeared in public after more than three months after his last public appearance, something that stoked plenty of conspiracies. Where he was during all this time isn’t clear, but I sort of doubt we’ll be finding out. More

Trump pardons Anthony Levandowski
Trump is no longer President, but in one of his final acts, he surprisingly opted to grant a full pardon to one Anthony Levandowski, the former Google engineer convicted of stealing trade secrets regarding their self-driving car program. It was a surprising end to one of the more dramatic big tech lawsuits in recent years. More

Xbox raises Live prices
I’m not sure how this stacks in importance relative to what else is listed here, but I’m personally pissed that Microsoft is hiking the price of their streaming subscription Xbox Live Gold. It’s no secret that the gaming industry is embracing a subscription economy, it will be interesting to see what the divide looks like in terms of gamer dollars going towards platform owners versus studios. More

Musk offers up $100M donation to carbon capture tech
Elon Musk, who is currently the world’s richest person, tweeted out this week that he will be donating $100 million towards a contest to build the best technology for carbon capture. TechCrunch learned that this is connected to the Xprize organization. More details


Extra Things

I’m adding a section going forward to highlight some of our Extra Crunch coverage from the week, which dives a bit deeper into the money and minds of the moneymakers.

Hot IPOs hang onto gains as investors keep betting on tech
“After setting a $35 to $39 per-share IPO price range, Poshmark sold shares in its IPO at $42 apiece. Then it opened at $97.50. Such was the exuberance of the stock market regarding the used goods marketplace’s debut.
But today it’s worth a more modest $76.30 — for this piece we’re using all Yahoo Finance data, and all current prices are those from yesterday’s close ahead of the start of today’s trading — which sparked a question: How many recent tech IPOs are also down from their opening price?” More

How VCs invested in Asia and Europe in 2020
“Wrapping our look at how the venture capital asset class invested in 2020, today we’re taking a peek at Europe’s impressive year, and Asia’s slightly less invigorating set of results. (We’re speaking soon with folks who may have data on African VC activity in 2020; if those bear out, we’ll do a final entry in our series concerning the continent.)” More

Hello, Extra Crunch Community!
“We’re going to be trying out some new things around here with the Extra Crunch staff front and center, as well as turning your feedback into action more than ever. We quite literally work for you, the subscriber, and want to make sure you’re getting your money’s worth, as it were.” More


Until next week,
Lucas Matney

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.

 

Parler removed from Google Play store as Apple App Store suspension reportedly looms

Shortly after Twitter announced Friday afternoon that they were permanently suspending the account of President Trump, Google shared that they were removing Parler, a conservative social media app, from their Play Store immediately, saying in a statement that they were suspending the app until the developers committed to a moderation and enforcement policy that could handle objectionable content on the platform.

In a statement to TechCrunch, a Google spokesperson said:

“In order to protect user safety on Google Play, our longstanding policies require that apps displaying user-generated content have moderation policies and enforcement that removes egregious content like posts that incite violence. All developers agree to these terms and we have reminded Parler of this clear policy in recent months. We’re aware of continued posting in the Parler app that seeks to incite ongoing violence in the US. We recognize that there can be reasonable debate about content policies and that it can be difficult for apps to immediately remove all violative content, but for us to distribute an app through Google Play, we do require that apps implement robust moderation for egregious content. In light of this ongoing and urgent public safety threat, we are suspending the app’s listings from the Play Store until it addresses these issues.“

Parler’s Play Store page is currently down.

The conservative platform garnered attention this week after posts surfaced detailing threats of violence and planning around Tuesday’s chaotic Capitol building riots which led to the deaths of 5 people including a Capitol police officer. While more mainstream social media sites raced to take down violent content related to the riots, death threats and violence were easy to find across the Parler platform.

The app hosts accounts from a variety of conservative figures including many in the President’s family, though not the President himself.

