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Report: India may be next in line to mandate changes to Apple’s in-app payment rules

By Ingrid Lunden

Summer is still technically in session, but a snowball is slowly developing in the world of apps, and specifically the world of in-app payments. A report in Reuters today says that the Competition Commission of India, the country’s monopoly regulator, will soon be looking at an antitrust suit filed against Apple over how it mandates that app developers use Apple’s own in-app payment system — thereby giving Apple a cut of those payments — when publishers charge users for subscriptions and other items in their apps.

The suit, filed by an Indian non-profit called “Together We Fight Society”, said in a statement to Reuters that it was representing consumer and startup interests in its complaint.

The move would be the latest in what has become a string of challenges from national regulators against app store operators — specifically Apple but also others like Google and WeChat — over how they wield their positions to enforce market practices that critics have argued are anti-competitive. Other countries that have in recent weeks reached settlements, passed laws, or are about to introduce laws include Japan, South Korea, Australia, the U.S. and the European Union.

And in India specifically, the regulator is currently working through a similar investigation as it relates to in-app payments in Android apps, which Google mandates use its proprietary payment system. Google and Android dominate the Indian smartphone market, with the operating system active on 98% of the 520 million devices in use in the country as of the end of 2020.

It will be interesting to watch whether more countries wade in as a result of these developments. Ultimately, it could force app store operators, to avoid further and deeper regulatory scrutiny, to adopt new and more flexible universal policies.

In the meantime, we are seeing changes happen on a country-by-country basis.

Just yesterday, Apple reached a settlement in Japan that will let publishers of “reader” apps (those for using or consuming media like books and news, music, files in the cloud and more) to redirect users to external sites to provide alternatives to Apple’s proprietary in-app payment provision. Although it’s not as seamless as paying within the app, redirecting previously was typically not allowed, and in doing so the publishers can avoid Apple’s cut.

South Korean legislators earlier this week approved a measure that will make it illegal for Apple and Google to make a commission by forcing developers to use their proprietary payment systems.

And last week, Apple also made some movements in the U.S. around allowing alternative forms of payments, but relatively speaking the concessions were somewhat indirect: app publishers can refer to alternative, direct payment options in apps now, but not actually offer them. (Not yet at least.)

Some developers and consumers have been arguing for years that Apple’s strict policies should open up more. Apple however has long said in its defense that it mandates certain developer policies to build better overall user experiences, and for reasons of security. But, as app technology has evolved, and consumer habits have changed, critics believe that this position needs to be reconsidered.

One factor in Apple’s defense in India specifically might be the company’s position in the market. Android absolutely dominates India when it comes to smartphones and mobile services, with Apple actually a very small part of the ecosystem.

As of the end of 2020, it accounted for just 2% of the 520 million smartphones in use in the country, according to figures from Counterpoint Research quoted by Reuters. That figure had doubled in the last five years, but it’s a long way from a majority, or even significant minority.

The antitrust filing in India has yet to be filed formally, but Reuters notes that the wording leans on the fact that anti-competitive practices in payments systems make it less viable for many publishers to exist at all, since the economics simply do not add up:

“The existence of the 30% commission means that some app developers will never make it to the market,” Reuters noted from the filing. “This could also result in consumer harm.”

Reuters notes that the CCI will be reviewing the case in the coming weeks before deciding whether it should run a deeper investigation or dismiss it. It typically does not publish filings during this period.

Chrome Beta to experiment with a more powerful New Tab page, web highlights and search changes

By Sarah Perez

Google is launching a new version of its Chrome Beta browser today that’s introducing some fairly notable changes to its user interface and design. The browser will introduce an updated New Tab page, which will now include cards directing you back to past web search activities, instead of only a list of shortcuts to favorite websites. Other changes aim to make it easier to navigate search results and to highlight and share quotes from the web.

The New Tab page’s update will be one of the first changes Chrome beta users may notice.

The idea behind this design change is about getting you back quickly to past web activities without a need to dive into your browsing history to remember which sites you had been using for things like recipes or shopping. It can also help you to return quickly to your recent documents list in Google Drive, in a handy bit of cross-promotion for Google services.

Image Credits: Google

The page will now feature what Google is calling “cards,” not just links, which could direct you to things like a recently visited recipe site where you had been browsing for ideas, a Google doc you need to finish editing, or a retailer’s website where you had left your shopping cart filled with things you may like to purchase at a later date. The latter ties into Google’s larger investment in online shopping, which has already seen the search giant trying to grab more market share in the space by making product listings free and partnering with e-commerce platforms like Shopify.

Google is rightly concerned about Amazon’s surging advertising business, which is a large part of the retailer’s “Other” category that grew 87% year-over-year to generate $7.9 billion in the second quarter. Now, it’s capitalizing on Chrome’s New Tab real estate to elevate shopping activity in the hopes of pushing users to complete their transactions.

Another change aims to make it easier to do web research. Google says that often, users searching for something on its platform will navigate to multiple web pages to find their answer. The new version of Chrome will experiment with a different way of connecting users to their search results by adding a row beneath the address bar on Chrome for Android that will show the rest of the results so you can navigate to other web pages without needing to hit the back button.

Image Credits: Google

A new “quote cards” experiment, also coming to Chrome Beta on Android, will allow users to create a stylized image for social sharing that features text found on websites. Taking a screengrab of a website’s text is something that’s already a common activity, and particularly for people who want to share a key point from a news article they’re reading with followers on platforms like Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. With this new feature, you’ll be able to long-press text to highlight it, then tap Share and select a template by tapping on the “Create Card” option from the menu.

All features are a part of the Chrome Beta browser. To enable experiments, you can type chrome://flags into the browser’s address bar or click on the Experiments beaker icon, and then enable the flags. The associated flags for these experiments are #ntp-modules flag (New Tab page), #continuous-search (search results changes) and #webnotes-stylize flag (quote cards).

Experiments don’t necessarily become Chrome features that roll out more broadly. Instead, they offer Google a way to capture large-scale user feedback about its new design ideas, so the features can be tweaked and fine-tuned before a public release.

Facebook enters the fantasy gaming market

By Sarah Perez

Facebook is getting into fantasy sports and other types of fantasy games. The company this morning announced the launch of Facebook Fantasy Games in the U.S. and Canada on the Facebook app for iOS and Android. Some games are described as “simpler” versions of the traditional fantasy sports games already on the market, while others allow users to make predictions associated with popular TV series, like “Survivor” or “The Bachelorette.”

The first game to launch is Pick & Play Sports, in partnership with Whistle Sports, where fans get points for correctly predicting the winner of a big game, the points scored by a top player, or other events that unfold during the match. Players can also earn bonus points for building a streak of correct predictions over several days. This game is arriving today.

Image Credits: Facebook

In the months ahead, it will be followed by other games in sports, TV, and pop culture, including Fantasy Survivor, where players choose a set of Castaways from the popular CBS TV show to join their fantasy team and Fantasy “The Bachelorette,” where fans will pick a group of men from the suitors vying for the Bachelorette’s heart and get points based on their actions and events that take place during the show. Other upcoming sports-focused games include MLB Home Run Picks, where players pick the team that they think will hit the most home runs, and LaLiga Winning Streak, where fans predict the team that will win that day.

In addition to top players being featured on leaderboards, games have a social component for those who want to play with friends.

Image Credits: Facebook

Players can create their own fantasy league with friends to compete with one another or against other fans, either publicly or privately. League members can compare scores with each other and will have a place where they can share picks, reactions and comments. This league area resembles a private group on Facebook, as it offers its own compose box for posting only to members and its own dedicated feed. However, the page is designed to support groups with specific buttons to “play” or view the “leaderboard,” among others.

The addition of fantasy games could help Facebook increase the time users spent on its app at a time when the company is facing significant competition in social, namely from TikTok. According to App Annie, the average monthly time spent per user in TikTok grew faster than other top social apps in 2020, including by 70% in the U.S., surpassing Facebook.

Facebook had dabbled in the idea of becoming a second screen companion for live events in the past, but in a different way than fantasy sports and games. Instead, its R&D division tested Venue, which worked as a way for fans to comment on live events which were hosted in the app by well-known personalities.

The new league games will be available from the bookmark menu on the mobile app and in News Feed through notifications.

This Week in Apps: Developers sound off on App Store settlement, OnlyFans’ flip-flop, Snap’s new camera

By Sarah Perez

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 in Apps offers a way to keep up with this fast-moving industry in one place with the latest from the world of apps, including news, updates, startup fundings, mergers and acquisitions, and suggestions about new apps and games to try, too.

Do you want This Week in Apps in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters.

Changes to the App Store ecosystem dominated the headlines this week. In South Korea, legislators are set to vote on a landmark bill that could end Apple and Google’s payment exclusivity on their app stores. Meanwhile, Apple dropped commissions to 15% for news publishers’ apps, if they agree to participate in the Apple News ecosystem. Apple also agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit from U.S. app developers that, pending court approval, will introduce a few changes to App Store rules — the most notable being that it allows developers to communicate with their users outside of their iOS apps to tell them about other purchase options.

Top Story: The App Store settlement underwhelms

Image Credits: TechCrunch

As it turns out, this App Store settlement agreement isn’t really as earth-shattering as some headlines may have made it seem. For starters, Apple had already slightly adjusted its App Store policies in June when it clarified developers were allowed to communicate through email and text with their customers about other purchasing methods besides Apple’s own in-app purchases. But this was only permitted if developers weren’t using contact information obtained from within the app. With the new settlement, that changes a bit.

Developers can now take the smallest of steps forward as they are allowed to inform users  — well, users who have consented to receive offers via email or other communications — about alternative methods of payment besides in-app purchases. That means developers will also have to collect users’ contact information from their app where users may already be logging in using third-party credentials like Facebook’s, Google’s or even Apple’s own sign-on systems. (Apple’s system, of course, has an option to hide your email address from developers. Wow, someone was thinking ahead there!)

But this change wasn’t what developers want. They actually want to point users from inside their app to their website where they could market their own payment and subscription options — possibly even at a reduced rate since they wouldn’t have to share a commission with Apple. Even if Apple allowed this more permissive action, it’s likely many consumers would continue to use in-app purchases for the sake of convenience. The real concern on Apple’s part is that such a change could redirect significant income from the App Store’s biggest moneymakers, like games, to payment systems outside the App Store.

The settlement agreement proposes other changes as well, such as the expansion of price points from fewer than 100 to more than 500. Apple also agreed to publish a transparency report on the App Review process. (This could potentially be an even bigger deal than the App Store rule changes, as it could push Apple to address some of the outstanding issues with erroneous rejections, app scams and delays.) And Apple said it would establish a $100 million fund for U.S. developers less than $1 million per calendar year, which will pay out in a range of $250 to $30,000, depending on the size of the developers’ app business.

Developer responses to the settlement

Image Credits: Apple

Apple put out the news of the settlement in its usual style of a polished press release, albeit one buried late on a Thursday night with reporter briefings scheduled for hours where they could easily get missed. Apple, in its release, touted the “even better business opportunity” this represented for developers whose feedback it “appreciates” and whose “ideas… helped inform the agreement.”

We wanted to hear what developers thought about this change. Here’s a sampling of feedback from the community: 

Ryan Jones, founder and CEO of iOS flight tracker Flighty (whose Twitter thread offers a good summary of the news): 

“I just keep praying Apple will wake up and change the rules themselves but today wasn’t that day. Its not a great idea to let 70-year-old bureaucrats who get tech support from their grandkids write technology ecosystem law. I just have to believe Apple is realizing this is a ticking time bomb – they have to change it themselves, or we’ll all pay the consequences for years to come. There’s real resentment building the way Apple PR keeps basically gaslighting us. Anyone who can read critically can immediately tell there’s zero substance to this announcement. They need to step up and make changes before courts do it for them.” 

James Thomson, indie developer and creator of PCalc app:

“On the face of it, it doesn’t seem like the announcements are particularly significant for us. It’s mainly clarification on existing rules that were already in place. It’s still not permitted to link within your app to an alternative payment mechanism, but you can at least email the customer to tell them about it, if they have opted-in. It’s not 100% clear to me that wasn’t allowed in the first place. The developer fund is also U.S. only, so that doesn’t help us. Overall, I don’t see this doing very much to change the opinion of those calling for antitrust legislation.”

Becky Hansmeyer, indie developer behind YarnBuddy and Snapthread apps: 

“Apple has made zero concessions in this settlement. App Store search and discovery are still terrible, developers still can’t reference outside payment methods within their apps, and App Review is still a needlessly draconian process that discourages innovation and punishes good actors while letting scams run rampant. The ‘Small Developer Assistance Fund’ is nothing more than payouts to class members as a form of self-punishment. Nothing about this is good for developers, or consumers.”

David Heinemeier Hansson, Basecamp co-founder, developer of HEY email app and noted Apple critic:

“…The trophy of this settlement, as presented in the press, is supposedly that developers can now tell their customers where to buy services outside the app. Except no, that’s not actually what’s happening! Apple is simply ‘clarifying’ that companies can send an email to their customers, if they’ve gotten permission to do so, on an opt-in basis. That email may include information about how to buy outside the app. So the steering provisions of the App Store, that developers are not allowed to tell users inside their app or on the signup screen about other purchasing choices than IAP – the only places that actually matter! – is being cemented with this ‘clarification.’ It draws a thicker line, asserts Apple’s right to steer in the first place, and offers the meaningless concession of opt-in email, which was something developers had already been doing.”

Kosta Eleftheriou, FlickType developer who’s also suing Apple over lost revenues due to App Store scams: 

“Apple’s draconian anti-steering provisions remain in place just as before. This settlement is a meaningless concession for developers who all see what PR game Apple is playing. And Apple labelling the restitution they’ve agreed to pay as an ‘assistance’ fund is deceitful and shameful: Developers aren’t asking for help, they are asking for fairness.”

Jacob Eiting, CEO of RevenueCat, which offers app developers a suite of tools for their subscription-based apps:

“The changes proposed in the settlement are largely a repackaging of existing work Apple has done, a much smaller change than it seemed from Apple’s press release. They are rolling back one recently enacted anti-steering rule, but leaving all other anti-steering rules in place. The settlement also puts into place commitments to programs that most likely weren’t going anywhere anyway. They’ve also agreed to pay out $100M to small developers as a settlement, acting as if it’s some magnanimous gesture. However, it’s in exchange for developers waiving any claims of unfairness in Apple’s fees for the last 6 years. Seeing how good Apple has gotten at patting themselves on the back, this will likely be dragged out any time Apple needs evidence of developer friendliness for years to come.”

