This Week in Apps: Apple’s big event, lidar comes to iPhone, Android gets a new IDE

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

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

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

Top Story

Apple introduces four new iPhones (and more)

Apple hosted its iPhone event this week, where it introduced the new iPhone 12… and the iPhone 12 mini, the iPhone 12 Pro and the iPhone 12 Pro Max — effectively plugging all the holes in the market. With the release of the four new iPhones, app developers will have a range of devices to build for, from small to very large — the 12 Pro Max, for example, introduces the iPhone’s biggest-ever screen and the highest resolution, at nearly 3.5M pixels.

It also, of course, includes serious camera improvements, from a redesign of the three-lens system to including a new deeper telephoto camera, now a 65 mm-equivalent instead of 52 mm, as on previous models. There’s also an improved wide-angle lens, larger sensor, the addition of sensor-level image stabilization and a revamped Night Mode. Photographers will appreciate the new Apple ProRAW format, as well. (More on that here).

The iPhone 12 mini, meanwhile, aims to serve the customer base that prefers a smaller phone, like the iPhone SE, but without sacrificing functionality.

All the devices share some key features, including 5G connectivity, the new MagSafe connector for wireless charging and snap-on magnetic accessories, OLED displays and the A14 chip. They also have a more classic look, with straight edges that allow for additional antennas, providing next-gen wireless connectivity.

One of the bigger differences, however, between the Pro models and the regular iPhone 12 is the addition of the LiDAR Scanner, which is also found in the latest iPad Pro. The scanner measures how long it takes for light to reach an object and reflect back. The new depth-sensing technology has big implications for AR, as it allows augmented reality objects to interact with objects in the real world. AR apps will be more user-friendly, too, as they won’t need to first scan the room to place the AR object in the real world. It can be placed instantly.

Apple is leveraging the sensor for the iPhone 12 Pro camera to offer up to 6x faster focus in low-light conditions. Developers, meanwhile, can leverage lidar for use cases like AR-enabled games that work in the real world, social media (like Snapchat’s new lidar-powered Lens), home design and improvement apps involving room scans, spatial layout planning (like JigSpace), better AR shopping experiences and more.

The company also announced an affordable version of its HomePod smart speaker, the $99 HomePod Mini. The item works best for those fully locked inside the Apple universe, as it will stream a handful of music services, but not one of the most popular — Spotify. However, Apple also introduced a nifty feature for the HomePod devices, Intercom, which lets you send announcements across the speakers. While Apple and Google have offered a similar feature for their smart speakers, Intercom also works across other Apple devices, including iPhone, iPod, AirPods and even CarPlay. (What, no Mac?)

If Apple isn’t too late to capture smart speaker market share, the new speaker could see more users adopting smart home devices they can voice control through the HomePod Mini.

During the event, Apple also subtly snubbed its nose at Epic’s Fortnite with the announcement that
League of Legends: Wild Rift would be coming to iPhone 12 to take advantage of its new 5G capabilities and A14 Bionic chip.

Weekly News Round-Up

Platforms

  • Lidar comes to iPhone 12 Pro. Developers can now build AR experiences that interact with real-world objects, and AR apps can now instantly place AR objects in the real world without scanning the room. The update will mean a huge increase in the usability of AR apps but is limited to the Pro model of iPhone for now. Snapchat is already using it.
  • Apple developers can now make their apps available for pre-order even earlier — up to 180 days before release on the App Store.
  • Android Studio 4.1 launches. The new, stable version of the IDE for building Android apps introduces better TensorFlow Lite support and a new database inspector. The team also fixed a whopping 2,370 bugs during this release cycle and closed 275 public issues.
  • Google introduces the Android for Cars library. The library, now in open beta, gives developers tools to design, develop and test new navigation, parking or charging apps for Android Auto. The Google Play Store will be enabled for publishing beta apps in the “coming months.”
  • Google stops selling music. The company no longer sells tracks and albums on its Play Store, shifting all its focus to YouTube Music. The latter also just launched on Apple Watch this week.

