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. People are now spending three 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. Notably, we saw the launch of the Apple/Google exposure-notification API with the latest version of iOS out this week. The pandemic is also inspiring other new apps and features, including upcoming additions to Apple’s Schoolwork, which focus on distance learning, as well as Facebook’s new Shops feature designed to help small business shift their operations online in the wake of physical retail closures.
Tinder, meanwhile, seems to be toying with the idea of pivoting to a global friend finder and online hangout in the wake of social distancing, with its test of a feature that allows users to match with others worldwide — meaning, with no intention of in-person dating.
COVID-19 apps in the news
- Fitbit app: The fitness tracker app launched a COVID-19 early detection study aimed at determining whether wearables can help detect COVID-19 or the flu. The study will ask volunteers questions about their health, including whether they had COVID-19, then pair that with activity data to see if there are any clues that could be used to build an early warning algorithm of sorts.
- U.K. contact-tracing app: The app won’t be ready in mid-May as promised, as the government mulls the use of the Apple/Google API. In testing, the existing app drains the phone battery too quickly. In addition, researchers have recently identified seven security flaws in the app, which is currently being trialed on the Isle of Wight.
Apple launches iOS/iPadOS 13.5 with Face ID tweak and contact-tracing API
Apple this week released the latest version of iOS/iPadOS with two new features related to the pandemic. The first is an update to Face ID which will now be able to tell when the user is wearing a mask. In those cases, Face ID will instead switch to the Passcode field so you can type in your code to unlock your phone, or authenticate with apps like the App Store, Apple Books, Apple Pay, iTunes and others.
The other new feature is the launch of the exposure-notification API jointly developed by Apple and Google. The API allows for the development of apps from public health organizations and governments that can help determine if someone has been exposed by COVID-19. The apps that support the API have yet to launch, but some 22 countries have requested API access.
Unfortunately, some countries are ignoring privacy standards and forgoing Apple and Google’s API in their apps. Meanwhile, Europe’s contact-tracing apps will face challenges as borders begin to open back up as each country creates its own version, only some of which may use the new API.
That’s left some people wondering if perhaps Apple and Google should have also launched their own contact-tracing apps, in partnership with governments — as Apple did with its COVID-19 app, for example.
Apple to roll out Schoolwork 2.0 update, focused on distance learning challenges
Apple is preparing to soon roll out its Schoolwork 2.0 update for iPads, which allows teachers to manage assignments and information via the cloud. New features include a Handout library in the left-nav to navigate to different classes or a student’s library with drafts and favorites. On the right are reminders about assignments and other updates. Teachers will be able to quickly view what percentage of students finished an assignment and how long it took, and if there are any outliers — like struggling students. Teachers will also be able to send messages or call students via FaceTime to reach students in need of extra help, an addition clearly inspired by the lockdown when real-world face time isn’t an option.
Facebook takes on Shopify with launch of SMB-focused “Shops”
Facebook this week introduced a new feature called “Shops” catering to small businesses that sell online — as a growing number of small businesses now will, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Facebook Shops allow businesses to set up a single online store for customers to access on both Facebook and Instagram. To use the feature, the business can choose the products they want to feature from their catalog and then customize the look and feel of their shop with a cover image and accent colors that showcase their brand, Facebook said.
The launch is a direct challenge to Shopify and other e-commerce platforms aimed at small business owners. But it’s also a way to help SMBs stay afloat during the pandemic and beyond. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said it’s likely that customers will continue to do more of their business online even when the pandemic ends.
Of course, business closures have a direct impact on Facebook ad revenues, so it makes sense the company would roll out features to help out in this area.
Android adds new accessibility features
As part of its efforts on Global Accessibility Awareness Day, Google announced the release of several new accessibility features. This includes the public release of Action Blocks, which make routine actions easier with customizable buttons for your Android screen. It also updated Live Transcribe with the ability to train it with new words you type into the settings — useful for adding technical lingo or other difficult to transcribe terms. Google added Bluetooth support to Sound Amplify and better navigation options to Voice Access, as well.
Apple may introduce a new AR app in iOS 14
Apple may release a new AR app in iOS 14 (codenamed: Gobi) that can read Apple-branded QR codes, including traditional codes and a new circular one, according to recently departed TechCrunch reporter Josh Constine. Files in the OS showed a variety of QR codes pointing to things like a movie on the iTunes store, the Mac website and even one that launched a Starbucks Card sign-up flow.
Instagram launches “Guides”
Instagram rolled out a new “Guides” feature this week that lets creators curate content like recommendations, tips and more. At launch, Instagram focused on Guides for wellness content with participating organizations like @afspnational, @heads_together, @vitaalere, @klicksafe, @headspace_aus, @deepikapadukone, @sudahdong and @eenfance. The guides are available on the account’s profile through a new middle icon in between those for posts and tags on mobile (and next to the IGTV icon if the creator posts there).
