Shares of Square are up this morning after the company announced its second-quarter earnings and that it will buy Afterpay, an Australian buy now, pay later (BNPL) player in a $29 billion deal. As TechCrunch reported this morning, Afterpay shareholders will receive 0.375 shares of Square in exchange for their existing equity.
Shares of Afterpay are sharply higher after the deal was announced thanks to its implied premium, while shares of Square are up 7% in early-morning trading.
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Over the past year, we’ve written extensively about the BNPL market, usually from the perspective of earnings from companies in the space. Afterpay has been a key data source, along with the yet-private Klarna and U.S. public BNPL outfit Affirm. Recall that each company has posted strong growth in recent periods, with the United States arising as a prime competitive market.
Most recently, consumer hardware and services giant Apple is reportedly preparing a move into the BNPL space. Our read at the time was that any such movement by Cupertino would impact mass-market BNPL players more than niche-focused companies. Apple has a fintech base and broad IRL payment acceptance, making it a potentially strong competitor for BNPL services aimed at consumers; BNPL services targeted at particular industries or niches would likely see less competition from Apple.
From that landscape, let’s explore the Square-Afterpay deal. We want to know what Afterpay brings to Square in terms of revenue, growth and reach. We also want to do some math on the price Square is willing to pay for the company — and what that might tell us about the value of BNPL and fintech revenues more broadly. Then we’ll eyeball the numbers and try to decide if Square is overpaying for Afterpay.
As with most major deals these days, Square and Afterpay released an investor presentation detailing their argument in favor of their combination. Let’s dig through it.
Square is a two-part company. It has a large consumer business via Cash App, and it has a large business division that offers payments tech and other fintech services to corporate customers. Recall that Square is also building out banking services for its business customers and that Cash App also serves some banking and investing functionality for consumers.
Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.
The app industry continues to grow, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.
Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year over year.
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Did you hear the one about Google Play banning sugar daddy dating apps? Google this week updated its terms to clarify that apps where users offer sex acts in exchange for money, or “sugar dating,” as the new terms state, are no longer allowed as of September 1, 2021.
Developers will have to disclose to users whether their app uses security practices like data encryption, whether it follows Google Play’s Families policy for apps aimed at kids, whether users have a choice in data sharing, whether the app’s safety section had been verified by a third party, and if the app allowed users to request data deletion at the time of uninstalling, among other things.
Apps that don’t disclose won’t be able to list or update until the problems are fixed.
The safety section wasn’t the only Google Play policy news to be announced this week.
Google also reminded developers that it was making a technical change to how advertising IDs work. Now, when users opt out of interest-based advertising or ads personalization, their advertising ID is removed and replaced with a string of zeros. The change, however, is a phased rollout, affecting apps running on Android 12 devices starting late 2021 and expanding to all apps running on devices that support Google Play in early 2022.
Google also said it will test a new feature that notifies developers and ad/analytics service providers of user opt-out preferences and is prohibiting linking persistent device identifiers to personal and sensitive user data or resettable device identifiers. Kids apps will also not be able to transmit an ad ID.
Another policy update includes a plan to close dormant accounts. Google says if the account is inactive or abandoned after a year, it will be closed. This will include accounts where the developer has never uploaded an app or accessed Google Play Console in a year.
In response to feedback and complaints, Apple is clearly trying to fix some of the issues that arose from this change. It re-added a Share button to the tab bar and put additional controls under that menu. There’s also once again a reload button in the tab bar next to the domain name, though it’s a bit smaller, and a Reader Mode button will appear in the tab bar when Reader is available
On iPad, Safari also reverted back to the traditional separate row of tabs, instead of the new compact experience.
— Apple Software Updates (@AppleSWUpdates) July 27, 2021
Elon Musk sided with Fortnite maker Epic Games in the Apple App Store antitrust lawsuit, as the Tesla CEO tweeted on Friday that Apple’s App Store fees were “a de facto global tax on the Internet.” The lawsuit alleges Apple is abusing its platform power with how it commissions apps and in-app purchases on its App Store platform — fees that add up to big numbers for a game like Fortnite, which arguably doesn’t need an App Store for discovery, marketing, payments and distribution. But there’s no other way to sell to iOS users today. On Android, apps can at least be sideloaded. It’s not currently clear why Musk has decided to take a stand on the issue, as none of his companies’ apps are dramatically impacted by Apple’s fees at present.
Apple announced plans to end support for a number of SiriKit intents and commands, including those that could impact major apps — like ride-sharing app Uber. In total, there are over 20 SiriKit intent domains that will be deprecated and no longer supported in new and existing OS releases, Apple says.
Apple tweaked the controversial iOS 15 Safari changes in the latest betas (iOS 15 and iPadOS 15, beta 4). The new Safari design had moved the tab bar (URL bar) to the bottom of the screen — a fairly radical change for one of the iPhone’s most used apps. It was meant to make the controls easier to reach but critics said that the change made other often used features — like the reload button or Reader Mode — harder to find and use, impacting the overall usability of the browser itself.
Google this week launched version 1.0 of Jetpack Compose, Android’s new, native UI toolkit aimed at helping developers build better apps faster. The tool had been in beta since March. The new production release is built to integrate with the Jetpack libraries developers already use, and offers an implementation of Material Design components and theming. New features include Compose Preview and Deploy Preview, which require Android Studio Arctic Fox, which is also out now in a stable release.
Google also announced the availability of the CarHardwareManager API via the Android for Cars App Library as part of Jetpack.
Twitter launched a U.S. e-commerce pilot test that will help determine the current appetite for online shopping on its platform. The test allows brands and businesses to feature a “Shop Module” with various products for sale at the top of their Professional Profile, a business-friendly version of a profile page with support for things like an address, hours, phone number and more. Users can click on the Shop Module to go to a retail website and transact. Early testers include Game Stop and Arden Cove. The feature itself is somewhat bare bones for now, as it’s really just an image that launches an in-app browser. That’s not enough to really compete with something like Instagram Shop or Shopify’s Shop and the integrated, native checkout experience those types of app offers.
Fintech giant Robinhood raised $2.1 billion in its IPO this week. The IPO valued the trading app at $31.8 billion, making it larger that traditional rivals like Charles Schwab, even though the offering priced at the bottom of its range. The stock dropped 8% during its first day’s trading, however. Robinhood now has 21.3 million MAUs.
PayPal during its second-quarter earnings call announced its new “super app” is now code-complete and ready to roll out. The app will feature early direct deposit, check cashing, high yield savings, budgeting tools, improved bill pay, crypto support, subscription management, buy now, pay later functionality, mobile commerce, and person-to-person messaging features. The latter hadn’t yet been announced and would allow users to chat outside of the payments process.
Code found in Apple’s Wallet app indicates that iOS 15 will require users to verify their identities by taking a selfie when they add their driver’s license or other state identification card to the iPhone.
Instagram announced a series of significant changes to how it handles the accounts of younger teens. The company says it will now default users to private accounts at sign-up if they’re under the age of 16 — or under 18 in certain locales, including in the EU. It will also push existing users under 16 to switch their account to private if they have not already done so. In addition, Instagram is rolling out new technology aimed at reducing unwanted contact from adults — like those who have already been blocked or reported by other teens — and it will change how advertisers can reach its teenage audience. The changes give the company a way to argue to regulators that it’s capable of self-policing as it attempts to roll out a version of Instagram to younger users under the age of 13.
Twitter rolls out an update to its live audio platform, Twitter Spaces, that will make it easier to share the audio room with others. Users will be able to compose a tweet right from the Space that links to the room and includes any accompanying hashtags. iOS users also received new guest management controls for hosts.
Snapchat resolved an outage that was stopping people from logging in on Thursday. Unlike other app blips, which fix themselves often without users’ awareness, Snap told users to manually update their app if the issues continued.
Snapchat also this week added a “My Places” feature to Snap Map, which allows users to log their favorite spots, share them with friends and find recommendations. The feature supports over 30 million businesses and allows Snap to differentiate its map from a utility like Google Maps or Apple Maps, because it’s about personal recommendations from people you know and trust: your friends.
Instagram added support for 60-second videos to its TikTok clone, Reels. Previously, only Reels of up to 30 seconds were supported. Sixty seconds is in line with other platforms like YouTube Shorts and Snapchat’s Spotlight. But TikTok is now inching into YouTube territory, as it recently expanded to support three-minute videos.
TikTok expanded its LIVE platform with a huge lineup of new features including the ability to go live with others, host Q&As, use moderators and improved keyword filters, and more. For viewers, TikTok is adding new discovery and viewing tools, including picture-in-picture mode and ways to jump to LIVE streams from the For You and Following feeds. Some markets, including the U.S. already had access to LIVE Events, but the feature is now expanding. Meanwhile, the co-host feature currently supports going live with one other creator, but TikTok says it’s now testing multiple hosts.
Discord launched a new feature, Threads, which will make it easier to read through longer conversations on busy servers. Now, any server with “Community” features enabled will be able to transform their messages into threaded conversations across mobile and desktop. The threads will be designated by their own subject name and can be created by selecting a new hashtag symbol that appears in the menu when hovering over messages or by pressing the + sign in the chat bar.
Pinterest shares dropped by more than 12% after the company reported its second-quarter earnings on Thursday. Despite beating on estimates with revenue of $613.2 million and earnings per share of 25 cents, investors were disappointed by the miss on user growth. The company reported monthly active user growth of just 9% to reach 454 million, when analysts were expecting 482 million. Pinterest blamed COVID impacts for the slowdown. The news follows Pinterest’s launch of new tools for creators to monetize their content, with Ideas Pins — the recently launched video-first format that lets creators show off their work. Now, creators can make their pins “shoppable” and take commissions on those purchases.
WhatsApp is testing support for higher image upload quality on iOS devices. The feature was discovered on WhatsApp’s TestFlight version for iOS but is not yet public and offers three options: auto, best quality or data saver.
Spotify’s Clubhouse clone, Greenroom, is off to a slow start. The app has only been downloaded 140,000+ times on iOS and 100,000+ on Android, including installs from its earlier life as Locker Room, an app that Spotify acquired to move into live audio. Meanwhile, Spotify has 365 million monthly active users on its flagship streaming app.
Spotify also reported its Q2 earnings this week, where it posted a $23.6 million loss and failed to reach its forecast for total MAUs, despite growing MAUs 22% YOY to 365 million. It now has 165 million paying subscribers, which is up 20% YOY.
In a change to its app, Spotify added an attention-grabbing “What’s New” feed that offers personalized updates about new releases and new podcast episodes. The feature is available through a notification bell icon and uses a blue dot to indicate when there’s something new to see. Dots like this are a psychological hacks popularized by social apps like Facebook and Instagram to addict users, which could impact user engagement time on Spotify’s app.
