I’ve been playing around with Apple’s new AirTag location devices for a few hours now and they seem to work pretty much as advertised. The setup flow is simple and clean, taking clear inspiration from the one Apple developed for AirPods. The precision finding feature enabled by the U1 chip works as a solid example of utility-driven augmented reality, popping up a virtual arrow and other visual identifiers on the screen to make finding a tag quicker.
The basic way that AirTags work, if you’re not familiar, is that they use Bluetooth beaconing technology to announce their presence to any nearby devices running iOS 14.5 and above. These quiet pings are encrypted and invisible (usually) to any passer by, especially if they are with their owners. This means that no one ever knows what device actually ‘located’ your AirTag, not even Apple.
With you, by the way, means in relative proximity to a device signed in to the iCloud account that the AirTags are registered to. Bluetooth range is typically in the ~40 foot range depending on local conditions and signal bounce.
In my very limited testing so far, AirTag location range fits in with that basic Bluetooth expectation. Which means that it can be foiled by a lot of obstructions or walls or an unflattering signal bounce. It often took 30 seconds or more to get an initial location from an AirTag in another room, for instance. Once the location was received, however, the instructions to locate the device seemed to update quickly and were extremely accurate down to a few inches.
The AirTags run for a year on a standard CR2032 battery that’s user replaceable. They offer some water resistance including submersion for some time. There are a host of accessories that seem nicely designed like leather straps for bags, luggage tags and key rings.
As with anything to do with location, security and privacy are a top of mind situation for AirTags, and Apple has some protections in place.
You cannot share AirTags — they are meant to be owned by one person. The only special privileges offered by people in your iCloud Family Sharing Group is that they can silence the ‘unknown AirTag nearby’ alerts indefinitely. This makes AirTags useful for things like shared sets of keys or maybe even a family pet. This means that AirTags will not show up on your family Find My section like other iOS devices might. There is now a discrete section within the app just for ‘Items’ including those with Find My functionality built in.
The other privacy features include a ‘warning’ that will trigger after some time that a tag is in your proximity and NOT in the proximity of its owner (aka, traveling with you perhaps in a bag or car). Your choices are then to make the tag play a sound to locate it — look at its information including serial number and to disable it by removing its battery.
Any AirTag that has been away from its owner for a while — this time is variable and Apple will tweak it over time as it observes how AirTags work — will start playing a sound whenever it is moved. This will alert people to its presence.
You can, of course, also place an AirTag into Lost Mode, offering a choice to share personal information with anyone who locates it as it plays an alert sound. Anyone with any smart device with NFC, Android included, can tap the device to see a webpage with information that you choose to share. Or just a serial number if you do not choose to do so.
This scenario addresses what happens if you don’t have an iOS device to alert you to a foreign AirTag in your presence, as it will eventually play a sound even if it is not in lost mode and the owner has no control over that.
It’s clear that Apple has thought through many of the edge cases, but some could still crop up as it rolls out, we’ll have to see.
Apple has some distinct market advantages here:
Nearly a billion devices out in the world that can help to locate an AirTag.
A built-in U1 wideband chip that communicates with a similar U1 chip in iPhones to enable super precise (down to inches) location.
A bunch of privacy features that don’t appear on competing tags.
Important to note that Apple has announced the development of a specification for chipset makers that lets third-party devices with Ultra Wideband radios access the U1 chip onboard iPhones ‘later this Spring’. This should approximate the Precision Finding feature’s utility in accessories that don’t have the advantage of having a U1 built in like the AirTags do. And, of course, Apple has opened up the entire Find My mesh network to third party devices from Belkin, Chipolo and VanMoof that want to offer a similar basic finding function as offered by AirTags. Tile has announced plans to offer a UWB version of its tracker as well, even as it testified in Congress yesterday that Apple’s advantages made its entry into this market unfair.
It will be interesting to see these play out once AirTags are out getting lost in the wild. I have had them for under 12 hours so I’ve not been able to test edge cases, general utility in public spaces or anything like that.
Right on schedule, Google today launched the third developer preview of Android 12, the latest version of its mobile operating system. According to Google’s roadmap, this will be the last developer preview before Android 12 goes into beta, which is typically also when you’ll likely see the first over-the-air updates for non-developers who want to try it out. For now, developers still have to flash a device image to their supported Pixel devices.
Google notes that with the beta phase coming up, now is the time for developers to start compatibility testing to make sure their apps are ready. Currently, the plan is for Android 12 to reach platform stability by August 2021. At that point, all the app-facing features will be locked in and finalized.
So what’s new in this preview? As usual, there are dozens of smaller new features, tweaks and changes, but the highlights this time around are the ability for developers to provide new haptic feedback experiences in their apps and new app launch animations.
