Amazon’s over-the-top business, including IMDb TV and Twitch, tops 120M monthly viewers

Amazon’s free, ad-supported streaming service IMDb TV is getting its own mobile app. The company announced the news today at its first-ever NewFronts presentation to advertisers, where it also shared that its over-the-top streaming businesses combined — meaning, IMDb TV, Twitch, live sports like Thursday Night Football, Amazon’s News app and others — have now grown to more than 120 million monthly viewers.

This over-the-top business, or Amazon OTT as it’s called, includes anywhere ads show up alongside content on the IMDb TV app, Twitch’s game streaming site, during live sports Amazon streams through Prime Video, its 3P network and broadcaster apps and its Amazon’s News app for Fire TV.

IMDb TV viewership, in particular, jumped 138% year-over-year, Amazon noted.

The ad-supported service, which likely benefited from the same pandemic bump that drove streaming service viewership higher across the board last year, is something of a rival to other free, ad-supported streamers, like Fox’s Tubi, ViacomCBS’s Pluto TV or Roku’s The Roku Channel. However, more like Roku’s hub, Amazon leverages IMDb TV to help it sell its own media devices by promising users easy access to free, streaming content.

Today, that’s resulted in the IMDb TV app seeing the majority of its usage on Fire TV. But over the past several months, the app has become more broadly available, with launches on Roku, Chromecast with Google TV, PlayStation 4 consoles, Xbox One and Series X devices, LG Smart TVs, Nvidia, Sony Android TV and TiVo Android TV devices, Amazon says.

Now it will get its own dedicated mobile app, as well, instead of only a small section inside the IMDb app where the service’s content can be found today on smartphones. The new standalone app will arrive this summer on both iOS and Android, says Amazon.

Amazon also told advertisers about IMDb TV’s current user base, noting that 62% were in between ages 18 and 49. And they spend 5.5 hours per week on the app, on average.

The forthcoming mobile launch was one of several announcements Amazon made today at its Newfronts presentation today.

The company also detailed its upcoming IMDb TV slate, including unscripted series “Luke Bryan: My Dirt Road Diary,” “Bug Out” and “Untitled Jeff Lewis Project” as well as scripted releases “Blessed and Highly Favored,” “Greek Candy,” “Primo,” “The Fed,” and “The Pradeeps of Pittsburgh, PA.” Music duo Tegan and Sara’s memoir “High School” will be adapted as an original series for IMDb TV. IMDb TV also announced a new crime drama, “Leverage: Redemption,” and police drama, “On Call.”

IMDb TV parent company Amazon, meanwhile, expanded its deal with the NFL for Thursday Night Football, which now runs 11 seasons, starting with the 2022 season instead of the following year.

Apple downplays complaints about App Store scams in antitrust hearing

Apple was questioned on its inability to rein in subscription scammers on its App Store during yesterday’s Senate antitrust hearing. The tech giant has argued that one of the reasons it requires developers to pay App Store commissions is to help Apple fight marketplace fraud and protect consumers. But developers claim Apple is doing very little to stop obvious scams that are now raking in millions and impacting consumer trust in the overall subscription economy, as well as in their own legitimate, subscription-based businesses.

One developer in particular, Kosta Eleftheriou, has made it his mission to highlight some of the most egregious scams on the App Store. Functioning as a one-man bunco squad, Eleftheriou regularly tweets out examples of apps that are leveraging fake reviews to promote their harmful businesses.

Some of the more notable scams he’s uncovered as of late include a crypto wallet app that scammed a user out of his life savings (~$600,000) in bitcoin; a kids game that actually contained a hidden online casino; and a VPN app scamming users out of $5 million per year. And, of course, there’s the scam that lit the fire in the first place: A competitor to Eleftheriou’s own Apple Watch app that he alleges scammed users out of $2 million per year, after stealing his marketing materials, cloning his app and buying fake reviews to make the scammer’s look like the better choice.

Eleftheriou’s tweets have caught the attention of the larger app developer community, who now email him other examples of scams they’ve uncovered. Eleftheriou more recently took his crusade a step further by filing a lawsuit against Apple over the revenue he’s lost to App Store scammers.

Though Eleftheriou wasn’t name-checked in yesterday’s antitrust hearing, his work certainly was.

In a line of questioning from Georgia’s Senator Jon Ossoff, Apple’s Chief Compliance Officer Kyle Andeer was asked why Apple was not able to locate scams, given that these fraudulent apps are, as Ossoff put it, “trivially easy to identify as scams.”