Apple’s GarageBand app for iOS and iPadOS now lets you remix tracks from top artists and producers like Dua Lipa and Lady Gaga. There are also new Producer Packs with beats, loops and instruments created for GarageBand by top producers, including Boys Noize, Mark Lettieri, Oak Felder, Soulection, Take A Daytrip, Tom Misch and TRAKGIRL.
Google TV’s mobile app was updated with new services and personalized recommendations, following last fall’s launch of the Google TV user experience for Chromecast devices. The app now sports 16:9 widescreen movie and show posters, and added new providers Discovery+, Viki, Cartoon Network, PBS Kids, Boomerang, plus on-demand content from live TV services, including YouTube TV, Philo and fuboTV.
Epic Games announced that Fortnite will host another in-game event it’s calling the “Rift Tour,” which kicks off Friday, August 6 and runs through Sunday, August 8. What it hasn’t yet said is what the Rift Tour is, beyond a “musical journey into magical new realities” that will feature a “record-breaking superstar.”
Facebook’s Oculus division is exploring an integration of Oculus Workouts with Apple’s Health app, according to the app’s code. An integration would allow users to store their workout data in Health.
Usage of mobile video conferencing apps like Zoom grew by 150% in the first half of 2021, according to a report from Sensor Tower. Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Meet saw a surge in usage, collectively climbing to nearly 21x higher than in H1 2019, the firm found.
Google Voice’s app was updated with a few refinements, including a way to see the reason for a missed call or dropped call, and an easy way to redial. iOS users can now show their Google Voice number as their caller ID when they get a calling through a forwarding number. Another change will allow users to delete multiple SMS messages at once.
Language learning app Duolingo raised $521 million in its U.S. IPO, priced above the marketed range. The company priced 5.1 million shared at $102, after first marketing them at $95 to $100.
Amazon this week rolled out an update to its Alexa iOS app that allows users to add an Alexa widget to their iOS homescreen. The widget lets you tap on a button to speak to the virtual assistant and issue commands. Watch out Siri! (Ha, just kidding.)
Google Maps also updated its iOS app this week to add support for a homescreen widget. There are two different widgets sizes to choose from — one that gives info like weather and traffic, while another is more of a shortcut to nearby places like gas stations, restaurants, work and home.
Google is working on a”Switch to Android” app for iOS users that will copy over data and apps from an iPhone to bring them to a new Android device. Apple already offers a similar app, called “Move to iOS” for Android users.
Parking app usage has popped to pre-pandemic levels, Apptopia reported. Apps in this space help users find availability in lots and garages nearby and facilitate payments. Browsing time in apps was up 57% YOY in July, and overall parking app usage is now 6.2% above Jan. 2020 pre-pandemic levels.
Moovit integrated Lime’s electric scooters, bikes and mopeds into its transit-planning app that’s live in 117 cities across 20 countries and continents, including the United States, South America, Australia and Europe.
Tencent’s WeChat suspended new user registrations in China to comply with “relevant laws and regulations.” The move comes amid a broad crackdown on tech companies by Chinese regulators, related to data collection and other harmful practices.
Recently, China ordered Tencent and 13 other developers to fix problems related to pop-ups inside their apps, as part of the tech crackdown. The regulator also said it would tighten controls on misleading and explicit content used for marketing, and issued fines for offensive content to Tencent, Kuaishou and Alibaba.
Apple released patches for iOS, iPadOS and macOS to address a zero-day vulnerability that had been exploited in the wild. Apple said the exploit could exploit the vulnerability known as CVE-2021-30807 to execute arbitrary code with kernel privileges on a vulnerable and unpatched device.
Google Play Protect failed an Android security test, according to a report from Bleeping Computer. The mobile threat protection solution ranked last out of 15 Android security apps tested over a span of six months, between January to June 2021.
Product insights and analytics startup Pendo raised $150 million at a $2.6 billion valuation, ahead of its expected IPO. The round was led by B Capital, the firm from Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, and included new investor Silver Lake Waterman, alongside existing backers. Pendo’s platform helps companies gather data on how customers use their apps, including clients like Okta, Toast and others.
Twitter “acqui-hired” the team from subscription news app, Brief, who will now join Twitter’s Experience.org group, which works on Twitter Spaces and Explore. Brief had offered a non-biased news app that allowed you to get both sides of a story and all the necessary facts. Deal terms weren’t disclosed.
Delivery app Gopuff confirmed its $1 billion fundraise at a $15 billion valuation, aimed at expanding its instant delivery service. TechCrunch previously reported the news when the Series H was still being closed.
Indian travel app Ixigo raised $53 million (Rs 395 crore), prepping the business for a valuation of $750 million-$800 million for its upcoming IPO. The round was led by Singapore sovereign wealth fund GIC.
Mobile-first digital wallet Valora native to the Celo network raised $20 million in Series A funding led by Andreessen Horowitz (a16z), a Celo backer, to become a global gateway to crypto.
Crypto wallet company Eco, backed by a16z, raised $60 million in new funding led by Activant Capital and L Catterton. Eco offers a digital wallet with rewards and no fees, and has average deposits of around $6,000.
Search API startup Algolia, which lets developers integrate real-time search in apps or websites, raised $150 million in Series D funding, valuing the business at $2.25 billion, post-money. The round was led by Lone Pine Capital. Algolia now has over 10,000 customers, including Slack, Stripe, Medium, Zendesk and Lacoste.
Brain Technologies raised $50+ million for Natural, a natural language search engine and super app for iOS, which wants users to stop switching between apps to order food, groceries or go shopping. Backers include Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective, Goodwater Capital, Scott Cook and WTT Investment.
Messaging app Element, built on the decentralized Matrix protocol, raised $30 million in a Series B round of funding. Investors include open-source R&D lab Protocol Labs and Metaplanet. a fund from Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn, as well as past investors Automattic and Notion.
Indonesia-based grocery app HappyFresh raised $65 million in Series D funding in a round led by Naver Financial Corporation and Gafina B.V. The app offers an Instacart-like grocery delivery service for parts of Asia, which today operates in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.
Indian D2C beauty brand MyGlamm, which sells products through an app and website, raised $71.3 million in Series C financing, from Amazon, Ascent Capital and Wipro.
Image Credits: Nanogram
Developer Kosta Eleftheriou may have taken on Apple in legal battles and on Twitter, as he points out the numerous app scams on the App Store, but that hasn’t stopped him from building new apps.
This week, Eleftheriou introduced Nanogram, a Telegram client app that works on the Apple Watch without needing an iPhone connection. Eleftheriou said he was inspired to build Nanogram because he wanted a Telegram app for his LTE Apple Watch and didn’t like the official version that didn’t provide “basic and reliable messaging functionality.” So he built his own app from scratch using the Telegram SDK, which allows you to send, receive and view all your messages and notifications right from your wrist — even if you don’t have your phone nearby. The app also supports Eleftheriou’s FlickType Swipe Keyboard for faster replies while on the go.
Eleftheriou notes the app doesn’t collect any personal information and requires an Apple Watch Series 3 or later, running watchOS 7 or later.
Image Credits: Lightricks
After seeing a 70% yearly increase for its iOS version, Lightricks brought its Videoleap app to the Google Play Store. The app has grown popular with online creators for offering professional quality editing tools on mobile, including those that let you apply artistic effects, mix videos with images, add text and layer transformations and more. The company says Videoleap users are now creating 35 million pieces of content per month, and 47% of users are exporting their creations to TikTok in pursuit of monetizing their content further. The app, like others from Lightricks (which also makes FaceTune and others), monetizes by way of in-app subscriptions.
Apple app store fees are a de facto global tax on the Internet. Epic is right.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 30, 2021
There’s a total of *six* different touch targets in the iOS 15 beta 4 tab bar in Safari.
These exclude the ability to long-press the tab bar, swipe across it to change tabs, and swipe it up to open the Tabs view.
I’m…starting to think a single, small toolbar just won’t do. pic.twitter.com/EiD2mekVRL
— Federico Viticci (@viticci) July 27, 2021
Shortcuts has a new “Return to Home Screen” action in iOS 15 developer beta 4 – this has been long requested from the community and is great to see! pic.twitter.com/8E3ZB7FIYX
— Matthew Cassinelli (@mattcassinelli) July 27, 2021
I've been fascinated to watch the reaction to Safari in iOS 15 because in 2016-2017, I worked on a similar redesign for mobile Chrome that we never launched. Finally decided to tell a bit of that story here: https://t.co/gF4hepQM5V
— Chris Lee (@cleerview) July 25, 2021
something fun & playful our team has been working on. what are *creative* ways we can utilize voice for more engaging convos on Spaces? how would you use these tools?
— Danny Singh (@Mr_DannySingh) July 22, 2021
Luxembourg’s National Commission for Data Protection (CNPD) has hit Amazon with a record-breaking €746 million ($887m) GDPR fine over the way it uses customer data for targeted advertising purposes.
Amazon disclosed the ruling in an SEC filing on Friday in which it slammed the decision as baseless and added that it intended to defend itself “vigorously in this matter.”
“Maintaining the security of our customers’ information and their trust are top priorities,” an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement. “There has been no data breach, and no customer data has been exposed to any third party. These facts are undisputed.
“We strongly disagree with the CNPD’s ruling, and we intend to appeal. The decision relating to how we show customers relevant advertising relies on subjective and untested interpretations of European privacy law, and the proposed fine is entirely out of proportion with even that interpretation.”
The penalty is the result of a 2018 complaint by French privacy rights group La Quadrature du Net, a group that claims to represent the interests of thousands of Europeans to ensure their data isn’t used by big tech companies to manipulate their behavior for political or commercial purposes. The complaint, which also targets Apple, Facebook Google and LinkedIn and was filed on behalf of more than 10,000 customers, alleges that Amazon manipulates customers for commercial means by choosing what advertising and information they receive.
La Quadrature du Net welcomed the fine issued by the CNPD, which “comes after three years of silence that made us fear the worst.”
“The model of economic domination based on the exploitation of our privacy and free will is profoundly illegitimate and contrary to all the values that our democratic societies claim to defend,” the group added in a blog post published on Friday.
The CNPD has also ruled that Amazon must commit to changing its business practices. However, the regulator has not publicly committed on its decision, and Amazon didn’t specify what revised business practices it is proposing.
The record penalty, which trumps the €50 million GDPR penalty levied against Google in 2019, comes amid heightened scrutiny of Amazon’s business in Europe. In November last year, the European Commission announced formal antitrust charges against the company, saying the retailer has misused its position to compete against third-party businesses using its platform. At the same time, the Commission a second investigation into its alleged preferential treatment of its own products on its site and those of its partners.
Canadian e-commerce juggernaut Shopify this morning reported its second-quarter financial performance. Like Microsoft and Apple in the wake of their after-hours earnings reports, its shares are having a muted reaction to the better-than-expected results.
In the second quarter of 2021, Shopify reported revenues of $1.12 billion, up 57% on a year-over-year basis. The company’s subscription products grew 70% to $334.2 million, while its volume-driven merchant services drove their own top line up 52% to $785.2 million.
