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 data.ai’s “State of Mobile” report. 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.
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DUB DUB Returns
As expected, Apple announced its plans for this year’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC). The big event will return to Apple Park in Cupertino on June 5-9. However, the event looks like it will still be another scaled-down version, similar to last year, with its keynote and State of the Union again livestreamed.
Apple also noted it will host a special all-day event for developers and students on June 5. And, as in previous years, developers will be able to meet some of the teams at Apple, celebrate top apps at the Apple Design Awards ceremony and enjoy various evening activities. Student developers will also participate in a Swift Student Challenge competition, which could win them WWDC23 outerwear, AirPods Pro, a customized pin set and a one-year membership to the Apple Developer Program. The deadline to apply is April 19.
The company will continue to post WWDC announcements leading up to and during the conference, so keep an eye on your inboxes and the Apple Developer app for updates.
The big question on everyone’s minds is whether or not Apple will present its AR/VR headset during WWDC this year. Various reports have suggested mass production on the device has been pushed back a couple of months to the third quarter of 2023. Plus, a concerning report by The New York Times indicated the device is among the first to generate rare, internal dissent among Apple employees — some of whom don’t believe it’s a fit for the company. Expected to be priced at $3,000, some are worried about its utility and the still unproven market. Still, Bloomberg is betting on a headset reveal and the accompanying xrOS software.
The company will also likely introduce the latest updates to its existing OS lineup, including iOS 17, iPadOS 17, watchOS 10, macOS 14 and tvOS 17. Not much is known about these coming releases except that iOS 17 is codenamed Dawn and will include several of users’ “most-requested” features.
ByteDance pushes another social app, Lemon8, into the App Store’s Top Charts as a TikTok ban looms
As U.S. lawmakers moved forward with their plans for a TikTok ban or forced sale, the app’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance, began driving another of its social platforms into the Top Charts of the U.S. App Store. The ByteDance-owned app Lemon8, an Instagram rival that describes itself as a “lifestyle community,” jumped into the U.S. App Store’s Top Charts on Monday, becoming the No. 10 Overall app, across both apps and games. By the next day, it ranked No. 9 on the App Store’s Top Apps chart, excluding games.
This is a dramatic chart climb for the little-known app and one that points to paid user acquisition efforts powering this surge. Prior to Monday, the Lemon8 app had never before ranked in the Top 200 Overall Charts in the U.S., according to app store intelligence provided to TechCrunch by data.ai.
The firm confirmed that such a quick move from being an unranked app to being No. 9 among the top free apps in the U.S. — ahead of YouTube, WhatsApp, Gmail and Facebook — implies a “significant” and “recent” user acquisition push on the app publisher’s part.
The app was launched globally back in March 2020 but was only more recently launched on the U.S. App Store, seemingly for testing purposes. Over the past few days this week, it was more “officially” launched — that is, it was accompanied by the clearly sizable spend on paid discovery or app install ads. Globally, Lemon8 had 16 million total installs, Apptopia’s data indicates, with Japan as its largest market.
To push the app up the charts, ByteDance simply leveraged its own channels with influencer reviews on TikTok. Across a number of undisclosed ads, many creators began posting about Lemon8, with their new videos appearing in just the 24 hours prior to the app’s skyrocketing. Most of the reviews used similar language, describing the app as “cute” and a mix of “Pinterest and Instagram.” The creators didn’t tell their followers they were being paid to boost Lemon8.
Despite these efforts, Lemon8 may not be a viable backup plan for a TikTok ban, as lawmakers could consider a wide-ranging set of restrictions on Chinese tech, including on mobile applications far beyond TikTok alone.
Twitter alternative T2 capitalizes on Twitter’s plan to kill legacy verification, hires from Discord
As Twitter begins its shift to a “pay to play” business model, a new Twitter alternative is preparing to take flight. T2, the seed-funded Twitter rival developed by Google and Twitter veterans, is ready to capitalize on Twitter’s upheaval with the launch of a verification program specifically targeting those who are poised to lose their checkmark under Elon Musk’s new Twitter policies. T2 also this week announced a notable new hire with the addition of Discord’s former Senior Director of Engineering Michael Greer as its new chief technology officer (CTO).
Greer joined Discord in 2017, initially as director of Engineering, which touched on a number of areas, including revenue, growth, apps, community servers, design systems, messaging and more. He was promoted to senior director of Engineering just last June. Prior to Discord, Greer worked as the CTO at Tapp Media and The Onion for multiyear stints. At T2, Greer will now oversee the development team and guide the company’s technical growth.