He asked why do we have rely upon “open-source reporting and journalists” to find the app scams — a reference that likely, at least in part, referred to Eleftheriou’s recent activities.

Eleftheriou himself has said there’s not much to his efforts. You simply find the apps generating most revenues and then check them for suspicious user reviews and high subscription prices. When you find both, you’ve probably uncovered a scam.

Andeer demurred, responding to Ossoff’s questions by saying that Apple has invested “tens of millions, hundreds of millions of dollars” in hardening and improving the security of its App Store.

“Unfortunately, security and fraud is a cat-and-mouse game. Any retailer will tell you that. And so we’re constantly working to improve,” Andeer said. He also claimed Apple was investing in more resources and technologies to catch wrong-doers and noted that the App Store rejected thousands of apps every year for posing a risk to consumers.

The exec then warned that if Apple wasn’t the intermediary, the problem would be even worse.

” … No one is perfect, but I think what we’ve shown over and over again that we do a better job than others. I think the real risks of opening up the iPhone to sideloading or third-party app stores is that this problem will only multiply. If we look at other app stores out there, we look at other distribution platforms, it scares us.”

Ossoff pressed on, noting the sideloading questions could wait and inquired again about the scam apps.

“Apple is making a cut on those abusive billing practices, are you not?” he asked.

Andeer said he didn’t believe that was the case.

“If we find fraud — if we find a problem, we’re able to rectify that very quickly. And we do each and every day,” he said.

But to what extent Apple was profiting from the App Store scams was less clear. Ossoff wanted to know if Apple refunded “all” of its revenues derived from the scam billing practices — in other words, if every customer who ever subscribed got their money back when a scam was identified.

Andeer’s answer was a little vague, however, as it could be interpreted to mean Apple refunds customers who report the scam or file a complaint — procedures it already has in place today. Instead of saying that Apple refunds “all customers” when scams are identified, he carefully worded his response to say Apple worked to make sure “the customer” is made whole.

“Senator, that’s my understanding. There’s obviously a dedicated team here at Apple who works this each and every day. But my understanding is that we work hard to make sure the customer is in a whole position. That’s our focus at the end of the day. If we lose the trust of our customers, that’s going to hurt us,” he said.

For what it’s worth, Eleftheriou wasn’t buying it.

“Apple’s non-answers to Senator Ossoff’s great questions in yesterday’s hearing should anger all of us. They did not offer any explanation for why it’s so easy for people like me to keep finding multimillion-dollar scams that have been going on unchecked on the App Store for years. They also gave no clear answer to whether they’re responsible for fraudulent activity in their store,” he told TechCrunch.

“Apple appears to profit from these scams, instead of refunding all associated revenues back to affected users when they belatedly take some of these down. We’ve been letting Apple grade their own homework for over a decade. I urge the committee to get to the bottom of these questions, including Apple’s baffling decision years ago to remove the ability for users to flag suspicious apps on the App Store,” Eleftheriou added.

Apple did not provide a comment.

Oath Care just raised $2 million to develop a social, health-focused app that groups expectant and new parents

Being an expectant mom can be frightening, as can mothering an infant or toddler. The answers don’t come automatically, and while there’s no shortage of books and websites (and advice from grandparents) about how to parent at every stage, finding satisfying information often proves a lot harder than imagined.

There are online social groups that deliver some of the social and emotional support that new parents need, no matter where they live. There are many dozens of mom communities on Facebook, for example. However, it’s because there’s room for improvement on this theme — big groups can feel isolating, bad information abounds —that Oath Care, a young, four-person San Francisco-based startup, just raised $2 million in seed funding from XYZ Ventures, General Catalyst, and Eros Resmini, former CMO of Discord and managing partner of the Mini Fund.

What is it building? Founder Camilla Hermann describes it as a subscription-based mobile app that’s focused on improving the lives of new mothers by combining parents with a whole lot in common with healthcare specialists and moderators who can guide them in group chats, as well as one-on-one video calls.

More specifically, she says, for $20 per month, Oath matches pregnant and postpartum moms in circles of up to 10  based on factors like stage of pregnancy, age of child, location, and career so they can ask questions of each other, with the help of a trained moderator (who is sometimes a mother with older children).

Oath also pushes curriculum that Oath’s team is developing in-house to members based on each group’s specific needs. Not last, every group is given collective access to medical specialists who can answer general questions as part of the members’ subscription and who are also available for consultations when individualized help is needed.

Hermann says the pricing of these 15-minute-long consultations is still being developed, but that the medical experts with whom it’s already working see the app as a form of lead generation.