Aaron Pearce, indie iOS developer behind a suite of HomeKit-connected apps including HomeRun, HomeCam, HomePass and others: 

“To me, there weren’t any real changes that matter. These are mostly clarifications of existing rules or statements. The pledge to keep the Small Business program is nice, but no one expected that to go away. Keeping App Store search the same was a near guarantee previously. The only real change is introducing more pricing points that I cannot see helping developers in a huge way in the immediate future. The $100 million fund is a lawsuit settlement, not Apple being generous to help developers. I find the PR spin on these ‘changes’ to be disingenuous. They aren’t fixing the core problems with the App Store that small or large developers face when they are simply trying to ship products to their customers.”

CAF, a nonprofit representing developers including Epic Games, Spotify, Tile and dozens of others pushing for regulation of app stores:

“Apple’s sham settlement offer is nothing more than a desperate attempt to avoid the judgment of courts, regulators, and legislators worldwide. This offer does nothing to address the structural, foundational problems facing all developers, large and small, undermining innovation and competition in the app ecosystem. Allowing developers to communicate with their customers about lower prices outside of their apps is not a concession and further highlights Apple’s total control over the app marketplace. If this settlement is approved, app makers will still be barred from communicating about lower prices or offering competing payment options within their apps. We will not be appeased by empty gestures and will continue our fight for fair and open digital platforms.”

Samantha John, CEO and co-founder of coding app Hopscotch

“Nothing changed. You were always able to write whatever you wanted in your emails or website. They still are not letting you link to or mention an alternate payment processor inside your app. It’s a weird news story because it made me hopeful when I saw the headlines but nothing had actually happened.”

Overall, it’s seems developers aren’t impressed with this minor concession and it doesn’t seem this settlement will do anything to stop the push for increased App Store legislations.

Weekly News

Apple Platform Updates

  • Apple released the seventh developer betas for iOS 15 and iPadOS 15 as well as watchOS 8 and tvOS 15. Among the notable changes, Apple announced its new service iCloud Private Relay would now be introduced as a public beta to gather more feedback instead of being enabled by default as part of the iCloud+ subscription service. The release notes indicate some websites still have issues with the feature, including showing content for the wrong region or requiring extra steps to sign in.
  • Apple released a beta version of its TestFlight app testing platform to Mac developers for the first time. The beta only worked on macOS Monterey beta 5, which came out on August 10.
  • Apple also released an update to the App Store Connect app, which now allows developers to create multiple TestFlight internal tester groups and configure build access for each one.
  • Apple notified developers that local regulatory changes will require them to add the bank account holder’s address in App Store Connect, which must be done by October 22, 2021 in order to avoid an interruption in payments.
  • Apple launched a new iOS app called “Siri Speech Study” to gather feedback for Siri improvements. The unlisted app was only open to invited participants who choose to share to Apple when Siri gets one of their requests wrong.

Image Credits: App Store screenshot

Google Platform Updates

  • Google announced a change in how ratings and reviews on Google Play will appear to end users. Developers had complained how negative feedback that only affected users in one region could have brought down the rating for all. To address this, starting in November 2021, users on phones will only see ratings specific to their registered country. Then, in early 2022, users on other devices like tablets, Chromebooks and wearables, will see ratings that are only specific to the devices they’re on. Google says changes are rolling out to the Google Play Console which will help developers prepare for the changes, including dimensions like “Device Type” dimensions.

E-commerce

Shopify and TikTok for business with TikTok image of Kylie Jenner

Shopify and TikTok for business with TikTok image of Kylie Jenner. Image Credits: Shopify

  • TikTok and Shopify announced an expansion of their existing partnership to launch a pilot test of “TikTok Shopping” in the U.S., U.K. and Canada. The new service allows Shopify merchants with a TikTok For Business account to add a new “Shopping” tab to their TikTok profiles and sync their product catalogs to create mini-storefronts on their profile. They’ll also be able to tag products with links in videos. When viewers click to purchase, they’re redirected to the Shopify merchant’s website to complete the transaction.
  • Instagram introduced ads on the Instagram Shop tab globally, rolling them out to all countries where the tab is available. Previously, the ads were tested only in the U.S.

Augmented Reality

  • TikTok is building its own AR development platform, which was spotted on a website called TikTok Effect House. The company confirmed the creative toolset is in private beta testing, but characterized it as an early experiment.

Fintech

  • WhatsApp Pay will get more prominent placement in the messaging app. Changes spotted in testing show the WhatsApp Pay shortcut button in between the sticker and camera buttons, making it easier to access.

Social/Creators

  • OnlyFans flip-flopped on its porn ban. Initially, the company said it would ban sexually explicit content on its platform as of October 1 — a decision that was met with much criticism from the sex worker community who relied on the platform for their income. Creators also said they had received no heads-up from the company, which gave them less time to prepare. OnlyFans, meanwhile, blamed its original decision on pressure from banking partners and payout providers. Now, it’s saying it has received “assurances” from these partners that will allow its business to continue as usual. But the situation may have burned up creator goodwill, and some may now choose to move their businesses elsewhere.

Image Credits: Snap Camera Shortcuts

  • Snapchat on Thursday upgraded its two-year-old “Scan” feature which lets people use Snap’s Camera to explore the world around them. The new generation of Scan, which was relocated to be front-and-center in the Snapchat app, will now offer suggestions of different ways to use the Camera, including Camera Shortcuts and shopping features. Camera Shortcuts help people capture a moment by suggesting things like camera modes, Lenses and soundtracks relevant to what is seen through the Camera. Over time, Snap will introduce more Shortcuts, including those for its short-form TikTok competitor, Spotlight. With the update, users can now also tap into their screenshots of items they wanted to buy, then use Scan to find and purchase those outfits through Memories. For instance, you can scan a friend’s outfit then use Screenshop to find similar looks across brands. You can also use Scan with food and ingredients at home to get recipe suggestions. Snap says it sees potential for Scan not only on mobile, but also in its next generation of Spectacles glasses.

Image Credits: Snap Screenshot

  • Instagram head Adam Mosseri announced changes to the app’s search feature on Wednesday. The changes will more prominently feature photos and videos in search results, alongside accounts and hashtags. The move makes Instagram search work more like TikTok’s.
  • Instagram is also ditching the “swipe up” links in Instagram Stories in favor of Link Stickers, starting on August 30. The feature will be available to businesses and creators who are either verified or who have met the threshold for follower count, commonly said to be at least 10,000.
  • TikTok is testing an extended video upload limit of five minutes or more. Some users have gained the ability to upload videos as long as 10 minutes, which indicates TikTok is experimenting with different lengths to gain feedback. The app in December introduced longer videos for the first time with the support for the three-minute video.

Messaging

Image Credits: Messenger

  • Facebook celebrated Messenger’s 10th anniversary with new features that included games, effects, contact sharing and more. The company also confirmed it’s testing an integration that brings Messenger back into the Facebook mobile app, saying that it would give users an easy way to connect with people from where they already are. The company now sees Messenger more as the underlying “connective tissue” between its services, including one day, the metaverse.
  • WhatsApp is working on message reactions, according to a leak from WABetaInfo, which keeps tabs on the app’s newest features. Users who aren’t on the supported version would receive a message telling them to update their app in order to gain the ability to see the message reactions (emoji) that others had sent. It’s not yet known which emoji will be offered as a part of the new feature.

Streaming & Entertainment

Image Credits: Movies Anywhere

  • Digital locker app Movies Anywhere added a new feature that organizes users’ movie libraries into algorithmically generated lists, giving you an easier way to browse your collection by factors like genre, theme, actors, franchise and more.
  • YouTube is rolling out picture-and-picture viewing for all U.S. iPhone users, starting with its Premium subscribers. The feature will allow users to watch videos in a mini player while browsing other apps on their iPhone.
  • YouTube Music finally gets a WearOS version, but only for Samsung’s newest watches — the Galaxy Watch 4 or Galaxy Watch 4 Classic. The watches become available on August 27. Google didn’t say when the app will come to other WearOS devices.
  • Spotify’s Podcasts Subscriptions service opened to all U.S. creators. Using the Anchor app, creators can mark select episodes as subscriber-only content, then publish them to Spotify and other platforms. Since its launch, more than 100 podcasts have adopted subscriptions. The company also expanded the array of price points from three to 20 options to meet creators’ needs.
  • Clubhouse hid the account bios and images of its Afghan users in wake of the Taliban takeover of the country. The change impacted tens of thousands of users, but can be reversed if the user chooses.

Gaming

Netflix tests mobile gaming, netflix app, Android Netflix app

Image Credits: Netflix

  • Netflix began testing mobile games in its Android app in Poland. The streamer, which said recently it would be expanding further into the mobile gaming market, said Poland was a good fit for the initial test because of its active mobile gamer community. The test will see listings for two “Stranger Things”-themed games inside the Netflix app, which direct members to the Google Play store to download. The games then require users’ Netflix credentials to start playing.
  • After backlash from its community, Niantic reinstated the COVID safety and accessibility features it had launched in Pokémon GO during the pandemic, then later removed when it looked like things were getting back to normal (before the Delta surge). It’s unclear why Niantic believed it was the right time to pull the features, which allowed users to social distance while gaming, as they hadn’t impacted game revenues — 2020 was the game’s best ever year to date, earning the AR title over $1 billion. 
  • China’s largest indie game distributor, XD Inc., is planning to introduce its commission-free app store, TapTap, to global markets, Bloomberg reported. The company, which is backed by TikTok owner ByteDance and Alibaba, publishes its own titles to draw users to its app store. But shares of XD have fallen 60% since February over investor concerns about a model that relies on ads instead of commissions.

Health & Fitness

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

  • Amid the Delta surge, downloads for the two top COVID-19 home testing apps in the U.S., BinaxNOW and Ellume, have spiked 134% month-over-month so far in August, after seeing 107% growth in July, according to Sensor Tower.
  • Very few people used the COVID-19 apps powered by Apple and Google’s API in the U.S., an Insider investigation found. Only 2.14% of possible COVID cases were recorded in exposure notification apps across 26 U.S. states. The problem was likely hampered by the fact that launching apps was left up to individual states, instead of being a national effort as with the contact tracing apps built using the API in other markets. Less than half of U.S. states chose not to even build an app in the first place, limiting the tools’ reach further.
  • Google pulled the plug on Streams, a U.K.-based clinician support app which was developed back in 2015 by DeepMind, an AI division of Google. The app had been used by the U.K.’s National Health Service, with a number of NHS Trusts inking deals with DeepMind Health, including London’s Royal Free and Taunton & Somerset. Google says the patient data the app processed will be deleted. 
  • Israel-based air quality measurement service BreezoMeter, which helps power Apple’s Weather app, introduced a new product, Wildfire Tracker. The feature can identify the edges of wildfires in real time using a combination of sensor data, satellite imagery and local eyewitness reports.
  • A reference to Peloton’s unannounced rowing machine was discovered in its app’s code. The code also suggested the app would track things like average and max stroke rates.

Transportation

  • Google is shutting down its Android Auto mobile app, aka “Android Auto for Phone Screens,” starting with Android 12. The company said Google Assistant driving mode will be the built-in mobile driving experience going forward.
  • Telsa released a redesigned iPhone app in its biggest update in many months. The app features new controls, improvement management, new visuals and the choice between two differently sized widgets for your home screen. Among the new features is the ability to now send commands to your car immediately instead of waiting for the vehicle to wake up.
  • Electrify America launched CarPlay and Android Auto apps for finding the nearest EV charging stations across the U.S. Electrify America operates over 650 stations with 2,700 chargers total.

Productivity

Image Credits: Edison

  • Edison’s new email service OnMail has launched a new feature that gives you a break from receiving emails for a temporary period of time or schedule you designate. The “Inbox Break” option lets you pick which accounts to pause and optionally set away messages that automatically reply to emails while you’re on a break.
  • Microsoft confirmed it would next month begin to transition its Android-based Office apps running on Chromebooks to web apps instead. “In an effort to provide the most optimized experience for Chrome OS/Chromebook customers, Microsoft apps (Office and Outlook) will be transitioned to web experiences (Office.com and Outlook.com) on September 18, 2021. This transition brings Chrome OS/Chromebook customers access to additional and premium features,” a spokesperson said.

Utilities

  • Apple Maps expanded its native ratings and photos feature in the U.S. The feature, first introduced in iOS 14, allows users to review places like restaurants, shops and other businesses. In iOS 15, users can also thumb up and down specific factors like food, customer service, atmosphere and more, and can upload photos of their own to the listing.
  • Google Maps is working to add toll prices to help users price their rides. A similar feature is already available in Google’s Waze app.

Government & Policy

Apple app store iOS

Image Credits: TechCrunch

  • South Korea delayed the vote on a landmark bill that would prevent Apple and Google from forcibly charging commissions on in-app purchases within apps. If approved, developers would be able to offer alternative payment systems inside their apps. The bill, the first of its kind globally, was supposed to see a final vote on Wed., August 25, but was tentatively delayed until August 30, according to media reports. Apple has pushed back on the bill saying it will put users at risk of fraud and privacy violations.
  • Chinese regulator, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), on Friday proposed new guidelines that aim to forbid companies from deploying algorithms that “encourage addiction or high consumption” and endanger national security or disrupt the public order. Services also can’t create fake accounts or create other false impressions. And users will be able to turn off algorithmic recommendations. The rules appear to target companies like ByteDance, Alibaba Group, Tencent, Didi and others whose services have been built on top of proprietary algorithms. CAC will take public feedback about the guidelines through September 26.

Security & Privacy

  • A report from MDM company Jamf uncovered the most commonly requested iOS permissions by analyzing a sample of nearly 100,000 apps from 2.5 million Wandera customers. The most common were Photos, Camera, Location and Microphone access, it found.
  • An investigation by the Tech Transparency Project (TTP) found holes in the App Store’s child safety measures, noting it was too easy for kids and teens to access adult apps, due to lack of protections built into the apps themselves. However, the study didn’t enable parental controls which is the tools parents would presumably use to keep kids from accessing adult apps.