This new app launch experience may be the most noticeable change here for both developers and users. The new animation will take the app from launch to a splash screen that shows the app’s icon and then to the app itself. “The new experience brings standard design elements to every app launch, but we’ve also made it customizable so apps can maintain their unique branding,” Google explains. Developers will get quite a bit of leeway in how they want to customize this splash screen with their own branding. The most basic launch experience is enabled by default, though.
Rich haptic feedback is also new in this release. It’s hard not to look at this and think of Apple’s now mostly abandoned Force Touch, but this is a bit different. The idea here is to provide “immersive and delightful effects for gaming, and attentional haptics for productivity.”
Other new features in this release include a new call notification template that is meant to make it easier for users to manage incoming and ongoing calls. Google says these new notifications will be more visible and scannable. There are also improvements to the Neural Networks API for machine learning workloads and new APIs to support a wider range of ultra high-resolution camera sensors.
With Android 12, Google is also deprecating its RenderScript API for running computationally intensive tasks in favor of GPU compute frameworks like Vulkan and OpenGL.
You can find a full breakdown of all of the changes in this release here.
Security researchers have uncovered a batch of Google Play apps that stole users’ text messages and made unauthorized purchases on users’ dime.
The malware, which was hidden in eight apps that had more than 700,000 downloads, hijacked SMS message notifications and then made unauthorized purchases, McAfee mobile researchers Sang Ryol Ryu and Chanung Pak said Monday. McAfee is calling the malware Android/Etinu.
User data free for the taking
The researchers said an investigation of the attacker-operated server that controlled infected devices showed it stored all kinds of date from users’ phones, including their mobile carrier, phone number, SMS messages, IP address, country, and network status. The server also stored auto-renewing subscriptions, some of which looked like this:
Hackers have compromised more than 120 ad servers over the past year in an ongoing campaign that displays malicious advertisements on tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of devices as they visit sites that, by all outward appearances, are benign.
Going for the jugular
Infiltrating the ad ecosystem by posing as a legitimate buyer requires resources. For one, scammers must invest time learning how the market works and then creating an entity that has a trustworthy reputation. The approach also requires paying money to buy space for the malicious ads to run. That’s not the technique used by a malvertising group that security firm Confiant calls Tag Barnakle.
The era of cloud gaming hasn’t arrived with the intensity that may have seemed imminent a couple years ago when major tech platforms announced their plays. In 2021, the market is still pretty much non-existent despite established presences from nearly all of tech’s biggest players.
Microsoft has been slow to roll out its Xbox Cloud Gaming beta to its users widely across platforms, but that’s likely because they know that, unlike other upstart platforms, there’s not a huge advantage to them rushing out the gate first. This week, the company will begin rolling out the service on iOS and PC to Game Pass Ultimate users, sending out invited to a limited number of users and scaling it up over time.
“The limited beta is our time to test and learn; we’ll send out more invites on a continuous basis to players in all 22 supported countries, evaluate feedback, continue to improve the experience, and add support for more devices,” wrote Xbox’s Catherine Gluckstein in a blog post. “Our plan is to iterate quickly and open up to all Xbox Game Pass Ultimate members in the coming months so more people have the opportunity to play Xbox in all-new ways.”
The service has been available in beta for Android users since last year but it’s been a slow expansion to other platforms outside that world.
A big part of that slowdown has been the result of Apple playing hardball with cloud gaming platform providers, whose business models represent a major threat to App Store gaming revenues. Apple announced a carve-out provision for cloud-gaming platforms that would maintain dependency on the App Store and in-app purchase frameworks but none of the providers seemed very happy with Apple’s solution. As a result, Xbox Cloud Gaming will operate entirely through the web on iOS inside mobile Safari.
Google’s historical collection of location data has got it into hot water in Australia where a case brought by the country’s Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has led to a federal court ruling that the tech giant misled consumers by operating a confusing dual-layer of location settings in what the regulator describes as a “world-first enforcement action”.
The case relates to personal location data collected by Google through Android mobile devices between January 2017 and December 2018.
Per the ACCC, the court ruled that “when consumers created a new Google Account during the initial set-up process of their Android device, Google misrepresented that the ‘Location History’ setting was the only Google Account setting that affected whether Google collected, kept or used personally identifiable data about their location”.
“In fact, another Google Account setting titled ‘Web & App Activity’ also enabled Google to collect, store and use personally identifiable location data when it was turned on, and that setting was turned on by default,” it wrote.
The Court also ruled that Google misled consumers when they later accessed the ‘Location History’ setting on their Android device during the same time period to turn that setting off because it did not inform them that by leaving the ‘Web & App Activity’ setting switched on, Google would continue to collect, store and use their personally identifiable location data.
“Similarly, between 9 March 2017 and 29 November 2018, when consumers later accessed the ‘Web & App Activity’ setting on their Android device, they were misled because Google did not inform them that the setting was relevant to the collection of personal location data,” the ACCC added.
