Building customer-first relationships in a privacy-first world is critical

In business today, many believe that consumer privacy and business results are mutually exclusive — to excel in one area is to lack in the other. Consumer privacy is seen by many in the technology industry as an area to be managed.

But the truth is, the companies who champion privacy will be better positioned to win in all areas. This is especially true as the digital industry continues to undergo tectonic shifts in privacy — both in government regulation and browser updates.

By the end of 2022, all major browsers will have phased out third-party cookies — the tracking codes placed on a visitor’s computer generated by another website other than your own. Additionally, mobile device makers are limiting identifiers allowed on their devices and applications. Across industry verticals, the global enterprise ecosystem now faces a critical moment in which digital advertising will be forever changed.

Up until now, consumers have enjoyed a mostly free internet experience, but as publishers adjust to a cookieless world, they could see more paywalls and less free content.

They may also see a decrease in the creation of new free apps, mobile gaming and other ad-supported content unless businesses find new ways to authenticate users and maintain a value exchange of free content for personalized advertising.

The truth is, the companies who champion privacy will be better positioned to win in all areas.

When consumers authenticate themselves to brands and sites, they create revenue streams for publishers as well as the opportunity to receive discounts, first-looks and other specially tailored experiences from brands.

To protect consumer data, companies need to architect internal systems around data custodianship versus acting from a sense of data entitlement. While this is a challenging and massive ongoing evolution, the benefits of starting now are enormous.

Putting privacy front and center creates a sustainable digital ecosystem that enables better advertising and drives business results. There are four steps to consider when building for tomorrow’s privacy-centric world:

Transparency is key

As we collectively look to redesign how companies interact with and think about consumers, we should first recognize that putting people first means putting transparency first. When people trust a brand or publishers’ intentions, they are more willing to share their data and identity.

This process, where consumers authenticate themselves — or actively share their phone number, email or other form of identity — in exchange for free content or another form of value, allows brands and publishers to get closer to them.

Arm announces the next generation of its processor architecture

Arm today announced Armv9, the next generation of its chip architecture. Its predecessor, Armv8 launched a decade ago and while it has seen its fair share of changes and updates, the new architecture brings a number of major updates to the platform that warrant a shift in version numbers. Unsurprisingly, Armv9 builds on V8 and is backward compatible, but it specifically introduces new security, AI, signal processing and performance features.

Over the last five years, more than 100 billion Arm-based chips have shipped. But Arm believes that its partners will ship over 300 billion in the next decade. We will see the first ArmV9-based chips in devices later this year.

Ian Smythe, Arm’s VP of Marketing for its client business, told me that he believes this new architecture will change the way we do computing over the next decade. “We’re going to deliver more performance, we will improve the security capabilities […] and we will enhance the workload capabilities because of the shift that we see in compute that’s taking place,” he said. “The reason that we’ve taken these steps is to look at how we provide the best experience out there for handling the explosion of data and the need to process it and the need to move it and the need to protect it.”

That neatly sums up the core philosophy behind these updates. On the security side, ArmV9 will introduce Arm’s confidential compute architecture and the concept of Realms. These Realms enable developers to write applications where the data is shielded from the operating system and other apps on the device. Using Realms, a business application could shield sensitive data and code from the rest of the device, for example.

Image Credits: Arm

“What we’re doing with the Arm Confidential Compute Architecture is worrying about the fact that all of our computing is running on the computing infrastructure of operating systems and hypervisors,” Richard Grisenthwaite, the chief architect at Arm, told me. “That code is quite complex and therefore could be penetrated if things go wrong. And it’s in an incredibly trusted position, so we’re moving some of the workloads so that [they are] running on a vastly smaller piece of code. Only the Realm manager is the thing that’s actually capable of seeing your data while it’s in action. And that would be on the order of about a 10th of the size of a normal hypervisor and much smaller still than an operating system.”

As Grisenthwaite noted, it took Arm a few years to work out the details of this security architecture and ensure that it is robust enough — and during that time Spectre and Meltdown appeared, too, and set back some of Arm’s initial work because some of the solutions it was working on would’ve been vulnerable to similar attacks.

Image Credits: Arm

Unsurprisingly, another area the team focused on was enhancing the CPU’s AI capabilities. AI workloads are now ubiquitous. Arm had already done introduced its Scalable Vector Extension (SVE) a few years ago, but at the time, this was meant for high-performance computing solutions like the Arm-powered Fugaku supercomputer.

