Germany’s competition authority, the FCO, has completed its Big Tech GAFA ‘bingo’ card by opening a proceeding against Apple.
As with similar investigations already opened this year — into Amazon, Facebook and Google — the proceeding will determine whether or not the iPhone maker meets the threshold of Germany’s updated competition law.
The 10th amendment to the law, which came into force in January, enables the Bundeskartellamt to intervene proactively against the practices of large digital companies — if they are determined to have “paramount significance for competition across markets” and in order to prevent them from engaging in anti-competitive practices.
Discussing the key new provision to the Competition Act (aka, the GWB Digitalisation Act and specifically Section 19a) — in a panel discussion last week, the FCO’s president, Andreas Mundt, explained that the competition law update had been influenced by its experience with a long running (and pioneering) case against Facebook’s superprofiling of Internet users.
The upshot is that German competition law now has a theory of harm which entwines competition law and data protection — albeit, in the case of Apple, its tech empire is typically associated with defence (rather than abuse) of user privacy.
But the comprehensive amendments to German antitrust law are broadly targeted at Big Tech, with the goal of keeping markets open, fostering innovation and putting a stop to any abusive behavior, via provisions the FCO will be able to order — such an banning or restricting self-preferencing and bundling; or stopping giants tying products together to try to muscle into adjacent markets; or preventing them blocking interoperability and data access to try to lock out rivals, to name a few.
A mix of provisions are likely to be deployed, as tech giants are designated as addressable under the law, depending on the specifics of each case and the particular ecosystem business. So how it will operate in practice remains to be seen. So far the FCO is still in the process of determining (in each case) whether it can apply the law against GAFA.
For the Apple proceeding, Mundt said in a statement today that its operation of the App Store will be a “main focus” for the investigation because he said it “enables Apple in many ways to influence the business activities of third parties”.
“We will now examine whether with its proprietary operating system iOS, Apple has created a digital ecosystem around its iPhone that extends across several markets,” he added. “Apple produces tablets, computers and wearables and provides a host of device-related services. In addition to manufacturing various hardware products, the tech company also offers the App Store, iCloud, AppleCare, Apple Music, Apple Arcade, Apple TV+ as well as other services as part of its services business. Besides assessing the company’s position in these areas, we will, among other aspects, examine its extensive integration across several market levels, the magnitude of its technological and financial resources and its access to data.”
The FCO also noted that it has received a number of complaints against Apple “relating to potentially anti-competitive practices” — such as one from the advertising and media industry against Apple restricting user tracking with the introduction of its iOS 14.5 operating system; and a complaint against the exclusive pre-installation of the company’s own applications as a possible type of self-preferencing prohibited under Section 19a GWB.
“App developers also criticise the mandatory use of Apple’s own in-app purchase system (IAP) and the 30% commission rate associated with this,” it added in a press release. “In this context, the marketing restrictions for app developers in Apple’s App Store are also addressed. The latter complaint has much in common with the European Commission’s ongoing proceeding against Apple for imposing restrictions on the streaming service Spotify and accordingly preferencing its own services. Where necessary, the Bundeskartellamt will establish contact with the European Commission and other competition authorities in this regard. So far, no decision on initiating a further proceeding has been taken.”
Apple was contacted for comment on the FCO’s proceeding and it sent us this statement, attributed to a spokesperson:
“Apple is proud to be an engine for innovation and job creation, with more than 250,000 jobs supported by the iOS app economy in Germany. The App Store’s economic growth and activity have given German developers of all sizes the same opportunity to share their passion and creativity with users around the world while creating a secure and trusted place for customers to download the apps they love with the privacy protections they expect. Germany is also home to Apple’s largest engineering hub in Europe, and a new €1BN investment in our European Silicon Design Center in Munich. We look forward to discussing our approach with the FCO and having an open dialogue about any of their concerns.”
Once issued by the FCO, a ‘paramount significance’ finding lasts for five years — while any legal challenges to orders made under Section 19a are intentionally expedited, with appeals going direct to Germany’s Federal Court of Justice (which is given exclusive competence). The goal being to avoid long drawn out litigations, as has occurred in the FCO’s case against Facebook’s superprofiling — which had legal questions referred to the CJEU back in March, some five years after the Bundeskartellamt began looking into Facebook’s data practices.
The coming months and years could be highly significant to how GAFA is able to operate in Europe’s largest economy — and, likely by extension, further afield in Europe and beyond as a number of jurisdictions are now paying active attention to how to regulate Big Tech.
Podcasts are all the rage, but podcast discovery is a challenge. Today, Spotify announced its acquisition of Podz, a startup that’s trying to solve the problem of podcast discovery.
“At Spotify, we are investing to build and scale the world’s best (and most personalized) podcast discovery experience,” the company said. “We believe that Podz’ technology will complement and accelerate Spotify’s focused efforts to drive discovery, deliver listeners the right content at the right time, and accelerate growth of the category worldwide.”
Since podcasts are usually upwards of 30 minutes long, it’s hard for listeners to browse new shows – listening to an episode of a podcast isn’t as easy as trying out a song by a new artist. So, Podz developed what it called “the first audio newsfeed,” presenting users with 60-second clips from various shows. Podcasters often use apps like Headliner to create clips to promote on their social media accounts, and Podz follows the same idea. But instead of podcasters manually choosing how to promote their show, Podz chooses a clip using its machine learning model, which was trained on more than 100,000 hours of audio in consultation with journalists and audio editors.