Investors had expected Shopify to report revenue of $1.05 billion.
Shopify also posted an enormous second-quarter profit. Indeed, from its $1.12 billion in total revenues, Shopify managed to generate $879.1 million in GAAP net income. How? The outsized profit came in part thanks to $778 million in unrealized gains related to equity investments. But even with those gains filtered out, Shopify’s adjusted net income of $284.6 million more than doubled its year-ago Q2 result of $129.4 million. Shopify’s earnings per share sans unrealized gains came to $2.24, far ahead of an expected 97 cents.
After reporting those results, Shopify shares are up less than a point.
In light of somewhat muted reactions to Big Tech earnings surpassing expectations, it’s increasingly clear that investors were anticipating that leading tech companies would trounce expectations in the second quarter; their earnings beats were largely priced-in ahead of the individual reports.
The rest of Shopify’s quarter is a series of huge figures. In the second three-month period of 2021, the company posted gross merchandise volume (GMV) of $42.2 billion, up 40% compared to the year-ago period. That was more than a billion dollars ahead of expectations. And the company’s monthly recurring revenue (MRR) grew 67% to $95.1 million in the quarter. That’s quick.
Shopify is priced like the growth will continue. Using its Q2 revenue result to generate an annual run rate for the firm, Shopify is currently valued at around 43x its present top line. That’s aggressive for a company that generates the minority of its revenues from recurring software fees, an investor favorite. Instead, investors seem content to pay what is effectively top dollar for the company’s blend of GMV-based service revenues and more traditional software incomes.
Consider the public markets bullish on the continued pace of e-commerce growth.
It will be interesting to see how BigCommerce, a Shopify competitor and fellow public company, performs when it reports earnings in early August. Shares of BigCommerce are up more than 3% today in wake of Shopify’s results. Ironic given Shopify’s relaxed market reaction to its own results? Sure, but who said the public markets are fair?
In the minutes before its quarterly earnings call this morning, Spotify played advertisements for its originals and exclusives, like the true crime show “Deathbed Confessions,” and the sex and relationships podcast “Call Her Daddy,” which Spotify recently acquired in a deal worth $60 million. Sure, it’s kind of hilarious to hear a recording of host Alex Cooper’s voice say, “Hey, daddy gang!” as investors log in to an 8 a.m. call, but the subtext rang clear: Spotify is serious about growing its podcast business.
Given how many podcasting companies Spotify has acquired over the past few years, it would be concerning if there hadn’t been significant growth in this realm. Among Spotify users who already listen to podcasts, podcast listening increased 30% year over year, with total hours consumed up 95%. Meanwhile, podcast ad revenue increased by 627%, which outperformed expectations. Spotify attributes this success to a triple-digit year-over-year gain at its in-house studios (The Ringer, Parcast, Spotify Studios and Gimlet) and exclusive deals with “The Joe Rogan Experience” and the Obamas’ Higher Ground studio. Spotify also referenced its November acquisition of Megaphone, a podcast hosting and ad company.
“The continued outperformance is currently limited only by the availability of our inventory, which is something we’re actively solving for,” said CEO Daniel Ek. “The days of our ad business accounting for less than 10% of our total revenue are behind us, and going forward, I expect ads to be a substantial part of our revenue mix.”
Image Credits: Spotify
In April, Spotify launched paid podcast subscriptions — through Anchor, the podcast host that it bought in 2019, creators can choose to put certain content behind a paywall. Apple launched a similar feature, but it’s still too early to know how these subscription services will impact listeners and creators. However, Spotify did share a bit more information about its Audience Network, an audio ad marketplace. Since its rollout in April, Spotify’s “monetizable podcast inventory” tripled. Spotify has also seen a “meaningful” increase in unique advertisers and a “double-digit lift” in CPMs (cost per thousand ad impressions), but didn’t provide specific figures.
Still, the more power a platform like Spotify has over the podcasting industry, the fewer options creators will have for monetization — already, the ubiquity of streaming platforms has taken a toll on musicians, who are working together to demand better compensation from Spotify. The Justice at Spotify movement points out that on average, artists get $0.0038 per stream of a song, which means that a song needs to be streamed 263 times to make a single dollar. Spotify has continued to grow during the pandemic, but because live shows are musicians’ best way to make money in the age of streaming, artists have struggled while it’s unsafe to go on tour.
On this morning’s earnings call, Ek pointed to live performances as a potential way for musicians to increase revenue. In the past quarter, Spotify has tested live concerts as an income stream, partnering with artists like The Black Keys. Still, smaller artists might not trust the platform given its refusal to make streaming itself a more viable way to get paid for their work.
“Live is a meaningful thing for many of our creators, and it’s something that we’re excited about,” said Ek, adding that Spotify saw positive results from its digital live events thus far. “We want to provide as many opportunities for creators … to turn a listen into a fan, and turn fans into super fans, and increase the monetization for those creators.”
Though Spotify missed its target for monthly active users (MAUs) in Q2, other key metrics trended upward, like paid subscriber growth and revenue. The platform attributes this road bump in MAU growth to the lingering impact of COVID-19, as well as an issue Spotify had with its third-party email verification system.
“In full disclosure, this was an issue on our end,” said CFO Paul Vogel. “The estimate right now was that it was about 1 to 2 million of MAU growth that was impacted by the friction created by this email verification change. It’s since been corrected and should not be an impact in Q3.”
Of Spotify’s 365 million MAUs, 165 million (about 42.5%) are paid subscribers — that’s still far beyond its next biggest competitor, Apple Music, which had 60 million subscribers in 2019 but hasn’t released updated figures since.
Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.
The app industry continues to grow, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.
Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.
This Week in Apps offers a way to keep up with this fast-moving industry in one place with the latest from the world of apps, including news, updates, startup fundings, mergers and acquisitions, and suggestions about new apps and games to try, too.
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The Wall St. Journal reported this week how Apple’s privacy changes are changing the world of mobile advertising — in this case, ad pricing across platforms. The news outlet has been covering the broader impact of Apple’s decision to let users block apps from tracking them, noting how ad sales, including Facebook’s ad business, would be affected. (And how Apple’s own ad business would gain.)
This week, The WSJ says most users are declining tracking on iOS (less than 33% opt in), and as a result, mobile ad prices on iOS have fallen. The outlet cites data from ad measurement firm Tenjin which notes that spending on iOS mobile ads has dropped around one-third between June 1 and July 1. Around the same time, Android spending rose 10% — an indication that, for the time being, some portion of the ad market has just shifted platforms. Facebook ad spend also shifted to Android, with year-over-year growth of 46% for Android users in May to 64% in June.
The news follows a story this week from The FT, which noted that Chinese tech giants’ plan to route around the IDFA changes with CAID (the Chinese Advertising ID), had failed. Apple blocked updates to apps using CAID, which led to it losing support and the project’s failure.
For most app users, the ability to block tracking is a welcome change, as far too much user data had been shared behind-the-scenes without users’ informed consent. But the full impacts of how the update will impact app monetization long-term — and ultimately which companies then choose to build on iOS — still remain to be seen.
37 AGs target Google Play in an antitrust lawsuit
A group of 37 attorneys general filed a second major antitrust lawsuit against Google, accusing the company of using its market power to stifle competition. The suit takes aim at Google’s Play Store, which requires users to pay for apps and in-app purchases using Google’s own payments system — which gives Google a percentage of the revenue. In addition, the suit alleges that Google makes misleading security claims about the need for a walled garden app store like Google Play, in order to maintain its dominant position.
Google responded by calling the lawsuit “meritless” and noting that it ignores the openness of the Android platform, which permits other app stores and sideloading.
Image Credits: Pok Pok
Recently launched Pok Pok Playroom from Pok Pok, a spinout from app maker Snowman (Alto’s Adventure, Alto’s Odyssey, Skate City), just took home an Apple Design Award in the “Delight and Fun” category for its app launched just months ago. Unlike other kids’ apps, Pok Pok promises an app that’s more of a digital “toy” that encourages real and imaginative play, not a mobile kids game. Now the company is sharing some of the techniques that helped it build this award-winning experience.
The company says it wanted to make sure there were no annoying sounds or repetitive music in the app that would bother parents or get stuck in kids’ heads. So it worked with its sound designer, Matt Miller, to ensure all the sounds in Pok Pok Playroom were sensory accessible and not overstimulating.
Miller often uses what he calls “found sounds” — that is, sounds he created by finding things to record — like a soup can, a vintage toy sourced from a local thrift shop, birds chirping, a spoon knocking on a pinecone and more. These give Pok Pok Playroom a more natural feel than other toys, which can sometimes feature loud or electronic-sounding noises that are overstimulating for kids and disruptive to those around them.
A new Comscore study offers a look at how much people use their preinstalled apps from Apple and Google. Not surprisingly, these built-in utilities and services — like email, notes, messaging, maps, photos, clocks and more — dominate people’s app usage. 75% of the top 20 most-used apps on iPhone were made by Apple, and 60% of the top Android apps were made by Google, but here’s the funny thing: The study was paid for by Facebook, a company that’s looking for any angle to make it seem like it’s not a monopoly. So of course it had to find the only other bigger apps it could — the ones that ship with your smartphone.
Image Credits: comscore
OnePlus confirmed it’s throttling a number of popular apps on the OnePlus 9 and OnePlus 9 Pro in order to improve battery life. Apps such as Chrome, Twitter, Zoom, WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Discord, Microsoft’s Office apps, Firefox and Samsung Internet, were affected. The issue was discovered due to inconsistent benchmarks in testing.
PayPal was the most downloaded P2P payments app globally during the first half of 2021, according to Apptopia. Rounding out the top 10 were Google Play, Alipay, PhonePe, Cash App, Paytm, Venmo, Zelle, Western Union and Remitly.
Personal finance app Charlie launched a redesign and a new feature called Direct Pay, which allows users to add their credit cards to the app to make extra payments toward their debt at their own pace. Or they can let the app recommend when it’s best to make payments toward their credit card debt. The company notes its users are now saving $66 monthly, which has added up to $30K+ of interest saved over the lifetime of their loans.
TikTok is piloting a new program that will allow U.S. users to apply for jobs using a TikTok video as a resume. Video applicants are asked to showcase their skillsets and experiences on video, then add #TikTokResumes to their caption. Pilot testers include a number of employers — like Chipotle, Target, WWE, Alo Yoga, Shopify, Contra, Movers + Shakers and others. The question is, will TikTokers feature these videos on the same account where they’ve posted personal content, dances and trends, or will this give way to a rise in Rinsta and Finsta-like TikTok accounts, where personal and more public content remains separated?
TikTok is also testing its own version of Cameo. The company was spotted testing a new feature that allows fans to pay for a shout-out video from their favorite creators directly in the app. According to screenshots of the feature, fans can request birthday wishes, pep talks and other messages, then pay using TikTok’s in-app currency.