Now, Arm is introducing SVE2 to enable more AI and digital signal processing (DSP) capabilities. Those can be used for image processing workloads, as well as other IoT and smart home solutions, for example. There are, of course, dedicated AI chips on the market now, but Arm believes that the entire computing stack needs to be optimized for these workloads and that there are a lot of use cases where the CPU is the right choice for them, especially for smaller workloads.

“We regard machine learning as appearing in just about everything. It’s going to be done in GPUs, it’s going to be done in dedicated processors, neural processors, and also done in our CPUs. And it’s really important that we make all of these different components better at doing machine learning,” Grisenthwaite said.

As for raw performance, Arm believes its new architecture will allow chip manufacturers to gain more than 30% in compute power over the next two chip generations, both for mobile CPUs but also the kind of infrastructure CPUs that large cloud vendors like AWS now offer their users.

“Arm’s next-generation Armv9 architecture offers a substantial improvement in security and machine learning, the two areas that will be further emphasized in tomorrow’s mobile communications devices,” said Min Goo Kim, the executive vice president of SoC development at Samsung Electronics. “As we work together with Arm, we expect to see the new architecture usher in a wider range of innovations to the next generation of Samsung’s Exynos mobile processors.”

Co-founded by a leader of SpaceX’s missions operations, Epsilon3 wants to be the OS for space launches

Laura Crabtree spent a good chunk of her childhood watching rocket launches on television, and her entire professional career launching rockets, first at Northrup Grumman and then at SpaceX.

Now, the former senior missions operations engineer at SpaceX is the co-founder and chief executive of a new LA-based space startup called Epsilon3, which says it has developed the operating system for launch operations.

“The tools I had wanted did not exist,” said Crabtree. So when she left SpaceX to pursue her next opportunity, it was a no-brainer to try to develop the toolkit she never had, the first-time entrepreneur said. “I started looking at ways in which I could help the space industry become more efficient and reduce errors.”

Joining Crabtree in the new business is Max Mednik, a serial entrepreneur whose last company, Epirus, raised at least $144.7 million from investors including 8VC, Bedrock Capital and L3 Harris Technologies, and Aaron Sullivan, a former Googler who serves as the chief software engineer. Mednik worked at Google too before turning his attention to entrepreneurship. His previous businesses ranged from financial services software to legal services software, but Mednik also had an interest in aerospace. His first job offers out of school were with SpaceX, JPL and Google.

Part of a growing network of SpaceX alumni launching businesses, Epsilon3, like its fellow travelers First Resonance and Prewitt Ridge, is creating a product around an aspect of the design, manufacturing mission management and operations of rockets that had previously been handled manually or with bespoke tools.

“They make mission management software for the launchers and for the satellite companies that are going to be the payload of the rocket companies,” said Alex Rubalcava, the founder and managing partner of Stage Venture Partners, an investor in the company’s recent seed round. “It’s not just the design and spec but for when they’re actually working what are they doing; when you’re uplinking and downlinking data and changing software.”

Rubalcava acknowledged that the market for Epsilon3 is entirely new, but it’s growing rapidly.

“This was an analysis based on the fact that access to space used to be really expensive and used to be the provenance of governments and 10 or 20 commercial satellite operators in the world. And it was limited by the fact that there were only a handful of companies that could launch,” Rubalcava said. “Now all of a sudden there’s going to be 30 different space flights. Thirty different companies that have rockets… access to space used to scarce, expensive, and highly restricted and it’s no longer any of those things now.” 

Relativity Space's Terran 1 rocket, artist's rendering

Image Credits: Relativity Space

The demand for space services is exploding, with some analysts estimating that the launch services industry could reach over $18 billion by 2026.

“It’s a very similar story and we all come from different places within SpaceX,” said Crabtree. First Resonance provides software that moves from prototyping to production; Prewitt Ridge provides engineering and management tools; and Epsilon3 has developed an operating system for launch operations.

“You’ve got design development, manufacturing, integration tests and operations. We’re trying to support that integration of tests and operations,” said Crabtree. 

While First Resonance and Prewitt Ridge have applications in aerospace and manufacturing broadly, Crabtree’s eyes, and her company’s mission, remain fixed on the stars.