Also this week, T2 debuted a new verification process with the launch of its “Get the Checkmark” program timed to correspond to Twitter’s removal of legacy verification checkmarks across all users who aren’t paying for the Twitter Blue subscription. Twitter said its own checkmark removals will begin on April 1st and will include removing the verification from organizations and individuals who had previously qualified as “notable” under the company’s prior rules. Ahead of this change, T2 users who are legacy Twitter checkmark holders can claim their T2 checkmark by filling out this form and then following the subsequent email instructions which involve communicating with T2 via Twitter DM or reply.
After April 1 (or whenever legacy checks actually disappear), will switch over to a new verification flow. For now, while the app is small and in closed testing, this will involve chatting directly with a T2 representative. (A process that would make it very hard for bots to be verified!) Later on, T2 plans to scale this verification using in-app identity and selfie checks. These will be designated as “T2 Authenticated” profiles and will have the standard verified check, not the ruffled edge version of the previously Twitter verified crowd.
Too bad T2 still requires an invite to get in — this is clever marketing!
- Apple released the first betas of iOS 16.5, iPadOS 16.5, tvOS 16.5, watchOS 9.5 and macOS 13.4, shortly after the rollout of iOS 16.4. The beta includes the ability to use Siri to start and stop screen recordings, references to a multi-view mode in Apple TV and the introduction of a Sports section within Apple News, among other things.
- The iOS 16.4 update introduces a number of features, including a set of new emoji, voice isolation mode cellular calls, web push notifications for web apps pinned to the Home Screen, support for unfurling preview cards for Mastodon links (!!!) in iMessage and other apps, and various Apple Music tweaks, among other things.
- Meanwhile, iPadOS 16.4 brings new Pencil hover features. By hovering a Pencil 2 up to 12 millimeters above the new iPad Pro’s screen, you’re able to view line and line width and color previews, along with the ability to choose drawing implements in Markup.
- Apple reminded developers that starting on April 25, 2023, iOS, iPadOS and watchOS apps submitted to the App Store must be built with Xcode 14.1 or later. Xcode 14, which includes the latest SDKs, is a free download on the Mac App Store.
- Apple launched Apple Pay Later, a payment option that lets you split the cost of an Apple Pay purchase into four equal payments over six weeks without interest or late fees. However, the feature isn’t yet broadly available, despite its public debut. Instead, Apple said it will invite randomly selected users to access a pre-release version before rolling it out to all eligible users in the coming months.
- Google won partial relief in its Android antitrust case in India. A tribunal court set aside four out of 10 directives, including the need to allow third-party app stores within Play Store and restrictions around the uninstallation of pre-installed apps by users. However, the National Company Law Appellate Tribunal upheld the $161 million penalty levied on Google by the local watchdog, the Competition Commission of India (CCI).
- PayPal introduced Android support for Passkeys, a quick new way to sign into PayPal. This password-free login system is backed by Apple, Google, Microsoft, the FIDO alliance and others. Android mobile device users in the U.S. running the Android 9+ OS can create a passkey for their PayPal personal account using the Chrome browser. The feature is rolling out as of March 23 and is becoming more broadly available over time.
- Snap said it’s seeking AI experts for its Safety Advisory Board. The company had clearly put the cart before the horse with its implementation of AI in its new chatbot. While chatting with a Washington Post columnist pretending to be a teen, the bot allegedly advised the columnist about hiding pot and alcohol at a birthday party. In addition, researchers at the Center for Humane Technology found that the bot gave sex advice to a user pretending to be 13 years old. Snap recently said it was working on giving parents more control around teens’ use of the My AI chatbot — another thing it should have done before, you know, launching the thing.
- Microsoft already slipped ads into Bing. The company said it was exploring putting ads in the responses given by Bing Chat, its new search agent powered by OpenAI’s GPT-4 which is available on the desktop web and Bing mobile app.
- Magazine app Flipboard is integrating Mastodon in its Android application, as the company broadens its commitment to the federated social web. The feature allows users to browse a feed of short updates from the people they follow, reply to, like and boost posts, as well as click on hashtags to follow discussions, among other things. As on iPhone, where the functionality launched first, Android users can find the new feature by navigating over the accounts section and then logging in with their Mastodon credentials for the instance they’re on. And if the user doesn’t yet have a Mastodon account, they can request access to join Flipboard’s own server from here.
