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Today — April 22nd 2021Your RSS feeds

First findings with Apple’s new AirTag location devices

By Matthew Panzarino

I’ve been playing around with Apple’s new AirTag location devices for a few hours now and they seem to work pretty much as advertised. The setup flow is simple and clean, taking clear inspiration from the one Apple developed for AirPods. The precision finding feature enabled by the U1 chip works as a solid example of utility-driven augmented reality, popping up a virtual arrow and other visual identifiers on the screen to make finding a tag quicker.

The basic way that AirTags work, if you’re not familiar, is that they use Bluetooth beaconing technology to announce their presence to any nearby devices running iOS 14.5 and above. These quiet pings are encrypted and invisible (usually) to any passer by, especially if they are with their owners. This means that no one ever knows what device actually ‘located’ your AirTag, not even Apple.

With you, by the way, means in relative proximity to a device signed in to the iCloud account that the AirTags are registered to. Bluetooth range is typically in the ~40 foot range depending on local conditions and signal bounce. 

In my very limited testing so far, AirTag location range fits in with that basic Bluetooth expectation. Which means that it can be foiled by a lot of obstructions or walls or an unflattering signal bounce. It often took 30 seconds or more to get an initial location from an AirTag in another room, for instance. Once the location was received, however, the instructions to locate the device seemed to update quickly and were extremely accurate down to a few inches.

The AirTags run for a year on a standard CR2032 battery that’s user replaceable. They offer some water resistance including submersion for some time. There are a host of accessories that seem nicely designed like leather straps for bags, luggage tags and key rings.

So far so good. More testing to come. 

Some protections

As with anything to do with location, security and privacy are a top of mind situation for AirTags, and Apple has some protections in place.

You cannot share AirTags — they are meant to be owned by one person. The only special privileges offered by people in your iCloud Family Sharing Group is that they can silence the ‘unknown AirTag nearby’ alerts indefinitely. This makes AirTags useful for things like shared sets of keys or maybe even a family pet. This means that AirTags will not show up on your family Find My section like other iOS devices might. There is now a discrete section within the app just for ‘Items’ including those with Find My functionality built in. 

The other privacy features include a ‘warning’ that will trigger after some time that a tag is in your proximity and NOT in the proximity of its owner (aka, traveling with you perhaps in a bag or car). Your choices are then to make the tag play a sound to locate it — look at its information including serial number and to disable it by removing its battery. 

Any AirTag that has been away from its owner for a while — this time is variable and Apple will tweak it over time as it observes how AirTags work — will start playing a sound whenever it is moved. This will alert people to its presence. 

You can, of course, also place an AirTag into Lost Mode, offering a choice to share personal information with anyone who locates it as it plays an alert sound. Anyone with any smart device with NFC, Android included, can tap the device to see a webpage with information that you choose to share. Or just a serial number if you do not choose to do so. 

This scenario addresses what happens if you don’t have an iOS device to alert you to a foreign AirTag in your presence, as it will eventually play a sound even if it is not in lost mode and the owner has no control over that.

It’s clear that Apple has thought through many of the edge cases, but some could still crop up as it rolls out, we’ll have to see.

Apple has some distinct market advantages here:

  • Nearly a billion devices out in the world that can help to locate an AirTag.
  • A built-in U1 wideband chip that communicates with a similar U1 chip in iPhones to enable super precise (down to inches) location.
  • A bunch of privacy features that don’t appear on competing tags.

Important to note that Apple has announced the development of a specification for chipset makers that lets third-party devices with Ultra Wideband radios access the U1 chip onboard iPhones ‘later this Spring’. This should approximate the Precision Finding feature’s utility in accessories that don’t have the advantage of having a U1 built in like the AirTags do. And, of course, Apple has opened up the entire Find My mesh network to third party devices from Belkin, Chipolo and VanMoof that want to offer a similar basic finding function as offered by AirTags. Tile has announced plans to offer a UWB version of its tracker as well, even as it testified in Congress yesterday that Apple’s advantages made its entry into this market unfair. 

It will be interesting to see these play out once AirTags are out getting lost in the wild. I have had them for under 12 hours so I’ve not been able to test edge cases, general utility in public spaces or anything like that. 

The devices go on sale on April 23rd.

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Google misled consumers over location data settings, Australia court finds

By Natasha Lomas

Google’s historical collection of location data has got it into hot water in Australia where a case brought by the country’s Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has led to a federal court ruling that the tech giant misled consumers by operating a confusing dual-layer of location settings in what the regulator describes as a “world-first enforcement action”.

The case relates to personal location data collected by Google through Android mobile devices between January 2017 and December 2018.

Per the ACCC, the court ruled that “when consumers created a new Google Account during the initial set-up process of their Android device, Google misrepresented that the ‘Location History’ setting was the only Google Account setting that affected whether Google collected, kept or used personally identifiable data about their location”.

“In fact, another Google Account setting titled ‘Web & App Activity’ also enabled Google to collect, store and use personally identifiable location data when it was turned on, and that setting was turned on by default,” it wrote.

The Court also ruled that Google misled consumers when they later accessed the ‘Location History’ setting on their Android device during the same time period to turn that setting off because it did not inform them that by leaving the ‘Web & App Activity’ setting switched on, Google would continue to collect, store and use their personally identifiable location data.

“Similarly, between 9 March 2017 and 29 November 2018, when consumers later accessed the ‘Web & App Activity’ setting on their Android device, they were misled because Google did not inform them that the setting was relevant to the collection of personal location data,” the ACCC added.

Similar complaints about Google’s location data processing being deceptive — and allegations that it uses manipulative tactics in order to keep tracking web users’ locations for ad-targeting purposes — have been raised by consumer agencies in Europe for years. And in February 2020 the company’s lead data regulator in the region finally opened an investigation. However that probe remains ongoing.

Whereas the ACCC said today that it will be seeking “declarations, pecuniary penalties, publications orders, and compliance orders” following the federal court ruling. Although it added that the specifics of its enforcement action will be determined “at a later date”. So it’s not clear exactly when Google will be hit with an order — nor how large a fine it might face.

The tech giant may also seek to appeal the court ruling.

Google said today it’s reviewing its legal options and considering a “possible appeal” — highlighting the fact the Court did not agree wholesale with the ACCC’s case because it dismissed some of the allegations (related to certain statements Google made about the methods by which consumers could prevent it from collecting and using their location data, and the purposes for which personal location data was being used by Google).

Here’s Google’s statement in full:

“The court rejected many of the ACCC’s broad claims. We disagree with the remaining findings and are currently reviewing our options, including a possible appeal. We provide robust controls for location data and are always looking to do more — for example we recently introduced auto delete options for Location History, making it even easier to control your data.”

While Mountain View denies doing anything wrong in how it configures location settings — while simultaneously claiming it’s always looking to improve the controls it offers its users — Google’s settings and defaults have, nonetheless, got it into hot water with regulators before.

Back in 2019 France’s data watchdog, the CNIL, fined it $57M over a number of transparency and consent failures under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation. That remains the largest GDPR penalty issued to a tech giant since the regulation came into force a little under three years ago — although France has more recently sanctioned Google $120M under different EU laws for dropping tracking cookies without consent.

Australia, meanwhile, has forged ahead with passing legislation this year that directly targets the market power of Google (and Facebook) — passing a mandatory news media bargaining code in February which aims to address the power imbalance between platform giants and publishers around the reuse of journalism content.

Pearpop raises from The Chainsmokers, Alexis Ohanian, Amy Schumer, Kevin Hart, Mark Cuban, Marshmello, and Snoop Dogg

By Jonathan Shieber

Pearpop, the marketplace for social collaborations between the teeming hordes of musicians, craftspeople, chefs, clowns, diarists, dancers, artists, actors, acrobats, aspiring celebrities and actual celebrities, has raised $16 million in funding that includes what seems like half of Hollywood, along with Alexis Ohanian’s Seven Seven Six venture firm and Bessemer Venture Partners.

The funding was actually split between a $6 million seed funding round co-led by Ashton Kutcher and Guy Oseary’s Sound Ventures and Slow Ventures, with participation from Atelier Ventures and Chapter One Ventures and a $10 million additional investment led by Ohanian’s Seven Seven Six with participation from Bessemer.

TechCrunch first covered pearpop last year and there’s no denying that the startup is on to something. It basically takes Cameo’s celebrity marketplace for private shout-outs and makes it public. Allowing social media personalities to boost their followers by paying more popular personalities to shout out, duet, or comment on their posts.

“I’ve invested in pearpop because it’s been on my mind for a while that the creator economy has resulted in a lot of not equitable outcomes for creators. Where i talked about the missing middle class of the creator economy,” said Li Jin, the founder of Atelier Ventures and author of a critical piece on creator economics, “The creator economy needs a middle class“. 

“When I saw pearpop I felt like there was a really big potential for pearpop to be the one of the creators of the creative middle class. They’ve introduced this mechanism by which larger creators can help smaller creators and everyone has something of value to offer something to everyone else in the ecosystem.”

Jin discovered pearpop through the TechCrunch piece, she said. “You wrote that article and then i reached out to the team,” said Jin.

The idea was so appealing, it brought in a slew of musicians, athletes, actors and entertainers, including: Abel Makkonen (The Weeknd), Amy Schumer, The Chainsmokers, Diddy, Gary Vaynerchuk, Griffin Johnson, Josh Richards, Kevin Durant (Thirty 5 Ventures), Kevin Hart (HartBeat Ventures), Mark Cuban, Marshmello, Moe Shalizi, Michael Gruen (Animal Capital), MrBeast (Night Media Ventures), Rich Miner (Android co-founder) and Snoop Dogg.

“Pearpop has the potential to benefit all social media platforms by delivering new users and engagement, while simultaneously leveling the playing field of opportunity for creators,” said Alexis Ohanian, Founder, Seven Seven Six, in a statement. “The company has created a revolutionary new marketplace model that is set to completely reimagine how we think of social media monetization. As both a social media founder and an investor, I’m excited for what’s to come with pearpop.”

Already Heidi Klum, Loren Gray, Snoop Dogg, and Tony Hawk have gotten paid to appear in social media posts from aspiring auteurs on the social media platform TikTok.

Using the platform is relatively simple. A social media user (for now, that means just TikTok) sends a post that exists on their social feed and requests that another social media user interacts with it in some way — either commenting, posting a video in response, or adding a sound. If the request seems okay, or “on brand”, then the person who accepts the request performs the prescribed action.

Pearpop takes a 25% cut of all transactions with the social media user who’s performing the task getting the other 75%.

The company wouldn’t comment on revenue numbers, except to say that it’s on track to bring in seven figures this year.

Users on the platform set their prices and determine which kinds of services they’re willing to provide to boost the social media posts of their contractors.

Prices range anywhere from $5 to $10,000 depending on the size of a user’s following and the type of request that’s being made. Right now, the most requested personality on the marketplace is the TikTok star, Anna Banana.

These kinds of transactions do have impacts. The company said that personalities on the platform were able to increase their follower count with the service. For instance, Leah Svoboda went from 20K to 141K followers, after a pearpop duet with Anna Shumate.

If this all makes you feel like you’ve tripped and fallen through a Black Mirror into a dystopian hellscape where everything and every interaction is a commodity to be mined for money, well… that’s life.

