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Apple’s dangerous path

By Lucas Matney

Hello friends, and welcome back to Week in Review.

Last week, we dove into the truly bizarre machinations of the NFT market. This week, we’re talking about something that’s a little bit more impactful on the current state of the web — Apple’s NeuralHash kerfuffle.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny


the big thing

In the past month, Apple did something it generally has done an exceptional job avoiding — the company made what seemed to be an entirely unforced error.

In early August — seemingly out of nowhere** — the company announced that by the end of the year they would be rolling out a technology called NeuralHash that actively scanned the libraries of all iCloud Photos users, seeking out image hashes that matched known images of child sexual abuse material (CSAM). For obvious reasons, the on-device scanning could not be opted out of.

This announcement was not coordinated with other major consumer tech giants, Apple pushed forward on the announcement alone.

Researchers and advocacy groups had almost unilaterally negative feedback for the effort, raising concerns that this could create new abuse channels for actors like governments to detect on-device information that they regarded as objectionable. As my colleague Zach noted in a recent story, “The Electronic Frontier Foundation said this week it had amassed more than 25,000 signatures from consumers. On top of that, close to 100 policy and rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, also called on Apple to abandon plans to roll out the technology.”

(The announcement also reportedly generated some controversy inside of Apple.)

The issue — of course — wasn’t that Apple was looking at find ways that prevented the proliferation of CSAM while making as few device security concessions as possible. The issue was that Apple was unilaterally making a massive choice that would affect billions of customers (while likely pushing competitors towards similar solutions), and was doing so without external public input about possible ramifications or necessary safeguards.

A long story short, over the past month researchers discovered Apple’s NeuralHash wasn’t as air tight as hoped and the company announced Friday that it was delaying the rollout “to take additional time over the coming months to collect input and make improvements before releasing these critically important child safety features.”

Having spent several years in the tech media, I will say that the only reason to release news on a Friday morning ahead of a long weekend is to ensure that the announcement is read and seen by as few people as possible, and it’s clear why they’d want that. It’s a major embarrassment for Apple, and as with any delayed rollout like this, it’s a sign that their internal teams weren’t adequately prepared and lacked the ideological diversity to gauge the scope of the issue that they were tackling. This isn’t really a dig at Apple’s team building this so much as it’s a dig on Apple trying to solve a problem like this inside the Apple Park vacuum while adhering to its annual iOS release schedule.

illustration of key over cloud icon

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch /

Apple is increasingly looking to make privacy a key selling point for the iOS ecosystem, and as a result of this productization, has pushed development of privacy-centric features towards the same secrecy its surface-level design changes command. In June, Apple announced iCloud+ and raised some eyebrows when they shared that certain new privacy-centric features would only be available to iPhone users who paid for additional subscription services.

You obviously can’t tap public opinion for every product update, but perhaps wide-ranging and trail-blazing security and privacy features should be treated a bit differently than the average product update. Apple’s lack of engagement with research and advocacy groups on NeuralHash was pretty egregious and certainly raises some questions about whether the company fully respects how the choices they make for iOS affect the broader internet.

Delaying the feature’s rollout is a good thing, but let’s all hope they take that time to reflect more broadly as well.

** Though the announcement was a surprise to many, Apple’s development of this feature wasn’t coming completely out of nowhere. Those at the top of Apple likely felt that the winds of global tech regulation might be shifting towards outright bans of some methods of encryption in some of its biggest markets.

Back in October of 2020, then United States AG Bill Barr joined representatives from the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, India and Japan in signing a letter raising major concerns about how implementations of encryption tech posed “significant challenges to public safety, including to highly vulnerable members of our societies like sexually exploited children.” The letter effectively called on tech industry companies to get creative in how they tackled this problem.


other things

Here are the TechCrunch news stories that especially caught my eye this week:

LinkedIn kills Stories
You may be shocked to hear that LinkedIn even had a Stories-like product on their platform, but if you did already know that they were testing Stories, you likely won’t be so surprised to hear that the test didn’t pan out too well. The company announced this week that they’ll be suspending the feature at the end of the month. RIP.

FAA grounds Virgin Galactic over questions about Branson flight
While all appeared to go swimmingly for Richard Branson’s trip to space last month, the FAA has some questions regarding why the flight seemed to unexpectedly veer so far off the cleared route. The FAA is preventing the company from further launches until they find out what the deal is.

Apple buys a classical music streaming service
While Spotify makes news every month or two for spending a massive amount acquiring a popular podcast, Apple seems to have eyes on a different market for Apple Music, announcing this week that they’re bringing the classical music streaming service Primephonic onto the Apple Music team.

TikTok parent company buys a VR startup
It isn’t a huge secret that ByteDance and Facebook have been trying to copy each other’s success at times, but many probably weren’t expecting TikTok’s parent company to wander into the virtual reality game. The Chinese company bought the startup Pico which makes consumer VR headsets for China and enterprise VR products for North American customers.