Funding and M&A

💰 Design and editing app Picsart raised $130 million Series C led by Softbank with participation from Sequoia, GSquared, Tribe Capital, Graph Ventures and Siguler Guff & Company. The round values Picsart at a near $1.5 billion valuation. The app has over 1 billion installs across 180 countries and more than 150 million MAUs.

💰 Mexican fintech Flink raised a $57 million Series B round of funding led by Lightspeed Venture Partners. The app allows consumers to participate in the stock market, and has grown to 1.6 million users, 85% of whom are first-time investors.

💰 African mobile payments platform OPay raised $400 million in funding led by SoftBank Vision Fund 2, with participation from existing investors Sequoia Capital China, Redpoint China, Source Code Capital and Softbank Ventures Asia. The round values the business at $2 billion.

🤝  Meditation app Headspace announced plans to merge with on-demand mental health service Ginger, valuing the combined business of $3 billion with a headcount of more than 800.

💰 London-based EV charging platform Bonnet raised $1.3 million (£920,000 total in new funding, including £850,000 in an equity financing round led by Ascension Ventures, with investors from Imperial College London and APX. It also won an additional £70,000 grant from Innovate UK and OZEV. The app gives drivers real-time data on charger availability and functionality and seller bundles of cheaper charging, which can be used across the network.

💰 European stock trading app Shares raised $10 million in a pre-product seed round led by Singular for its app that would allow users to trade 1,500 stocks without paying fees, as well as start conversations with friends and learn from experts.

💰 Tencent has entered advanced stages of talks to lead a new $20-35 million investment round in Gurgaon-headquartered podcasts and audiobooks app Pocket FM. The terms being discussed would value the three-year-old company around $75-$100 million.

💰Estonia-based grocery delivery app Membo, which serves a European audience, snagged Y Combinator backing and will present during the incubator’s Summer 2021 Demo Day next week.

Reading Recs

  • A decade and a half of instability: The history of Google messaging apps. Sixteen years after the launch of Google Talk, Ars Technica analyzes everything that went wrong — and continues to go wrong — across Google’s messaging app strategy. “…no single company has ever failed at something this badly, for this long, with this many different products,” the article snipes, before introducing the long table of contents to its many sections, each detailing the fate of an individual app. The article concludes that no one seems to be in charge of the company’s overarching messaging app strategy, as messaging isn’t treated as one of the key pillars alongside others like Search, Gmail, Chrome, Android, Docs, Maps and YouTube.

Downloads

Popcorn

A new startup called Popcorn wants to make work communication more fun and personal by offering a way for users to record short video messages, or “pops,” that can be used for any number of purposes in place of longer emails, texts, Slack messages or Zoom calls. While there are plenty of other places to record short-form video these days, most of these exist in the social media space, which isn’t appropriate for a work environment. With Popcorn, you can instead create a short video and then send a URL to that video anywhere you would want to add a personal touch to your message — like for outreach on LinkedIn or a quick check-in with a colleague, for example. The app is currently a free download on iPhone, iPad and Mac. (Read the full review here on TechCrunch.)

Luma

A new iPad drawing app called Luma connects the screen with real-world play by allowing kids (or anyone) to attach paper to their iPad then trace the lit-up drawing using a pen or pencil. Each drawing will connect to the previous one and can be colored in however the user sees fit. As kids draw, they’ll bring an audio story to life for a more immersive and creative experience. The app was built by Jonathan Wegener (Timehop co-founder, Snapchat designer), Bernardo Nunez (YouTube), Jeffrey Neafsey (Microsoft, Apple), Britt Hatzius and Ant Hampton. It’s backed by the founders of YouTube, Oculus, Eventbrite, Tumblr, HQ Trivia, Google Photos, Venmo, Tinder and more.

LOVE

Image Credits: LOVE

A London-headquartered startup called LOVE, valued at $17 million following its pre-seed funding, aims to redefine how people stay in touch with close family and friends. The company is launching a messaging app that offers a combination of video calling as well as asynchronous video and audio messaging, in an ad-free, privacy-focused experience with a number of bells and whistles, including artistic filters and real-time transcription and translation features. But LOVE’s bigger differentiator may not be its product alone, but rather the company’s mission. LOVE aims for its product direction to be guided by its user base in a democratic fashion as opposed to having the decisions made about its future determined by an elite few at the top of some corporate hierarchy. In addition, the company’s longer-term goal is ultimately to hand over ownership of the app and its governance to its users. (Read the full review here on TechCrunch.)

Microsoft is discontinuing its Office apps for Chromebook users in favor of web versions 

By Sean Michael Kerner

Since 2017, Microsoft has offered its Office suite to Chromebook users via the Google Play store, but that is set to come to an end in a few short weeks.

As of Sept. 18, Microsoft is discontinuing support for Office, which includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote and Outlook, on Chromebook. Microsoft is not, however, abandoning the popular mobile device altogether. Instead of an app that is downloaded, Microsoft is encouraging users to go to the web instead.

“In an effort to provide the most optimized experience for Chromebook customers, Microsoft apps (Office and Outlook) will be transitioned to web experiences (Office.com and Outlook.com) on September 18, 2021,” Microsoft wrote in a statement emailed to TechCrunch. 

Microsoft’s statement also noted that “this transition brings Chromebook customers access to additional and premium features.” 

The Microsoft web experience will serve to transition its base of Chromebook users to the Microsoft 365 service, which provides more Office templates and generally more functionality than what the app-based approach provides. The web approach is also more optimized for larger screens than the app.

In terms of how Microsoft wants Chromebook users to get access to Office and Outlook, the plan is for customers to, “..sign in with their personal Microsoft Account or account associated with their Microsoft 365 subscription,” according to the statement. Microsoft has also provided online documentation to show users how to run Office on a Chromebook.

Chromebooks run on Google’s Chrome OS, which is a Linux-based operating system. Chromebooks also enable Android apps to run, as Android is also Linux based, with apps downloaded from Google Play. It’s important to note that while support for Chromebooks is going away, Microsoft is not abandoning other Android-based mobile devices, such as tablets and smartphones.

For those Chromebook users that have already downloaded the Microsoft Office apps, the apps will continue to function after September 18, though they will not receive any support or future updates.

Stipop offers developers and creators instant access to a huge global sticker library

By Taylor Hatmaker

With more than 270,000 stickers, Stipop’s library of colorful, character-driven expressions has a little something for everyone.

The company offers keyboard and social app stickers through ad-supported mobile apps on iOS and Android, but it’s recently focused more on providing stickers to developers, creators and other online businesses.

“We were able to gather so many artists because we actually began as our own app that provided stickers,” Stipop co-founder Tony Park told TechCrunch. The team took what they learned from running their own consumer-facing app — namely that collecting and licensing hundreds of thousands of stickers from artists around the world is hard work — and adapted their business to help solve that problem for others.

Stipop was the first Korean company to go through Yellow, Snapchat’s exclusive accelerator. The company is also part of Y Combinator’s Summer 2021 cohort.

Stipop’s sticker library is accessible through an SDK and an API, letting developers slot the searchable sticker library into their existing software. The company already has more than 200 companies that tap into its huge sticker trove, which offers a “single-day solution” for a process that would otherwise necessitate a lot more legwork. Stipop launched a website recently that helps developers integrate its SDK and API through quick installs.

“They can just add a single line of code inside their product and will have a fully customized sticker feature [so] users will be able to spice up their chats,” Park said.

Park points out that stickers encourage engagement — and for social software, engagement means growth. Stickers are a playful way to send characters back and forth in chat, but they also pop up in a number of other less obvious spots, from dating apps to ecommerce and ridesharing apps. Stipop even drives the sticker search in work collaboration software Microsoft Teams.

The company has already partnered with Google, which uses Stipop’s sticker library in Gboard, Android Messages and Tenor, a GIF keyboard platform that Google bought in 2018. That partnership drove 600 million sticker views within the first month. A new partnership between Stipop and Coca-Cola on the near horizon will add Coke-branded stickers to its sticker library and the company is opening its doors to more brands that understand the unique appeal of stickers in messaging apps.

Park says that people tend to compare stickers and gifs, two ways of wordlessly expressing emotion and social nuance, but stickers are a world unto themselves. Stickers exist in their own creative universe, with star artists, regional themes and original casts of characters that take on a life of their own among fans. “Sticker creators have their own profession,” Park said.

Visual artists can also find a lot of traction releasing stickers, even without sophisticated illustrations. And since they’re all about meaning rather than refinement, non-designers and less skilled artists can craft hit stickers too.

“Stickers are great for them because it [is] so easy to go viral,” Park said. The company has partnered with 8,000 sticker creators across 25 languages, helping those artists monetize their creations and generate income based on how many times a sticker is shared.

Stickers command their own visual language around the world, and Park has observed interesting cultural differences in how people use them to communicate. In the West, stickers are often used in place of text, but in Asia, where they’re used much more frequently, people usually send stickers to enhance rather than replace the meaning of text.

In East Asia, users tend to prefer simple black and white stickers, but in India and Saudi Arabia, bright, golden stickers top the trends. In South America, popular stickers take on a more pixelated, unique quality that resonates culturally there.

“With stickers, you fall in love with [the] characters you send… that becomes you,” Park said.

Netflix begins testing mobile games in its Android app in Poland

By Sarah Perez

Netflix today announced it will begin testing mobile games inside its Android app for its members in Poland. At launch, paying subscribers will be able to try out two games, “Stranger Things: 1984” and “Stranger Things 3” — titles that have been previously available on the Apple App Store, Google Play and, in the case of the newer release, on other platforms including desktop and consoles. While the games are offered to subscribers from within the Netflix mobile app’s center tab, users will still be directed to the Google Play Store to install the game on their devices.

To then play, members will need to confirm their Netflix credentials.

Members can later return to the game at any time by clicking “Play” on the game’s page from inside the Netflix app or by launching it directly from their mobile device.

“It’s still very, very early days and we will be working hard to deliver the best possible experience in the months ahead with our no ads, no in-app purchases approach to gaming,” a Netflix spokesperson said about the launch.

Let’s talk Netflix and gaming.

Today members in Poland can try Netflix mobile gaming on Android with two games, Stranger Things: 1984 and Stranger Things 3. It’s very, very early days and we’ve got a lot of work to do in the months ahead, but this is the first step. https://t.co/yOl44PGY0r

— Netflix Geeked (@NetflixGeeked) August 26, 2021

The company has been expanding its investment in gaming for years, seeing the potential for a broader entertainment universe that ties in to its most popular shows. At the E3 gaming conference back in 2019, Netflix detailed a series of gaming integrations across popular platforms like Roblox and Fortnite and its plans to bring new “Stranger Things” games to the market.

On mobile, Netflix has been working with the Allen, Texas-based game studio BonusXP, whose first game for Netflix, “Stranger Things: The Game,” has now been renamed “Stranger Things: 1984” to better differentiate it from others. While that game takes place after season 1 and before season 2, in the “Stranger Things” timeline, the follow-up title, “Stranger Things 3,” is a playable version of the third season of the Netflix series. (So watch out for spoilers!)

Netflix declined to share how popular the games had been in terms of users or installs, while they were publicly available on the app stores.

With the launch of the test in Poland, Netflix says users will need to have a membership to download the titles as they’re now exclusively available to subscribers. However, existing users who already downloaded the game from Google Play in the past will not be impacted. They will be able to play the game as usual or even re-download it from their account library if they used to have it installed. But new players will only be able to get the game from the Netflix app.

The test aims to better understand how mobile gaming will resonate with Netflix members and determine what other improvements Netflix may need to make to the overall functionality, the company said. It chose Poland as the initial test market because it has an active mobile gaming audience, which made it seem like a good fit for this early feedback.

Netflix couldn’t say when it would broaden this test to other countries, beyond “the coming months.”

The streamer recently announced during its second-quarter earnings that it would add mobile games to its offerings, noting that it viewing gaming as “another new content category” for its business, similar to its “expansion into original films, animation and unscripted TV.”

The news followed what had been a sharp slowdown in new customers after the pandemic-fueled boost to streaming. In North America, Netflix in Q2 lost a sizable 430,000 subscribers — its third-ever quarterly decline in a decade. It also issued weaker guidance for the upcoming quarter, forecasting the addition of 3.5 million subscribers when analysts had been looking for 5.9 million. But Netflix downplayed the threat of competition on its slowing growth, instead blaming a lighter content slate, in part due to Covid-related production delays.

 

 

 

 

 

Jolla hits profitability ahead of turning ten, eyes growth beyond mobile

By Natasha Lomas

A milestone for Jolla, the Finnish startup behind the Sailfish OS — which formed, almost a decade ago, when a band of Nokia staffers left to keep the torch burning for a mobile linux-based alternative to Google’s Android — today it’s announcing hitting profitability.

The mobile OS licensing startup describes 2020 as a “turning point” for the business — reporting revenues that grew 53% YoY, and EBITDA (which provides a snapshot of operational efficiency) standing at 34%.

It has a new iron in the fire too now — having recently started offering a new licensing product (called AppSupport for Linux Platforms) which, as the name suggests, can provide linux platforms with standalone compatibility with general Android applications — without a customer needing to licence the full Sailfish OS (the latter has of course baked in Android app compatibility since 2013).

Jolla says AppSupport has had some “strong” early interest from automotive companies looking for solutions to develop their in-case infotainment systems — as it offers a way for embedded Linux-compatible platform the capability to run Android apps without needing to opt for Google’s automotive offerings. And while plenty of car makers have opted for Android, there are still players Jolla could net for its ‘Google-free’ alternative.

Embedded linux systems also run in plenty of other places, too, so it’s hopeful of wider demand. The software could be used to enable an IoT device to run a particularly popular app, for example, as a value add for customers.

“Jolla is doing fine,” says CEO and co-founder Sami Pienimäki. “I’m happy to see the company turning profitable last year officially.

“In general it’s the overall maturity of the asset and the company that we start to have customers here and there — and it’s been honestly a while that we’ve been pushing this,” he goes, fleshing out the reasons behind the positive numbers with trademark understatement. “The company is turning ten years in October so it’s been a long journey. And because of that we’ve been steadily improving our efficiency and our revenue.