“What I appreciate most about pearpop is the control it gives me as a creator,” said Anna Shumate, TikTok influencer @annabananaxdddd. “The platform allows me to post what I want and when I want. My followers still love my content because it’s authentic and true to me, which is what sets pearpop apart from all of the other opportunities on social media.”

Talent agencies, too, see the draw. Early adopters include Talent X, Get Engaged, and Next Step Talent and The Fuel Injector, which has added its entire roster of talent to pearpop, which includes Kody Antle, Brooke Monk and Harry Raftus, the company said.

“The initial concept came out of an obvious gap within the space: no marketplace existed for creators of all sizes to monetize through simple, authentic collaborations that are mutually beneficial,” said Cole Mason, co-founder & CEO, pearpop.  “It soon became clear that this was a product that people had been waiting for, as thousands of people rely on our platform today to gain full control of their social capital for the first time starting with TikTok.”

APKPure app contained malicious adware, say researchers

By Zack Whittaker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TechCrunch contacted APKPure for comment but did not hear back.

Facebook ran ads for a fake ‘Clubhouse for PC’ app planted with malware

By Zack Whittaker

Cybercriminals have taken out a number of Facebook ads masquerading as a Clubhouse app for PC users in order to target unsuspecting victims with malware, TechCrunch has learned.

TechCrunch was alerted Wednesday to Facebook ads tied to several Facebook pages impersonating Clubhouse, the drop-in audio chat app only available on iPhones. Clicking on the ad would open a fake Clubhouse website, including a mocked-up screenshot of what the non-existent PC app looks like, with a download link to the malicious app.

When opened, the malicious app tries to communicate with a command and control server to obtain instructions on what to do next. One sandbox analysis of the malware showed the malicious app tried to infect the isolated machine with ransomware.

But overnight, the fake Clubhouse websites — which were hosted in Russia — went offline. In doing so, the malware also stopped working. Guardicore’s Amit Serper, who tested the malware in a sandbox on Thursday, said the malware received an error from the server and did nothing more.

The fake website was set up to look like Clubhouse’s real website, but featuring a malicious PC app. (Image: TechCrunch)

It’s not uncommon for cybercriminals to tailor their malware campaigns to piggyback off the successes of wildly popular apps. Clubhouse reportedly topped more than 8 million global downloads to date despite an invite-only launch. That high demand prompted a scramble to reverse-engineer the app to build bootleg versions of it to evade Clubhouse’s gated walls, but also government censors where the app is blocked.

Each of the Facebook pages impersonating Clubhouse only had a handful of likes, but were still active at the time of publication. When reached, Facebook wouldn’t say how many account owners had clicked on the ads pointing to the fake Clubhouse websites.

At least nine ads were placed this week between Tuesday and Thursday. Several of the ads said Clubhouse “is now available for PC,” while another featured a photo of co-founders Paul Davidson and Rohan Seth. Clubhouse did not return a request for comment.

The ads have been removed from Facebook’s Ad Library, but we have published a copy. It’s also not clear how the ads made it through Facebook’s processes in the first place.

Spotify stays quiet about launch of its voice command ‘Hey Spotify’ on mobile

By Sarah Perez

In 2019, Spotify began testing a hardware device for automobile owners it lovingly dubbed “Car Thing,” which allowed Spotify Premium users to play music and podcasts using voice commands that began with “Hey, Spotify.” Last year, Spotify began developing a similar voice integration into its mobile app. Now, access to the “Hey Spotify” voice feature is rolling out more broadly.

Spotify chose not to officially announce the new addition, despite numerous reports indicating the voice option was showing up for many people in their Spotify app, leading to some user confusion about availability.

One early report by GSM Arena, for example, indicated Android users had been sent a push notification that alerted them to the feature. The notification advised users to “Just enable your mic and say ‘Hey Spotify, Play my Favorite Songs.” When tapped, the notification launched Spotify’s new voice interface where users are pushed to first give the app permission to use the microphone in order to be able to verbally request the music they want to hear.

Several outlets soon reported the feature had launched to Android users, which is only partially true.

As it turns out, the feature is making its way to iOS devices, as well. When we launched the Spotify app here on an iPhone running iOS 14.5, for instance, we found the same feature had indeed gone live. You just tap on the microphone button by the search box to get to the voice experience. We asked around and found that other iPhone users on various versions of the iOS operating system also had the feature, including free users, Premium subscribers and Premium Family Plan subscribers.

The screen that appears suggests in big, bold text that you could be saying “Hey Spotify, play…” followed by a random artist’s name. It also presents a big green button at the bottom to turn on “Hey Spotify.”

Once enabled, you can ask for artists, albums, songs and playlists by name, as well as control playback with commands like stop, pause, skip this song, go back and others. Spotify confirms the command with a robotic-sounding male voice by default. (You can swap to a female voice in Settings, if you prefer.)

Image Credits: Spotify screenshot iOS

This screen also alerts users that when the app hears the “Hey Spotify” voice command, it sends the user’s voice data and other information to Spotify. There’s a link to Spotify policy regarding its use of voice data, which further explains that Spotify will collect recordings and transcripts of what you say along with information about the content it returned to you. The company says it may continue to use this data to improve the feature, develop new voice features and target users with relevant advertising. It may also share your information with service providers, like cloud storage providers.

The policy looks to be the same as the one that was used along with Spotify’s voice-enabled ads, launched last year, so it doesn’t seem to have been updated to fully reflect the changes enabled with the launch of “Hey Spotify.” However, it does indicate that, like other voice assistants, Spotify doesn’t just continuously record — it waits until users say the wake words.

Given the “Hey Spotify” voice command’s origins with “Car Thing,” there’s been speculation that the mobile rollout is a signal that the company is poised to launch its own hardware to the wider public in the near future. There’s already some indication that may be true — MacRumors recently reported finding references and photos to Car Thing and its various mounts inside the Spotify app’s code. This follows Car Thing’s reveal in FCC filings back in January of this year, which had also stoked rumors that the device was soon to launch.

Spotify was reached for comment this morning, but has yet been unable to provide any answers about the feature’s launch despite a day’s wait. Instead, we were told that they “unfortunately do not have any additional news to share at this time.” That further suggests some larger projects could be tied to this otherwise more minor feature’s launch.

Though today’s consumers are wary of tech companies’ data collection methods — and particularly their use of voice data after all three tech giants confessed to poor practices on this front — there’s still a use case for voice commands, particularly from an accessibility standpoint and, for drivers, from a safety standpoint.

And although you can direct your voice assistant on your phone (or via CarPlay or Android Auto, if available) to play content from Spotify, some may find it useful to be able to speak to Spotify directly — especially since Apple doesn’t allow Spotify to be set as a default music service. You can only train Siri to launch Spotify as your preferred service.

If, however, you have second thoughts about using the “Hey Spotify” feature after enabling it, you can turn it off under “Voice Interactions” in the app’s settings.

Bilibili ups the ante in games with $123 million investment in TapTap

By Rita Liao

Competition in China’s gaming industry is getting stiffer in recent times as tech giants sniff out potential buyouts and investments to beef up their gaming alliance, whether it pertains to content or distribution.

Bilibili, the go-to video streaming platform for young Chinese, is the latest to make a major gaming deal. It has agreed to invest HK$960 million (about $123 million) into X.D. Network, which runs the popular game distribution platform TapTap in China, the company announced on Thursday.

Dual-listed in Hong Kong and New York, Bilibili will purchase 22,660,000 shares of X.D.’s common stock at HK$42.38 apiece, which will grant it a 4.72% stake.

The partners will initiate a series of “deep collaborations” around X.D.’s own games and TapTap, without offering more detail.

Though known for its trove of video content produced by amateur and professional creators, Bilibili derives a big chunk of its income from mobile games, which accounted for 40% of its revenues in 2020. The ratio had declined from 71% and 53% in 2018 and 2019, a sign that it’s trying to diversify revenue streams beyond distributing games.

Tencent has similarly leaned on games to drive revenues for years. The WeChat operator dominates China’s gaming market through original titles and a sprawling investment portfolio whose content it helps operate and promote.

X.D. makes games, too, but in recent years it has also emerged as a rebel against traditional game distributors, which are Android app stores operated by smartphone makers. The vision is to skip the high commission fees charged by the likes of Huawei and Xiaomi and monetize through ads. X.D.’s proposition has helped it attract a swathe of gaming companies to be its investors, including fast-growing studios Lilith Games and miHoYo, as well as ByteDance, which built up a 3,000-people strong gaming team within six years.

Bilibili’s investment further strengthens X.D.’s matrix of top-tier gaming investors. Tencent is conspicuously absent, but it’s no secret that ByteDance is its new nemesis. The TikTok parent recently outbid Tencent to acquire Moonton, a gaming studio that has gained ground in Southeast Asia, according to Reuters. Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, is also vying for user attention away from content published on WeChat.

Consumers spent $32B on apps in Q1 2021, the biggest quarter on record

By Sarah Perez

The pandemic’s remarkable impact on the app industry has not slowed down in 2021. In fact, consumer spending in apps has hit a new record in the first quarter of this year, a new report from App Annie indicates. The firm says consumers in Q1 2021 spent $32 billion on apps across both iOS and Google Play, up 40% year-over-year from Q1 2020. It’s the largest-ever quarter on record, App Annie also notes.

Last year saw both app downloads and consumer spend increase, as people rapidly adopted apps under coronavirus lockdowns — including apps for work, school, shopping, fitness, entertainment, gaming and more. App Annie previously reported a record 218 billion in global downloads and record consumer spend of $143 billion for the year.

Image Credits: App Annie

These trends have continued into 2021, it seems, with mobile consumers spending roughly $9 billion more in Q1 2021 compared with Q1 2020. Although iOS saw larger consumer spend than Android in the quarter — $21 billion vs. $11 billion, respectively — both stores grew by the same percentage, 40%.

But the types of apps driving spending were slightly different from store to store.

On Google Play, Games, Social and Entertainment apps saw the strongest quarter-over-quarter growth in terms of consumer spending, while Games, Photo & Video, and Entertainment apps accounted for the strongest growth on iOS.

By downloads, the categories were different between the stores, as well.

On Google Play, Social, Tools, and Fiance saw the biggest download growth in Q1, while Games, Finance and Social Networking drove download growth for iOS. Also on Google Play, other top categories included Weather (40%) and Dating (35%), while iOS saw Health and Fitness app downloads grow by a notable 25% — likely a perfect storm as New Year’s Resolutions combined with continued stay-at-measures that encouraged users to find new ways to stay fit without going to a gym.

Image Credits: App Annie

The top apps in the quarter remained fairly consistent, however. TikTok beat Facebook, in terms of downloads, and was followed by Instagram, Telegram, WhatsApp and Zoom. But the short-form video app only made it to No. 2 in terms of consumer spend, with YouTube snagging the top spot. Tinder, Disney+, Tencent Video, and others followed. (Netflix has dropped off this chart as it now directs new users to sign up directly, rather than through in-app purchases).

Image Credits: App Annie

Though Facebook’s apps have fallen behind TikTok by downloads, its apps — including Facebook, WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram — still led the market in terms monthly active users (MAUs) in the quarter. TikTok, meanwhile, ranked No. 8 by this metric.