Twitter tests an anti-abuse ‘Safety Mode’
The same features that make Twitter an incredibly cool product for some users can also make the experience awful for others, a realization that Twitter has seemingly been very slow to make. Their latest solution is more individual user controls, which Twitter is testing out with a new “safety mode” which pairs algorithmic intelligence with new user inputs.


extra things

Some of my favorite reads from our Extra Crunch subscription service this week:

Our favorite startups from YC’s Demo Day, Part 1 
“Y Combinator kicked off its fourth-ever virtual Demo Day today, revealing the first half of its nearly 400-company batch. The presentation, YC’s biggest yet, offers a snapshot into where innovation is heading, from not-so-simple seaweed to a Clearco for creators….”

…Part 2
“…Yesterday, the TechCrunch team covered the first half of this batch, as well as the startups with one-minute pitches that stood out to us. We even podcasted about it! Today, we’re doing it all over again. Here’s our full list of all startups that presented on the record today, and below, you’ll find our votes for the best Y Combinator pitches of Day Two. The ones that, as people who sift through a few hundred pitches a day, made us go ‘oh wait, what’s this?’

All the reasons why you should launch a credit card
“… if your company somehow hasn’t yet found its way to launch a debit or credit card, we have good news: It’s easier than ever to do so and there’s actual money to be made. Just know that if you do, you’ve got plenty of competition and that actual customer usage will probably depend on how sticky your service is and how valuable the rewards are that you offer to your most active users….”


Thanks for reading, and again, if you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny

Lucas Matney

Startups should look to state-of-the-art tech to tackle diseases affecting women

By Annie Siebert
Shahar Keinan Contributor
Shahar Keinan, co-founder and CEO of Polaris Quantum Biotech has over 20 years of extensive experience in computational and theoretical chemistry.
Pek Lum Contributor
Pek Lum, co-founder and CEO at Auransa, has more than 20 years of genomics and drug discovery experience and is the chief architect behind Auransa’s technology.

Startups devoted to reproductive and women’s health are on the rise. However, most of them deal with women’s fertility: birth control, ovulation and the inability to conceive. The broader field of women’s health remains neglected.

Historically, most of our understanding of ailments comes from the perspective of men and is overwhelmingly based on studies using male patients. Until the early 1990s, women of childbearing age were kept out of drug trial studies, and the resulting bias has been an ongoing issue in healthcare. Other issues include underrepresentation of women in health studies, trivialization of women’s physical complaints (which is relevant to the misdiagnosis of endometriosis, among other conditions), and gender bias in the funding of research, especially in research grants.

For example, several studies have shown that when we look at National Institutes of Health funding, a disproportionate share of its resources goes to diseases that primarily affect men — at the expense of those that primarily affect women. In 2019, studies of NIH funding based on disease burden (as estimated by the number of years lost due to an illness) showed that male-favored diseases were funded at twice the rate of female-favored diseases.

Let’s take endometriosis as an example. Endometriosis is a disease where endometrial-like tissue (‘‘lesions’’) can be found outside the uterus. Endometriosis is a condition that only occurs in individuals with uteruses and has been less funded and less studied than many other conditions. It can cause chronic pain, fatigue, painful intercourse and infertility. Although the disease may affect one out of 10 women, diagnosis is still very slow, and the disease is confirmed only by surgery.

There is no non-invasive test available. In many cases, a woman is diagnosed only due to her infertility, and the diagnosis can take up to 10 years. Even after diagnosis, the understanding of disease biology and progression is poor, as well as the understanding of the relationships to other lesion diseases, such as adenomyosis. Current treatments include surgical removal of lesions and drugs that suppress ovarian hormone (mainly estrogen) production.

However, there are changes in the works. The NIH created the women’s health research category in 1994 for annual budgeting purposes and, in 2019, it was updated to include research that is relevant to women only. In acknowledging the widespread male bias in both human and animal studies, the NIH mandated in 2016 that grant applicants would be required to recruit male and female participants in their protocols. These changes are slow, and if we look at endometriosis, it received just $7 million in NIH funding in the fiscal year 2018, putting it near the very bottom of NIH’s 285 disease/research areas.

It is interesting to note that critical changes are coming from other sources, and not so much from the funding agencies or the pharmaceutical industry. The push is coming from patients and physicians themselves that meet the diseases regularly. We see pharmaceutical companies (such as Eli Lilly and AbbVie) in the women’s healthcare space following the lead of their patients and slowly expanding their R&D base and doubling efforts to expand beyond reproductive health into other key women’s health areas.

New technological innovations targeting endometriosis are being funded via private sources. In 2020, women’s health finally emerged as one of the most promising areas of investment. These include (not an exhaustive list by any means) diagnostics companies such as NextGen Jane, which raised a $9 million Series A in April 2021 for its “smart tampon,” and DotLab, a non-invasive endometriosis testing startup, which raised $10 million from investors last July. Other notable advances include the research-study app Phendo that tracks endometriosis, and Gynica, a company focused on cannabis-based treatments for gynecological issues.