Image Credits: Podz
Before its acquisition by Spotify, Podz raised $2.5 million in pre-seed funding from M13, Canaan Partners, Charge Ventures, and Humbition. Celebrities like Katie Couric and Paris Hilton also invested.
“Already, the average podcast listener subscribes to seven podcasts but follows almost 30 on Podz,” M13 General Partner Latif Peracha told TechCrunch via email in February. “Early signals make us optimistic the team can build a transformative product in the category.”
This acquisition marks yet another sign of Spotify’s ambition to corner the podcasting market, and audio entertainment in general – just yesterday, Spotify debuted Greenroom, its live audio Clubhouse rival. And when it comes to driving revenue from podcast subscriptions, Spotify and Apple are neck and neck. In April, Apple announced its expansion into podcast subscriptions, and the following week, Spotify began rolling out its subscription platform after teasing it in February. Apple said it will take 30% of podcast revenue in the first year, which will drop to 15% in the second. On the other hand, Spotify’s program won’t take any cut from creators until 2023, when it will take 5%.
Though podcast creators can quickly determine that it might prove more beneficial to surrender 5% of their subscription earnings than 30%, listeners will likely just flock to whatever app provides the best user experience – and if Spotify’s investment in discovery pays off, it could pose trouble for Apple’s longstanding dominance in the podcasting medium.
Apple’s location devices — called AirTags — have been out for more than a month now. The initial impressions were good, but as we concluded back in April: “It will be interesting to see these play out once AirTags are out getting lost in the wild.”
That’s exactly what our resident UX analyst, Peter Ramsey, has been doing for the last month — intentionally losing AirTags to test their user experience at the limits.
This Extra Crunch exclusive is a simplified conversation around this Built for Mars article, which helps bridge the gap between Apple’s mistakes and how you can make meaningful changes to your product’s UX.
For an industry that’s often soured by privacy concerns, Apple has an unusually strong stance on keeping your data private.
AirTag not reachable
There are two primary purposes of an error message:
To notify the user what has gone wrong (and how it affects them).
To help the user resolve the issue.
Most businesses do a decent job at the first one, but it’s rare that a product will proactively obsess over the second.
Typically, Apple is one of the few examples that do — it’s indisputably one of the leaders in intuitive design. Which is why I was surprised to see Apple’s error message when an AirTag is not reachable:
Image Credits: Built for Mars screenshot
There’s a huge amount of ambiguity in the statement “move around to connect,” and it fails to mention that this error could be because the AirTag’s batteries have been removed.
Instead, Apple should make this message clickable, which opens a modal to learn more about this issue.
Last week word got out that Facebook was taking another big step into first-party hardware with the planned launch of its own smartwatch. The most intriguing part of the report was the inclusion of not one but two watches. Other wearable makers have flirted with video and images on wrist-worn devices, but the feature is far from mainstream.
Industry leader Apple certainly doesn’t seem to be rushing into the idea, so Wristcam went and did it for them with the launch of a band sporting its own camera capable of shooting 4K images and 1080p. The product launched late last year, following a successful crowdfunding campaign.
Now its makers are going a more traditional funding route, announcing a $25 million raise led by Marker LLC. “We will use the funding to scale our team, Wristcam production, go to market, and R&D of our computer vision engine for wearables,” CEO Ari Roisman told TechCrunch.
Part of that funding involves effectively doubling the company’s headcount by early next year and helping deliver updates to some of the demands and concerns that have arisen since the product’s “public beta” launch in December.
Among the forthcoming features are live video. The company says it has sold “thousands” of units, which currently retail for $299 through the Wristcam site — so $20 more than a Watch SE. The company says it ran into COVID-19 supply chain issues earlier this year, but has pushed through and is now fulfilling orders daily.
In spite of Facebook’s apparent interest in wrist-base imaging, Roisman says he’s not concerned about possible Sherlock from Apple.
“I see camera continuing to be a core part of the iPhone strategy, with DSLR quality equivalence, including Pro offerings priced north of $1,000,” the exec says. “Meanwhile, I see continued Apple Watch focus on quantified health and wellness, as opposed to power, data and real estate intensive functionality that could conflict with the iPhone strategy.”
The UK’s competition watchdog will take a deep dive look into Apple and Google’s dominance of the mobile ecosystem, it said today — announcing a market study which will examine the pair’s respective smartphone platforms (iOS and Android); their app stores (App Store and Play Store); and web browsers (Safari and Chrome).
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is concerned that the mobile platform giants’ “effective duopoly” in those areas might be harming consumers, it added.
The study will be wide ranging, with the watchdog concerns about the nested gateways that are created as a result of the pair’s dominance of mobile ecosystem — intermediating how consumers can access a variety of products, content and services (such as music, TV and video streaming; fitness tracking, shopping and banking, to cite some of the examples provided by the CMA).
“These products also include other technology and devices such as smart speakers, smart watches, home security and lighting (which mobiles can connect to and control),” it went on, adding that it’s looking into whether their dominance of these pipes is “stifling competition across a range of digital markets”, saying too that it’s “concerned this could lead to reduced innovation across the sector and consumers paying higher prices for devices and apps, or for other goods and services due to higher advertising prices”.
The CMA further confirmed the deep dive will examine “any effects” of the pair’s market power over other businesses — giving the example of app developers who rely on Apple or Google to market their products to customers via their smart devices.
The CMA said both those existing investigations are examining issues that fall within the scope of the new mobile ecosystem market study but that its work on the latter will be “much broader”.
It added that it will adopt a joined-up approach across all related cases — “to ensure the best outcomes for consumers and other businesses”.
