This Week in Apps: Apple antitrust issues come to Congress, subscription apps boom, Tencent takes on TikTok

Welcome back to ThisWeek in Apps, the Extra Crunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.

The app industry is as hot as ever with a record 204 billion downloads in 2019 and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019, according to App Annie’s recently released “State of Mobile” annual report. People are now spending 3 hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

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

This week, there was a ton of app news. We’re digging into the latest with Apple’s antitrust issues, Tencent’s plan to leverage WeChat to fend off the TikTok threat, AppsFlyer’s massive new round, the booming subscription economy, Disney’s mobile game studio sale, Pokémon GO’s boost to tourism, Match Group’s latest investment and much more. And did you see the app that lets you use your phone from within a paper envelope? Or the new AR social network? It’s Weird App Week, apparently.

Headlines

Vine reboot Byte officially launches

Two years after Vine’s co-founder Dom Hofmann announced he was building a successor to the short-form video app, today Byte makes its debut on iOS and Android. Byte lets you shoot or upload and then share six-second videos. The tiny time limit necessitates no-filler content that’s denser than the maximum 1-minute clips on TikTok.

Byte comes equipped with standard social features like a feed, Explore page, notifications, and profiles. For now, though Byte lacks the remixability, augmented reality filters, transition effects, and other bonus features you’ll find in apps like TikTok .

What Hofmann hopes will differentiate Byte is an early focus on helping content creators make money — something TikTok, and other micro-entertainment apps largely don’t offer. The app plans to soon launch a pilot of its partner program for offering monetization options to people proving popular on Byte. When asked if Byte would offer ad revenue sharing, tipping, or other options to partners, Hofmann told me that “We’re looking at all of those, but we’ll be starting with a revenue share + supplementing with our own funds. We’ll have more details about exactly how the pilot program will work soon.”

Many creators who’ve grown popular on apps like TikTok and Snapchat that lack direct monetization have tried to pull their audiences over to YouTube where they can earn a steady ad-share. By getting started paying early, Byte might lure some of those dancers, comedians, and pranksters over to its app and be able to retain them long-term. Former Vine stars turned TikTok stars like Chris Melberger. Joshdarnit, and Lance Stewart are already on Byte.

Staying connected with Byte’s most loyal users is another way Hofmann hopes to set his app apart. He’s been actively running a beta tester forum since the initial Byte announcement in early 2018, and sees it as a way to find out what features to build next. “It’s always a bummer when the people behind online services and the people that actually use them are disconnected from one another, so we’re trying out these forums to see if we can do a better job at that” Hofmann writes.

Byte founder Dom Hofmann

Byte is a long time coming. To rewind all the way, Hofmann co-founded Vine in June 2012 with Colin Kroll and Rus Yusupov, but it was acquired by Twitter before its launch in January 2013. By that fall, Hofmann had left the company. But 2014 and 2015 saw Vine’s popularity grow thanks to rapid-fire comedy skits and the creativity unlocked by its looping effect. Vine reached over 200 million active users. Then the unthinkable happened. Desperate to cut costs, Twitter shut down Vine’s sharing feed in late 2016 so it wouldn’t have to host any more video content. The creative web mourned.

By then, Hofmann had already built the first version of Byte, which offered more free-form creation. You could pull together photos, GIFs, drawings and more into little shareable creations. But this prototype never gained steam. Hofmann gave Vine fans hope when he announced plans to build a successor called V2 in early 2018, but cancelled it a few months later. Hofmann got more serious about the project by then end of 2018, announcing the name Byte and then beginning beta testing in April 2019.

Now the big question will be whether Byte can take off despite its late start. Between TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, and more, do people need another short-form video app? Winning here will require seducing high quality creators who can get bigger view counts elsewhere. Considering there’s already a pile of TikTok competitors like Dubsmash, Triller, Firework, and Facebook’s Lasso available in the US, creators seeking stardom on a less competitive network already have plenty of apps to try. Hofmann may have to rely on the soft spot for Vine in people’s memories to get enough activity on Byte to recreate its predecessor’s magic.