- Twitter unveiled new API pricing, weeks after initially announcing its plan to shut down its free API. Now, there will be three new tiers for developers: a “Free” tier with 1,500 tweets per month, a $100 per month “Basic” tier with expanded access and an “Enterprise” tier that reportedly costs $42,000 per month. Many developers, including Twitter bot makers, are unhappy with the changes as they won’t be able to afford the access needed to run their smaller projects.
- Twitter will remove the legacy checkmarks on April 1st. Afterward, only Twitter Blue verified accounts will appear on the algorithmic “For You” timeline starting April 15.
- Twitter also open sourced some of its code on GitHub, including its algorithm for tweet recommendations on the For You feed, but not its ad recommendation algorithm.
- Meta will allow Facebook and Instagram users to opt out of tracking in Europe, according to The WSJ and confirmed by Meta. Users will be able to opt for a version of the service where they’re only targeted with ads based on broader categories, like age and location. The changes follow multiple multimillion-dollar fines in the EU.
- Reddit said it removed 473% more subreddits in 2022 and permanently suspended 244% more accounts for violations of its non-consensual intimate imagery policies.
- Snap’s head of growth and previously longtime product head Jacob Andreou announced he will be leaving the company in May after eight years to join Greylock as a general partner.
Media & Entertainment
- YouTube expanded its Analytics for Artists tool with the addition of YouTube Shorts-related data to the “Total Reach” metric, which gives artists and their teams an overview of how their music is reaching audiences across YouTube. Before this, the Total Reach metric only included official content uploaded by the artists and long-form videos uploaded by fans. Now it will include Shorts, too.
- Spotify was spotted testing out new card-style user profiles that offer the ability for users to establish more of a social identity on the platform in addition to providing easy access to Spotify’s unique features — like its personalized recommendations, Blend playlists, co-listening experiences and more.
- Spotify launched new personalized playlists called Niche Mixes that let you create mixes based on just a few words of description in the Search tab. For instance, you could type in an “activity, vibe or aesthetic,” the company notes, then append the word “mix” to generate the custom playlist. For example, you could make a “feel good morning mix,” “90s running mix” or “driving singalong mix.” The feature is available to all free and premium users in English.
- While the U.S. government debates TikTok’s future, the video app announced a new product called Branded Effects aimed at businesses. The solution will allow brands to collaborate with TikTok effect creators to design custom effects — like AR experiences and other interactive features — to accompany their online campaigns and marketing efforts.
- Netflix appears to be working to bring its games to the TV with the iPhone as a controller. New code discovered inside the Netflix app is set to ask the user: “A game on your TV needs a controller to play. Do you want to use this phone as a game controller?” Netflix declined to comment on its plans.
- Pokémon GO fans are upset over changes to the pricing of Remote Raid Passes. The game’s maker Niantic said the cost of these items will nearly double to 195 coins for one pass or 525 coins for three passes. Previously, one pass was 100 coins (about $1) and three passes were 250 coins (about $2.50). Plus, players will only be able to participate in five raids per day. The pricing changes suggest the company is facing economic headwinds. Niantic has not been successful in translating its AR platform to other titles to create another hit as big as Pokémon GO.
- In Epic Games’ antitrust case against Google, lawyers for the plaintiffs submitted a number of exhibits to demonstrate Google employees’ tendency to switch off chat history on internal discussions. Epic believes this behavior is meant to destroy sensitive communications related to its Fortnite lawsuit. Shortly after the new filing, a federal judge ruled that Google’s failure to preserve messages requires sanctions. The judge is requiring Google to pay attorney fees and is debating what other non-monetary sanctions will be needed.
- Block said on Thursday it had verified 44 million of its over 51 million monthly active users through its identity program as of December 31. The statement was made following an investigative report from short seller Hindenburg Research, which claimed 40-75% of Cash App accounts they reviewed were fake, committing fraud or were additional accounts belonging to a single individual.
- Google Fi subscribers can finally use 5G on the iPhone. The support requires the new iOS 16.4 update on an iPhone 12 or newer, then the phone has to be switched over to 5G Auto in cellular settings.
- Google Search, including its mobile search app, will now include extreme heat alerts that will tell users when a heat wave is expected to start along with tips to help users stay cool.
- Lyft’s co-founders, CEO Logan Green and president John Zimmer, are stepping down. Green on April 17 and Zimmer on June 30. Ex-Amazon exec David Risher will be the new CEO.
- OverDrive, a longtime digital reading companion used by library patrons, will be shutting down for good. After announcing its plans to sunset the app and removing it from app stores last year, the company now says that OverDrive will fully shut down on May 1, 2023. Readers will be directed to use the newer digital app Libby instead.