It’s giving itself a full year to examine Gapple’s mobile ecosystems.
It is also soliciting feedback on any of the issues raised in its statement of scope — calling for responses by 26 July. The CMA added that it’s also keen to hear from app developers, via its questionnaire, by the same date.
That earlier market study has been feeding the UK government’s plan to reform competition rules to take account of the market-deforming power of digital giants. And the CMA suggested the new market study, examining ‘Gapple’s’ mobile muscle, could similarly help shape UK-wide competition law reforms.
Last year the UK announced its plan to set up a “pro-competition” regime for regulating Internet platforms — including by establishing a dedicated Digital Markets Unit within the CMA (which got going earlier this year).
The legislation for the reform has not yet been put before parliament but the government has said it wants the competition regulator to be able to “proactively shape platforms’ behavior” to avoid harmful behavior before it happens” — saying too that it supports enabling ex ante interventions once a platform has been identified to have so-called “strategic market status”.
Germany already adopted similar reforms to its competition law (early this year), which enable proactive interventions to tackle large digital platforms with what is described as “paramount significance for competition across markets”. And its Federal Cartel Office has, in recent months, wasted no time in opening a number of proceedings to determine whether Amazon, Google and Facebook have such a status.
The CMA also sounds keen to get going to tackle Internet gatekeepers.
Commenting in a statement, CEO Andrea Coscelli said:
“Apple and Google control the major gateways through which people download apps or browse the web on their mobiles – whether they want to shop, play games, stream music or watch TV. We’re looking into whether this could be creating problems for consumers and the businesses that want to reach people through their phones.
“Our ongoing work into big tech has already uncovered some worrying trends and we know consumers and businesses could be harmed if they go unchecked. That’s why we’re pressing on with launching this study now, while we are setting up the new Digital Markets Unit, so we can hit the ground running by using the results of this work to shape future plans.”
The European Union also unveiled its own proposals for clipping the wings of big tech last year — presenting its Digital Markets Act plan in December which will apply a single set of operational rules to so-called “gatekeeper” platforms operating across the EU.
The clear trend in Europe on digital competition is toward increasing oversight and regulation of the largest platforms — in the hopes that antitrust authorities can impose measures that will help smaller players thrive.
Critics might say that’s just playing into the tech giants’ hands, though — because it’s fiddling around the edges when more radical intervention (break ups) are what’s really needed to reboot captured markets.
Apple and Google were contacted for comment on the CMA’s market study.
A Google spokesperson said: “Android provides people with more choice than any other mobile platform in deciding which apps they use, and enables thousands of developers and manufacturers to build successful businesses. We welcome the CMA’s efforts to understand the details and differences between platforms before designing new rules.”
According to Google, the Android App Economy generated £2.8BN in revenue for UK developers last year, which it claims supported 240,000 jobs across the country — citing a Public First report that it commissioned.
The tech giant also pointed to operational changes it has already made in Europe, following antitrust interventions by the European Commission — such as adding a choice screen to Android where users can pick from a list of alternative search engines.
Earlier this month it agreed to shift the format underlying that choice screen from an unpopular auction model to free participation.
Automattic is expanding its lineup of online writing platforms with its acquisition of Day One, a popular journaling app for Mac and Apple mobile devices. The app has been downloaded more than 15 million times since its March 2011 launch on the Mac and iTunes App Store, offering users a private place to share their thoughts. Since then, it’s been awarded the App Store Editor’s Choice, App of the Year, and the Apple Design Award, along with praise from various reviewers.
Deal terms were not immediately available. The companies were asked for comment.
The addition makes for an interesting expansion of Automattic’s now growing collection of online writing tools, which today include blogging platforms WordPress.com and Tumblr — the latter as of 2019, when Automattic took the aging social blogging network off parent company Verizon’s hands for a fraction of its earlier $1 billion acquisition price. (Verizon still owns TechCrunch, too…for now.)
Unlike WordPress and Tumblr, which tend to focus on publishing to a public audience, Day One’s focus has been on privacy. The app offers end-to-end encryption for all your journal entries, which can include text, media and even audio recordings. It has also offered advanced features like automatic backups, auto-import of Instagram posts, voice transcriptions, templates, rich text formatting, location history, optional printed books, as well as integrations with other platforms like Spotify, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and more.
With its addition to Automattic, Day One will allow users to choose to publish select journal entries to WordPress.com and Tumblr, and soon, import content from either platform back into Day One, too. The app may also make sense as a way for existing Tumblr users to sync their private entries over to a more protected and backed up writing tool — instead of accidentally publishing them to their main blog.
Automattic, in an announcement, notes Day One CEO Paul Mayne will continue to lead the development of Day One following the acquisition. The team will also remain intact.
Meanwhile, in a blog post, Mayne hints at why he sold the app, noting the deal will allow Day One access to same technological, financial, and security benefits that help power WordPress.com and Tumblr.
“This is incredibly exciting news. For the past 10 years since I started Day One, I’ve worked to not only create the best digital journaling experience in the world, but one that will last,” shares Mayne. “By joining Automattic, I’m now more confident than ever that the preservation and longevity of Day One is sure,” he adds.
Mayne also noted there were no current plans to change the private nature of Day One, but the app would integrate with other Automattic products going forward, while continuing to sustain itself via a subscription model.
This weekend, all of your friends morphed one by one into animated, Pixar-inspired characters. This isn’t a fever dream, and you’re not alone.