It’s an interesting concept, one that could be taken in a host of directions, acknowledges Hermann who says she was inspired to cofound the company based on earlier work developing a contact tracing technology created to track outbreaks like Ebola in real time.

As she said yesterday during a Zoom call with TechCrunch and her cofounder, Michelle Stephens, a pediatric clinician and research scientist: “We’ve fundamentally misunderstand something really important about health in the West; we think that [changes] happen to one person at a time or one part of the body at a time, but it always happens in interconnected systems both inside and outside the body, which fundamentally means that it is always happening in community.”

For her part, Stephens — who was introduced to Hermann at a dinner years ago — says her motivation in cofounding Oath was born out of research into childhood stress, and that by “better equipping parents to be those positive consistent caregivers in their child’s life,” Oath aims to help enable stronger, more intimate child-parent bonds.

It might sound grand for a mobile app, but it also sounds like a smart starting point. Though the idea is to match mothers in similar situations at the outset to help bolster theirs and their children’s health, it’s easy to imagine the platform evolving in a way that brings together parents in numerous groups based on interests, from preschool applications to autism to same-sex parenting. It’s easy to see the platform helping to sell products that parents need. It’s easy to imagine the company amassing a lot of valuable information.

Indeed, says Hermann, the longer-term vision for Oath is to create rich datasets that it hopes can be used to improve health outcomes, including by identifying health issues earlier. Relatedly, it also hopes to build relationships with health systems and payers in order to increase access to its products.

For now, Oath is mostly just trying to keep up with demand. Hermann says the “small and scrappy” company found its first 50 users through Facebook ads, and that this base quickly tripled organically before Oath was forced to create a growing waitlist for what has been a closed beta until now. (Oath is “anticipating a full launch in late summer,” says Stephens.)

That’s not to say the company isn’t thinking at all about next steps.

While right now it is “laser focused on building out the most exceptional experience for this specific cohort of users in this specific period of time of their lives,” says Hermann, once it builds out many more communities of small trusted groups with “high engagement and high trust,” there is “a lot you can layer on top of that. It’s virtually limitless.”

APKPure app contained malicious adware, say researchers

Security researchers say APKPure, a widely popular app for installing older or discontinued Android apps from outside of Google’s app store, contained malicious adware that flooded the victim’s device with unwanted ads.

Kaspersky Lab said that it alerted APKPure on Thursday that its most recent app version, 3.17.18, contained malicious code that siphoned off data from a victim’s device without their knowledge, and pushed ads to the device’s lock screen and in the background to generate fraudulent revenue for the adware operators.

But the researchers said that the malicious code had the capacity to download other malware, potentially putting affected victims at further risk.

The researchers said the APKPure developers likely introduced the malicious code, known as a software development kit or SDK, from an unverified source. APKPure removed the malicious code and pushed out a new version, 3.17.19, and the developers no longer list the malicious version on its site.

APKPure was set up in 2014 to allow Android users access to a vast bank of Android apps and games, including old versions, as well as app versions from other regions that are no longer on Android’s official app store Google Play. It later launched an Android app, which also has to be installed outside Google Play, serving as its own app store to allow users to download older apps directly to their Android devices.

APKPure is ranked as one of the most popular sites on the internet.

But security experts have long warned against installing apps outside of the official app stores as quality and security vary wildly as much of the Android malware requires victims to install malicious apps from outside the app store. Google scans all Android apps that make it into Google Play, but some have slipped through the cracks before.

TechCrunch contacted APKPure for comment but did not hear back.

U.S. iPhone users spent average of $138 on apps in 2020, to grow to $180 in 2021

U.S. consumers spent an average of $138 on iPhone apps last year, an increase of 38% year-over-year, largely driven by the pandemic impacts, according to new data from app store intelligence firm Sensor Tower. Throughout 2020, consumers turned to iPhone apps for work, school, entertainment, shopping, and more, driving per-user spending to a new record and the greatest annual growth since 2016, when it had then popped by 42% year-over-year.

Sensor Tower tells TechCrunch it expects the trend of increased consumer spend to continue in 2021, when it projects consumer spend per active iPhone in the U.S. to reach an average of $180. This will again be tied, at least in part, to the lift caused by the pandemic — and, particularly, the lift in pandemic-fueled spending on mobile games.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Last year’s increased spending on iPhone apps in the U.S. mirrored global trends, which saw consumers spend a record $111 billion on both iOS and Android apps, per Sensor Tower, and $143 billion, per App Annie, whose analysis had also included some third-party Android app stores in China.