“We’re laser focused on space and proving out that the software works in the highest stakes and most complex environments,” said Mednik. There are applications in other areas that require complex workflows for industries as diverse as nuclear plant construction and operations, energy, mining and aviation broadly, but for now and the foreseeable future, it’s all about the space business.

Mednik described the software as an electronic toolkit for controlling and editing workflows and procedures. “You can think of it as Asana project management meets GitHub version control,” he said. “It should be for integration of subsystems or systems and operations of the systems.”

Named for the planet in “Babylon 5,” Epsilon3 could become an integral part of the rocket missions that eventually do explore other worlds. At least, that’s the bet that firms like Stage Venture Partners and MaC Ventures are making with their early $1.8 million investment into the business.

Right now, Epislon3’s early customers are coming from early-stage space companies that are using the platform for live launches. These would be companies like Stoke Space and other new rocket entrants. 

“For us, space and deep tech is hot,” said MaC Ventures co-founder and managing partner, Adrian Fenty. The former mayor of Washington noted the combination of Mednik’s serial entrepreneur status and Crabtree’s deep, deep expertise in the field.

“We had been looking at operating systems in general and thinking that there would be some good ones coming along,” Fenty said. In Epsilon3 the company found the combination of deep space, deep tech and a thesis around developing verticalized operating systems that ticked all the boxes. 

“In doing diligence for the company… you just see how big space is and will become as a business,” said Michael Palank, a co-founder and managing partner at MaC Ventures predecessor, M Ventures alongside Fenty. “A lot of the challenges here on Earth will and only can be solved in space. And you need better operating systems to manage getting to and from space.”

The view from Astra’s Rocket 3.2 second stage from space. Image Credits: Astra

BMW takes the wraps off the i4, its first all-electric sedan

BMW plans to have 25 electrified cars in its lineup by 2025 and it’s taking a few more steps in this direction this year with the launch of the all-electric iX SUV and the i4 sedan. Today, for the first time, the German automaker shared a few more details of what we can expect from the i4, its first fully-electric sedan, in addition to sharing the first exterior shots of the new model.

At the top end, the i4 will have a power output of 390kW / 530HP. Going from zero to 100km/h will take four seconds.

BMW promises up to a 300 miles range, according to its own preliminary tests based on the EPA’s test procedures. Enough to go from L.A. to Las Vegas. That’s the same range as the iX will be able to cover on a single charge and a slight increase in horsepower compared to BMW’s new SUV. And while that range is less than what Tesla and some other competitors can offer, it’s still more than what’s possible with comparable all-electric Porsche and Audi models like the eTaycan and e-tron GT, which are in the lower 200s.

Image Credits: BMW

“With its sporty looks, best in class driving dynamics and zero local emissions, the BMW i4 is a true BMW. It makes the heart of the BMW brand now beat fully electric,” said Pieter Nota, member of the Board of Management of BMW AG responsible for Customer, Brands, Sales.

For now, we don’t have any pricing details or additional specs for the i4. It will become available later this year, so we’ll likely see more details in the summer.

“The iX is purpose-built, it’s spectacular and it’s a completely new BMW X product,” Frank Weber, BMW’s head of development, said at a press event earlier this week. “But what people are longing for is to see that we have a sport sedan that is fully electric. […] And the i4 has everything it takes to have a real sporty sedan from BMW that is fully electric.”

And indeed, unlike the somewhat quirky i3, BMW’s first all-electric car, the i4 is a standard, four-door sedan (with real passenger doors, unlike the i3) — something that buyers in the market for a sporty yet roomy electric car from BMW in the spirit of the existing 4-series will likely appreciate.

Earlier this week, BMW also announced version 8 of its iDrive operating system, which will feature a new dashboard layout and visual design, with two curved screens. It will make its debut in the i4 and iX.

After 200% ARR growth in 2020, CourseKey raises $9M to digitize trade schools

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and forced educational institutions to go virtual, many were scrambling to develop online or blended curriculums.

That struggle was particularly challenging for trade schools, many of which were not designed to teach online and were mostly paper-driven. 

CourseKey, a San Diego-based trade school management SaaS startup, was in a unique position. Demand surged and its ARR grew by 200% in 2020. And now, the company has raised $9 million in a Series B led by SignalFire and with participation from existing backer Builders VC to help it continue its momentum. 