Trends

  • Shopping apps forecast. U.S. consumers were expected to spend 60M hours in Android shopping apps during Prime Day week, (which just wrapped) according to one forecast from App Annie.
  • Prime Day downloads grow. Sensor Tower estimates global installs of the Amazon app grew 23% year-over-year, to 684K, as Prime Day neared. Installs on Wednesday were up 33% to 750K. However, U.S. installs were down by 22% 10/13-10/14. Apptopia noted that app sessions, however, were up 27% year-over-year.
  • Shopping, Food & Drink app launches up more than 50% year-over-year. Shopping apps grew 52% while Food & Drink apps grew 60%, due to COVID-19 impacts, according to Sensor Tower.
  • Subscriptions. U.S. consumers spend $20.78 per month on app subscriptions, Adjust study says.
  • TikTok sale impact on ad industry. 73% of marketers said a TikTok sale in the U.S. would impact their 2021 advertising plans. 41% also believed the deal could allow Walmart to overtake Amazon in e-commerce.
  • Amazon expands AR experimentation to its boxes. The retailer launched a new AR application that works with QR codes on the company’s shipping boxes to create “interactive, shareable” AR experiences, like a pumpkin that comes to life.

Security

  • Robinhood said a “limited number” of its users’ accounts were hacked. The service itself was not hacked, but around 2,000 customers had accounts compromised by cybercriminals who first compromised users’ personal emails outside the trading app.

Other News

  • Zoom’s new events platform brings apps to video conferencing calls.
  • Messenger update brings new features, including cross-app communication with Instagram. The app gets fun features like chat themes, custom reactions and, soon, selfie stickers and vanish mode. But the bigger news is the (potentially anti-competitive) merging of Facebook’s chat platforms.
  • Life360 leverages TikTok teens’ complaints to start a dialogue and invent a new feature, “Bubbles,” which allows teens (or anyone) to share a generalized location instead of an exact one. The feature gives teens a bit more freedom to roam and make choices without so much parental oversight. Parents, meanwhile, can still be sure their teen is OK, as features like emergency SOS and crash alerts remain functional.
  • Must-read: The MacStories iOS and iPadOS 14 Review. Federico Viticci offers a 23-page deep dive into the latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system.

Funding and M&A

    • Future raises $24M Series B for its $150/mo workout coaching app amid at-home fitness boom. The app pairs users with real-life fitness coaching for personal training at home. The round was led by Trustbridge Partners with Caffeinated Capital and Series A investors Kleiner Perkins participating.
    • River raises $10.4M for its app offering news, events and other happenings from around the web, ranging from news stories from top publishers to sports to even notable tweets. The app presents the information in a real-time stream, browsed vertically. There’s also a “For You” page, similar to TikTok.
    • Roblox confidentially filed with the SEC to go public. This cross-platform gaming platform has boomed during coronavirus lockdowns. According to reports, the listing could double Robox’s $4B valuation.
    • Robo Adviser Wealthsimple raises $87M. The funding for the investing app with comparisons to Robinhood was led by Menlo Park-based Technology Crossover Ventures (TCV), valuing the business at $1B.
    • Fitness platform Playbook raises $9.3M. The company offers tools for personal trainers who want to make their own videos, which consumers then browse in Playbook’s mobile app. Backers include E.ventures, Michael Ovitz, Abstract, Algae Ventures, Porsche Ventures and FJ Labs.
    • Live streaming app Moment House raises $1.5M seed. The startup aims to recreate live events in a digital format. LA area investors invested, including Scooter Braun, Troy Carter, Kygo’s Palm Tree Crew and Jared Leto. Patreon chief executive Jack Conte and Sequoia Capital partner Jess Lee also participated.
    • Twilio acquires Segment for $3.2B to help developers build data-fueled apps.
    • E-learning platform Kahoot raises $215M from SoftBank. The Norwegian startup claims to have hosted 1.3 billion “participating players” in the last 12 months. The company’s gamified e-learning platform is used both in schools and in enterprise environments.

Downloads

Mycons

Mycons is a new app that makes it easier for users, including non-designers, to create and buy custom icons for their iOS home screen makeovers. In the app’s “Icon Studio,” users can create icons by swapping out the background, choosing a symbol and placing it on the icon accordingly. You can also create a whole set of icons in a batch export. If you don’t feel like designing your own, you can opt to purchase premade packs instead.

The app is a free download with a one-time, in-app purchase to unlock the fully functionality of the icon designer. The icon packs, which include different variations and matching wallpaper, range from $7.99-$9.99.

Spotify’s new iOS 14 widget

Image Credits: TechCrunch screenshot of Spotify widget

It’s here! The widget a number of people have waited for since the launch of the new version of iOS has arrived. 

