This Week in Apps: Facebook launches trio of app experiments, TikTok gets spammed, plus coronavirus impacts on app economy

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, with fresh data from App Annie about trends playing out across app categories benefiting from the pandemic, lockdowns and societal changes. We’re also keeping up with the COVID-19 contact-tracing apps making headlines, and delving into the week’s other news.

We saw a few notable new apps launch this week, including HBO’s new streaming service HBO Max, plus three new app experiments from Facebook’s R&D group. Android Studio 4.0 also launched this week. Instagram is getting better AR tools and IGTV is getting ads. TikTok got spammed in India.

Meanwhile, what is going on with app review? A shady app rises to the top of the iPhone App Store. Google cracks down on conspiracy theory-spreading apps. And a TikTok clone uses a pyramid scheme-powered invite system to rise up the charts.

COVID-19 contact-tracing apps in the news 

  • Latvia: Reuters this week reported that Latvia aims to become one of the first countries to launch a smartphone app, Stop Covid, using the new toolkit created by Apple and Alphabet’s Google to help trace coronavirus infections.
  • Australia: The role of the country’s Covidsafe app in the recovery appears to be marginal, The Guardian reports. In the month since its launch, only one person has been reported to have been identified using data from it. A survey even found that Australians were more supportive of using telecommunications metadata to track close contacts (79%) than they were of downloading an app (69.8%). In a second survey, their support for the app dropped to 64%. The app has been maligned by the public debate over it and technical issues.
  • France: The country’s data protection watchdog, CNIL, reviewed its contact-tracing app StopCovid, finding there were no major issues with the technical implementation and legal framework around StopCovid, with some caveats. France isn’t using Google and Apple’s contact-tracing API, but instead uses a controversial centralized contact-tracing protocol called ROBERT. This relies on a central server to assign a permanent ID and generate ephemeral IDs attached to this permanent ID. CNIL says the app will eventually be open-sourced and it will create a bug bounty. On Wednesday, the app passed its first vote in favor of its release.
  • Qatar: Serious security vulnerabilities in Qatar’s mandatory contact-tracing app were uncovered by Amnesty International. An investigation by Amnesty’s Security Lab discovered a critical weakness in the configuration of Qatar’s EHTERAZ contact-tracing app. Now fixed, the vulnerability would have allowed cyberattackers to access highly sensitive personal information, including the name, national ID, health status and location data of more than one million users.
  • India: India’s contact-tracing app, Aarogya Setu, is going open-source, according to Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology Secretary Ajay Prakash Sawhney on Tuesday. The code is being published on GitHub. Nearly 98% of the app’s more than 114 million users are on Android. The government will also offer a cash bounty of $1,325 to security experts who find bugs or vulnerabilities.
  • Switzerland: Several thousand people are now testing a pilot version of Switzerland’s contact-tracing app, SwissCovid. Like Lativia, the app is one of the first to use Apple and Google’s contact-tracing API. Employees at EPFL, ETH Zurich, the Army and select hospitals and government agencies will be the first to test the Swiss app before its public launch planned for mid-June.
  • China: China’s health-tracking QR codes, embedded in popular WeChat and Alipay smartphone apps, are raising privacy concerns, Reuters reports. To walk around freely, people must have a green rating. They also now have to present their health QR codes to gain entry into restaurants, parks and other venues. These efforts have been met with little resistance. But the eastern city of Hangzhou has since proposed that users are given a color-coded health badge based on their medical records and lifestyle habits, including how much they exercised, their eating and drinking habits, whether they smoked and how much they slept the night before. This suggestion set off a storm of criticism on China’s Weibo, a Twitter-like platform.


By the way: 

Join TechCrunch for a live-streamed discussion around contact-tracing and exposure-notification applications at 11 AM EDT (8 AM PDT) on Wednesday, June 3. TC is hosting the COVID-19 Technology Task Force, Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center, NYU’s Alliance for Public Interest TechnologyBetaworks Studios and Hangar‘s live-stream, which will include demonstrations of some of the cutting-edge products that will be available in the U.S. RSVP here.

New App Annie data on the coronavirus impact to app economy

App Annie this week hosted a webinar detailing some of the major impacts of the coronavirus outbreak on the mobile economy.