The Pentagon pushes back on Huawei ban in bid for ‘balance’

Huawei may have just found itself an ally in the most unexpected of places. According to a new report out of The Wall Street Journal, both the Defense and Treasury Departments are pushing back on a Commerce Department-led ban on sales from the embattled Chinese hardware giant.

That move, in turn, has reportedly led Commerce Department officials to withdraw a proposal set to make it even more difficult for U.S.-based companies to work with Huawei.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper struck a fittingly pragmatic tone while speaking with the paper, noting, “We have to be conscious of sustaining those [technology] companies’ supply chains and those innovators. That’s the balance we have to strike.”

Huawei, already under fire for allegations of flouting sanctions with other countries, has become a centerpiece of a simmering trade war between the Trump White House and China. The smartphone maker has been barred from selling 5G networking equipment due to concerns over its close ties to the Chinese government.

Last year, meanwhile, the government barred Huawei from utilizing software and components from U.S.-based companies, including Google. Huawei is also expected to be a key talking point in upcoming White House discussions, as officials weigh actions against the repercussions they’ll ultimately have for U.S. partners.

The Commerce Department has yet to offer any official announcement related to the report.

Aki acquires Eyeview’s ad personalization tech

Video advertising company Eyeview shut down in December, but its technology will live on thanks to an acquisition by Aki Technologies.

Aki CEO Scott Swanson told me that he’s anticipating serious growth in the demand for ad personalization, particularly as consumers see personalization everywhere else online.

Swanson argued that Eyeview’s technology stands out thanks to its focus on video, with “the ability to generate millions of permutations of a video creative and store them in the cloud.” It offers even more opportunities when combined with Aki’s existing platform, which delivers ads targeted for specific “mobile moments,” like whether the viewer is relaxing at home or out running errands.

Plus, the acquisition allows Aki to expand beyond mobile advertising to desktop and connected TV.

The financial terms of the deal were not disclosed, but Swanson said that in addition to acquiring the technology, he’s also working to bring on old Eyeview clients and hire Eyeview team members (he estimated that he’s hired nearly 15 so far and is aiming for around 20). At the same time, he acknowledged that there are challenges in resurrecting a business that had been shut down.

“The technology itself was decommissioned, it was taken down, it was backed up in the cloud,” Swanson said. “As the acquisition proceeds, we’ll literally be taking the code base and relaunching it in the cloud … Hiring the people was super important, and then because it’s not a traditional acquisition where we get customers and stuff, we have to go call up all the customers one-by-one, just as we have to hire people one-by-one.”

Eyeview had raised nearly $80 million in funding before running out of cash and laying off a team of around 100 employees. (Aki, meanwhile, has raised only a seed round of $3.75 million back in 2016; Swanson said the company has grown organically since then.) The news came only a few months after digital media veteran Rob Deichert took over as CEO.

“While it was disappointing to have to shut down the Eyeview business, I’m very happy that the technology assets have found a home with Aki,” Deichert told me via email. “Their business is a logical fit for the technology.”

And despite Eyeview’s misfortunes, Swanson said he’s confident that the company still works as a standalone business: “Look, these guys have been running a business that was full of really happy customers who were seeing good results and seem to have been disappointed when they shut down.”

The bigger issue, he suggested, is the adtech industry as a whole, with advertisers feeling fatigued “with having too many options,” along with a lack of “appetite on the large exit side.”

“The broader trend here is for companies that operate profitably and can support themselves effectively to become a little bit more tech-enabled managed services business,” Swanson said.

NBC partners with Snapchat on four daily shows for 2020 Tokyo Olympics

Snapchat and NBC Olympics are again teaming up to produce customized Olympics content for users in the U.S. — this time, for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics this summer. The companies had previously worked together during the Rio 2016 and PyeongChang 2018 Olympics. The PyeongChang Olympic Winter Games in 2018 reached over 40 million U.S. users, up 25% from the 2016 Rio Olympics.

