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 number of downloads and consumer spending across both the iOS and Google Play stores combined in 2021, according to the latest year-end reports. Global spending across iOS, Google Play and third-party Android app stores in China grew 19% in 2021 to reach $170 billion. Downloads of apps also grew by 5%, reaching 230 billion in 2021, and mobile ad spend grew 23% year over year to reach $295 billion.
Today’s consumers now spend more time in apps than ever before — even topping the time they spend watching TV, in some cases. The average American watches 3.1 hours of TV per day, for example, but in 2021, they spent 4.1 hours on their mobile device. And they’re not even the world’s heaviest mobile users. In markets like Brazil, Indonesia and South Korea, users surpassed five hours per day in mobile apps in 2021.
Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours, either. They can grow to become huge businesses. In 2021, 233 apps and games generated over $100 million in consumer spend, and 13 topped $1 billion in revenue. This was up 20% from 2020, when 193 apps and games topped $100 million in annual consumer spend, and just eight apps topped $1 billion.
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 to try, too.
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Reader apps get new rules
Apple this week announced it will begin to allow a subset of applications sold on its App Store to link to an external website where users can create or manage their accounts with the app developer. The change to Apple’s App Store Review guidelines only applies to what Apple calls “reader” apps — meaning, apps designed primarily to provide access to some sort of digital content, like magazines, books, audio, music or video. Apple’s plans were first announced last September in the context of the tech giant’s settlement with a Japanese regulator, the Japan Fair Trade Commission (JFTC), and had been set to arrive sometime in early 2022.
The company had earlier said the changes would apply globally to all reader apps on the App Store when they went live, but had not provided an exact launch date.
Specifically, Apple instructs developers to apply for something it calls the External Link Account Entitlement in order to provide this functionality in their own apps. Developers must apply for the entitlement and then be approved in order to make the change.
Apple has been leveraging the use of entitlements whenever it’s been pushed by lawmakers or regulators to update its App Store rules in an area. By doing so, it’s still in compliance with the letter of the law, but it places an additional burden on those developers who want to take advantage of the new options — like dating apps in the Netherlands, which are now permitted by law to use third-party billing, for example. Apple could easily update its App Store rules to document that this sort of new functionality is now permitted in select use cases, but it still wants to exert control over the whole process and ensure developers who don’t meet the requirements slip through the cracks.
It’s disappointing to see Apple continuing to fight so hard against this larger turning of the tide for its app marketplace — even getting itself entangled in expensive lawsuits like the one with Epic Games — instead of having earlier simplified commissions across the board with a sizable — but still manageable — price cut. One has to wonder if Apple could have headed off developers’ and regulators’ concerns by taking a different path from the complicated carve-outs it has proceeded to embrace. The multitrillion-dollar company can afford to make less money from users’ App Store purchases. And it could find a variety of ways to monetize its app developer ecosystem differently in the future. It seems Apple is already looking into bringing payment processing technology in-house in a bid to generate more revenue and reduce reliance on fintech partners. While this effort would impact all parts of Apple’s larger business, it could also help Apple handle the App Store losses that arose from lowered commissions.
Roblox sides with Apple
March 31, 2022 was the deadline for the submission of amicus briefs supporting Apple in the Epic appeal. Among the new signers were those from former national security officials, including Vice Admiral Mike McConnell, former DNI and NSA director, and two former CIA directors, Gen. Hayden and John Brennan. The officials agree with Apple’s positioning that its commission structure is fair and allows it to create a “safe and secure ecosystem.” What’s interesting, however, is that Roblox also filed a brief to support Apple’s cause. A platform maker itself, albeit one that hosts online games not mobile apps, it’s likely aware of the impact of app market regulations on its own business.
In particular, Roblox pointed to the need for platforms to set the standards for, review and approve software, user-generated content and apps that appear on platforms. It stressed how Apple’s App Review system benefits all apps in the Apple ecosystem, including its own mobile Roblox app, by providing a level of safety and security. While the company didn’t say Apple should be protected from all antitrust scrutiny, it made a solid argument against removing the platform model entirely.