TikTok launches Shoutouts – fans can request birthday wishes, pep talks and other messages from their favourite creators.
Fans can directly pay in-app, through TikTok’s in-apps currency (also used for live-stream gifting). pic.twitter.com/i5zQJKNfP5
— Fabian (Bern) Ouwehand 法比安 (@iamfabianbern) July 4, 2021
Twitter shared a few more ideas it’s thinking about in terms of new features around conversation health and privacy. This includes a one-stop “privacy check-in” feature that would introduce Twitter’s newer conversation controls options to users, and others that would allow people to be more private on the service, or to more easily navigate between public and private tweets or their various accounts.
TikTok on Tuesday experienced a widespread technical outage that lasted for over five hours before services were restored. U.S. users found that many videos were not loading during this time.
TikTok parent company ByteDance launched a new business arm called BytePlus, which will license the company’s various technologies to other businesses. This includes its AR effects, computer vision and machine translation tools, analytics and testing tools, and its recommendation engine that supports over 1.5 billion users. The company’s tools are being used by GOAT, Wego, Chilibeli, GamesApp, Webuy, Lark, and others, in addition to TikTok.
Trump has now sued Facebook, Twitter and Google for being “censored.” The companies enforced their terms of service in taking down Trump’s account across top social media platforms in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Trump’s lawsuit claims his First Amendment rights are being violated. The First Amendment applies to government censorship, not actions taken by businesses, however. Trump likely knows this but wanted to stir up some headlines.
Image Credits: Picsart
Popular photo-editing app PicsArt launched a brand refresh that includes a new name (Picsart), new logo, and a fresh new look across web and mobile, and more creator-friendly design flows. The app today has over 150 million monthly active users worldwide.
Everyone has thoughts on Instagram Head Adam Mosseri’s latest comments where he declared Instagram is “no longer” a photo-sharing app. His post was meant to alert users to upcoming tests that will see Instagram doing more experiments around how to better feature video in the app, but some are taking it as a sign that Instagram is more fully pivoting to a video-first experience.
Reese Witherspoon’s media company, Hello Sunshine, is looking for an acquirer. The company has reportedly been in talks with multiple suitors, including Apple, The WSJ said. While the larger part of Hello Sunshine is it TV and movie film business, the company also operates the book club app, Reese’s Book Club, which serves as a place where many of the movie/TV deals are initially sourced.
More Spotify Premium users are reporting having gained access to the new feature, announced in May, that will allow them to download music to their Apple Watch so they can listen offline. The feature had been graduating rolling out, but appears to now be reaching a global audience.
Image Credits: Sensor Tower
Pokémon Go revenue from player spending has topped $5 billion as the game celebrates its five-year anniversary. According to Sensor Tower, the AR game now generates $1 billion on average per year, putting it at the op of the Geolocation AR category globally, ahead of others like Dragon Quest Walk and Square Enix.
The Alto’s Adventure series from Snowman is getting a new installment in the form of an upcoming Apple Arcade release called Alto’s Odyssey: The Lost City. The game is like a special edition of Alto’s Odyssey (the sequel to Alto’s Adventure), as it include extra features and content that’s deeply integrated, not just tacked on, including a new location called the Lost City. The game arrives on Apple Arcade on July 16th.
Amazon launched a new, employee-only app called Amazon WorkingWell for its health and wellness program that includes Associate-facing support, education and safety-prevention information across text content, videos, podcasts, and more.
Vaccine passport apps have hit 10 million global downloads, according to data from Apptopia. The firm analyzed the downloads for top apps including NHS, VeriFLY, NYS Excelsior, and CommonPass.
Image Credits: Apptopia
Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi was pulled from several apps stores in China, including Apple’s App Store. According to Chinese regulators, the app was illegally collecting users’ personal info. Didi said it was making “corrections” and is halting new user sign-ups, but the app for existing users remained operational. China’s cybersecurity watchdog also suggested the company delay its IPO, and the app was removed from China’s WeChat and Alipay apps for new users.
9 Android apps with 5.8 million combined downloads were caught stealing users’ Facebook passwords. A security firm found apps offering photo editing, exercise, horoscopes and utilities that were tricking users into entering their Facebook credentials with the promise of removing ads from the app after signing into Facebook. Google has banned all the apps and their developers from the Play Store.
10 opioid addiction treatment apps were found sharing sensitive data with third parties, including a unique identifier on Android, unique device identifiers, phone numbers, and lists of installed apps. The apps have 180K combined downloads.
Google released its July 2021 security update for Pixel which patches a few “high”-priority (but not critical) vulnerabilities. The update is rolling out to a range of Pixel devices.
Publishing platform Hiber raised $15 million for its web platform that allows people to create user-generated games, similar to Roblox. The company also offers a creation app for Android devices and allows players to use Safari to create games on iOS.
Juni, a neobanking app for e-commerce and online marketing companies, raised $21.5 million in Series A funding. The round was co-led by DST Global and Felix Capital. The banking app has signed up 3,000 businesses on its waitlists, of which 200 have now joined.
Neighborhood social networking app Nextdoor said it’s going public via a SPAC. The company plans to merge with Khosla Ventures Acquisition Co. II, taking itself public at the same time. The transaction will value the business at approximately $4.3 billion, up from its 2019 valuation of $2.17 billion. The app has 27 million weekly active users across the U.S.
Pleo, a startup offering smart company cards for SMBs that automate expense reports, raised $150 million at a $1.7 billion valuation for its service that works across web and mobile.
Popshop Live raised $20 million in Series A funding at a $100 million valuation for its livestream shopping service, available on web and mobile. The round was led by Benchmark, and comes after 500% growth of the number of sellers on the platform in the last 3 months.
Indian social commerce startup DealShare, which began as an e-commerce platform on WhatsApp, raised $144 million in Series D funding led by Tiger Global. The round values the company at $455 million post-money and will be used to help fund international expansion.
Indian edtech Teachmint raised $20 million in a “pre-Series B” round led by Learn Capital for its mobile-first, video-first tech platform.
European neobank Bunq, which offers a bank account you control from a mobile app, raised $228 million in Series A funding that values the business at $1.9 billion. The round was led by Pollen Street Capital and is the largest round for a European fintech.
Image Credits: Rec Room
Social gaming platform Rec Room, which recently became the first VR unicorn, has launched on the Google Play Store. The platform originally targeted only the VR market but expanded to other platforms as VR headset sales remained slow. Similar to Roblox and others, Rec Room allows players to dress up their avatars and play games built by other creators. To date, the app had been available on iOS, PlayStation 4 and 5; Xbox Series X and Xbox One, PC (via Steam), Oculus Quests and other VR headsets. It’s now live on Android to serve the larger global market.
Image Credits: OnMail
Email service OnMail, which has previously been available on iOS, launched its app on the Google Play Store. The app aims to solve users’ biggest problems with email, including those with unwanted mail, email trackers, and more. As on iOS, OnMail lets you accept or reject senders before they hit your mailbox, blocks spy pixels, nudges you to follow up on emails, automatically organizes mail into smart folders (shopping, travel, packages, events), offers easy unsubscribe, monitors for refunds, checks grammar, makes it easier to send large attachments, and a lot more.
Image Credits: SwoonMe
A new startup called SwoonMe aims to fix the problem with superficial dating apps, where users primarily make decisions based on how someone looks in their photos. Instead, on SwoonMe, you take a selfie which the app converts into an avatar. This is what others will see when they come to your profile. You then record a voice clip to tell others about yourself and what you’re looking for in a partner. The result is that when people scroll through SwoonMe, they’re not making snap decisions based on what they’re seeing, but are rather making more thoughtful decisions based what they hear. When two people match, the app encourages them to continue to get to know each other using voice messages and soon, icebreaker games — not texting and photo-sharing. As they communicate, their avatar will slowly unveil their real photo.
Image Credits: Raise.com
A new app from gift card marketplace Raise.com, Slide, offers users 4% cash back on their purchases online and at over 150 popular stores, including Lowe’s, Petco, ULTA, Office Depot, Bed Bath & Beyond, Chipotle, Panera Bread, Chili’s, DoorDash, Domino’s, Aeropostale, Express, H&M, Foot Locker, Loft, REI, GameStop, AMC, Groupon, Southwest Airlines, Uber, AutoZone, and others. To use Slide and get 4% back, users open the app at checkout, choose their store, and enter their exact purchase amount. They’ll then show the barcode to the cashier, or if paying online, enter the code. The cash back can be transferred to Venmo or PayPal or saved for a future purchase.
In 2013, eight tech companies were accused of funneling their users’ data to the U.S. National Security Agency under the so-called PRISM program, according to highly classified government documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Six months later, the tech companies formed a coalition under the name Reform Government Surveillance, which as the name would suggest was to lobby lawmakers for reforms to government surveillance laws.
The idea was simple enough: to call on lawmakers to limit surveillance to targeted threats rather than conduct a dragnet collection of Americans’ private data, provide greater oversight and allow companies to be more transparent about the kinds of secret orders for user data that they receive.
Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, Yahoo and AOL (to later become Verizon Media, which owns TechCrunch — for now) were the founding members of Reform Government Surveillance, or RGS, and over the years added Amazon, Dropbox, Evernote, Snap and Zoom as members.
But then sometime in June 2019, Evernote quietly disappeared from the RGS website without warning. What’s even more strange is that nobody noticed for two years, not even Evernote.
“We hadn’t realized our logo had been removed from the Reform Government Surveillance website,” said an Evernote spokesperson, when reached for comment by TechCrunch. “We are still members.”
Evernote joined the coalition in October 2014, a year and a half after PRISM first came to public light, even though the company was never named in the leaked Snowden documents. Still, Evernote was a powerful ally to have onboard, and showed RGS that its support for reforming government surveillance laws was gaining traction outside of the companies named in the leaked NSA files. Evernote cites its membership of RGS in its most recent transparency report and that it supports efforts to “reform practices and laws regulating government surveillance of individuals and access to their information” — which makes its disappearance from the RGS website all the more bizarre.
TechCrunch also asked the other companies in the RGS coalition if they knew why Evernote was removed and all either didn’t respond, wouldn’t comment or had no idea. A spokesperson for one of the RGS companies said they weren’t all that surprised since companies “drop in and out of trade associations.”
The website of the Reform Government Surveillance coalition, which features Amazon, Apple, Dropbox, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Snap, Twitter, Verizon Media and Zoom, but not Evernote, which is also a member. (Image: TechCrunch)
While that may be true — companies often sign on to lobbying efforts that ultimately help their businesses; government surveillance is one of those rare thorny issues that got some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley rallying behind the cause. After all, few tech companies have openly and actively advocated for an increase in government surveillance of their users, since it’s the users themselves who are asking for more privacy baked into the services they use.
In the end, the reason for Evernote’s removal seems remarkably benign.