In terms of where U.S. iPhone consumer spending was focused in 2020, the largest category was, of course, gaming.

In the U.S., per-device spending on mobile games grew 43% year-over-year from $53.80 in 2019 to $76.80 in 2020. That’s more than 20 points higher than the 22% growth seend between 2018 and 2019, when in-game spending grew from $44 to $53.80.

U.S. users spent the most money on puzzle games, like Candy Crush Saga and Gardenscapes, which may have helped to take people’s minds off the pandemic and its related stresses. That category averaged $15.50 per active iPhone, followed by casino games, which averaged $13.10, and was driven by physical casinos closures. Strategy games also saw a surge in spending in 2020, growing to an average of $12.30 per iPhone user spending.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Another big category for in-app spending was Entertainment. With theaters and concerts shut down, consumers turned to streaming apps in larger numbers. Disney+ had launched in late 2019, just months ahead of the pandemic lockdowns and HBO Max soon followed in May 2020.

Average per-device spending in this category was second-highest, at $10.20, up 26% from the $8.10 spent in 2019. For comparison, per-device spending had only grown by 1% between 2018 and 2019.

Other categories in the top five by per-device spending included Photo & Video (up 56% to $9.80), Social Networking (up 41% to $7.90) and Lifestyle (up 14% to $6.50).

These increases were tied to apps like TikTok, YouTube, and Twitch — the latter which saw 680% year-over-year revenue growth in 2020 on U.S. iPhones, specifically. TikTok, meanwhile, saw 140% growth. In the Lifestyle category, dating apps were driving growth as consumers looked to connect with others virtually during lockdowns, while bars and clubs were closed.

Overall, what made 2020 unique was not necessarily what apps people where using, but how often they were being used and how much was being spent.

App Annie had earlier pointed out that the pandemic accelerated mobile adoption by two to three years’ time. And Sensor Tower today tells us that the industry didn’t see the same sort of “seasonality” around spending in certain types of apps, and particularly games, last year — even though, pre-pandemic, there are typically slower parts of the year for spending. That was not the case in 2020, when any time was a good time to spend on apps.

 

A new Android spyware masquerades as a ‘system update’

Security researchers say a powerful new Android malware masquerading as a critical system update can take complete control of a victim’s device and steal their data.

The malware was found bundled in an app called “System Update” that had to be installed outside of Google Play, the app store for Android devices. Once installed by the user, the app hides and stealthily exfiltrates data from the victim’s device to the operator’s servers.

Researchers at mobile security firm Zimperium, which discovered the malicious app, said once the victim installs the malicious app, the malware communicates with the operator’s Firebase server, used to remotely control the device.

The spyware can steal messages, contacts, device details, browser bookmarks and search history, record calls and ambient sound from the microphone, and take photos using the phone’s cameras. The malware also tracks the victim’s location, searches for document files, and grabs copied data from the device’s clipboard.

The malware hides from the victim and tries to evade capture by reducing how much network data it consumes by uploading thumbnails to the attacker’s servers rather than the full image. The malware also captures the most up-to-date data, including location and photos.

Zimperium CEO Shridhar Mittal said the malware was likely part of a targeted attack.

“It’s easily the most sophisticated we’ve seen,” said Mittal. “I think a lot of time and effort was spent on creating this app. We believe that there are other apps out there like this, and we are trying our very best to find them as soon as possible.”

A screenshot of the malware masquerading as a system update running on an Android phone. The malware can take full control of an affected device. (Image: Zimperium)

Tricking someone into installing a malicious app is a simple but effective way to compromise a victim’s device. It’s why Android devices warn users not to install apps from outside of the app store. But many older devices don’t run the latest apps, forcing users to rely on older versions of their apps from bootleg app stores.

Mittal confirmed that the malicious app was never installed on Google Play. When reached, a Google spokesperson would not comment on what steps the company was taking to prevent the malware from entering the Android app store. Google has seen malicious apps slip through its filters before.

This kind of malware has far-reaching access to a victim’s device comes in a variety of forms and names, but largely does the same thing. In the early days of the internet, remote access trojans, or RATs, let snoops spy on victims through their webcams. Nowadays, child monitoring apps are often repurposed to spy on a person’s spouse, known as stalkerware or spouseware.

Last year, TechCrunch reported on the KidsGuard stalkerware — ostensibly a child monitoring app — that used a similar “system update” to infect victims’ devices.

But the researchers don’t know who made the malware or who it’s targeting.

