This Week in Apps: WWDC20 highlights, App Store antitrust issues, tech giants clone TikTok

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 looking at the highlights from Apple’s first-ever virtual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) and what its announcements mean for app developers. Plus, there’s news of the U.S. antitrust investigation into Apple’s business, a revamp of the App Store review process, and more. In other app news, both Instagram and YouTube are responding to the TikTok threat, while Snapchat is adding new free tools to its SDK to woo app developers. Amazon also this week entered the no-code app development space with Honeycode.

WWDC20 Wrap-up

Image Credits: Apple

Apple held its WWDC developer event online for the first time due to the pandemic. The format, in some ways, worked better — the keynote presentations ran smoother, packed in more content, and you could take in the information without the distractions of applause and cheers. (If you were missing the music, there was a playlist.)

Of course, the virtual event lacked the real-world networking and learning opportunities of the in-person conference. Better online forums and virtual labs didn’t solve that problem. In fact, given there aren’t time constraints on a virtual event, some might argue it would make sense to do hands-on labs in week two instead of alongside all the sessions and keynotes. This could give developers more time to process the info and write some code.

Among the bigger takeaways from WWDC20 — besides the obvious changes to the Mac and the introduction of “Apple silicon” — there was the introduction of the refreshed UI in iOS 14 that adds widgets, an App Library and more Siri smarts; plus the debut of Apple’s own mini-apps, in the form of App Clips; and the ability to run iOS apps on Apple Silicon Macs — in fact, iOS apps will run there by default unless developers uncheck a box.

Let’s dig in.

  • The iPad’s influence over Mac. There are plenty of iOS apps that would work on Mac, but making the choice an opt-out instead of an opt-in experience could lead to poor experiences for end users. Developers should think carefully about whether they want to make the leap to the Mac ecosystem and design accordingly. There’s also a broader sense that the iPad and the Mac are starting to look very similar. The iPad already gained support for a proper trackpad and mouse, while the Mac with Big Sur sees the influence of design elements like its new iPad-esque notifications, Control Center, window nav bars and rounded rectangular icons. Are the two OS’s going to merge? Apple’s answer, thankfully, is still “NO.”
  • WTF is up with Catalyst? Catalyst was meant to make transitioning a mobile app to the Mac smoother by making it easier to support things like pointing devices and keyboards, and other backend changes. The technology has received some criticism from the development community. And with Apple Silicon coming to bring iOS apps to Mac, where does this leave Catalyst? It seems it will remain, for now, a tool for developers who don’t want to just leave a box checked to automagically have their iOS apps show up in the Mac App Store, but who want to take the time to make their apps feel like they are meant for Mac. After a few more years at carving away at the differences between iPad and Mac, who knows?
  • Apple embraces “mini-apps”: After years of insisting everything should be an app, Apple has decided that paradigm doesn’t always make sense. Sometimes, you just need a quick, app-like experience without the cumbersome step of an App Store download. There are plenty of scenarios where this makes sense — ordering a smoothie! booking a scooter! — but eventually, developers will want to direct repeat users to the full experience. There’s a way to do that with a button in the App Clip, the question is how developers will incentivize regular Clips users to click it? On the other hand, a new way to build an app experience also leaves room for more possibilities of what it means to be an app. AR-enabled App Clips-powered games? App Clips codes on business cards, serving as resumes? Sure, why not?
  • A new iPhone: A new UI bringing widgets, an App Library, and improved Siri intelligence is a big win for consumers who have wanted a more modern — and dare I say it? — Android-like experience. It’s a whole new iPhone. But for app developers it means, now more than ever, a need to design for repeat usage. If a user allows iOS to organize their apps and replaces their home screen app set with the incredible Siri Suggestions widget, developers may face a problem of their app being lost to oblivion if it hasn’t become a habit.
  • Apple neuters the ad-tracking industry in iOS 14. Apple didn’t exactly kill off the IDFA (Apple’s Identifier for Advertisers), it just made ad-tracking an opt-in experience with a big ol’ dialog box that asks users to either click “Allow Tracking” or “Ask App Not to Track.” Guess what most people will click? Already, industry firms are looking for workarounds, but the reality is Apple doesn’t care about the need for marketers to track iPhone users. And users certainly don’t want to be tracked. There is, of course, a chance that users will find all the permission requests burdensome — location, microphone, camera, etc., and now tracking too? Can’t I just use the app already? Smartly designing when and where these permissions appear, instead of just at first launch, may see users more receptive to “yes” clicks.
  • Also Notable: Not every change gets its moment on stage. In addition to the big deal that was iMessage’s makeover, iOS borrowed from Gboard to add emoji search. Hooray! 🎉  Plus, Game Center was refreshed. Gamepad support in iOS 14 is impressive. ARKit Geotracking is insane. Accessibility got a lot better. Shortcuts got very cool updates. The iPhone gains spatial awareness. Your phone can be a car key.