On Thursday, Snapchat released a Cartoon 3D Style Lens, which uses AR to make you look like a background character from “Frozen.” Naturally, even though TikTok’s own AR cartoon effects aren’t quite as convincing as Snapchat’s, people are turning to TikTok to share videos of themselves as Disney princesses, because of course they are.
This isn’t the first time that a Disney-esque AR trend has gone viral. In August 2020, Snapchat had 28.5 million new installs, which was its biggest month since May 2019, when it got 41.2 million new installs. It might not be a coincidence that in early August 2020, Snapchat released the Cartoon Face lens, which users realized could be used to “Disneyfy” their pets – the tag #disneydog got 40.9 million views across platforms on TikTok. Then, Snapchat struck viral gold again in December, when they released the Cartoon lens, which rendered more realistic results for human faces than the previous iteration.
According to Sensor Tower, Snapchat’s global installs continued to climb month-over-month throughout the rest of 2020, though installs slightly declined in December. Still, Snapchat got 36 million downloads that month. Now, after the newest Cartoon Style 3D lens went viral again, Snapchat hit number 6 on the App Store’s free apps charts, compared to TikTok’s number 2 slot. Still, Snapchat downloads in May were 32 million, down from 34 million in April, while TikTok saw 80.3 million installs in May, up from 59.3 million in April.
Image Credits: Snapchat, screenshots by TechCrunch
But there’s a new app in the number 1 slot that also made an impact on this weekend’s cartoon explosion. Released in March, Voilà AI Artist is yet another platform that turns us into cartoon versions of ourselves. Unlike the AR-powered effects on Snapchat or TikTok, Voilà is a photo editor. Users upload a selfie, and after watching an ad (the ad-free version costs $3 per week), it reveals what you would look like as a cartoon.
Voilà AI Artist was only downloaded 400 times globally in March 2021. By May, the app surpassed 1 million downloads, and during the first two weeks of this month alone, the app has been downloaded over 10.5 million times.
Again, like the repetitive iterations on the “Disneyfy” trend, apps like Voilà aren’t new. FaceApp went viral in 2019, showing people what they’ll look like when they’re old, graying, and wrinkled. The app became the center of a privacy controversy, since it uploaded users’ photos to the cloud to edit their selfies with AI. FaceApp made a statement that it “might store updated photos in the cloud” for “performance and traffic reasons,” but that “most images” are deleted “within 48 hours.” Still, this ambiguous language set off the warning bells, urging us to think about the potentially nefarious implications of seeing what we’ll look like in sixty years. Two years earlier, FaceApp put out a “hotness” filter, which made users’ skin lighter – FaceApp apologized for its racist AI. Voilà, which is owned by Wemagine.AI LLP in Canada, has also been criticized for its AI’s eurocentrism. As these apps grow in popularity, they can also uphold some of our culture’s most harmful biases.
Image Credits: Voilà
Like FaceApp, Voilà requires an internet connection to use the app. Additionally, its terms outline that users grant the company “a non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free, sublicensable, and transferable license to host, store, use in any way, display, reproduce, modify, adapt, edit, publish, and distribute Uploaded and Generated content.” Basically, that means that if you upload an image to the platform, Voilà has the right to use it, but they don’t own it. This isn’t abnormal for these apps – when we upload photos to Instagram, for example, we also grant the platform the right to use our images.
It’s no wonder that as Voilà climbed to the number one slot on the App Store, Snapchat re-upped their Pixar-inspired AR lens. Facebook’s own Spark AR platform is rolling out new features, and last week at WWDC, Apple announced a major update to RealityKit, its AR software. But these trends reveal more about our growing comfort with face-altering AR than they do about our nostalgia for Disney.
Apple went big on privacy during its Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) keynote this week, showcasing features from on-device Siri audio processing to a new privacy dashboard for iOS that makes it easier than ever to see which apps are collecting your data and when.
While typically vocal about security during the Memoji-filled, two-hour-long(!) keynote, the company also quietly introduced several new security and privacy-focused features during its WWDC developer sessions. We’ve rounded up some of the most interesting — and important.
Passwordless login with iCloud Keychain
Apple is the latest tech company taking steps to ditch the password. During its “Move beyond passwords” developer session, it previewed Passkeys in iCloud Keychain, a method of passwordless authentication powered by WebAuthn, and Face ID and Touch ID.
The feature, which will ultimately be available in both iOS 15 and macOS Monterey, means you no longer have to set a password when creating an account or a website or app. Instead, you’ll simply pick a username, and then use Face ID or Touch ID to confirm it’s you. The passkey is then stored in your keychain and then synced across your Apple devices using iCloud — so you don’t have to remember it, nor do you have to carry around a hardware authenticator key.
“Because it’s just a single tap to sign in, it’s simultaneously easier, faster and more secure than almost all common forms of authentication today,” said Garrett Davidson, an Apple authentication experience engineer.
While it’s unlikely to be available on your iPhone or Mac any time soon — Apple says the feature is still in its ‘early stages’ and it’s currently disabled by default — the move is another sign of the growing momentum behind eliminating passwords, which are prone to being forgotten, reused across multiple services, and — ultimately — phishing attacks. Microsoft previously announced plans to make Windows 10 password-free, and Google recently confirmed that it’s working towards “creating a future where one day you won’t need a password at all”.
Microphone indicator in macOS
macOS has a new indicator to tell you when the microhpone is on. (Image: Apple)
Since the introduction of iOS 14, iPhone users have been able to keep an eye on which apps are accessing their microphone via a green or orange dot in the status bar. Now it’s coming to the desktop too.