Up-and-comers in the quarter included privacy-focused messaging app Signal, which saw the strongest growth in the quarter by both downloads and MAUs — a calculation that App Annie calls “breakout apps.”  Telegram closely followed, as users bailed from mainstream social after the Capitol riot. Another “breakout” app was MX TakaTak, which is filling the hole in the market for short-form video that resulted from India’s ban  of TikTok.

Image Credits: App Annie

Gaming, meanwhile, drove a majority of the quarter’s spending, as usual, accounting for $22 billion of the spend — $13 billion on iOS (up 30% year-over-year) and $9 billion on Android (up 35%). Gamers downloaded about a billion titles per week, up 15% year-over-year from 2020.

Among Us! dropped to No. 2 in the quarter by downloads, replaced by Join Clash 3D, while DOP 2: Delete One Part jumped 308 places to reach No. 3.

Image Credits: App Annie

Roblox led by consumer spend, followed by Genshin Impact, Coin Master, Pokemon Go and others. And although Among Us! dropped on the charts by downloads, it remained No. 1 by monthly active users in the quarter, followed by PUBG Mobile, Candy Crush Saga, Roblox and others.

App Annie notes that the pandemic also accelerated the mobile gaming market, with game downloads outpacing overall downloads by 2.5x in 2020. It predicts that mobile gaming will reach  $120 billion in consumer spending this year, or 1.5x all other gaming formats combined.

Google’s Area 120 launches Stack, an app that digitizes personal docs and extracts key information

By Sarah Perez

Google’s in-house incubator, Area 120, is today releasing its latest project called Stack, an app that will help you digitize your documents, receipts and other papers you have lying around the house, and then automatically save them to Google Drive. The app will also helpfully suggest a name for your scans and the right category — or “stack,” as it’s called.

At launch, Stack can handle scanning a range of differently sized documents — like bills, shopping receipts or even IDs — which are then turned into PDFs and organized, while important information from within the file is detailed using AI technology.

The idea for Stack comes from Christopher Pedregal, who previously co-founded the edtech startup Socratic, which was acquired by Google back in 2018. 

Pedregal notes that, at Socratic, they had taken advantage of Google’s computer vision and language understanding technologies to make learning easier for high school students. While at Google, he began to think about how those same technologies could be put to work for better organizing documents. To experiment with the idea, he teamed up with Matthew Cowan. The two first worked together on DocAI, a team in Google Cloud that was developing AI technology that could analyze billions of documents.

They realized that they could also apply DocAI’s enterprise technology to users’ personal documents, which led to the creation of Stack.

With the Stack app, initially available for Android, users can take a photo of a document and the app will automatically name it and “stack” it into the correct category — like Bills, Banking, House, IDs, Immigration, Insurance, Legal, Medical, Pet, Receipts, Tax, Travel, Vehicles and Work.

Users can add multiple pages when scanning a document, and Stack will OCR all the pages in a document, so that the full text of the document is searchable. Users can also star their most important scans for quicker access.

While the ability to quickly digitize documents by photographing them isn’t new — Microsoft has offered Office Lens for years, for example —  Stack will also be able to identify key information from within the documents, like the “due date” on a bill, the “total amount due” or “account number.” It can then pull that info out to make it easier to find later on.

The app additionally allows users to search through the full text of the documents, not just the title, to find information they need. To keep the items protected, Stack’s documents can be secured by either your fingerprint or face scan, similar to how Google Drive works today. And Drive users can have all their scans automatically synced over to Google Drive.

Google says the app is currently available on Android, as a free download with no in-app purchases. Based on user feedback, Google will decide whether to bring Stack to more platforms, like iOS.

Google promises better 3D maps

By Frederic Lardinois

Google is announcing a handful of major updates to Google Maps today that range from bringing its Live View AR directions indoors to adding weather data to its maps, but the most tantalizing news — which in typical Google fashion doesn’t have an ETA just yet — is that Google plans to bring a vastly improved 3D layer to Google maps.

Using photogrammetry, the same technology that also allows Microsoft’s Flight Simulator to render large swaths of the world in detail, Google is also building a model of the world for its Maps service.

“We’re going to continue to improve that technology that helps us fuse together the billions of aerials, StreetView and satellite images that we have to really help us move from that flat 2D map to a more accurate 3D model than we’ve ever had. And be able to do that more quickly. And to bring more detail to it than we’ve ever been able to do before,” Dane Glasgow, Google’s VP for Geo Product Experience, said in a press event ahead of today’s announcement. He noted that this 3D layer will allow the company to visualize all its data in new and interesting ways.

Image Credits: Google

How exactly this will play out in reality remains to be seen, but Glasgow showed off a new 3D route preview, for example, with all of the typically mapping data overlayed on top of the 3D map.

Glasgow also noted that this technology will allow Google to parse out small features like stoplights and building addresses, which in turn will result in better directions.

“We also think that the 3D imagery will allow us to visualize a lot of new information and data overlaid on top, you know, everything from helpful information like traffic or accidents, transit delays, crowdedness — there’s lots of potential here to bring new information,” he explained.

Image Credits: Google

As for the more immediate future, Google announced a handful of new features today that are all going to roll out in the coming months. Indoor Live View is the flashiest of these. Google’s existing AR Live View walking directions currently only work outdoors, but thanks to some advances in its technology to recognize where exactly you are (even without a good GPS signal), the company is now able to bring this indoors. This feature is already live in some malls in the U.S. in Chicago, Long Island, Los Angeles, Newark, San Francisco, San Jose, and Seattle, but in the coming months, it’ll come to select airports, malls and transit stations in Tokyo and Zurich as well (just in time for vaccines to arrive and travel to — maybe — rebound). Because Google is able to locate you by comparing the images around you to its database, it can also tell what floor you are on and hence guide you to your gate at the Zurich airport, for example (though in my experience, there are few places with better signage than airports…).

Also new are layers for weather data (but not weather radar) and air quality in Google Maps. The weather layer will be available globally on Android and iOS in the coming months, with the air quality layer only launching for Australia, India and the U.S. at first.

Image Credits: Google

Talking about air quality, Google Maps will also get a new eco-friendly routing option that lets you pick the driving route that produces the least CO2 (coming to Android and iOS later this year), and it will finally feature support for low emission zones, a feature of many a European City. Low emission zones on Google Maps will launch in June in Germany, France, Spain and the UK on Android and iOS. More countries will follow later.

And to bring this all together, Google will update its directions interface to show you all of the possible modes of transportations and routing options, prioritized based on your own preferences, as well as based on what’s popular in the city you are in (think he subway in NYC or bike-sharing in Portland).

Also new are more integrated options for curbside grocery pickups in partnership with Instacart and Albertsons, if that’s your thing.

And there you have it. As is so often the case with Google’s announcement, the most exciting new features the company showed off don’t have an ETA and may never launch, but until then you can hold yourself over by getting your weather forecasts on Google Maps.

Clubhouse says its Android launch will take ‘a couple of months’

By Sarah Perez

Social audio app Clubhouse has now promised a time frame of sorts for the launch of its anticipated Android version, following its recent hire of an Android software developer last month. In its weekly Townhall event on Sunday, Clubhouse co-founder Paul Davison remarked that the company was working “really hard” to come to Android, but said it’s going to take a “couple of months” to make that happen. That seems to indicate a time frame that’s closer to late spring or summer 2021.

Clubhouse had previously said in a late January blog post that it would begin work on its Android version “soon,” but had not yet promised any sort of time frame as to when it would be able to bring that version to the public. Instead, most of its statements about Android have been vague mentions of the importance of supporting the Android user base and making its app more accessible to a wider audience.

In the meantime, Clubhouse’s biggest rival, Twitter Spaces, has been taking advantage of Clubhouse’s delay to address the sizable Android user base by rapidly rolling out support to more people across platforms. This month, for example, Twitter Spaces opened up to Android users, allowing anyone on Android to join and talk inside its live audio rooms. Shortly thereafter, Twitter said that it plans to publicly launch Twitter Spaces to the general public in April. That would be well ahead of Clubhouse, unless the latter rapidly speeds up development and drops its invite-only status in the weeks ahead.

During Sunday’s Clubhouse Townhall, co-founder Davison explained the company’s approach to scaling to a larger market — like one where Android users participate — as an effort that requires a slower pace, when it comes to opening up access to more users. He noted that when Clubhouse grows, the discovery experience inside the app can be negatively impacted as a result. Users today are seeing more foreign language groups in their feeds, for instance, and are having a harder time finding friends and some of the best content, he said.

To address these challenges, Clubhouse plans to make several changes, including tweaks to the app’s Activity feed, tools to give users more control over their push notifications, and the launch of more personalization features — like showing users a personalized list of suggested rooms that appear on screen when you first open the app. These sorts of improvements are necessary to make Clubhouse succeed even as it scales its app to a larger user base, the company believes.

That said, Davison also spoke of dropping Clubhouse’s invite-only status as something it hopes to do “in the coming months.” He noted that he wants the app to open up to everyone, because there are “so many incredible creators not yet on Clubhouse, who have an audience elsewhere.”

“It’s going to be really important that we just open up to everyone,” Davison said. “Android’s going to be really important. Localization is obviously going to be very important.” Plus, making Clubhouse more accessible was important, too, he said.

The lack of an Android version of Clubhouse has already caused some complications for the company.

A number of Android app developers have taken advantage of the hole left in the market to hawk their “Clubhouse guides,” which intentionally aim to confuse Android users looking for Clubhouse by using the same app icon. (Google apparently doesn’t bother to weed out low-value and/or infringing content like this from the Play Store.)

"clubhouse" on android pic.twitter.com/uFtilOislC

— Sarah Perez (@sarahintampa) March 2, 2021

More recently, cybercriminals have gotten in on the action, too. They’ve created fake versions of Clubhouse that even pointed to a well-executed copy of the Clubhouse website in order to trick users into downloading their malicious app. One of these apps has been found to be spreading BlackRock malware, which steals users’ login credentials for over 450 services, including Facebook, Twitter and Amazon.

Davison addressed this issue during the Townhall, warning users that if they see anyone trying to impersonate Clubhouse on Android, not to use that app because “it could be harmful.”

“It is certainly not the real Clubhouse. Same thing with PC. There’s no PC app for Clubhouse,” he said, adding that a desktop version of Clubhouse is not a high priority for the company.

The company made a number of other announcements, as well, the most notable being its plans for more creator tools. These will be focused on helping creators grow their own audiences for their shows, and even monetize their events, if they choose, through things like direct payments, subscriptions, brand sponsorships, and even “paid events.” Clubhouse will also offer tools for managing memberships and tracking metrics around listeners and retention, but overall, details were light on what specific tools would be available or when they would roll out.

Clubhouse hasn’t responded to a request for further comment on the statements made during its Townhall event.

Next Billion Users head Caesar Sengupta is leaving Google

By Manish Singh

Caesar Sengupta, the long-time head of Google’s Next Billion Users initiative, is leaving the company next month, he said Monday. Sengupta, who additionally also led the company’s payments business in the past three years, is leaving the firm after nearly 15 years.

A regular fixture at Google’s events in India, Brazil, and Indonesia, Sengupta (pictured above) is best known outside the company for leading the company’s Next Billion Users unit, an initiative to make internet and services more accessible to users in developing markets.