In addition, 95% of those users were under the age of 35.

This younger demographic is getting harder to reach in the cord-cutting era, as many people forgo pay-TV subscriptions and traditional broadcast networks in favor of on-demand streaming services, like Netflix. That limits the reach of advertisers, impacting NBC’s bottom line.

The Snap partnership helps to fix that, as it offers NBC Olympics a way to sell to advertisers who want to reach younger fans who don’t watch as much — or any — TV. Snapchat today reaches 90% of all 13 to 24 year-olds in the U.S., and 75% of all 13 to 34 year-olds. 210 million people now use Snapchat daily.

NBC Olympics says it’s the exclusive seller of all the new customized content associated with the Games, working in partnership with Snap.

This year, it’s also putting out more content than before.

The company plans to release more than 70 episodes across four daily Snapchat shows leading up to and during the Games. That’s triple the number of episodes it offered in 2018.

For the first time, it’s creating two daily Highlight Shows for Snapchat, which will be updated in near real-time. The shows will include the must-see moments from the day in Tokyo.

In addition, two unscripted shows will air during the Games, each with two episodes per day. One, “Chasing Gold,” which first debuted during PyeongChang 2018, will follow the journeys of Team USA athletes. The second show is new this year, and will be a daily recap of the most memorable moments curated especially for Snapchat users. Both are being produced by The NBCUniversal Digital Lab.

The deal will also see Snap curating daily Our Stories during the Games, as it has done in previous years. The stories will include photos and videos from fans as well as content from the NBC Olympics.

“We know the audience on Snap loves the Olympic Games,” said Gary Zenkel, President, NBC Olympics, in a statement. “After two successful Olympics together, we’re excited to take the partnership to another level and produce even more content and coverage from the Tokyo Olympics tailored for Snapchatters, which also will directly benefit the many NBC Olympics advertisers who seek to engage further with this young and active demographic.”

Snapchat isn’t the only digital destination for Olympics content, however. NBC and Twitter teamed up to stream limited live event coverage, highlights and a daily Olympics show from the Tokyo Games. It was unclear at the time the deal was announced if NBC had opted for Twitter over Snapchat. Now we know that’s not the case — in fact, Snap’s deal with NBC is even bigger than before.

NBCU had said earlier, it expected to exceed $1.2 billion in ad sales for the 2020 Games, which are also presented on NBC, NBCSN, Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA, and NBC Sports’ digital platforms.

Yo Facebook & Instagram, stop showing Stories reruns

If I watch a Story cross-posted from Instagram to Facebook on either of the apps, it should appear as “watched” at the back of the Stories row on the other app. Why waste my time showing me Stories I already saw?

It’s been over two years since Instagram Stories launched cross-posting to Stories. Countless hours of each feature’s 500 million daily users have been squandered viewing repeats. Facebook and Messenger already synchronized the watched/unwatched state of Stories. It’s long past time that this was expanded to encompass Instagram.

I asked Facebook and Instagram if it had plans for this. A company spokesperson told me that it built cross-posting to make sharing easier to people’s different audiences on Facebook and Instagram, and it’s continuing to explore ways to simplify and improve Stories. But they gave no indication that Facebook realizes how annoying this is or that a solution is in the works.

The end result if this gets fixed? Users would spend more time watching new content, more creators would feel seen, and Facebook’s choice to jam Stories in all its apps would fee less redundant and invasive. If I send a reply to a Story on one app, I’m not going to send it or something different when I see the same Story on the other app a few minutes or hours later. Repeated content leads to more passive viewing and less interactive communication with friends, despite Facebook and Instagram stressing that its this zombie consumption that’s unhealthy.

The only possible downside to changing this could be fewer Stories ad impressions if secondary viewings of peoples’ best friends’ Stories keep them watching more than new content. But prioritizing making money over the user experience is again what Mark Zuckerberg has emphasized is not Facebook’s strategy.