The complexity of endometriosis is such that any single biotech startup may find it challenging to go it alone. One approach to tackle this is through collaborations. Two companies, Polaris Quantum Biotech and Auransa, have teamed up to tackle the endometriosis challenge and other women’s specific diseases.

Using data, algorithms and quantum computing, this collaboration between two female-led AI companies integrates the understanding of disease biology with chemistry. Moreover, they are not stopping at in silico; rather, this collaboration aims to bring therapeutics to patients.

New partnerships can majorly impact how fast a field like women’s health can advance. Without such concerted efforts, women-centric diseases such as endometriosis, triple-negative breast cancer and ovarian cancer, to name a few, may remain neglected and result in much-needed therapeutics not moving into clinics promptly.

Using state-of-the-art technologies on complex women’s diseases will allow the field to advance much faster and can put drug candidates into clinics in a few short years, especially with the help of patient advocacy groups, research organizations, physicians and out-of-the-box funding approaches such as crowdfunding from the patients themselves.

We believe that going after the women’s health market is a win-win for the patients as well as from the business perspective, as the global market for endometriosis drugs alone is expected to reach $2.2 billion in the next six years.

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

By Sarah Perez

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

The app industry continues to grow, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

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

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

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

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

Top Story: The App Store settlement underwhelms

Image Credits: TechCrunch

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

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

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

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

Developer responses to the settlement

Image Credits: Apple

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

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

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

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

James Thomson, indie developer and creator of PCalc app:

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

Becky Hansmeyer, indie developer behind YarnBuddy and Snapthread apps: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weekly News

Apple Platform Updates

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

Image Credits: App Store screenshot

Google Platform Updates

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

E-commerce

Shopify and TikTok for business with TikTok image of Kylie Jenner

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

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

Augmented Reality

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

Fintech

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

Social/Creators

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

Image Credits: Snap Camera Shortcuts

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

Image Credits: Snap Screenshot

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

Messaging

Image Credits: Messenger

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

Streaming & Entertainment

Image Credits: Movies Anywhere

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

Gaming

Netflix tests mobile gaming, netflix app, Android Netflix app

Image Credits: Netflix

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

Health & Fitness

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

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

Transportation

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

Productivity

Image Credits: Edison

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

Utilities

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

Government & Policy

Apple app store iOS

Image Credits: TechCrunch

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

Security & Privacy

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

Funding and M&A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Recs

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

Downloads

Popcorn

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

Luma

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

LOVE

Image Credits: LOVE

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

YouTube to roll out picture-in-picture viewing for all US iOS users, starting with Premium subscribers

By Amanda Silberling

Though YouTube has supported picture-in-picture viewing on Android devices since 2018, YouTube told TechCrunch today that it plans to launch the feature to all iOS users in the U.S. on both iPhone and iPad. For now, YouTube is inviting Premium subscribers to test this feature, which lets users watch picture-in-picture videos in a mini player while browsing other apps. The testing period for Premium users ends on October 31, but YouTube does not have a timeline to share for when all U.S. iOS users will gain access to the feature.

Though this is a mobile feature, Premium subscribers must enable the ability to test it via the YouTube experiments website on the desktop. Last year, YouTube made opting into experiments a Premium perk.

If you scroll down on the experiments website, you’ll see “Picture-in picture on iOS” with the option to try it. Then, if you watch a video on the YouTube app, you should see a picture-in-picture display of the video when you navigate out of the app.

Image Credits: Screenshots obtained by TechCrunch

Once viewing a video via picture-in-picture, you can adjust where the video appears on your screen and how big it is. When you tap on the video, you’ll return to the YouTube app. If you lock your phone, the video will pause.

Some users have reported that you might need to delete and reinstall the YouTube app to get it to work.

This feature is different from existing picture-in-picture functionality on the YouTube iOS app because it allows you to continue watching a video even while navigating elsewhere on your phone. Similar features already exist on streaming apps like Netflix.

Apple lowers commissions on in-app purchases for news publishers who participate in Apple News

By Sarah Perez

Apple today is launching a new program that will allow subscription news organizations that participate in the Apple News app and meet certain requirements to lower their commission rate to 15% on qualifying in-app purchases taking place inside their apps on the App Store. Typically, Apple’s model for subscription-based apps involves a standard 30% commission during their first year on the App Store, which then drops to 15% in year two. But the new Apple News Partner Program, announced today, will now make 15% the commission rate for participants starting on day one.

There are a few caveats to this condition, and they benefit Apple. To qualify, the news publisher must maintain a presence on Apple News and they have to provide their content in the Apple News Format (ANF). The latter is the JavaScript Object Notation (JSON) format that’s used to create articles for Apple News which are optimized for Mac, iPhone and other Apple mobile devices. Typically, this involves a bit of setup to translate news articles from a publisher’s website or from their CMS (content management system) to the supported JSON format. For WordPress and other popular CMS’s, there are also plugins available to make this process easier.