Founded in 2015 by Luke Sophinos and Faddee Kannah, CourseKey’s B2B platform is designed to help organizations that teach some of our most essential workers — from automotive mechanics to electricians to plumbers to nurses, phlebotomists and dental assistants.

CourseKey founders Luke Sophinos (left) and Faddee Kannah (right)

CourseKey founders Luke Sophinos (left) and Faddee Kannah (right)

The goal is to help those organizations boost revenue by improving student retention and graduation rates, helping them maintain regulatory compliance and generally streamline processes. 

“Things really took off last year when the coronavirus hit,” Sophinos said. “So many schools had to adopt a digital arsenal. We saw a massive acceleration trend that was already going to happen. Every industry had been eaten. We just found a space that wasn’t yet.”

CourseKey currently works with over 200 career colleges, including the Paul Mitchell School and the Institute for Business & Technology, among others. Over 100,000 students use its software.

For Sophinos and Kannah, founding CourseKey was more than just a business opportunity. Kannah, who had fled Iraq as a refugee, saw family members going through trade schools that were lacking technology infrastructure and modern software tools. He architected the CourseKey platform. 

Sophinos, frustrated by his own college experience, applied for The Thiel Fellowship – a program that supports students in company building instead of university attending. However, he recognized that not everyone who doesn’t want to go to traditional college has that option.

“While looking at alternatives, our early team began recognizing a market that we felt no one was paying attention to. It was occupied by our friends and by our family members,” Sophinos said. “It was a space that, for some odd reason, was largely being left out of the education conversation.”

In 2017, CourseKey partnered with a large vocational education provider to build and launch what Sophinos describes as “the world’s first trade school management system.”

“We focused on automating daily classroom procedures like attendance and grading, enhancing the student experience through communication tools, helping to identify at-risk students, and simplifying compliance,” he said. “We also visualized data for retention purposes.”

CourseKey also does things like track skill attainment, run evaluations and exams and integrate third-party tools.

Image Credits: CourseKey

The startup’s goal with its new capital is to scale the platform to serve “every trade school in the country” with the mission of changing the narrative that four-year college is the “only option.” It also plans to add new features and capabilities, largely based on customer requests. CourseKey also plans to nearly double its current headcount of just over 50 employees to nearly 100 over the next two years.

“This is a massive market and massive business opportunity,” Sophinos said.

CourseKey has an impressive list of supporters beyond SignalFire and Builders. Steve Altman, former vice chairman and president of Qualcomm, led its $3.5 million seed round which also included participation from Larry Rosenberger, former FICO CEO. Dennis Yang, former CEO of edtech giant Udemy, and Altman now serve on its board.

SignalFire Managing Director Wayne Hu, who also took a seat on the startup’s board with the new round, said his firm recognized that vocational schools and their administrators, instructors, and students “suffer from a lack of purpose-built software.”

“Student Information Systems and Learning Management Systems are optimized for traditional K-12 schools and university workflow, but vocational schools are stuck relying on pen and paper or trying to shoe-horn in solutions that aren’t built for them,” Hu wrote in a blog post.

CourseKey, in SignalFire’s view, is reimagining a new education operating system built specifically for experiential, hands-on learning models, which continues to evolve with hybrid/distance learning.  

Hu also pointed out that since many of the jobs that vocational schools are preparing people for “have life or death consequences” and as such, are highly regulated.

“Not only does CourseKey improve trade school business KPIs, it serves as insurance against this existential risk,” he added.

Hackers release a new jailbreak tool for almost every iPhone

An iPhone hacking team has released a new jailbreak tool for almost every iPhone, including the most recent models, by using the same vulnerability that Apple last month said was under active attack by hackers.

The Unc0ver team released its latest jailbreak this weekend, and says it works on iOS 11 (iPhone 5s and later) to iOS 14.3, which Apple released in December.

Jailbreaking is a cat-and-mouse game between security researchers who want greater control and customizations over their phones, and Apple, which says it locks down iPhones for security. Hackers build jailbreak tools by finding and exploiting vulnerabilities that can lift some of the restrictions that Apple puts in place, like installing apps outside of its app store, which most Android users are already used to.

In a tweet, the jailbreak group said it used its “own exploit” for CVE-2021-1782, a kernel vulnerability that Apple said was one of three flaws that “may have been actively exploited” by hackers. By targeting the kernel, the hackers are able to get deep hooks into the underlying operating system.

