This Week in Apps: Facebook takes on Houseparty, Fortnite comes to Google Play, contact tracing API

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 and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019, according to App Annie’s “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’re continuing to look at how the coronavirus outbreak is impacting the world of mobile applications, including new details about Apple and Google’s contact tracing API to be released to developers, how app makers are angling for a piece of video calling marketing and record revenue from gaming, among other things.


Apple and Google’s contact tracing API to be released to developers next week

The first version of Apple and Google’s jointly developed, cross-platform contact tracing API will be available to developers as of next week, according to a conversation between Apple CEO Tim Cook and European Commissioner for internal market Thierry Breton. Specifically, by April 28, reports said.

The API will initially be available to software developers building apps for official public health agencies. Later, the iOS and Android mobile operating systems will be updated to build in contact tracing at the OS level.

On Friday, the two companies offered a number of technical updates on contact tracing, which they’re now calling “exposure notification.” The companies said there are changes to how the API works, including a change to the cryptography mechanism that will make it more difficult for bad actors to determine how keys are derived in order to use the information to track specific individuals. The companies will now encrypt metadata associated with specific Bluetooth signals. Plus, any apps built using the API will now be provided exposure time in five-minute intervals, with a maximum total exposure time reported of 30 minutes. There are more updates, which are detailed here. 

Germany won’t use Apple and Google’s contact tracing tech

Germany is opting to use a contact tracing app based on the Pan-European Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing’s platform (PEPP-PT), Reuters reported. In Europe, governments want to use Bluetooth handshakes between devices to measure the risk of infection, but don’t agree on whether contacts should be logged-on devices or a centralized server. Germany is opting for the latter, with a solution that requires the central storage of anonymized data, the report said. The system puts Germany at odds with Apple, which refuses to allow such apps to monitor Bluetooth while running in the background. That’s why Apple and Google have proposed their technology that supports device-based, decentralized apps.

Meanwhile, France is also not on board with Apple and Google’s more private system. The government called publicly on Apple and Google to weaken their privacy protections around digital contact tracing, The Guardian reported.

Nextdoor partners with Walmart so neighbors can help each another during quarantine

Hyperlocal social network Nextdoor and Walmart teamed up to launch a new “Neighbors Helping Neighbors” program that will make it easier for vulnerable community members to get assistance from neighbors who are already planning trips to Walmart. The new in-app feature will allow Nextdoor users to post to groups associated with their local Walmart store to request shopping assistance. Users will see their local Walmart stores pinned to the top of the Groups tab in the app. Members can then post a message to the group feed where they can ask for help or offer to help others and then message privately with them about the details. The feature is designed to help those who can’t risk a trip to the store but may need groceries, prescriptions or other household essentials.

Instagram rushing out a memorial account feature due to COVID-19 deaths

Facebook already has a process for memorializing profiles belonging to those who have passed, but Instagram did not. The company this week acknowledged it had been working on an update that would allow accounts to be memorialized, but noted the feature was now being accelerated due to deaths from COVID-19.

The addition was spotted by app reverse engineer Jane Manchun Wong, then reported by BuzzFeed. It is not yet in testing or available for public use.

It appears to simply add the word “Remembering” under a username of someone who has died. While that’s a fairly simple change, the process of ensuring the banner is appropriately applied and who makes that decision, and how, is far more complex.

Video game spending hits all-time high of $10B, including $5.7B on mobile

A report from Nielsen’s SuperData indicates the record demand for video games amid the coronavirus lockdowns. The industry hit an all-time high for a single month in March, at $10 billion — up 11% year-over-year. The report looked at console, PC and mobile games combined to reach this figure. But mobile games were not being dragged along with the rest — they are leading the pack. According to Nielsen, mobile games saw revenue increase 15% year-over-year to reach $5.7 billion in March. Top games by earnings, in order, were Tencent’s Honor of Kings, Gardenscapes, Candy Crush Saga, Last Shelter: Survival, Pokémon GO, Coin Master, Roblox, Monster Strike, Clash of Clans and Mafia City.