Meanwhile, for publishers headquartered outside one of the four existing Apple News markets — the U.S., U.K., Australia or Canada — they can instead satisfy the program’s obligations by providing Apple with an RSS feed.

On the App Store, the partner app qualifying for the 15% commission must be used to deliver “original, professionally authored” news content, and they must offer their auto-renewable subscriptions using Apple’s in-app purchase system.

Image Credits: Apple

While there is some initial work involved in establishing the publisher’s connection to Apple News, it’s worth noting that most major publishers already participate on Apple’s platform. That means they won’t have to do any additional work beyond what they’re already doing in order to transition over to the reduced commission for their apps. However, the program also serves as a way to push news organizations to continue to participate in the Apple News ecosystem, as it will make more financial sense to do so across their broader business.

That will likely be an area of contention for publishers, who would probably prefer that the reduced App Store commission didn’t come with strings attached.

Some publishers already worry that they’re giving up too much control over their business by tying themselves to the Apple News ecosystem. Last year, for example, The New York Times announced it would exit its partnership with Apple News, saying that Apple didn’t allow it to have as direct a relationship with readers as it wanted, and it would rather drive readers to its own app and website.

Apple, however, would argue that it doesn’t stand in the way of publishers’ businesses — it lets them paywall their content and keep 100% of the ad revenue from the ads they sell. (If they can’t sell it all or would prefer Apple to do so on their behalf, they then split the commission with Apple, keeping 70% of revenues instead.) In addition, for the company’s Apple News+ subscription service — where the subscription revenue split is much higher — it could be argued that it’s “found money.” That is, Apple markets the service to customers the publisher hadn’t been able to attract on its own anyway.

The launch of the new Apple News Partner program comes amid regulatory scrutiny over how Apple manages its App Store business and more recently, proposed legislation aiming to address alleged anticompetitive issues both in the U.S. and in major App Store markets, like South Korea.

Sensing this shift in the market, Apple had already been working to provide itself cover from antitrust complaints and lawsuits — like the one underway now with Epic Games — by adjusting its App Store commissions. Last year, it launched the App Store Small Business Program, which also lowered commissions on in-app purchases from 30% to 15% — but only for developers earning up to $1 million in revenues.

This program may have helped smaller publishers, but it was clear some major publishers still weren’t satisfied. After the reduced commissions for small businesses were announced in November, the publisher trade organization Digital Content Next (DCN) — a representative for the AP, The New York Times, NPR, ESPN, Vox, The Washington Post, Meredith, Bloomberg, NBCU, The Financial Times, and others — joined the advocacy group and lobbying organization the Coalition for App Fairness (CAF) the very next month.

These publishers, who had previously written to Apple CEO Tim Cook to demand lower commissions — had other complaints about the revenue share beyond just the size of the split. They also didn’t want to be required to use Apple’s services for in-app purchases for their subscriptions, saying this “Apple tax” forces them to raise their prices for consumers.

It remains to be seen how these publishers will now react to the launch of the Apple News Partner program.

While it gives them a way to lower their App Store fees, it doesn’t address their broader complaints against Apple’s platform and its rules. If anything, it ties the lower fees to a program that locks them in further to the Apple ecosystem.

Apple, in a gesture of goodwill, also said today it would recommit support to three leading media non-profits, Common Sense Media, the News Literacy Project, and Osservatorio Permanente Giovani-Editori. These non-profits offer nonpartisan, independent media literacy programs, which Apple views as key to its larger mission to empower people to become smart and active news readers. Apple also said it would later announce further media literacy projects from other organizations. The company would not disclose the size of its commitment from a financial standpoint however, or discuss how much it has sent such organizations in the past.

“Providing Apple News customers with access to trusted information from our publishing partners has been our priority from day one,” said Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of Services, in a statement. “For more than a decade, Apple has offered our customers many ways to access and enjoy news content across our products and services. We have hundreds of news apps from dozens of countries around the world available in the App Store, and created Apple News Format to offer publishers a tool to showcase their content and provide a great experience for millions of Apple News users,” he added.

More details about the program and the application form will be available at the News Partner Program website.

Celebrity chef Michael Chernow whips up new lifestyle brand, Kreatures of Habit, raises $2.2M

By Christine Hall

Michael Chernow is already known as a restaurateur, chef, television host and entrepreneur, but now he can also add lifestyle and wellness guru to that list.

Chernow raised $2.2 million to launch Kreatures of Habit, a lifestyle and wellness brand, with the goal of helping people establish healthy habits.

Seasoned entrepreneur and investor Gary Vaynerchuk led the funding round and was joined by a group of entrepreneurs, media executives and professional sports figures, including Sports 1 Marketing co-founder David Meltzer, Elevator Studio founder Dan Fleyshman, author Dean Graziosi, angel investor Josh Bezoni, author Joel Marion, “Entrepreneurs on Fire” host John Lee Dumas, LA Dodgers player Justin Turner, Philadelphia Eagles general manager Howie Roseman and Evan Yurman.