Here are a few of the highlights:

  • Global average weekly time spent in apps up 20% YoY in Q1 2020 vs Q2 2019
  • Average weekly hours spent in non-gaming apps up 10% from Q4 2019 to Q1 2020
  • Average weekly downloads in games up 30+% from Q4 2019 to Q1 2020
  • Weekly average of global game downloads up 50+% from Q4 2019 to Q1 2020
  • Hyper-casual, puzzle, and battle royale games were in high demand; trivia and word games also surged, as did multiplayer games
  • Hours spent in video streaming apps in U.S. up 20+% from Q4 2019 to Q1 2020
  • Global downloads of education apps see 90% growth from Q4 2019 average to Q1 2020
  • Google Classroom, Remind and Class Dojo soared in U.S.
  • Consumer spend in fitness apps hit new record of $36 million worldwide
  • Consumers set new records in at-home fitness/wellness with 113 million hours worldwide from March 22-28
  • Weekly sessions in food and drink apps during COVID-19 up 15+% in U.S., grocery delivery up 510+%
  • Time spent in U.S. stock market/trading apps up 80% from week of January 26 to week of March 22, 2020
  • Robinhood accounted for 40% of time spent in U.S. top 5 trading apps
  • Business apps break downloads records week after week, topping 72 million (up over 90% from 2019 avg.)
  • Social apps in U.S. up 25+% in week of March 22, 2020 versus December 29, 2019


HBO Max’s app sees 87K first-day installs

WarnerMedia’s new Netflix rival, HBO Max, only saw around 87,000 installs on its launch day, according to data from Sensor Tower. That’s far lower than the 4 million-plus first-day installs for Disney+ or even the 300K installs for the mobile streamer, Quibi. But this isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison, to be fair. Many HBO customers already had the HBO NOW app installed, which was upgraded to become HBO Max. Sensor Tower said that older app averaged 16K new installs daily. Still, the surge of downloads pushed HBO Max to No. 2 on the top free apps charts on the App Store.

Instagram upgrades its AR capabilities 

Facebook this week updated its Spark AR platform. The changes will allow creators to build more complex filters, including those that respond visually to music or allow users to apply effects to media from their camera roll. In addition to the new features, Facebook has also created AR Sticker templates that can allow creators to customize AR filters quickly.

Instagram pursues new revenue streams

In other Instagram news this week, the company announced new tools that allow video creators to make money, including badges that viewers can purchase during Instagram Live videos and the introduction of IGTV ads. Both launches are considered a test, as the company is limiting the features’ availability during its experimentation phase, it says. Revenue share on IGTV ads is 55/45; badges were undisclosed.

Android Studio 4.0 launches, bringing improved tools for coding and design

Google this week launched Android Studio 4.0, which includes a number of new tools to develop Android apps, including a new Motion Editor, a Build Analyzer to investigate causes for slower build times, an improved Layout Inspector that provides live data of your app’s UI and Java 8 language APIs you can use regardless of your app’s minimum API level. The company said it also responded to developer feedback and overhauled the CPU Profiler UI for a more intuitive workflow and easier side-by-side analysis of thread activity.

Does TikTok have new competition?

A new Chinese-owned, short-form video app called Zynn hit the top of the U.S. App Store charts this week. The app is a virtual clone of the TikTok experience with the same set of interaction buttons on the right side of the screen and a user interface for swiping to watch video or creating your own.

TikTok shouldn’t be too worried just yet. Zynn managed to climb to the top of the charts by way of a built-in pyramid scheme that rewards users for joining and inviting friends — like gift cards for Amazon, Walmart and Apple — for inviting their friends to the app. This sort of growth hacks don’t always turn out well for would-be rivals to established apps. (Ask any “we’re the next Facebook” failed startup.) At the end of the day, users don’t want the cash, they want to be where everyone is hanging out — including their favorite TikTok stars, who aren’t jumping ship for a shady newcomer.

But Zynn appears to be backed by Kuaishou, a key rival for Chinese TikTok, Douyin, says Turner Novak of Gelt VC, which means it could have a lot of cash to play with.