“Evernote has been a longtime member — but they were less active over the last couple of years, so we removed them from the website,” said an email from Monument Advocacy, a Washington, D.C. lobbying firm that represents RGS. “Your inquiry has helped to prompt new conversations between our organizations and we’re looking forward to working together more in the future.”
Monument has been involved with RGS since near the beginning after it was hired by the RGS coalition of companies to lobby for changes to surveillance laws in Congress. Monument has spent $2.2 million in lobbying to date since it began work with RGS in 2014, according to OpenSecrets, specifically on lobbying lawmakers to push for changes to bills under congressional consideration, such as changes to the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, albeit with mixed success. RGS supported the USA Freedom Act, a bill designed to curtail some of the NSA’s collection under the Patriot Act, but was unsuccessful in its opposition to the reauthorization of Section 702 of FISA, the powers that allow the NSA to collect intelligence on foreigners living outside the United States, which was reauthorized for six years in 2018.
RGS has been largely quiet for the past year — issuing just one statement on the importance of transatlantic data flows, the most recent hot-button issue to concern tech companies, fearing that anything other than the legal status quo could see vast swaths of their users in Europe cut off from their services.
“RGS companies are committed to protecting the privacy of those who use our services, and to safeguard personal data,” said the statement, which included the logos of Amazon, Apple, Dropbox, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Snap, Twitter, Verizon Media and Zoom, but not Evernote.
In a coalition that’s only as strong as its members, the decision to remove Evernote from the website while it’s still a member hardly sends a resounding message of collective corporate unity — which these days isn’t something Big Tech can find much of.
A group of 37 attorneys general filed a second major multi-state antitrust lawsuit against Google Wednesday, accusing the company of abusing its market power to stifle competitors and forcing consumers into in-app payments that grant the company a hefty cut.
New York Attorney General Letitia James is co-leading the suit alongside the Tennessee, North Carolina and Utah attorneys general. The bipartisan coalition represents 36 U.S. states, including California, Florida, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Colorado and Washington, as well as the District of Columbia.
“Through its illegal conduct, the company has ensured that hundreds of millions of Android users turn to Google, and only Google, for the millions of applications they may choose to download to their phones and tablets,” James said in a press release. “Worse yet, Google is squeezing the lifeblood out of millions of small businesses that are only seeking to compete.”
In December, 35 states filed a separate antitrust suit against Google, alleging that the company engaged in illegal behavior to maintain a monopoly on the search business. The Justice Department filed its own antitrust case focused on search last October.
In the new lawsuit, embedded below, the bipartisan coalition of states allege that Google uses “misleading” security warnings to keep consumers and developers within its walled app garden, the Google Play store. But the fees that Google collects from Android app developers are likely the meat of the case.
“Not only has Google acted unlawfully to block potential rivals from competing with its Google Play Store, it has profited by improperly locking app developers and consumers into its own payment processing system and then charging high fees,” District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine said.
Like Apple, Google herds all app payment processing into its own service, Google Play Billing, and reaps the rewards: a 30 percent cut of all payments. Much of the criticism here is a case that could — and likely will — be made against Apple, which exerts even more control over its own app ecosystem. Google doesn’t have an iMessage equivalent exclusive app that keeps users locked in in quite the same way.
While the lawsuit discusses Google’s “monopoly power” in the app marketplace, the elephant in the room is Apple — Google’s thriving direct competitor in the mobile software space. The lawsuit argues that consumers face pressure to stay locked into the Android ecosystem, but on the Android side at least, much of that is ultimately familiarity and sunk costs. The argument on the Apple side of the equation here is likely much stronger.
The din over tech giants squeezing app developers with high mobile payment fees is just getting louder. The new multi-state lawsuit is the latest beat, but the topic has been white hot since Epic took Apple to court over its desire to bypass Apple’s fees by accepting mobile payments outside the App Store. When Epic set up a workaround, Apple kicked it out of the App Store and Epic Games v. Apple was born.
The Justice Department is reportedly already interested in Apple’s own app store practices, along with many state AGs who could launch a separate suit against the company at any time.
After launching five years ago in the United States, Apple’s search advertising service finally arrived in mainland China this week.
The feature, called Apple Search Ads, lets developers bid on an advertising slot based on users’ keyword search in the App Store, similar to how Google search ads work. JPMorgan previously estimated the giant’s annual ad revenue could top $11 billion by 2025, though the forecast didn’t have a breakdown for the search ad business.
Apple has itself been reining in on personalized advertising, letting users turn off data tracking by apps, a move that will inevitably roil the business models of Facebook and others dependent on third-party data to target ads.
China has historically been a strong market for Apple, but iPhones are increasingly losing their luster as a status symbol in the country with the rise of local offerings like Huawei. In the first quarter, however, Apple’s smartphone shipment saw a rebound thanks to Huawei’s slipping sales and the launch of the iPhone 12 family. The Chinese App Store is another important source of income for Apple.
In a five-page guideline, Apple outlines the qualifications for developers targeting ads at mainland Chinese users. There is a stack of industry-specific licenses that advertisers must obtain, which practically excludes most foreign entities from directly advertising in mainland China, as noted in a blog post by AppInChina, an agency that helps international apps launch in China. To bid for search ads in China, apps would have to find local partners with all the government approvals in place.
The requirements for apps importing goods into China, for example, include not just a general license to run value-added internet businesses but also registrations with the relevant trade and customs authorities. Apple may even start asking for these permits from apps that simply want to publish in China, wrote AppInChina, as Apple continues to enforce rules set by the Chinese government as evident from its crackdown on gaming apps.
This Thursday, Apple will mark the opening of a new store in downtown Los Angeles. The space occupies the newly renovated Tower Theatre, which opened in DTLA’s Broadway Theater District in 1927. Among other milestones, the 900-seat theater was the first in LA to be wired for the talkies, hosting a premier of “The Jazz Singer” that same year. Not for nothing, it was also the first theater in the city with air conditioning.
Apple Tower Theatre is actually the company’s 26th store in greater LA. Obviously, though, moving into a 94-year-old theater takes a fair bit more work than, say, a shopping mall. The store has been in the works for a number of years, owing in part to having to work with the city to restore a space that had been declared a landmark.
Image Credits: Apple
Interestingly, an LA Times article back in 2018 noted that the space, “may also serve as a declaration that Apple intends to compete as a major Hollywood content creator.” In hindsight, fair enough. Apple TV+ launched late the following year.
The theater has actually been largely unoccupied since 1988, which clearly meant even more work had to go into shining up the walls and making the grand old theater presentable for that modern retail vibe — not to mention a seismic upgrade to help make it more earthquake proof.
The company also notes that it took care to maintain some of the space’s more iconic elements.
Image Credits: Apple
“Apple Tower Theatre anchors the corner of Eighth Street and Broadway, where visitors will immediately recognize the fully restored clock tower, recreated Broadway marquee, clean terra cotta exterior, and renovated historic blade sign,” Apple writes. “After walking through the Broadway doors, guests enter the monumental lobby inspired by Charles Garnier’s Paris Opera House, featuring a grand arched stairway with bronze handrails flanked by marble Corinthian columns.”
The store’s opening also marks the launch of Apple’s new Creative Studios initiative. The LA store and a location in Beijing will be the first to get the program. In its initial form, it will run between eight and 12 weeks, providing a group of mentors from the creative arts.
Image Credits: Apple
“Creativity and access to education are core values for Apple, so we are absolutely thrilled to kick off today at Apple Creative Studios in Los Angeles and Beijing and to bring this meaningful program to several more cities this year,” SVP Deirdre O’Brien said in a press release. “Building on our long history of using stores as a venue to host local artists to educate and inspire, Creative Studios is one more way we’re providing free arts education to those who need it most.”
Last week, Google launched its first retail store in Manhattan’s Chelsea district. The Apple Tower Theatre location opens at 10 a.m. local time on Thursday, June 24. The company says it’s employing nearly 100 to keep the store running.
Pro-privacy browser Brave, which has been testing its own brand search engine for several months — operating a waitlist where brave (ha!) early adopters could kick the tyres of an upstart alternative in Internet search — has now launched the tool, Brave Search, in global beta.
Users interested in checking out Brave’s nontracking search engine, which is built on top of an independent index and touted as a privacy-safe alternative to surveillance tech products like Google search, will find it via Brave’s desktop and mobile browsers. It can also be reached from other browsers via search.brave.com — so doesn’t require switching to Brave’s browser to use.
Brave Search is being offered as one of multiple search options that users of the company’s eponymous browser can pick from (including Google’s search engine). But Brave says it will make it the default search in its browser later this year.
As we reported back in March, the company acquired technology and developers who had previously worked on Cliqz, a European anti-tracking search-browser combo which closed down in May 2020 — building on a technology they’d started to develop, called Tailcat, to form the basis of the Brave-branded search engine.
The (now beta) search engine has been tested by more than 100,000 “early access users” at this point, per Brave. It’s made this video ad to tout its “all in one” alternative to Google search + Chrome.
The company recently passed 32M monthly active users (up from 25M back in March) for its wider suite of products — which, as well as its flagship pro-privacy browser, includes a news reader (Brave News), and a Firewall+VPN service.
Brave also offers privacy-preserving Brave Ads for businesses wanting to reach its community of privacy-preferring users.
Growing public awareness of surveillance based business models has been building momentum for pro-privacy consumer tech for a number of years. And several players which started out with a strong focus on one particular pro-privacy product (such as a browser, search engine or email) have been expanding into a full suite of products — all under the same nontracking umbrella.
As well as Brave, there’s the likes of DuckDuckGo — which offers nontracking search but also a tracker blocker and an email inbox protector tool, among other products, and reckons it now has between 70M-100M users overall; and Proton, the maker of e2e-encrypted email service ProtonMail but also a cloud calendar and file storage as well as a VPN. The latter recently confirmed passing 50M users globally.
There is also Apple itself too, of course — a Big Tech giant that competes with Google and the adtech complex by promising users a privacy premium to drive sales of its hardware and services. (At the start of this year Apple said there are now over 1BN iOS users globally — and over 1.65BN Apple devices.)
Tl;dr: The market for privacy consumer tech is growing.
Still, even Apple doesn’t try to compete against Google search which perhaps underlines the scale of the challenge involved in trying to poach users from the search behemoth. (Albeit, Apple extracts massive payments from Google to preload the latter’s search engine onto iOS devices — which does conflict with (and complicate) its wider, pro-privacy, pro-user promises while also adding a nice revenue boost for Apple… ).
DuckDuckGo has, by contrast, been at the nontracking search coalface for years — and turning a profit since 2014. Though clearly not in the same profit league as Apple. But, more recently, it’s also taken in rare tranches of external funding as its investors spy growing opportunity for private search.
Other signs of expanding public appetite to protect people’s information from commercial snoopers include the surge of usage for e2e encrypted alternatives to Facebook-owned WhatsApp — such as Signal — which saw a download spike earlier this year, after the advertising giant announced unilateral changes to WhatsApp’s terms of service.