Similar complaints about Google’s location data processing being deceptive — and allegations that it uses manipulative tactics in order to keep tracking web users’ locations for ad-targeting purposes — have been raised by consumer agencies in Europe for years. And in February 2020 the company’s lead data regulator in the region finally opened an investigation. However that probe remains ongoing.
Whereas the ACCC said today that it will be seeking “declarations, pecuniary penalties, publications orders, and compliance orders” following the federal court ruling. Although it added that the specifics of its enforcement action will be determined “at a later date”. So it’s not clear exactly when Google will be hit with an order — nor how large a fine it might face.
The tech giant may also seek to appeal the court ruling.
Google said today it’s reviewing its legal options and considering a “possible appeal” — highlighting the fact the Court did not agree wholesale with the ACCC’s case because it dismissed some of the allegations (related to certain statements Google made about the methods by which consumers could prevent it from collecting and using their location data, and the purposes for which personal location data was being used by Google).
Here’s Google’s statement in full:
“The court rejected many of the ACCC’s broad claims. We disagree with the remaining findings and are currently reviewing our options, including a possible appeal. We provide robust controls for location data and are always looking to do more — for example we recently introduced auto delete options for Location History, making it even easier to control your data.”
While Mountain View denies doing anything wrong in how it configures location settings — while simultaneously claiming it’s always looking to improve the controls it offers its users — Google’s settings and defaults have, nonetheless, got it into hot water with regulators before.
Back in 2019 France’s data watchdog, the CNIL, fined it $57M over a number of transparency and consent failures under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation. That remains the largest GDPR penalty issued to a tech giant since the regulation came into force a little under three years ago — although France has more recently sanctioned Google $120M under different EU laws for dropping tracking cookies without consent.
Australia, meanwhile, has forged ahead with passing legislation this year that directly targets the market power of Google (and Facebook) — passing a mandatory news media bargaining code in February which aims to address the power imbalance between platform giants and publishers around the reuse of journalism content.
Pearpop, the marketplace for social collaborations between the teeming hordes of musicians, craftspeople, chefs, clowns, diarists, dancers, artists, actors, acrobats, aspiring celebrities and actual celebrities, has raised $16 million in funding that includes what seems like half of Hollywood, along with Alexis Ohanian’s Seven Seven Six venture firm and Bessemer Venture Partners.
The funding was actually split between a $6 million seed funding round co-led by Ashton Kutcher and Guy Oseary’s Sound Ventures and Slow Ventures, with participation from Atelier Ventures and Chapter One Ventures and a $10 million additional investment led by Ohanian’s Seven Seven Six with participation from Bessemer.
TechCrunch first covered pearpop last year and there’s no denying that the startup is on to something. It basically takes Cameo’s celebrity marketplace for private shout-outs and makes it public. Allowing social media personalities to boost their followers by paying more popular personalities to shout out, duet, or comment on their posts.
“I’ve invested in pearpop because it’s been on my mind for a while that the creator economy has resulted in a lot of not equitable outcomes for creators. Where i talked about the missing middle class of the creator economy,” said Li Jin, the founder of Atelier Ventures and author of a critical piece on creator economics, “The creator economy needs a middle class“.
“When I saw pearpop I felt like there was a really big potential for pearpop to be the one of the creators of the creative middle class. They’ve introduced this mechanism by which larger creators can help smaller creators and everyone has something of value to offer something to everyone else in the ecosystem.”
Jin discovered pearpop through the TechCrunch piece, she said. “You wrote that article and then i reached out to the team,” said Jin.
The idea was so appealing, it brought in a slew of musicians, athletes, actors and entertainers, including: Abel Makkonen (The Weeknd), Amy Schumer, The Chainsmokers, Diddy, Gary Vaynerchuk, Griffin Johnson, Josh Richards, Kevin Durant (Thirty 5 Ventures), Kevin Hart (HartBeat Ventures), Mark Cuban, Marshmello, Moe Shalizi, Michael Gruen (Animal Capital), MrBeast (Night Media Ventures), Rich Miner (Android co-founder) and Snoop Dogg.
“Pearpop has the potential to benefit all social media platforms by delivering new users and engagement, while simultaneously leveling the playing field of opportunity for creators,” said Alexis Ohanian, Founder, Seven Seven Six, in a statement. “The company has created a revolutionary new marketplace model that is set to completely reimagine how we think of social media monetization. As both a social media founder and an investor, I’m excited for what’s to come with pearpop.”
Already Heidi Klum, Loren Gray, Snoop Dogg, and Tony Hawk have gotten paid to appear in social media posts from aspiring auteurs on the social media platform TikTok.
Using the platform is relatively simple. A social media user (for now, that means just TikTok) sends a post that exists on their social feed and requests that another social media user interacts with it in some way — either commenting, posting a video in response, or adding a sound. If the request seems okay, or “on brand”, then the person who accepts the request performs the prescribed action.