Apple fixed the vulnerability in iOS 14.4, released last month, which also prevents the jailbreak from working on later versions. It was a rare admission that the iPhone was under active attack by hackers, but the company declined to say who the hackers were and who they were targeting. Apple also granted anonymity to the researcher who submitted the bug.

The group’s last jailbreak, which supported iPhones running iOS 11 to iOS 13.5, was fixed in a matter of days last year. Apple works quickly to understand and fix the vulnerabilities found by jailbreak groups, since these same vulnerabilities can be exploited maliciously.

Security experts generally advise iPhone users against jailbreaking because it makes the device more vulnerable to attacks. And while keeping your phone up to date may introduce security fixes that remove the jailbreak, it’s one of the best ways of keeping your device secure.


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Apple says iOS 14.4 fixes three security bugs ‘actively exploited’ by hackers

Apple has released iOS 14.4 with security fixes for three vulnerabilities, said to be under active attack by hackers.

The technology giant said in its security update pages for iOS and iPadOS 14.4 that the three bugs affecting iPhones and iPads “may have been actively exploited.” Details of the vulnerabilities are scarce, and an Apple spokesperson declined to comment beyond what’s in the advisory.

It’s not known who is actively exploiting the vulnerabilities, or who might have fallen victim. Apple did not say if the attack was targeted against a small subset of users or if it was a wider attack. Apple granted anonymity to the individual who submitted the bug, the advisory said.

Two of the bugs were found in WebKit, the browser engine that powers the Safari browser, and the Kernel, the core of the operating system. Some successful exploits use sets of vulnerabilities chained together, rather than a single flaw. It’s not uncommon for attackers to first target vulnerabilities in a device’s browsers as a way to get access to the underlying operating system.

Apple said additional details would be available soon, but did not say when.

It’s a rare admission by Apple, which prides itself on its security image, that its customers might be under active attack by hackers.

In 2019, Google security researchers found a number of malicious websites laced with code that quietly hacked into victims’ iPhones. TechCrunch revealed that the attack was part of an operation, likely by the Chinese government, to spy on Uyghur Muslims. In response, Apple disputed some of Google’s findings in an equally rare public statement, for which Apple faced more criticism for underplaying the severity of the attack.

Last month, internet watchdog Citizen Lab found dozens of journalists had their iPhones hacked with a previously unknown vulnerability to install spyware developed by Israel-based NSO Group.

In the absence of details, iPhone and iPad users should update to iOS 14.4 as soon as possible.

Google reveals a new Windows zero-day bug it says is under active attack

Google has dropped details of a previously undisclosed vulnerability in Windows, which it says hackers are actively exploiting. As a result, Google gave Microsoft just a week to fix the vulnerability. That deadline came and went, and Google published details of the vulnerability this afternoon.

The vulnerability has no name but is labeled CVE-2020-17087, and affects at least Windows 7 and Windows 10.

Google’s Project Zero, the elite group of security bug hunters which made the discovery, said the bug allows an attacker to escalate their level of user access in Windows. Attackers are using the Windows vulnerability in conjunction with a separate bug in Chrome, which Google disclosed and fixed last week. This new bug allows an attacker to escape Chrome’s sandbox, normally isolated from other apps, and run malware on the operating system.

In a tweet, Project Zero’s technical lead Ben Hawkes said Microsoft plans to issue a patch on November 10.

Microsoft didn’t independently confirm this date when asked, but said in a statement: “Microsoft has a customer commitment to investigate reported security issues and update impacted devices to protect customers. While we work to meet all researchers’ deadlines for disclosures, including short-term deadlines like in this scenario, developing a security update is a balance between timeliness and quality, and our ultimate goal is to help ensure maximum customer protection with minimal customer disruption.”

But it’s unclear who the attackers are or their motives. Google’s director of threat intelligence Shane Huntley said that the attacks were “targeted” and not related to the U.S. election.

A Microsoft spokesperson also added that the reported attack is “very limited and targeted in nature, and we have seen no evidence to indicate widespread usage.”

It’s the latest in a list of major flaws affecting Windows this year. Microsoft said in January that the National Security Agency helped find a cryptographic bug in Windows 10, though there was no evidence of exploitation. But in June and September, Homeland Security issued alerts over two “critical” Windows bugs — one which had the ability to spread across the internet, and the other could have gained complete access to an entire Windows network.

Updated with comment from Microsoft.

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.

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.