Niantic’s Pokémon GO also topped $111 million in March, up 18% month-over-month after making tweaks that encouraged indoor play.

Facebook Messenger takes on Houseparty

Facebook is doubling down on the video features of its Messenger app amid the pandemic, which has sent video conferencing and chat apps skyrocketing in usage. The company on Friday launched a new Messenger feature called “Messenger Rooms,” which are joinable group voice calls where users can hang out with up to 50 people. Users can also discover and drop-in to rooms, control who joins and sees the rooms and more.

There are also AR filters, backgrounds and lighting features available.

Houseparty, a social video app owned by Fortnite maker Epic Games, seems the obvious comparison here. The company recently announced it saw 50 million sign-ups in the past month, thanks to quarantine usage. To combat the threat, Facebook is making it possible for users across its platform to create rooms — including from Messenger, Facebook and, soon, Instagram Direct, WhatsApp, and Portal as well. Plus, anyone can join a room, even if they don’t have a Facebook account.

In other video calling news, Facebook said it’s expanding group video calling on WhatsApp to eight people instead of four, as had been rumored. And Google Duo is enhancing its video calls for better quality after seeing an 800% increase in video messages.

Facebook launches gaming app on Android

Hoping to capture more of Twitch and YouTube’s market in terms of live game streaming, Facebook this week launched a new Gaming app for Android. If this news sounds familiar, it’s because Facebook already offers live game streaming via its desktop site and the Gaming section within its flagship Facebook mobile app. Plus, it had launched a beta version of its Gaming hub on Android all the way back in October 2018, and has been testing it ever since.

The Gaming app is meant to offer a standalone experience for gamers and fans, apparently. That’s odd, given that standalone apps is something Facebook had been moving away from in recent years, after shuttering spin-out apps like Moments, Paper, Groups, Lifestage, Hello, Moves, tbh, Rooms and others. But it seems to think Gaming is big enough to thrive on its own.

The app’s main tab is used for live streams, a second for discovery and a third for chat. Today, more than 700 million of Facebook’s 2.5 billion users engage with games through the app daily, the company said, “engage” being a vague-enough term that Facebook can fluff the numbers in order to include more casual gaming fans in the total.

App Store expands to 20 more countries

Developers can now distribute their apps in 175 countries, thanks to this week’s App Store expansion, which includes Apple Arcade. Apple Podcasts and iCloud expanded to these markets, as well:

  • Africa: Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Libya, Morocco, Rwanda and Zambia.
  • Asia-Pacific: Maldives and Myanmar.
  • Europe: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia.
  • Middle East: Afghanistan (excluding Apple Music) and Iraq.
  • Oceania: Nauru (excluding Apple Music), Tonga and Vanuatu.

Apple said its App Store sees over half a billion people visiting each week and Apple Arcade’s subscription service now includes more than 100 exclusive games.

Separately, Apple Music expanded to a different set of markets as part of Apple’s larger services expansion.

New guidelines for HealthKit

In addition, Apple released this week new guidelines for HealthKit apps that include guidance on using the Apple Health icon in your app, enhanced editorial guidance on using Apple Health-related terms and clarified privacy and data-usage guidelines. There’s also a new “Works with Apple Health Kit” badge available now that helps you to better promote HealthKit-enabled apps.

Epic Games launches Fortnite on Google Play… begrudgingly


Image Credits: Epic / Epic

Epic Games launched Fortnite on the Google Play Store this week after having notably bypassed the Android app store — and its fees — by way of a sideloading process. But the company now claims that Google puts software from outside its Play Store at a big disadvantage, including through both technical and business measures. It also runs scary pop-ups that inform users of the risks involved and even introduced new measures in its Play Protect service to outright block outside software.

The company has been one of the largest to push back against the device and OS makers, Apple and Google, amid increased regulatory scrutiny over their anti-competitive business practices.