Pearpop takes a 25% cut of all transactions with the social media user who’s performing the task getting the other 75%.
The company wouldn’t comment on revenue numbers, except to say that it’s on track to bring in seven figures this year.
Users on the platform set their prices and determine which kinds of services they’re willing to provide to boost the social media posts of their contractors.
Prices range anywhere from $5 to $10,000 depending on the size of a user’s following and the type of request that’s being made. Right now, the most requested personality on the marketplace is the TikTok star, Anna Banana.
These kinds of transactions do have impacts. The company said that personalities on the platform were able to increase their follower count with the service. For instance, Leah Svoboda went from 20K to 141K followers, after a pearpop duet with Anna Shumate.
If this all makes you feel like you’ve tripped and fallen through a Black Mirror into a dystopian hellscape where everything and every interaction is a commodity to be mined for money, well… that’s life.
“What I appreciate most about pearpop is the control it gives me as a creator,” said Anna Shumate, TikTok influencer @annabananaxdddd. “The platform allows me to post what I want and when I want. My followers still love my content because it’s authentic and true to me, which is what sets pearpop apart from all of the other opportunities on social media.”
Talent agencies, too, see the draw. Early adopters include Talent X, Get Engaged, and Next Step Talent and The Fuel Injector, which has added its entire roster of talent to pearpop, which includes Kody Antle, Brooke Monk and Harry Raftus, the company said.
“The initial concept came out of an obvious gap within the space: no marketplace existed for creators of all sizes to monetize through simple, authentic collaborations that are mutually beneficial,” said Cole Mason, co-founder & CEO, pearpop. “It soon became clear that this was a product that people had been waiting for, as thousands of people rely on our platform today to gain full control of their social capital for the first time starting with TikTok.”
Security researchers say APKPure, a widely popular app for installing older or discontinued Android apps from outside of Google’s app store, contained malicious adware that flooded the victim’s device with unwanted ads.
Kaspersky Lab said that it alerted APKPure on Thursday that its most recent app version, 3.17.18, contained malicious code that siphoned off data from a victim’s device without their knowledge, and pushed ads to the device’s lock screen and in the background to generate fraudulent revenue for the adware operators.
But the researchers said that the malicious code had the capacity to download other malware, potentially putting affected victims at further risk.
The researchers said the APKPure developers likely introduced the malicious code, known as a software development kit or SDK, from an unverified source. APKPure removed the malicious code and pushed out a new version, 3.17.19, and the developers no longer list the malicious version on its site.
APKPure was set up in 2014 to allow Android users access to a vast bank of Android apps and games, including old versions, as well as app versions from other regions that are no longer on Android’s official app store Google Play. It later launched an Android app, which also has to be installed outside Google Play, serving as its own app store to allow users to download older apps directly to their Android devices.
But security experts have long warned against installing apps outside of the official app stores as quality and security vary wildly as much of the Android malware requires victims to install malicious apps from outside the app store. Google scans all Android apps that make it into Google Play, but some have slipped through the cracks before.
TechCrunch contacted APKPure for comment but did not hear back.
Cybercriminals have taken out a number of Facebook ads masquerading as a Clubhouse app for PC users in order to target unsuspecting victims with malware, TechCrunch has learned.
TechCrunch was alerted Wednesday to Facebook ads tied to several Facebook pages impersonating Clubhouse, the drop-in audio chat app only available on iPhones. Clicking on the ad would open a fake Clubhouse website, including a mocked-up screenshot of what the non-existent PC app looks like, with a download link to the malicious app.
When opened, the malicious app tries to communicate with a command and control server to obtain instructions on what to do next. One sandbox analysis of the malware showed the malicious app tried to infect the isolated machine with ransomware.
But overnight, the fake Clubhouse websites — which were hosted in Russia — went offline. In doing so, the malware also stopped working. Guardicore’s Amit Serper, who tested the malware in a sandbox on Thursday, said the malware received an error from the server and did nothing more.
The fake website was set up to look like Clubhouse’s real website, but featuring a malicious PC app. (Image: TechCrunch)
Each of the Facebook pages impersonating Clubhouse only had a handful of likes, but were still active at the time of publication. When reached, Facebook wouldn’t say how many account owners had clicked on the ads pointing to the fake Clubhouse websites.
At least nine ads were placed this week between Tuesday and Thursday. Several of the ads said Clubhouse “is now available for PC,” while another featured a photo of co-founders Paul Davidson and Rohan Seth. Clubhouse did not return a request for comment.
In 2019, Spotify began testing a hardware device for automobile owners it lovingly dubbed “Car Thing,” which allowed Spotify Premium users to play music and podcasts using voice commands that began with “Hey, Spotify.” Last year, Spotify began developing a similar voice integration into its mobile app. Now, access to the “Hey Spotify” voice feature is rolling out more broadly.
