Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.
The app industry continues to grow, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.
Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.
This Week in Apps offers a way to keep up with this fast-moving industry in one place with the latest from the world of apps, including news, updates, startup fundings, mergers and acquisitions, and suggestions about new apps and games to try, too.
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Apple lost its request to delay App Store changes
A federal judge ruled this week that Apple can’t push back the deadline to update its App Store policies, as previously ordered in the court’s decision on California’s Epic Games v. Apple lawsuit. Though Apple largely won that case when the judge declared that Apple was not acting as a monopolist (as Epic Games had alleged), the court sided with the Fortnite maker on the matter of Apple’s anti-steering policies regarding restrictions on in-app purchases.
The original ruling stated that Apple would no longer be allowed to prohibit developers from pointing to other means of payment besides Apple’s own payment systems. But Apple wanted that decision put on hold until its appeals case was decided — a delay that would have effectively pushed back the App Store changes by a matter of years.
The judge heard Apple’s requests for a stay on the injunction that was ordered, which would have pushed back the December 9 deadline which forces Apple to start allowing links to alternative payment options inside apps.
The question is now whether or not Apple will actually comply (in the way developers are imagining) and if so, how exactly it will interpret the ruling. In South Korea, Apple was ordered to do something similar but said it believed it was already in compliance due to how the law was written, leading to further discussions between it and regulators. Meanwhile, Google complied with the South Korean law but noted it still requires commissions for third-party payments, just at a reduced rate. While it’s a major step to see any of these app stores open up at all, these moves indicate that the language used to direct changes across the app store has to be precise, or else the companies will find a loophole.
In the meantime, Apple says it intends to ask the Ninth Circuit for a stay as it believes “no additional business changes should be required to take effect until all appeals in this case are resolved.”
Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney pointed out the judge’s ruling was good for developers, not necessarily good for Epic itself, as Apple plans to block Fortnite from the App Store throughout the appeal process.
2022 Mobile Forecast
App Annie released its annual mobile forecast, this time predicting six major trends to keep your eyes on for the year ahead. Its key takeaways?
- TikTok will continue its rocketship growth. The firm predicts the app will reach 1.5 billion active users — a figure it will reach 1.75 years faster than WhatsApp did.
- Big new milestones are ahead for a number of top apps. Pinterest and Temple Run 2 will reach 1 billion downloads. Subway Surfers will hit 2 billion. TikTok will reach 3 billion and reach $3 billion in consumer spending.
- Metaverse apps will gain big. The apps (e.g. Roblox, Minecraft) will see over $3 billion in consumer spending.
- Gen Z fintech apps will grow. Mobile-first fintech apps will grow by 160% in 2022, with crypto driving adoption.
- Video streaming subscription apps will also win big, as entertainment apps hit $12 billion in consumer spending.
- Creator economy heats up on mobile. Social apps will see $9 billion in App Store spending thanks to creators.
- Apple to keep App Store Connect open over the holidays. In a change from previous years, Apple said it will keep the App Store open to developer submissions over the 2021 holidays. However, it cautioned that during the dates of November 24 to 28 and from December 23 to 27, submissions may take longer — signaling it’s running with a reduced staff.
- Apple releases iOS 15.2 into beta. The standout addition in this release is Apple’s new safety feature for kids in iMessage, which allows parents to block potentially sensitive photos in iMessage that may contain nudity, and alert parents if kids decide to view the messages anyway. Other notable new additions include the new Digital Legacy program that allows users to designate people as “Legacy Contacts” who can access your account and personal info in the event of your death, and the new Find My app feature that will alert users to “Unknown Items” that are following you around (an anti-stalking feature). The Apple TV app also got a visual refresh on iPad.
- Apple reminded developers that a COVID-era deferral on in-app purchases related to virtual group events is nearing its end. In 2020, Apple temporarily deferred the requirement to offer paid online group event services (one-to-few and one-to-many real-time services) through its in-app purchase system. As COVID raged on, Apple deferred that deadline twice more, to June 2021 and then to December 2021, with the goal of supporting businesses impacted by the pandemic. But it now says the deadline will not be pushed again and apps will have to implement IAP by December 31, 2021, or they won’t be approved.
- Apple introduced its own device management platform for smaller businesses, Apple Business Essentials. The solution is aimed at businesses with fewer than 500 employees, and includes device management, storage and support in a single subscription. (The storage piece can be iCloud or a third-party provider) and support is offered both to admins and employees through AppleCare+. The new product emerged from a combination of Apple’s Fleetsmith acquisition and its Apple Device Enrollment Program.
- Google this week recapped its #AndroidDevSummit announcements, culminating in the release of Jetpack Compose 1.1 beta. The new APIs in 1.1 are now stable, and offer new functionality and performance improvements, the company noted. 1.1 also introduces new features like improved focus handling and touch target sizing or ImageVector caching and support for Android 12 stretch overscroll. And it graduates a number of experimental APIs to stable and supports newer versions of Kotlin.