“We are starting to see an increasing number of RATs on mobile devices. And the level of sophistication seems to be going up, it seems like the bad actors have realized that mobile devices have just as much information on them and are much less protected than the traditional endpoints,” said Mittal.


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Slapdash raises $3.7M seed to ship a workplace apps command bar

The explosion in productivity software amid a broader remote work boom has been one of the pandemic’s clearest tech impacts. But learning to use a dozen new programs while having to decipher which data is hosted where can sometimes seem to have an adverse effect on worker productivity. It’s all time that users can take for granted, even when carrying out common tasks like navigating to the calendar to view more info to click a link to open the browser to redirect to the native app to open a Zoom call.

Slapdash is aiming to carve a new niche out for itself among workplace software tools, pushing a desire for peak performance to the forefront with a product that shaves seconds off each instance where a user needs to find data hosted in a cloud app or carry out an action. While most of the integration-heavy software suites to emerge during the remote work boom have focused on promoting visibility or re-skinning workflows across the tangled weave of SaaS apps, Slapdash founder Ivan Kanevski hopes that the company’s efforts to engineer a quicker path to information will push tech workers to integrate another tool into their workflow.

The team tells TechCrunch that they’ve raised $3.7 million in seed funding from investors that include S28 Capital, Quiet Capital, Quarry Ventures, UP2398 and Twenty Two Ventures. Angels participating in the round include co-founders at companies like Patreon, Docker and Zynga.

Image Credits: Slapdash

Kanevski says the team sought to emulate the success of popular apps like Superhuman, which have pushed low-latency command line interface navigation while emulating some of the sleek internal tools used at companies like Facebook, where he spent nearly six years as a software engineer.

Slapdash’s command line widget can be pulled up anywhere, once installed, with a quick keyboard shortcut. From there, users can search through a laundry list of indexable apps including Slack, Zoom, Jira and about 20 others. Beyond command line access, users can create folders of files and actions inside the full desktop app or create their own keyboard shortcuts to quickly hammer out a task. The app is available on Mac, Windows, Linux and the web.

“We’re not trying to displace the applications that you connect to Slapdash,” he says. “You won’t see us, for example, building document editing, you won’t see us building project management, just because our sort of philosophy is that we’re a neutral platform.”

The company offers a free tier for users indexing up to five apps and creating 10 commands and spaces; any more than that and you level up into a $12 per month paid plan. Things look more customized for enterprise-wide pricing. As the team hopes to make the tool essential to startups, Kanevski sees the app’s hefty utility for individual users as a clear asset in scaling up.

“If you anticipate rolling this out to larger organizations, you would want the people that are using the software to have a blast with it,” he says. “We have quite a lot of confidence that even at this sort of individual atomic level, we built something pretty joyful and helpful.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Kleeen raises $3.8M to make front-end design for business applications easy

Building a front-end for business applications is often a matter of reinventing the wheel, but because every business’ needs are slightly different, it’s also hard to automate. Kleeen is the latest startup to attempt this, with a focus on building the user interface and experience for today’s data-centric applications. The service, which was founded by a team that previously ran a UI/UX studio in the Bay Area, uses a wizard-like interface to build the routine elements of the app and frees a company’s designers and developers to focus on the more custom elements of an application.

The company today announced that it has raised a $3.8 million seed round led by First Ray Venture Partners. Leslie Ventures, Silicon Valley Data Capital, WestWave Capital, Neotribe Ventures, AI Fund and a group of angel investors also participated in the round. Neotribe also led Kleeen’s $1.6 million pre-seed round, bringing the company’s total funding to $5.3 million.

Image Credits: Kleeen

After the startup he worked at sold, Kleeen co-founder, CPO and President Joshua Hailpern told me, he started his own B2B design studio, which focused on front-end design and engineering.

“What we ended up seeing was the same pattern that would happen over and over again,” he said. “We would go into a client, and they would be like: ‘we have the greatest idea ever. We want to do this, this, this and this.’ And they would tell us all these really cool things and we were: ‘hey, we want to be part of that.’ But then what we would end up doing was not that. Because when building products — there’s the showcase of the product and there’s all these parts that support that product that are necessary but you’re not going to win a deal because someone loved that config screen.”

The idea behind Kleeen is that you can essentially tell the system what you are trying to do and what the users need to be able to accomplish — because at the end of the day, there are some variations in what companies need from these basic building blocks, but not a ton. Kleeen can then generate this user interface and workflow for you — and generate the sample data to make this mock-up come to life.

Once that work is done, likely after a few iterations, Kleeen can generate React code, which development teams can then take and work with directly.

