This is the iPhone 13

The rumors were right. The centerpiece of today’s big Apple event is the latest iPhone. The latest device lands less than a year after its predecessor, now that things have settled down somewhat on the supply chain side for Apple. Last year’s iPhone 12 was a massive seller, bucking the trend of stagnating smartphones sales, in part due to a bottleneck in sales from the unplanned delay, but also because it finally brought 5G connectivity to Apple’s mobile line.

Lucky number iPhone 13 (no skipping for superstition’s sake, mind) features a familiar design. The front notch has finally been shrunken down — now 20% smaller than its predecessor, while the rear-facing camera system has also gotten a redesign. The screen is now 28% brighter on both the iPhone 13 and 13 mini at 1200 nits.

The phone is powered by Apple’s new A15 Bionic chip, built with a 5nm processor. The CPU is 6-core that the company is calling “the fastest CPU on any smartphone.” The new 4-core GPU, meanwhile, brings advanced graphics to the handset.

The rear dual-camera system features a 12MP wide angle camera that’s capable of pulling in up to 47% more light. The new Cinematic Mode, meanwhile, brings rack focus-style shooting capable of adjusting the focus on subjects, using machine learning (you can also tap to adjust manual or switch between subjects).

Developing…

Read more about Apple's Fall 2021 Event on TechCrunch

TikTok expands mental health resources, as negative reports of Instagram’s effect on teens leak

TikTok announced this morning that it is implementing new tactics to educate its users about the negative mental health impacts of social media. As part of these changes, TikTok is rolling out a “well-being guide” in its Safety Center, a brief primer on eating disorders, expanded search interventions, and opt-in viewing screens on potentially triggering searches.

Developed in collaboration with International Association for Suicide PreventionCrisis Text LineLive For TomorrowSamaritans of Singapore, and Samaritans (UK), the new well-being guide offers more targeted advice toward people using TikTok, encouraging users to consider how it might impact them to share their mental health stories on a platform where any post has the potential to go viral. TikTok wants users to think about why they’re sharing their experience, if they’re ready for a wider audience to hear their story if sharing could be harmful to them, and if they’re prepared to hear others’ stories in response.

The platform also added a brief, albeit generic memo about the impact of eating disorders under the “topics” section of the Safety Center, which was developed with the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). NEDA has a long track record of collaborating with social media platforms, most recently working with Pinterest to prohibit ads promoting weight loss.

Already, TikTok directs users to local resources when they search for words or phrases like #suicide,* but now, the platform will also share content from creators with the intent of helping someone in need. The platform told TechCrunch that it chose this content following consultation with independent experts. Additionally, if someone enters a search phrase that might be alarming (TikTok offered “scary makeup” as an example), the content will be blurred out, asking users to opt-in to see the search results.

As TikTok unveils these changes, its competitor Instagram is facing scrutiny after The Wall Street Journal leaked documents that reveal its parent company Facebook’s own research on the harm Instagram poses for teen girls. Similar to the Gen Z-dominated TikTok, more than 40% of Instagram users are 22 or younger, and 22 million teens log into Instagram in the U.S. each day. In one anecdote, a 19-year-old interviewed by The Wall Street Journal said that after searching Instagram for workout ideas, her explore page has been flooded with photos about how to lose weight (Instagram has previously fessed up to errors with its search function, which recommended that users search topics like “fasting” and “appetite suppressants”). Angela Guarda, director for the eating-disorders program at Johns Hopkins Hospital, told The Wall Street Journal that her patients often say they learned about dangerous weight loss tactics via social media.

“The question on many people’s minds is if social media is good or bad for people. The research on this is mixed; it can be both,” Instagram wrote in a blog post today.

As TikTok nods to with its advice on sharing mental health stories, social media can often be a positive resource, allowing people who are dealing with certain challenges to learn from others who have gone through similar experiences. So, despite these platforms’ outsized influence, it’s also on real people to think twice about what they post and how it might influence others. Even when Facebook experimented with hiding the number of “likes” on Instagram, employees said that it didn’t improve overall user well-being. These revelations about the negative impact of social media on mental health and body image aren’t ground-breaking, but they generate a renewed pressure for these powerful platforms to think about how to support their users (or, at the very least, add some new memos to their security center). 