The widget, which arrives in the latest version of the Spotify iOS app, comes in two sizes. The smaller widget will display just your most recently listened to item, while the medium-sized widget will instead show the five most recent items — four in a horizontal row and the most recent at the top. In that case, you can actually tap on the small thumbnail for which of the five you want to now stream to be taken directly to that page in the Spotify app. The widget also automatically updates its background color to match the thumbnail photo.

Former Apple engineer and autocorrect creator builds his first app, a word game called Up Spell

Former Apple software engineer and designer Ken Kocienda, whose work included the original iPhone and the development of touchscreen autocorrect, has created his first iOS app, Up Spell. The fast-paced, fun word game challenges users to spell all the words you can in two minutes and uses a lexicon of words Kocienda built to allow for the inclusion of proper names. A portion of app revenues are also being donated to a local food bank, so you can help give back while relieving stress through gaming.

Kocienda says he had never before made a standalone iOS app.

When he worked at Apple, all the code he wrote was integrated into a bigger iOS release. So when Kocienda got the idea to develop a game, he looked to obvious sources of inspiration: his past experiences with typing, keyboards and autocorrect.

The game’s lexicon was built first with the New General Service List to serve as its foundation. This was followed by weeks of writing small programs to generate lists of candidate words — like, by adding an “S” to existing words to pluralize them, for example. And hours more were spent scanning lists to choose the words to include.

Kocienda says he also wanted the game to be fun, and personally found it frustrating that other word games wouldn’t allow proper names.

“Many games accept words like PHARAOH and PYRAMID, but not NILE or EGYPT. This doesn’t make sense to me. These are all words!,” he says.

So he built his own list that includes thousands of proper names, then added to it more slang and contractions to expand it even further. That means you can spell a word like S’MORES, which involves an apostrophe, for example.

Image Credits: Up Spell

While support for a variety of words, including proper names, is the key way the gameplay differentiates from rivals, the app’s business model is also one that’s becoming less common these days: it’s a one-time paid download.

The app is a $1.99 download that lets you pay once to play forever. Today, many games in this same space use a freemium model where the app download itself is free, but you’re then nagged with in-app hooks to buy coins or tokens to advance gameplay or unlock certain features.

Kocienda’s decision to forgo this model was intentional, he explains.

“I made Up Spell a two-minute game without much in the way of gameplay gimmicks,” says Kocienda. “You just spell words. 2020 has been a rough year for everyone, and sometimes taking out two minutes to think about nothing but spelling a few words is just the kind of right kind of stress reliever,” he adds. “I hope Up Spell brings people a little unexpected happiness to their 2020.”

Also of note, 25 cents per download is being donated to the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank, which works to get food to vulnerable people in Kocienda’s area.

If all goes well, Up Spell may be followed by other games with a similar model, like a sounds or color-matching games, for instance.

The new game is a one-time paid download on the App Store.

 

Are high churn rates depressing earnings for app developers?

Ever since Apple opened up subscription monetization to more apps in 2016 — and enticed developers with an 85/15 split on revenue from customers that remain subscribed for more than a year — subscription monetization and retention has felt like the Holy Grail for app developers. So much so that Google quickly followed suit in what appeared to be an example of healthy competition for developers in the mobile OS duopoly.

But how does that split actually work out for most apps? Turns out, the 85/15 split — which Apple is keen to mention anytime developers complain about the App Store rev share — doesn’t have a meaningful impact for most developers. Because churn.

No matter how great an app is, subscribers are going to churn. Sometimes it’s because of a credit card expiring or some other billing issue. And sometimes it’s more of a pause, and the user comes back after a few months. But the majority of churn comes from subscribers who, for whatever reason, decide that the app just isn’t worth paying for anymore. If a subscriber churns before the one-year mark, the developer never sees that 85% split. And even if the user resubscribes, Apple and Google reset the clock if a subscription has lapsed for more than 60 days. Rather convenient… for Apple and Google.

Top mobile apps like Netflix and Spotify report churn rates in the low single digits, but they are the outliers. According to our data, the median churn rate for subscription apps is around 13% for monthly subscriptions and around 50% for annual. Monthly subscription churn is generally a bit higher in the first few months, then it tapers off. But an average churn of 13% leaves just 20% of subscribers crossing that magical 85/15 threshold.

In practice, what this means is that, for all the hype around the 85/15 split, very few developers are going to see a meaningful increase in revenue:

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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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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OneKey wants to make it easier to work without a desktop by integrating apps into mobile keyboards

“The app that you use the most on your phone and you don’t realize it is your keyboard,” says Christophe Barre the co-founder and chief executive of OneKey.