Credible players that have amassed a community of engaged users around a core user privacy promise are well positioned to ride each new wave of privacy interest — and cross sell a suite of consumer products where they’ve been able to expand their utility. Hence Brave believing the time is right for it to dabble in search.
Commenting in a statement, Brendan Eich, CEO and co-founder of Brave, said: “Brave Search is the industry’s most private search engine, as well as the only independent search engine, giving users the control and confidence they seek in alternatives to big tech. Unlike older search engines that track and profile users, and newer search engines that are mostly a skin on older engines and don’t have their own indexes, Brave Search offers a new way to get relevant results with a community-powered index, while guaranteeing privacy. Brave Search fills a clear void in the market today as millions of people have lost trust in the surveillance economy and actively seek solutions to be in control of their data.”
Brave touts its eponymous search offering as having a number of differentiating features vs rivals (including smaller rivals) — such as its own index which it also says gives it independence from other search providers.
Why is having an independent index important? We put that question to Josep M. Pujol, chief of search at Brave, who told us: “There are plenty of incentives for censorship and biases, either by design, or what is even more difficult to combat, unintentional. The problem of search, and how people access the web, is that it is a mono-culture, and everybody knows that while it’s very efficient, it’s also very dangerous. A single disease can kill all the crops. The current landscape is not fail-tolerant, and this is something that even users are becoming aware of. We need more choices, not to replace Google or Bing, but to offer alternatives. More choices will entail more freedom and also get back to real competition, with checks and balances.
“Choice can only be achieved by being independent, as if we do not have our own index, then we are just a layer of paint on top of Google and Bing, unable to change much or anything in the results for users’ queries. Not having your own index, as with certain search engines, gives the impression of choice, but in reality such engine ‘skins’ are the same players as the big-two. Only by building our own index, which is a costly proposition, will we be in a position to offer true choice to the users for the benefit of all, whether they are Brave Search users or not.”
Although, for now, it’s worth noting that Brave is relying on some provision from other search providers — for specific queries and in areas like image search (where, for example, it says it’s currently fetching results from Microsoft-owned Bing) — to ensure its results achieve adequate relevancy.
Elsewhere it also says it’s relying upon anonymized contributions from the community to improve and refine results — and is seeking to live up to wider transparency claims vis-a-vis the search index (which it also claims has “no secret methods or algorithms to bias results”; and for which it will “soon” be offering “community-curated open ranking models to ensure diversity and prevent algorithmic biases and outright censorship”).
In another transparency step Brave is reporting the percentage of users’ queries that are independent by showing what it bills as “the industry’s first search independence metric” — meaning it displays the ratio of results coming exclusively from its own index.
“It is derived privately using the user’s browser as we do not build user profiles,” Brave notes in a press release. “Users can check this aggregate metric to verify the independence of their results and see how results are powered by our own index, or if third-parties are being used for long tail results while we are still in the process of building our index.”
It adds that Brave Search will “typically be answering most queries, reflected by a high independence metric”. Although if you’re performing an image search, for example, you’ll see the the independence metric take a hit (but Brave confirms this will not result in any tracking of users).
“[Transparency] is a key principle at Brave, and there will also be a global independence metric for Brave Search across all searches, which we will make publicly available to show how we are progressing towards complete independence,” it adds.
Example of Brave’s ‘independence metric’ for search results (Image credits: Brave)
On the monetization side, Brave says it will “soon” be offering both a paid ad-free version of search in the future and an ad-supported free version — while still pledging “fully anonymous” search. Though it specifies that it won’t be flipping the ad switch during the early beta phase.
“We will offer options for both ad-free paid search and ad-supported free search later,” it notes. “When we are ready, we will explore bringing private ads with BAT revenue share to search, as we’ve done for Brave user ads.”
Users of the search engine who do not also use Brave’s own browser will be served contextual ads.
“In Brave Search via the browser, strong privacy guarantees for opt-in ads are a norm and a brand value that we uphold,” adds Pujol, confirming that users of its search and browser are likely to get the same type of ad targeting.
Asked about pricing of the forthcoming ad-free version of the search engine he says: “Although we have not finalized the launch date or the price yet, our ad-free paid search will be affordable because we believe search, and access to information, should be available on fair terms for everyone.”
In an interesting recent development in Europe, Google — under pressure from antitrust regulators — has agreed to ditch a pay-to-play auction model for the choice screen it offers regional users of its Android platform, letting them pick a default search engine from list with a number of rivals and its own brand Google search. The move should expand the number of alternative search engines Android users in Europe are exposed to — and could help chip away at some of Google’s search marketshare.
Brave previously told us it would not participate in Google’s paid auction — but Pujol says that if the new model is “truly free to participate” it will likely take part in future.
“Google and free-to-participate seem difficult to believe, given plenty of precedents but if this model is indeed truly free to participate, without contracts or nondisclosure agreements, then we would likely participate,” he says. “After all, Brave Search is open to everyone who would like to use it, and we are open and happy to put Brave Search on any platform.”
“We have localized browsers throughout the European market, so in addition to growth via the Brave browser growing, we intend to grow Brave Search’s usage by marketing our best-in-class privacy on all media that reach prospective users,” he adds.
Podcasts are all the rage, but podcast discovery is a challenge. Today, Spotify announced its acquisition of Podz, a startup that’s trying to solve the problem of podcast discovery.
“At Spotify, we are investing to build and scale the world’s best (and most personalized) podcast discovery experience,” the company said. “We believe that Podz’ technology will complement and accelerate Spotify’s focused efforts to drive discovery, deliver listeners the right content at the right time, and accelerate growth of the category worldwide.”
Since podcasts are usually upwards of 30 minutes long, it’s hard for listeners to browse new shows – listening to an episode of a podcast isn’t as easy as trying out a song by a new artist. So, Podz developed what it called “the first audio newsfeed,” presenting users with 60-second clips from various shows. Podcasters often use apps like Headliner to create clips to promote on their social media accounts, and Podz follows the same idea. But instead of podcasters manually choosing how to promote their show, Podz chooses a clip using its machine learning model, which was trained on more than 100,000 hours of audio in consultation with journalists and audio editors.
Image Credits: Podz
Before its acquisition by Spotify, Podz raised $2.5 million in pre-seed funding from M13, Canaan Partners, Charge Ventures, and Humbition. Celebrities like Katie Couric and Paris Hilton also invested.
“Already, the average podcast listener subscribes to seven podcasts but follows almost 30 on Podz,” M13 General Partner Latif Peracha told TechCrunch via email in February. “Early signals make us optimistic the team can build a transformative product in the category.”
This acquisition marks yet another sign of Spotify’s ambition to corner the podcasting market, and audio entertainment in general – just yesterday, Spotify debuted Greenroom, its live audio Clubhouse rival. And when it comes to driving revenue from podcast subscriptions, Spotify and Apple are neck and neck. In April, Apple announced its expansion into podcast subscriptions, and the following week, Spotify began rolling out its subscription platform after teasing it in February. Apple said it will take 30% of podcast revenue in the first year, which will drop to 15% in the second. On the other hand, Spotify’s program won’t take any cut from creators until 2023, when it will take 5%.
Though podcast creators can quickly determine that it might prove more beneficial to surrender 5% of their subscription earnings than 30%, listeners will likely just flock to whatever app provides the best user experience – and if Spotify’s investment in discovery pays off, it could pose trouble for Apple’s longstanding dominance in the podcasting medium.
Apple’s location devices — called AirTags — have been out for more than a month now. The initial impressions were good, but as we concluded back in April: “It will be interesting to see these play out once AirTags are out getting lost in the wild.”
That’s exactly what our resident UX analyst, Peter Ramsey, has been doing for the last month — intentionally losing AirTags to test their user experience at the limits.
This Extra Crunch exclusive is a simplified conversation around this Built for Mars article, which helps bridge the gap between Apple’s mistakes and how you can make meaningful changes to your product’s UX.
For an industry that’s often soured by privacy concerns, Apple has an unusually strong stance on keeping your data private.
There are two primary purposes of an error message:
Most businesses do a decent job at the first one, but it’s rare that a product will proactively obsess over the second.
Typically, Apple is one of the few examples that do — it’s indisputably one of the leaders in intuitive design. Which is why I was surprised to see Apple’s error message when an AirTag is not reachable:
Image Credits: Built for Mars screenshot
There’s a huge amount of ambiguity in the statement “move around to connect,” and it fails to mention that this error could be because the AirTag’s batteries have been removed.
Instead, Apple should make this message clickable, which opens a modal to learn more about this issue.
Apple’s recent Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) keynote was packed with new features for iPhones, Macs and iPads — and like it has done pretty consistently since the debut of its original Health app in 2014, those included updates focused on personal health and wellness. Often, it’s impossible to assess the impact of the work Apple is doing in these areas in the moment, and health-related feature announcements aren’t generally as splashy as user interface overhauls for Apple’s device software, for instance. But viewed as a whole, Apple has built probably the most powerful and accessible suite of personal health tools available to an individual, and it shows no signs of slowing down.
I spoke with Apple Vice President of Technology Kevin Lynch, who actually demonstrated the Apple Watch for the first time on the world stage during Apple’s September 2014 keynote event. Lynch has seen Apple Watch grow considerably during his time at the company, but he’s also been integral to the evolution of its health initiatives. He explained how it became what it is today and provided some hints as to where it might go in the future.
“It’s been amazing how much it’s evolved over time,” Lynch said, referring to the original Health app. “It actually started from Apple Watch, where we were capturing heart rate data for calorimetry activity, and [Activity] ring closure, and we needed a place to put the heart rate data. So we created the Health app as a place to store the data.”
Apple Health began as a simple companion app to store activity data from the Apple Watch in 2014. Image: Apple
From there, Lynch says Apple realized that once you had this centralized location, they could develop a system that could store other data types, as well, and create an API and architecture that allowed developers to store related data there, as well, in a privacy-respecting way. In the early days, the Health app was still essentially a passive storehouse, providing users one touchpoint for various health-related information, but the company soon began thinking more about what else it could offer, and inspiration came from users.
A key turning point for Apple’s approach to health came when the company saw that users were doing more with features available via the Apple Watch than the company ever intended, Lynch said.
“We were showing people their heart rate, and you could look at it — we were using it for calorimetry,” he told me. “But some users actually were looking at their heart rate when they weren’t working out, and noticed it was high. […]They would go talk to their doctor, and the doctor would find a heart issue, and we would start getting letters about this. We still get letters today about our work in the space, which is amazing. But some of those early letters were clueing us into ‘Wait, we could actually look for that ourselves in the background’.”