The addition could push Instagram into being more than just a photo/video platform, as the guides allow users to intersperse longer-form text and media — more like a blog. That could make Guides a rival to traditional blogging platforms, like WordPress.com or Medium, despite being self-contained with the Instagram app. This could specifically appeal to Instagram influencers who have more to share than fits in a Story, but don’t need their own domain.
Facebook adds Messenger safeguards
Facebook is rolling out a new feature to help address Messenger spam. The app will now scan accounts for suspicious activity, using machine learning to pick up anomalies like accounts sending a large number of requests in a short time span or numerous message requests to users under 18, for example. If detected, Messenger will alert the user informing them how to block or ignore the incoming requests and messages.
The system was rolled out to some Android users before this week’s announcement. The feature will roll out next week on iOS, Facebook said.
Tinder drops geo-restrictions amid pandemic
Tinder could be pivoting its app during the pandemic to become a global friend-finder and online hangout. The company announced this week it’s testing Global Mode, a new option that will allow daters to show their profile to anyone in the world. This obviously would limit people’s ability to go on real-world dates — but that’s something on the decline during the coronavirus quarantine.
The feature’s addition may also signal that Tinder suspects a decline in subscribers and engagement could be in its future. While the company has touted its significant increases usage during quarantine, this can be attributed to users being stuck home alone and bored. Tinder is right to be concerned that online dating may not look the same when restrictions lift. Not only will users’ willingness to pay be impacted by the economic fallout from the pandemic, they may not want the same experience as before, either.
Instead of matching with the goal of meeting offline for dates, Tinder is now thinking of how best to cater to its younger users who want a place to hang out online instead. In an interview with the BBC, Tinder CEO Elie Seidman claimed its users see their digital life as important as their social life in the real world.
On this front, Tinder also said it will soon launch one-on-one video chats and other interactive features, like in-app trivia, in addition to its live events, like Swipe Night.
If Tinder transitioned into an online hangout, it would be the second big pivot for Tinder. The app, for years, had tried to distance itself from its “hookup” reputation, before finally embracing its more casual nature after snatching up the Tinder-for-relationships app Hinge. Now it’s once again trying to distance itself from hookups to be a hangout platform.
Facebook adds a feature in India that lets women easily lock their accounts
Facebook this week rolled out a new safety feature that enables users to easily lock their accounts so non-friends can’t view their posts or download their photos. The addition follows a related effort in 2017 called Profile Picture Guard that allowed users to protect their profile picture from being downloaded or being screenshot. In India, Facebook said many younger women were hesitant to share about themselves online, which is why Facebook introduced the new locking feature.
Shouldn’t everyone have this option, though?
Hacker leaks 40M records from Wishbone app
Wishbone’s user database of 40 million records has been leaked in full, including information like usernames, emails, phone numbers, city/state/country and hashed passwords. ZDNet spotted the data was put up for sale, shortly after its report, for around $8,000. This database is likely of lesser value, given Wishbone was popular among the tween-to-teen crowd in the pre-TikTok era. But many of the kids on the app may have used false information to set up their accounts in the first place. The information was reportedly gathered during the Wishbone hack earlier this year. Wishbone was also hacked in 2017 — and apparently learned nothing from the event.
TikTok gains Disney streaming exec Kevin Mayer as its new CEO
Kevin Mayer, the head of Disney’s direct-to-consumer and international business, just got poached by TikTok to become its new CEO, as well as the COO of the app’s parent company, ByteDance. Meanwhile, founder Yiming Zhang will continue to serve as ByteDance CEO and TikTok President Alex Zhu (formerly the co-founder of the predecessor app Musical.ly) will become ByteDance’s vice president of product and strategy.
TikTok is already a huge force, with over 2 billion downloads, but has struggled with the perception that the app’s ties to China make it a security risk for the U.S. TikTok’s pick of a top American exec may give the app better optics in terms of addressing politicians’ security concerns.
Houseparty maker Epic Games had other security issues, besides those “hacking rumors”
Remember when Houseparty offered a $1 million bounty for anyone with information that could prove it was the target of a smear campaign on Twitter? The company believed a rival or other party was trying to discredit its app with false claims made by Twitter users who said their Houseparty account was hacked. Some accounts making the claims were suspended by Twitter, even though Twitter itself denied any knowledge of “coordinated activity” related to the matter.
This week a researcher reports how they found that Houseparty’s authentication domain was on an insecure web page that could be embedded for phishing attacks around the same time. They also discovered several subdomains were taken over by attackers who were using the sites for credit card fraud and account hijacks. Houseparty downplayed the risk to users of a subdomain takeover, prompting the researcher to publish Houseparty’s email responses to him. It’s not clear this issue had any bearing on the odd Twitter complaints, but does point to issues with Houseparty’s overall security.