In macOS Monterey, users will be able to see which apps are accessing their Mac’s microphone in Control Center, MacRumors reports, which will complement the existing hardware-based green light that appears next to a Mac’s webcam when the camera is in use.
iOS 15, which will include a bunch of privacy-bolstering tools from Mail Privacy Protection to App Privacy Reports, is also getting a feature called Secure Paste that will help to shield your clipboard data from other apps.
This feature will enable users to paste content from one app to another, without the second app being able to access the information on the clipboard until you paste it. This is a significant improvement over iOS 14, which would notify when an app took data from the clipboard but did nothing to prevent it from happening.
“With secure paste, developers can let users paste from a different app without having access to what was copied until the user takes action to paste it into their app,” Apple explains. “When developers use secure paste, users will be able to paste without being alerted via the [clipboard] transparency notification, helping give them peace of mind.”
While this feature sounds somewhat insignificant, it’s being introduced following a major privacy issue that came to light last year. In March 2020, security researchers revealed that dozens of popular iOS apps — including TikTok — were “snooping” on users’ clipboard without their consent, potentially accessing highly sensitive data.
Payments fraud is more prevalent than ever as a result of the pandemic, and Apple is looking to do something about it. As first reported by 9to5Mac, the company has previewed Advanced Fraud Protection, a feature that will let Apple Card users generate new card numbers in the Wallet app.
While details remain thin — the feature isn’t live in the first iOS 15 developer beta — Apple’s explanation suggests that Advanced Fraud Protection will make it possible to generate new security codes — the three-digit number you enter at checkout – when making online purchases.
“With Advanced Fraud Protection, Apple Card users can have a security code that changes regularly to make online Card Number transactions even more secure,” the brief explainer reads. We’ve asked Apple for some more information.
‘Unlock with Apple Watch’ for Siri requests
As a result of the widespread mask-wearing necessitated by the pandemic, Apple introduced an ‘Unlock with Apple Watch’ in iOS 14.5 that let enabled users to unlock their iPhone and authenticate Apple Pay payments using an Apple Watch instead of Face ID.
The scope of this feature is expanding with iOS 15, as the company has confirmed that users will soon be able to use this alternative authentication method for Siri requests, such as adjusting phone settings or reading messages. Currently, users have to enter a PIN, password or use Face ID to do so.
“Use the secure connection to your Apple Watch for Siri requests or to unlock your iPhone when an obstruction, like a mask, prevents Face ID from recognizing your Face,” Apple explains. Your watch must be passcode protected, unlocked, and on your wrist close by.”
To ensure iPhone users who don’t want to upgrade to iOS 15 straight away are up to date with security updates, Apple is going to start decoupling patches from feature updates. When iOS 15 lands later this year, users will be given the option to update to the latest version of iOS or to stick with iOS 14 and simply install the latest security fixes.
“iOS now offers a choice between two software update versions in the Settings app,” Apple explains (via MacRumors). “You can update to the latest version of iOS 15 as soon as it’s released for the latest features and most complete set of security updates. Or continue on iOS 14 and still get important security updates until you’re ready to upgrade to the next major version.”
This feature sees Apple following in the footsteps of Google, which has long rolled out monthly security patches to Android users.
‘Erase all contents and settings’ for Mac
Wiping a Mac has been a laborious task that has required you to erase your device completely then reinstall macOS. Thankfully, that’s going to change. Apple is bringing the “erase all contents and settings” option that’s been on iPhones and iPads for years to macOS Monterey.
The option will let you factory reset your MacBook with just a click. “System Preferences now offers an option to erase all user data and user-installed apps from the system, while maintaining the operating system currently installed,” Apple says. “Because storage is always encrypted on Mac systems with Apple Silicon or the T2 chip, the system is instantly and securely ‘erased’ by destroying the encryption keys.”
Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.
The app industry continues to grow, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.
Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.
This week, our series will take a dive into the key announcements impacting app developers from WWDC 21.
Apple’s WWDC went virtual again this year, but it didn’t slow down the pace of announcements. This week, Apple introduced a slate of new developer tools and frameworks, changes to iOS that will impact how consumers use their devices and new rules for publishing on its App Store, among other things. We don’t have the bandwidth to dig into every dev update — and truly, there are better places to learn about, say, the new concurrency capabilities of Swift 5.5 or what’s new with SwiftUI.
But after a few days of processing everything new, here’s what’s jumping out as the bigger takeaways and updates.
Apple’s development IDE, Xcode 13, now includes Xcode Cloud, a built-in continuous integration and delivery service hosted on Apple’s cloud infrastructure. Apple says the service, birthed out of its 2018 Buddybuild acquisition, will help to speed up the pace of development by combining cloud-based tools for building apps along with tools to run automated tests in parallel, deliver apps to testers via TestFlight and view tester feedback through the web-based App Store Connect dashboard. Beyond the immediate improvements to the development process (which developers are incredibly excited about based on #WWDC21 tweets) Xcode Cloud represents a big step by Apple further into the cloud services space, where Amazon (AWS), Google and Microsoft have dominated. While Xcode Cloud may not replace solutions designed for larger teams with more diverse needs, it’s poised to make app development easier — and deliver a new revenue stream to Apple. If only Apple had announced the pricing!
Swift Playgrounds got a notable update in iPadOS 15, as it will now allow developers to build iPhone and iPad apps right on their iPad and submit them to the App Store. In Swift Playgrounds 4, coming later this year, Apple says developers will be able to create the visual design of an app using SwiftUI, see the live preview of their app’s code while building and can run their apps full-screen to test them out. App projects can also be opened and edited with either Swift Playgrounds or Xcode.