“Our revenue grew over 50% since 2019 to 2020 and we made €5.4M revenue. At the same time the cost base of the operation has stablized quite well so the sum of those resulted to nice profitability.”

While the consumer mobile OS market has — for years — been almost entirely sewn up by Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS, Jolla licenses its open source Sailfish OS to governments and business as an alternative platform they can shape to their needs — without requiring any involvement of Google.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Russia was one of the early markets that tapped in.

The case for digital sovereignty in general — and an independent (non-US-based) mobile OS platform provider, specifically — has been strengthened in recent years as geopolitical tensions have played out via the medium of tech platforms; leading to, in some cases, infamous bans on foreign companies being able to access US-based technologies.

In a related development this summer, China’s Huawei launched its own Android alternative for smartphones, which it’s called HarmonyOS.

Pienimäki is welcoming of that specific development — couching it as a validation of the market in which Sailfish plays.

“I wouldn’t necessarily see Huawei coming out with the HarmonyOS value proposition and the technology as a competitor to us — I think it’s more proving the point that there is appetite in the market for something else than Android itself,” he says when we ask whether HarmonyOS risks eating Sailfish’s lunch.

“They are tapping into that market and we are tapping into that market. And I think both of our strategies and messages support each other very firmly.”

Jolla has been working on selling Sailfish into the Chinese market for several years — and that sought for business remains a work in progress at this stage. But, again, Pienimäki says Jolla doesn’t see Huawei’s move as any kind of blocker to its ambitions of licensing its Android alternative in the Far East.

“The way we see the Chinese market in general is that it’s been always open to healthy competition and there is always competing solutions — actually heavily competing solutions — in the Chinese market. And Huawei’s offering one and we are happy to offer Sailfish OS for this very big, challenging market as well.”

“We do have good relationships there and we are building a case together with our local partners also to access the China market,” he adds. “I think in general it’s also very good that big corporations like Huawei really recognize this opportunity in general — and this shapes the overall industry so that you don’t need to, by default, opt into Android always. There are other alternatives around.”

On AppSupport, Jolla says the automative sector is “actively looking for such solutions”, noting that the “digital cockpit is a key differentiator for car markers — and arguing that makes it a strategically important piece for them to own and control.

“There’s been a lot of, let’s say, positive vibes in that sector in the past few years — new comers on the block like Tesla have really shaken the industry so that the traditional vendors need to think differently about how and what kind of user experience they provide in the cockpit,” he suggests.

“That’s been heavily invested and rapidly developing in the past years but I’m going to emphasize that at the same time, with our limited resources, we’re just learning where the opportunities for this technology are. Automative seems to have a lot of appetite but then [we also see potential in] other sectors — IoT… heavy industry as well… we are openly exploring opportunities… but as we know automotive is very hot at the moment.”

“There is plenty of general linux OS base in the world for which we are offering a good additional piece of technology so that those operating solutions can actually also tap into — for example — selected applications. You can think of like running the likes of Spotify or Netflix or some communications solutions specific for a certain sector,” he goes on.

“Most of those applications are naturally available both for iOS and Android platforms. And those applications as they simply exist the capability to run those applications independently on top of a linux platform — that creates a lot of interest.”

In another development, Jolla is in the process of raising a new growth financing round — it’s targeting €20M — to support its push to market AppSupport and also to put towards further growing its Sailfish licensing business.

It sees growth potential for Sailfish in Europe, which remains the biggest market for licensing the mobile OS. Pienimäki also says it’s seeing “good development” in certain parts of Africa. Nor has it given up on its ambitions to crack into China.

The growth round was opened to investors in the summer and hasn’t yet closed — but Jolla is confident of nailing the raise.

“We are really turning a next chapter in the Jolla story so exploring to new emerging opportunities — that requires capital and that’s what are looking for. There’s plenty of money available these days, in the investor front, and we are seeing good traction there together with the investment bank with whom we are working,” says Pienimäki.

“There’s definitely an appetite for this and that will definitely put us in a better position to invest further — both to Sailfish OS and the AppSupport technology. And in particular to the go-to market operation — to make this technology available for more people out there in the market.”

 

LOVE unveils a modern video messaging app with a business model that puts users in control

By Sarah Perez

A London-headquartered startup called LOVE, valued at $17 million following its pre-seed funding, aims to redefine how people stay in touch with close family and friends. The company is launching a messaging app that offers a combination of video calling as well as asynchronous video and audio messaging, in an ad-free, privacy-focused experience with a number of bells and whistles, including artistic filters and real-time transcription and translation features.

But LOVE’s bigger differentiator may not be its product alone, but rather the company’s mission.

LOVE aims for its product direction to be guided by its user base in a democratic fashion as opposed to having the decisions made about its future determined by an elite few at the top of some corporate hierarchy. In addition, the company’s longer-term goal is ultimately to hand over ownership of the app and its governance to its users, the company says.

These concepts have emerged as part of bigger trends towards a sort of “Web 3.0,” or next phase of internet development, where services are decentralized, user privacy is elevated, data is protected and transactions take place on digital ledgers, like a blockchain, in a more distributed fashion.

LOVE’s founders are proponents of this new model, including serial entrepreneur Samantha Radocchia, who previously founded three companies and was an early advocate for the blockchain as the co-founder of Chronicled, an enterprise blockchain company focused on the pharmaceutical supply chain.

As someone who’s been interested in emerging technology since her days of writing her anthropology thesis on currency exchanges in “Second Life’s” virtual world, she’s now faculty at Singularity University, where she’s given talks about blockchain, AI, Internet of Things, Future of Work, and other topics. She’s also authored an introductory guide to the blockchain with her book “Bitcoin Pizza.”

Co-founder Christopher Schlaeffer, meanwhile, held a number of roles at Deutsche Telekom, including chief product & innovation officer, corporate development officer and chief strategy officer, where he along with Google execs introduced the first mobile phone to run Android. He was also chief digital officer at the telecommunication services company VEON.

The two crossed paths after Schlaeffer had already begun the work of organizing a team to bring LOVE to the public, which includes co-founders Chief Technologist Jim Reeves, also previously of VEON, and Chief Designer Timm Kekeritz, previously an interaction designer at international design firm IDEO in San Francisco, design director at IXDS and founder of design consultancy Raureif in Berlin, among other roles.

Image Credits: LOVE

Explained Radocchia, what attracted her to join as CEO was the potential to create a new company that upholds more positive values than what’s often seen today — in fact, the brand name “LOVE” is a reference to this aim. She was also interested in the potential to think through what she describes as “new business models that are not reliant on advertising or harvesting the data of our users,” she says.

To that end, LOVE plans to monetize without any advertising. While the company isn’t ready to explain its business model in full, it would involve users opting in to services through granular permissions and membership, we’re told.

“We believe our users will much rather be willing to pay for services they consciously use and grant permissions to in a given context than have their data used for an advertising model which is simply not transparent,” says Radocchia.

LOVE expects to share more about the model next year.

As for the LOVE app itself, it’s a fairly polished mobile messenger offering an interesting combination of features. Like any other video chat app, you can video call with friends and family, either in one-on-one calls or in groups. Currently, LOVE supports up to five call participants, but expects to expand that as it scales. The app also supports video and audio messaging for asynchronous conversations. There are already tools that offer this sort of functionality on the market, of course — like WhatsApp, with its support for audio messages, or video messenger Marco Polo. But they don’t offer quite the same expanded feature set.

Image Credits: LOVE

For starters, LOVE limits its video messages to 60 seconds, for brevity’s sake. (As anyone who’s used Marco Polo knows, videos can become a bit rambling, which makes it harder to catch up when you’re behind on group chats.) In addition, LOVE allows you to both watch the video content as well as read the real-time transcription of what’s being said — the latter which comes in handy not only for accessibility’s sake, but also for those times you want to hear someone’s messages but aren’t in a private place to listen or don’t have headphones. Conversations can also be translated into 50 languages.

“A lot of the traditional communication or messenger products are coming from a paradigm that has always been text-based,” explains Radocchia. “We’re approaching it completely differently. So while other platforms have a lot of the features that we do, I think that…the perspective that we’ve approached it has completely flipped it on its head,” she continues. “As opposed to bolting video messages on to a primarily text-based interface, [LOVE is] actually doing it in the opposite way and adding text as a sort of a magically transcribed add-on — and something that you never, hopefully, need to be typing out on your keyboard again,” she adds.

The app’s user interface, meanwhile, has been designed to encourage eye-to-eye contact with the speaker to make conversations feel more natural. It does this by way of design elements where bubbles float around as you’re speaking and the bubble with the current speaker grows to pull your focus away from looking at yourself. The company is also working with the curator of Serpentine Gallery in London, Hans Ulrich-Obrist, to create new filters that aren’t about beautification or gimmicks, but are instead focused on introducing a new form of visual expression that makes people feel more comfortable on camera.

For the time being, this has resulted in a filter that slightly abstracts your appearance, almost in the style of animation or some other form of visual arts.

The app claims to use end-to-end encryption and the automatic deletion of its content after seven days — except for messages you yourself recorded, if you’ve chosen to save them as “memorable moments.”

“One of our commitments is to privacy and the right-to-forget,” says Radocchia. “We don’t want to be or need to be storing any of this information.”

LOVE has been soft-launched on the App Store, where it’s been used with a number of testers and is working to organically grow its user base through an onboarding invite mechanism that asks users to invite at least three people to join. This same onboarding process also carefully explains why LOVE asks for permissions — like using speech recognition to create subtitles.

LOVE says its valuation is around $17 million USD following pre-seed investments from a combination of traditional startup investors and strategic angel investors across a variety of industries, including tech, film, media, TV and financial services. The company will raise a seed round this fall.

The app is currently available on iOS, but an Android version will arrive later in the year. (Note that LOVE does not currently support the iOS 15 beta software, where it has issues with speech transcription and in other areas. That should be resolved next week, following an app update now in the works.)

Mindset, an artist-driven mental wellness audio platform, raises $8.7M in seed funding

By Amanda Silberling

Mindset, a platform featuring personal story collections from recording artists, announced today that it raised $8.7 million in seed funding.

As co-founders of the K-pop-focused podcast production company DIVE Studios, brothers Brian Nam, Eric Nam and Eddie Nam noticed that the studio’s best-performing content came from podcast episodes where stars discussed how they handle struggles in their personal lives. So, the Nam brothers came up with the idea for Mindset, an off-shoot of DIVE Studios.

“We found that this was a unique selling point people really wanted more of — so we started to think about ways to really double-down on that aspect,” said CEO Brian Nam. “How do we provide more of this valuable content to Gen Z and young millennial audiences? We decided that there wasn’t really the right kind of platform out there for this type of storytelling, so we decided to develop our own mobile platform to uniquely share these stories in an audio format.”

Image Credits: Mindset

In its current format, Mindset features four audio collections from artists like Jae, Tablo, BM and Mindset co-founder Eric Nam, who happens to be a K-pop star himself. Each collection has 10 episodes of around 10 to 20 minutes long — the introductory episode is free, but to gain access to the rest of an individual artist’s collection, users must pay $24.99. The app also has free Boosters, which are Calm-like, five-minute clips of bedtime stories and motivational mantras.

“Up until now, the primary source of income, especially for musicians, has been touring, music streams and then maybe some endorsement deals, but we’re able to unlock this fourth one, which is monetizing your stories,” Nam said. “The pricing is similar to how they might price a ticket, or how they would sell merchandise.”

Mindset isn’t meant to be a therapy app. “We’re not licensed therapists, we don’t try to act like we are,” Nam said. Rather, it’s a way for artists to share more intimate experiences with their fans to show that behind they music, they’re people too.

Mindset launched in an MVP (minimum viable product) version in February. Nam declined to share active user or revenue numbers, but said that the app gained enough traction that by May, it raised venture funding. The $8.7 million round is led by Union Square Ventures with strategic participants like record executive Scooter Braun (of TQ Ventures), who has more recently made headlines over the Taylor Swift masters controversy. Other backers include Twitch co-founder Kevin Lin, Opendoor co-founder Eric Wu, and more.

“Scooter Braun was a strategic investor,” Nam told TechCrunch.

Braun has also worked with artists like Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber and Demi Lovato.

“He’s really opened a lot of doors for us to branch out into the Hollywood and Western space, where we traditionally came from the K-pop space,” Nam added.

Mindset is putting its seed funding toward content creation, hiring and product development. The app is currently available on iOS and Android, but it will officially launch on September 14. After that, Mindset will release another audio collection from an artist or actor every two weeks. Nam declined to share who these artists will be. 

This Week in Apps: OnlyFans bans sexual content, SharePlay delayed, TikTok questioned over biometric data collection

By Sarah Perez

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 in Apps offers a way to keep up with this fast-moving industry in one place with the latest from the world of apps, including news, updates, startup fundings, mergers and acquisitions, and suggestions about new apps and games to try, too.

Do you want This Week in Apps in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters

Top Stories

OnlyFans to ban sexually explicit content

OnlyFans logo displayed on a phone screen and a website

(Photo Illustration by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Creator platform OnlyFans is getting out of the porn business. The company announced this week it will begin to prohibit any “sexually explicit” content starting on October 1, 2021 — a decision it claimed would ensure the long-term sustainability of the platform. The news angered a number of impacted creators who weren’t notified ahead of time and who’ve come to rely on OnlyFans as their main source of income.

However, word is that OnlyFans was struggling to find outside investors, despite its sizable user base, due to the adult content it hosts. Some VC firms are prohibited from investing in adult content businesses, while others may be concerned over other matters — like how NSFW content could have limited interest from advertisers and brand partners. They may have also worried about OnlyFans’ ability to successfully restrict minors from using the app, in light of what appears to be soon-to-come increased regulations for online businesses. Plus, porn companies face a number of other issues, too. They have to continually ensure they’re not hosting illegal content like child sex abuse material, revenge porn or content from sex trafficking victims — the latter which has led to lawsuits at other large porn companies.