- Two targeted spyware campaigns involving several zero-day exploits for Android, iOS and mobile versions of the Chrome browser were detailed by researchers from Google’s Threat Analysis Group. Hackers were able to install a tool that allowed them to track the location of devices in Italy, Malaysia and Kazakhstan.
- A Washington Post report warns that many of the most popular VPN services and apps have misled users about their practices while also disguising their origins, ownership and locations. It noted also that many of these apps are based in China or controlled by Chinese nationals.
Funding and M&A
- New York City-based LeapXpert, which monitors employee communications with customers and co-workers across chat apps like iMessage, WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal and WeChat, raised $22 million in Series A funding led by Rockefeller Asset Management.
- Indian fintech PhonePe will no longer be acquiring BNPL service ZestMoney, in a deal that was set to be between $200-300 million. The M&A was called off over due diligence concerns.
- YC and Foundation Capital-backed meditation app Simple Habit was acquired by wellness marketplace company Ingenio for an undisclosed sum. Simple Habit will rebrand itself to Sleep Reset as a result of the deal.
- Autio, a location-based audio entertainment app co-founded by actor Kevin Costner (previously known as HearHere), raised a $5.9 million seed extension led by iHeartMedia.
- Cabify — the Madrid-based platform that competes against Uber in Spain and Latin America — announced $110 million in funding. However, the exact breakdown of the funding is unclear. The figure includes a €40 million loan from the European Investment Bank announced in December 2022 and the proceeds of a funding round of an unconfirmed amount that Cabify secured in July 2022.
AI search startup Perplexity AI this week announced $25.6 million in a new funding round led by New Enterprise Associates (NEA). The San Francisco-based company is one of now several hoping to challenge Google by offering users a new way to ask and get answers to their everyday system. Notably, Perplexity’s CEO worked previously as a researcher at DeepMind and the Google Brain project. That connection has brought some half dozen AI researchers at Google and DeepMind as investors, including SVP for Research and AI, Jeff Dean. While Perplexity launched in December, it’s been recently gaining more traction, Bloomberg reported, with February’s 13 million visits more than double that of January’s.
However, the company’s mobile app only launched this past week (March 28), offering a way for iPhone users to get instant answers on any topic with up-to-date (and cited!) sources. You can also ask the chatbot follow-up questions and engage with the app using either typing or your voice. Plus, you can keep your thread history to pick up where you left off. Noted one App Store review, “this really is too good to be true,” noting that the app was free to use despite all the functionality — making it a possible threat to OpenAI.
Apple Music Classical
Apple’s new app for classical music, Apple Music Classical, is now available as a free download for Apple Music subscribers. At launch, the service will be available globally, except in select markets, including China, Japan, South Korea, Russia, Taiwan and Turkey. However, Apple says it will arrive in these countries at some point in the future.
The company said that there are more than 5 million tracks available on the app right now, as well over 50+ million data points with data attributes of 20,000+ composers, 115,000+ unique works and 350,000+ movements. This data helps Apple Music subscribers find recordings across the catalog through the app’s specialized search engine built for classical music.
As Apple explains, classical works have multiple movements and tracks, while famous pieces have hundreds of recordings with different orchestras, conductors and soloists. In addition, many composers have their own special catalog classifications, which means classical music search has to be built differently with these complexities in mind. Because of these challenges, it’s been difficult to find classical works on traditional music streaming apps.
In the new app, users can search for works using keyword combinations that include composer, work, opus number, conductor, artist, instrument or even the work’s name. Plus, when you look up a work on the app, you’ll find all its associated recordings as well as a hand-picked “Editor’s Choice” performance. Apple Music Classical’s editors created over 700 playlists to guide listeners through 800 years of music and plans to add more over time.
Arc’s mobile browser companion app
A buzzy new desktop web browser Arc has been rethinking how browsers should work. However, with the launch of its mobile app this week, Arc opted not to create another browser to compete with Safari. Instead, its app serves mainly as a mobile companion to Arc, offering users access to their Spaces and tabs from Arc for Mac while on the go, as well as the ability to save links from other apps to read later, and a way to view your saved Easels (a scrapbooking feature) and Notes. Arc is interesting because it’s trying to reimagine a basic part of everyday computing with an eye on the future — and it has a lot of fans. However, its focus is scattered, trying to solve many problems at once at the same time it’s inventing new tools to use, like its web scrapbooks which feels more like a standalone product idea that’s been mashed into a browser. The real test for Arc will be when it exits its private beta testing and opens to the wider public.