The company’s statement doesn’t mince words:

After 18 months of operating Fortnite on Android outside of the Google Play Store, we’ve come to a basic realization:

Google puts software downloadable outside of Google Play at a disadvantage, through technical and business measures such as scary, repetitive security pop-ups for downloaded and updated software, restrictive manufacturer and carrier agreements and dealings, Google public relations characterizing third-party software sources as malware, and new efforts such as Google Play Protect to outright block software obtained outside the Google Play store.

Because of this, we’ve launched Fortnite for Android on the Google Play Store. We’ll continue to operate the Epic Games App and Fortnite outside of Google Play, too.

We hope that Google will revise its policies and business dealings in the near future, so that all developers are free to reach and engage in commerce with customers on Android and in the Play Store through open services, including payment services, that can compete on a level playing field.

Android 11 Developer Preview 3 arrives

Google this week unveiled the third preview of the Android 11 build for developer testing. Some of the higher-profile consumer-facing features include the ability for users to automatically revoke permissions from unused apps, new share and screenshot buttons in the app switcher (the Recents screen) and the ability to resize picture-in-picture windows, which makes the phone a better multitasking device.

For developers, Google mentions an exit reasons API that you can use to request details of the app’s recent exits, the addition of GWP-ASan as another way to help developers find and fix memory safety issues, faster installation (up to 10x) of large APKs (over 2GB+) from a development computer to an Android device using ADB, a revamped debugging experience using ADB over Wi-Fi and the renaming of several APIs associated with data access auditing.

Messenger Kids expands to more than 70 countries, adds new features

Facebook’s Messenger Kids application is rolling out to 70 more countries worldwide, the company announced this week. The somewhat controversial app tends to be viewed either as a godsend for parents who today have very few options in terms of mainstream apps with built-in parental controls (seriously, Apple, where are you?)… or it’s seen as the equivalent of candy cigarettes — a sweet and fun thing poised to addict kids to a dangerous product later on.

The truth is in the middle, though recent updates to the app’s privacy policy should not be overlooked. Perhaps most parents have realized that selling their kids’ soul to the targeted ad devil is the lesser of two evils, the other being putting kids at risk of online predators through un-policed apps like Kik once was. (They’ve since moved on to Snapchat, apparently).

New features give older kids a little more wiggle room. For example, parents can approve or override friend additions the child makes — like extended family teachers and other friends — instead of having to do the friend additions for the child themselves.

Telegram hits 400M monthly users, also plans to take on Houseparty

Instant messaging service Telegram has reached 400 million monthly active users, up from 300 million active users it had in October. It also claims to be adding 1.5 million users daily. For comparison’s sake, Zoom reported this week it now has 300 million daily users. It also rolled out the 5.0 update aimed at fixing a number of security issues.

The company is now preparing to take on Zoom and Houseparty with the launch of a video-calling feature for its app that would allow users to communicate more securely than competitors.

Quibi drops from top 40 free apps (even during quarantine boredom!)

People are streaming more content that ever while stuck at home, but that doesn’t seemed to have helped Quibi as much as the company may have hoped. Though the app has now seen over 2.7 millions downloads since its April 6 debut, its chart ranking on the app stores continues to fall. As of the end of the week, the app ranked No. 45 on Android and No. 67 on iOS in the U.S., based on the app stores’ own rankings (not third-party data). The app’s rank oddly seems to fluctuate fairly quickly at times — jumping some 20 or 30 spots in a day, for example — sometimes an indication of non-organic installs. Other data also shows a lack of engagement, like review counts.

In other bad news, the company also this week lost its head of brand and content marketing, Megan Imbres, just two weeks after its launch. (To be fair, she had to market an app called “Quibi.”) The app was heavily advertised on social media and even on TV before its launch, but failed to connect with its targeted demographic — Gen Z to younger millennial users. On TikTok, for example, many of the comments on Quibi ads were filled with users typing F — a meme  that hails from Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, where users were directed to “press F to pay respects” during a funeral scene. In other words, these TikTok users were dubbing Quibi dead before it even arrived. Ouch.

