Apps

This Week in Apps: Temu’s hot streak, Walmart’s m-commerce & an Apple XR App Store

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Image Credits: TechCrunch

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 economy in 2023 hit a few snags, as consumer spending last year dropped for the first time by 2% to $167 billion, according to the latest “State of Mobile” report by data.ai (previously App Annie). However, downloads are continuing to grow, up 11% year-over-year in 2022 to reach 255 billion. Consumers are also spending more time in mobile apps than ever before. On Android devices alone, hours spent in 2022 grew 9%, reaching 4.1 trillion.

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 much more.

Do you want This Week in Apps in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters

Top Stories

Temu’s continued rise

Image Credits: Temu

Temu, a shopping app from Chinese e-commerce giant Pinduoduo, has been having quite the run as the No. 1 app on the U.S. app stores. The mobile shopping app hit the top spot on the U.S. App Store in September and has continued to hold a highly ranked position in the months that followed, including as the No. 1 free app on Google Play since December 29, 2022. More recently, Temu once again snagged the No. 1 position on the iOS App Store on January 3 and hadn’t dropped since as of earlier this week.

Offering cheap factory-to-consumer goods, Temu provides access to a wide range of products, including fast fashion, and pushes users to share the app with friends in exchange for free products, which may account for some of its growth. The app has seen 5 million U.S. installs this January alone, up 19% from 4.2 million in the prior 22 days from December 10 through December 31, Sensor Tower says. This brings it to a total of 19 million lifetime installs across the App Store and Google Play, more than 18 million of which came from the U.S.

The growth now sees Temu outpacing rival Shein in terms of daily installs. In October, Temu was averaging around 43,000 daily installs in the U.S., the firm said, while Shein averaged about 62,000. In November, Temu’s average daily installs grew to 185,000 while Shein’s climbed to 70,000, and last month, Temu averaged 187,000 installs while Shein saw about 62,000.

The app appears to be leveraging a similar growth strategy to TikTok, which heavily spent on marketing to gain users. According to Meta’s ad library, Temu has run some 8,900 ads across Meta’s various platforms just this month. The ads promote Temu’s sales and its extremely discounted items, like $5 necklaces, $4 shirts and $13 shoes, among other deals. These ads appear to be working to boost Temu’s installs. But dig into the app’s reviews and you’ll find similar complaints to Wish, including scammy listings, damaged and delayed deliveries, incorrect orders and lack of customer service. Without addressing these issues, which helped bring down Wish, Temu seems more likely to go the way of Wish, not TikTok, no matter what it spends.

Walmart’s chatbot shopping didn’t go well

Image Credits: Screenshot of Walmart Text to Shop

Walmart recently introduced a new way to shop: via text. Last month, the retail giant launched its “Text to Shop” experience, which allows mobile consumers across both iOS and Android devices to text Walmart the items they want to purchase from either their local stores or Walmart.com, or easily reorder items for pickup, delivery or shipping. However, the chat experience as it stands today does not come across as fully baked, our tests found. The chatbot said confusing things and the user interface at times was difficult to navigate, despite aiming to be a simpler, text-based shopping experience.

We tested the experience, which leverages Apple’s Message app on iPhone, and it did not go well. The bot responded twice at times, offered only a few options for generic requests like “eggs,” asked everytime if an item was for pickup or delivery, provided inaccurate responses and spoke nonsense when confused — like when it returned options for “la croix organic eggs.” We’d say stick with the Walmart app for now.

Read the full review here.

Hands on with Walmart’s new (but buggy) ‘Text to Shop’ feature

Apple’s Reality Pro details

Could the next big app platform be Apple’s AR/VR headset? That’s the news from Bloomberg, which leaked details of Apple’s upcoming headset, the $3,000 Reality Pro due out later this year. The headset will attempt to create a 3D version of Apple’s operating system, the report said, and will include features like FaceTime videoconferencing (with avatars), the ability to watch immersive videos, play VR games and use Apple’s apps — including the Safari web browser, photos, mail, messages, calendar, App TV+, Apple Music, Podcasts and the App Store.