There’s no need to belabor the point any further. Give us back our time. Stop the reruns.

2020 will be a moment of truth for foldable devices

Phones were not the centerpiece at the recently wrapped Consumer Electronics Show; I’ll probably repeat this point a few more times over the course of this piece, just so we’re clear. This is due, in no small part, to the fact that Mobile World Congress has mostly usurped that role.

There are always a smattering of announcements at CES, however. Some companies like to get out ahead of the MWC rush or just generally use the opportunity to better spread out news over the course of the year. As with other categories, CES’s timing positions the show nicely as a kind of sneak preview for the year’s biggest trends.

A cursory glance at the biggest smartphone news from the show points to the continuation of a couple of key trends. The first is affordability. Samsung leads the pack here with the introduction of two “Lite” versions of its flagship devices, the Galaxy S10 and Note 10. The addition of the line lent some confusion to Samsung’s strategy amongst a handful of tech analysts around where precisely such devices would slot in the company’s portfolio.

AppsFlyer raises $210M for ad attribution and more

AppsFlyer has raised a massive Series C of $210 million led by General Atlantic.

Founded in 2011, the company is best known for mobile ad attribution — allowing advertisers to see which campaigns are driving results. At the same time, AppsFlyer has expanded into other areas like fraud prevention.

And in the funding announcement, General Atlantic Manager Director Alex Crisses suggested that there’s a broader opportunity here.

“Attribution is becoming the core of the marketing tech stack, and AppsFlyer has established itself as a leader in this fast-growing category,” Crisses said. “AppsFlyer’s commitment to being independent, unbiased, and representing the marketer’s interests has garnered the trust of many of the world’s leading brands, and we see significant potential to capture additional opportunity in the market.”

Crisses and General Atlantic’s co-president and global head of technology Anton Levy are both joining AppsFlyer’s board of directors. Previous investors Qumra Capital, Goldman Sachs Growth, DTCP (Deutsche Telekom Capital Partners), Pitango Venture Capital and Magma Venture Partners also participated in the round, which brings the company’s total funding to $294 million.

AppsFlyer said it works with more than 12,000 customers including eBay, HBO, Tencent, NBC Universal, Minecraft, US Bank, Macy’s and Nike. It also says it saw more than $150 million in annual recurring revenue in 2019, up 5x from its Series C in 2017.

Co-founder and CEO Oren Kaniel said that as attribution becomes more important, marketers need a partner they can trust. And with AppsFlyer driving $28 billion in ad spend last year, he argued, “There’s a lot of trust there.”

Kaniel added, “It doesn’t really matter how sophisticated your marketing stack is, or whether you have AI or machine learning — if the data feed is wrong … everything else will be wrong. I think companies realize how sensitive and critical this data platform is for them. I think that in the past couple of years, they’re investing more in selecting the right platform.”

In order to ensure that trust, he said that AppsFlyer has avoided any conflicts of interest in its business model — a position that extends to fundraising, where Kaniel made sure not to raise money from any of the big players in digital advertising.

And moving forward, he said, “We will never go into media business, never go into media services. We want to maintain our independence, we want to maintain our previous unbiased positions.”

Kaniel also argued that while he doesn’t see regulations like Europe GDPR and California’s CCPA hindering ad attribution directly, the regulatory environment has justified AppsFlyer’s investment in privacy and security.

“Even more than just being in compliance, [with AppsFlyer], marketers all of a sudden have full control of their data,” he said. “Let’s say on the web, probably your website is sending data and information to partners who don’t need to have access to this ifnormation. The reason is, there’s no logic, there’s a lot of pixels going everywhere, the publishers don’t have control. If you use our platform, you have full control, you can configure the exact data points that you’d like to share.”

Samsung invests $500M to set up a smartphone display plant in India

Samsung, which once led India’s smartphone market, is investing $500 million in its India operations to set up a manufacturing plant at the outskirts of New Delhi to produce displays.