A member of Y Combinator’s most recent cohort, OneKey has a plan to make work easier on mobile devices by turning the keyboard into a new way to serve up applications like calendars, to-do lists, and, eventually, even Salesforce functionality.

People have keyboards for emojis, other languages, and gifs, but there have been few ways to integrate business apps into the keyboard functionality, says Barre. And he’s out to change that.

Right now, the company’s first trick will be getting a Calendly-like scheduling app onto the keyboard interface. Over time, the company will look to create modules that they can sell in an app-store style marketplace for the keyboard space on smartphones.

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For Barre, the inspiration behind OneKey was the time spent working in Latin America and primarily conducting business through WhatsApp. The tool was great for messaging, but enterprise functionality broke down across for scheduling or other enterprise app integrations.

“People are doing more and more stuff on mobile and it’s happening right now in business,” said Barre. “When you switch from a computer-based world to a mobile phone, a lot of the productivity features disappear.”

Barre, originally from the outskirts of Paris, traveled to Bogota with his partner. She was living there and he was working on a sales automation startup called DeepLook. Together with his DeepLook co-founder (and high school friend), Ulysses Pryjiel, Barre set out to see if he could bring some of the business tools he needed over to the mobile environment.

The big realization for Barre was the under-utilized space on the phone where the keyboard inputs reside. He thinks of OneKey as a sort of browser extension for mobile phones, centered in the keyboard real estate.

“The marketplace for apps is the longterm vision,” said Barre. “That’s how you bring more and more value to people. We started with those features like calendars and lists that brought more value quickly without being too specialized.”

The idea isn’t entirely novel. SwiftKey had a marketplace for wallpapers, Barre said, but nothing as robust as the kinds of apps and services that he envisions.

“If you can do it in a regular app, it’s very likely that you can do it through a keyboard,” Barre said.

Google One now offers free phone backups up to 15GB on Android and iOS

Google One, Google’s subscription program for buying additional storage and live support, is getting an update today that will bring free phone backups for Android and iOS devices to anybody who installs the app — even if they don’t have a paid membership. The catch: While the feature is free, the backups count against your free Google storage allowance of 15GB. If you need more you need — you guessed it — a Google One membership to buy more storage or delete data you no longer need. Paid memberships start at $1.99/month for 100GB.

Image Credits: Google

Last year, paid members already got access to this feature on Android, which stores your texts, contacts, apps, photos and videos in Google’s cloud. The “free” backups are now available to Android users. iOS users will get access to it once the Google One app rolls out on iOS in the near future.

Image Credits: Google

With this update, Google is also introducing a new storage manager tool in Google One, which is available in the app and on the web, and which allows you to delete files and backups as needed. The tool works across Google properties and lets you find emails with very large attachments or large files in your Google Drive storage, for example.

With this free backup feature, Google is clearly trying to get more people onto Google One. The free 15GB storage limit is pretty easy to hit, after all (and that’s for your overall storage on Google, including Gmail and other services) and paying $1.99 for 100GB isn’t exactly a major expense, especially if you are already part of the Google ecosystem and use apps like Google Photos already.

You can now install the first beta of Android 11

After a series of developer previews, Google today released the first beta of Android 11 and with that, it is also making these pre-release versions available for over-the-air updates. This time around, the list of supported devices only includes the Pixel 2, 3, 3a and 4.

If you’re brave enough to try this early version (and I wouldn’t do so on your daily driver until a few more people have tested it), you can now enroll here. Like always, Google is also making OS images available for download and an updated emulator is available, too.

Google says the beta focuses on three key themes: people, controls and privacy.

Like in previous updates, Google once again worked on improving notifications — in this case, conversation notifications, which now appear in a dedicated section at the top of the pull-down shade. From there, you will be able to take actions right from inside the notification or ask the OS to remind you of this conversation at a later time. Also new is built-in support in the notification system for what are essentially chat bubbles, which messaging apps can now use to notify you even as you are working (or playing) in another app.

Another new feature is consolidated keyboard suggestions. With these, Autofill apps and Input Method Editors (think password managers and third-party keyboards), can now securely offer context-specific entries in the suggestion strip. Until now, enabling autofill for a password manager, for example, often involved delving into multiple settings and the whole experienced often felt like a bit of a hack.

For those users who rely on voice to control their phones, Android now uses a new on-device system that aims to understand what is on the screen and then automatically generates labels and access points for voice commands.