The news followed a big marketing push for OnlyFans’ porn-free (SFW) app, OFTV, which circulated alongside reports that the company was looking to raise funds at a $1 billion+ valuation. OnlyFans may not have technically needed the funding to operate its current business — it handled more than $2 billion in sales in 2020 and keeps 20%. Rather, the company may have seen there’s more opportunity to cater to the “SFW” creator community, now that it has big names like Bella Thorne, Cardi B, Tyga, Tyler Posey, Blac Chyna, Bhad Bhabie and others on board.

U.S. lawmakers demand info on TikTok’s plans for biometric data collection

The TikTok logo is seen on an iPhone 11 Pro max

The TikTok logo is seen on an iPhone 11 Pro max. Image Credits: Nur Photo/Getty Images

U.S. lawmakers are challenging TikTok on its plans to collect biometric data from its users. TechCrunch first reported on TikTok’s updated privacy policy in June, where the company gave itself permission to collect biometric data in the U.S., including users’ “faceprints and voiceprints.” When reached for comment, TikTok could not confirm what product developments necessitated the addition of biometric data to its list of disclosures about the information it automatically collects from users, but said it would ask for consent in the case such data collection practices began.

Earlier this month, Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and John Thune (R-SD) sent a letter to TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, which said they were “alarmed” by the change, and demanded to know what information TikTok will be collecting and what it plans to do with the data. This wouldn’t be the first time TikTok got in trouble for excessive data collection. Earlier this year, the company paid out $92 million to settle a class-action lawsuit that claimed TikTok had unlawfully collected users’ biometric data and shared it with third parties.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

Image Credits: Apple

  • ⭐ Apple told developers that some of the features it announced as coming in iOS 15 won’t be available at launch. This includes one of the highlights of the new OS, SharePlay, a feature that lets people share music, videos and their screen over FaceTime calls. Other features that will come in later releases include Wallet’s support for ID cards, the App Privacy report and others that have yet to make it to beta releases.
  • Apple walked back its controversial Safari changes with the iOS 15 beta 6 update. Apple’s original redesign had shown the address bar at the bottom of the screen, floating atop the page’s content. Now the tab bar will appear below the page’s content, offering access to its usual set of buttons as when it was at the top. Users can also turn off the bottom tab bar now and revert to the old, Single Tab option that puts the address bar back at the top as before.
  • In response to criticism over its new CSAM detection technology, Apple said the version of NeuralHash that was reverse-engineered by a developer, Asuhariet Ygvar, was a generic version, and not the complete version that will roll out later this year.
  • The Verge dug through over 800 documents from the Apple-Epic trial to find the best emails, which included dirt on a number of other companies like Netflix, Hulu, Sony, Google, Nintendo, Valve, Microsoft, Amazon and more. These offered details on things like Netflix’s secret arrangement to pay only 15% of revenue, how Microsoft also quietly offers a way for some companies to bypass its full cut, how Apple initially saw the Amazon Appstore as a threat and more.

Platforms: Google

  • A beta version of the Android Accessibility Suite app (12.0.0) which rolled out with the fourth Android beta release added something called “Camera Switches” to Switch Access, a toolset that lets you interact with your device without using the touchscreen. Camera Switches allows users to navigate their phone and use its features by making face gestures, like a smile, open mouth, raised eyebrows and more.
  • Google announced its Pixel 5a with 5G, the latest A-series Pixel phone, will arrive on August 27, offering IP67 water resistance, long-lasting Adaptive Battery, Pixel’s dual-camera system and more, for $449. The phone makes Google’s default Android experience available at a lower price point than the soon to arrive Pixel 6.
  • An unredacted complaint from the Apple-Epic trial revealed that Google had quietly paid developers hundreds of millions of dollars via a program known as “Project Hug,” (later “Apps and Games Velocity Program”) to keep their games on the Play Store. Epic alleges Google launched the program to keep developers from following its lead by moving their games outside the store.

Augmented Reality

  • Snap on Thursday announced it hired its first VP of Platform Partnerships to lead AR, Konstantinos Papamiltiadis (“KP”). The new exec will lead Snap’s efforts to onboard partners, including individual AR creators building via Lens Studio as well as large companies that incorporate Snapchat’s camera and AR technology (Camera Kit) into their apps. KP will join in September, and report to Ben Schwerin, SVP of Content and Partnerships.

Fintech

  • Crypto exchange Coinbase will enter the Japanese market through a new partnership with Japanese financial giant Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (MUFG). The company said it plans to launch other localized versions of its existing global services in the future.

Social

Image Credits: Facebook

  • Facebook launched a “test” of Facebook Reels in the U.S. on iOS and Android. The new feature brings the Reels experience to Facebook, allowing users to create and share short-form video content directly within the News Feed or within Facebook Groups. Instagram Reels creators can also now opt in to have their Reels featured on users’ News Feed. The company is heavily investing its its battle with TikTok, even pledging that some portion of its $1 billion creator fund will go toward Facebook Reels.
  • Twitter’s redesign of its website and app was met with a lot of backlash from users and accessibility experts alike. The company choices add more visual contrast between various elements and may have helped those with low vision. But for others, the contrast is causing strain and headaches. Experts believe accessibility isn’t a one-size fits all situation, and Twitter should have introduced tools that allowed people to adjust their settings to their own needs.
  • The pro-Trump Twitter alternative Gettr’s lack of moderation has allowed users to share child exploitation images, according to research from the Stanford Internet Observatory’s Cyber Policy Center.
  • Pinterest rolled out a new set of more inclusive search filters that allow people to find styles for different types of hair textures — like coily, curly, wavy, straight, as well as shaved or bald and protective styles. 

Photos

  • Photoshop for iPad gained new image correction tools, including the Healing Brush and Magic Wand, and added support for connecting an iPad to external monitors via HDMI or USB-C. The company also launched a Photoshop Beta program on the desktop.

Messaging

  • WhatsApp is being adopted by the Taliban to spread its message across Afghanistan, despite being on Facebook’s list of banned organizations. The company says it’s proactively removing Taliban content — but that may be difficult to do since WhatsApp’s E2E encryption means it can’t read people’s texts. This week, Facebook shut down a Taliban helpline in Kabul, which allowed civilians to report violence and looting, but some critics said this wasn’t actually helping local Afghans, as the group was now in effect governing the region.
  • WhatsApp is also testing a new feature that will show a large preview when sharing links, which some suspect may launch around the time when the app adds the ability to have the same account running on multiple devices.

Streaming & Entertainment

  • Netflix announced it’s adding spatial audio support on iPhone and iPad on iOS 14, joining other streamers like HBO Max, Disney+ and Peacock that have already pledged to support the new technology. The feature will be available to toggle on and off in the Control Center, when it arrives.
  • Blockchain-powered streaming music service Audius partnered with TikTok to allow artists to upload their songs using TikTok’s new SoundKit in just one click.
  • YouTube’s mobile app added new functionality that allows users to browse a video’s chapters, and jump into the chapter they want directly from the search page.
  • Spotify’s Anchor app now allows users in global markets to record “Music + Talk” podcasts, where users can combine spoken word recordings with any track from Spotify’s library of 70 million songs for a radio DJ-like experience.
  • Podcasters are complaining that Apple’s revamped Podcasts platform is not working well, reports The Verge. Podcasts Connect has been buggy, and sports a confusing interface that has led to serious user errors (like entire shows being archived). And listeners have complained about syncing problems and podcasts they already heard flooding their libraries.

Dating

  • Tinder announced a new feature that will allow users to voluntarily verify their identity on the platform, which will allow the company to cross-reference sex offender registry data. Previously, Tinder would only check this database when a user signed up for a paid subscription with a credit card.

Gaming

Image Source: The Pokémon Company

  • Pokémon Unite will come to iOS and Android on September 22, The Pokémon Company announced during a livestream this week. The strategic battle game first launched on Nintendo Switch in late July.
  • Developer Konami announced a new game, Castlevania: Grimoire of Souls, which will come exclusively to Apple Arcade. The game is described as a “full-fledged side-scrolling action game,” featuring a roster of iconic characters from the classic game series. The company last year released another version of Castelvania on the App Store and Google Play.
  • Dragon Ball Z: Dokkan Battle has now surpassed $3 billion in player spending since its 2015 debut, reported Sensor Tower. The game from Bandai Namco took 20 months to reach the figure after hitting the $2 billion milestone in 2019. The new landmark sees the game joining other top-grossers, including Clash Royale, Lineage M and others.
  • Sensor Tower’s mobile gaming advertising report revealed data on top ad networks in the mobile gaming market, and their market share. It also found puzzle games were among the top advertisers on gaming-focused networks like Chartboost, Unity, IronSource and Vungle. On less game-focused networks, mid-core games were top titles, like Call of Duty: Mobile and Top War. 

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Health & Fitness

  • Apple is reportedly scaling back HealthHabit, an internal app for Apple employees that allowed them to track fitness goals, talk to clinicians and coaches at AC Wellness (a doctors’ group Apple works with) and manage hypertension. According to Insider, 50 employees had been tasked to work on the project.
  • Samsung launched a new product for Galaxy smartphones in partnership with healthcare nonprofit The Commons Project, that allows U.S. users to save a verifiable copy of their vaccination card in the Samsung Pay digital wallet.

Image Credits: Samsung

Adtech

Government & Policy

  • China cited 43 apps, including Tencent’s WeChat and an e-reader from Alibaba, for illegally transferring user data. The regulator said the apps had transferred users location data and contact list and harassed them with pop-up windows. The apps have until August 25 to make changes before being punished.

Security & Privacy

  • A VICE report reveals a fascinating story about a jailbreaking community member who had served as a double agent by spying for Apple’s security team. Andrey Shumeyko, whose online handles included JVHResearch and YRH04E, would advertise leaked apps, manuals and stolen devices on Twitter and Discord. He would then tell Apple things like which Apple employees were leaking confidential info, which reporters would talk to leakers, who sold stolen iPhone prototypes and more. Shumeyko decided to share his story because he felt Apple took advantage of him and didn’t compensate him for the work.

Funding and M&A

💰 South Korea’s GS Retail Co. Ltd will buy Delivery Hero’s food delivery app Yogiyo in a deal valued at 800 billion won ($685 million USD). Yogiyo is the second-largest food delivery app in South Korea, with a 25% market share.

💰 Gaming platform Roblox acquired a Discord rival, Guilded, which allows users to have text and voice conversations, organize communities around events and calendars and more. Deal terms were not disclosed. Guilded raised $10.2 million in venture funding. Roblox’s stock fell by 7% after the company reported earnings this week, after failing to meet Wall Street expectations.

💰 Travel app Hopper raised $175 million in a Series G round of funding led by GPI Capital, valuing the business at over $3.5 billion. The company raised a similar amount just last year, but is now benefiting from renewed growth in travel following COVID-19 vaccinations and lifting restrictions.

💰 Indian quiz app maker Zupee raised $30 million in a Series B round of funding led by Silicon Valley-based WestCap Group and Tomales Bay Capital. The round values the company at $500 million, up 5x from last year.

💰 Danggeun Market, the publisher of South Korea’s hyperlocal community app Karrot, raised $162 million in a Series D round of funding led by DST Global. The round values the business at $2.7 billion and will be used to help the company launch its own payments platform, Karrot Pay.

💰 Bangalore-based fintech app Smallcase raised $40 million in Series C funding round led by Faering Capital and Premji Invest, with participation from existing investors, as well as Amazon. The Robinhood-like app has over 3 million users who are transacting about $2.5 billion per year.

💰 Social listening app Earbuds raised $3 million in Series A funding led by Ecliptic Capital. Founded by NFL star Jason Fox, the app lets anyone share their favorite playlists, livestream music like a DJ or comment on others’ music picks.

💰 U.S. neobank app One raised $40 million in Series B funding led by Progressive Investment Company (the insurance giant’s investment arm), bringing its total raise to date to $66 million. The app offers all-in-one banking services and budgeting tools aimed at middle-income households who manage their finances on a weekly basis.

Public Markets

📈Indian travel booking app ixigo is looking to raise Rs 1,600 crore in its initial public offering, The Economic Times reported this week.

📉Trading app Robinhood disappointed in its first quarterly earnings as a publicly traded company, when it posted a net loss of $502 million, or $2.16 per share, larger than Wall Street forecasts. This overshadowed its beat on revenue ($565 million versus $521.8 million expected) and its more than doubling of MAUs to 21.3 million in Q2.  Also of note, the company said dogecoin made up 62% of its crypto revenue in Q2.

Downloads

Polycam (update)

Image Credits: Polycam

3D scanning software maker Polycam launched a new 3D capture tool, Photo Mode, that allows iPhone and iPad users to capture professional-quality 3D models with just an iPhone. While the app’s scanner before had required the use of the lidar sensor built into newer devices like the iPhone 12 Pro and iPad Pro models, the new Photo Mode feature uses just an iPhone’s camera. The resulting 3D assets are ready to use in a variety of applications, including 3D art, gaming, AR/VR and e-commerce. Data export is available in over a dozen file formats, including .obj, .gtlf, .usdz and others. The app is a free download on the App Store, with in-app purchases available.

Jiobit (update)

Jiobit, the tracking dongle acquired by family safety and communication app Life360, this week partnered with emergency response service Noonlight to offer Jiobit Protect, a premium add-on that offers Jiobit users access to an SOS Mode and Alert Button that work with the Jiobit mobile app. SOS Mode can be triggered by a child’s caregiver when they detect — through notifications from the Jiobit app — that a loved one may be in danger. They can then reach Noonlight’s dispatcher who can facilitate a call to 911 and provide the exact location of the person wearing the Jiobit device, as well as share other details, like allergies or special needs, for example.

Tweets

When your app redesign goes wrong…

Image Credits: Twitter.com

Prominent App Store critic Kosta Eleftheriou shut down his FlickType iOS app this week after too many frustrations with App Review. He cited rejections that incorrectly argued that his app required more access than it did — something he had successfully appealed and overturned years ago. Attempted follow-ups with Apple were ignored, he said. 

Image Credits: Twitter.com

Anyone have app ideas?

Apple launches a new iOS app, ‘Siri Speech Study,’ to gather feedback for Siri improvements

By Sarah Perez

Apple recently began a research study designed to collect speech data from study participants. Earlier this month, the company launched a new iOS app called “Siri Speech Study” on the App Store, which allows participants who have opted in to share their voice requests and other feedback with Apple. The app is available in a number of worldwide markets but does not register on the App Store’s charts, including under the “Utilities” category where it’s published.