The report described an interface with a grid of app icons and widgets, and said Siri could be used when you needed to input text. However, the interesting details involved how users could interact with on-screen items. Apparently, the device would have external sensors to analyze the user’s hands and sensors inside to track the user’s eyes. This would allow the user to select items on the screen by looking at them, then pinch their thumb and forefinger together to activate the task — without needing to hold additional hand controllers like rival headsets, Bloomberg said. It may also have its own Digital Crown, like Apple Watch, for switching between AR and VR and its iOS-like interface.

Additionally, Apple is reported to be building software that allows users, including those who don’t know how to code, to build their own AR apps for its upcoming mixed-reality headset.

There are of course still a lot of unanswered questions about the headset’s capabilities, though it does sound like a very “Apple” attempt at getting VR right. But the device’s price point will make it a premium product for the time being — and one launching during a down economy — which could limit its growth.

App Updates

Apple Updates

  • The new iOS 16.3 update included notable security features like the expansion of the new Advanced Data Protection for iCloud feature to markets outside of the U.S. The update also added Security Keys for Apple ID and a change to the Emergency SOS call system that now requires users to hold the side button with the up or down volume button and then release it in order to prevent inadvertent emergency calls. The update also fixed a CarPlay bug, among other things.
  • The iPhone 5S also received a security update with iOS 12.5.7, which addresses a vulnerability that may have been actively exploited, Apple said.

Google/Android Updates

  • Google announced it’s shutting down Optimize and Optimize 360 — tools that helped marketers run A/B tests to improve their website or app’s user experience. The tools will no longer be available after September 30, 2023. However, Google clarified that Firebase A/B Testing, which is powered by Optimize and used for testing app experiences, will continue to be supported in the future and will not be impacted by this change.
  • A deadline to target the latest Android API level is arriving. Originally, Google’s deadline for developers was November 1, 2022, but it was extended to January 31, 2023 to give devs more time. The change was announced last year, when Google also said that as of November 1, 2022, existing apps that didn’t target an API level within two years of the latest major Android release version will not be available for discovery or installation for new users with devices running Android OS versions higher than apps’ target API level.

Gaming

Entertainment

  • Netflix and Bumble partnered on a new dating app experience that lets users bond over popular TV shows. The dating app will launch a weekly Netflix question-and-answer game that users can play against their match to break the ice.
Image Credits: Bumble
  • YouTube Music launched a new beta testing program called “Listening Room,” where it invited users to try out new features. The program was almost immediately filled up.
  • Clubhouse introduced a new feature called Instant Invite, which lets users invite their friends to join House rooms and lounge conversations with a one-tap invite link. The company hopes the feature will reduce the friction involved with joining the app.

Messaging

Messenger end-to-end encryption experience
Image Credits: Meta
  • Facebook Messenger expanded its tests of end-to-end encryption. The app will also allow users to take advantage of features like themes, chat emoji, reactions, group profile photos, link previews and active status while in E2EE chats. Millions of people will be alerted over the coming months as the E2EE option becomes available.
  • WhatsApp launched a beta version of its macOS app with native Apple Silicon support. Mac users with Apple’s own chip and macOS 11 Big Sur or newer will be able to try it, as well as Intel Macs that can run apps built with Catalyst.

Social

  • Instagram introduced a new profile photo feature that lets users showcase both their profile photo and their avatar by offering an interface where you can flip between both options.
  • Meta is exploring the use of AI tools to make its ad systems less dependent on user data, after Apple’s ATT privacy changes impacted its ads business, The WSJ reported. AI tools have already helped boost Reels viewership by 20%.

Etc.

  • RevenueCat released a massive report digging into data around the subscription economy, powered by its insights into 22,000 subscription-based apps. The report offers actionable insights and never-before-seen benchmarks around factors like app pricing, retention, conversion, renewals, trial strategies and much more. The whole thing is worth a look here.
  • Top U.S. banks are again planning a mobile wallet to compete with Apple Pay and PayPal, The WSJ said. The wallet will be developed by Early Warning Services, which is also behind Zelle. The banks tried and failed to get a similar initiative (CurrentC) off the ground in years past.
  • Dating app Match Group revamped its executive leadership team. Among the changes was the addition of former vice president of Product at Snap, Will Wu, who will now become Match’s CTO, in a newly created role.
  • Read-it-later app Pocket, acquired by Mozilla in 2017, revamped its mobile reading experience with new features. One addition adds more organization and recommendations to the Home tab. It’s also rebranding its “My List” tab as “Saves” and enhancing its functionality with filters and bulk edit tools. The features are launching on Android first.
  • Popular wearable Oura Ring updated its mobile app to integrate with another wearable, Apple Watch. The companion app can display info like Readiness, Activity, Sleep Scores, heart rate, body temperature, ring battery level and more, similar to the iPhone counterpart.
  • Samsung users are advised to update the Galaxy Store app on their devices due to the discovery of vulnerabilities that would allow a hacker to install any app from the store on their phone without their knowledge.
  • Uber Eats added a new feature that shows users how much of their personal information is shared with the delivery person when they place an order on the app. Uber proper already had a similar feature called “View as Driver.”