- Google additionally noted it has released compose-material3, a new artifact for building Material You UIs with Jetpack Compose. It offers updated components and color system, including support for dynamic color, creating a personalized color palette from a user’s wallpaper.
E-commerce & Food Delivery
- YouTube is launching a holiday “Stream and Shop” event on November 15-22 which will feature a week of livestreams from creators and brands offering a look at favorite products, deals and discounts.
- NBCU’s Bravo cable brand is livestreaming a shopping show on Instagram on Black Friday. The show will be hosted by curve model and TikTok influencer Remi Bader, and called “Impulse Try with Remi Bader.” Fans will be able to ask Bader questions about merchandise in real time while viewing items for sale.
- Apple’s own Apple Store app added a new “Lists” feature that makes it easier to save the items you’re thinking of buying, which can also be shared with a specialist in-store. The app also added videos with audio descriptions that detail the products.
- Facebook launched Shops in Groups and improved Live Shopping for Creators. The former would allow a group to raise funds by selling merch, while the latter will allow influencers and brands to promote cross-streaming live events, instead of pointing to each other’s pages.
- Instacart rolled out a new “Deals Tab” in its app where it featured reduced and free delivery options in select markets. The feature will offer daily coupons, sales, bulk product discounts and more. Another feature called “Dollar Store Hub” will allow users to shop from discount stores like Dollar Tree, 99 Cents Only Store, Five Below and Family Dollar.
- Niantic places its bet on a “real-world” AR metaverse. The Pokémon GO maker announced the launch of Lightship, an AR Developer Kit (ARDK) that makes it easier to build AR experiences. In introducing the new tools, CEO John Hanke referred to Meta (Facebook)’s vision of a VR metaverse as a “dystopian nightmare” and said his company’s tools would bring people together in person — in the real world, not a virtual one.
- Coinbase stock sank over 13% after missing analyst estimates on its Q3 earnings with $1.31 billion versus the $1.57 billion expected. The company also said monthly transacting users fell from 8.8 million in Q2 to 7.4 million in Q3, and trading volume fell to $327 billion from $462 billion.
- Discord paused its plans to explore crypto integrations and NFTs after significant backlash from the platform’s users. The company clarified the original screenshot it had shared was part of a hackathon project, not an official announcement. Some fans were concerned over the environmental impacts of cryptocurrency mining while some had objections to “NFT bros.” And others were worried about the potential for crypto scams across Discord. Users were encouraging each other to cancel their subscriptions in protest, leading to the company’s decision to press pause.
- TikTok (including Douyin) remained the most-download app worldwide in October 2021 in the non-games category with more than 57 million installs, per Sensor Tower data. China contributed to 17% of installs, followed by the U.S. at 11%. Instagram was the second most downloaded app, with 56 million installs, a 31% year-over-year increase.
- Instagram announced the company is testing a new feature called “Take a Break,” which will allow users to remind themselves to take a break from using the app after either 10, 20 or 30 minutes, depending on their preferences. As an opt-in feature, however, the reminders may have a limited impact, as users would have to be motivated to set up the new control for themselves.
- Instagram is also offering huge creator bonuses for posting content on its TikTok rival, Reels. Some creators are reporting earning up to $10,000 in monthly bonus money, but the system’s criteria is opaque, making the reward feel more like a lottery win than an income. In another challenge to TikTok, Instagram added text-to-speech and voice effects tools to Reels, as well.
- Instagram looks ready to launch creator subscriptions. On November 1, the company added new in-app purchases to its U.S. app, which are labeled “Instagram Subscriptions” and range in price from $0.99 to $4.99. When we asked what was up, the company said it had nothing to share at this time.
- Facebook announced new partners for its Creative App Platform, first introduced at F8, which allows people to discover creative apps directly in Facebook Stories. It’s now working with VivaVideo, and Vita, which will soon be joined by Picsart, Camera360 and Sweet Selfie.
- WhatsApp is working on Novi integration. An APK teardown revealed the messaging app may soon be integrating with Facebook’s (um, Meta’s) digital wallet, Novi, according to details in the app’s code.
- Meta (formerly, Facebook)’s WhatsApp has been given the green light to proceed with a lawsuit against Israeli spyware firm NSO Group. Meta sued NSO Group in 2019, which tried to defend itself by way of the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act. The court decided because the NSO Group a private company, the lawsuit can continue. The firm had infected 1,400 devices with WhatsApp malware.
Streaming & Entertainment
- Netflix added a short-form video feature to Kids’ profiles in its iOS app. The company said it’s testing a new feature that would introduce kids to its content library by way of short, auto-playing clips. The new addition has some resemblance to the TikTok-inspired Fast Laughs feature for adult profiles, except that these videos are horizontal, not vertical, and a timer counts down how many clips are left to watch.