New Snapchat lens lets you feel like you’re dining out

If you feel like it’s been forever since you’ve been able to sit down at a restaurant and enjoy a meal, a new Snapchat AR lens is there for you. DoorDash worked with five popular restaurant chains to re-create the interiors of their establishments, including Baskin-Robbins, Buffalo Wild Wings, The Cheesecake Factory, Chili’s and Outback Steakhouse. When Snapchat users launch the lens, they can visualize themselves eating there, AdWeek reports. The idea works as a way to get DoorDash’s name out there by tapping into users’ desire to return to their favorite chains. It also makes it easy for Snapchatters to install the DoorDash app and place an order.

TikTok again flexes its power over the app store charts with VSBRO scandal

A VSCO parody app called VSBRO hit the top of the App Store this week, despite its terrible content. How does an app filled with misogynistic remarks, reshared pics of girls’ nudes and other toxic content find its way to the top of the App Store? TikTok, of course. This is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that TikTok users prove they have the power to influence the App Store’s top charts.

TikTok users apparently found the idea of a “VSCO for boys” funny, especially after the whole VSCO girls meme went wild on TikTok in months past. Videos promoting the new VSBRO app saw hundreds of thousands of views. And curious teens downloaded the app as part of the joke, then proceeded to fill VSBRO with pretty vile stuff. VSCO, the image-filtering app being parodied here, tells TechCrunch it didn’t request the app’s removal. But Apple yanked VSBRO off its App Store nevertheless.

Wow, an app catering to teen boys turns to crap instantly? Who could have guessed that?

News Break, a new media app with a Chinese background, surges to become a top U.S. news app 

TechCrunch’s Rita Liao dives into the background of News Break, a free news app that has repeatedly hit No. 1 on the top free news apps charts on the App Store several times this year. The app now sits at No. 3. The app is staffed by other notable names in Chinese tech, including founding chief exec, Jeff Zheng, who formerly headed up Yahoo Labs in Beijing, before launching a Toutiao (ByteDance) rival, Yidian Zixun. His co-founder Ren Xuyang, is a former Baidu executive. This week, the company brought on on Harry Shum as its board chairman. Shum was previously the president of Microsoft AI and Research Group and played a key role in establishing the Microsoft Research Asia lab.

Meditation and mindfulness apps continue to surge amid pandemic

Image credit: Sensor Tower

According to a report from app store intelligence firm Sensor Tower, the world’s 10 largest English-language mental wellness apps in April saw a combined 2 million more downloads during the month of April 2020 compared with January, reaching close to 10 million total downloads for the month. The charts were dominated by market leaders, including No. 1 app Calm with 3.9 million downloads in April, followed by Headspace with 1.5 million downloads, then Meditopia, with 1.4 million. Of those, Calm saw the largest number of new installs, with more than 911,000 more downloads in April compared with January, a rise of nearly 31%. Another app, Relax: Master Your Destiny, grew 218% since the start of the year, picking up 391,000 downloads in April.

Many of the apps have offered to give away free subscriptions to front-line workers and others impacted by the pandemic. Market leader, Calm, however, partnered with nonprofit health system Kaiser Permanente who is making its premium subscription free to its own members — a longer-term solution for growing its business than the temporary (and somewhat opportunistic) giveaways.

Facebook’s internal R&D group launches 3 new apps this week: CatchUp, Collab and Venue

Above: Venue app

The pandemic seems to have kicked Facebook developers into high gear. This week, Facebook internal R&D group NPE Team, which experiments in new social networking concepts for apps, released not one, not two, but three new mobile applications. The first was CatchUp, an audio-only group audio calling app released on Tuesday, which takes inspiration from Houseparty and the buzzy yet-to-launch app Clubhouse. That was followed by Collab, an app for watching, mixing and matching original videos together, beginning with music. On Friday, the NPE Team launched Venue, a Twitter rival that serves as an interactive second-screen companion for live events, starting with NASCAR races.

Android bug lets malware pose as apps to steal user data

TechCrunch’s Zack Whittaker reports on a new vulnerability in almost every version of Android, dubbed StrandHogg 2.0 after a Norse term for a hostile takeover. The bug lets malware imitate legitimate apps to steal app passwords and other sensitive data. StrandHogg 2.0 works by tricking a victim into thinking they’re entering their passwords on a legitimate app while instead interacting with a malicious overlay. It can also hijack other app permissions to siphon off sensitive user data, like contacts, photos and track a victim’s real-time location. The bug is said to be more dangerous than its predecessor because it’s nearly undetectable. But there’s no evidence that hackers have put it to use yet. In addition, Google Play Protect, an app-screening service built-in to Android devices, blocks apps that exploit the StrandHogg 2.0 vulnerability.