According to data from Sensor Tower, the iOS app first launched on August 9 and was updated to a new version on August 18. It’s currently available in the U.S., Canada, Germany, France, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, and Taiwan — an indication of the study’s global reach. However, the app will not appear when searching the App Store by keyword or when browsing through the list of Apple’s published apps.

The Siri Speech Study app itself offers little information about the study’s specific goals, nor does it explain how someone could become a participant. Instead, it only provides a link to a fairly standard license agreement and a screen where a participant would enter their ID number to get started.

Reached for comment, Apple told TechCrunch the app is only being used for Siri product improvements, by offering a way for participants to share feedback directly with Apple. The company also explained people have to be invited to the study — there’s not a way for consumers to sign up to join.

Image Credits: App Store screenshot

The app is only one of many ways Apple is working to improve Siri.

In the past, Apple had tried to learn more about Siri’s mistakes by sending some small portion of consumers’ voice recordings to contractors for manual grading and review. But a whistleblower alerted media outlet The Guardian that the process had allowed them to listen in on confidential details at times. Apple shortly thereafter made manual review an opt-in process and brought audio grading in-house. This type of consumer data collection continues, but has a different aim that what a research study would involve.

Unlike this broader, more generalized data collection, a focus group-like study allows Apple to better understand Siri’s mistakes because it combines the collected data with human feedback. With the Siri Speech Study app, participants provide explicit feedback on per request basis, Apple said. For instance, if Siri misheard a question, users could explain what they were trying to ask. If Siri was triggered when the user hadn’t said “Hey Siri,” that could be noted. Or if Siri on HomePod misidentified the speaker in a multi-person household, the participant could note that, too.

Another differentiator is that none of the participants’ data is being automatically shared with Apple. Rather, users can see a list of the Siri requests they’ve made and then select which to send to Apple with their feedback. Apple also noted no user information is collected or used in the app, except the data directly provided by participants.

WWDC 2021 on device privacy

Image Credits: Apple WWDC 2021

Apple understands that an intelligent virtual assistant that understands you is a competitive advantage.

This year, the company scooped up ex-Google AI scientist Samy Bengio to help make Siri a stronger rival to Google Assistant, whose advanced capabilities are often a key selling point for Android devices. In the home, meanwhile, Alexa-powered smart speakers are dominating the U.S. market and compete with Google in the global landscape, outside China. Apple’s HomePod has a long way to go to catch up.

But despite the rapid progress in voice-based computing in recent years, virtual assistants can still have a hard time understanding certain types of speech. Earlier this year, for example, Apple said it would use a bank of audio clips from podcasts where users had stuttered to help it improve its understanding of this kind of speech pattern. Assistants can also stumble when there are multiple devices in a home that are listening for voice commands from across several rooms. And assistants can mess up when trying to differentiate between different family members’ voices or when trying to understand a child’s voice.

In other words, there are still many avenues a speech study could pursue over time, even if these aren’t its current focus.

That Apple is running a Siri speech study isn’t necessarily new. The company has historically run evaluations and studies like this in some form. But it’s less common to find Apple’s studies published directly on the App Store.

Though Apple could have published the app through the enterprise distribution process to keep it more under wraps, it chose to use its public marketplace. This more closely follows the App Store’s rules, as the research study is not an internally-facing app meant only for Apple employees.

Still, it’s not likely consumers will stumble across the app and be confused — the Siri Speech Study app is hidden from discovery. You have to have the app’s direct link to find it. (Good thing we’re nosy!)

Google says geofence warrants make up one-quarter of all US demands

By Zack Whittaker

For the first time, Google has published the number of geofence warrants it’s historically received from U.S. authorities, providing a rare glimpse into how frequently these controversial warrants are issued.

The figures, published Thursday, reveal that Google has received thousands of geofence warrants each quarter since 2018, and at times accounted for about one-quarter of all U.S. warrants that Google receives. The data shows that the vast majority of geofence warrants are obtained by local and state authorities, with federal law enforcement accounting for just 4% of all geofence warrants served on the technology giant.

According to the data, Google received 982 geofence warrants in 2018, 8,396 in 2019, and 11,554 in 2020. But the figures only provide a small glimpse into the volume of warrants received, and did not break down how often it pushes back on overly broad requests. A spokesperson for Google would not comment on the record.

Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP), which led efforts by dozens of civil rights groups to lobby for the release of these numbers, commended Google for releasing the numbers.

“Geofence warrants are unconstitutionally broad and invasive, and we look forward to the day they are outlawed completely.” said Cahn.

Geofence warrants are also known as “reverse-location” warrants, since they seek to identify people of interest who were in the near-vicinity at the time a crime was committed. Police do this by asking a court to order Google, which stores vast amounts of location data to drive its advertising business, to turn over details of who was in a geographic area, such as a radius of a few hundred feet at a certain point in time, to help identify potential suspects.

Google has long shied away from providing these figures, in part because geofence warrants are largely thought to be unique to Google. Law enforcement has long known that Google stores vast troves of location data on its users in a database called Sensorvault, first revealed by The New York Times in 2019.

Sensorvault is said to have the detailed location data on “at least hundreds of millions of devices worldwide,” collected from users’ phones when they use an Android device with location data switched on, or Google services like Google Maps and Google Photo, and even Google search results. In 2018, the Associated Press reported that Google could still collect users’ locations even when their location history is “paused.”

But critics have argued that geofence warrants are unconstitutional because the authorities compel Google to turn over data on everyone else who was in the same geographic area.

Worse, these warrants have been known to ensnare entirely innocent people.

TechCrunch reported earlier this year that Minneapolis police used a geofence warrant to identify individuals accused of sparking violence in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd last year. One person on the ground who was filming and documenting the protests had his location data requested by police for being close to the violence. NBC News reported last year how one Gainesville, Fla. resident whose information was given by Google to police investigating a burglary, but was able to prove his innocence thanks to an app on his phone that tracked his fitness activity.

Although the courts have yet to deliberate widely on the legality of geofence warrants, some states are drafting laws to push back against geofence warrants. New York lawmakers proposed a bill last year that would ban geofence warrants in the state, amid fears that police could use these warrants to target protesters — as what happened in Minneapolis.

Cahn, who helped introduce the New York bill last year, said the newly released data will “help spur lawmakers to outlaw the technology.”

“Let’s be clear, the number of geofence warrants should be zero,” he said.

Twitter is testing a feature that puts users’ Revue newsletters on their profiles

By Amanda Silberling

This January, Twitter acquired the newsletter platform Revue, but until now its integration into Twitter has been minimal; sometimes when you write Twitter threads, you’ll be greeted with a “Hello, wordsmiths” message that tells you about its newsletter tools.

Starting today, Twitter is testing a feature that brings Revue newsletters more prominently into the Twitter experience. Some users on web and Android will be able to see writers’ Revue newsletters appear on their profile beneath their follower counts. If you click subscribe, you’ll be prompted to read a sample issue or subscribe using the email address connected to your Twitter account. Revue says this feature will also roll out on iOS soon.

It’s here 🧡

Today, we’re starting to test a feature that allows people to subscribe to your Revue newsletter directly from your Twitter profile.

It's available to all Revue creators immediately. To start though, your newsletters will show only for a test group on Twitter. pic.twitter.com/YDa1aOGeLM

— Revue (@revue) August 19, 2021

The newsletter market is heating up — Medium and Quora have both recently released new monetization structures, Substack is currently valued at $650 million and Facebook is curating a slate of flashy newsletters on Bulletin. Even Tumblr is attempting to cash in on paywalled writing, though its user base isn’t thrilled. But with its new front-and-center integration on Twitter profiles, Revue may pick up steam too.

“One of the reasons I switched to using their platform was the potential to link my newsletter with my Twitter feed & make it easier for my followers to subscribe,” Revue writer Jewel Wicker tweeted. “Happy the rollout has begun.”

Revue takes a 5% cut of creators’ earnings, plus a standard 2.9%, plus $0.30 processing fee. So, if someone subscribes to your Revue newsletter for $5, you’ll take home $4.30. Comparatively, Substack takes 10% of writers’ revenue, plus processing fees.

Social listening app Earbuds raises $3 million in Series A funding

By Amanda Silberling

Most startup origin stories don’t begin on an NFL field, but that’s where founder, CEO and offensive tackle Jason Fox conceptualized the idea behind Earbuds. As he watched first overall draft pick Cam Newton warm up before a game in 2011, dancing to music, Fox couldn’t help but wonder what the future NFL MVP was listening to — and he bet that the crowd of 85,000 fans were curious too.

Ten years later, Earbuds has raised a $3 million Series A round for its social listening app, led by Ecliptic Capital with additional investment from the Andre Agassi Foundation and LFG Ventures.

Since its launch in 2019, Earbuds has allowed users — whether they’re famous artists, NFL stars or ordinary people — to share their favorite playlists, livestream music like a DJ and comment on other people’s music picks. Some notable figures on the app include the artist Nelly and professional quarterbacks like Baker Mayfield and Patrick Mahomes, the highest-paid player in the NFL. Mayfield and Mahomes are also investors in the app.

With this recent raise, Fox and his team of six plan to expand the app to add creator monetization tools, incentivizing people to use the app. Plus, Earbuds also announced that it hired two former product and engineering leaders from Apple, David Ransom and Sean Moubry, who joined Earbuds as head of Product and head of Engineering, respectively. Tech veteran Drew Larner also came aboard as a senior advisor and investor — in 2015, he sold the streaming app Rdio to Pandora. Pandora was then sold to Sirius XM for $3.5 billion in 2018.

Image Credits: Earbuds’ interface allows users to search for athlete accounts/Earbuds.

To use Earbuds, users must have a paid account on Spotify or Apple Music. Soon, Fox says, Earbuds should have integrations with paid versions of Amazon Music and Pandora, too. These integrations are how the app, available on both iOS and Android, is able to source music for streaming. But regardless of which platform a listener uses, they can still take advantage of the social features on Earbuds, listening along to live playlists and commenting along with other listeners.

When you connect your account, you’re able to easily import your existing playlists. Then, on the app, you can add voice clips to comment on your song choices. When listening to a stream, users have the option to save the playlist to their streaming service or share it as an Instagram story.

Fox declined to share monthly active user numbers, but expressed confidence that soliciting users from other streaming platforms’ existing subscriber base won’t be a big hurdle for user acquisition; when it comes to paid streaming music subscribers, Spotify has 165 million users, Apple Music has at least 60 million and Amazon music has at least 55 million.

“We want to continue to add additional streaming partners to accommodate everyone. We want to connect with all users regardless of what platform they use,” Fox said.

Image Credits: Earbuds founder and CEO Jason Fox/Earbuds.

Fox wants more musical artists to use the app, but given his background as an NFL player, much of the company’s existing marketing has been targeted toward athletes and sports fans — a particularly interesting potential market for Earbuds is NCAA athletes, who are newly able to monetize their image and likeness. 

“You’ve got the quarterback before the big rivalry game, and they want to be able to monetize the fans while they’re listening to music and getting amped up with them before the game,” Fox explained.

Since these monetization tools haven’t rolled out yet, there’s currently no in-app purchases available on Earbuds. This would give Earbuds, which isn’t yet profitable, another income stream. So far, the app has made money through in-app sponsored posts from partners like the NBA, the NFL playoffs, smart speaker companies and beverage companies.

“We can continue to do that, but we feel like the majority of growth and revenue moving forward will be through partnerships, integrations and supporting the creator economy,” Fox said. Currently, Earbuds has a partnership with Apple Music, so if someone subscribes to the platform via Earbuds, Earbuds gets a cut of their subscription payment.

As streaming services like Spotify grow, social listening apps like Earbuds are emerging too. Spotify itself has rolled out more social listening features lately, including a Music + Talk platform similar to Earbuds’ existing offerings.

Pokémon Unite is coming to iOS and Android on September 22

By Amanda Silberling

During today’s Pokémon Presents livestream, The Pokémon Company announced that Pokémon Unite will become available for iOS and Android on September 22. The strategic battle game came out for Nintendo Switch in late July, but its arrival on mobile devices will expand the game’s potential user base.

For users already playing on Nintendo Switch, fear not — the game allows cross-platform play, which means you can play on your Switch, then pick up where you left off on mobile. All users can play together regardless of which device they’re using, and it’s not necessary to have a Switch to get the mobile game. Pokémon Unite is free-to-start with microtransactions — you can purchase in-game currency to get certain items or Pokémon.

The presentation also unveiled new gameplay footage and feature news for upcoming Nintendo Switch releases: Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl (November 19, 2021), remakes of the Nintendo DS games from 2006 and Pokémon Legends: Arceus (January 28, 2022), the first open-world RPG in the Pokémon universe.

Image Credits: Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl

Like previous main series game remakes, Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl will expand upon the original games’ foundation and introduce features that appeared in later games, like Following Pokémon, Secret Bases and — very importantly — changing your trainer’s outfit. The game will also include re-designed features from its original release, like designing Poké Ball capsules and competing in Pokémon Contests.

But for the first time in a Pokémon Game, Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl will introduce a new aspect of gameplay called the Sinnoh Underground. Players can collect statues of Pokémon for their Secret Base, and depending on which statues are on display, different Pokémon will appear in Pokémon Hideaways within the Sinnoh Underground. To commemorate the 15-year-old games’ remakes, on November 5, 2021, Nintendo will release a “Dialga and Palkia Edition” of the Nintendo Switch Lite, which features the legendary Pokémon in gold and silver on a grey console.

Then, the Pokémon Company shared more information about Pokémon Legends: Arceus, a first-of-its-kind release for the iconic franchise. Fans have compared its open-world design to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which is the fourth-best-selling Nintendo Switch game with 23.2 million copies sold, but others say it’s more similar to Monster Hunter. The new game introduces the Hisui Region (an ancient version of the Sinnoh Region), along with new Pokémon like a grandpa-esque Growlithe, and an evolution of Basculin called Basculegion, which can evolve when “possessed by the souls of other Basculin from their school that could not withstand the harsh journey upstream”… Yes, this is a children’s franchise.

Welcome to the Hisui region, Trainers.