While it’s not the Xcode on iPad system some developers have been requesting, it will make app building more accessible because of iPad’s lower price point compared with Mac. It could also encourage more people to try app development, as Swift Playgrounds helps student coders learn the basics then move up to more challenging lessons over time. Now, they can actually build real apps and hit the publish button, too.
I had to save for a couple of months – 8-10 months before buying my first Mac. Swift playgrounds on iPad is a very welcome move!
Antitrust pressure swirling around Apple has contributed to a growing sentiment among some developers that Apple doesn’t do enough to help them grow their businesses — and therefore, is undeserving of a 15%-30% cut of the revenues the developers themselves worked to gain. The new App Store updates may start to chip away at that perception.
Soon, developers will be able to create up to 35 custom product pages targeted toward different users, each with their unique URL for sharing and analytics for measuring performance. The pages can include different preview videos, screenshots and text.
Image Credits: Apple
Apple will also allow developers to split traffic between three treatments of the app’s default page to measure which ones convert best, then choose the percentage of the App Store audience that will see one of the three treatments.
Meanwhile, the App Store will begin to show to customers in-app events taking place inside developers’ apps — like game competitions, fitness challenges, film premieres and more — effectively driving traffic to apps and re-engaging users. Combined, Apple is making the case that its App Store can drive discovery beyond just offering an app listing page.
Beyond the App Store product itself, Apple overhauled its App Store policies to address the growing problem of scam apps. The changes give Apple permission to crack down on scammers by removing offenders from its Developer Program. The new guidelines also allow developers to report spam directly to Apple, instead of, you know, relying on tweets and press.
Apple has historically downplayed the scam problem. It noted how the App Store stopped over $1.5 billion in fraudulent transactions in 2020, for example. Even if it’s a small percentage of the App Store, scam apps with fake ratings not only can cheat users out of millions of dollars, they reduce consumer trust in the App Store and Apple itself, which has longer-term consequences for the ecosystem health. What’s unclear, however, is why Apple is seemingly trying to solve the App Review issues using forms — to report fraud (and now, to appeal rulings, too) when it’s becoming apparent that Apple needs a more systematic way of keeping tabs on the app ecosystem beyond the initial review process.
The App Store discovery updates mentioned above also matter more because developers may need to reduce their reliance on notifications to send users back into their apps. Indeed, iOS 15 users will be able to choose which apps they don’t need to hear from right away — these will be rounded up into a new Notification Summary that arrives on a schedule they configure, where Siri intelligence helps determine which apps get a top spot. If an app was already struggling to re-engage users through push notifications, getting relegated to the end of a summary is not going to help matters.
And users can “Send to Summary” right from the Lock Screen notification itself in addition to the existing options to “Deliver Quietly” or be turned off. That means any ill-timed push could be an app developer’s last.
Image Credits: Apple
Meanwhile, the clever new “Focus” modes let iOS users configure different quiet modes for work, play, sleeping and more, each with their own set of rules and even their own home screens. But making this work across the app ecosystem will require developer adoption of four “interruption levels,” ranging from passive to critical. A new episode of a fav show should be a “passive” notification, for example. “Active” is the default setting — which doesn’t get to break into Focus. “Time sensitive” notifications should be reserved for alerting to more urgent matters, like a delivery that’s arrived on your doorstep or an account security update. These may be able to break through Focus, if allowed.
Image Credits: Apple
“Critical” notifications would be reserved for emergencies, like severe weather alerts or local safety updates. While there is a chance developers may abuse the new system to get their alert through, they risk users silencing their notifications entirely or deleting the app. Focus mode users will be power users and more technically savvy, so they’ll understand that an errant notification here was a choice and not a mistake on the developer’s part.
Image Credits: Apple
Apple has been steadily pushing out more tools for building augmented reality apps, but this WWDC it just introduced a huge update that will make it easier for developers getting started with AR. With the launch of RealityKit 2, Apple’s new Object Capture API will allow developers to create 3D models in minutes using only an iPhone or iPad (or a DSLR or drone if they choose).
Explains Apple this will address one of the most difficult parts of making great AR apps, which was the process of creating 3D models. Before, this could take hours and cost thousands of dollars — now, developers with just an iPhone and Mac can participate. The impacts of this update will be seen in the months and years ahead, as developers adopt the new tools for things like AR shopping, games and other AR experiences — including ones we may not have seen yet, but are enabled by more accessible AR technology tools and frameworks.
This update is unexpected and interesting, despite missing what would have been an ideal launch window: mid-pandemic back in 2020. With SharePlay, developers can bring their apps into what Apple is calling “Group Activities” — or shared experiences that take place right inside FaceTime.
If you were co-watching Hulu with friends during the pandemic, you get the idea. But Apple isn’t tacking on some co-viewing system here. Instead, it’s introducing new APIs that let users listen to music, stream video or screen share with friends, in a way that feels organic to FaceTime. There was a hint of serving the locked-down COVID-19 pandemic crowd with this update, as Apple talks about making people feel as if they’re “in the same room” — a nod to those many months where that was not possible. And that may have inspired the changes, to be sure. Similarly, FaceTime’s support for Android and scheduled calls — a clear case of Zoom envy — feels like a case of playing catch-up on Apple’s part.