As part of Next Billion Users initiative, Google brought internet connectivity to hundreds of railway stations and other public places in India and other markets (then shut down Station), launch Google Pay in India and build several products such as Android Go, Datally, Kormo Jobs and the Files apps that were aimed at users in developing markets.

One of Google's most prominent Asia-based execs is leaving the company https://t.co/2G2ABxG4yI

— Jon Russell (@jonrussell) March 22, 2021

“To the many, many Googlers working in Africa, APAC, LATAM and MENA, it has been inspiring to hear your voices take more weight in the products Google builds. I know there is so much more work to do,” Sengupta wrote in an email to his colleagues, which he also shared publicly.

“But we are light years ahead of where we were just a short time ago. You’ve helped digitize your economies, made Google feel local and driven Google’s investment into your countries to unprecedented levels.”

Under Sengupta’s watch, Google also made several investments in startups in Asia. Some of these investments include delivery startup Dunzo, Android lockscreen developer Glance, and popular news and entertainment app Dailyhunt.

Google didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

More to follow…

Google’s Family Link updates reflect the pandemic’s impact on how parents view screen time

By Sarah Perez

Google is making changes to its parental control system, Family Link, that aims to better reflect parents’ changing views on children’s screen time. In the pre-pandemic world, parents were more likely to see screen time as something in need of restriction — they’d rather their kids get offline or go outside to play with friends, perhaps. But the challenges of a locked-down world and the push towards virtual learning have impacted parents’ views. Google says today’s parents are more concerned about how kids are spending time on their devices, not how much time is being spent.

It’s a concession to a world where devices have become a savior of sorts to families who’ve stayed at home to avoid Covid — where they’ve been restricted from seeing extended family and friends, and where schools are closed and playdates and parties were cancelled. Parents came to realize that screen time in and of itself isn’t necessarily something to be avoided; they just wanted more control over how it’s used.

With the Family Link update, parents can now choose to make remote learning apps “always allowed,” so they don’t count toward overall screen time daily limits. This could include not only those apps that are used to attend school or communicate with teachers, but others that have popped up to help kids learn and be entertained, like the supplemental resources the school suggests — or the apps parents allow during break times from virtual class.

Parents will also now have access to more detailed daily, weekly and monthly activity reports that provide both an overview of how the child is spending their time in apps, as well as how screen time usage has changed over a week or month, and what portion of time was spent in the “always allowed” apps. This gives parents a better idea of what screen time was used for education versus play.

On Android, Family Link users will also be able to browse through a selection of teacher-recommended apps from the Google Play catalog for kids under 13 in the U.S. And parents can also now set screen time limits directly from the child’s device on Android.

Image Credits: Google

Though these updates will remain useful in a post-pandemic world where parents hold a more nuanced view of screen time, it’s unfortunate that Google waited until so late in the pandemic to roll these changes out. As more people in the U.S. are being vaccinated, restrictions are lifting — including the re-opening of schools in many places. That means parents’ stress over kids’ increased screen time usage will soon become a moot point. The devices will be replaced with in-person learning, and screen time may become villainized yet again.

Related to today’s news, Google has launched a new website for families whose kids are beginning to use technology at families.google. The company also launched a new content series with meditation app Headspace that will help families with kids practice mindfulness together. Again, that’s a resource that was desperately needed in 2020 during the pandemic’s heights, more so than it is today as the world begins reopening.

Still, the pandemic has forced families to think more about screen time and what sort of on-device experiences they want their children to have. As a result of this increased scrutiny, social apps like TikTok and Instagramthe latter just today, in fact — have rolled out more family-friendly safety features, aimed at encouraging parents to see their apps in a better light, rather than being the first to go when screen time gets locked down. It has also encouraged new hybrid learning and education startups to launch, hoping to build out a new category of edutainment apps that can avoid screen time lockdowns.

This Week in Apps: Parler denied App Store re-entry, Walmart doubles down on TikTok live shopping, Instagram Lite rolls out worldwide

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

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

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

This week, we’re taking a look at some of the buzzier stories from the world of apps, including the latest around Parler’s attempted return to the App Store, a review of Walmart’s second livestream shopping event, and Instagram Lite’s global rollout. We also have new Clubhouse data on its total installs and its global footprint and info about Disney’s new service that could replace your MagicBand, among other things.

Top Stories

✨ Parler tries and fails to re-enter App Store

The right-wing social app was booted from the App Store, Google Play and Amazon AWS following the U.S. Capitol riot, for violations of community guidelines. Apple had specifically asked Parler to change its moderation policies, which had been fairly hands-off prior to its removal from the App Store. Though Apple has a number of rules about what apps can and cannot do, Parler’s own policies were guided by the First Amendment’s approach to free speech — basically, users could say almost anything without consequence.

According to documents obtained by Bloomberg, Parler again tried to gain entry into the App Store after the original ban, and was again denied. Following the new review, Apple reportedly told Parler’s chief policy officer on Feb. 25, there was no place for “hateful, racist, discriminatory content” on the App Store. The review had also included several offensive images, including profile pictures with swastikas and other white nationalist imagery, as well as misogynistic, homophobic and racist usernames and posts.

Parler last month had said negotiations with Apple were underway, and it expected to get back in the App Store. But with this new rejection, Parler cut its three remaining iOS developers from its team, out of a total of seven who were let go, Bloomberg reported.

The controversy around Parler is reflective of a larger conversation underway in the U.S. over tech’s responsibility to moderate the content on its platforms, as users’ posts and comments are increasingly leading to real-world violence. The U.S. government has not yet regulated these platforms, leaving decisions like this up to tech itself. Parler, in a statement, said it had added filters and human review to address threats of violence, as well as optional tools that let users filter and block certain kinds of hate speech. But this didn’t go far enough to address Apple’s claims about hate symbols and offensive speech still present on the network.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

Apple released important security patches across all platforms. The patches fix a vulnerability — a memory corruption bug in WebKit, the engine that powers Apple’s Safari browser. An attacker can exploit the vulnerability via a malicious web page.

E-commerce

Image Credits: Walmart

✨ Walmart again teamed up with TikTok to host a new livestream shopping event on Thursday night. The event, co-hosted by Gabby Morrison and Nabela Noor, focused on beauty products, offering demos and tutorials where viewers could buy the products through an integrated shopping cart. The content itself was engaging, feeling very much like the makeup tutorials and “get ready with me” vlogs users already watch across social media platforms. Gabby, who demoed all the products, was adept at balancing the more casual makeup try-on portions of the live event with the QVC-like call-to-action to actually buy the item being shown.

At times, there were as many as 8,000+ concurrent viewers participating in the live event, we noticed during our viewing. (We joined about 20 mins. after its start). During the event, we saw high engagement in the stream’s comments, including a number of positive comments — like jokes from users who lamented they were buying everything, shout-outs from those who just added an item to their cart, or compliments directed at the hosts. But there were also some trolling remarks that should have violated TikTok’s guidelines over cyberbullying, which were not moderated out — an issue TikTok will need to address as these events grow larger and more common.

Image Credits: screenshot of Walmart’s account on TikTok

Walmart last year had run an apparel-focused live shopping holiday event — the first pilot of TikTok’s live shopping feature in the U.S. The retailer has not commented on sales from its first event, but says they hit Walmart’s projections. Walmart also said the event drove a 25% increase in TikTok follower growth, and 7x more views than anticipated.

Social

Facebook is targeting emerging markets with launch of Instagram Lite, a lightweight Android version of the app that takes up just 2MB of space. The app was made available across 170 countries this week, offering the ability to view and share photos and videos, Stories, IGTV, discover content through Explore, and more. However, the app lacks the ability to film Reels — Instagram’s TikTok rival — users can only view them.

Image Credits: Facebook

The app is not Facebook’s first attempt to develop a lightweight version of Instagram. The company previously released an Progressive Web App, which was pulled in 2020. A new app was then launched in December in India in a limited test, ahead of this broader release.

✨ Clubhouse has now reached 12 million worldwide downloads, an increase of 600K since March 1, according to new data from App Annie. The largest market for the app is still the U.S. which accounts for 3.1 million downloads. But the app has a strong global footprint, with 1.8m downloads in Japan, 710K in Germany, 600K in Brazil, 505K in Russia, 420K in Italy, 375K in the U.K., 370K in South Korea, 350K in Turkey, and 107K in France, the firm said. Clubhouse was said to have 8 million global downloads just in February, so this is notable growth.

Facebook expands creator monetization options with the addition of ads for short-form video content — including videos as short as 1 minute, instead of previous minimum of 3 minutes. Those ads will now play 30 seconds after the start of a shorter video. It also opened its in-stream ads program for Live videos out of invite-only mode. The move could encourage creators to make content for Facebook instead of rival platforms like TikTok, by wooing them with more money-making opportunities.

TikTok rolled out new commenting features aimed at preventing bullying. Creators will now be able to control which comments can be posted on their content, before those comments go live. Another new addition, aimed at users who are commenting, will pop up a box that prompts the user to reconsider posting a comment that may be inappropriate or unkind.

Image Credits: TikTok

Pakistan again bans TikTok over “immoral and objectionable” videos. The app, which has around 33 million users in the country, was blocked by the Pakistan Telecom Authority after Peshawar High Court’s Chief Justice Qaiser Rashid Khan said some TikTok videos were “unacceptable for Pakistani society,” and were “peddling vulgarity.”

A new app called Limit App is offering an Instagram-like service but only for those ages 18 to 25. Reviewed by Geekwire, the app’s creator said it’s not about ageism, but rather about giving young people a place to be themselves. The app uses a secure ID and age verification process to onboard users and, when they turn 26, they’re giving 30 days to download their content before being booted out. Begone, boomers.

Pinterest saw over 193M downloads worldwide in 2020, according to App Annie — a 50% YoY increase, driven by consumers using the platform for product discovery, design ideas, and shopping.

Instagram can now automatically add captions to Stories for better accessibility. Captions are already a commonly used feature on Instagram rival, TikTok, not only for accessibility but also because many people now prefer to have captions on when watching video content.

Facebook tests a feature in India that will share Instagram Reels on the Facebook News Feed. The move is an indication of how seriously Facebook is taking the TikTok threat — it’s now leveraging not just one, but two of the world’s largest social networks to fight back.

TikTok in the U.K. launched a new “music hub” that highlights trending artists and tracks. The company has already been driving music streams and sales through the social app, and the hub will now offer a dedicated section to keep up with what’s currently trending.

Twitter’s head of consumer product, Kayvon Beykpour, defended Apple’s App Store commission rates in recent interview. The exec said the commission isn’t a “highway tax,” but reflects the cost and effort that goes into accepting online payments, including issues with fraud and risk, and the customer service flow around refunds.

India’s government threatened to jail Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter employees if they don’t comply with data and takedown requests related to the protests by Indian farmers over agricultural law changes.

Photos

Image Credits: Twitter

Twitter began a test to make photos look better on its platform. The company is trying out a new way to display images which offer sa more accurate preview of what the photo looks like, instead of automatically cropping the image as before. The change, in part, is also meant to address issues around the baked-in racial bias in Twitter’s algorithm that decided which part of the image to focus on when cropping.