Newly discovered Pokémon, newly discovered regional forms, and new gameplay features are coming to #PokemonLegendsArceus! pic.twitter.com/h08CvKToSf

— Pokémon (@Pokemon) August 18, 2021

Nightmare-inducing new Pokémon aside, the livestream revealed more information about how exactly this new type of Pokémon game will work.

Like standard Pokémon games, players will set out on a mission to complete a Pokédex, but rather than training to become “the best like no one ever was,” they will be part of an expedition team, conducting survey work to learn more about the nature of Pokémon and the secrets they hold. In between field assignments, players can heal their party, craft items, and buy supplies at outposts (ancient Pokémon Centers?). Pokémon Legends: Arceus will also introduce a new battle style — like Pokémon Unite, it won’t simply repurpose the turn-based gameplay we’ve been accustomed to since the first Pokémon games were released in 1998.

Anyway, these games seem promising, but just try your best not to think about Basculegion.

A new Senate bill would totally upend Apple and Google’s app store dominance

By Taylor Hatmaker

With two giants calling the shots and collecting whatever tolls they see fit, mobile software makers have long complained that app stores take an unfair cut of the cash that should be flowing directly to developers. Hearing those concerns, a group of senators introduced a new bill this week that, if passed, would greatly diminish Apple and Google’s ability to control app purchases in their operating systems and completely shake up the way that mobile software gets distributed.

The new bill, called the Open App Markets Act, would enshrine quite a few rights that could benefit app developers tired of handing 30% of their earnings to Apple and Google. The bill, embedded in full below, would require companies that control operating systems to allow third-party apps and app stores.

It would also prevent those companies from blocking developers from telling users about lower prices for their software that they might find outside of official app stores. Apple and Google would also be barred from leveraging “non-public” information collecting through their platforms to create competing apps.

“This legislation will tear down coercive anticompetitive walls in the app economy, giving consumers more choices and smaller startup tech companies a fighting chance,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), who introduced the bipartisan bill with Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). Klobuchar chairs the Senate’s antitrust subcommittee and Blackburn and Blumenthal are both subcommittee members.

Senator Blackburn called Apple and Google’s app store practices a “direct affront to a free and fair marketplace” and Sen. Klobuchar noted that their behavior raises “serious competition concerns.”

The bill draws on information collected earlier this year from that subcommittee’s hearing on app stores and competition. In the hearing, lawmakers heard from Apple and Google as well as Spotify, Tile and Match Group, three companies that argued their businesses have been negatively impacted by anti-competitive app store policies.

“… We urge Congress to swiftly pass the Open App Markets Act,” Spotify Chief Legal Officer Horacio Gutierrez said of the new bill. “Absent action, we can expect Apple and others to continue changing the rules in favor of their own services, and causing further harm to consumers, developers and the digital economy.”

The Coalition for App Fairness, a developer advocacy group, praised the bill for its potential to spur innovation in digital markets. “The bipartisan Open App Markets Act is a step towards holding big tech companies accountable for practices that stifle competition for developers in the U.S. and around the world,” CAF executive director Meghan DiMuzio said.

Hoping to head off future regulatory headaches, Apple dropped its own fees for companies that generate less than $1 million in App Store revenue from 30% to 15% last year. Google followed suit with its own gesture, dropping fees to 15% for the first $1 million in revenue a developer earns through the Play Store in a year. Some developers critical of the companies’ practices saw those changes as little more than a publicity stunt.

Developers have long complained about the high tolls they pay to distribute their software through the world’s two major mobile operating systems. That fight escalated over the last year when Epic Games circumvented Apple’s payments rules by allowing Fortnite players to pay Epic directly, setting off a legal fight that has huge implications for the mobile software world. Following a May trial, the verdict is expected later this year.

“This will make it easier for developers of all sizes to challenge these harmful practices and seek relief from retaliation, be it during litigation or simply because they dared speak up,” Epic Games VP of Public Policy Corie Wright said of the new bill.

Unlike Apple, Google does allow apps to be “sideloaded,” installed onto devices outside of the Google Play Store. But documents unsealed in Epic’s parallel case against Google revealed that the Play Store’s creator knows the sideloading process is a terrible experience for users — something the company brings up when pressuring developers to stick with its official app marketplace.

The counterargument here is that official app stores make apps safer and smoother for consumers. While Apple and Google extract heavy fees for selling mobile software through the App Store and the Google Play Store, the companies both argue that streamlining apps through those official channels protects people from malware and allows for prompt software updates to patch security concerns that could jeopardize user privacy.

“At Apple, our focus is on maintaining an App Store where people can have confidence that every app must meet our rigorous guidelines and their privacy and security is protected,” an Apple spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Adam Kovacevich, a former Google policy executive who leads the new tech-backed industry group Chamber of Progress, called the new bill “a finger in the eye” for Android and iPhone owners.

“I don’t see any consumers marching in Washington demanding that Congress make their smartphones dumber,” Kovacevich said. “And Congress has better things to do than intervene in a multi-million-dollar dispute between businesses.”

At least in Google’s case, the counterargument has its own counterargument. Android has long been notorious for malware, but apparently most of that malicious software isn’t making its way onto devices through sideloading — it’s walking through the Google Play Store’s front door.

 

Google launches Android 12 beta 4, hitting the platform stability milestone

By Sarah Perez

Google has now taken another step towards the public release of the latest version of the Android operating system, Android 12. The company today released the fourth beta of Android 12, whose most notable new feature is that it has achieved the Platform Stability milestone — meaning the changes impacting Android app developers are now finalized, allowing them to test their apps without worrying about breaking changes in subsequent releases.

While the updated version of Android brings a number of new capabilities for developers to tap into, Google urges its developers to first focus on releasing an Android 12-compatible update. If users find their app doesn’t work properly when they upgrade to the new version of Android, they may stop using the app entirely or even uninstall it, the company warns.

Among the flagship consumer-facing features in Android 12 is the new and more adaptive design system called “Material You,” which lets users apply themes that span across the OS to personalize their Android experience. It also brings new privacy tools, like microphone and camera indicators that show if an app is using those features, as well as a clipboard read notification, similar to iOS, which alerts to apps that read the user’s clipboard history. In addition, Android 12 lets users play games as soon as they download them, through a Google Play Instant feature. Other key Android features and tools, like Quick Settings, Google Pay, Home Controls, and Android widgets, among others, have been improved, too.

Google has continued to roll out smaller consumer-facing updates in previous Android 12 beta releases, but beta 4 is focused on developers getting their apps ready for the public release of Android, which is expected in the fall.

Image Credits: Google

The company suggested developers look out for changes that include the new Privacy Dashboard in Settings, which lets users see which app are accessing what type of data and when, and other privacy features like the indicator lights for the mic and camera, clipboard read tools, and new toggles that lets users turn off mic and camera access across all apps.

There’s also a new “stretch” overscroll effect that replace the older “glow” overscroll effect systemwide, new splash screen animations for apps and keygen changes to be aware of. And there are a number of SDKs and libraries that developers use that will need to be tested for compatibility, including those from Google and third-parties.

The new Android 12 beta 4 release is available on supported Pixel devices, and on devices from select partners including ASUS, OnePlus, Oppo, Realme, Sharp, and ZTE. Android TV developers can access beta 4 as well, via the ADT-3 developer kit.

WhatsApp gains the ability to transfer chat history between mobile operating systems

By Sarah Perez

WhatsApp users will finally be able to move their entire chat history between mobile operating systems — something that’s been one of users’ biggest requests to date. The company today introduced a feature that will soon become available to users of both iOS and Android devices, allowing them to move their WhatsApp voice notes, photos, and conversations securely between devices when they switch between mobile operating systems.

The company had been rumored to be working on such functionality for some time, but the details of which devices would be initially supported or when it would be released weren’t yet known.

In product leaks, WhatsApp had appeared to be working on an integration into Android’s built-in transfer app, the Google Data Transfer Tool, which lets users move their files from one Android device to another, or switch from iOS to Android.

The feature WhatsApp introduced today, however, works with Samsung devices and Samsung’s own transfer tool, known as Smart Switch. Today, Smart Switch helps users transfer contacts, photos, music, messages, notes, calendars, and more to Samsung Galaxy devices. Now, it will transfer WhatsApp chat history, too.

WhatsApp showed off the new tool at Samsung’s Galaxy Unpacked event, and announced Samsung’s newest Galaxy foldable devices would get the feature first in the weeks to come. The feature will later roll out to Android more broadly. WhatsApp didn’t say when iOS users would gain access.

To use the feature, WhatsApp users will connect their old and new device together via a USB-C to Lightning cable, and launch Smart Switch. The new phone will then prompt you to scan a QR code using your old phone and export your WhatsApp history. To complete the transfer, you’ll sign into WhatsApp on the new device and import the messages.

Building such a feature was non-trivial, the company also explained, as messages across its service are end-to-end encrypted by default and stored on users’ devices. That meant the creation of a tool to move chat history between operating systems required additional work from both WhatsApp as well as operating system and device manufacturers in order to build it in a secure way, the company said.

“Your WhatsApp messages belong to you. That’s why they are stored on your phone by default, and not accessible in the cloud like many other messaging services,” noted Sandeep Paruchuri, product manager at WhatsApp, in a statement about the launch. “We’re excited for the first time to make it easy for people to securely transfer their WhatsApp history from one operating system to another. This has been one of our most requested features from users for years and we worked together with operating systems and device manufacturers to solve it,” he added.

 

This Week in Apps: Instagram restricts teens’ accounts, Elon Musk criticizes App Store fees, Google Play’s new policies

By Sarah Perez

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 in Apps will finally be a newsletter! It will launch on August 7. Sign up now! 

Top Stories

Google Play updates its policies

Did you hear the one about Google Play banning sugar daddy dating apps? Google this week updated its terms to clarify that apps where users offer sex acts in exchange for money, or “sugar dating,” as the new terms state, are no longer allowed as of September 1, 2021.

More interesting, perhaps, to the larger group of legitimate Android developers is this week’s unveiling of the UI for the upcoming Google Play safety section and the accompanying app labels. The labels will function as the Android counterpart to the app “nutrition labels” the Apple App Store recently introduced. Google is giving developers plenty of time to get used to the idea of increased transparency and disclosure, by offering a detailed timeline of when it expects developers to have their privacy label submissions ready. By April 2022, all developers will need to declare specific info and have a privacy policy.

Developers will have to disclose to users whether their app uses security practices like data encryption, whether it follows Google Play’s Families policy for apps aimed at kids, whether users have a choice in data sharing, whether the app’s safety section had been verified by a third party, and if the app allowed users to request data deletion at the time of uninstalling, among other things.

Apps that don’t disclose won’t be able to list or update until the problems are fixed.

The safety section wasn’t the only Google Play policy news to be announced this week.

Google also reminded developers that it was making a technical change to how advertising IDs work. Now, when users opt out of interest-based advertising or ads personalization, their advertising ID is removed and replaced with a string of zeros. The change, however, is a phased rollout, affecting apps running on Android 12 devices starting late 2021 and expanding to all apps running on devices that support Google Play in early 2022.

Google also said it will test a new feature that notifies developers and ad/analytics service providers of user opt-out preferences and is prohibiting linking persistent device identifiers to personal and sensitive user data or resettable device identifiers. Kids apps will also not be able to transmit an ad ID.

Another policy update includes a plan to close dormant accounts. Google says if the account is inactive or abandoned after a year, it will be closed. This will include accounts where the developer has never uploaded an app or accessed Google Play Console in a year.

Tools to build accessible experiences will also be locked down, as Google is adding new requirements on how AccessibilityService API and IsAccessibilityTool can be used.

Apple tries to fix the Safari mess

In response to feedback and complaints, Apple is clearly trying to fix some of the issues that arose from this change. It re-added a Share button to the tab bar and put additional controls under that menu. There’s also once again a reload button in the tab bar next to the domain name, though it’s a bit smaller, and a Reader Mode button will appear in the tab bar when Reader is available

On iPad, Safari also reverted back to the traditional separate row of tabs, instead of the new compact experience.

The Refresh button is now permanently showing in the iOS 15 Safari address bar #iOS15DevBeta4 pic.twitter.com/v8AoRB68QI

— Apple Software Updates (@AppleSWUpdates) July 27, 2021

Elon Musk sides with Epic Games

Elon Musk sided with Fortnite maker Epic Games in the Apple App Store antitrust lawsuit, as the Tesla CEO tweeted on Friday that Apple’s App Store fees were “a de facto global tax on the Internet.” The lawsuit alleges Apple is abusing its platform power with how it commissions apps and in-app purchases on its App Store platform — fees that add up to big numbers for a game like Fortnite, which arguably doesn’t need an App Store for discovery, marketing, payments and distribution. But there’s no other way to sell to iOS users today. On Android, apps can at least be sideloaded. It’s not currently clear why Musk has decided to take a stand on the issue, as none of his companies’ apps are dramatically impacted by Apple’s fees at present.

Weekly News

Other Platform News (Apple & Google)

Apple announced plans to end support for a number of SiriKit intents and commands, including those that could impact major apps — like ride-sharing app Uber. In total, there are over 20 SiriKit intent domains that will be deprecated and no longer supported in new and existing OS releases, Apple says.

Apple tweaked the controversial iOS 15 Safari changes in the latest betas (iOS 15 and iPadOS 15, beta 4). The new Safari design had moved the tab bar (URL bar) to the bottom of the screen — a fairly radical change for one of the iPhone’s most used apps. It was meant to make the controls easier to reach but critics said that the change made other often used features — like the reload button or Reader Mode — harder to find and use, impacting the overall usability of the browser itself.

Google this week launched version 1.0 of Jetpack Compose, Android’s new, native UI toolkit aimed at helping developers build better apps faster. The tool had been in beta since March. The new production release is built to integrate with the Jetpack libraries developers already use, and offers an implementation of Material Design components and theming. New features include Compose Preview and Deploy Preview, which require Android Studio Arctic Fox, which is also out now in a stable release.

Google also announced the availability of the CarHardwareManager API via the Android for Cars App Library as part of Jetpack.