Spotify chose not to officially announce the new addition, despite numerous reports indicating the voice option was showing up for many people in their Spotify app, leading to some user confusion about availability.
One early report by GSM Arena, for example, indicated Android users had been sent a push notification that alerted them to the feature. The notification advised users to “Just enable your mic and say ‘Hey Spotify, Play my Favorite Songs.” When tapped, the notification launched Spotify’s new voice interface where users are pushed to first give the app permission to use the microphone in order to be able to verbally request the music they want to hear.
Several outlets soon reported the feature had launched to Android users, which is only partially true.
As it turns out, the feature is making its way to iOS devices, as well. When we launched the Spotify app here on an iPhone running iOS 14.5, for instance, we found the same feature had indeed gone live. You just tap on the microphone button by the search box to get to the voice experience. We asked around and found that other iPhone users on various versions of the iOS operating system also had the feature, including free users, Premium subscribers and Premium Family Plan subscribers.
The screen that appears suggests in big, bold text that you could be saying “Hey Spotify, play…” followed by a random artist’s name. It also presents a big green button at the bottom to turn on “Hey Spotify.”
Once enabled, you can ask for artists, albums, songs and playlists by name, as well as control playback with commands like stop, pause, skip this song, go back and others. Spotify confirms the command with a robotic-sounding male voice by default. (You can swap to a female voice in Settings, if you prefer.)
Image Credits: Spotify screenshot iOS
This screen also alerts users that when the app hears the “Hey Spotify” voice command, it sends the user’s voice data and other information to Spotify. There’s a link to Spotify policy regarding its use of voice data, which further explains that Spotify will collect recordings and transcripts of what you say along with information about the content it returned to you. The company says it may continue to use this data to improve the feature, develop new voice features and target users with relevant advertising. It may also share your information with service providers, like cloud storage providers.
The policy looks to be the same as the one that was used along with Spotify’s voice-enabled ads, launched last year, so it doesn’t seem to have been updated to fully reflect the changes enabled with the launch of “Hey Spotify.” However, it does indicate that, like other voice assistants, Spotify doesn’t just continuously record — it waits until users say the wake words.
Given the “Hey Spotify” voice command’s origins with “Car Thing,” there’s been speculation that the mobile rollout is a signal that the company is poised to launch its own hardware to the wider public in the near future. There’s already some indication that may be true — MacRumors recently reported finding references and photos to Car Thing and its various mounts inside the Spotify app’s code. This follows Car Thing’s reveal in FCC filings back in January of this year, which had also stoked rumors that the device was soon to launch.
Spotify was reached for comment this morning, but has yet been unable to provide any answers about the feature’s launch despite a day’s wait. Instead, we were told that they “unfortunately do not have any additional news to share at this time.” That further suggests some larger projects could be tied to this otherwise more minor feature’s launch.
Though today’s consumers are wary of tech companies’ data collection methods — and particularly their use of voice data after all threetechgiants confessed to poor practices on this front — there’s still a use case for voice commands, particularly from an accessibility standpoint and, for drivers, from a safety standpoint.
LG said on Monday it will close its loss-making mobile phone business worldwide as the once pioneer brand looks to focus its resources in “growth areas” such as electric vehicle components, connected devices, smart homes, robotics, AI and B2B solutions, and platforms and services.
The South Korean firm said in a statement that its board of directors approved the decision today. The unsurprising move follows the company’s statement from January when it said it was reviewing the direction of its smartphone business.
LG, which maintained No. 3 spot in the smartphone market in the U.S. for a long time, said it will continue to sell handsets until the inventory lasts, and will provide software support for existing lineup of smartphones for a certain period of time that would vary by region.
The company said the status of its employees of phone business will be determined at the local level. In January, reports emerged that said LG was looking to sell its smartphone business. In the same month, the company said it would launch a rollable phone this year. But it appears all the efforts to keep the business stay afloat failed.
“Moving forward, LG will continue to leverage its mobile expertise and develop mobility-related technologies such as 6G to help further strengthen competitiveness in other business areas. Core technologies developed during the two decades of LG’s mobile business operations will also be retained and applied to existing and future products,” it said in a statement.
The poor financial performance of LG’s smartphone business has been public information for several years. Like countless other Android smartphone vendors, LG has struggled to turn things around.
LG focused on mid-range and high-end smartphones, two segments of the market that have become increasingly competitive in the past decade thanks to the rise of Chinese phonemakers such as Huawei, Xiaomi, OnePlus, Oppo and Vivo that are launching better value-for-money models every few months. (Once a rival, HTC has been struggling, too.)
Several phonemakers today rely heavily on software services such as mobile payments to make money. While LG launched a mobile payments service in 2017, two years after Samsung launched Samsung Pay, LG’s portfolio of services remained thin throughout the years.
Microsoft’s Cortana app for iOS and Android will soon shut down, the company has announced on a support page. This effectively puts a nail in Cortana’s coffin for consumer use cases, at least as far as competing directly with Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa goes.