The idea for Kreatures of Habit stemmed from Chernow’s own life, celebrating 17 years of sobriety. He said he adopted positive habits that enabled him to replace alcohol with nutrition and fitness.

It is the latest venture for Chermow, who also founded The Meatball Shop and Seamore’s in New York. The brand originally started out as a café concept, but Chermow pivoted to the consumer goods space when the global pandemic hit.

“I had put a plan together in 2019, was away for a few weeks when the news of COVID hit,” he told TechCrunch. “I called up my investors and said ‘I am not going to invest in this and neither should you. I’m going to reassess and get back to you.’ However, through my journey of scaling restaurants, I didn’t love doing it because I went from being a culture entrepreneur to a project manager. It was a far cry from connecting to human beings around a brand.”

He started with breakfast — his favorite meal of the day — and began looking at his sustenance of choice: oatmeal, protein and vitamins. Now he is targeting the $3.3 billion pre-packed oats market with his first product, a direct-to-consumer instant oatmeal called The PrOATagonist.

Kreatures of Habit oatmeal. Image Credits: Kreatures of Habit

It is a plant-based, gluten and allergen-free meal that has his three favorite breakfast go-tos — oats, protein and vitamins, plus minerals and Omega-3 fatty acids. Chernow spent over a year testing the formula, which comes in three flavors, including chocolate, blueberry-banana and vanilla.

To help Chernow tap into the industry, he brought on former RX Bar chief marketing officer Victor Lee to lead the brand’s go-to-market strategy. The PrOATagonist comes in a box of seven for $34, and can be obtained via a monthly subscription of $33.

He is also working with one of his investors, Elevator Studios’ Fleyshman, who Chernow referred to as “the best marketer today.”

Fleyshman said he was eager to invest after getting off of a Zoom call with Vaynerchuk.

“The combination of Michael’s resume and passion to build a business with Gary’s passion for building a brand had its advantages as did the cool factor of making a brand with a physical product,” he added. “Gary got 30 people together on the call and almost half had committed within the week.”

In addition to funneling much of the new funding into marketing, it will also be used on product development.

“We have a pipeline of products that will live in the beginning of the day and snack space, several that are in development right now,” Chernow added. “We will always have a capsule collection drop three times a year, a seasonal line and full suite of SKUs over the next three to five years.”

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

By Sarah Perez

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

The app industry continues to grow, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

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

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

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

Top Stories

OnlyFans to ban sexually explicit content

OnlyFans logo displayed on a phone screen and a website

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

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

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

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

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

The TikTok logo is seen on an iPhone 11 Pro max

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

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

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

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

Image Credits: Apple

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

Platforms: Google

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

Augmented Reality

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

Fintech

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

Social

Image Credits: Facebook

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

Photos

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

Messaging

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

Streaming & Entertainment

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

Dating

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

Gaming

Image Source: The Pokémon Company

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

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Health & Fitness

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

Image Credits: Samsung

Adtech

Government & Policy

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

Security & Privacy

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

Funding and M&A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public Markets

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

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

Downloads

Polycam (update)

Image Credits: Polycam

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

Jiobit (update)

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

Tweets

When your app redesign goes wrong…

Image Credits: Twitter.com

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

Image Credits: Twitter.com

Anyone have app ideas?

Spatial audio is coming to Netflix on iPhone and iPad

By Amanda Silberling

If you use AirPods Pro or AirPods Max, your mobile Netflix-watching is about to get a bit more immersive. Yesterday, Netflix confirmed that it has begun rolling out spatial audio support on iPhone and iPad on iOS 14 after the feature was spotted by a Reddit user.

Netflix joins streaming competitors like HBO Max, Disney+, and Peacock in enabling this feature, while other popular apps like Amazon Prime Video and YouTube still don’t have this functionality. Still, Netflix said the rollout won’t be immediate — users who have the update should be able to toggle it on or off in the Control Center.

Recently, Apple has been emphasizing its spatial audio features. The company first announced that it would bring spatial audio to AirPods Pro during the WWDC conference in 2020 — during this year’s conference, Apple added that Apple Music subscribers would gain access to spatial audio and lossless audio streaming at no extra charge. This even supports dynamic head tracking, which adjusts the sound when you move your head.  The Android version of the Apple Music app also supports spatial and lossless audio. In February, Spotify said it would rollout a high-end subscription service, Spotify HiFi, which would enable lossless audio, though there’s been no news since.

Last month, Netflix revealed that it start looking toward mobile gaming in addition to its original movies and television series. The company has already experimented with interactive entertainment with projects like Black Mirror: Bandersnatch and its Stranger Things games.

“We view gaming as another new content category for us, similar to our expansion into original films, animation and unscripted TV,” the company said in its quarterly earnings report.

Spatial audio is popular among video game players — so while this update will enhance the streaming video experience on iPhone and iPad, perhaps we’ll see this feature at play in eventual Netflix mobile games, too.