*If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or has had thoughts of harming themselves or taking their own life, The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) provides 24/7, free, confidential support for people in distress, as well as best practices for professionals and resources to aid in prevention and crisis situations.

South Korean antitrust regulator fines Google $177M for abusing market dominance

The Korea Fair Trade Commission (KFTC) said on Tuesday it fined Google $177 million for abusing its market dominance in the Android operating system (OS) market.

The U.S. tech company has restricted market competition by prohibiting local smartphone makers like Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics from customizing their Android OS, through Google’s anti-fragmentation agreements (AFA), according to the antitrust regulator statement.

Under the AFA, smartphone developers are not allowed to install or develop “Android forks”, modified versions of Android.

The KFTC banned Google LLC, Google Asia Pacific and Google Korea from imposing local smartphone developers to sign the AFA and make changes on details about the existing version. The new measure in South Korea will be applied to not only mobiles devices but also other Android-powered smart devices including watches and TVs.

Android has spurred innovation among Korean mobile operator owners and software developers and that has led to a better user experience for Korean consumers, Google said in its statement. “The KFTC’s decision released today ignores these benefits, and will undermine the advantages enjoyed by consumers. Google intends to appeal the KFTC’s decision,” a spokesperson at Google said.

The commission has been investigating Google over the anti-competition practice in OS market since July 2016, a spokesperson at KFTC said.

Google’s global mobile OS market share excluding China has been increased to 97.7% in 2019 from 38% in 2010, as per KFTC’s announcement.

Google’s AFA has also limited to launch tech companies’ new devices like smart watches and TVs using the operating system (OS) including Samsung’s smart watch in 2013, LG Electronics’ LTE smart speaker in 2018 as well as Amazon’s smart TV in 2018.

South Korea’s watchdog is probing into three other cases including the Play Store app market, billing system and the advertisement market.

Meanwhile, South Korea’s “anti-Google law”, takes effect on 14 September, based on Korea Communications Commission’s press release.

In late August, South Korea passed a bill to curb global tech companies including Google and Apple from imposing their own proprietary in-app payment service and commissions on app developers.

Watch Apple unveil the new iPhone live right here

Apple is set to announce new iPhone models today. The company is holding a (virtual) keynote at 10 AM PT (1 PM in New York, 6 PM in London, 7 PM in Paris). And you’ll be able to watch the event right here as the company is streaming it live.

Rumor has it that there will be a new generation of iPhone models. Reports suggest that the company is going to call it the iPhone 13 and that there will be four different models just like last year. Today, you can expect to learn more about the iPhone 13, iPhone 13 Mini, iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro Max.

When it comes to new features, it’s safe to say that there will be big camera upgrades. This year, the company seems to be focused on video improvements in particular. The iPhone 13 should also come with a better display and a faster chip.

But that’s not all. Apple is likely to use this opportunity to announce a new Apple Watch model. There will be bigger design changes with the Apple Watch Series 7 with sharp edges.

There could be more product announcements as Apple has been working on the AirPods 3. They will replace or complement the entry-level AirPods 2 in the audio lineup. The AirPods Pro and AirPods Max will remain unchanged for now.

Finally, there’s a small chance that we get to hear more about new Macs with custom designed Apple chips as well as new iPad models…

You can watch the live stream directly on this page, as Apple is streaming its conference on YouTube.

If you have an Apple TV, you can open the TV app and look for the ‘Apple Special Event’ section. It lets you stream today’s event and rewatch old ones.

And if you don’t have an Apple TV and don’t want to use YouTube, the company also lets you live stream the event from the Apple Events section on its website. This video feed now works in all major browsers — Safari, Mozilla Firefox, Microsoft Edge and Google Chrome.

We’ll be covering the event and you can follow our liveblog for live commentary.

Read more about Apple's Fall 2021 Event on TechCrunch

Epic Games appeals last week’s ruling in antitrust battle with Apple

Fortnite maker Epic Games is appealing last week’s ruling in its court battle with Apple, where a federal judge said Apple would no longer be allowed to block developers from adding links to alternative payment mechanisms, but stopped short of dubbing Apple a monopolist. The latter would have allowed Epic Games to argue for alternative means of serving its iOS user base, including perhaps, through third-party app stores or even sideloading capabilities built into Apple’s mobile operating system, similar to those on Google’s Android OS.