DOJ is launching an antitrust investigation of Apple’s App Store 

This is not the first time the news has been reported. But Politico this week confirmed the Justice Department and a coalition of state attorneys general are taking the first steps toward launching an antitrust probe of Apple. The investigators have already spoken to several companies unhappy with the way Apple runs its App Store, where many feel rules are inconsistently applied, particularly for apps that compete with Apple’s own. The antitrust investigation could threaten Apple’s $46.2 billion services business, which includes the App Store.

Apple has been preparing its defense in the public for many months. It launched an App Store “Principles and Practices” page last year, which argues that Apple permits competition with its own services by way of the App Store. More recently, it made a point about how many transactions flow through the App Store without its hand in the till. ($519 billion!)

But Apple’s view of itself is stuck in the past — of a company that enabled developers to escape the oppression of telcos where apps were accused of being labeled bloatware and carriers took the majority of the revenues. Apple can’t see itself for what it has become. Now it’s become the giant diving into developers’ pockets, taking a cut of revenues for not just their app and distribution, but everything an app sells, too.

App Store developers can challenge guidelines, says Apple following the Hey debacle 

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

Though the news was shoehorned into Apple’s WWDC announcements, it was a response to an event that began the week prior — the dispute between Basecamp over its new email app, Hey, and Apple’s rules around the use of in-app purchases. Basecamp’s complaint was one many developers could relate to — feeling bullied by App Store rules that they felt didn’t make sense for their business, but having no voice in the matter or any way to fight back.

The brouhaha eventually made its way up to App Store head Phil Schiller who defended his company’s position, despite the looming antitrust investigations now coming about that focus on Apple’s heavy hand in running its App Store. Basecamp ultimately compromised with Apple, releasing a free version of the service with a temporary email address, allowing users to test Hey before subscribing.

In a blog post about changes for apps and developers, Apple said it will now allow developers to not just appeal their violations, but will gain a mechanism to challenge App Store guidelines. It also said it wouldn’t prevent a developer from releasing bug fixes — fixes that are often critical or security-related — while things were sorted out. These new additions to the App Store Review Guidelines won’t roll out until later this summer, so we expect to hear more about it then.

Instagram expands its TikTok clone “Reels” to new markets

Image Credits: Instagram

Instagram this week expanded its TikTok competitor known as “Reels” to new markets, following its launch last year in Brazil. Reels is now available in France and Germany, allowing users to record short, 15-second video clips set to music or other audio, then share them on the platform where they have the potential to go viral. The product has changed a bit from its earlier test, as now Reels can show up on Explore (if the account is public) as well as on user profiles.

Instagram isn’t the only major platform worried about the TikTok threat. Also this week, YouTube announced it had begun testing a new mobile recording experience that allowed for 15-second long, multisegment videos. Sounds a lot like TikTok!

TikTok For Business launches to marketers 

Image Credits: TikTok

TikTok officially announced this week it’s open for business. The company launched a new brand and platform called TikTok For Business that will serve as the home for all its current and future marketing solutions for brands. At launch, the site will include access to TikTok ad formats, including its marque product, TopView, which is the ad that appears when you first launch the TikTok app. Other products under this TikTok For Business umbrella include Brand Takeovers, In-Feed Videos, Hashtag Challenges and Branded Effects. It also added a new AR Branded Effect in a challenge to Snapchat. The promise to advertisers is that, unlike on other networks, their work becomes part of the TikTok community — not separate from it.