- YouTube expanded its test that launches mobile users directly into its TikTok-like product, YouTube Shorts, if that was the area of the app users had last visited. The feature is being tested globally on iOS and is now expanding to Android, TechCrunch confirmed.
- Clubhouse announced the launch of a new feature called Replays on iOS and Android that makes its live audio programs available to listen to after the fact. The app’s public rooms can optionally be recorded as they happen and then saved to a club or user profile. The Replays will also be downloadable so that anyone hosting a room can share it externally, beyond Clubhouse, “as a podcast, a clip on YouTube, an Instagram story, a TikTok video, or anywhere else,” the company said.
- Amazon’s Prime Video app introduced a new feature that allows users to create shareable clips from favorite shows. The feature is initially available only in the U.S. on iOS, and only on a limited number of originals, including “The Boys,” “The Wilds,” “Invincible” and “Fairfax.” The company says it plans to add more shows in the future. The feature is notable as most video apps block any sort of sharing and even make screenshots come out all black.
- The Google TV app introduced a new option that will alert you when content you’ve added to your watchlist becomes available for free. The feature can be enabled in the app’s Settings.
- London-based music tech app TagMix, which allows users to add pro-quality sounds to live video, entered into a licensing agreement with Warner Music Group (WMG) providing the app with access to a selection of the company’s artists.
- Spotify launched a new destination for its music charts that aims to give both artists and fans more data. The site will feature the Weekly Top 50 Global Songs, Albums and Artists, and logged-in users can dive into the full Top 200 Global Songs, Albums and Artists charts, as well as view detailed stats like streaks, peak position, song credits and the brand new Genre, City and Local Pulse charts.
- Spotify also finally rolled out a blocking feature that allows users to block others from viewing their listening activity and profile on the app. Users have been asking for such an option since at least 2018.
- YouTube is removing the “dislike” count on videos across its platform. The decision is likely to be controversial, given the extent that it impacts the public’s visibility into a video’s reception. But YouTube believes the change will better protect its creators from harassment and reduce the threat of what it calls “dislike attacks.” While dislike counts won’t be visible to the public, YouTube is not removing the dislike button itself. Users can still click the thumbs down button on videos to signal their dislike to creators privately.
- TikTok Gaming? Zynga is teaming up with TikTok to release an exclusive HTML5 game on the short-form video app. The game, “Disco Loco 3D,” is a single-player endless runner where players collect their own dance moves while challenging friends, avoiding obstacles and collecting medallions as they walk down a catwalk, similar in spirit to Zynga’s “High Heels.” While TikTok says the game is meant to test its audience’s general interest in gaming within its app, the company confirmed that discussions with other game makers are already underway.
- Zynga reported record third-quarter revenue of $705 million, up 40% from the same period last year, and reached its largest mobile audience ever of 183 million monthly active users, up 120% year over year. The company spoke to TechCrunch about navigating the advertising crisis, blockchain gaming and other plans.
- Casual game ad costs have declined 38% since the launch of iOS 14.6, but core ad costs are up 78%, according to Moloco (via Business of Apps). The Cost per Install for casual games (arcade, card, puzzle) on iOS dropped 45%, compared to 30% on Android.
- The top-grossing mobile game in October 2021 was Tencent’s Honor of Kings, which earned $329 million in player spending, up 46.2% YoY, reports Sensor Tower; 96.7% of that revenue was from China, with 1.2% from Taiwan. Tencent’s PUBG Mobile was the second-highest earner with $197 million in gross revenue, where 51% was from China and 11.5% was from the U.S. The remaining top-grossing games were (in order), King’s Candy Crush Saga, Garena’s Garena Free Fire and Riot Games’ League of Legends: Wild Right.
Health & Fitness
- Meditation app Calm added a new family plan that supports up to six accounts. The “Premium Family” subscription mirrors those you’d find on music streaming services, and is $99.99 per year instead of the $69.99 for an individual plan.
Travel & Transportation
- China’s Didi is preparing to relaunch its ride-hailing and other apps in China by year-end, following the close of Beijing’s cybersecurity investigation into the company’s data practices.
- Google introduced a new Gmail widget for iOS home screens to help users better manage their inbox. The widget will now display the senders and subjects of your most recent emails, similar to how its Android widget works.
- Google also added picture-in-picture support for Google Meet on iOS so you can move between apps and exit to your home screen while in a video call. The feature will launch on the Gmail app in the next few weeks, as well, the company said.
- Google is testing a new voice assistant designed for people with speech impairments. The Android app, known as Project Relate, is accepting signups in the hopes of gathering enough participants to give it enough data to train the speech recognition engines.