The company disclosed the investment and its plan in a filing to the local regulator earlier this month. The South Korean giant said the plant would produce displays for smartphones as well as a wide-range of other electronics devices.

In the filing, the company disclosed that it has allocated some land area from its existing factory in Noida for the new plant.

In 2018, Samsung opened a factory in Noida that it claimed was the world’s largest mobile manufacturing plant. For that factory, the company had committed to spend about $700 million.

The new plant should help Samsung further increase its capacity to produce smartphone components locally and access a range of tax benefits that New Delhi offers.

Those benefits would come in handy to the company as it faces off Xiaomi, the Chinese smartphone vendor that put an end to Samsung’s lead in India.

Samsung is now the second largest smartphone player in India, which is the world’s second largest market with nearly 500 million smartphone users. The company in recent months has also lost market share to Chinese brand Realme, which is poised to take over the South Korean giant in the quarter that ended in December last year, according to some analysts.

TechCrunch has reached out to Samsung for comment.

TechCrunch’s Top 10 investigative reports from 2019

Facebook spying on teens, Twitter accounts hijacked by terrorists, and sexual abuse imagery found on Bing and Giphy were amongst the ugly truths revealed by TechCrunch’s investigating reporting in 2019. The tech industry needs more watchdogs than ever as its size enlargens the impact of safety failures and the abuse of power. Whether through malice, naivety, or greed, there was plenty of wrongdoing to sniff out.

Led by our security expert Zack Whittaker, TechCrunch undertook more long-form investigations this year to tackle these growing issues. Our coverage of fundraises, product launches, and glamorous exits only tell half the story. As perhaps the biggest and longest running news outlet dedicated to startups (and the giants they become), we’re responsible for keeping these companies honest and pushing for a more ethical and transparent approach to technology.

If you have a tip potentially worthy of an investigation, contact TechCrunch at [email protected] or by using our anonymous tip line’s form.

Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Here are our top 10 investigations from 2019, and their impact:

Facebook pays teens to spy on their data

Josh Constine’s landmark investigation discovered that Facebook was paying teens and adults $20 in gift cards per month to install a VPN that sent Facebook all their sensitive mobile data for market research purposes. The laundry list of problems with Facebook Research included not informing 187,000 users the data would go to Facebook until they signed up for “Project Atlas”, not receiving proper parental consent for over 4300 minors, and threatening legal action if a user spoke publicly about the program. The program also abused Apple’s enterprise certificate program designed only for distribution of employee-only apps within companies to avoid the App Store review process.

The fallout was enormous. Lawmakers wrote angry letters to Facebook. TechCrunch soon discovered a similar market research program from Google called Screenwise Meter that the company promptly shut down. Apple punished both Google and Facebook by shutting down all their employee-only apps for a day, causing office disruptions since Facebookers couldn’t access their shuttle schedule or lunch menu. Facebook tried to claim the program was above board, but finally succumbed to the backlash and shut down Facebook Research and all paid data collection programs for users under 18. Most importantly, the investigation led Facebook to shut down its Onavo app, which offered a VPN but in reality sucked in tons of mobile usage data to figure out which competitors to copy. Onavo helped Facebook realize it should acquire messaging rival WhatsApp for $19 billion, and it’s now at the center of anti-trust investigations into the company. TechCrunch’s reporting weakened Facebook’s exploitative market surveillance, pitted tech’s giants against each other, and raised the bar for transparency and ethics in data collection.

Protecting The WannaCry Kill Switch

Zack Whittaker’s profile of the heroes who helped save the internet from the fast-spreading WannaCry ransomware reveals the precarious nature of cybersecurity. The gripping tale documenting Marcus Hutchins’ benevolent work establishing the WannaCry kill switch may have contributed to a judge’s decision to sentence him to just one year of supervised release instead of 10 years in prison for an unrelated charge of creating malware as a teenager.