Image Credits: Kleeen

As Kleeen co-founder and CEO Matt Fox noted, the platform explicitly doesn’t want to be everything to everybody.

“In the no-code space, to say that you can build any app probably means that you’re not building any app very well if you’re just going to cover every use case. If someone wants to build a Bumble-style phone app where they swipe right and swipe left and find their next mate, we’re not the application platform for you. We’re focused on really data-intensive workflows.” He noted that Kleeen is at its best when developers use it to build applications that help a company analyze and monitor information and, crucially, take action on that information within the app. It’s this last part that also clearly sets it apart from a standard business intelligence platform.

This Week in Apps: TikTok viral hit breaks Spotify records, inauguration boosts news app installs, judge rules against Parler

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020.

Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.

This week, we’re looking into how President Biden’s inauguration impacted news apps, the latest in the Parler lawsuit, and how TikTok’s app continues to shape culture, among other things.

Top Stories

Judge says Amazon doesn’t have to host Parler on AWS

logos for AWS (Amazon Web Services) and Parler

Logos for AWS (Amazon Web Services) and Parler. Image Credits: TechCrunch

U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein in Seattle this week ruled that Amazon won’t be required to restore access to web services to Parler. As you may recall, Parler sued Amazon for booting it from AWS’ infrastructure, effectively forcing it offline. Like Apple and Google before it, Amazon had decided that the calls for violence that were being spread on Parler violated its terms of service. It also said that Parler showed an “unwillingness and inability” to remove dangerous posts that called for the rape, torture and assassination of politicians, tech executives and many others, the AP reported.

Amazon’s decision shouldn’t have been a surprise for Parler. Amazon had reported 98 examples of Parler posts that incited violence over the past several weeks before its decision. It told Parler these were clear violations of the terms of service.

Parler’s lawsuit against Amazon, however, went on to claim breach of contract and even made antitrust allegations.

The judge shot down Parler’s claims that Amazon and Twitter were colluding over the decision to kick the app off AWS. Parler’s claims over breach of contract were denied, too, as the contract had never said Amazon had to give Parler 30 days to fix things. (Not to mention the fact that Parler breached the contract on its side, too.) It also said Parler had fallen short in demonstrating the need for an injunction to restore access to Amazon’s web services.

The ruling only blocks Parler from forcing Amazon to again host it as the lawsuit proceeds, but is not the final ruling in the overall case, which is continuing.

TikTok drives another pop song to No. 1 on Billboard charts, breaks Spotify’s record

@livbedumb♬ drivers license – Olivia Rodrigo

We already knew TikTok was playing a large role in influencing music charts and listening behavior. For example, Billboard last year noted how TikTok drove hits from Sony artists like Doja Cat (“Say So”) and 24kGoldn (“Mood”), and helped Sony discover new talent. Columbia also signed viral TikTok artists like Lil Nas X, Powfu, StaySolidRocky, Jawsh 685, Arizona Zervas and 24kGoldn. Meanwhile, Nielsen has said that no other app had helped break more songs in 2020 than TikTok.

This month, we’ve witnessed yet another example of this phenomenon. Olivia Rodrigo, the 17-year-old star of Disney+’s “High School Musical: The Musical: the Series” released her latest song, “Drivers License” on January 8. The pop ballad and breakup anthem is believed to be referencing the actress’ relationship with co-star Joshua Bassett, which gave the song even more appeal to fans.

Upon its release the song was heavily streamed by TikTok users, which helped make it an overnight sensation of sorts. According to a report by The WSJ, Billboard counted 76.1 million streams and 38,000 downloads in the U.S. during the week of its release. It also made a historic debut at No. 1 on the Hot 100, becoming the first smash hit of 2021.

On January 11, “Drivers License” broke Spotify’s record for most streams per day (for a non-holiday song) with 15.17 million global streams. On TikTok, meanwhile, the number of videos featuring the song and the views they received doubled every day, The WSJ said.

Charli D’Amelio’s dance to it on the app has now generated 5 million “Likes” across nearly 33 million views, as of the time of writing.