None of this is to say that Apple necessarily has it right whereas other platform models have it wrong, or that all decisions Apple might make regarding its App Store platform and related policies are sacrosanct or should be de facto protected from antitrust scrutiny. But the key point is that Apple’s model does provide real benefits to security and privacy. No platform is going to be perfect in its efforts to rid an ecosystem of bad actors, but it is core to Roblox’s beliefs that real, tangible results can be obtained where there is an enhanced focus on safety and security. The evidence at trial did not show that all of these benefits necessarily can be retained while eliminating the platform model that has allowed for them. Roblox’s experience, consistent with the evidence presented here, is that these particular procompetitive aspects of the App Store are real and intertwined with the way Apple structures its platform. The district court was right not to cast them aside as mere “pretext,” and neither should this Court.
Russia’s Instagram clone becomes country’s No. 1 app
Russia in mid-March officially banned Instagram in order to tighten its grip on the country’s citizens’ ability to access uncensored information about the Russia-Ukraine war. But the ban has only resulted in sending another app just like Instagram to No. 1 on the Russian App Store. On March 29 and 30, a Russian app called Fiesta became the top free iPhone app in the country after having first launched on November 25, 2021. The first time it ever charted in the top free apps in the country was on March 26.
There’s not a lot of information about Fiesta, though it appears to be Russian-made. Its website doesn’t offer much information beyond what the app looks like and a form to join the beta. The site also displays photos of the app and links out to Fiesta’s social accounts, including Instagram and Twitter — the latter where it’s never posted. The app greatly resembles Instagram, but it also offers features for finding and joining local events, which differentiates it.
According to Sensor Tower’s preliminary estimates, Fiesta has now seen nearly 200,000 installs to date — most of which occurred this past week. From March 27 to March 30, the app saw around 184,000 installs — or more than 30 times the 6,000 installs it saw in the prior period from March 23 to March 26.
- Apple launched Apple Business Essentials, designed to help smaller businesses manage devices without necessarily having IT expertise in-house.
- Apple released iOS 15.4.1, iPadOS 15.4.1 and macOS 12.3.1, which includes a fix for battery issues on iPhone and iPad and two zero-days that “may have been actively exploited.”
- Apple is said to be building its own payments technology to reduce its reliance on partners. According to Bloomberg, the project is dubbed “Breakout” in-house and indicates the company’s interest in expanding into fintech beyond Apple Pay, Apple Card and the transactions it processes across the App Store and iTunes.
- Apple’s Senior VP of Software Engineering, Craig Federighi, responded to a user’s emailasking why there was a delay in receiving iOS software updates automatically. Surprisingly, the exec answered, explaining that Apple incrementally rolls out new iOS updates by “first making them available for those that explicitly seek them out in Settings, and then 1-4 weeks later (after we’ve received feedback on the update) ramp up to rolling out devices with auto-update enabled.” (So, I guess if you want updates sooner, go hit up Settings!)
- Google Play’s new billing payments policy began on April 1. The company had announced back in 2020 that developers would need to come into compliance with the policy that requires apps selling digital goods and services to use Google Play’s own billing system. Unless developers were approved for an extension, they will no longer be able to submit app updates until they’re in compliance, barring any critical security issues. On June 1, 2022, non-compliant apps will be removed from Google Play.
- It looks like Google is working on its own AirTag detection features. Google Play Services 22.12.13 includes code referring to “unfamiliar device alerts” and “unfamiliar tag detection notifications.”
E-commerce & Food Delivery
- Rapid delivery firm Jokr launched a new mobile appoffering a personalized experience and automated content curation in order to feature lists of items for users based on past shopping behaviors, locally sourced items from their communities and more.
- Barcelona-based Glovo is running its food and grocery delivery app in Ukraine as a nonprofit. The company has 2,000+ couriers in the war-torn country running groceries, restaurant meals and prescriptions to people in need. Glovo said it decided to reopen in cities after finding some couriers were already donating their time to ad hoc groups that were working to help keep supplies flowing; this way, those couriers can get paid for that work.
- Snap announced its annual summit will be held on April 28. Last year, the company introduced its AR Spectacles (AR glasses). This time around, we’re expecting more AR-focused updates for the Snapchat app.
- Bengaluru-headquartered Slice, which recently became a unicorn, has plans to introduce UPI payments for its users within a matter of weeks. The startup also appears to be redesigning the app to make the UPI transactions intuitive. The support will put Slice in competition with Walmart-backed PhonePe and Google Pay.
