This Week in Apps: Coronavirus impacts app stores, Facebook sues mobile SDK maker, Apple kicks out a cloud gaming app

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the Extra Crunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion downloads in 2019 and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019, according to App Annie’s recently released “State of Mobile” annual report. People are now spending 3 hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

In this Extra Crunch series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

This week, we’ll look at the coronavirus outbreak’s impact on the App Store, China’s demand for App Store removals — and soon-to-be-removals, it seems. We’re also talking about Facebook’s lawsuit over a data-grabbing SDK, Tinder’s new video series, the TSA ban on TikTok, Instagram’s explanation for its lack of an iPad app and how Democratic presidential primary candidates are performing on mobile and social, among other things.


Coronavirus concerns send Chinese ride-hailing apps crashing, games surging

One of the many economic fallouts related to COVID-19 coronavirus concerns is a significant decline in the usage of Chinese ride-hailing applications. According to Sensor Tower data, downloads of the three most popular apps — Hello, Didi and Dida — were down 75% year-over-year during the week of February 10 compared with the same time frame in 2019. Meanwhile, people staying home have been ordering food and groceries more often. Overall downloads of the top 10 apps in the food-ordering category increased by 68% from January 13 to the week of February 3.

Also on the rise are mobile games. According to a recent report by the FT, users in China downloaded a record number of games and apps as the virus outbreak confined people to their homes. More than 22 million downloads were registered in Apple’s App Store in China during the week of February 2, according to App Annie, and average weekly downloads during the first two weeks of February were up 40% over the same time last year.

Meanwhile, Chinese tech giants, including Alibaba and Tencent, have been deploying health-rating systems to help authorities track the movements of millions of Chinese. Alibaba had been tapped to explore the rollout of a rating app to help the government control who can travel into and around the city. Along with Ant Financial, it worked to develop a smartphone-based rating system in conjunction with the government of Hangzhou. Tencent created a program for Shenzhen, reported The WSJ.

Top mobile game Plague Inc. pulled from China’s App Store amid coronavirus outbreak

Plague Inc., a simulation game with more than 130 million players, was pulled from the Chinese App Store this week, a move that appears to be linked to the coronavirus outbreak. The company behind the game, Ndemic, posted a statement announcing that the game’s content is now considered “illegal in China as determined by the Cyberspace Administration of China.” Ndemic says it’s trying to reach out to find out what, specifically, it could change in order to get the game back in China.

After a surge of downloads in China (200,000 since January 1), the company last month noted that the game was designed to be “realistic and informative” and would not sensationalize serious real-world issues. But it also reminded users that Plague, Inc. is “a game, not a scientific model,” and that they should get their information from local and global health authorities.

In all fairness, a game that allows players to create a disease and spread it around the world is in poor taste at a time like this, but deeming its content “illegal” and pulling it from the store is an excessive, if not surprising, response by the Chinese government. Plague Inc. had 2.2 million installs from the Chinese App Store, per Sensor Tower data. It was the No. 3 paid app prior to its removal.

Mobile apps tracking the coronavirus outbreak climb to top of charts

In South Korea, mobile apps tracking the disease claimed six of the top 15 spots on Google Play this week, CNN reported. The apps, some of which use government data, launched just this month. One developer said installs were increasing by 20,000 per hour and the app had reached a million downloads. Developers said they were spending their own money to run the apps and were soliciting donations.

Though useful in some cases, apps are only as good as the accuracy of their data. If the app stores were to fill with Johnny-come-lately outbreak trackers hoping to capitalize on the surge in interest over the global health concern, users could end up getting bad information if the apps aren’t sourcing from trusted data. The app stores could then be held accountable for helping misinformation spread. Apple and Google would be wise to be implementing policies now around how they’ll review apps claiming to track coronavirus.

Facebook sues analytics firm OneAudience over data-harvesting SDK

Facebook this week filed a federal lawsuit in a California court against New Jersey-based data analytics firm OneAudience. The suit alleges that OneAudience paid app developers to install its SDK that was used to harvest Facebook user data. The SDK was installed in Android shopping, gaming and mobile utility apps, the suit said, and was collecting users’ Facebook, Google and Twitter account data when the user opted to log in using one of those accounts. OneAudience claims it never meant to collect the user data.

This case is a good example as to why Apple felt the need to introduce Sign in with Apple, its own, more secure sign-in solution, and require that developers make it an option for users. The lawsuit also represents a continuation of Facebook’s new tactic in taking on data leaks — not with hand-wringing and apologies to users, but with legal battles. Since the fallout from Cambridge Analytica, Facebook has filed four other lawsuits against third-parties abusing its platform, ZDNet noted.

Tinder renews video series “Swipe Night”

Swipe Night

Tinder is branching out from being only a matchmaking app.