Messaging and Communications

Google will link Android phones with Chromebooks through a new Phone Hub feature, allowing Chrome OS users to respond to texts, check their battery life, enable a Wi-Fi hotspot and locate a misplaced device, among other things.

Dating Apps

✨ Bumble launched “Night In,” a new feature in the U.S. and Canada that lets online daters play games together from the app. At launch, users can play trivia games but the company says it plans more virtual experiences in the future. The timing of the launch is interesting — it comes a year into the pandemic which has forced people to stay home and social distance. But as “Night In” arrives, vaccinations are ramping up and, likely, so will real-world, in-person dating. That Bumble still invested in virtual dating experiences indicates the company sees the feature as something with longer-term potential, rather than a temporary stand-in for that first drink or coffee date.

Bumble also filed its first quarterly report since its Feb. 2021 IPO, topping Wall St. estimates with $165.6 million in revenue and 2.7 million paid users (up 32.5% YoY) in the fourth quarter.

Streaming & Entertainment

Amazon adds a merch store to its streaming music app. The company’s Amazon Music app is now offering in-app product sales from Billie Eilish, Selena Gomez, and other artists via a Merchbar integration. (Just wait until it actually remembers it has a whole retail website it could connect.)

YES Network debuts an app that will live stream New York Yankees, Brooklyn Nets, NYFC, and New York Liberty games via a TV Everywhere integration. This is the first live streaming app from the network. Sure, we need another one.

Apple Podcasts is replacing the “subscribe” button with a “follow” button for keeping up with favorite podcasts. The change, first reported by Podnews, came about because people increasingly think of subscribe as referring to a paid option. I’m sure they didn’t get that idea from…THE APP STORE.

Spotify this week updated its app with support for 36 new languages, as promised during last month’s “Stream On” event, including: Afrikaans, Amharic, Azerbaijani, Bengali, Bhojpuri, Bulgarian, Simplified Chinese, Croatian, Danish, Estonian, Filipino, Gujarati, Hindi, Icelandic, Kannada, Latvian, Lithuanian, Malayalam, Marathi, Nepali, Norwegian, Odia, Persian, Portuguese for Portugal, Eastern Punjabi, Western Punjabi, Romanian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian, Swahili, Tamil, Telugu, Ukrainian, Urdu, and Zulu. The app is now available in 62 languages in total, and is expanding to over 80 global markets.

New streaming service Paramount+ saw its app downloaded 277K+ times in the first 5 days, reports Apptopia. The app launched similarly to how HBO Max did — it took an existing app and transitioned it to a new one. In its case, the CBS All Access app transitioned to Paramount+. This impacts the number of early downloads, as many users are just upgraded. Thanks to a pre-launch sale, the app also saw $86.7K in IAP revenue on March 2, the highest single-day revenue to date.

Image Credits: Apptopia

Gaming

✨ Epic Games takes its app store legal fight to Australia with a new anti-competitive claim against Google, over the 30% commissions on in-app purchases. The company is fighting Apple and Google in many markets now, including the U.S., E.U., and U.K.

The average size of the U.S. App Store’s top games has grown 76% in the past 5 years, says Sensor Tower. The average game file size in 2016 was approximately 264 megabytes across the top 100 revenue generating games on the U.S. App Store. This has grown to 465 MB in 2020. Top games driving the file size growth include DoubleDown, Fortnite, Clash of Clans, Roblox and Homescapes.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Food & Drink

Data from App Annie indicates app sessions in food and drink apps grew 105% YoY in 2020, as the pandemic led to a surge of adoption for food delivery apps. Deliveroo in particular had a standout year in 2020, as the No. 2 “breakout” food & drink app in France and No. 3 in the U.K. — a metric App Annie uses to track growth in total sessions. App sessions grew from their lowest point of 1.81 billion on March 22, 2020 to 3.02 billion by the end of Dec. 2020, the firm said.

Digital Passes

✨ Disney is bringing the service that powers its existing MagicBands to Apple devices with the launch of Disney MagicMobile. The service, which will launch in phases starting later this year, will allow guests to create a mobile pass using the My Disney Experience app, then add it to their smart device’s digital wallet. Users can then hold up their smart device, including their Apple iPhone or Watch, to check into rides at the access points.

Image Credits: Disney

This doesn’t necessarily mean the end for MagicBands, though. The bands still make sense for kids without devices or for anyone who doesn’t want to worry about pulling out their phone for every ride (or who doesn’t own an Apple Watch). Plus, some Disney fans like collecting MagicBands in new styles. Disney said it will soon release a new set with favorite characters.

Fintech

India’s Paytm will turn Android phones into POS terminals by introducing a card acceptance feature in the NFC-enabled Paytm Business app. Once activated, merchants will be able to process transactions by tapping a payment card to their smartphone.

The new Google Pay app exited beta this week, to replace the older version that will close down on April 5 in the U.S. The updated version include NFC tap-to-pay functionality and p2p payments, but an Ars Technica review slams the app as being less convenient and laden with more fees, among other things.

Chinese beauty app Meitu bought $40 million worth of cryptocurrency, including 15,000 units of Ether and 379.1214267 units of Bitcoin — worth around $22.1 million and $17.9 million, respectively. Meitu chairman Cai Wensheng has been bullish on cryptocurrency and believes in diversifying beyond holding just cash.

Security & Privacy

Apple must face a consumer lawsuit over FaceTime and iMessage privacy in court, not through private arbitration. The case, Ohanian v Apple Inc. focuses on an iOS bug coupled with T-Mobile’s approach to recycling phone numbers that gave third-parties access to users’ communications, despite Apple’s marketing of iMessage and FaceTime as secure features.

Apple is also now facing a privacy complaint in Europe from startup lobby group, France Digitale. The complaint focuses on the IDFA changes, which will required third-party apps to have to ask to track users, while Apple’s own apps are able to track user activity and run personalized ads by default without a similar opt-in pop-up, giving it an unfair advantage.

Funding and M&A

💰 Social networking app Wefarm, aimed at independent farmers in Africa, raised $11 million in an extension of its 2019 Series A  led by Octopus Ventures. The London-based company now has 2.5 million users and has hosted over 37 million conversations via SMS.

📈 Gaming platform Roblox made its stock market debut on Wednesday under the ticker symbol RBLX. The stock closed the day at $69.50 per share, giving the business a market cap of $38.26 billion. The cross-platform gaming service works across a range of devices, including mobile.

💰 Chatbot startup Heyday raised $5.1 million from existing investors Innovobot and Desjardins Capital for its system that lets businesses respond to customers’ messages across apps like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Google Business Messages or even email.

💰 Songclip raised $11 million in new funding to bring music to more social media apps. The company is working to popularize the short audio clip media format, and make it accessible across a range of services.

🤝 Real estate software and data firm VTS acquired Chicago-based Rise Buildings, the makers of a property tech mobile app used in over 130 million sq ft of office space.

💰 Japan’s SoftBank Group announced this week it will invest $4.7 billion into Tokyo-based messaging app Line, owned by Naver. The investment aims to help develop Line into a “super app,” similar to China’s WeChat, by integrating online news and entertainment from Yahoo Japan (which it owns) as well as financial services from SoftBanks’s mobile payments app PayPay, and more.

🤝 Mobile payments service PayPal to acquire cryptocurrency security startup Curv in a deal valued at less than $200 million. PayPal has recently partnered with Paxos to allow U.S. users to buy, hold and sell cryptocurrencies in its app.

🤝 TikTok competitor Triller bought livestream music competition Verzuz, created by Timbaland and Swizz Beatz. To date, the competition has hosted 43 artists including RZA, Nelly, Ludacris, 2 Chainz, DMX, and Gucci Mane. The program will continue to air on IG Live in addition to now, Triller.

💰 Detail raised $2 million in pre-seed funding led by Connect Ventures for its app that that will turn your iPhone into a software-optimized camera for live video.

💰 Krafton, the developer of PUBG Mobile, invested $22.4 million into the Indian esports firm Nodwin Gaming, a subsidiary of gaming giant Nazara and one of the largest esports firms in India.

💰 Eco, a startup building a personal finance app for saving and spending money, raised $26 million led by a16z Crypto. Uber co-founder Garrett Camp came up with the idea and now advises Eco as a board member. His startup studio, Expa, is also an investor, Fortune reported.

Runway gets YC backing for its service aimed at streamlining mobile app releases. The app was built by the first iOS team for Rent the Runway, and focuses on automating many common pain points that can stop an app release’s progress.

Downloads

Fer.al

Image Credits: WildWorks

A new game, Fer.al, has entered the market to compete for Gen Z’s time and attention which is currently spent in virtual worlds like Roblox, Minecraft and Fortnite. The game was developed by WildWorks, the makers of what’s often kids’ first virtual world game, Animal Jam. It also continues the animal-as-avatar metaphor, but this time with fantasy creatures you customize yourself, and a storyline about a animal-themed reality show, dueling queens, factions, and adventures. The game is available across platforms including Mac, PC, iOS and Android.

Wombo

Last week, “deep nostalgia” was going viral as people animated their long-lost relatives or even closer family members using apps like MyHeritage or TokkingHeads. But this week, everyone’s trying out Wombo — an AI-powered deepfake app that can animate any face to lip sync to songs like “Thriller” or “I Will Survive,”  as well as many meme songs, like “Never Gonna Give You Up” or “Numa Numa.” The results are…ugh, cringe. But the attention sent a surge of downloads to the app, moving it up to (as of the time of writing) No. 30 Overall on the App Store. Since its Feb. 2020 launch, the app has been downloaded 2M+ times across iOS and Android.

Thread
Cringe FF7 WOMBO AI Videos pic.twitter.com/p0Wq9RdhCv

— ⨂Kane⨂ (@KaneDeLimbo) March 10, 2021

This WOMBO AI is crazy lol pic.twitter.com/A7aVT4ISBN

— heyben10 (@HeyBen10_) March 10, 2021

Apple TV+ arrives on Google TV devices, starting with Chromecast

By Sarah Perez

Google announced today the Apple TV+ streaming service has now arrived on the Google TV platform, starting with Chromecast with Google TV. It will also become available on Google TVs from both Sony and TCL, with expansions to other Android TV-powered devices in the months to come, Google says.

Google TV was first introduced last September as the new way Google will refer to its interface for Chromecast, where it combines streaming services, live TV via YouTube TV, and other Google offerings into one user interface — making it more competitive with similar offerings from Apple and Amazon. Today, the platform supports a wide range of top streaming services, like Disney+, Netflix, HBO Max, Peacock, Prime Video, CBS All Access, Hulu, Soing, and others, including, of course, YouTube.

With the added support for Apple TV+, users who already have subscriptions will be able to tune into its original programming, which includes movies, documentaries and series like “Ted Lasso,” “For All Mankind,” “Servant,” “The Morning Show,” “Dickinson,” and others. The app also provides access to the user’s library of movies and shows purchased from Apple, recommendations, and supports Family Sharing. The latter allows up to 6 family members to share a subscription to Apple TV+ and Apple TV channels.

Following the app’s launch on Google TV, users in the U.S. will be able to browse Apple’s Originals in Google TV’s personalized recommendations and surface its content in search results. Users can also ask Google Assistant to open the Apple TV app or they can request an Apple Original title by name. And they’ll be able to add Apple TV+ programming to the Google TV Watchlist. Google says these features will arrive in the “coming months,” however, instead of at launch.