Amazon launches Amplify iOS and Amplify Android libraries and tools

Amazon this week announced the availability of Amplify iOS and Amplify Android libraries and tools, to help mobile application developers easily build secure and scalable cloud-powered applications.

“Until today, when you developed a cloud-powered mobile application, you were using a combination of tools and SDKs: the Amplify CLI to create and manage your backend, and one or several AWS Mobile SDKs to access the backend,” explained Sébastien Stormacq, in a blog post. “In general, AWS Mobile SDKs are low-level wrappers around the AWS Services APIs. They require you to understand the API details and, most of the time, to write many lines of undifferentiated code, such as object (de)serialization, error handling, etc.”

Amplify iOS and Amplify Android were created to simplify this, by providing native libraries oriented around use-cases (e.g. Authentication, Data storage and access, machine learning predictions); by providing a declarative interface that enables you to programmatically apply best practices with abstractions, and by providing tools that integrate with your native IDE toolchain: Xcode for iOS and Gradle for Android.

Apple fixes bug that stopped iOS apps from opening

Apple users were faced with a bug this past weekend that caused some iPhone and iPad apps to not launch at all. The issue was related to a bug with Apple’s Family Sharing system, as users reported error messages that said “This app is no longer shared with you,” and directed them to buy the app from the App Store in order to still use it. Following this issue, users said they saw dozens of pending app updates for their iOS devices, some of which even went back to the app’s last update from well over a week ago. Users reported in forums seeing as many as 10, 20, 50 or even 100-plus new updates to install. This indicated a fix was in the works, as these were not brand-new updates — the apps were already up to date. Instead, these reissued updates seem to have been part of the fix for the Family Sharing problem, as afterward the bug was resolved. Apple confirmed it had fixed the bug but it declined to speak to its cause.

Niantic to begin collecting 3D visual data from Pokémon GO players

This week, Niantic said it’s starting to allow Pokémon GO players to bolster the company’s 3D data collection. The game will now let users share videos of real-world PokéStop and Gym locations that Niantic will crowdsource to create rich 3D maps. The feature will be opt-in for players, at least initially. Data uploaded to Niantic’s servers will also be anonymized and visual data, including faces and license plates, will be blurred automatically, the company says. The hype may have faded since the game’s 2016 debut, but it had its best-ever revenues in 2019, nearly $900 million, and continues to lead the AR space.

Quibi’s advertisers now don’t want to pay

Quibi founder Jeffrey Katzenberg

Image Credits: CES

Quibi, a mobile-only app for “on-the-go” streaming, launched in the middle of a pandemic, where users are being asked to stay at home. The app, inevitably, has failed to thrive. This week, Quibi launched at least one key feature it should have had in the app from the beginning, given the timing of its debut: support for AirPlay. But for some advertisers, Quibi’s belated attempt to cater to stay-at-home users may have come too late. According to The WSJ, some advertisers — including PepsiCo, Taco Bell, Anheuser-Busch InBev SA and Walmart — have sought to defer their payments and revise their agreements. The companies said they were concerned about the service’s low viewership and the impact the coronavirus has on Quibi’s business model.

Google kicks out QAnon apps from Google Play after cashing in for years 

Google has removed several conspiracy mongering apps from its Android app store. This week, the company booted out at least four apps — QMAP, Q Alerts!, Q Alerts LITE and a Spanish-language QAnon app — citing its policies around the distribution of harmful information. No need to celebrate this long-overdue move on Google’s part. Rather, shame on Google for how long it took. These now-booted apps have been live on Google Play for years in some cases. Some even generated revenues by way of paid downloads, CNET reported. That means Google cashed in by turning a blind eye to these conspiracy theory apps that violate its policies.

Media Matters reported earlier this year how Google continued to profit from the distribution of these dangerous apps with links to white supremacist terrorism, including the 2019 massacre in El Paso, Texas. Some QAnon adherents have also been tied to acts of violence, murders and attempted kidnapping, leading the FBI to flag QAnon as a potential domestic terror threat, it also noted.

Apple had banned QAnon apps in 2018, forcing iOS users to come up with workarounds.