The dangers of Elon Musk’s tunnel

TechCrunch contributor Mark Harris’ investigation discovered inadequate emergency exits and more problems with Elon Musk’s plan for his Boring Company to build a Washington D.C.-to-Baltimore tunnel. Consulting fire safety and tunnel engineering experts, Harris build a strong case for why state and local governments should be suspicious of technology disrupters cutting corners in public infrastructure.

Bing image search is full of child abuse

Josh Constine’s investigation exposed how Bing’s image search results both showed child sexual abuse imagery, but also suggested search terms to innocent users that would surface this illegal material. A tip led Constine to commission a report by anti-abuse startup AntiToxin (now L1ght), forcing Microsoft to commit to UK regulators that it would make significant changes to stop this from happening. However, a follow-up investigation by the New York Times citing TechCrunch’s report revealed Bing had made little progress.

Expelled despite exculpatory data

Zack Whittaker’s investigation surfaced contradictory evidence in a case of alleged grade tampering by Tufts student Tiffany Filler who was questionably expelled. The article casts significant doubt on the accusations, and that could help the student get a fair shot at future academic or professional endeavors.

Burned by an educational laptop

Natasha Lomas’ chronicle of troubles at educational computer hardware startup pi-top, including a device malfunction that injured a U.S. student. An internal email revealed the student had suffered a “a very nasty finger burn” from a pi-top 3 laptop designed to be disassembled. Reliability issues swelled and layoffs ensued. The report highlights how startups operating in the physical world, especially around sensitive populations like students, must make safety a top priority.

Giphy fails to block child abuse imagery

Sarah Perez and Zack Whittaker teamed up with child protection startup L1ght to expose Giphy’s negligence in blocking sexual abuse imagery. The report revealed how criminals used the site to share illegal imagery, which was then accidentally indexed by search engines. TechCrunch’s investigation demonstrated that it’s not just public tech giants who need to be more vigilant about their content.

Airbnb’s weakness on anti-discrimination

Megan Rose Dickey explored a botched case of discrimination policy enforcement by Airbnb when a blind and deaf traveler’s reservation was cancelled because they have a guide dog. Airbnb tried to just “educate” the host who was accused of discrimination instead of levying any real punishment until Dickey’s reporting pushed it to suspend them for a month. The investigation reveals the lengths Airbnb goes to in order to protect its money-generating hosts, and how policy problems could mar its IPO.

Expired emails let terrorists tweet propaganda

Zack Whittaker discovered that Islamic State propaganda was being spread through hijacked Twitter accounts. His investigation revealed that if the email address associated with a Twitter account expired, attackers could re-register it to gain access and then receive password resets sent from Twitter. The article revealed the savvy but not necessarily sophisticated ways terrorist groups are exploiting big tech’s security shortcomings, and identified a dangerous loophole for all sites to close.

Porn & gambling apps slip past Apple

Josh Constine found dozens of pornography and real-money gambling apps had broken Apple’s rules but avoided App Store review by abusing its enterprise certificate program — many based in China. The report revealed the weak and easily defrauded requirements to receive an enterprise certificate. Seven months later, Apple revealed a spike in porn and gambling app takedown requests from China. The investigation could push Apple to tighten its enterprise certificate policies, and proved the company has plenty of its own problems to handle despite CEO Tim Cook’s frequent jabs at the policies of other tech giants.

Bonus: HQ Trivia employees fired for trying to remove CEO

This Game Of Thrones-worthy tale was too intriguing to leave out, even if the impact was more of a warning to all startup executives. Josh Constine’s look inside gaming startup HQ Trivia revealed a saga of employee revolt in response to its CEO’s ineptitude and inaction as the company nose-dived. Employees who organized a petition to the board to remove the CEO were fired, leading to further talent departures and stagnation. The investigation served to remind startup executives that they are responsible to their employees, who can exert power through collective action or their exodus.

If you have a tip for Josh Constine, you can reach him via encrypted Signal or text at (585)750-5674, joshc at TechCrunch dot com, or through Twitter DMs