The company is now rushing out its TV streaming feature for May, which will involve support for AirPlay and Chromecast.

Quibi’s premise was risky even in the pre-pandemic era, as it believed it could cater to on-the-go users with shorter but high-quality programming. But that assumed that users had a desire for such a thing, as if Netflix shows couldn’t be watched in bits by pressing pause. Quibi specifically caters to this mobile user with clever tech that showed full-screen video no matter how you held your phone. But quarantined families aren’t really watching on phones right now.

Still, Quibi has its ad inventory sold for the first year and $1.8 billion in funding. It has time to pivot.

New data on how coronavirus pandemic is impacting the app economy

Mobile measurement company Adjust has released a new report detailing some of the significant trends impacting the app ecosystem.

Here are a few key highlights. The full report is here.


  • Gaming: Similar to Nielsen’s data above, it found gaming saw a sizable uptick in installs in the last week of March (132% more than last year). Gaming apps also saw a 47% increase in sessions and 75% increase in installs in Q1 2020 compared with Q1 2019.
  • E-Commerce: Installs in Q1 have actually taken a downward turn (12% down week-over-week, compared to the established 2020 baseline). Consumers may have now stocked up with essentials and are finding other ways to stay busy besides online shopping.
  • Entertainment: Entertainment apps, including streaming apps, are trending 55% above where they were this time last year.
  • Business: Working from home has led to a 105% year-over-year increase in business apps sessions in Q1. Installs are also up 70% and revenue events are up 75%, as users convert to premium subscriptions.
  • Food & Drink: Restaurant orders in apps led to a 73% increase in sessions in Q1 versus last year, and installs are up 21%.
  • Education: Installs are only up 38%, year-over-year, but usage is up 40% as kids attend school from home.

The report also examined app usage trends throughout the day, but there aren’t many surprises there. As expected, people order food at dinner time, and they shop and game more after working hours.


Funding and M&A

  • Travel company Expedia raises $3.2 million to ride out the pandemic, cuts costs and names a new CEO. The company offers web and mobile apps for travel bookings.
  • Facebook invests $5.7B into India’s Jio Platforms, the tech subsidiary of Reliance Industries, a tech and energy giant described as India’s Exxon, AT&T and Amazon wrapped into one. It operates the biggest telco in the country, an online retail service JioMart and apps for messaging, movies, music, healthcare and more. Facebook’s ~10% stake in Jio Platforms is a huge bet on emerging markets — and the future of Facebook’s own business, where it moves beyond just being a “social network” to become aportal to everything internet. And because much of India skipped the PC era, internet onboarding in the country largely takes place on mobile.
  • Consumer financial services platform SoFi this week made its first expansion outside of the United States with the acquisition of Hong Kong-based investing app 8 Securities. Deal terms weren’t disclosed. The latter will rebrand as SoFi Hong Kong, retain its team and expand into other markets.
  • Moshi, a sleep and mindfulness app for kids, raises $12 million Series B led by Accel. The app offers bedtime stories and songs (for parents who just can’t do it themselves, we suppose!), as well as mindfulness content for use during the day. This latter part may be more interesting, as mindfulness activities are becoming a part of U.S. kids’ health and fitness curricula, and could aid with kids’ acting out in response to stressful situations — like, you know, a pandemic.
  • Fortnite maker Epic Games is fundraising. The company also owns rising video chat app Houseparty. The round is somewhere in the range of $500 million to $1 billion, is all Bloomberg could pin down. (Do you know? Email me sarahp@ People sure do like video chat and gaming during quarantine, don’t they?
  • Snap to raise of $750 million in private-placement debt offering, along with the option for buyers to purchase up to an additional $112.5 million of the convertible securities. The company announced the news after its Q1 results, which saw the company beating Wall Street revenue expectations and reporting DAUs were up 20% year-over-year to reach 229 million in the quarter, also higher than expected. EPS were -$0.8, worse than the expected 7-cent loss.
  • Netflix to raise $1 billion in debt offering. For our quarantine binges in years to come. Funds will mostly go toward original content.