Image Credits: Apple
The immediate demand for these sorts of experiences may be dulled by a population that’s starting to recover from the pandemic — people are now going out and seeing others in person again thanks to vaccines. But the ability to use apps while FaceTime’ing has a lifespan that extends beyond the COVID era, particularly among iPhone’s youngest users. The demographic growing up with smartphones at ever-younger ages don’t place phone calls — they text and FaceTime. Some argue Gen Z even prefers the latter.
Image Credits: Apple
With its immediate support for Apple services like Apple Music and Apple TV+, SharePlay will hit the ground running — but it will only fully realize its vision with developer adoption. But such a system seems possibly only because of Apple’s tight control over its platform. It also gives a default iOS app a big advantage over third-parties.
Not to be outdone by WWDC (ha), Google this week launched Android 12, beta 2. This release brings more of the new features and design changes to users that weren’t yet available in the first beta which debuted at Google I/O. This includes the new privacy dashboard; the addition of the mic and camera indicators that show when an app is using those features; an indication when an app is reading from the clipboard; and a new panel that makes it easier to switch between internet providers or Wi-Fi networks.
Google also this week released its next Pixel feature drop which brought new camera and photo features, privacy features, Google Assistant improvements and more. Highlights included a way to create stargazing videos, a car crash detection feature and a way to answer or reject calls hands-free.
Pinterest wants to get more users clicking “buy.” The company this week added a new Shopping List feature which automatically organizes your saved Product Pins for easier access.
Google discontinued its AR-based app Measure, which had allowed users to measure things in the real world using the phone’s camera. The app had seen some stability and accuracy issues in the past.
Facebook’s Messenger app added Venmo-like QR codes for person-to-person payments inside its app in the U.S. Users can scan the codes to send or request a payment, even if they’re not Facebook friends with the other party. Payments are sent over Facebook Pay, which is backed by a users’ credit card, debit card or a PayPal account.
Downloads of fintech apps are up 132%globally YoY according to an AppsFlyer marketing report.
Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey said Square is thinking about adding a bitcoin hardware wallet to its product lineup. The exec detailed some of the thinking behind the plan in a Twitter thread.
Square is considering making a hardware wallet for #bitcoin. If we do it, we would build it entirely in the open, from software to hardware design, and in collaboration with the community. We want to kick off this thinking the right way: by sharing some of our guiding principles.
Instagram head Adam Mosseri said Facebook will help creators get around Apple’s 30% cut. While any transactions that take place in iOS will follow Apple’s rules, Mosseri said Facebook will look for other ways to help creators make a living where they don’t have to give up a portion of their revenue — like by connecting brands and creators offline or affiliate deals.
Related to this, Instagram announced during its Creator Week event it will start testing a native affiliate tool that will allow creators to recommend products and then earn commissions on those sales. Creators can also now link their merch shops to personal profiles instead of just business profiles, and by year-end, will be able to partner on merch and drops with companies like Bravado/UMG, Fanjoy, Represent and Spring.
Image Credits: Instagram
Instagram also rolled out a new “badge” for live videos which lets viewers tip creators, similar to Facebook’s Stars. Facebook also said paid online events, fan subscriptions, badges and its upcoming news products will remain free through 2023. And it rolled out new features and challenges to help creators earn additional payouts for hitting certain milestones.
Finally, Instagram in a blog post explained how its algorithm works. The post details how the app decides what to show users first, why some posts get more views than others, how Explore works and other topics.
Giphy’s Clips (GIFs with sound) are now available in the Giphy iMessage app, instead of only on the web and in its iOS app. That means you can send the…uh, videos (??)…right from your keyboard.
Image Credits: Tinder
Match-owned dating app Tinder added a way for users to block contacts. The feature requires users grant the app permission to access the phone’s contacts database, which is a bit privacy-invasive. But then users can go through their contacts and check those they want to block on Tinder. The benefit is this would allow people to block exes and abusers. But on the downside, it permits cheating as users can block partners and those who might see them and report back.
Streaming & Entertainment
YouTube will allow creators to repurpose audio from existing YouTube videos as its “Shorts” product — basically, its TikTok competitor — rolls out to more global markets.
Roblox is generating estimated revenue of $3.01 million daily on iPhone, according to data from Finbold. Clash of Clans, Candy Crush Saga, Pokémon GO and others follow. Good thing if they have to pay up over that music usage lawsuit.
Image Credits: Finbold
Apple-owned weather app Dark Sky, whose technology just powered a big iOS 15 revamp of Apple’s stock weather app, is not shutting down just yet. The company announced its iOS app, web app and API will remain online through the end of 2022, instead of 2021 as planned.
Microsoft’s Outlook email app for iOS now lets you use your voice to write emails and schedule meetings. The feature leverages Cortana, and follows the launch of a Play My Emails feature inside Outlook Mobile.
Government & Policy
President Biden revoked and replaced Trump’s actions which had targeted Chinese apps, like TikTok and WeChat. The president signed a new executive order that requires the Commerce Dept. to review apps with ties to “foreign adversaries” that may pose national security risks. Trump had previously tried to ban the apps outright, but his order was blocked by federal courts.
Google has agreed to show more mobile search apps for users to choose from on new Android phones following feedback from the European Commission. The company had been showing a choice screen where app providers bid against each other for the slot, and pay only if users download apps. DuckDuckGo and others complained the solution has not been working.
Security & Privacy
Security flaws were found in Samsung’s stock mobile apps impacting some Galaxy devices. One could have allowed for data theft through the Secure Folder app. Samsung Knox security software could have been used to install malicious apps. And a bug in Samsung Dex could have scraped data from notifications. There are no indications users were impacted and the flaws were fixed.