We will soon be ending support for the Cortana app on Android and iOS, as Cortana continues its evolution as a productivity assistant.
As of March 31, 2021, the Cortana content you created—such as reminders and lists—will no longer function in the Cortana mobile app, but can still be accessed through Cortana in Windows. Also, Cortana reminders, lists, and tasks are automatically synced to the Microsoft To Do app, which you can download to your phone for free.
After March 31, 2021, the Cortana mobile app on your phone will no longer be supported.
This is no surprise. Microsoft had already begun deprecating Cortana on mobile in certain markets, and the writing seemed to be on the wall when the company announced that many of Cortana’s consumer-focused skills would be getting the axe about a year ago.
Competition in China’s gaming industry is getting stiffer in recent times as tech giants sniff out potential buyouts and investments to beef up their gaming alliance, whether it pertains to content or distribution.
Bilibili, the go-to video streaming platform for young Chinese, is the latest to make a major gaming deal. It has agreed to invest HK$960 million (about $123 million) into X.D. Network, which runs the popular game distribution platform TapTap in China, the company announced on Thursday.
Dual-listed in Hong Kong and New York, Bilibili will purchase 22,660,000 shares of X.D.’s common stock at HK$42.38 apiece, which will grant it a 4.72% stake.
The partners will initiate a series of “deep collaborations” around X.D.’s own games and TapTap, without offering more detail.
Though known for its trove of video content produced by amateur and professional creators, Bilibili derives a big chunk of its income from mobile games, which accounted for 40% of its revenues in 2020. The ratio had declined from 71% and 53% in 2018 and 2019, a sign that it’s trying to diversify revenue streams beyond distributing games.
Tencent has similarly leaned on games to drive revenues for years. The WeChat operator dominates China’s gaming market through original titles and a sprawling investment portfolio whose content it helps operate and promote.
X.D. makes games, too, but in recent years it has also emerged as a rebel against traditional game distributors, which are Android app stores operated by smartphone makers. The vision is to skip the high commission fees charged by the likes of Huawei and Xiaomi and monetize through ads. X.D.’s proposition has helped it attract a swathe of gaming companies to be its investors, including fast-growing studios Lilith Games and miHoYo, as well as ByteDance, which built up a 3,000-people strong gaming team within six years.
Bilibili’s investment further strengthens X.D.’s matrix of top-tier gaming investors. Tencent is conspicuously absent, but it’s no secret that ByteDance is its new nemesis. The TikTok parent recently outbid Tencent to acquire Moonton, a gaming studio that has gained ground in Southeast Asia, according to Reuters. Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, is also vying for user attention away from content published on WeChat.
The pandemic’s remarkable impact on the app industry has not slowed down in 2021. In fact, consumer spending in apps has hit a new record in the first quarter of this year, a new report from App Annie indicates. The firm says consumers in Q1 2021 spent $32 billion on apps across both iOS and Google Play, up 40% year-over-year from Q1 2020. It’s the largest-ever quarter on record, App Annie also notes.
Last year saw both app downloads and consumer spend increase, as people rapidly adopted apps under coronavirus lockdowns — including apps for work, school, shopping, fitness, entertainment, gaming and more. App Annie previously reported a record 218 billion in global downloads and record consumer spend of $143 billion for the year.
Image Credits: App Annie
These trends have continued into 2021, it seems, with mobile consumers spending roughly $9 billion more in Q1 2021 compared with Q1 2020. Although iOS saw larger consumer spend than Android in the quarter — $21 billion vs. $11 billion, respectively — both stores grew by the same percentage, 40%.
But the types of apps driving spending were slightly different from store to store.
On Google Play, Games, Social and Entertainment apps saw the strongest quarter-over-quarter growth in terms of consumer spending, while Games, Photo & Video, and Entertainment apps accounted for the strongest growth on iOS.
By downloads, the categories were different between the stores, as well.
On Google Play, Social, Tools, and Fiance saw the biggest download growth in Q1, while Games, Finance and Social Networking drove download growth for iOS. Also on Google Play, other top categories included Weather (40%) and Dating (35%), while iOS saw Health and Fitness app downloads grow by a notable 25% — likely a perfect storm as New Year’s Resolutions combined with continued stay-at-measures that encouraged users to find new ways to stay fit without going to a gym.
Image Credits: App Annie
The top apps in the quarter remained fairly consistent, however. TikTok beat Facebook, in terms of downloads, and was followed by Instagram, Telegram, WhatsApp and Zoom. But the short-form video app only made it to No. 2 in terms of consumer spend, with YouTube snagging the top spot. Tinder, Disney+, Tencent Video, and others followed. (Netflix has dropped off this chart as it now directs new users to sign up directly, rather than through in-app purchases).