- Robinhood’s stock popped 25% on news of its support for extended trading hours. Previously, the app offered trading from 9 AM ET to 6 PM ET — 30 minutes before the market opened and two hours after its close. The app’s new trading hours are now 7 AM ET to 8 PM ET.
- TikTok partnered with GIPHY on a new feature called the TikTok Library, an in-app creator tool that allows users to select content from GIPHY, including GIFs and “GIFs with sound” (short videos). The company plans to add more content to the library over time, including audio, sounds and text templates.
- Twitter added “Professional Accounts.” The feature allows users to convert their accounts to include business information, and provides access to pro tools, like Twitter Shopping and the Ads Ecosystem, including Quick Promote, among other things.
- Twitter dies on iPhone 6. The app abruptly stopped working on older iPhones as the latest version now requires iOS 14 or higher.
- An analysis of Facebook and Instagram’s Reels found that 73% of the top 20 Reels were anonymous and 82% were reposted. Two out of the top 11 were also recycled directly from TikTok.
- A letter signed by 44 attorneys general asked TikTok and Snap to support third-party parental control apps, which would help parents better monitor and manage app usage beyond what built-in controls can do. They noted the apps don’t necessarily allow for control over things like private messaging, nor can parents block certain content from the main feed. (This isn’t entirely true — TikTok offers parents the ability to set a curated feed as the default for younger users and can limit their messaging. Only Snap hasn’t yet launched parental controls.)
- Meta paid a “right of center” digital consulting firm Targeted Victory to orchestrate a campaignagainst TikTok in the U.S., including by placing op-eds in local news outlets, The WaPo reported. Targeted Victory confirmed its involvement, but blasted the reporting on Twitter.
- Instagram is testing a feature that makes it easier for users to support social movements through hashtags. When you search for specific hashtags associated with social movements, you have the option to spread the word about the cause to people in your community or create a fundraiser.
- Pinterest said it will invest an additional $1.2 million in its Creator Fund for underrepresented groups. The investment includes a combination of cash grants, ad credits and other creator resources. It’s separate from the $20 million in Creator Rewards being doled out in the U.S., which pays creators directly for their content.
- TikTok tests a “watch history” feature that would make it easier to find videos you had recently viewed, but forgot to like or save.
- Instagram upgraded its DM inbox with over a half dozen new features, including the ability to share music previews in DMs, the ability to send a message silently, the ability to see who’s online to chat with, the ability to reply to messages while you browse your feed, a quick send feature for sharing with four friends with a tap, plus a new theme and polls.
- Messenger introduced Slack-like “@everyone” functionality that will notify all participants in a chat about a new message, and other shortcuts like a “/silent” feature, similar to Instagram’s new “@silent” option and more.
- WhatsApp upgraded its voice message functionality with several new features, and announced that people are now sending 7 billion voice messages on the platform daily.
- The Ukrainian government created a chatbot in the Telegram app that allows users to report precise sightings of Russian troop movements. Telegram and secure messaging app Signal have seen their installs increase by 1.7 million between February and March, up 197% from 573,000 in January.
Streaming & Entertainment
- Apple announced its MLB livestreaming schedule for the 2022 season. The Apple TV+ service will livestream 12 weeks of Friday night doubleheaders and other MLB content, initially for free during the first half of the season — even if users don’t have an Apple TV+ subscription. The livestreams will be available across platforms, wherever Apple’s TV app is available.
- Streaming audio app Clubhouse added a new “protected profile” setting option in response to concerns over the Russia-Ukraine war and the safety of users from those regions connecting online. Since the war began, Clubhouse has become a platform for anti-war Russian civilians to coordinate, but has also been home to Russian propaganda at times.
- YouTube TV finally added support for picture-in-picture viewing on iOS 15 and higher. As for the main YouTube app? That’s still in the works for “the coming months,” the company said.
- YouTube is also working on a plan to ingest RSS feeds to build out a Podcasts homepage on its platform and likely help power podcasts on its streaming music app, YouTube Music.
- China’s second-largest short video company, Kuaishou, reported earnings with Q4 revenue up 35% year-over-year to $3.8 billion, with a roughly $1 billion net loss, and MAUs up 21.5% year-over-year to 578 million. Daily time spent rose 32% to 118.9 minutes.
- TikTok is running a global in-app competition of short-form films for its inaugural #TikTokShortFilm contest, in partnership with the Cannes Film Festival.