Apple immediately declared the court battle a victory, as the judge had agreed with its position that the company was “not in violation of antitrust law” and had also deemed Apple’s success in the app and gaming ecosystem as “not illegal.” Epic Games founder and CEO Tim Sweeney, meanwhile, said the ruling was not a win for either developers or consumers. On Twitter, he hinted that the company may appeal the decision when he said, “We will fight on.”

In a court filing published on Sunday (see below), Epic Games officially stated its attention to appeal U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers’ final judgment and “all orders leading to or producing that judgment.”

As part of the judge’s decision, Epic Games had been ordered to pay Apple the 30% of the $12 million it earned when it introduced its alternative payment system in Fortnite on iOS, which was then in breach of its legal contract with Apple.

The appellate court will revisit how Judge Gonzalez Rogers defined the market where Epic Games had argued Apple was acting as a monopolist. Contrary to both parties’ wishes, Gonzalez Rogers defined it as the market for “digital mobile gaming transactions” specifically. Though an appeal may or may not see the court shifting its opinion in Epic Games’ favor, a new ruling could potentially help to clarify the vague language used in the injunction to describe how Apple must now accommodate developers who want to point their customers to other payment mechanisms.

So far, the expectation floating around the developer community is that Apple will simply extend the “reader app” category exception to all non-reader apps (apps that provide access to purchased content). Apple recently settled with a Japanese regulator by agreeing to allow reader apps to point users to their own website where users could sign up and manage their accounts, which could include customers paying for subscriptions — like Netflix or Spotify subscriptions, for instance. Apple said this change would be global.

In briefings with reporters, Apple said the details of the injunction issued with the Epic Games ruling, however, would still need to be worked out. Given the recency of the decision, the company has not yet communicated with developers on how this change will impact them directly nor has it updated its App Store guidelines with new language.

Reached for comment, Epic Games said it does not have any further statements on its decision to appeal at this time.

Spotify’s Clubhouse clone adds six new weekly shows, some that tie to Spotify playlists

This summer, Spotify launched its live audio app and Clubhouse rival, Spotify Greenroom, with the promises of more programming to come in the months ahead to augment its then primarily user-generated live content. Today, the company is making good on that earlier commitment, with the launch of six new shows on Spotify Greenroom focused on pop culture and music, in addition to what Spotify calls “playlist-inspired shows” — meaning those that are inspired by Spotify’s own playlists.

This includes a new show based on the popular playlist Lorem, which launched in 2019, showcasing an eclectic mix of music that has included indie pop, R&B, garage rock, hip-hop, and more, focused on a younger, Gen Z audience. That playlist today has over 884,000 “likes” on Spotify and has risen to become one of the places new artists are able to break through on the platform. Now, Lorem listeners will be connected to “Lorem Life,” a Spotify Greenroom show that will feature a mix of culture and discussions about music, the environment, sustainability, fashion, and space, Spotify says. The show is hosted by Gen Z influencers and TikTok stars, Dev Lemons and Max Motley, who will engage with other artists and influencers. It begins airing on Wednesday, September 15, at 9 PM ET.

Another new “playlist-inspired” show is “The Get Up LIVE.” If the name sounds familiar, it’s because “The Get Up” was introduced last fall as Spotify’s own take on a daily morning show by mixing music with talk radio-style content led by hosts who discuss the news, pop culture, entertainment, and other topics. To date, that content has not been provided as a live program, however. Instead, the show has been pre-recorded then made available as a playlist that gives listeners the feel of a daily FM radio show. Now, “The Get Up’s” co-hosts Kat Lazo and Xavier “X” Jernigan will record their show live on Greenroom, starting on Wednesday, Sept. 15 at 11 AM ET.

This odd time seems to contradict Spotify’s original intention of providing a show for those who commute to the office. But with the rise of remote work in the face of the unending pandemic, addressing the commuter audience may be of less interest, with the new program. However, Spotify tells us “The Get up LIVE” will be complementary to the daily show, which will still run as normal — that’s why it has a later airing.