Apple walks back controversial Safari changes with iOS 15 beta 6 update

By Sarah Perez

Apple is slowly walking back its controversial decision to redesign mobile Safari in iOS 15 to show the address bar at the bottom of the screen, floating atop the page’s content. The revamp, which was largely meant to make it easier to reach Safari’s controls with one hand, has met with criticism as Apple’s other design choices actually made the new experience less usable than before. With the latest release of iOS 15 beta 6, Apple is responding to user feedback and complaints with the introduction of yet another design that now shows the bottom tab bar below the page content, offering a more standardized experience for those who would have otherwise liked the update. More importantly, perhaps, Apple is no longer forcing the bottom tab bar on users.

With the new release, there’s now an option to show the address bar at the top of the page, as before. For all those who truly hated the update, this means they can set things back to “normal.”

Image Credits: Screenshots, tab bar before and after

One significant complaint with the floating tab bar was that it made some websites nearly unusable, as the bar would block out elements you needed to click. (To get to these unreachable parts of the page, you’d have to swipe the bar down — a less-than-ideal experience).

Just another day being unable to order takeout because iOS 15 Safari’s bottom bar makes this checkout button untappable.

thanks Safari for not letting me have that bruschetta 😢pic.twitter.com/e23YTYzGM6

— Federico Viticci (@viticci) July 22, 2021

In iOS 15 beta 6, these and other issues are addressed. Essentially, the tab bar looks much like it used to — with a familiar row of buttons, like it had before when it had been available at the top of the screen. And the bar will no longer get in the way of website content.

Testers had also pointed out that Apple’s original decision to hide often-used features — like the reload button or Reader Mode — under the three-dot “more” menu made Safari more difficult to use than in the past. With the release of iOS 15 beta 4, Apple had tried to solve this problem by bringing back the reload and share buttons, and making Reader Mode appear when available. But the buttons were still small and harder to tap than before.

The new tab bar and the return to normal it offers — regardless of its placement at the top or bottom of the screen — is an admission from Apple that users’ complaints on this matter were, in fact, valid. And it’s a demonstration of what beta testing is meant to be about: trying out new ideas and fixing what doesn’t work.

Separately, beta 6 users can now restore the tab bar to the top of the page, if that’s your preference. You can now find an option under Settings –> Safari to choose between the Tab Bar default and the Single Tab option — the latter which relocates the address bar to the top of the screen. (Doing so means you’ll lose the option to swipe through your open tabs, as you could with the Tab Bar, however.)

It’s fairly common for Apple to offer alternatives to its default settings — like how it allows users to configure how gestures and clicks work on the Mac’s trackpad, for example, or how it allows users to turn off the oncedebated “natural” scroll direction option. But adding the option to return the tab at the top is an admission that some good portion of Safari users didn’t want to relearn how to use one of the iPhone’s most frequently accessed apps. And if forced to do so, they may have switched browsers instead.

As Apple typically releases the latest version of its iOS software in the fall, this update may represent one of the final changes to Safari we’ll see ahead of the public release.

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

By Sarah Perez

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

The app industry continues to grow, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

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

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

Top Stories

Google Play updates its policies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apple tries to fix the Safari mess

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

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

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

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

Elon Musk sides with Epic Games

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

Weekly News

Other Platform News (Apple & Google)

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

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

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

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

E-commerce

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

Fintech

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

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

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

Social

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Messaging

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

Streaming & Entertainment

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

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

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

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

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

Gaming

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

Health & Fitness

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

Productivity

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

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

Edtech

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

Utilities

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

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

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

Transportation

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

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

Government & Policy

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

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

Security & Privacy

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

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

Funding and M&A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Downloads

Nanogram

Image Credits: Nanogram

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

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

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

Lightricks’ Videoleap for Android

Image Credits: Lightricks

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

Tweets

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

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 30, 2021

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

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

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

— Federico Viticci (@viticci) July 27, 2021

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

— Matthew Cassinelli (@mattcassinelli) July 27, 2021

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

— Chris Lee (@cleerview) July 25, 2021

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

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

— Danny Singh (@Mr_DannySingh) July 22, 2021

Colombia’s Merqueo bags $50M to expand its online grocery delivery service across Latin America

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Merqueo, which operates a full-stack, on-demand delivery service in Latin America, has landed $50 million in a Series C round of funding.

IDC Ventures, Digital Bridge and IDB Invest co-led the round, which also included participation from MGM Innova Group, Celtic House Venture Partners, Palm Drive Capital and previous shareholders. The financing brings the Bogota, Colombia-based startup’s total raised to $85 million since its 2017 inception.

Merqueo CEO and co-founder Miguel McAllister knows a thing or two about the delivery space in Latin America, having also co-founded Domicilios.com, a Latin American food delivery company that was bought by Berlin-based Delivery Hero and later merged with Brazil’s iFood.

McAllister describes Merqueo as a “pure-play online supermarket with a fully integrated grocery delivery service” that sources directly from large brands and local suppliers, bypassing intermediaries and “delivering directly from its dark store network.” (Dark stores are traditional retail stores that have been converted to local fulfillment centers.”