Gen Z’s HSN alternative, NTWRK, is launching a live festival
With summer events and large gatherings canceled in the near-term due to the coronavirus outbreak, young consumers will be in search of new places to gather and celebrate the arts. And even shop.
NTWRK, a Live Nation-backed mobile shopping app aimed at Gen Z, hopes that its app can offer a virtual space to do all of the above. This week, the company announced it’s launching a virtual festival scheduled to run July 28-29. Street artist Futura 2000 will serve as artistic director for the festival, which will include 30 brands and artists pitching their exclusive products. In addition, the virtual festival will feature panels, interviews, virtual DJ sets, and musical performances. Zack Bia will be the musical director and perform multimedia DJ sets as part of the event.
Robinhood crashes… again
Robinhood isn’t past its issues yet, it seems. This week, users reported the trading platform was down during a morning when trading sent stock markets soaring. The company’s Twitter had responded to one user saying it had “a brief issue” that was fixed. The company has struggled to stay online during the stock market volatility that’s been a regular occurrence during the pandemic. Robinhood in March experienced several days of outages which saw users unable to trade on the platform. The company promised to compensate users on an individual basis for their losses. The app’s issues haven’t yet led to a mass exodus of Robinhood users, but its continuing struggles may eventually open the door to competitors.
Microsoft introduces a new Lists app
At its virtual Build conference this week, Microsoft introduced a new web and mobile app called Lists that will build off the existing SharePoint list feature. The app will make it simpler to create, share and track data and information across Microsoft 365. It also will include issue tracking and status reporting from within Teams and SharePoint. Did anyone tell Microsoft it already has a lists app?
Apple allows Lumen on the App Store
The jury is still out on the scientific accuracy of this system, but Lumen is now live on the App Store. The company’s concept at least is interesting — the startup has raised $2.3 million on Indiegogo for its gadget you breathe into to measure your carbon dioxide output. This measurement is meant to indicate if you’re burning fats, carbs or both. The data is then sent to an app, which makes it easier for users to understand how to optimize their workouts or see how their metabolism is impacted by sleep, activity and nutrition. Competitive swimmer Michael Andrew is a fan.
The science Lumen cites isn’t peer-reviewed and users should be skeptical of its overblown claims. But the joining of a device for a unique sort of health measurement and a mobile app is worth a look as a template of sorts for what works in terms of consumer appeal. Reviewers found both the gadget and app well-designed.
Still, Lumen operates in a gray area — claiming its app is as good as hospital tech even as experts question its capabilities. This could be another area Apple will need to regulate in the future via its App Store guidelines, particularly if Lumen’s arrival leads to other apps making similarly questionable claims. Mark this one down as one to watch.
WhatsApp under antitrust investigation in India
The Competition Commission of India (CCI) is reviewing a complaint filed in mid-March alleging that WhatsApp was bundling its digital payment facility within its messaging app, according to a new report from Reuters this week. The complaint had not been previously reported but could explain why WhatsApp has struggled to clear regulatory hurdles around its in-app payments platform. WhatsApp’s P2P payments platform has remained in beta testing in India since 2018, with 1 million users.
Recap: 2020 Google for Games Developer Summit
Google’s Dan Galpin gives a quick recap of the tools, features and products announced at the 2020 Google for Games Developer Summit. Many of the announcements would have normally been made at Google I/O 2020, which was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. The news involves updates and releases around Play Asset Delivery, Play Pass subscriptions, Instant Play games, Play Billing Library 2.0 for Unity developers, Google Play Points, Game Package Registry for Unity, Android Game Development Extension and more.
Zoom suspends free service in China for individual users
After accidentally routing some calls through China, video conferencing app Zoom this week suspended individual users from signing up in China, according to a report from Nikkei Asian Review. Now, free users in China can only join Zooms — not create them. Going forward, Zoom will only allow paid enterprise accounts to buy access to its service. Donghan Telecom said the restriction on Chinese individual accounts is due to “regulatory requirements” in China. Zoom didn’t comment.
Funding and M&A
- Big Sky Health, makers of fasting app Zero and others, raises $8 million for its suite of intermittent fasting, meditation and alcohol consumption monitoring apps. Serial entrepreneur Mike Maser, who earlier sold a coaching app called Fitstar to Fitbit for around $25 million, took over the running of the app Zero in 2018 from its creator, Digg founder Kevin Rose.
- Privacy startup Evervault raised $16 million in a round led by Index Ventures for its API that will allow apps to bake in privacy by default. Facebook’s former chief security officer, Alex Stamos, also backed the company, along with Sequoia Capital and Kleiner Perkins.