- Google Maps on iOS now has a dark mode on iOS. The new theme doesn’t just switch the map to black, but makes the other app elements black as well, like the navigation buttons and bars. The feature is available under the Settings screen accessed under your profile icon.
- Google removed Google Assistant’s “Your News Update” feature, first launched in 2019, which offered personalized audio digests based on user data. Users could customize the feature in Assistant’s settings, then play back the news over other devices, like Google Home speakers.
- The Google Recorder added support for three new languages: French, German and Japanese. The update is rolling out first to Pixel 6 and 6 Pro devices.
Government & Policy
- FOIA records show that the U.S. Treasury bought location data and other smartphone app data from the company Babel Street to find people dodging taxes and sanctions, The Intercept reported.
- Mississippi is piloting a mobile driver license as a first step toward developing a multipurpose digital ID wallet that would store a range of state certificates and licenses. The move follows Utah’s mobile driver license and Apple’s announcement in September of eight U.S. states signed up to adopt mobile IDs, including Utah, as well as Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland and Oklahoma.
- The U.K.’s Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit against Google that sought $4 billion for allegedly tracking iOS Safari users without consent during 2011 and 2012.
- Chinese tech companies are censoring language-learning apps and others, Protocol reported. Language-learning app Talkmate removed the Uyghur and Tibetan language offerings due to government policies, then Chinese streaming service Bilibili banned comments posted in Uyghur and Tibetan.
Security & Privacy
- Security researchers uncovered new spyware that’s targeting South Korean Android users by masquerading as legitimate lifestyle apps. But in reality, the spyware is stealing data from the user’s device, including login credentials, messages and precise location and images.
- A researcher detailed a hacker-for-hire operation, RocketHack, which had infiltrated the email and Telegram apps of some 3,500 people, including politicians, political candidates, IVF doctors, human rights activists, engineers and others.
Funding and M&A
🤝 Spotify announced its plans to acquire digital audiobook distributor Findaway, whose business connects creators with reseller partners like Apple, Google, Scribd, Audible, Nook, Rakuten Kobo, Chirp, Storytel (a Spotify partner), Overdrive, Audiobooks.com and dozens of other global brands. It also operates a collection of brands that connect publishers and authors with narrators. Spotify declined to share the financial terms of the deal, which is expected to close in the fourth quarter of 2021, subject to regulatory review and approval. The company said it will make more audiobooks available in its app starting next year.
💰 Taipei-based instant booking app FunNow raised $15 million in Series B funding co-led by Perfect Hexagon Commodity & Investment Bank and Ascendo Ventures.
💰 Seoul-based edtech company Mathpresso, the makers of the AI learning app QANDA, added an undisclosed investment from Google, which comes five months after the company’s $50 million Series C. More than 85% of QANDA’s 45 million registered users are outside of Korea, in Japan and Southeast Asia.
💰 London-based Blink, a productivity app for frontline works, raised $20 million in Series A funding led by Next47, valuing the business at $100 million. The app has strong traction with metropolitan bus networks, where it’s used by 5,000 drivers who do things like check payslips, shifts and holiday and overtime pay, as well as read announcements and chat with others. The company is now planning to relocate to NYC.
💰 Daily, a startup offering APIs that let developers add video and audio features to apps and websites, raised $40 million in Series B funding led by Renegade Partners. The round brought Daily’s total raise to date to $60 million.
This fun, new streaming app combines gameplay with its short-form content. The Snax app offers original mini-movies where you play along — either by making choose-your-own-adventure choices for the characters, figuring out riddles, helping hunt for clues in murder mysteries or, soon, even playing games like chess or poker as part of the story. The videos are created by partnered writers and filmmakers, while Snax adds the interactive elements to make the films engaging. Users watch shorter clips then play the game or solve the puzzle before moving on. (Don’t worry, hints are available if you’re stumped!) The app is a free download but offers in-app subscriptions to stream all its series.
This digital collectibles app isn’t brand new (it launched this year), but it soared up the charts this week to break into the top of the App Store. The app allows users to collect and display limited-edition 3D sculptures of their favorites across pop culture, gaming, sports, film and TV, anime and animation. This includes collectibles from top brands like Batman, Adventure Time, Monster Hunter, NFL, DC Collectibles, Star Trek, Jurassic Park, Fast and the Furious, Back to the Future, Ultraman, Superman and others. This week, the app got a boost from the announcement that Disney was partnering with it for its Disney+ Day on November 12. The companies launched a series of digital collectible NFTs — “Golden Moments” — that were inspired by stories from Disney, Pixar, Marvel and Star Wars. In some markets, the purchase of a Golden Moments NFT also came with three months of Disney+. An ultra-rare collectible was also available on Disney+ day, which came with 12 free months.
Michael Flarup is bringing his book about icon design to life, via a Kickstarter campaign. The book will feature hundreds of works of art from design teams worldwide.