The company this week confirmed it’s giving its interactive video series “Swipe Night” a second season. “Swipe Night,” as you may recall, first launched in October 2019 within Tinder. The experience introduced a first-person adventure played in-app, where users would make choices at key turning points to progress the narrative — like a choose-your-own-adventure story. Tinder said millions of users tuned in to “Swipe Night,” and matches and conversations increased by 26% and 12%, respectively. But some may have tuned in just for fun.

In any event, the boost in user engagement was promising enough, so Tinder will attempt to rekindle the magic in round two. In addition, Tinder said “Swipe Night’s” first season will roll out internationally on March 14.

Apple asks game developers selling in China for approval numbers

Developers who sell games in China, or even offer games with in-app purchases, must obtain government approval to do so. Before receiving approval, games are checked by the General Administration of Press and Publication of China (GAPP) for things like profanity, violence, poker and copycat titles, per a 2016 regulation. Apple is now enforcing this regulation, it seems, and has emailed developers who sell games in China asking for their “approval number” (IBSN), according to several reports. The emails don’t say what Apple will do if developers don’t have an approval number, but it’s likely their games will be removed, given that Apple so far seems to play by China’s rules.

If enforced, the Chinese App Store may see a significant reduction in games available, and developers could lose lucrative revenue streams, as many games today operate in China without a license. The removals would impact smaller indie firms more than large publishers, due to the rising operating costs involved with acquiring a gaming license.

Apple’s cooperation with China questioned by shareholders

At Apple’s annual shareholders meeting this week, one of the six proposals voted on was critical of Apple’s cooperation with China when it came to the removal of apps from the Chinese App Store, Reuters reported. Specifically, the proposal highlighted the 2017 removals of VPN apps, which allowed Chinese users to bypass the country’s Great Firewall. (Apple had complied with China’s request in order to continue to do business in the market.) The proposal called on Apple to report whether or not it was publicly committed to respect freedom of expression as a human right. Though it was defeated, 40.5% of voters supported the measure — a large enough percentage that Apple will be under pressure to respond, rather than ignore, the vote.

Google Authenticator app at risk from malware

Security researchers said this week a new Android malware strain is capable of stealing one-time passcodes (OTP) generated through the Google Authenticator app. The app, launched in 2010, is a popular tool for two-factor authentication. Cerberus, an Android banking trojan, is able to get the content of the interface, then send it to a command-and-control server, the researchers said. The good news is that this variant of Cerberus is still in the testing phase and not being sold yet on hacking forums.

Apple pulls Shadow cloud gaming service from App Store

Apple this week removed the Shadow cloud gaming service from the App Store, including Apple TV, for its “failure to act in accordance with a specific part of the Apple ‌App Store‌ Guidelines,” according to its developer via a Reddit post. The Mac app was unaffected. Some are speculating that the issue has to do with the ability to buy games in the app, which violates Apple’s store-within-a-store guideline related to IAP.

Apple took similar action with Steam in the past. Shadow will likely have to stop selling games in the app or turn over 30% of transactions to Apple, just like everyone else does. However, the move to pull the app from the App Store comes at a risk for Apple. Developers like this could argue it’s anti-competitive to remove the app since Apple has its own gaming service, Apple Arcade, directly integrated within the same App Store where it’s kicking out its competitors.

Google’s crackdown on ad fraud and disruptive ads included all of Cheetah Mobile

Last week, we reported on Google’s crackdown on ad fraud on the Google Play Store, which saw nearly 600 apps removed for violating policies. BuzzFeed noted recently that among those 600 was the publicly traded Chinese company Cheetah Mobile — a firm that was previously called out for ad fraud back in 2018. The company also bought up successful apps, then turned them into “data-collecting, IAP-infested cash machines,” said Android Police, not mincing words. With the big Google Play cleanup, Cheetah Mobile’s entire suite of 45 apps was gone. From the sounds of it, good riddance.

Instagram explains its lack of an iPad app

In a Q&A on his Instagram, Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri explained why the photo-based social network hasn’t delivered an optimized app designed for the iPad. His answer, basically, was that it just doesn’t care that much about iPad.

Okay — to be more specific, he said the company “would like to build an iPad app…but we only have so many people, and lots to do, and it hasn’t bubbled up as the next best thing to do yet.”

The Verge’s Chris Welch caught the exchange and tweeted it.

We only have so many people? It hasn’t bubbled up?!?

Wow, rude.

Also, trying to act as if Instagram just can’t afford the resources is just a dumb excuse. Instagram made $20 billion in ad revenue in 2019, PetaPixel noted. The real answer seems to be that it doesn’t care about iPad. And people want to know why.

(Also, how can we sign up for that no-ads group?)