E-commerce

Twitter launched a U.S. e-commerce pilot test that will help determine the current appetite for online shopping on its platform. The test allows brands and businesses to feature a “Shop Module” with various products for sale at the top of their Professional Profile, a business-friendly version of a profile page with support for things like an address, hours, phone number and more. Users can click on the Shop Module to go to a retail website and transact. Early testers include Game Stop and Arden Cove. The feature itself is somewhat bare bones for now, as it’s really just an image that launches an in-app browser. That’s not enough to really compete with something like Instagram Shop or Shopify’s Shop and the integrated, native checkout experience those types of app offers.

Fintech

Fintech giant Robinhood raised $2.1 billion in its IPO this week. The IPO valued the trading app at $31.8 billion, making it larger that traditional rivals like Charles Schwab, even though the offering priced at the bottom of its range. The stock dropped 8% during its first day’s trading, however. Robinhood now has 21.3 million MAUs.

PayPal during its second-quarter earnings call announced its new “super app” is now code-complete and ready to roll out. The app will feature early direct deposit, check cashing, high yield savings, budgeting tools, improved bill pay, crypto support, subscription management, buy now, pay later functionality, mobile commerce, and person-to-person messaging features. The latter hadn’t yet been announced and would allow users to chat outside of the payments process.

Code found in Apple’s Wallet app indicates that iOS 15 will require users to verify their identities by taking a selfie when they add their driver’s license or other state identification card to the iPhone.

Social

Instagram announced a series of significant changes to how it handles the accounts of younger teens. The company says it will now default users to private accounts at sign-up if they’re under the age of 16  — or under 18 in certain locales, including in the EU. It will also push existing users under 16 to switch their account to private if they have not already done so. In addition, Instagram is rolling out new technology aimed at reducing unwanted contact from adults — like those who have already been blocked or reported by other teens — and it will change how advertisers can reach its teenage audience. The changes give the company a way to argue to regulators that it’s capable of self-policing as it attempts to roll out a version of Instagram to younger users under the age of 13.

Twitter rolls out an update to its live audio platform, Twitter Spaces, that will make it easier to share the audio room with others. Users will be able to compose a tweet right from the Space that links to the room and includes any accompanying hashtags. iOS users also received new guest management controls for hosts.

Snapchat resolved an outage that was stopping people from logging in on Thursday. Unlike other app blips, which fix themselves often without users’ awareness, Snap told users to manually update their app if the issues continued.

Snapchat also this week added a “My Places” feature to Snap Map, which allows users to log their favorite spots, share them with friends and find recommendations. The feature supports over 30 million businesses and allows Snap to differentiate its map from a utility like Google Maps or Apple Maps, because it’s about personal recommendations from people you know and trust: your friends.

Instagram added support for 60-second videos to its TikTok clone, Reels. Previously, only Reels of up to 30 seconds were supported. Sixty seconds is in line with other platforms like YouTube Shorts and Snapchat’s Spotlight. But TikTok is now inching into YouTube territory, as it recently expanded to support three-minute videos.

TikTok expanded its LIVE platform with a huge lineup of new features including the ability to go live with others, host Q&As, use moderators and improved keyword filters, and more. For viewers, TikTok is adding new discovery and viewing tools, including picture-in-picture mode and ways to jump to LIVE streams from the For You and Following feeds. Some markets, including the U.S. already had access to LIVE Events, but the feature is now expanding. Meanwhile, the co-host feature currently supports going live with one other creator, but TikTok says it’s now testing multiple hosts.

Discord launched a new feature, Threads, which will make it easier to read through longer conversations on busy servers. Now, any server with “Community” features enabled will be able to transform their messages into threaded conversations across mobile and desktop. The threads will be designated by their own subject name and can be created by selecting a new hashtag symbol that appears in the menu when hovering over messages or by pressing the + sign in the chat bar.

Pinterest shares dropped by more than 12% after the company reported its second-quarter earnings on Thursday. Despite beating on estimates with revenue of $613.2 million and earnings per share of 25 cents, investors were disappointed by the miss on user growth. The company reported monthly active user growth of just 9% to reach 454 million, when analysts were expecting 482 million. Pinterest blamed COVID impacts for the slowdown. The news follows Pinterest’s launch of new tools for creators to monetize their content, with Ideas Pins — the recently launched video-first format that lets creators show off their work. Now, creators can make their pins “shoppable” and take commissions on those purchases.

Messaging

WhatsApp is testing support for higher image upload quality on iOS devices. The feature was discovered on WhatsApp’s TestFlight version for iOS but is not yet public and offers three options: auto, best quality or data saver.

Streaming & Entertainment

Spotify’s Clubhouse clone, Greenroom, is off to a slow start. The app has only been downloaded 140,000+ times on iOS and 100,000+ on Android, including installs from its earlier life as Locker Room, an app that Spotify acquired to move into live audio. Meanwhile, Spotify has 365 million monthly active users on its flagship streaming app.

Spotify also reported its Q2 earnings this week, where it posted a $23.6 million loss and failed to reach its forecast for total MAUs, despite growing MAUs 22% YOY to 365 million. It now has 165 million paying subscribers, which is up 20% YOY.

In a change to its app, Spotify added an attention-grabbing “What’s New” feed that offers personalized updates about new releases and new podcast episodes. The feature is available through a notification bell icon and uses a blue dot to indicate when there’s something new to see. Dots like this are a psychological hacks popularized by social apps like Facebook and Instagram to addict users, which could impact user engagement time on Spotify’s app.

Apple’s GarageBand app for iOS and iPadOS now lets you remix tracks from top artists and producers like Dua Lipa and Lady Gaga. There are also new Producer Packs with beats, loops and instruments created for GarageBand by top producers, including Boys Noize, Mark Lettieri, Oak Felder, Soulection, Take A Daytrip, Tom Misch and TRAKGIRL.

Google TV’s mobile app was updated with new services and personalized recommendations, following last fall’s launch of the Google TV user experience for Chromecast devices. The app now sports 16:9 widescreen movie and show posters, and added new providers Discovery+, Viki, Cartoon Network, PBS Kids, Boomerang, plus on-demand content from live TV services, including YouTube TV, Philo and fuboTV.

Gaming

Epic Games announced that Fortnite will host another in-game event it’s calling the “Rift Tour,” which kicks off Friday, August 6 and runs through Sunday, August 8. What it hasn’t yet said is what the Rift Tour is, beyond a “musical journey into magical new realities” that will feature a “record-breaking superstar.”

Health & Fitness

Facebook’s Oculus division is exploring an integration of Oculus Workouts with Apple’s Health app, according to the app’s code. An integration would allow users to store their workout data in Health.

Productivity

Usage of mobile video conferencing apps like Zoom grew by 150% in the first half of 2021, according to a report from Sensor Tower. Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Meet saw a surge in usage, collectively climbing to nearly 21x higher than in H1 2019, the firm found.

Google Voice’s app was updated with a few refinements, including a way to see the reason for a missed call or dropped call, and an easy way to redial. iOS users can now show their Google Voice number as their caller ID when they get a calling through a forwarding number. Another change will allow users to delete multiple SMS messages at once.

Edtech

Language learning app Duolingo raised $521 million in its U.S. IPO, priced above the marketed range. The company priced 5.1 million shared at $102, after first marketing them at $95 to $100.

Utilities

Amazon this week rolled out an update to its Alexa iOS app that allows users to add an Alexa widget to their iOS homescreen. The widget lets you tap on a button to speak to the virtual assistant and issue commands. Watch out Siri! (Ha, just kidding.)

Google Maps also updated its iOS app this week to add support for a homescreen widget. There are two different widgets sizes to choose from — one that gives info like weather and traffic, while another is more of a shortcut to nearby places like gas stations, restaurants, work and home.

Google is working on a”Switch to Android” app for iOS users that will copy over data and apps from an iPhone to bring them to a new Android device. Apple already offers a similar app, called “Move to iOS” for Android users.

Transportation

Parking app usage has popped to pre-pandemic levels, Apptopia reported. Apps in this space help users find availability in lots and garages nearby and facilitate payments. Browsing time in apps was up 57% YOY in July, and overall parking app usage is now 6.2% above Jan. 2020 pre-pandemic levels.

Moovit integrated Lime’s electric scooters, bikes and mopeds into its transit-planning app that’s live in 117 cities across 20 countries and continents, including the United States, South America, Australia and Europe.

Government & Policy

Tencent’s WeChat suspended new user registrations in China to comply with “relevant laws and regulations.” The move comes amid a broad crackdown on tech companies by Chinese regulators, related to data collection and other harmful practices.

Recently, China ordered Tencent and 13 other developers to fix problems related to pop-ups inside their apps, as part of the tech crackdown. The regulator also said it would tighten controls on misleading and explicit content used for marketing, and issued fines for offensive content to Tencent, Kuaishou and Alibaba.

Security & Privacy

Apple released patches for iOS, iPadOS and macOS to address a zero-day vulnerability that had been exploited in the wild. Apple said the exploit could exploit the vulnerability known as CVE-2021-30807 to execute arbitrary code with kernel privileges on a vulnerable and unpatched device.

Google Play Protect failed an Android security test, according to a report from Bleeping Computer. The mobile threat protection solution ranked last out of 15 Android security apps tested over a span of six months, between January to June 2021.

Funding and M&A

💰 Product insights and analytics startup Pendo raised $150 million at a $2.6 billion valuation, ahead of its expected IPO. The round was led by B Capital, the firm from Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, and included new investor Silver Lake Waterman, alongside existing backers. Pendo’s platform helps companies gather data on how customers use their apps, including clients like Okta, Toast and others.

🤝 Twitter “acqui-hired” the team from subscription news app, Brief, who will now join Twitter’s Experience.org group, which works on Twitter Spaces and Explore. Brief had offered a non-biased news app that allowed you to get both sides of a story and all the necessary facts. Deal terms weren’t disclosed.

💰 Delivery app Gopuff confirmed its $1 billion fundraise at a $15 billion valuation, aimed at expanding its instant delivery service. TechCrunch previously reported the news when the Series H was still being closed.

💰 Indian travel app Ixigo raised $53 million (Rs 395 crore), prepping the business for a valuation of $750 million-$800 million for its upcoming IPO. The round was led by Singapore sovereign wealth fund GIC.

💰Mobile-first digital wallet Valora native to the Celo network raised $20 million in Series A funding led by Andreessen Horowitz (a16z), a Celo backer, to become a global gateway to crypto.

💰 Crypto wallet company Eco, backed by a16z, raised $60 million in new funding led by Activant Capital and L Catterton. Eco offers a digital wallet with rewards and no fees, and has average deposits of around $6,000.

💰 Search API startup Algolia, which lets developers integrate real-time search in apps or websites, raised $150 million in Series D funding, valuing the business at $2.25 billion, post-money. The round was led by Lone Pine Capital. Algolia now has over 10,000 customers, including Slack, Stripe, Medium, Zendesk and Lacoste.

💰 Brain Technologies raised $50+ million for Natural, a natural language search engine and super app for iOS, which wants users to stop switching between apps to order food, groceries or go shopping. Backers include Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective, Goodwater Capital, Scott Cook and WTT Investment.

💰 Messaging app Element, built on the decentralized Matrix protocol, raised $30 million in a Series B round of funding. Investors include open-source R&D lab Protocol Labs and Metaplanet. a fund from Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn, as well as past investors Automattic and Notion.

💰 Indonesia-based grocery app HappyFresh raised $65 million in Series D funding in a round led by Naver Financial Corporation and Gafina B.V. The app offers an Instacart-like grocery delivery service for parts of Asia, which today operates in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.

💰 Indian D2C beauty brand MyGlamm, which sells products through an app and website, raised $71.3 million in Series C financing, from Amazon, Ascent Capital and Wipro.

Downloads

Nanogram

Image Credits: Nanogram

Developer Kosta Eleftheriou may have taken on Apple in legal battles and on Twitter, as he points out the numerous app scams on the App Store, but that hasn’t stopped him from building new apps.

This week, Eleftheriou introduced Nanogram, a Telegram client app that works on the Apple Watch without needing an iPhone connection. Eleftheriou said he was inspired to build Nanogram because he wanted a Telegram app for his LTE Apple Watch and didn’t like the official version that didn’t provide “basic and reliable messaging functionality.” So he built his own app from scratch using the Telegram SDK, which allows you to send, receive and view all your messages and notifications right from your wrist — even if you don’t have your phone nearby. The app also supports Eleftheriou’s FlickType Swipe Keyboard for faster replies while on the go.

Eleftheriou notes the app doesn’t collect any personal information and requires an Apple Watch Series 3 or later, running watchOS 7 or later.

Lightricks’ Videoleap for Android

Image Credits: Lightricks

After seeing a 70% yearly increase for its iOS version, Lightricks brought its Videoleap app to the Google Play Store. The app has grown popular with online creators for offering professional quality editing tools on mobile, including those that let you apply artistic effects, mix videos with images, add text and layer transformations and more. The company says Videoleap users are now creating 35 million pieces of content per month, and 47% of users are exporting their creations to TikTok in pursuit of monetizing their content further. The app, like others from Lightricks (which also makes FaceTune and others), monetizes by way of in-app subscriptions.

Tweets

Apple app store fees are a de facto global tax on the Internet. Epic is right.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 30, 2021

There’s a total of *six* different touch targets in the iOS 15 beta 4 tab bar in Safari.

These exclude the ability to long-press the tab bar, swipe across it to change tabs, and swipe it up to open the Tabs view.

I’m…starting to think a single, small toolbar just won’t do. 😬pic.twitter.com/EiD2mekVRL

— Federico Viticci (@viticci) July 27, 2021

Shortcuts has a new “Return to Home Screen” action in iOS 15 developer beta 4 – this has been long requested from the community and is great to see! pic.twitter.com/8E3ZB7FIYX

— Matthew Cassinelli (@mattcassinelli) July 27, 2021

I've been fascinated to watch the reaction to Safari in iOS 15 because in 2016-2017, I worked on a similar redesign for mobile Chrome that we never launched. Finally decided to tell a bit of that story here: https://t.co/gF4hepQM5V

— Chris Lee (@cleerview) July 25, 2021

something fun & playful our team has been working on. what are *creative* ways we can utilize voice for more engaging convos on Spaces? how would you use these tools?

let’s have fun & learn together🧏🏽‍♂️@RichardPlom @reedm @audgeyaudgey @callmeparri @niw pic.twitter.com/4ZBahxwkDN

— Danny Singh (@Mr_DannySingh) July 22, 2021

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