The launch makes Google TV one of the last of the major streaming device platforms to support Apple’s streaming service, which is otherwise broadly available.

Apple TV+ had debuted in November 2019 for Apple customers, and later rolled out to non-Apple platforms including, that same year, Roku devices and Amazon’s Fire TV platform. Today, it’s also now available across a variety of smart TVs by Samsung, LG, Vizio, and Sony; gaming consoles including PlayStation (PS4 & PS5) and Xbox (One, Series X, Series S): and via the web.

 

Google launches the first developer preview of Android 12

By Frederic Lardinois

Almost exactly a year after Google announced the first developer preview of Android 11, the company today released the first developer preview of Android 12. Google delayed the roll-out of Android 11 a bit as the teams and the company’s partners adjusted to working during a pandemic, but it looks like that didn’t stop it from keeping Android 12 on schedule. As you would expect from an early developer preview, most of the changes here are under the hood and there’s no over-the-air update yet for intrepid non-developers who want to give it a spin.

Image Credits: Google

Among the highlights of the release so far — and it’s important to note that Google tends to add more user-facing changes and UI updates throughout the preview cycle — are the ability to transcode media into higher quality formates like the AV1 image format, faster and more responsive notifications and a new feature for developers that now makes individual changes in the platform togglable so they can more easily test the compatibility of their apps. Google also promises that just like with Android 11, it’ll add a Platform Stability milestone to Android 12 to give developers advance notice when final app-facing changes will occur in the development cycle of the operating system. Last year, the team hit that milestone in July when it launched its second beta release.

“With each version, we’re working to make the OS smarter, easier to use, and better performing, with privacy and security at the core,” writes Google VP of Engineering Dave Burke. “In Android 12 we’re also working to give you new tools for building great experiences for users. Starting with things like compatible media transcoding, which helps your app to work with the latest video formats if you don’t already support them, and easier copy/paste of rich content into your apps, like images and videos. We’re also adding privacy protections, refreshing the UI, and optimizing performance to keep your apps responsive.”

Image comparison from AVIF has landed by Jake Archibald

Obviously, there are dozens of developer-facing updates in Android 12. Let’s look at some in detail.

For the WebView in Android 12, Google will now implement the same SameSite cookie behavior as in Chrome, for example. Last year, the company slowed down the roll-out of this change, which makes it harder for advertisers to track your activity across sites,  in Chrome, simply because it was breaking too many sites. Now, with this feature fully implemented in Chrome, the Android team clearly feels like it, too, can implement the same privacy tools in WebView, which other apps use to display web content, too.

As for the encoding capabilities, Burke notes that, “with the prevalence of HEVC hardware encoders on mobile devices, camera apps are increasingly capturing in HEVC format, which offers significant improvements in quality and compression over older codecs.” He notes that most apps should support HEVC, but for those that can’t, Android 12 now offers a service for transcoding a file into AVC.

Image Credits: Google

In addition, Android 12 now also supports the AV1 Image File Format as a container for images and GIF-like image sequences. “Like other modern image formats, AVIF takes advantage of the intra-frame encoded content from video compression,” explains Burke. “This dramatically improves image quality for the same file size when compared to older image formats, such as JPEG.”

As with every Android release, Google also continues to tinker with the notification system. This time, the team promises a refreshed design to “make them more modern, easier to use, and more functional.” Burke calls out optimized transitions and animations and the ability for apps to decorate notifications with custom content. Google now also asks that developers implement a system that immediately takes users from a notification to the app, without an intermediary broadcast receiver or service, something it recommended before.

Android 12 will now also offer better support for multi-channel audio with up to 24 channels (a boon for music and other audio apps, no doubt), spatial audio, MPEG-H support, and haptic-coupled audio effects with the strength of the vibration and frequency based on the audio (a boon for games, no doubt). There’s also improved gesture navigation and plenty of other optimizations and minor changes across the operating system.

Google also continues to drive its Project Mainline forward, which allows for an increasing number of the core Android OS features to be updated through the Google Play system — and hence bypasses the slow update cycles of most hardware manufacturers. With Android 12, it is bringing the Android Runtime module into Mainline, which will then let Google push updates to the core runtime and libraries to devices. “We can improve runtime performance and correctness, manage memory more efficiently, and make Kotlin operations faster – all without requiring a full system update,” Burke says. “We’ve also expanded the functionality of existing modules – for example, we’re delivering our seamless transcoding feature inside an updatable module.”

You can find a more detailed list of all of the changes in Android 12 here.

Image Credits: Google

Developers who want to get started with bringing their apps to Android 12 can do so today by flashing a device image to a Pixel device. For now, Android 12 supports the Pixel 3/3 XL, Pixel 3a/3a XL, Pixel 4/4 XL, Pixel 4a/4a 5G and Pixel 5. You can also use the system image in the Android Emulator in Google’s Android Studio.

Google suspends Trump 2020 app from Play Store for non-functionality

By Sarah Perez

Google has suspended the Trump 2020 campaign app from the Google Play Store for policy violations, the company confirmed, following a report from Android Police which noted the app was unable to load any content and appeared to have been taken down. Both the Android version of the app and its iOS counterpart have been left online since the November 2020 elections, but hadn’t received recent updates — which likely contributed to the app’s stability issues.

The Play Store version hadn’t been updated since October. 30, 2020, for example, according to data from Sensor Tower.

According to Android Police’s report, the app was hanging and couldn’t load content, and it reported connectivity issues. We understand the issue was as they described — when users downloaded the app, it would either hang on the initial loading screen with a spinning “T” logo or it would immediately report a server error at startup. In either case, it would never load the app experience at all.

Recent user reviews on the Play Store noted these issues, saying things like “will not open,” “the app doesn’t even work,” “absolutely terrible doesn’t even work,” “wouldn’t open keep saying check connections,” and more. One user even asked the developer to respond to the numerous complaints, saying “please reply to people commenting. It’s not loading.” Another implied the issues were Google’s fault, noting “worked great, until Google canceled it.”

Google, though, did not cancel it. The Trump 2020 Android app has actually been experiencing problems for some time before Google took this action.

For example, a tweet from around a month ago described a similar set of issues:

Is the Trump2020 app down?@TrumpWarRoom @DanScavino @JennaEllisEsq @DonaldJTrumpJr @EricTrump pic.twitter.com/YGTJrZB66h

— TexanForTrump. God Bless Trump (@BlueWaterPalms) January 18, 2021

Google told with TechCrunch the app has not been banned from the Play Store, only suspended for its non-functionality. It can be reinstated if the problems are addressed. The company also said it attempted to reach out to the app’s developer before taking the app down, but never received a response.

“The Trump 2020 campaign app recently stopped working and we reached out to the developer multiple times in an attempt to get them to address the issue,” a Google spokesperson said. “People expect that apps downloaded from Google Play provide a minimum level of functionality and our policy is to remove non-working apps from the store if they are not fixed.”

Despite the issues on Android, we found the iOS version was still able to load upon first launch, and could send confirmation codes to a phone number at sign-up. But when you visited the app’s main screens, it also now presents an error message. This error doesn’t affect your ability to browse through the past content on iOS, however.

Image Credits: Trump 2020 screenshot on iOS

According to date from Sensor Tower, the Android version hadn’t seen any new installs since Feb. 7, 2021. The firm also noted the Trump 2020 Android app had around 840,000 installs compared with close to 1.5 million on iOS.

This is not the first time the Trump 2020 app’s issues have made headlines.

In the months leading up to last year’s presidential election in the U.S., a number of TikTok users decided to troll the app in its user reviews. (For some reason, Gen Z users believe a lowly-rated app will be automatically removed from the app stores. That’s not true.) Their efforts at the time were able to bring the app’s overall star rating down to just 1.2 stars, and eventually forced the Trump 2020 campaign to reset the app’s ratings.

Though the election is long over, users have still been leaving bad reviews on the app along with their 1-star ratings. Sometimes, the trolls even attempt a bit of humor in the process.

“App attempted a coup to overthrow my phone’s operating system,” said one Play Store reviewer. “I’ve suffered enough since 2016,” said another on iOS.

This Week in Apps: Bumble’s IPO, Google’s missing privacy labels, a developer crusades against scams

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

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

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

This week, we’re taking a look at the Bumble IPO, app store subscription revenue and talk to a developer on a crusade against the fake ratings plaguing the App Store. We’re also checking in on the missing Google privacy labels…with a spreadsheet of all 100 apps.

This Week in Apps will soon be a newsletter! Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters.

Top Stories

Bumble IPO

Bumble, the dating app positioned as one of Tinder’s biggest rivals, began trading on public markets on Thursday. The company priced its shares at $43, above its earlier target range of $37 to $39. But once live, BMBL began trading up nearly 77% at $76 per share on Nasdaq, closing the day with a market cap of $7.7 billion and the stock at $70.55.

The app itself was founded in 2014 by early Tinder exec Whitney Wolfe Herd, who now, at 31, is the youngest woman founder to take a U.S. company public and, thanks to the IPO, the world’s youngest self-made woman billionaire, as well, said Fortune.

"I want to thank the remarkable women who paved the way for @Bumble in the public markets."

📍 From Austin, TX, Bumble CEO & Founder @WhitWolfeHerd rings the @Nasdaq Opening Bell in celebration of #BumbleIPO. pic.twitter.com/LN4iJuBJqy

— Nasdaq (@Nasdaq) February 11, 2021

Wolfe Herd successfully leveraged her knowledge of the online dating market, then combined that with an understanding of how to position a dating app to make it more appealing to women.

On Bumble, women message first, for example, and the company often touts features and updates designed to protect women from bad actors. A lot of what Bumble does is just marketing and spin overlaid on the Tinder model. Like other dating apps, Bumble uses a similar format to connect potential matches: a swipeable “people catalog,” where users look at photos, primarily, to determine interest. Bumble, like others, also makes money by charging for extra features that give users a better shot or more efficient experience.

But all this works because users believe Bumble to be different. They believe Bumble is also capable of delivering higher-quality matches than Tinder, which has increasingly re-embraced its persona as a hook-up app.

The IPO’s success also sends a signal that investors are expecting in-person dating to rebound post-pandemic, and getting in early on the next big mass market dating app is an easy win.

Developer crusades against scammy subscription apps

Developer Kosta Eleftheriou, a Fleskly co-founder, has been on a crusade against the scammy and spammy apps overrunning the App Store, as well as Apple’s failure to do much about it.

Earlier this month, Kosta complained that copycat apps were undermining his current business, as the developer of an Apple Watch keyboard app, FlickType. Shady clones boosted by fake ratings and reviews promised the same features as his legit app, but then locked their customers into exorbitant subscriptions, earning the scammers hundreds of thousands per month.

In his eyes, the problem wasn’t just that clones existed, but that Apple’s lack of attention to fake reviews made those apps appear to be the better choice.

What Apple doesn’t want you to know about the App Store👇

“The apps you love, from a place you can trust” they tell you. But the reality is far from it.

A 4.5-star app? Might as well be a multi-million dollar scam.

How, you ask?