As for controls, Google is now letting you long-press the power button to bring up controls for your smart home devices (though companies that want to appear in this new menu need to make use of Google’s new API for this). In one of the next beta releases, Google will also enable media controls that will make it easier to switch the output device for their audio and video content.

In terms of privacy, Google is adding one-time permissions so that an app only gets access to your microphone, camera or location once, as well as auto-resets for permissions when you haven’t used an app for a while.

A few months ago, Google said that developers would need to get a user’s approval to access background location. That caused a bit of a stir among developers and now Google will keep its current policies in place until 2021 to give developers more time to update their apps.

In addition to these user-facing features, Google is also launching a series of updates aimed at Android developers. You can read more about them here.

Data startup Axiom secures $4M from Crane Venture Partners, emerges from stealth

Axiom, a startup that helps companies deal with their internal data, has secured a new $4m seed round led by UK-based Crane Venture Partners, with participation from LocalGlobe, Fly VC and Mango Capital. Notable angel investors include former Xamarin founder and current GitHub CEO Nat Friedman and Heroku co-founder Adam Wiggins. The company is also emerging from a relative stealth mode to reveal that is has now raised $7m in funding since it was founded in 2017.

The company says it is also launching with an enterprise-grade solution to manage and analyze machine data “at any scale, across any type of infrastructure”. Axiom gives DevOps teams a cloud-native, enterprise-grade solution to store and query their data all the time in one interface – without the overhead of maintaining and scaling data infrastructure.

DevOps teams have spent a great deal of time and money managing their infrastructure, but often without being able to own and analyze their machine data. Despite all the tools at hand, managing and analyzing critical data has been difficult, slow and resource-intensive, taking up far too much money and time for organizations. This is what Axiom is addressing with its platform to manage machine data and surface insights, more cheaply, they say, that other solutions.

Co-founder and CEO Neil Jagdish Patel told TechCrunch: “DevOps teams are stuck under the pressure of that, because it’s up to them to deliver a solution to that problem. And the solutions that existed are quite, well, they’re very complex. They’re very expensive to run and time-consuming. So with Axiom, our goal is to try and reduce the time to solve data problems, but also allow businesses to store more data to query at whenever they want.”

Why did they work with Crane? “We needed to figure out how enterprise sales work and how to take this product to market in a way that makes sense for the people who need it. We spoke to different investors, but when I sat down with Crane they just understood where we were. They have this razor-sharp focus on how they get you to market and how you make sure your sales process and marketing is a success. It’s been beneficial to us as were three engineers, so you need that,” said Jagdish.

Commenting, Scott Sage, Founder and  Partner at Crane Venture Partners added: “Neil, Seif and Gord are a proven team that have created successful products that millions of developers use. We are proud to invest in Axiom to allow them to build a business helping DevOps teams turn logging challenges from a resource-intense problem to a business advantage.”

Axiom co-founders Neil Jagdish Patel, Seif Lotfy and Gord Allott, previously created Xamarin Insights that enabled developers to monitor and analyse mobile app performance in real-time for Xamarin, the open-source cross-platform app development framework. Xamarin was acquired by Microsoft for between $400 and $500 million in 2016. Before working at Xamarin, the co-founders also worked together at Canonical, the private commercial company behind the Ubuntu Project.

Germany ditches centralized approach to app for COVID-19 contacts tracing

Germany has U-turned on building a centralized COVID-19 contacts tracing app — and will instead adopt a decentralized architecture, Reuters reported Sunday, citing a joint statement by chancellery minister Helge Braun and health minister Jens Spahn.

In Europe in recent weeks, a battle has raged between different groups backing centralized vs decentralized infrastructure for apps being fast-tracked by governments which will use Bluetooth-based smartphone proximity as a proxy for infection risk — in the hopes of supporting the public health response to the coronavirus by automating some contacts tracing.

Centralized approaches that have been proposed in the region would see pseudonymized proximity data stored and processed on a server controlled by a national authority, such as a healthcare service. However concerns have been raised about allowing authorities to scoop up citizens’ social graph, with privacy experts warning of the risk of function creep and even state surveillance.

Decentralized contacts tracing infrastructure, by contrast, means ephemeral IDs are stored locally on device — and only uploaded with a user’s permission after a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis. A relay server is used to broadcast infected IDs — enabling devices to locally compute if there’s a risk that requires notification. So social graph data is not centralized.