Google removes millions of negative TikTok reviews

TikTok this week experienced a significant backlash in a key market, India. Critics were angry about videos on the platform that appeared to promote domestic violence, animal cruelty, racism, child abuse and the objectification of women, leading to a backlash and a slew of 1-star ratings for the app on Google Play. Google then stepped in to remove millions of negative reviews that were issued as part of the critics’ campaign against the app. Google said the action was an attempt to curb spam abuse. The issues raise questions about the capabilities of TikTok’s moderation efforts in the country.

According to a report from TechCrunch’s Manish Singh this week, Indian politician Maneka Sanjay Gandhi says TikTok has not listened to feedback and has refused to take down derogatory videos and hold accountable people who posted those clips, despite her reports.

TikTok has been financially benefiting from the coronavirus pandemic, with its in-app revenue surging tenfold during lockdowns. (Its Chinese version, Douyin, contributed 86.6% of that, followed by the U.S. with 8.2%). Parent company ByteDance hit $3 billion in net profit last year on $17 billion in revenues.

Funding and M&A

  • Benepass, a fintech startup whose app helps employees get the most out of their tax-advantaged benefits, raised $2.4 million seed round. The funding was led by Gradient Ventures, Google’s AI-focused venture fund.
  • Siren, a startup pairing limb-saving smart socks with a mobile app to help diabetics keep track of potential feet problems, raised $11.8 million Series B, led by Anathem Ventures.
  • London-based Blink raised £8.2 million from Partech for its app that lets employers send out information to front-line workers and others who don’t share the same physical space or work at a desk.
  • Gatsby, a website and app-building platform, raised $28 million in series B funding led by Index Ventures.
  • Apple acquires machine-learning specialist Inductiv to upgrade its AI smarts, including Siri. Inductiv’s system uses AI to automatically identify and correct errors in data.

More Reading

“How iPhone Hackers Got Their Hands on the New iOS Months Before Its Release” — Wondering how iOS 14 keeps getting leaked? A Motherboard feature has the scoop. It appears that security researchers and hackers gained access to an early version of the new OS as far back as February — nearly eight months before iOS 14 is expected to launch. It’s suspected that someone obtained a development iPhone 11 running iOS 14, then extracted the iOS internal build and distributed it to the hacking community.


Xbox Family Settings app 

Microsoft this week launched the new Xbox Family Settings app into Preview, allowing parents to manage the settings around content filters, screen time limits and more. These are the same 20+ settings they could already manage on their Xbox console, now made available on iOS and Android. In addition, the app includes controls for play and communication settings and activity reports.

Trove offers a better way to contribute to AI projects

Microsoft’s internal R&D group, Microsoft Garage, released Trove, a mobile marketplace app for iOS and Android that allows people to contribute photos to AI projects that involve the training of machine learning models.

“Developers usually crowdsource these large batches of pictures [for AI projects] by enlisting the help of gig workers to submit photos, but often, these calls for photos feel like a black box,” explains Lainie Huston on the Microsoft Garage blog. “Participants have little insight into why they’re submitting a photo and can feel like their time was lost when their submissions are rejected without explanation. At the same time, developers can find that these sourcing projects take a long time to complete due to lower quality and less diverse inputs.”

Trove instead allows people to see available projects, who is behind them, and then learn about how their data will be used before contributing. They can even communicate with the AI developers to stay informed on the project’s progress. The app was first tested internally with U.S. Microsoft employees, but is now available to the public on an invite-only basis. Developers can ask for invites here.

ChatableApps turns AirPods Pro into a hearing aid

ChatableApps launched its hearing assistance app on iOS this week. The app, which is backed by Mark Cuban, is based on the work of auditory neural signal processing researcher Dr. Andy Simpson, TechCrunch’s Steve O’Hear reports. To work, the app removes background noise in near real time so that one-to-one conversations can be heard more clearly. What makes the app unique is it doesn’t use noise filtering or other DSP techniques. Instead, it uses a deep learning neural net approach to speech and noise separation that doesn’t apply filters to the original audio but rather it listens and re-prints a brand new audio stream in near real time, which is a mimic of just the vocal components of the original audio, the founder explained.

But ChatableApps is also interesting because it doesn’t require you to wear its own device. Users can choose from earbuds like Apple AirPods Pro, Bose Quietcomfort 20 or AfterShockz, all of which are designated as “working best” with the app.