Image Credits: App Annie
Though Facebook’s apps have fallen behind TikTok by downloads, its apps — including Facebook, WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram — still led the market in terms monthly active users (MAUs) in the quarter. TikTok, meanwhile, ranked No. 8 by this metric.
Up-and-comers in the quarter included privacy-focused messaging app Signal, which saw the strongest growth in the quarter by both downloads and MAUs — a calculation that App Annie calls “breakout apps.” Telegram closely followed, as users bailed from mainstream social after the Capitol riot. Another “breakout” app was MX TakaTak, which is filling the hole in the market for short-form video that resulted from India’s ban of TikTok.
Image Credits: App Annie
Gaming, meanwhile, drove a majority of the quarter’s spending, as usual, accounting for $22 billion of the spend — $13 billion on iOS (up 30% year-over-year) and $9 billion on Android (up 35%). Gamers downloaded about a billion titles per week, up 15% year-over-year from 2020.
Among Us! dropped to No. 2 in the quarter by downloads, replaced by Join Clash 3D, while DOP 2: Delete One Part jumped 308 places to reach No. 3.
Image Credits: App Annie
Roblox led by consumer spend, followed by Genshin Impact, Coin Master, Pokemon Go and others. And although Among Us! dropped on the charts by downloads, it remained No. 1 by monthly active users in the quarter, followed by PUBG Mobile, Candy Crush Saga, Roblox and others.
App Annie notes that the pandemic also accelerated the mobile gaming market, with game downloads outpacing overall downloads by 2.5x in 2020. It predicts that mobile gaming will reach $120 billion in consumer spending this year, or 1.5x all other gaming formats combined.
Whether you have an iPhone or an Android device, it’s continuously sending data including your location, phone number, and local network details to Apple or Google. Now, a researcher has provided a side-by-side comparison that suggests that, while both iOS and Android collect handset data around the clock—even when devices are idle, just out of the box, or after users have opted out—the Google mobile OS collects about 20 times as much data than its Apple competitor.
Both iOS and Android, researcher Douglas Leith from Trinity College in Ireland said, transmit telemetry data to their motherships even when a user hasn’t logged in or has explicitly configured privacy settings to opt out of such collection. Both OSes also send data to Apple and Google when a user does simple things such as inserting a SIM card or browsing the handset settings screen. Even when idle, each device connects to its back-end server on average every 4.5 minutes.
Apps and more
It wasn’t just the OSes that sent data to Apple or Google. Preinstalled apps or services also made network connections, even when they hadn’t been opened or used. Whereas iOS automatically sent Apple data from Siri, Safari, and iCloud, Android collected data from Chrome, YouTube, Google Docs, Safetyhub, Google Messenger, the device clock, and the Google search bar.
Google is announcing a handful of major updates to Google Maps today that range from bringing its Live View AR directions indoors to adding weather data to its maps, but the most tantalizing news — which in typical Google fashion doesn’t have an ETA just yet — is that Google plans to bring a vastly improved 3D layer to Google maps.
Using photogrammetry, the same technology that also allows Microsoft’s Flight Simulator to render large swaths of the world in detail, Google is also building a model of the world for its Maps service.
“We’re going to continue to improve that technology that helps us fuse together the billions of aerials, StreetView and satellite images that we have to really help us move from that flat 2D map to a more accurate 3D model than we’ve ever had. And be able to do that more quickly. And to bring more detail to it than we’ve ever been able to do before,” Dane Glasgow, Google’s VP for Geo Product Experience, said in a press event ahead of today’s announcement. He noted that this 3D layer will allow the company to visualize all its data in new and interesting ways.
Image Credits: Google
How exactly this will play out in reality remains to be seen, but Glasgow showed off a new 3D route preview, for example, with all of the typically mapping data overlayed on top of the 3D map.
Glasgow also noted that this technology will allow Google to parse out small features like stoplights and building addresses, which in turn will result in better directions.
“We also think that the 3D imagery will allow us to visualize a lot of new information and data overlaid on top, you know, everything from helpful information like traffic or accidents, transit delays, crowdedness — there’s lots of potential here to bring new information,” he explained.
Image Credits: Google
As for the more immediate future, Google announced a handful of new features today that are all going to roll out in the coming months. Indoor Live View is the flashiest of these. Google’s existing AR Live View walking directions currently only work outdoors, but thanks to some advances in its technology to recognize where exactly you are (even without a good GPS signal), the company is now able to bring this indoors. This feature is already live in some malls in the U.S. in Chicago, Long Island, Los Angeles, Newark, San Francisco, San Jose, and Seattle, but in the coming months, it’ll come to select airports, malls and transit stations in Tokyo and Zurich as well (just in time for vaccines to arrive and travel to — maybe — rebound). Because Google is able to locate you by comparing the images around you to its database, it can also tell what floor you are on and hence guide you to your gate at the Zurich airport, for example (though in my experience, there are few places with better signage than airports…).