On Friday, Buzzfeed News reported that Parler had received a letter from Apple informing them that the app would be removed from the App Store within 24 hours unless the company submitted an update with a moderation improvement plan. Parler CEO John Matze confirmed the action from Apple in a post on his Parler account where he posted a screenshot of the notification from Apple.

“We want to be clear that Parler is in fact responsible for all the user generated content present on your service and for ensuring that this content meets App Store requirements for the safety and protection of our users,” text from the screenshot reads. “We won’t distribute apps that present dangerous and harmful content.

The app remains available in the App Store, though users are currently complaining of technical issues.

We have reached out to Apple for additional comment.

Apple Fitness+ launches on December 14

Apple is launching its subscription fitness service, which is built mainly to complement Apple Watch, on December 14. Apple Fitness+ was first announced at Apple’s iPhone event in September, and will offer guided workouts on iPhone iPad and Apple TV, with live personal metrics delivered by the Apple Watch’s health metrics monitoring.

The fitness offering will cover 10 workout types at launch, including Hight Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), strength, yoga, dance, core, cycling, indoor walking and running, as well as rowing and cooldown. All cases are led by real trainers that Apple selected to record the interactive sessions, and they’re soundtracked from “today’s top artists” according to the company.

The interactive elements are fed mostly by Apple Watch stats, and will display heart rate metrics, countdown timers, and goal achievement ‘celebration’ graphics which display on the screen when a user fills up their Apple Watch Activity rings. This is a level of direct integration that’s similar to what Peloton achieves with its service, but without requiring a whole connected stationary bike or treadmill to work.

Other distinguishing features of the service include a recommendation engine that leverages data including previous Fitness+ courses taken by a user, as well as their Apple Watch Workout App data and other third-party health and fitness app integration information from Apple Health to recommend new workouts, trainers and exercise routines. Apple’s use of third-party integrations is particularly interesting here, since it’s using its platform advantage to inform its service personalization.

Image Credits: Apple

Apple is also committing to weekly updates of new content across all categories of workouts, with varying intensity and difficult levels. Anyone using Fitness+ can also share their workouts with friends and family, and compete with others directly in the app if they want.

There’s also an optional Apple Music integration, which allows users to favorite songs and playlists directly from workouts to add them to their library, but users won’t require Apple Music in order to access the music used for the training videos, which are divided into different selectable “styles” or genres.

Apple Fitness+ is available starting December 14, and will retail for $9.99 per month, or $79.99 when paid for a twelve month period up front. It’s also part of Apple’s new Apple One Premier service bundle alongside other services.

This is definitely a major competitive service launch to existing subscription fitness offerings, including Peloton. Apple’s bundle offering, along with its system’s flexibility and syncing across its devices, could make it an easier choice for beginners and those just getting started with more serious training, though the lack of live classes might be a downside for some.

Apple search crawler activity could signal a Google competitor, or a bid to make Siri a one-stop-shop

Encouraged by the spate of antitrust activity brewing in both the Justice Department and on Capitol Hill, Apple may be developing a search competitor to Google, according to a report in the Financial Times.

That would be a move ripe with irony as the push for an end to anti-competitive practices is seemingly creating greater competition among the largest companies which already dominate the technology industry rather than between those established companies and more nimble upstarts.

Signs of Apple’s resurgent interest in search technologies can be found in both a subtle but significant change to the latest version of the iOS 14 iPhone operating system and increasing activity from Apple’s spidering tools that are used to scour the web and refine search functionality, the Financial Times reported.

Apple is now showing its own search results and linking directly to websites when users type queries from its home screen in iOS 14. For context, this is a behavior that has been known for a while as people have seen the feature pop up in beta versions of iOS. And the search volume being up on Apple’s crawler is something that Jon Henshaw of Coywolf had noted back in August.

Sources cited by the Financial Times said that the change marked a significant step-change in Apple’s in-house search development and could be the basis for a broader push into search.