1/🧵

— Kosta Eleftheriou (@keleftheriou) February 12, 2021

Although Apple finally removed most of his fraudulent competitors after his rants gained press attention, he’s frustrated that the system was so broken in the first place.

This week, Kosta returned with another Twitter thread detailing the multimillion-dollar scams that pretend to be the best Roku remote control app. One app, “Roku Remote Control – Roki,” for example, had a 4.5 stars across 15K+ ratings. The app was a free download, but immediately tries to lock users into a $4.99/week subscription or a lifetime payment of $19.99. However, the app offers a “buggy, ad-infested, poorly designed” experience, Kosta says.

He then used AppFigures to see only those reviews of the Roki app that also had text. When displayed like this, it was revealed that “Roki” was really just a 1.7-star app, based on consumers who took the time to write a review.

What’s worse, Kosta has also argued, that even when Apple reacts by removing a bad actor’s app, it will sometimes allow the developer to continue to run other, even more profitable scams.

Kosta says he decided to spearhead a campaign about App Store scams to “get the word out about how all these scams manage to sustain themselves through a singular common flaw in the App Store — one that has been broken for years.”

He also notes that although Apple responded to him, he believes the company is hoping for the story to blow over.

Dear Director at Apple who emailed me:

I already know that many of the apps I’ve reported have been removed.

Please acknowledge there’s a fake ratings problem plaguing the App Store, so we can begin an honest conversation.

Perhaps someone more senior will *finally* say it?

🤨https://t.co/wZ0ziQhtrW

— Kosta Eleftheriou (@keleftheriou) February 11, 2021

“The way Apple tried to communicate with me also didn’t help ease my concern — they either don’t get it, or are actively trying to let the story fizzle out through some token gestures. But what they need to do first and foremost, is acknowledge the issue and protect their customers,” Kosta told TechCrunch.

One potential argument here is that because Apple financially benefits from successful subscription app scams, it’s not motivated to prioritize work that focuses on cleaning up the App Store or fake ratings and reviews. But Kosta believes Apple isn’t being intentionally malicious in an effort to grow the subscription business, it’s just that fake App Store reviews have become “a can that’s been perpetually kicked down the road.” Plus, since Apple touts the App Store as a place users can trust, it’s hard for them to admit fault on this front, he says.

Since the crusade began, Kosta has heard from others developers who have sent him examples “dozens and dozens of scams.”

“I will just keep exposing them until Apple acknowledges the problem,” he says.

Top subscription apps grew 34% to $13B in 2020

Apps saw record downloads and consumer spending in 2020, globally reaching somewhere around $111 billion to $112 billion, according to various estimates. But a growing part of that spend was subscription payments, a report from Sensor Tower indicates. Last year, global subscription app revenue from the top 100 subscription apps (excluding games), climbed 34% year-over-year to $13 billion, up from $9.7 billion in 2019.

The App Store, not surprisingly, accounted for a sizable chunk of this subscription revenue, given it has historically outpaced the Play Store on consumer spending. In 2020, the top 100 subscription apps worldwide generated $10.3 billion on the App Store, up 32% over 2019, compared with $2.7 billion on Google Play, which grew 42% from $1.9 billion in 2019. (Read more here.)

Google-Apple Privacy Label war drags on

Google said it would update its iOS apps with privacy labels weeks ago. While it did roll out some, it has yet to update top apps with Apple’s new labels, including key apps like the Google search app, Google Pay, Google Assistant, Google One, Google Meet, Google Photos, Google Calendar, Google Maps, Google News, Google Drive, Gmail and others. (Keep track of this with me here. Want to help? Email me.)

Overall, the majority of Google’s apps don’t have labels. While Google probably needed some time (and a lot of lawyers) to look this over, it’s now super late to put its labels out there. At this point, its iOS apps are out of date — which Google accidentally alerted users to earlier this week. This is awful optics for a company users already don’t trust, and a win for Apple as a result. (Which, of course, means we need to know for sure that Apple isn’t delaying Google’s submissions here…)

Still, Google had time to get this done. Its December code freeze is long over, and everyone else, for the most part, has gotten on board with the new labels. Why can’t Google?

Google's iOS apps release cycle before & after Apple asks to disclose privacy labels.

Thie pattern is probably just a coincidence. We all know "transparency forms the bedrock of [their] commitment to users"… pic.twitter.com/UgJjAhWfkm

— Thomasbcn (@Thomasbcn) February 2, 2021

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

Apple may soon allow users to set a different default music service. The company already opened up the ability to choose a different default browser and email app, but now a new feature in the iOS 14.5 beta indicates it may allow users to set another service, like Spotify, as the default option when asking Siri to play tunes. This, however, could be an integration with HomePod and Siri voice control support in mind, rather than something as universal as switching from Mail app to Gmail.

Apple Maps to gain Waze-like features for reporting accidents, hazards and speed traps. Another new feature in the iOS 14.5 beta will allow drivers to report road issues and incidents by using Siri on their iPhone or through Apple’s CarPlay. For example, during navigation, they’ll be able to tell Siri things like “there’s a crash up head,” “there’s something on the road,” or “there’s a speed trap here.”

Apple tests a new advertising slot on the App Store. Users of Apple’s new iOS 14.5 beta have reported seeing a new sponsored ad slot that appears on the Search tab of the App Store, under the “Suggested” heading (the screen that shows before you do a search). The ad slot is also labeled “Ad” and is a slightly color to differentiate it from the search results. It’s unclear at this time if Apple is planning to launch the ad slot or is just testing it.

The App Store announces price changes for Cameroon, Zimbabwe, Germany and the Republic of Korea.

Apple alerts developers to Push Notification service server certificate update, taking place on March 29, 2021.

Platforms: Google

Image Credits: XDA Developers

Alleged Android 12 screenshots snagged from an early draft document by XDA Developers show Google could be borrowing some ideas from Apple’s iOS for its next update. One feature may put colored dots in the status bar to indicate when the camera or microphone are being accessing, for example. Users may also be able to toggle off their camera, microphone or location access entirely. Google may also add a “conversations” widget to show recent messages, calls and activity statuses, among other things.

Google bans data broker Predicio that was selling user data collected from a Muslim prayer app to Venntel, a government contractor that sells location data from smartphones to ICE, CBP and the FBI, following a Motherboard investigation. Google alerted developers they had a week to remove the SDK from their apps or they’d be removed from Google Play.

Google updated its instructor-led curriculum for Android Development with Kotlin, a major update for the course materials that were first released in 2018. The new materials are designed for either in-person or virtual learning, where educators combine lectures and codelabs.

Google briefly notified users that their Google iOS apps were “out of date”an embarrassing mistake that was later corrected server-side. The bug arrived at a time when Google has yet to have updated its privacy labels for many of its largest apps, including Google, Gmail, Assistant, Maps, Photos and others.

Augmented Reality

Apple released a new iOS app, For All Mankind: Time Capsule, to promote its Apple TV+ series, “For All Mankind.” The app was built using Apple’s ARKit framework, offering a new narrative experience told in AR format featuring the show’s star. In the app, users join Danny as he examines keepsakes that connect to stories about impacting events in the lives of his parents, Gordo and Tracy Stevens, in the alternative world of the TV show.

E-commerce

✨ TikTok is expanding its e-commerce efforts. The company told marketers it’s planning a push into livestreamed e-commerce, and will also allow creators to share affiliate links to products, giving them a way to earn commissions from their videos. The company also recently announced a partnership with global ad agency WPP that will give WPP agencies and clients early access to TikTok ad products. It will also connect top creators with WPP for brand deals.

The Single Day Shopping festival drove high mobile usage. Consumers spent 2.3 billion hours in Android shopping apps during week of November 8-15, 2020, reports App Annie.

Social

CULVER CITY, CA - OCTOBER 13: General view of the TikTok headquarters on October 13, 2020 in Culver City, California. (Photo by AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)

Image Credits: AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

✨ TikTok’s sale of its U.S. operations to Oracle and Walmart is shelved. The Biden administration undertook a review of Trump’s efforts to address security risks from Chinese tech firms, including the forced sale of TikTok’s U.S. operations. The Trump administration claimed TikTok was a national security threat, and ordered TikTok owner ByteDance to divest its U.S. operations if it wanted to continue to operate in the country. Several large tech companies stepped up to the plate to take on the potential windfall. But Biden’s review of the agency action puts Trump’s plan on an indefinite pause. As a result, the U.S. government will delay its appeal of of federal district court judge’s December 2020 injunction against the TikTok ban. Discussions between U.S. national security officials and ByteDance are continuing, however.

✨ Facebook is said to be building its own Clubhouse rival. Mark Zuckerberg made a brief appearance on Clubhouse earlier this month, which now seems more like a reconnaissance mission, if The NYT’s report is true. Facebook will have to tread lightly, given its still under regulatory scrutiny for anticompetitive practices, which included cloning and acquiring its competition.

✨ Microsoft reportedly approached Pinterest about an acquisition of the $51 billion social media platform, but those talks are no longer active.

TikTok partnered with recipe app Whisk to add a way for users to save recipes featured in TikTok videos. The feature is currently in pilot testing with select creators.

Mark Cuban is co-founding a new podcast app, Fireside. The Shark Tank star and investor has teamed up with Falon Fatemi, who sold customer intelligence startup Node to SugarCRM last year. Fireside is basically Clubhouse, but adds the ability to export live conversations as podcasts.

TikTok expands its Universal Music Group deal just days after UMG pulled its song catalog from Triller, saying the app was withholding artist payments.

Indian firm ShareChat will integrate Snapchat’s Camera Kit technology into its Moj app to enable AR features. The move will give Snap a foothold in a key emerging market.

Instagram said it will impose stricter penalties against those who send abusive messages, including account bans, and develop new controls to reduce the abuse people see in their DMs. The announcement followed a recent bout of racist abuse targeted at footballers in the U.K. A joint statement from Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Manchester City condemned the abuse, saying “there is no room for racism, hate or any form of discrimination in our beautiful game.”

Instagram tells creators that it won’t promote their recycled TikToks. The company announced via its @creators account a set of best practices for Reels, noting that those featuring a watermark or logo (which TikTok smartly attaches to its content), won’t be recommended frequently on Instagram’s platform. Of course, TikTok creators are already circulating videos with tips about how to cut out the logo from TikTok videos by first exporting the video as a Live Photo, then going to their iOS Photos app, clicking on the Live Photo and choosing “Save as Video.” Problem solved.

Photos

Image Credits: Google

Google Photos for Android adds previously Pixel-only features — but only if users subscribe to Google One. The paywalled features include machine learning-powered editing tools like Portrait Blur, Portrait Light and Color Pop. There’s also a new video editor on iOS with an Android update planned. The editor now lets you crop, change perspective, add filters, apply granular edits (including brightness, contrast, saturation and warmth) and more.

Adobe adds collaboration and asynchronous editing to Photoshop, Illustrator and Fresco. The update will be supported across platforms, including desktop, iPad and iPhone.

Streaming and Entertainment

Waze adds Audible to its list of in-app audio players. The integration allows you to easily play your audiobooks while driving. Waze already supported in-app music integrations, like YouTube Music and Spotify, thanks to developer integrations with the Waze Audio Kit.