In a related story, TikTok also just revealed how it selects videos for its For You feed in the app.

Roblox tops $1.5B in lifetime spending on mobile

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Sensor Tower this week reported Roblox crossed the milestone of $1.5 billion in player spending just seven months after hitting $1 billion. Roblox has been rapidly growing during the pandemic. In March, revenue grew 28% month-over-month to $69.8 million, while in April player spending increased by 34% month-over-month to $93.2 million. May was its biggest month yet, with sales that hit close to $103 million.

Amazon launches Amazon Honeycode, a no-code mobile and web app builder

AWS this week launched a beta version of Amazon Honeycode, a new, fully managed low-code/no-code development tool that lets anyone build their own applications. The app is backed by a database in AWS and a web-based, drag-and-drop interface builder. Apps can support up to 20 users for free, then have to pay per user and for storage. The app ships with templates for common use cases like to-do list applications, customer trackers, surveys, schedules and inventory management. Nothing fancy here.

Facebook tests Forecasts, an app for predictions 

Image Credits: Facebook

Forecast, a new project from Facebook’s internal R&D group, NPE Team, launched this week to build a community around predictions. The iOS app allows users to ask questions and then use in-app points to make predictions about what might happen in the future. Users can also create, discuss and view these crowdsourced predictions. Currently, only invited participants in the U.S. and Canada will be allowed to make predictions and engage in conversations while the app is in beta testing. But these predictions and related discussions will be publicly accessible on the Forecast website and made shareable. Facebook says it’s inviting members of the health, research and academic communities to make predictions about the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the world. WHAT COULD GO WRONG?

Apple closed the Chinese App Store loophole

Bloomberg reported this week that Apple will begin to remove thousands of games from its Chinese App Store in July due to the policy that requires all paid games or those with in-app purchases to be licensed by Chinese regulators. The removals represent the end of the loophole that had allowed developers to distribute and sell their games on the App Store while awaiting approval. It’s estimated this will impact roughly one-third of the 60,000 games currently listed on the Chinese App Store.

A domestic violence prevention app exposed victims’ distress recordings

Aspire News is an app disguised as a news reader, but can actually be used by domestic violence victims to alert friends and family to abuse or danger. When a victim taps the top bar of the app three times, the app can alert trusted contacts with a prewritten message, a prerecorded voice note and the victim’s precise location by text message to indicate that they need help or are in danger. A security lapse, however, exposed those uploaded voice recordings on an unprotected cloud server for anyone to access. The app had 300,000 downloads and had been endorsed by Dr. Phil. (His wife created it.)

Snapchat adds free phone number verification to its SDK 

Snapchat added a new tool to its Login Kit framework that allows developers offering a “Log In with Snapchat” button on their app to check with Snap to see if the user had already verified their phone number, instead of using a service like Twilio or SMS verification. The company said it wanted to provide an easy, free and private way to verify numbers inside its own SDK. Snapchat has been working to grow its company by offering resources to developers instead of a network of user data, like Facebook.

Instagram Shopping expands, can now even be used by creators selling merch

Instagram announced its expanding access to Instagram Shopping to more businesses, including creators who want to sell their own merchandise. To enable this expansion, the company introduced new “Commerce Eligibility Requirements” that offer a set of guidelines that interested businesses must adhere to, in order to qualify for Instagram selling. Sellers must demonstrate their  “trustworthiness” by having an authentic, established presence and a sufficient follower base, among other rules. The expansion will turn IG into even more of a home for commerce than it is now, and generate additional revenue for Facebook in the process.