@charlidamelio♬ drivers license – Olivia Rodrigo

Of course, other TikTok hits have broken out in the past, too — even reaching No. 1 like “Blinding Lights” (The Weeknd) and “Mood” (24kGoldn). But the success of “Drivers License” may be in part due to the way it focuses on a subject that’s more relevant to TikTok’s young, teenage user base. It talks about first loves and being dumped for the other girl. And its title and opening refer to a time many adults have forgotten: the momentous day when you get your driver’s license. It’s highly relatable to the TikTok crowd who fully embraced it and made it a hit.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

  • Apple stops signing iOS 12.5, making iOS 12.5.1 the only versions of iOS available to older devices.
  • A report claims Apple’s iOS 15 update will cut support for devices with an A9 chip, like the iPhone 6, iPhone 6s Plus and the original iPhone SE.
  • New analysis estimates Apple’s upcoming iOS privacy changes will cause a roughly 7% revenue hit for Facebook in Q2. The revenue hit will continue in following quarters and will be “material.”

Platforms: Google

  • Google adds “trending” icons to the Play Store. New arrow icons appeared in the Top Charts tab, which indicate whether an app’s downloads are trending up or down, in terms of popularity. This could provide an early signal about those that may still be rising in the charts or beginning to fall out of favor, despite their current high position.
  • Google appears to be working on a Restricted Networking mode for Android 12. The mode, discovered by XDA Developers digging in the Android Open Source Project, would disable network access for all third-party apps.

Gaming

  • Goama (or Go Games) introduced a way for developers to integrate social games into their apps, which was showcased at CES. The company focuses on Asia and Latin America and has more than 15 partners, including GCash and Rappi, for digital payments and communications.
  • Fortnite maker Epic Games is getting into movies. The animated feature film Gilgamesh will use Epic’s Unreal Engine technology to tell the story of the king-turned-deity. The movie is not an in-house project, but rather is financed through Epic’s $100M MegaGrants fund.

Augmented Reality

  • Patents around Apple’s AR and VR efforts describe how a system could be identified in a way that’s similar to FaceID, then either permitted or denied the ability to change their appearance in the game.
  • Pinterest launches AR try-on for eyeshadow in its mobile app using Lens technology and ModiFace data. The app already offered AR try-on for lipsticks.

Entertainment

  • The CW app became the No. 1 app on the App Store this week, topping TikTok, Instagram and YouTube, thanks to CW’s season premieres of Batwoman, All American, Riverdale and Nancy Drew.
  • Users of podcasting app Anchor, owned by Spotify, say the app isn’t bringing them any sponsorship opportunities, as promised, beyond those from Spotify and Anchor itself.
  • YouTube launches hashtag landing pages on the web and in its mobile app. The pages are accessible when you click hashtags on YouTube, not via search, and weirdly rank the “best” videos through some inscrutable algorithm.
  • Apple’s Podcasts app adds a new editorial feature, Apple Podcasts Spotlight, meant to increase podcast listening by showcasing the best podcasts as selected by Apple editors.

E-commerce

  • WeChat facilitated 1.6 trillion yuan (close to $250 billion) in annual transactions through its “mini programs” in 2020. The figure is more than double that of 2019.

Fintech

  • Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, launched an e-wallet, Douyin Pay. The wallet will supplement the existing payment options, Alipay and WeChat Pay, and will help to support the Douyin app’s growing e-commerce business.
  • Neobank Monzo founder Tom Blomfield left the startup, saying he struggled during the pandemic. “I think [for] a lot of people in the world…going through a pandemic, going through lockdown and the isolation involved in that has an impact on people’s mental health,” he told TechCrunch.
  • New estimates indicate about 50% of the iPhone user base (or 507 million users) now use Apple Pay. 
  • Samsung’s newest phones drop support for MST, which emulates a mag stripe at terminals that don’t support NFC.

Social

  • Indian messaging app, StickerChat, owned by Hike, is shutting down. Founder Kavin Bharti Mittal said India will never have a homegrown messenger unless it bars Western companies from its market. Hike pivoted this month to virtual social apps, Vibe and Rush, which it believes have more potential.
  • Instagram head Adam Mosseri, in a Verge podcast, said he’s not happy with Reels so far, and how he feels most people probably don’t understand the difference between Instagram video and IGTV. He says the social network needs to simplify and consolidate ideas.
  • Facebook and Instagram improve their accessibility features. The apps’ AI-generated image captions now offer far more details about who or what is in the photos, thanks to improvements in image recognition systems.
  • TikTok launches a Q&A feature that lets creators respond to fan questions using text or videos. The feature, rolled out to select creators with more than 10,000 followers, makes it easier to see all the questions in one place.

Health & Fitness

  • Health and fitness app spending jumped 70% last year in Europe to record $544 million, a Sensor Tower report says. The year-over-year increase is far larger than 2019, when growth was just 37.2%. COVID-19 played a large role in this shift as people turned to fitness apps instead of gyms to stay in shape.