Other new Greenroom shows include “A Gay in the Life,” hosted by the married couple, actor Garrett Clayton and writer and educator Blake Knight, who will discuss LGBTQIA+ news and issues (weekly, 8 PM ET, starting today); “Take a Seat,” hosted by Ben Mandelker and Ronnie Karam of the “Watch What Crappens” podcast, who will recap reality shows and dive into other pop culture fascinations (weekly, 10 PM ET, starting today); “The Movie Buff,” hosted by film buff and comedian Jon Gabrus, who will review and break down the latest hot movies (weekly, 11 PM ET, starting today); and “The Most Necessary: Live,” a complement to Spotify’s “Most Necessary” playlist, where host B.Dot will discuss up-and-comers in hip-hop (weekly, 9 PM ET, starting Tuesday).

In addition to the new programs, Deuxmoi’s show “Deux Me After Dark” will also air this evening (Sept. 13) at 9 PM ET to recap the red carpet looks and gossip from this year’s Met Gala alongside guest Hillary Kerr, co-founder of Who What Wear.

Image Credits: Spotify

Greenrom is now available to listeners in over 135 global markets and has been quietly expanding with live audio from sports site and podcast network “The Ringer” as well as from artists like Pop Smoke, the company says. Other programs added include Men In BlazersDeaux Me After DarkTrue Crime Rewind and Ask The Tarot. Many of the shows are also being published on-demand after the live show ends.

The app had gotten off to a slower start this year, given its roots had been in sports talk live programming, which didn’t necessarily connect with Spotify’s music fans. Plus, it has faced growing competition from not only Clubhouse, which inspired its creation, but also other top social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Discord, and more. Without dedicated programs to garner user interest in yet another live audio app, the company had only seen 141,000 new downloads for Greenroom on iOS a little over a month after its launch, and fewer on Google Play. But Spotify’s long-term vision for the service was to more closely tie Greenroom to the music, artists, programs, and podcasts that were already available on its flagship music streaming app — and these new shows are an example of that plan in action.

MarginEdge, a restaurant management software company, raises $18M

MarginEdge announced Monday it raised $18 million in Series B funding to give restaurant operators a real-time view into their costs.

Co-founder and CEO Bo Davis founded the company with Roy Phillips and Brian Mills in 2015. Both Davis and Phillips are veterans of the restaurant industry: Davis was previously the founder of conveyor belt sushi restaurant chain Wasabi, while Phillips was an executive at Bloomin Brands.

What they recognized with independent restaurants was that they struggled with workflow like invoices and tracking food costs and were either building internal tools to help them stay on top of things or were still operating with pen and paper or spreadsheets.

“We focused on building something our friends would like,” Davis told TechCrunch. “We spent three years on the product and worked with 20 restaurants to use the software and focus on getting it right instead of rushing to market.”

MarginEdge’s tool is a restaurant management app that works with a business’ point of sale to streamline inventory, cost-tracking, ordering and recipes to eliminate the paperwork. It also captures all invoices, receipts or bills and converts them to line-item details within 24 hours. It is designed for independent restaurant owners that have under 50 units, Davis said.

Since launching its app in 2018, the Virginia-based company is seeing its platform used in over 2,500 restaurants. It raised a Series A in 2019, then an A2 in 2020 and with the latest round, led by IGC Hospitality, has raised $25 million in total.

IGC Hospitality, which operates restaurant properties, is not only an investor, but is also a customer, said Jeffrey Brosi, founder and managing partner. The company was using some different technology platforms to manage inventory and sales, but was looking for something to manage its whole inventory process.

“Bo came in and did a presentation, and it was amazing,” Brosi added. “The biggest thing for us is [being] user friendly. MarginEdge also has great customer service. We’ve invested in a few companies in the hospitality industry, and know the pain points and what we want to fix. If it makes sense financially, we will invest. This was one pain point that we didn’t have, and Bo filled that void.”

Like all restaurants over the past 18 months, Davis said the global pandemic caused MarginEdge to step back and evaluate. Despite many restaurants going out of business, he credits his business taking off again to restaurants rethinking their processes.

“We were lucky enough to be in a good position with capital that we could keep our team,” he added. “Revenue decreased for the first time, but we grew 45% even with COVID and as of Q1 was seeing 200% annual growth.”

MarginEdge has over 400 employees and its platform processes 45,000 invoices a week. Davis intends to invest the new funding in building out the leadership team, product development, building new features for the back office and on data science, an area he just received an advanced degree in, he said.