Brazil suspends WhatsApp’s payments 

Brazil, the second-largest market for WhatsApp, this week suspended the app’s mobile payments service in the country a week after its rollout. In a statement, Brazil’s central bank said it was making the decision to “preserve an adequate competitive environment” in the mobile payments space and to ensure “functioning of a payment system that’s interchangeable, fast, secure, transparent, open and cheap.” The move is another setback for Facebook, which began testing WhatsApp Pay in India two years ago and has still not yet received regulatory approval to expand the service nationwide.

Contact tracing apps in the news

Image Credits: App Annie

  • Global: App Annie’s new analysis on the contact-tracing app industry shows early interest and adoption in regions such as Japan, Germany, Italy, Australia, France, India, Singapore, South Korea and Austria. The COVID-19 Contact App in Japan, Corona-Warn-App in Germany, StopCovid France in France, Immuni App in Italy, COVIDSafe in Australia, Aarogya Setu in India and TraceTogether in Singapore ranked #1 within their respective app store categories (either Medical or Health and Fitness) by daily iPhone downloads every day since their launches. Aarogya Setu in India has ranked #1 by daily downloads among Health and Fitness Apps across both iPhones and Google Play since its launch on April 2, 2020 to date. More here. 
  • France: French contact-tracing app StopCovid has been activated 1.8 million times but has sent just 14 notifications. But this is only the beginning! Part of the issue is that the European apps aren’t compatible with one another. StopCovid also doesn’t use the Apple-Google API.

Funding and M&A

  • Privacy assistant Jumbo raised $8 million for its app that protects your online privacy by connecting to services like Facebook and Google, so you can manage your settings from one easy dashboard.
  • Apple acquired Fleetsmith, a startup that helps IT remotely manage devices and a rival to market leader, Jamf. The company had raised $40 million to date from outside investors. Deal terms weren’t disclosed.
  • Facebook acquired Mapillary, a Swedish mapping startup with a database of crowdsourced, street-level imagery. Deal terms weren’t disclosed.
  • Bangalore-based Byju’s, an online learning app, raised an undisclosed amount from the VC fund co-founded by Mary Meeker, Bond. Last year, Byju’s acquired U.S.-based Osmo, a startup that develops apps for kids that uses offline input, in a deal worth $120 million.
  • India’s antitrust watchdog gave its blessing to Facebook and Reliance Jio Platforms for their $5.7 billion deal. Jio Platforms, run by India’s Reliance Industries, is the biggest telecom operator in the country with more than 388 million subscribers.
  • Tatch raised $4.25 million for its diagnostic device that works with a smartphone app to detect sleep disorders, like sleep apnea.
  • French startup Swile raised $78.7 million led by Index Ventures for its corporate lunch card and benefits app.
  • Multiplatform design platform Canva raised $60 million on a $6 billion valuation. The company’s total raise to date is now $300 million, and includes backing from Bond, General Catalyst, Sequoia Capital China, Felicis Ventures and Blackbird Ventures.
  • Tencent acquired assets from struggling streaming platform iflix. Apptopia noted 49% of iflix’s downloads come from Indonesia, its top market. Philippines is #2 at 18%.


GameClub for Android

Image Credits: GameClub

Subscription-based access to mobile gaming content has been fueling services like Apple Arcade and Google Play Pass. Last fall, a startup called GameClub entered the mix, as well, to test the idea that subscriptions could also produce new revenue streams for some of mobile gaming’s greatest hits. At launch, GameClub’s $5 per month subscription service was available only on iOS, offering access to over 100 titles that had seen a collective 100 million lifetime downloads. The service is now available to Android users with a catalog that’s grown to now more than 120 classic titles.

Sleep and Translate

Image Credits: Apple

Developers can go ahead and test Apple’s two newest apps, Sleep and Translate, introduced at WWDC20. Sleep for Apple Watch is designed to help you meet your sleep goals, including getting enough sleep, getting to bed on time, and creating a pre-bedtime routine. You can also track your sleep and wake up in the morning with alarm sounds or haptics.

Image Credits: Apple

Translate, meanwhile, steps into what’s been Google’s territory, with an app that offers translation of both voice and text between any combination of eleven languages, including English, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Russian, German, French, Italian, Brazilian Portuguese and Arabic.