Apple then developed its high heart rate alert notifications, which can tell users when Apple Watch detects an unusually high heart rate that occurs when they aren’t moving around very much. High resting heart rates are good indicators of potential issues, and Apple also later added notifications for unusually low heart rates. This was all data that was already available to the user, but Apple saw that it could proactively provide it to users, providing the benefits already enjoyed by the most vigilant of all Apple Watch owners.
From there, Apple started investing more heavily in thinking about more areas where it could glean similar insights. Rather than waiting for user behavior to identify new areas to explore (though Lynch says that’s still important to the team), the company started hiring more clinicians and medical researchers to chart the path forward for Health.
One example of where that led was announced at WWDC: Walking steadiness, a new metric that provides a simple score of how stable a Watch wearer’s average gait is.
“Walking steadiness […] actually came from fall detection,” Lynch said. We were working on fall detection, and that’s been really awesome, but as we’re working on it, we’re brainstorming about how we can actually help people not fall, rather than just detecting that they fell. It’s pretty tricky to do that in the moment — there’s not much you could do once that’s actually happening.”
Lynch is referring to the fall detection feature that Apple introduced in 2018, which could use motion sensor data to detect what was likely a sudden and severe fall, and provide emergency alerts to hopefully render aid to the wearer who had fallen. Apple was able to look at fall detection data for users in its 100,000-participant strong Heart and Movement study and combine that with data gathered from the iPhone in the same study about walking metrics.
“[The Heart and Movement study data] has been super helpful in some of the work here on machine learning,” Lynch said. “And then we did a focus study particularly around falls with walking steadiness, where we used [as] the source of truth a set of traditional measurements of walking steadiness; so questionnaires, clinical observation, people meeting with doctors and they’re observing the person walking. And then as over the period of a year or two, as people in that study happened to fall, we were able to look at all their metrics ahead of that and understand, ‘What are the real predictors here of potential fall?’ Then we were able to build a model around that.”
Apple actually accomplished something with its Walking Steadiness feature that is very rare in the health and fitness industry: It created a clinically validated, meaningful new metric around individual health. The Health app assigns a score from Very Low to Low or OK, based on motion-sensing data passively gathered through Apple’s iPhone sensors (the phone is better able to detect these metrics since it’s positioned on your hip, Lynch says). Perhaps best of all, according to Lynch, the data is actually something people can use to make real improvements.
“The other compelling thing is that it’s actionable,” he said. “Some of these things can be harder to change. But with walking steadiness, there are exercises you can do to improve your walking steadiness. And so we built those into the Health app. You can watch the videos and do the exercises and work to improve your steadiness ahead of falling.”
Walking steadiness is perhaps the best expression yet of an area of increased focus for Apple when it comes to health: Turning the devices you carry with you into an ambient protector of sorts.
Apple’s Health app provides a good overview of the metrics that you might want to keep track of, and the company has steadily built out a library of vetted contextual information to make it easier to understand what you’re seeing (including through new updated lab displays that translate results into plain language in iOS 15). But one of the areas where it’s in a unique position to innovate is in proactive or preventative health. Lynch pointed out that the walking steadiness feature is a progression of those efforts.
“The walking steadiness work is in this category that we think of as ‘Intelligent Guardian’; it’s ‘How can we help watch out for people with data that they may not otherwise be even looking at or aware of, and let them know of potential changes,” he said.
Lynch admits that the ‘Intelligent Guardian’ category wasn’t something that was initially really part of the plan for Apple Watch and health.
“In the early days, we weren’t as onto this line of thinking about ‘Intelligent Guardian’, as we are now,” he said. “Those early letters were really inspiring in terms of [pointing out] we could actually let people know these things that are really meaningful.”
Those letters still inspire the team working on health features and help motivate the team and validate their work. Lynch cites one Apple received where a person had purchased an Apple Watch for their father, and while his father was out biking he got thrown off the bike and fell into a gully. Apple Watch detected the fall, and also that he was unconscious, and the Watch was luckily set up to notify emergency contacts and 911, and did both. It provided the son with a location on a map, so his son rushed to the spot, but found paramedics on scene already loading his father (who ended up being okay) into an ambulance.
“Now, there’s a lot of thought that we put into ‘What are the other things that we could maybe sense about someone and let them know about?’ ” he said. “Our work on health very much involves this ongoing discussion of, from a clinical perspective, what is really interesting to know about somebody? Then from a science perspective, what do we think that we can sense about somebody? It’s this intersection of what might we be able to know and extract from the data that we gather, or are their new sensors that we might be able to build to get some data that could answer the questions that, clinically, we think would be really valid.”
Another big change coming in iOS 15 for Apple Health is sharing. Apple will allow private, secure sharing of health data from users to loved ones and caregivers, including doctors. Users can choose exactly which health data to share, and can revoke access at any time. Apple itself never sees that data, and it’s encrypted locally on your device and then decrypted in local memory on the receiving device.
Health sharing is a natural extension of Apple’s work with the Intelligent Guardian since it elevates personal health care into what it always has been — something managed by a network of connected individuals — but augmented by modern technology and sensing capabilities.
“The other person you’re watching out for can see that information, and be notified of changes, and you can see a little dashboard of the data,” Lynch said. “That’s going to be super helpful, we hope, for people, especially as you’re caring for an older adult, or caring for a partner of yours — that’s going to basically enable people to do that kind of mutual support on their health journey.”
Lynch points out that it’s not just about surfacing data that people might not otherwise find, but it’s actually about opening the door for more communication around health between families and personal networks that typically might never happen.
“It enables conversations, where maybe people wouldn’t maybe naturally talk about how much they’ve been walking lately or how their sleep’s been going,” he said. “If you’re up for sharing that, then it can be a conversation that maybe you otherwise wouldn’t have had. And then it’s the same with doctor interactions; when you’re interacting with a doctor, they may not have a great view of your daily health. They have these little silo views of blood pressure at the time and stuff like that, so how can we help you tell your whole story when you’re talking with your doctor and make that conversation even richer than it would have been otherwise, in a very quick period of time?”
Sharing with a doctor relies on integrating with a healthcare provider’s electronic healthcare records (EHR) system, but Lynch notes that it’s using all interoperable standards to make this work, and they have a range of providers with large footprints in the U.S. already lined up to participate at launch. Healthcare professionals using this feature will be able to see data users share with them in a web view in their EHR system, and while that data is only shared ephemerally, they can easily annotate and store specific readings in their permanent EHR for a patient should they require it to back up a diagnosis or course of treatment.
I asked Lynch about the state of EHR, which has had a tricky history in terms of adoption and interoperability, and he said that it’s true that this is something they initially started working on years ago, at a time when making it work would have required a much more massive technical undertaking on Apple’s side to make it actually work. Luckily, the industry in general has been trending toward adopting more open standards.
“There really has been a change in how you can connect to the EHRs in a more standardized way,” he said. “And certainly, we’ve been working with and across all of them to help get this mature.”
One of the biggest potential benefits for both users and their doctors of Apple Health is just how much data they can gain access to over time. Apple users who have stuck with the platform and used Health have now been tracking at least heart rate data for around seven years. That’s why another iOS 15 feature, Health Trends, has even more potential future impact.
“Trends is looking at the longer term changes, and starting to identify what may be statistically significant changes in those areas,” Lynch explained. “There are about 20 areas that we’re starting with to do this, and if we start seeing those notable trends, then we can highlight those to you and show you how, for instance, your resting heart rates change now, you know, versus a year ago.”
This is once again the result of the Apple Heart and Movement study and the insights that the company continues to derive from that work. During the study, Apple focused a lot on how to fine-tune insight delivery, so as to ensure that it was providing users with information they could use, but at the same time avoiding any kind of overload or generating more confusion.
“When you work on something like trends, we don’t want to overwhelm people with insights, if you will, but we also don’t want to like not have, you know, if there’s something relevant to show, we don’t want to suppress that. How do we tune that in? So we did a lot of that tuning with the data that we have in the Heart and Movement study, and we’re excited to see how it goes with the with public launch, and we’ll keep iterating on it. We think this is going to be a really powerful way for people to understand long-term changes.”
Apple’s health story to date is largely one made up of realizations that the sensors the iPhone and Apple Watch carry, originally for other purposes, can provide tremendous insights into our health on a continuous basis — something that previously just hasn’t been possible or practical. That evolved into an intentional strategy of seeking out new sensor technologies to integrate into Watch and other Apple devices to address even more daily health concerns, and Apple continues to figure out new ways to use the sensors that are there already — the addition of respiratory rate measurement during sleep in iOS 15 is a prime example — while working on what new hardware comes next to do even more.
Perhaps one place to look for even more potential in terms of future health capabilities lies in sensor fusion, however. Walking steadiness is the result of not just the iPhone or the Apple Watch acting independently, but of what’s possible when the company can use them in combination. It’s another place where Apple’s tight integration of software and hardware give it an edge, and it multiplies as Apple’s ecosystem of devices, and the sensors they carry, continues to grow.
I ended our interview by asking Lynch about what kind of possibilities might open up when you consider that AirPods, too, contain their own sensors and gather different data that could complement that monitored by the iPhone and Apple Watch in terms of health.
“We already do sensor fusion across some devices today, and I think there’s all kinds of potential here,” he said.
With increased demand from the pandemic, Canalys reports that U.S. PC shipments were up 73% over the same period last year. That added up to a total of 34 million units sold. While Apple had a good quarter with sales up 36%, it was surpassed by HP, which sold 11 million units in total with annual growth up an astonishing 122.6%.
As Canalys pointed out, the first quarter tends to be a weaker one for Apple hardware following the holiday season, but it’s a big move for HP nonetheless. Other companies boasting big growth numbers include Samsung at 116% and Lenovo at 92.8%. Dell was up 29.2%, fairly modest compared with the rest of the group.
Overall though it was a stunning quarter as units flew off the shelves. Canalys Research Analyst Brian Lynch says some of this can be attributed to the increased demand from 2020 as people moved to work and school from home and needed new machines to get their work done, but regardless the growth was unrivaled historically. ” … Q1 2021 still rates as one of the best first quarters the industry has ever seen. Vendors have prioritized fulfilling U.S. backlogs before supply issues are addressed in other parts of the world,” Lynch said in a statement.
Image Credits: Canalys
Perhaps not surprisingly, low-cost Chromebooks were the most popular item as people looking to refresh their devices, especially for education purposes, turned to the lower end of the PC market, which likely had a negative impact on higher-priced Apple products, as well contributing to its drop from the top spot.
That’s where Samsung and other Chromebook vendors really shined. The firm reports that over the last year Chromebook sales shot up 548% with Samsung leading that growth with an astonishing 1,963% growth rate. Asus, HP and Lenovo all reported Chromebook sales rates up over 900%.
Those numbers include desktops, notebooks, tablets and workstations, but it was the notebook and tablets that get the bulk of the action here with notebooks up a whopping 131% YoY. While tablets didn’t grow at the same rate, sales were still up 51% with 11 million units sold in the quarter.