Merqueo offers more than 8,000 products, including fresh foods, packaged goods, home essentials, beverages and frozen products. It currently operates in more than 25 cities in Colombia, Mexico and Brazil and has over 600,000 users.

Image Credits: Merqueo

It must be doing something right. The startup is close to $100 million in “run-rate revenue,” according to McAllister, having grown more than 2.5x in 2020. Merqueo also reached positive cash flow in Colombia, its most mature market. Over the last year, large Latin American retail chains and retailers have approached the company about potentially acquiring it, McAllister said.

Part of the company’s success might be attributed to the speed and flexibility it offers. Users can choose how and when to receive their groceries according to their needs, with the startup offering delivery in as little as 10 minutes or three to four hours. Users can also schedule delivery of their groceries in two-hour intervals for the same day or the next day.

Also, owning and controlling the “entire” vertical supply chain gives it the ability to obtain better margins, offer competitive pricing and achieve healthy unit economics, according to McAllister.

Merqueo plans to use its new capital in part to expand geographically. The company is currently in phase one of its expansion to Brazil, entering initially in Sao Paulo later this month. Next year, it expects to launch in other Brazilian cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Fortaleza and Salvador de Bahia.

The market opportunity in Latin America is massive considering that online grocery sales only represent just 1% of the market –– far lower than in the U.S., EU or China, for example. Other players in the increasingly crowded space include GoPuff in the U.S., Getir out of Turkey and Mexico-based Jüsto, which raised $65 million in a Series A led by General Atlantic earlier this year.

“The pandemic accelerated the adoption of online grocery shopping in LatAm,” McAllister told TechCrunch. “The region went from 0.3% share of online groceries to 1%. And after the pandemic, we are seeing a 50% increase in the pace of user adoption.” Overall, the $85 billion e-commerce market in Latin America is growing rapidly, with projections of it reaching $116.2 billion in 2023.

Currently, Merqueo has over 1,300 employees in LatAm, up 60% from last year. It plans to continue hiring with the proceeds from the Series C round as well work “to become the largest and most ambitious dark stores network of Latin America.”

Alejandro Rodríguez, managing partner at IDC Ventures, is naturally bullish on Merqueo’s potential.

“From all the opportunities we looked into, Merqueo is undoubtedly the most advanced in the region. … The Merqueo team has proved they know how to scale the business and how to get to profitability,” Rodríguez told TechCrunch.

Online grocery delivery is a business with many technical and operational complexities, he said. In his view, Merqueo’s technology and operational expertise allow it to tackle those issues in a way that has led to “the best customer experience that we have seen in a scalable way.”

“They have the best combination of both great service metrics and healthy unit economics,” Rodríguez added.

In growth marketing, creative is the critical X factor

By Walter Thompson
Jonathan Martinez Contributor
Jonathan Martinez is a former YouTuber, UC Berkeley alum and growth marketing nerd who's helped scale Uber, Postmates, Chime and various startups.

As we move toward a privacy-centric, less targeted future of growth marketing, the biggest lever will become creative on paid social channels such as the Facebooks of the world. The loss of attribution from our good friend iOS 14.5 has accelerated this trend, but channels have increasingly placed efforts toward automating their ad platforms.

Due to this, I believe that every growth marketing engine should have a proper creative testing framework in place — be it a seed-stage startup or a behemoth like Google.

After three years at Postmates, consulting for various startups, and most recently at Uber, I’ve seen the landscape of marketing change in a multitude of ways. However, what we’re seeing now is being orchestrated by factors out of our control, causing a dawn of shifts unlike anything I’ve seen. Creative has subsequently risen to become the most powerful lever in a paid social account.

The foundation

If you’re looking to leverage the power of creative and succeed with paid social marketing, you’re thinking right. What you need is a creative testing framework: A structured and consistent way to test new creative assets.

Here’s a breakdown of the pieces a creative testing framework needs to be successful:

  • A defined testing schedule.
  • A structured theme approach.
  • A channel-specific strategy.

Creative has become the most powerful lever in a paid social account.

Testing creative should be a constant and iterative process that follows a defined testing schedule. A goal and structure can be as simple as testing five new creative assets per week. Inversely, it can be as complex as testing 60 new assets consisting of multiple themes and copy variations.

For a lower spending account, the creative testing should be leaner due to limited event signal and vice versa with a higher spending account. The most important aspect is that the testing continues to move the needle as you search for your next “champion” asset.

creating a testing schedule for different creative themes

4 themes x 3 variants per theme x 5 copy variations = 60 assets. Image Credits: Jonathan Martinez

After setting a testing schedule, define the core themes of your business and vertical rather than testing a plethora of random ideas. This applies to the creative asset as well as the copy and what the key value props are to your product or service. As you start to analyze the creative data, you’ll find it easier to decide what to double down on or cut from testing with this structure. Think of this as a wireframe that you either expand or trim throughout testing sprints.