The Cupertino, Calif.-based company certainly has the expertise. A little less than three years ago it nabbed Google’s head of search, John Giannandrea in what was widely seen as an attempt to shore up Apple’s foundations in artificial intelligence and voice search via Siri. Because of the way that Apple is organized internally, it’s unlikely that Giannandrea will be devoting full-time effort to both a potential “search product” and Siri . But it’s within the realm of possibility that he could be lending his expertise to a team working on a separate feature.

Any development of a search tool would be a third way for Apple, which now uses Google as its default search service thanks to a lucrative contract between the two (one that’s also at the heart of a Justice Department inquiry into Google’s purported anti-competitive activities around search). The only other major search services on the market rely on Microsoft’s Bing to power their results.

While the signs do point to an actual uptick in activity, there could be an explanation for Apple’s crawler activity that’s less heavy on corporate skunkworks skulduggery and more in line with goals that Apple’s stated pretty clearly.

While the story about Apple getting into direct competition with Google on search makes for a great headline, the uptick in activity could be explained equally as rationally by Siri getting more search queries and being more of an interlocutor between Apple and search services like Google or Microsoft’s Bing. This disintermediation is something that Google began years ago and has even modified and expanded over the years to combat the same kind of behavior from Siri.

Some of this comes down to semantics. By “search engine” do we mean “a web site that people type queries into” or do we mean a voice assistant that steps in to white-label web results with its own sourcing. Cutting down on the brand presence of a monster like Google on your own platform is a powerful motivator for any competitor, no matter the space.

Making Siri a one-stop-shop could inoculate Apple in the scenario where they are forced to enable a search provider choice in the iOS onboarding flow by regulation. It won’t do anything to help Google though, who pays Apple billions because iOS users are worth way more than any other mobile web users to its business. Google, for its part, says that when people have a choice they still pick Google anyway. Perhaps another reason why making Siri the search equivalent of an overtalker is the strong play for Apple.

TechCrunch has reached out to Apple for comment and will update when we hear back.

Coalition for App Fairness, a group fighting for app store reforms, adds 20 new partners

The Coalition for App Fairness (CAF), a newly-formed advocacy group pushing for increased regulation over app stores, has more than doubled in size with today’s announcement of 20 new partners — just one month after its launch. The organization, led by top app publishers and critics including Epic Games, Deezer, Basecamp, Tile, Spotify and others, debuted in late September to fight back against Apple and Google’s control over app stores, and particularly the stores’ rules around in-app purchases and commissions.

The coalition claims both Apple and Google engage in anti-competitive behavior, as they require publishers to use the platforms’ own payment mechanisms, and charge 30% commission on these forced in-app purchases. In some cases, those commissions are collected from apps where Apple and Google offer a direct competitor. For example, the app stores commission Spotify, which competes with Google’s YouTube Music and Apple’s own Apple Music.

The group also calls out Apple more specifically for not allowing app publishers any other means of addressing the iOS user base except through the App Store that Apple controls. Google, however, allows apps to be sideloaded, so is less a concern on that platform.

The coalition launched last month with 13 app publishers as its initial members, and invited other interested parties to sign up to join.

Since then, CAF says “hundreds” of app developers expressed interest in the organization. It’s been working through applications to evaluate prospective members, and is today announcing its latest cohort of new partners.

This time, the app publishers aren’t necessarily big household names, like Spotify and Epic Games, but instead represent a wide variety of apps, ranging from studios to startups.

The apps also hail from a number of app store categories, including Business, Education, Entertainment, Developer Tools, Finance, Games, Health & Fitness, Lifestyle, Music, Navigation, News, Productivity, Shopping, Sport, and Travel.

The new partners include: development studio Beonex, health app Breath Ball, social app Challenge by Eristica, shopping app Cladwell, fitness app Down Dog Yoga, developer tool Gift Card Offerwall, game maker Green Heart Games, app studio Imagine BC, business app Passbase, music app Qobuz, lifestyle app QuackQuack and Qustodio, game Safari Forever, news app Schibsted, app studio Snappy Mob, education app SpanishDict, navigation app Sygic, app studio Vertical Motion, education app YARXI, and the Mobile Marketing Marketing Association.