The company is using benchmark data around sales, food costs and labor costs and would like to provide more insights to its customers as it relates to inflation, which affects all of those aspects, and as a result, the menu prices.

“A lot of it is using data to understand menu pricing and what other people are doing so you are not pricing yourself out of the market or operating on margins where you can’t survive,” Davis added. “It will be all about predicting rather than reporting. The two things in the kitchen that are hardest are the startup prep list and the inventory late at night, and we make both easier.”

What we expect from next week’s Apple event

We’ve been scouring the latest rumors and leaks and playing all of The Mamas and The Papas songs forward and backward to get the best possible picture of what we’re in store for with next Tuesday’s “California Streaming’” event.

The invites, which went out a week in advance, don’t appear to give the game away here. There was some extremely cool AR trickery, accessible through Safari on mobile, which could point to some fancy camera upgrades, though augmented reality has become a bit of a staple on these invites.

The California Streaming title, meanwhile, seems likely to be more of a nod to the all-virtual nature of the event, rather than anything to do with, say, Apple TV (of course, we’ve been one-more-thinged in the past). And as for that lovely shot of the Sierras — that could well be a nod to macOS, though the company has moved onto Monterey. It seems just as likely to be a reference to the aforementioned title.

The biggest, simplest and most important answer to the question of what to expect is a new iPhone. Last year’s models saw a notable delay due to COVID-19-related supply chain bottlenecking. Supply chain problems have persisted, of course, but by all accounts, the company appears to be back on track with its pre-pandemic release cycle.

The iPhone 12’s biggest upgrade was, of course, the long-awaited addition of 5G. That, coupled with the delay, led Apple to some pretty massive sales quarters amid a broader stalling of the overall mobile market. While other manufacturers have skipped the number out of superstitious concerns, Apple seems firmly on board with iPhone 13 (even as renders of its successor, the iPhone 14 have reportedly already leaked).

Image Credits: Getty Images / Qi Heng/VCG

Recent reports suggest that the iPhone 13 will arrive in four different configurations — much like its predecessor. So: the iPhone 13, 13 Mini, 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max. The screen sizes should remain the same: 5.4, 6.1 (x2) and 6.7 inches. A separate report, meanwhile, suggests that we’ll see additional colors, with the full lineup being black, white, blue, purple, pink (rather than green) and Product (Red). But, keep in mind that offering different color availabilities in different markets isn’t entirely out of the question.

Unsurprisingly, camera upgrades appear to be the biggest news here. Word from analyst Ming-Chi Kuo is that last year’s Pro Max model specs will graduate to the rest of the line (including, potentially, lidar). A ProRes video mode is said to be following the addition of ProRAW to further advance the handset’s bonafides as a semi-pro video shooting rig. Cinematic Video, meanwhile, is said to bring a Portrait-mode-style effect to video. Kuo has also suggested that the devices will be getting a feature based on the Qualcomm X60 that allows for emergency satellite calls — reportedly only available in select markets.

Of course, the phone will also be getting Apple’s latest chip, the A15, said to be coupled with 120 Hz ProMotion display. Apple could also be bringing an always-on feature to the screen, hopefully with minimal impact on battery life. Looks-wise we anticipate it will be more or less the same as its predecessor, albeit with a somewhat smaller camera notch up front — though not to the point of the fake Ted Lasso iPhone. The camera bump around back, meanwhile, is said to be getting larger, perhaps offering an improved telephoto lens.

Oh, and apparently they’ll be more expensive than the iPhone 12 — clearly not one of the new features Apple is going to be actively promoting.

Image Credits: Apple

The Apple Watch 7 seems destined to be the other big news of the event. Apple’s massively popular wearable is reportedly set to get more massive, with a larger display, resulting in a slightly larger case size, from 40 mm and 44 mm to 41 mm and 45 mm. The overall size won’t be too large a change, however, as the company is said to be reducing its bezels this go-round.