- Taipei-based M17 Entertainment sold its online dating apps, including the Paktor dating app, to Kollective Ventures, for an undisclosed sum. The company said the move will allow it to focus on its streaming business instead.
- Fintech startup Brex raised $150 million in a Series C extension from a group of existing investors, including DST Global and Lone Pine Capital. The company offers a corporate card for tech startups, which pairs with an app for tracking spending, managing users, issuing new cards and expense management.
- Contentsquare raises $190 million for its AI-powered predictive analytics that gives brands insights into how consumers are interacting with websites and apps.
- Tencent-backed Chinese fitness app Keep raises $80 million Series E. The round was led by China-focused growth-stage investor Jeneration Capital Management and values the startup at $1 billion. This makes Keep the country’s first sports tech startup to reach unicorn status.
- MasterClass, a website and mobile app that sells celebrity-taught classes, has raised a $100 million Series E. The round was led by Fidelity Management & Research Company, with participation from new investors, including Owl Ventures and 01 Advisors, and existing investors NEA, IVP, Atomico and NextEquity Partners.
- Finnish food delivery app Wolt has raised a new €100 million round of funding from existing investors ICONIQ Capital, Highland Europe, 83North and EQT Ventures. Rival Takeaway.com just raised €700 million and merged with Just Eat.
The Yes makes AI your fashion stylist
E-commerce veteran Julie Bornstein, previously COO at Stitch Fix, and technical co-founder Amit Aggarwal, previously of BloomReach and Groupon, have launched their new women’s shopping platform, The Yes. The mobile-only startup, backed by $30 million in funding, has been in development for 18 months.
But it’s not a direct Stitch Fix rival. Instead, The Yes is built for people who want to shop for themselves — which they do in a personalized experience, where The Yes’s AI picks products they may like. In addition, the app doesn’t have its own private labels as Stitch Fix does, nor does it hold its own inventory. That makes The Yes a fancy dropship-powered middleman between consumers and brands, taking a rev share along the way. It’s a difficult model. The app promises to share data with brands, and claims to have no private label aspirations of its own. It remains to be seen if the app will appeal to consumers or if the end result is a platform that has more value to an acquisitive retailer looking to enhance its own personalization tech.
Trash adds to its AI smarts
This AI-powered video app turns everyone into a creator by automatically editing your video footage for you, in order to turn your video “trash” into treasure. This week, it added a number of new features, including the addition of “Styles,” which lets you choose what kind of video you’re making — like a recap of a night out selfie video or a music video, among others. The company is also wading into a potential business with its launch of Trash for Artists, which lets musicians add their own tracks to produce a music video or promo video in minutes.
Indie apps connect smartphone users to the real world they’re now missing
Here’s something interesting. Two entirely different apps this week are launching what are basically virtual ways to experience the real world while staying home during the pandemic.
One, Tulip Town 360 (iOS/Android), will transport you via your phone to the annual Skagit Valley Tulip Festival north of Seattle, according to a GeekWire report. The real-world event had been canceled due to the coronavirus. The new app will instead offer immersive, 360-degree tours of Tulip Town, with high-def drone videos of the fields, gardens, barns and windmill.
Another indie app from developer Evan Lewis called NYC Subway Sounds spotted by The Verge is a soundboard that reconnects New Yorkers with over two dozen sounds from their daily commute — including things like the train rolling on tracks, the sound of brakes and announcements like “Stand clear of the closing doors please.”
Neither app can replace the real world, of course. But they’re examples of how tech can be used for more than connecting people amid the pandemic — it can actually connect people with the physical world itself.
Argent debuts its Ethereum wallet
A new Ethereum wallet for iOS and Android launched this week. The Argent app is a non-custodial Ethereum wallet, like Coinbase Wallet or Trust Wallet — meaning you’re in control of the keys and it can’t initiate a transaction without your authorization. The company has raised $16 million from investors, including Paradigm, Index Ventures, Creandum and Firstminute Capital.
Other notable app updates
- YouTube adds a bedtime reminder. Just in time for your quarantine-inspired insomnia, YouTube for iOS and Android adds a feature that tells you to go to sleep!
- Google Podcasts for iOS has been updated with CarPlay support. (But who’s streaming Google Podcasts on an iPhone to CarPlay??)
- Personal finance tracker Copilot adds support for Apple Card spreadsheet imports. The app is among the first to take advantage of the newer ability to export Apple Card transactions.
- Notion, a popular note-taking and wiki-creation app, revamped its personal pricing plans to strip many of the user limitations from the free tier, bringing it on par with the functionality offered by the $5 per month paid plan. Nifty!
- Signal adds PINs to help you move your profile across devices.