The change of tack by the German government marks a major blow to a homegrown standardization effort, called PEPP-PT, that had been aggressively backing centralization — while claiming to ‘preserve privacy’ on account of not tracking location data. It quickly scrambled to propose a centralized architecture for tracking coronavirus contacts, led by Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute, and claiming the German government as a major early backer, despite PEPP-PT later saying it would support decentralized protocols too.

As we reported earlier, the effort faced strident criticism from European privacy experts — including a group of academics developing a decentralized protocol called DP-3T — who argue p2p architecture is truly privacy preserving. Concerns were also raised about a lack of transparency around who is behind PEPP-PT and the protocols they claimed to support, with no code published for review.

The European Commission, meanwhile, has also recommended the use of decentralization technologies to help boost trust in such apps in order to encourage wider adoption.

EU parliamentarians have also warned regional governments against trying to centralize proximity data during the coronavirus crisis.

But it was Apple and Google jumping into the fray earlier this month by announcing joint support for decentralized contacts tracing that was the bigger blow — with no prospect of platform-level technical restrictions being lifted. iOS limits background access to Bluetooth for privacy and security reasons, so national apps that do not meet this decentralized standard won’t benefit from API support — and will likely be far less usable, draining battery and functioning only if actively running.

Nonetheless PEPP-PT told journalists just over a week ago that it was engaged in fruitful discussions with Apple and Google about making changes to their approach to accommodate centralized protocols.

Notably, the tech giants never confirmed that claim. They have only since doubled down on the principle of decentralization for the cross-platform API for public health apps — and system-wide contacts tracing which is due to launch next month.

At the time of writing PEPP-PT’s spokesman, Hans-Christian Boos, had not responded to a request for comment on the German government withdrawing support.

Boos previously claimed PEPP-PT had around 40 governments lining up to join the standard. However in recent days the momentum in Europe has been going in the other direction. A number of academic institutions that had initially backed PEPP-PT have also withdrawn support.

In a statement emailed to TechCrunch, the DP-3T project welcomed Germany’s U-turn.

“DP-3T is very happy to see that Germany is adopting a decentralized approach to contact tracing and we look forward to its next steps implementing such a technique in a privacy preserving manner,” the group told us.

Berlin’s withdrawal leaves France and the UK the two main regional backers of centralized apps for coronavirus contacts tracing. And while the German U-turn is certainly a hammer blow for the centralized camp in Europe the French government appears solid in its support — at least for now.

France has been developing a centralized coronavirus contacts tracing protocol, called ROBERT, working with Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute and others.

In an opinion issued Sunday, France’s data protection watchdog, the CNIL, did not take active issue with centralizing pseudonymized proximity IDs — saying EU law does not in principle forbid such a system — although the watchdog emphasized the need to minimize the risk of individuals being re-identified.

It’s notable that France’s digital minister, Cédric O, has been applying high profile public pressure to Apple over Bluetooth restrictions — telling Bloomberg last week that Apple’s policy is a blocker to the virus tracker.

Yesterday O was also tweeting to defend the utility of the planned ‘Stop Covid’ app.

We reached out to France’s digital ministry for comment on Germany’s decision to switch to a decentralized approach but at the time of writing the department had not responded.

In a press release today the government highlights the CNIL view that its approach is compliant with data protection rules, and commits to publishing a data protection impact assessment ahead of launching the app.

If France presses ahead it’s not clear how the country will avoid its app being ignored or abandoned by smartphone users who find it irritating to use. (Although it’s worth noting that Google’s Android platform has a substantial marketshare in the market, with circa 80% vs 20% for iOS, per Kantar.)

A debate in the French parliament tomorrow is due to include discussion of contacts tracing apps.

We’ve also reached out to the UK’s NHSX — which has been developing a COVID-19 contacts tracing app for the UK market — and will update this report with any response.

In a blog post Friday the UK public healthcare unit’s digital transformation division said it’s “working with Apple and Google on their welcome support for tracing apps around the world”, a PR line that entirely sidesteps the controversy around centralized vs decentralized app infrastructures.

The UK has previously been reported to be planning to centralize proximity data — raising questions about the efficacy of its planned app too, given iOS restrictions on background access to Bluetooth.

“As part of our commitment to transparency, we will be publishing the key security and privacy designs alongside the source code so privacy experts can ‘look under the bonnet’ and help us ensure the security is absolutely world class,” the NHSX’s Matthew Gould and Dr Geraint Lewis added in the statement.