Perhaps the most exciting rumor around the Watch is the addition of significant battery life. That’s long felt like a blind spot for the product, compared to competing smartwatches — particularly after Apple significantly improved sleep tracking. Most aren’t anticipating major new health features for the Watch this outing, which is a bit of a surprise here, given that health and fitness have been a major cornerstone for Apple.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

AirPods 3 seem like a reasonably good bet. The latest version of the company’s entry-level earbuds (and their case) are said to be getting a more Pro-style redesign, along with a new chip that’s designed to improve battery life. Active noise cancelation and replaceable tips are apparently not going to make an appearance to maintain the distinction between the two models.

With the company’s rangewide upgrade to its own silicon chugging along, don’t be surprised if we see a number of new Macs. Rumors suggest a new MacBook Pro, Mac Mini and a larger, 27-inch version of its ARM-powered iMac.

The event kicks off Tuesday, September 14 at 10 a.m. PDT/1 p.m. EDT. We’ll be here, bringing you the news as it arrives.
Read more about Apple's Fall 2021 Event on TechCrunch

MaxRewards banks $3M to reveal best payment methods that reap the most rewards

When Anik Khan graduated from college, his first job was working on credit cards and business expenses at Accenture. There, he found that someone could bring in a couple of thousand dollars just by having the right credit cards and following the rewards and promotions.

It was back in 2017 when he and David Gao got the idea for his company MaxRewards, a digital wallet app that manages credit cards and automatically activates benefits like rewards, cashback offers and monthly credits. It also makes recommendations at the point of purchase on which card would yield the best reward for that purchase.

Going after the some 83% of Americans that have a credit card, the app version was officially launched in 2019, and now the Atlanta-based company is announcing a $3 million seed round co-led by Dundee Venture Capital and Calano Ventures. Also backing the company are Techstars, Fintech Ventures Fund, Service Provider Capital and Fleetcor president Nick Izquierdo.

Tracking his own credit cards manually prior to MaxRewards, Khan recalled in one year, getting $16,000 in rewards. However, utilizing those benefits was time-consuming and difficult, because the rewards and savings aren’t always made evident by the credit card companies.

“Other companies have tried to do something similar, but the issue is you don’t have the reward information or the offers,” Khan told TechCrunch. “If you were to aggregate this information, you still would have to activate all of these things and use them before they expired.”

Users connect their accounts and when they make a purchase, their location is cross-referenced with the merchant and an algorithm is applied to tell the user which card to use. The average app user has six credit cards.

MaxRewards is free to download and use, and the majority of the app’s functionalities are free. Users who want additional features, like the auto activation or rewards, can join MaxRewards Gold and are given the opportunity to choose their own monthly price — the average is over $25 per month — based on the value they expect to gain, Khan said.

MaxRewards offers and benefits. Image Credits: MaxRewards

Ron Watson, partner at Dundee, said his firm invests in seed-stage companies between the coasts and is interested in consumer and e-commerce companies. Watson said he was impressed with what MaxRewards has been able to do with a team of three. He also relates to the company’s mission, having grown up in a lower, middle-class family that did not frequently go on vacations.

When he got his first job and was suddenly flying everywhere, he recalls building up so many rewards to the point where he was able to go on a vacation to Hawaii and only spend maybe $100, he said.

“I used to put my points into a spreadsheet, but as I got older and had kids, I realized how hard it was for the average person to do that and how important it is to have automation,” Watson said. “I downloaded the app, and on the first day, saved $20.”

The company is often compared to NerdWallet or Mint, but in terms of functionality, Khan said he feels MaxRewards is unique due to its credit card system connectors. Rather than rely on third-party aggregators to discover the rewards, MaxRewards leverages its own proprietary connectors to card systems.

There are hundreds of thousands of offers to be discovered, and consumers are asking for even more features, so Khan decided it was time to go after seed funding. He had raised a small seed, about $200,000, from his time at Techstars, but the new funding will enable him to add to his team of three people. He expects to be at 20 by the end of the year. Khan also wants to accelerate its user acquisition, product improvement and compliance.

Next up, the company is going to automate rewards and savings across additional platforms like debit cards, payment apps and cashback apps, as well as create browser extensions and a web app. Khan also wants to do more on the education side with regard to using credit cards in a smart manner.

Arron Solano, managing partner at Calano, met Khan through Techstars and said he is an advocate for using credit cards in the right way. His firm was looking for a company like MaxRewards.