An App Store analysis published by The Washington Post claims nearly 2% of the top grossing apps on one day were scam apps, which cost people $48 million. They included several VPN apps that told users their iPhones were infected with viruses, a QR code reader that tricked customers into a subscription for functionality that comes with an iPhone, and apps that pretend to be from big-name brands, like Amazon and Samsung.
Multiple apps were removed from the Chinese app store for violating data collection rules, Reuters reported. The apps hailed from Sogou, iFlytek and others, and included virtual keyboards.
Funding and M&A
Mexican payments app Clip raised $250 million from SoftBank’s Latin American Fund and Viking Global Investors, valuing the business at $2 billion. The app offers a Square-like credit card reader device and others, and has begun to offer cash advances to clients.
Shopify acqui-hires the team from the augmented reality home design app Primer. The app, which will be shut down, had allowed users to visualize what tile, wallpaper or paint will look like on surfaces inside their home.
Singapore-based corporate services “super app” Osome raised $16 million in Series A funding. The app offers online accounting and other business services for SMBs. Investors include Target Global, AltaIR Capital, Phystech Ventures, S16VC and VC Peng T. Ong.
Chinese grocery delivery app Dingdong Maicai, backed by Sequoia and Tiger Global, has filed for a U.S. IPO. To date, the company has raised $1 billion.
San Francisco-based MaintainX raised $39 millionin Series B funding led by Bessemer Venture Partners for its mobile-first platform for industrial and frontline workers to help track maintenance, safety and operations.
Berlin’s Ada Health raised $90 millionin Series B funding in a round led by Leaps by Bayer, the impact investment arm of Bayer AG. The app lets users monitor their symptoms and track their health and clinical data.
Photo app Dispo confirmed its previously leaked Series A funding, which earlier reports had pegged as being around $20 million. The app had been rebranded from David’s Disposable and dropped its association with YouTuber David Dobrik, following sexual assault allegations regarding a member of the Vlog Squad. Spark Capital severed ties with Dispo as a result. Seven Seven Six and Unshackled Ventures remained listed as investors, per Dispo’s press release, but the company didn’t confirm the size of the round.
Brazilian fintech Nubank raised a $750 million extension to its Series G (which was $400 million last year) led by Berkshire Hathaway. The company offers a digital bank account accessible from an app, debit card, payments, loans, insurance and more. The funding brings the company to a $1.15 billion valuation.
Seattle-based tutoring app Kadama raised $1.7 million in seed funding led by Grishin Robotics. The app, which offering an online tutoring marketplace aimed at Gen Z, rode the remote learning wave to No. 2 in the Education category on the App Store.
Mark Cuban-based banking app Dave, which helps Americans build financial stability, is planning to go public via a SPAC launched by Chicago-based Victory Park Capital called VPC Impact Acquisition Holdings III. It also includes a $210 million private investment from Tiger Global Management.
Mobile game publisher Voodoo acquired Tel Aviv-based marketing automation platform Bidshake for an undisclosed sum. Launched in January 2020, Bidshake combines data aggregation and analytics with campaign and creative management. It will continue to operate independently.
Turntable — tt.fm
Image Credits: tt.fm on iPhone/Brian Heater
Newly launched music social network tt.fm is a Turntable.fm rival that lets you virtually hang out with friends while listening to music. To be clear, the app is not the same as Turntable.fm, which shut down in 2013 but then returned during the pandemic as people looked to connect online. While that Turntable was rebirthed by its founder Billy Chasen, Turntable – tt.fm hails from early Turntable.fm employee, now tt.fm CEO Joseph Perla. But as live events are coming back, the question now may be not which Turntable app to choose, but whether the Turnable.fm experience has missed the correct launch window…again.
The art app SketchAR previously offered artists tools to draw with AR, turn photos into AR, create AR masks for Snapchat, play games and more. With its latest update, artists can now turn their work into NFTs directly inside the app and sell it. The app, now used by nearly 500,000 users, will select a “Creator of the Week” to NFT on OpenSea. Others can create and auction their art as NFTs on-demand.
Today is Launch Day
Introducing OldOS — iOS 4 beautifully rebuilt in SwiftUI.
* Designed to be as close to pixel-perfect as possible. * Fully functional, perhaps even usable as a second OS. * Fully open source for all to learn, modify, and build on. pic.twitter.com/K0JOE2fEKM
In Friday acquisition news, Shopify shared today that they’ve acquired the team from augmented reality startup Primer, which makes an app that lets users visualize what tile, wallpaper or paint will look like on surfaces inside their home.
In a blog post, co-founders Adam Debreczeni and Russ Maschmeyer write that Primer’s app and services will be shutting down next month as part of the deal. Primer’s team of eight employees will all be joining Shopify following the acquisition.
Primer had partnered with dozens of tile and textile design brands to allow users to directly visualize what their designs would look like using their iPhone and iPad and Apple’s augmented reality platform ARKit. The app has been highlighted by Apple several times including this nice write-up by the App Store’s internal editorial team.
Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed. Primer’s backers included Slow Ventures, Abstract Ventures, Foundation Capital and Expa.
There’s been a lot of big talk about how augmented reality will impact online shopping, but aside from some of the integrations made in home design, there hasn’t been an awful lot that’s found its way into real consumer use. Shopify has worked on some of their own integrations — allowing sellers to embed 3D models into their storefronts that users can drop into physical space — but it’s clear that there’s much more room left to experiment.