Comparing the Democratic presidential primary candidates’ social media and mobile presence

App Annie takes a look at how the Democratic presidential primary candidates are wooing Gen Z voters across mobile platforms. Given that 50% of users’ time today is spent in social and communication apps, candidates need to reach voters through these channels. Surprisingly, some candidates didn’t have their own app. And some (ahem, Sanders) were clearly better at social media than others. None of the candidates have embraced TikTok, where a lot of Gen Z hangs out — but given the regulatory scrutiny around the Chinese-owned app, there’s probably a good reason for that.

TikTok influencers are making serious cash

According to Online Casinos’ “TikTok Rich List,” popular TikTok users are already making well over a hundred thousand per post on sponsored videos. Loren Gray, for example, has 35 million followers and makes $175,000 per post. Next year, the firm estimates top influencers could be making closer to a million.

Meanwhile, the TSA is not making anything on TikTok anymore

Because the TSA has banned its employees from using the app. New York Sen. Chuck Schumer sent a letter to TSA Administrator David Pekoske, following the launch of a national security review of the Beijing-based app and its data practices. The TSA responded that a small number of employees had previously used the app to create videos, but that has now been discontinued.

The app’s popularity, meanwhile, continues to grow. It was the most-downloaded non-game app in the U.S. in January, with 7.7 million new installs — up 28.3% year-over-year.

But popularity isn’t enough to win over some — Reddit CEO Steve Huffman this week called out TikTok as “fundamentally parasitic” when speaking at an event on Wednesday. “It’s always listening, the fingerprinting technology they use is truly terrifying, and I could not bring myself to install an app like that on my phone,” he said. TikTok called the allegations “baseless.”

Android Studio 3.6 launches

Google this week launched the stable release of Android Studio 3.6, the first release after the end of  Project Marble. Highlights include a new way to quickly design, develop and preview app layouts using XML, with a new Split View in the design editors. You’ll also no longer have to manually type in GPS coordinates to test locations with your app because Google Maps is embedded right in the Android Emulator extended control panel. It’s also now easier to optimize your app and find bugs with automatic memory leak detection for Fragments and Activities.

Apple blocks an iPhone app from facial recognition startup Clearview AI

An iOS app provided by Clearview AI has been used by more than 2,200 law enforcement agencies, companies and individuals around the world, including the Justice Dept., ICE, Macy’s, Walmart and the NBA, BuzzFeed reported this week. The company scrapes public photos from social media sites, which big tech says is a misuse of their services. On Wednesday, Clearview AI confirmed a data breach in which its client list was stolen. According to a report from TechCrunch on Friday, Apple has now blocked the app for violating the terms of its enterprise program.

Funding and M&A

More Reading

  • Apple’s Secret Monopoly: OneZero goes for a deep dive into Apple and the App Store’s anti-competitive issues in this feature report. A snippet:

But critics say that gauzy success tale belies the reality of a company that now wields its enormous market power to bully, extort, and sometimes even destroy rivals and business partners alike. The iOS App Store, in their telling, is a case study in anti-competitive corporate behavior. And they’re fighting to change that — by breaking its choke hold on the Apple ecosystem.

  • Inside the Seething Boardroom Drama That Poisoned HQ Trivia: Can’t get enough of the HQ Trivia shutdown drama? Bloomberg’s latest goes behind the scenes into what went wrong. A toxic culture, managerial infighting and dysfunction, a co-founder’s death, lack of further innovation, arrogance, incompetence…maybe the real question is: did anything ever go right? 


  • RTRO

RTRO is the latest in what’s been a string of retro photo and video apps, including Dazz Cam, Daze Cam, David’s Disposable, VHS Cam, FIMO and 1998 Cam (Wait, 1998? Now you’re just taking this “retro” branding too far! How old am I??). In this case, the new app comes from Moment, the company behind the popular external lenses and its own Moment Pro Camera app. RTRO offers users three vintage filters for free and a $1.99/month subscription for the full line of filters, plus frame rates, real-time subject tracking and more.

  • Vimeo Create

Vimeo’s new app includes a set of video creation tools aimed at small businesses and marketers looking to tell their stories using social video, but who lack the resources, time or budget to invest in video production at the scale they need to compete. With Vimeo Create, available on both the desktop and as an app, businesses choose from pre-made, professionally designed video templates that can be customized to meet their needs. More advanced users could opt to start a new video from scratch, as an alternative. The app includes a library of stock content to add to videos, including millions of HD video clips, photos and commercially licensed music tracks available for no extra fee. The app is a free download, but you’ll need a Vimeo subscription to use it.

Tweets of the Week

Clubbers in China are going to “cloud raves” on TikTok and elsewhere. Is it too late to bring back