“During our first call, I remember telling my partner that Anik was a bulldog who knew what he was talking about, especially at that stage,” Solano added. “He had strong team members, his vision lined up well and that checked off a massive box for us. He energized us and showed he could find a market with insanely high ‘super users.’ ”

Epic Games to shut down Houseparty in October, including the video chat ‘Fortnite Mode’ feature

Houseparty, the social video chat app acquired by Fortnite maker Epic Games for a reported $35 million back in 2019, is shutting down. The company says Houseparty will be discontinued in October when the app will stop functioning for its existing users; it will be pulled from the app stores today, however. Related to this move, Epic Games’ “Fortnite Mode” feature, which leveraged Houseparty to bring video chat to Fortnite gamers, will also be discontinued.

Founded in 2015, Houseparty offered a way for users to participate in group video chats with friends and even play games, like Uno, trivia, Heads Up and others. Last year, Epic Games integrated Houseparty with Fortnite, initially to allow gamers to see live feeds from friends while gaming, then later adding support to livestream gameplay directly into Houseparty. At the time, these integrations appeared to be the end goal that explained why Epic Games had bought the social startup in the first place.

Now, just over two years after the acquisition was announced, and less than half a year since support for livestreaming was added to the app, Houseparty is shutting down.

The company didn’t offer any solid insight into what, at first glance, feels like an admission of failure to capitalize on its acquisition. But the reality is that Epic Games may have something larger in store beyond just video chat. That said, all Epic Games would say today is that the Houseparty team could no longer give the app the attention it required — a statement that indicates an executive decision to shift the team’s focus to other matters.

While none of the Houseparty team members are being let go as a result of this move, we’re told, they will be joining other teams where they will work on new ways to allow for “social interactions” across the Epic Games family of products. The company’s announcement hinted that those social features would be designed and built at the “metaverse scale.”

The “metaverse” is an increasingly used buzzword that references a shared virtual environment, like those provided by large-scale online gaming platforms such as Fortnite, Roblox and others. Facebook, too, claims the metaverse is the next big gambit for social networking, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg having described it as an “embodied internet that you’re inside of rather than just looking at.”

To some extent, Fortnite has begun to embrace the metaverse by offering non-gaming experiences like online concerts you attend as your avatar, and other live events. Ahead of its shutdown, Houseparty also toyed with live events that users would co-watch and participate in alongside their friends.

An Epic Games spokesperson tells TechCrunch the Houseparty team has worked on (and continues to work on) a number of other projects that focus on social. But some of the “multiple, larger projects” Epic Games has in the works remain undisclosed, we’re told.

In terms of social products, Houseparty’s technology now underpins all of Fortnite voice chat and the features they built are widely available for free to developers through Epic Games Services. They also worked on building out new social experiences, which have ranged from the social RSVP functions for Fortnite’s global events, like the recent Ariana Grande concert, to the upcoming “Operation: Sky Fire” event for collaborating quests and other game mechanics. More social functionality and new experiences are also being built into Fortnite’s user-generated content platform, Create Mode.

While it may seem odd to close an app that only last year experienced a boost in usage due to the pandemic, it appears the COVID bump didn’t have staying power.

At the height of lockdowns, Houseparty had reported it had gained 50 million new sign-ups in a month’s time as users looked to video apps to connect with family and friends while the world was shut down. But as the pandemic wore on, other video chat experiences gained more ground. Zoom, which had established itself as an essential tool for remote work, became a tool for hanging out with friends after-hours, as well. Facebook also started to eat Houseparty’s lunch with its debut of drop-in video chat “Rooms” last year, which offered a similar group video experience. And bored users shifted to audio-based social networking on apps like Clubhouse or Twitter Spaces.

Image Credits: Apptopia

According to data from Apptopia, Houseparty has been continually declining since the pandemic bump. To date, its app has seen a total of 111 million downloads across iOS and Android, with the majority (63 million) on iOS. The U.S. was Houseparty’s largest market, accounting for 43.4% of downloads, followed by the U.K. (9.8%), then Germany (5.6%).

Epic Games, meanwhile, said the app served “tens of millions” of users worldwide. It insists the closure wasn’t decided lightly, nor was the decision to shutter “Fortnite Mode” made due to lack of adoption.

Houseparty will alert users to the shutdown via in-app notifications ahead of its final closure in October. At that point, Fortnite Mode will also no longer be available.