Government, Policy and Lawsuits

  • France’s privacy regulator, the CNIL, fined French hypercasual game developer Voodoo €3 million for violating the French Data Protection Act. The fine was issued over Voodoo’s use of the IDFV, or ID for Vendors, without user consent on iOS devices.
  • The FTC finalized a consent order settling charges that the credit services company Credit Karma had used dark patterns to misrepresent that consumers were “pre-approved” for credit card offers.
  • The FBI and DoJ are investigating Snapchat’s role in the spread of fentanyl-laced pills as part of a counterfeit drug probe underway.
  • TikTok has shifted its approach in its dealings with U.S. officials in the wake of government bans, after two years of confidential talks with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States about ByteDance’s relationship with the Chinese government, The NYT reported. The video app is now going on the PR offensive, more aggressively lobbying and speaking out more publicly, the report noted.

Funding and M&A

  • Strava, an activity tracking and social community platform used by more than 100 million people globally, acquired European 3D mapping company Fatmap for an undisclosed sum. Strava aims to integrate Fatmap’s core platform into its app eventually, but for now they’ll remain separate products.
  • Voice AI company SoundHound raised $25 million in equity from undisclosed investors after laying off 40% of staff. Part of the funding will be used to provide laid off employees with severance.

Downloads

Ivory goes live

Image Credits: Tapbots

Tapbots, the makers of the popular third-party Twitter app Tweetbot that was recently killed by Twitter’s API changes, this week publicly launched the company’s next new product. Hoping to fill the void that Tweetbot leaves behind, the company is now making its anticipated Mastodon client app Ivory available on the App Store as an Early Access release.

The “Early Access” label is a subtitle that Tapbots put on its release to indicate there will still be features missing as it debuts, the company told us. However, by launching publically on the App Store, Tapbots is able to put Ivory into more people’s hands after filling up the limited number of TestFlight slots it had for its test version.

For longtime Tweetbot users, Ivory will offer a familiar experience. But instead of serving as a client for Twitter’s network, the company has now embraced the promising open source platform Mastodon. Though not quite as simple to use or understand as Twitter, Mastodon has gained traction in the months following Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter.

At launch, it sports dozens of features, ranging from support for baseline functionality to clever bells and whistles, like being able to theme the app or change its icon.

The app also supports multiple accounts, and lets you view your local and federated timelines, trending posts, post statistics, notifications and more. It also enables Mastodon-specific options that weren’t available on Twitter — like the ability to add content warnings to posts — as well as more common features, like the ability to post GIFs and polls.

There are other thoughtful touches designed to appeal to power users, too, like hashtag tracking, mute filters with regex support and timeline filters that let you show or hide posts that meet certain criteria you set. This could appeal to Mastodon’s older users, as well, who may want to mute and avoid some of the posts shared by Mastodon newcomers who are bringing Twitter’s culture to the platform, leading to unwanted posts without content warnings in their timelines.

Tapbots launches a new Mastodon client, Ivory, after Twitter kills its Tweetbot app

Pestle (Update)

Image Credits: Pestle

Pestle, a handy and well-designed recipe app for iOS is getting a notable update on January 28. The app is adding a number of features for power users, including “Smart Folders,” which are automatically created folders that organize recipes based on user-set criteria, plus PDF and image import features. The latter allows users to import the recipes they had saved in other formats, while Smart Folders simplify the otherwise tedious process of organizing recipes. For instance, you could create Smart Folders that automatically add any saved recipe with a specific ingredient, or a dessert folder with additional rules. The app itself is a free download but offers subscriptions of $1.99/mo or $19.99/year (or $39.99 lifetime) for pro users.

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