HBO Max is going international. The app will be expanded to 39 Latin American and Caribbean territories in June, replacing the existing HBO GO app.

Picture-in-picture mode returned to YouTube on iOS with the launch of the iOS 14.5 beta.

Messaging

Facebook Messenger added a new feature that makes it easier to block and mass-delete Message Requests from people you don’t know. It also said it’s working on new ways to report abuse and providing better feedback on the status of those reports.

The Biden administration pauses the Trump ban on WeChat. The administration asked a federal appeals court to place a hold on proceedings over the WeChat a day after it asked for a similar delay over the TikTok case, saying it needed time to review the previous administration’s efforts, which are now in the appeals stage.

Health & Fitness

NHS Covid-tracing app has prevented 600,000 infections in England and Wales, researchers estimated in one of the first studies of smartphone-based tracing. The app used the tracing system built by Apple and Google.

Fintech

The Robinhood backlash hasn’t stopped the downloads. Many users downrated the app after it halted meme stock trading earlier this month — a move that’s now under Congressional investigation and has prompted multiple lawsuits. But the app continues to receive downloads. The day after it halted trades was its second-largest by downloads ever, and downloads remained high in the days that followed. In January 2021, the app was installed 3.7 million times in the U.S., or 4x the installs of January 2020.

Government & Policy

Image credits: Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images

The Chinese government blocked Clubhouse, which had been rapidly gaining attention in the country. The app itself had only briefly been made available in Apple’s China App Store last fall, but those had it installed could access its audio chat rooms without a VPN. Prior to the ban, a group discussing the 1989 pro-democracy Tiananmen protest reached 5,000 participants — the max number of participants Clubhouse supports.

A new North Dakota Senate bill proposes to ban app stores like Apple and Google from requiring developers to exclusively use their store and payment mechanisms to distribute apps, and would prevent them from retaliating, at the risk of fines. Apple’s Chief Privacy Engineer Erik Neuenschwander said the bill “threatens to destroy the iPhone as you know it,” and that Apple succeeds because it “works hard to keep the bad apps out of the App Store.”

The Coalition for App Fairness (CAF) announced that Meghan DiMuzio has now joined as its first executive director. The advocacy group fighting against app store anticompetitive behavior is made up of over 50 members, including Spotify, Tile, Basecamp, Epic Games and others.

Security & Privacy

The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce has asked Apple to improve the credibility of App Store privacy labels, so consumers aren’t harmed. The request was made after an investigation by The Washington Post revealed that many labels were false, leading to questions as to whether the labels could be trusted at all.

Apple will begin to proxy Google’s “Safe Browsing” service used by Safari through its own servers starting with iOS 14.5. Safari on iPhone and iPad includes a “Fraudulent Website Warning” feature that warns users if they’re visiting a possible phishing site. The feature leverages Google’s “Safe Browsing” database and blocklist. Before, Google may have collected user’s IP address during its interaction with Safari, when the browser would check the website URL against Google’s list. Now, Apple will proxy the feature through Apple’s own servers to limit the risk of information leaks. The change was reported by The 8-bit, MacRumors and others, after a Reddit sighting, and confirmed by Apple’s head of Engineering for WebKit.

This article is a bit confused on the details of how Safe Browsing works, but in the new iOS beta, Safari does indeed proxy the service via Apple servers to limit the risk of information leak.https://t.co/TlDZNMO8do

— othermaciej (@othermaciej) February 11, 2021

A generically named app “Barcode Scanner” on the Google Play Store had been operating as a legit app for years before turning into malware. Users of the app, which had over 10 million installs, began to experience ads that would open their browser out of nowhere. The malware was traced to the app and Google removed it from the Play Store. Unfortunately, users review-bombed a different, innocent app as a result, leaving it 1-star reviews and accusing it of being malware.

Google Chrome’s iOS app is testing a feature that would lock your Incognito tabs with either Touch ID or Face ID to add more security to the browser app.

Google Fi VPN for Android exits beta and expands to iPhone. The VPN app, designed for Google Fi users, is meant to encrypt connections when on public Wi-Fi networks or when using sites that don’t encrypt data. Users, however, question the privacy offered by VPN from Google.

Twitter said the iOS 14 privacy update will have a “modest impact” on its revenue. The companies joins others, including Facebook and Snap, in saying that Apple is impacting their business’s monetization.

Funding and M&A

💰 Quilt, a “Clubhouse” focused self-care, raised $3.5 million seed round led by Mayfield Fund. The app has a similar format to audio social network, Clubhouse, but rooms are dedicated less to hustle culture and more to wellness, personal development, spirituality, meditation, astrology and more.

🤝  Match Group, owner of dating apps like Match and Tinder, will buy Korean social media company Hyperconnect for $1.73 billion. The company runs two apps, Azar and Hakuna Live, both which focus on video, including video chats and live broadcasts.

🤝 Electronic Arts buys Glu Mobile, maker of the “Kim Kardashian: Hollywood” mobile game in a $2.4 billion deal. The all-cash deal will also bring other games, like “Diner Dash” and “MLB Tap Sports Baseball” to EA, which said it made the acquisition because mobile is the “fastest-growing platform on the planet.”

💰 French startup Powder raised $12 million for its social app for sharing clips from your favorite games, and follow others with the same interests. The app can capture video content from both desktop and mobile games.

💰 Reddit’s valuation doubled to $6 billion after raising $250 million in a late-stage funding round led by Vy Capital, following the r/WallStreetBets and GameStop frenzy. The company was previously valued at $3 billion, and is also backed by Andreessen Horowitz and Tencent Holdings Ltd.

💰 SplashLearn raised $18 million for its game-based edtech platform. The startup offers math and reading courses for Pre-K through 5th grade, and over 4,000 games and interactive activities.

💰 Goody raised $4 million for its mobile app that lets you send gifts to friends, family and other loved ones over a text message. The other user can then personalize the gift and share their address, if you don’t have that information.

💰 VerSe Innovation, the Bangalore-based parent firm of news and entertainment app Dailyhunt and short video app Josh, a TikTok rival, raised over $100 million in Series H round led by Qatar Investment Authority and Glade Brook Capital Partners. The round turns the company into a unicorn.

💰 Tickr, an app that lets U.K. consumers make financial investments based on their impact to society and the environment, raised $3.4 million in a round led by Ada Ventures, a VC firm focused on impact startups.

📈 Huuuge Inc., a developer of free-to-play mobile casino games, raised $445 million in its IPO in Warsaw, becoming Poland’s largest-ever gaming industry listing.

💰 Uptime, an educational app that offers 5-minute bits of insight from top books and courses, raised a $16 million “seed” round led by Tesco CEO Sir Terry Leahy; entrepreneur and chairman of N Brown, David Alliance; and members of private equity firm Thomas H Lee.

💰 Modern Health, a mental health services provider for businesses to offer to their employees, raised $74 million, valuing its business at $1.17 billion. The Modern Health mobile app assesses each employee’s need and then provide care options.

💰 Scalarr raised $7.5 million to fight mobile ad fraud. The company offers products to detect ad fraud before an advertiser bids and other tools used by ad exchanges, demand-side platforms, and supply-side platforms.

💰 Dublin-based food ordering app Flipdish, a Deliveroo rival, raised €40 million from global investment firm Tiger Global Management. The app offers a lower commission than other delivery rivals and is even testing drone delivery with startup Manna Aero.

💰 Jackpot, an NYC-based lottery ticket app, raised $50 million Series C. The app allows users to play the lottery games in nine different states, including Arkansas, Colorado, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Texas and Washington, D.C.

Downloads

Insight’s iOS web browser supports “extensions”

Image Credits: Insight

A new startup called Insight is bringing web browser extensions to the iPhone, with the goal of delivering a better web browsing experience by blocking ads and trackers, flagging fake reviews on Amazon, offering SEO-free search experiences or even calling out media bias and misinformation, among other things. These features are made available by way of the browser’s “extensions,” which work by way of a “sub-tab” workflow where you navigate using swiping gestures. For example, when online shopping, you could view the product you’re interested in, then swipe over to see the available coupons, the trusted product reviews or to comparison shop across other sites.

The app is a free download on iOS.

App Annie Pulse

Image Credits: App Annie

App Annie’s new app Pulse is aimed not at the more advanced analyst or marketer immersed in data, but rather at the executive who wants a “more elevated, top-down view” of the app ecosystem, TechCrunch reported. The app offers easy access to the app stores’ top charts, plus tools for tracking apps, and a news feed highlighting recent trends. Another feature, the App Annie Performance score, which aims to distill user acquisition, engagement, monetization and sentiment into a single benchmark.

The app is currently iOS-only.

Google refreshes its mobile search experience

By Frederic Lardinois

Google today announced a subtle but welcome refresh of its mobile search experience. The idea here is to provide easier to read search results and a more modern look with a simpler, edge-to-edge design.

From what we’ve seen so far, this is not a radically different look, but the rounded and slightly shaded boxes around individual search results have been replaced with straight lines, for example, while in other places, Google has specifically added more roundness. You’ll find changes to the circles around the search bar and some tweaks to the Google logo. “We believe it feels more approachable, friendly, and human,” a Google spokesperson told me. There’s a bit more whitespace in places, too, as well as new splashes of color that are meant to help separate and emphasize certain parts of the page.

Image Credits: Google

“Rethinking the visual design for something like Search is really complex,” Google designer Aileen Cheng said in today’s announcement. “That’s especially true given how much Google Search has evolved. We’re not just organizing the web’s information, but all the world’s information. We started with organizing web pages, but now there’s so much diversity in the types of content and information we have to help make sense of.”

Image Credits: Google

Google is also extending its use of the Google Sans font, which you are probably already quite familiar with thanks to its use in Gmail and Android. “Bringing consistency to when and how we use fonts in Search was important, too, which also helps people parse information more efficiently,” Aileen writes.

In many ways, today’s refresh is a continuation of the work Google did with its mobile search refresh in 2019. At that time, the emphasis, too, was on making it easier for users to scan down the page by adding site icons and other new visual elements to the page. The work of making search results pages more readable is clearly never done.

For the most part, though, comparing the new and old design, the changes are small. This isn’t some major redesign but we’re talking about minor tweaks that the designers surely obsessed over but that the users may not even really notice. Now if Google had made it significantly easier to distinguish ads from the content you are actually looking for, that would’ve been something.

Image Credits: Google

Financial forecasting startup Springbox AI launches its apps and raises $2M

By Mike Butcher

Springbox AI, an AI-powered financial forecasting application designed to replace financial market investment service and aimed at the average financial markets trader, has launched on iOS and Android.

It’s been built by a team of founders who previously worked at Deutsche Bank, Credit Suisse, UBS, and BNP Paribas. It’s so far raised $2M in funding from private investors in Europe.

The app costs $49 a month, and includes a range of tools including market forecasting; live market screening of stocks, forex, and futures markets; and trading news.

Springbox AI Co-Founder Kassem Lahham said: “Most brokers focus their marketing by selling investors the dream or the myth of easy-money, resulting in 96% of self-traders losing money and quitting. Using Springbox AI traders will have access to an app that will help them succeed, focused on the data.”

Springbox competes with trading apps like eToro, but eToro focuses on social trading and following a strong investor from the community. Springbox is designed for slightly more sophisticated traders, say the founders.

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