- Spotify expanded Blend, its playlist creation feature that originally let two users merge their musical tastes in one playlist. Now the feature supports up to 10 users and even select artists, including BTS and Charli XCX.
- Spotify added COVID-19 content advisories to its app on podcasts that discuss the virus, two months after the Joe Rogan uproar over misinformation.
- Spotify also began testing a new podcast discovery feature that presents clips from episodes in a vertically scrolling, TikTok-like feed where you can click a “+” to add the episodes to your saved list of things to listen to. The feature is based on the company’s acquisition of Podz, a podcast discovery platform with a similar user interface.
- Epic Games had earlier announced that all its Fortnite proceeds from March 20 through April 3 are being donated to humanitarian relief efforts in Ukraine. Now the company has revealed via its website its donations have reached $100 million with still a few days to go.
- Pokémon GO ran an April Fool’s prank where Ditto appeared disguised as Pokémon. The game maker also announced it will bring back its Pokémon GO Fest global event on June 4-5.
Health & Fitness
- Yelp expanded restaurant health ratings in partnership with the food-tech startup Hazel Analytics. The app will now provide hygiene data on nearly 700,000 Yelp pages, and lists health inspection info on jurisdictions representing nearly 70% of the U.S. population.
- Microsoft’s Phone Link, formerly known as Your Phone, links Android phones with a Windows PC. The tool has now been updated with a new design for Windows 11 and is rolling out to users in China through a new partnership with HONOR.
- Google will add “highly cited” Search labels to point to original reporting, local news stories, press releases and more coming soon in the U.S. on mobile devices, and “in the coming weeks” globally.
- Data.ai (formerly App Annie) launched a new product called App IQ, which offers competitive intelligence about app features, from monetization methods to social features, so businesses can identify both competitive threats and partnership opportunities.
Government & Policy
- In its battle with Dutch regulators, Apple has now dropped its requirement to require developers to create a separate app binary in order to take advantage of the new antitrust order that permits third-party payments in dating apps. The regulator had earlier said the requirement was an “unreasonable” demand on Apple’s part. The change means developers can use either the StoreKit External Purchase Entitlement or the StoreKit External Purchase Link Entitlement to sell their services through a payment system other than Apple’s own. Apple’s refusal to meet the antitrust guidelines has seen the company rack up 10 €5 million fines, totaling €50 million to date.
- Also in the Netherlands, Apple is now facing a multibillion-euro lawsuit led by nonprofit Consumer Competition Claims Foundation that alleges Apple is using anti-competitive practices to overcharge consumers and restrict their payment options for in-app purchases. Bloomberg said the suit claims the harms add up to nearly $5.5 billion USD.
- India’s Competition Commission probe found Google Play’s billing guidelines are “unfair and discriminatory,” suggesting that India could be the next market to regulate app stores. The regulator also examined allegations Google used “search manipulation” to push Google Pay.
- The U.S. Dept. of Justice voiced its support for the antitrust bill (the American Innovation and Choice Online Act) targeting Apple, Google and Amazon. In a letter to the bipartisan leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the DoJ said it views “the rise of dominant platforms as presenting a threat to open markets and competition, with risks for consumers, businesses, innovation, resiliency, global competitiveness, and our democracy.”
Security & Privacy
- An FT report said Russia’s Yandex has been sending data harvested from millions of iOS app users to Russia, via the Yandex AppMetrica SDK. The toolkit has been installed in messaging apps, games, location-sharing tools and hundreds of VPN tools, including seven made specifically for Ukrainians.
💰 Cairo-based financial super app Khazna raised $38 million in Series A funding, in both debt and equity, led by Quona Capital. The app offers a range of services, including cash advances, BNPL, bill pay, a prepaid debit card and more.
💰 London’s Builder.ai, which offers low-code tools for building apps, raised $100 million in Series C funding led by Insight Partners, bringing its total raise to date to $195 million. The company claims to have increased revenues by 300% over the past year.
💰 Israel-based Kooply, a stealth mode startup, raised $18 million in seed funding led by Microsoft’s M12, TPY Capital and Playtika to build a mobile games development platform. The company aims to soft launch later this year.
💰 India’s Games24x7, which owns and operates multiple mobile games, raised $75 million in a new round led by Malabar Investment. The company, popular for rummy game RummyCircle, claims to have more than 100 million users.