The company does not expect the market to slow significantly in the coming quarters with continued demand in the education market. While parts shortages, particularly in the chip market, continue to dog the industry, this will only continue to feed demand in the coming quarters, according to the firm.
At its Worldwide Developer Conference, Apple announced a significant update to RealityKit, its suite of technologies that allow developers to get started building AR (augmented reality) experiences. With the launch of RealityKit 2, Apple says developers will have more visual, audio, and animation control when working on their AR experiences. But the most notable part of the update is how Apple’s new Object Capture technology will allow developers to create 3D models in minutes using only an iPhone.
Apple noted during its developer address that one of the most difficult parts of making great AR apps was the process of creating 3D models. These could take hours and thousands of dollars.
With Apple’s new tools, developers will be able take a series of pictures using just an iPhone (or iPad or DSLR, if they prefer) to capture 2D images of an object from all angles, including the bottom.
Then, using the Object Capture API on macOS Monterey, it only takes a few lines of code to generate the 3D model, Apple explained.
Image Credits: Apple
To begin, developers would start a new photogrammetry session in RealityKit that points to the folder where they’ve captured the images. Then, they would call the process function to generate the 3D model at the desired level of detail. Object Capture allows developers to generate the USDZ files optimized for AR Quick Look — the system that lets developers add virtual, 3D objects in apps or websites on iPhone and iPad. The 3D models can also be added to AR scenes in Reality Composer in Xcode.
Apple said developers like Wayfair, Etsy and others are using Object Capture to create 3D models of real-world objects — an indication that online shopping is about to get a big AR upgrade.
Wayfair, for example, is using Object Capture to develop tools for their manufacturers so they can create a virtual representation of their merchandise. This will allow Wayfair customers to be able to preview more products in AR than they could today.
Image Credits: Apple (screenshot of Wayfair tool))
In addition, Apple noted developers including Maxon and Unity are using Object Capture for creating 3D content within 3D content creation apps, such as Cinema 4D and Unity MARS.
Other updates in RealityKit 2 include custom shaders that give developers more control over the rendering pipeline to fine tune the look and feel of AR objects; dynamic loading for assets; the ability to build your own Entity Component System to organize the assets in your AR scene; and the ability to create player-controlled characters so users can jump, scale and explore AR worlds in RealityKit-based games.
One developer, Mikko Haapoja of Shopify, has been trying out the new technology (see below) and shared some real-world tests where he shot objects using an iPhone 12 Max via Twitter.
Developers who want to test it for themselves can leverage Apple’s sample app and install Monterey on their Mac to try it out.
Apple says there are over 14,000 ARKit apps on the App Store today, which have been built by over 9,000 different developers. With the over 1 billion AR-enabled iPhones and iPads being used globally, it notes that Apple offers the world’s largest AR platform.
Apple's Object Capture on a Pineapple. One of my fav things to test Photogrammetry against. This was processed using the RAW detail setting.
More info in thread pic.twitter.com/2mICzbV8yY
— Mikko Haapoja (@MikkoH) June 8, 2021
Apple's Object Capture is the real deal. I'm impressed. Excited to see where @Shopify merchants could take this
Allbirds Tree Dashers. More details in thread pic.twitter.com/fNKORtdtdB
— Mikko Haapoja (@MikkoH) June 8, 2021
Last month, Apple announced it would soon add lossless audio streaming and Spatial Audio with support for Dolby Atmos to its Apple Music subscription at no extra charge. That upgrade has now gone live, Apple announced this morning — though many noticed the additions actually rolled out yesterday, following the WWDC keynote.
The entire Apple Music catalog of 75+ million songs will support lossless audio.
The lossless tier begins at CD quality — 16 bit at 44.1 kHz, and goes up to 24 bit at 48 kHz, Apple previously said. Audiophiles can also opt for the high-resolution lossless that goes up to 24 bit at 192 kHz. Apple has said you’ll need to use an external, USB digital-to-analog converter to take advantage of the latter — simply plugging in a pair of headphones to an iPhone won’t work.
Apple Music subscribers will be able to enable the new lossless option under Settings > Music > Audio quality. Here, you’ll be able to choose the different resolutions you want to use for different connections, including Wi-Fi, cellular, and download.
When you make your selection in Settings, iOS warns that lossless files will use “significantly more space” on your device, as 10 GB of storage would allow you to store approximately 3,000 songs at high quality, 1,000 songs with lossless, or 200 songs with high-res lossless.
Image Credits: Apple
Meanwhile, Spatial Audio will be enabled by default on hardware that supports Dolby Atmos, like Apple’s AirPods and Beats headphones with an H1 or W1 chip. The latest iPhone, iPad, and Mac models also support Dolby Atmos. Spatial Audio on Apple Music will also be “coming soon” to Android devices, Apple said.
To kick off launch, Apple Music is today rolling out new playlists designed to showcase Spatial Audio. These include:
Apple is also adding a special guide to Spatial Audio on Apple Music, which will help music listeners hear the difference. This will include tracks from artists like Marvin Gaye and The Weeknd, among others. And Apple will air a roundtable conversation about Spatial Audio featuring top sound engineers and experts, hosted by Zane Lowe at 9 am PT today on Apple Music.
Because songs have to be remastered for Dolby Atmos specifically, these guides and playlists will help music fans experience the new format without having to hunt around. Apple says it’s working with artists and labels to add more new releases and the best catalog tracks in Spatial Audio. To help on this front, Apple notes there are various initiatives underway — including doubling the number of Dolby-enabled studios in major markets, offering educational programs, and providing resources to independent artists.
Apple also said it will build music-authoring tools directly into Logic Pro. Later this year, the company plans to release an update to Logic Pro that will allow any musician to create and mix their songs in Spatial Audio for Apple Music.
Apple announced a handful of privacy-focused updates at its annual software developer conference on Monday. One called Private Relay particularly piques the interest of Chinese users living under the country’s censorship system, for it encrypts all browsing history so nobody can track or intercept the data.
As my colleague Roman Dillet explains:
When Private Relay is turned on, nobody can track your browsing history — not your internet service provider, anyone standing in the middle of your request between your device and the server you’re requesting information from. We’ll have to wait a bit to learn more about how it works exactly.
The excitement didn’t last long. Apple told Reuters that Private Relay won’t be available in China alongside Belarus, Colombia, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkmenistan, Uganda and the Philippines.
Apple couldn’t be immediately reached by TechCrunch for comment.
Virtual private networks or VPNs are popular tools for users in China to bypass the “great firewall” censorship apparatus, accessing web services that are otherwise blocked or slowed down. But VPNs don’t necessarily protect users’ privacy because they simply funnel all the traffic through VPN providers’ servers instead of users’ internet providers, so users are essentially entrusting VPN firms with protecting their identities. Private Relay, on the other hand, doesn’t even allow Apple to see one’s browsing activity.
In an interview with Fast Company, Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering, explained why the new feature may be superior to VPNs:
“We hope users believe in Apple as a trustworthy intermediary, but we didn’t even want you to have to trust us [because] we don’t have this ability to simultaneously source your IP and the destination where you’re going to–and that’s unlike VPNs. And so we wanted to provide many of the benefits that people are seeking when in the past they’ve decided to use a VPN, but not force that difficult and conceivably perilous privacy trade-off in terms of trusting it a single intermediary.”
It’s unclear whether Private Relay will simply be excluded from system upgrades for users in China and the other countries where it’s restricted, or it will be blocked by internet providers in those regions. It also remains to be seen whether the feature will be available to Apple users in Hong Kong, which has seen an increase in online censorship in the past year.
Like all Western tech firms operating in China, Apple is trapped between antagonizing Beijing and flouting the values it espouses at home. Apple has a history of caving in to Beijing’s censorship pressure, from migrating all user data in China to a state-run cloud center, cracking down on independent VPN apps in China, limiting free speech in Chinese podcasts, to removing RSS feed readers from the China App Store.
Just after the release of iOS 12 in 2018, Apple introduced its own built-in screen time tracking tools and controls. In then began cracking down on third-party apps that had implemented their own screen time systems, saying they had done so through via technologies that risked user privacy. What wasn’t available at the time? A Screen Time API that would have allowed developers to tap into Apple’s own Screen Time system and build their own experiences that augmented its capabilities. That’s now changed.
At Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference on Monday, it introduced a new Screen Time API that offers developer access to frameworks that will allow parental control experience that also maintains user privacy.
— Guilherme Rambo (@_inside) June 7, 2021
The company added three new Swift frameworks to the iOS SDK that will allow developers to create apps that help parents manage what a child can do across their devices and ensure those restrictions stay in place.
The apps that use this API will be able to set restrictions like locking accounts in place, preventing password changes, filtering web traffic, and limiting access to applications. These sorts of changes are already available through Apple’s Screen Time system, but developers can now build their own experiences where these features are offered under their own branding and where they can then expand on the functionality provided by Apple’s system.
ScreenTime API looks great, I sincerely hope someone provides me a way to bulk change stuff for my kids. If I had known I would have to tweak each kids ScreenTime individually like I do today, I might have had less children. #WWDC21
— Stan Lemon (@stanlemon) June 7, 2021
Developers’ apps that take advantage of the API can also be locked in place so it can only be removed from the device with a parent’s approval.
The apps can authenticate the parents and ensure the device they’re managing belongs to a child in the family. Plus, Apple said the way the system will work lets parents choose the apps and websites they want to limit, without compromising user privacy. (The system returns only opaque tokens instead of identifiers for the apps and website URLs, Apple told developers, so the third-parties aren’t gaining access to private user data like app usage and web browsing details. This would prevent a shady company from building a Screen Time app only to collect troves of user data about app usage, for instance.)
The third-party apps can also create unique time windows for different apps or types of activities, and warn the child when time is nearly up. When it registers the time’s up, the app lock down access to websites and apps and perhaps remind the child it’s time to their homework — or whatever other experience the developer has in mind.
And on the flip side, the apps could create incentives for the child to gain screen time access after they complete some other task, like doing homework, reading or chores, or anything else.
Developers could use these features to design new experiences that Apple’s own Screen Time system doesn’t allow for today, by layering their own ideas on top of Apple’s basic set of controls. Parents would likely fork over their cash to make using Screen Time controls easier and more customized to their needs.
Other apps could tie into Screen Time too, outside of the “family” context — like those aimed at mental health and wellbeing, for example.
— Quentin Zervaas (@qzervaas) June 7, 2021
Of course, developers have been asking for a Screen Time API since the launch of Screen Time itself, but Apple didn’t seem to prioritize its development until the matter of Apple’s removal of rival screen time apps was brought up in an antitrust hearing last year. At the time, Apple CEO Tim Cook defended the company’s decision by explaining that apps had been using MDM (mobile device management) technology, which was designed for managing employee devices in the enterprise, not home use. This, he said, was a privacy risk.
Apple has a session during WWDC that will detail how the new API works, so we expect we’ll learn more soon as the developer info becomes more public.