Government & Policy

  • Biden’s inauguration boosted installs of U.S. news apps up to 170%, Sensor Tower reported. CNN was the biggest mover, climbing 530 positions to reach No. 41 on the App Store, and up 170% in terms of downloads. News Break was the second highest, climbing 13 positions to No. 65. Right-wing outlet Newsmax climbed 43 spots to reach No. 108. In 2020, the top news apps were: News Break (23.7 million installs); SmartNews (9 million); CNN (5 million); and Fox News (4 million). This month, however, News Break saw 1.2 million installs, followed by Newsmax with about 863,000 installs, the report said.
  • Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) sent a draft decision to fellow EU Data Protection Authorities over the WhatsApp-Facebook data sharing policy. This means a decision on the matter is coming closer to a resolution in terms of what standards of transparency is required by WhatsApp.
  • German app developer Florian Mueller of FOSS Patents filed a complaint with the EU, U.S. DOJ and other antitrust watchdogs around the world over Apple and Google’s rejection of his COVID-related mobile game. Both stores had policies to only approve official COVID-19 apps from health authorities. Mueller renamed the game Viral Days and removed references to the novel coronavirus to get the app approved. However, he still feels the stores’ rules are holding back innovation.

Productivity

  • Basecamp’s Hey, which famously fought back against Apple’s App Store rules over IAP last year, has launched a business-focused platform, Hey for Work, expected to be public in Q1. The app has more App Store ratings than rival Superhuman, a report found. Currently, Hey has a 4.7-star rating across 3.3K reviews; Superhuman has 3.9 rating across only 274 reviews.

Trends

  • Baby boomers are increasingly using apps. Baby boomers/Gen Xers in the U.S. spent 30% more time year-over-year in their most used apps, App Annie reports. That’s a larger increase than either Millennials or Gen Z, at 18% and 16%, respectively.

Funding and M&A

  • Curtsy, a clothing resale app for Gen Z women, raised an $11 million Series A led by Index Ventures. The app tackles some of the problems with online resale by sending shipping supplies and labels to sellers, and by making the marketplace accessible to new and casual sellers.
  • Storytelling platform Wattpad acquired by South Korea’s Naver for $600 million. The reading apps whose stories have turned into book and Netflix hits will be incorporated into Naver’s publishing platform Webtoon.
  • On-demand delivery app Glovo partnered with Swiss-based real estate firm, Stoneweg, which is investing €100 million in building and refurbishing real estate in key markets to build out Glovo’s network of “dark stores.”
  • Pocket Casts app is up for sale. The podcast app was acquired nearly three years ago by a public radio consortium of top podcast producers (NPR, WNYC Studios, WBEZ Chicago and This American Life). The owners have now agreed to sell the app, which posted a net loss in 2020. (NPR’s share of the loss was over $800,000.)
  • Travel app Maps.me raised $50 million in a round led by Alameda Research. The funding will go toward the launch of a multi-currency wallet. Cryptocurrency lender Genesis Capital and institutional cryptocurrency firm CMS Holdings also participated in the round, Coindesk reported.
  • Bangalore-based hyperlocal delivery app Dunzo raised $40 million in a round that included investment from Google, Lightbox, Evolvence, Hana Financial Investment, LGT Lightstone Aspada and Alteria.
  • London-based food delivery app Deliveroo raised $180 million in new funding from existing investors, led by Durable Capital Partners and Fidelity Management, valuing the business at more than $7 billion.
  • Dating Group acquired Swiss startup Once, a dating app that sends one match per day, for $18 million.

Downloads

Bodyguard

Image Credits: Bodyguard

A French content moderation app called Bodyguard, detailed here by TechCrunch, has brought its service to the English-speaking market. The app allows you to choose the level of content moderation you want to see on top social networks, like Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Twitch. You can choose to hide toxic content across a range of categories, like insults, body shaming, moral harassment, sexual harassment, racism and homophobia and indicate whether the content is a low or high priority to block.

Beeper

Image Credits: Beeper

Pebble’s founder and current YC Partner Eric Migicovsky has launched a new app, Beeper, that aims to centralize in one interface 15 different chat apps, including iMessage. The app relies on an open-source federated, encrypted messaging protocol called Matrix that uses “bridges” to connect to the various networks to move the messages. However, iMessage support is more wonky, as the company actually ships you an old iPhone to make the connection to the network. But this system allows you to access Beeper on non-Apple devices, the company says. The app is slowly onboarding new users due to initial demand. The app works across MacOS, Windows, Linux‍, iOS and Android and charges $10/mo for the service.