For a fitness app like MyFitnessPal, it can be structured as follows:

  • Themes (product screenshots, images of people using it, UGC testimonials, before/after images).
  • Messaging (segmented value props, promo, FUD).

It’s vital to make sure you have a channel-specific approach, as each one will differ in creative best practices along with testing capabilities. What works on Facebook may not work on Snapchat or the numerous other paid social channels. Don’t be discouraged if creative between channels perform differently, although I do recommend parity testing. If you already have the creative asset for one channel, it doesn’t hurt to resize and format for the remaining channels.

Determining wins

Equally important to the creative is proper event selection and a statistically significant threshold to abide by throughout all testing. When selecting an event to use for creative testing, it’s not always possible to use your north-star metric depending on how high your CACs are. For example, if you’re selling a high-ticket item and the CACs are in the hundreds, it would take an enormous amount of spend to reach stat-sig on each creative asset. Instead, pick an event that’s more upper funnel and a strong indicator of a user’s likelihood of converting.

Using a more upper funnel event leads to faster learnings (blue line).

Using a more upper-funnel event leads to faster learnings (blue line). Image Credits: Jonathan Martinez

It’s important to select a percentage that stays consistent across all creative testing when deciding on which statistically significant percentage to use. As a rule of thumb, I like to use a certainty of 80%+, because it allows for enough confirmation along with the ability to make quicker decisions. A great (and free) online calculator is Neil Patel’s A/B Testing Significance Calculator.

Make or break

You’re scrolling through a social feed, a sleek gold pendant catches your eye, but all the messaging has is the brand name and product specifications. It hooked your attention, but what did it do to reel you in? Think about it: What are you doing to not only hook, but reel people in with “creative” — the make or break it factor in paid social growth marketing?

Circumventing iOS 14.5 data loss

Creative testing is only getting tougher for mobile campaigns as iOS 14.5 obfuscates user data, but that doesn’t equal impossible and simply means we need to get craftier. There are a variety of hacks that can be implemented to help gain clear insight on how creative is performing — some may not last forever and others may be timeless.

Amid all the privacy restrictions, we still have access to a huge population of users on Android that we should take advantage of. Instead of running all creative tests on iOS, Android can be used as a clear way to gather insights, as privacy restrictions haven’t rolled out on those devices yet. The data gathered from Android tests can then be taken directionally and applied to iOS campaigns. It’s only a matter of time until Android data is also at the mercy of data restrictions, so use this workaround to inform iOS campaigns now.

If running Android campaigns isn’t a viable option, another quick and easy solution is to throw up a website lead form to gauge the conversion rate from creative asset to a completed form. The user experience will certainly not be nearly as amazing as evergreen, but this can be used to gain insight for a short period of time (and small percentage of budget).

When crafting the lead form, think of questions that are both qualifying and would indicate someone completing your north-star event on the evergreen experience. After running people through the lead form, communications can be sent to convert them so ad dollars are being put to good use.

Placing efforts by account stage

The testing efforts for creative asset types should differ widely by account stage and can be broken down into three I’s: imitation, iteration, innovation.

The type of creative testing should vary over time.

The type of creative testing should vary over time. Image Credits: Jonathan Martinez

The earlier an account stage, the more your creative direction should rely on what’s proven to work by other advertisers. These other advertisers have spent thousands proving performance with their assets, and you can gain strong insight from them. As time passes, you can slightly slow derivation from other advertisers while focusing on iterating on the best performers. If a percentage had to be placed, I would target 80% of efforts on imitation early on, with iteration gaining steam, and innovation being the final, heavy-lagging prong.

This isn’t to say that innovation can’t be attempted early on if there are great ideas, but generally a more mature company can afford to spend heaps to validate their innovative ideas. Whether you have an in-house design team or are working with freelancers, it’ll also be much easier to spin up 50 variations than it will be to think of and design 50 different innovative assets. Imitating and iterating will make your early testing exponentially more efficient.

Leveraging competitor insights

Brainstorming and trying to imagine the most beautiful, eye-catching, hook-inducing creative doesn’t always happen within seconds, let alone minutes or hours. This is where utilizing competitor insights comes into play. The most abundant resource is the Facebook Ads Library bar none, because it contains all the creative assets that every advertiser is using across the platform. It always surprises me how few actually know of this free and powerful tool.

When browsing through competitors or best-in-class advertisers in this library, a sign of a great performing creative is how long an advertiser has been running specific assets. How does one find that? The date of when an advertiser started running their creative is stamped conveniently on each asset — this is beyond powerful. I can spend hours scanning through creative assets, and each advertiser provides even more intel and inspiration.

Creative should be at the top of the list as you think of where to place efforts on your paid social growth marketing. We must have a hacky mindset as data becomes more obscure, but with that mindset comes separating the winners from the losers. The types of strategies put in motion will vary over time, but what won’t vary is the importance on strong creative, the make it or break it factor to success.

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