With the additions, CAF now includes members from Austria, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, India, Israel, Malaysia, Norway, Singapore, Slovakia, Spain, United Kingdom, and the United States.

The new partners have a range of complaints against the app stores, and particularly Apple.

SpanishDict, for instance, was frustrated by weeks of rejections with no recourse and inconsistently applied policies, it says. It also didn’t want to use Apple’s new authentication system, Apple Sign-In, but Apple made this a requirement for being included on the App Store.

Passbase, a Sign In With Apple competitor, also argues that Apple applied its rules unfairly, denying its submission but allowing its competitors on the App Store.

While some of the app partners are speaking out against Apple for the first time, others have already detailed their struggles publicly.

Eristica posted on its own website how Apple shut down its seven-year old social app business, which allowed users to challenge each other to dares to raise money for charity. The company claims it pre-moderated the content to ensure dangerous and harmful content wasn’t published, and employed human moderators, but was still rejected over dangerous content.

Meanwhile, TikTok remained on the App Store, despite hosting harmful challenges, like the pass out challenge, cereal challenge, salt and ice challenge and others, Eristica says.

Apple, of course, tends to use its policies to shape what kind of apps it wants to host on its App Store — and an app that focused on users daring one another may have been seen as a potential liability.

That said, Eristica presents a case where it claims to have followed all the rules and made all the changes Apple said it wanted, and yet still couldn’t get back in.

Down Dog Yoga also recently made waves by calling out Apple for rejecting its app because it refused to auto-charge customers at the end of its free trial.

The issue, in this case, wasn’t just that Apple wants a cut of developers’ businesses, it also wanted to dictate how those businesses are run.

Another new CAF partner, Qustodio, was among the apps impacted by Apple’s 2018 parental control app ban, which arrived shortly after Apple introduced its own parental control software in iOS.

The app developer had then co-signed a letter asking Apple release a Screen Time API rather than banning parental control apps — a consideration that TechCrunch had earlier suggested should have been Apple’s course of action in the first place.

Under increased regulatory scrutiny, Apple eventually relented and allowed the apps back on the App Store last year.

Not all partners are some little guy getting crushed by App Store rules. Some may have run afoul of rules designed to protect consumers, like Apple’s crackdown on offerwalls. Gift Card Offerwall’s SDK, for example, was used to incentivize app monetization and in-app purchases, which isn’t something consumers tend to welcome.

Despite increased regulatory pressure and antitrust investigations in their business practices, both Apple and Google have modified their app store rules in recent weeks to ensure they’re clear about their right to collect in-app purchases from developers.

Meanwhile, Apple and CAF member Epic Games are engaged in a lawsuit over the Fortnite ban, as Epic chose to challenge the legality of the app store business model in the court system.

Other CAF members, including Spotify and Tile, have testified in antitrust investigations against Apple’s business practices, as well.

“Apple must be held accountable for its anticompetitive behavior. We’re committed to creating a level playing field and fair future, and we’re just getting started,” CAF said in an announcement about the new partners. It says it’s still open to new members.

Live from Apple’s virtual 2020 iPhone event

Apple’s big iPhone event is finally here – virtually, which is to be expected these days. This is already the second virtual event Apple has hosted this fall, following one in September at which it revealed the Apple Watch Series 6 and a new iPad Air. This time around, we’re going to see what the iPhone 12 looks like, as well as how many colors and sizes it comes in.

There’s also supposed to be plenty of other news, including a new smaller HomePod mini, maybe an updated Apple TV, possibly a number of different headphone products and more. Will we get our first glance at the first shipping ARM-based Mac to use Apple’s in-house processors? Probably not, but maybe!

We’re going to be following along live and offering commentary below, and you can also tune in live to the video stream right here. Everything gets underway at 10 AM PT/ 1 PM ET.