Also new are layers for weather data (but not weather radar) and air quality in Google Maps. The weather layer will be available globally on Android and iOS in the coming months, with the air quality layer only launching for Australia, India and the U.S. at first.
Image Credits: Google
Talking about air quality, Google Maps will also get a new eco-friendly routing option that lets you pick the driving route that produces the least CO2 (coming to Android and iOS later this year), and it will finally feature support for low emission zones, a feature of many a European City. Low emission zones on Google Maps will launch in June in Germany, France, Spain and the UK on Android and iOS. More countries will follow later.
And to bring this all together, Google will update its directions interface to show you all of the possible modes of transportations and routing options, prioritized based on your own preferences, as well as based on what’s popular in the city you are in (think he subway in NYC or bike-sharing in Portland).
Also new are more integrated options for curbside grocery pickups in partnership with Instacart and Albertsons, if that’s your thing.
And there you have it. As is so often the case with Google’s announcement, the most exciting new features the company showed off don’t have an ETA and may never launch, but until then you can hold yourself over by getting your weather forecasts on Google Maps.
Facebook said it has disrupted a hacking operation that used the social media platform to spread iOS and Android malware that spied on Uyghur people from the Xinjiang region of China.
Malware for both mobile OSes had advanced capabilities that could steal just about anything stored on an infected device. The hackers, which researchers have linked to groups working on behalf of the Chinese government, planted the malware on websites frequented by activists, journalists, and dissidents who originally came from Xinjiang and had later moved abroad.
“This activity had the hallmarks of a well-resourced and persistent operation while obfuscating who’s behind it,” Mike Dvilyanski, head of Facebook cyber espionage investigations, and Nathaniel Gleicher, the company’s head of security policy, wrote in a post on Wednesday. “On our platform, this cyber espionage campaign manifested primarily in sending links to malicious websites rather than direct sharing of the malware itself.”
Social audio app Clubhouse has now promised a time frame of sorts for the launch of its anticipated Android version, following its recent hire of an Android software developer last month. In its weekly Townhall event on Sunday, Clubhouse co-founder Paul Davison remarked that the company was working “really hard” to come to Android, but said it’s going to take a “couple of months” to make that happen. That seems to indicate a time frame that’s closer to late spring or summer 2021.
Clubhouse had previously said in a late January blog post that it would begin work on its Android version “soon,” but had not yet promised any sort of time frame as to when it would be able to bring that version to the public. Instead, most of its statements about Android have been vague mentions of the importance of supporting the Android user base and making its app more accessible to a wider audience.
In the meantime, Clubhouse’s biggest rival, Twitter Spaces, has been taking advantage of Clubhouse’s delay to address the sizable Android user base by rapidly rolling out support to more people across platforms. This month, for example, Twitter Spaces opened up to Android users, allowing anyone on Android to join and talk inside its live audio rooms. Shortly thereafter, Twitter said that it plans to publicly launch Twitter Spaces to the general public in April. That would be well ahead of Clubhouse, unless the latter rapidly speeds up development and drops its invite-only status in the weeks ahead.
During Sunday’s Clubhouse Townhall, co-founder Davison explained the company’s approach to scaling to a larger market — like one where Android users participate — as an effort that requires a slower pace, when it comes to opening up access to more users. He noted that when Clubhouse grows, the discovery experience inside the app can be negatively impacted as a result. Users today are seeing more foreign language groups in their feeds, for instance, and are having a harder time finding friends and some of the best content, he said.
To address these challenges, Clubhouse plans to make several changes, including tweaks to the app’s Activity feed, tools to give users more control over their push notifications, and the launch of more personalization features — like showing users a personalized list of suggested rooms that appear on screen when you first open the app. These sorts of improvements are necessary to make Clubhouse succeed even as it scales its app to a larger user base, the company believes.
That said, Davison also spoke of dropping Clubhouse’s invite-only status as something it hopes to do “in the coming months.” He noted that he wants the app to open up to everyone, because there are “so many incredible creators not yet on Clubhouse, who have an audience elsewhere.”
“It’s going to be really important that we just open up to everyone,” Davison said. “Android’s going to be really important. Localization is obviously going to be very important.” Plus, making Clubhouse more accessible was important, too, he said.
The lack of an Android version of Clubhouse has already caused some complications for the company.
A number of Android app developers have taken advantage of the hole left in the market to hawk their “Clubhouse guides,” which intentionally aim to confuse Android users looking for Clubhouse by using the same app icon. (Google apparently doesn’t bother to weed out low-value and/or infringing content like this from the Play Store.)
Davison addressed this issue during the Townhall, warning users that if they see anyone trying to impersonate Clubhouse on Android, not to use that app because “it could be harmful.”
“It is certainly not the real Clubhouse. Same thing with PC. There’s no PC app for Clubhouse,” he said, adding that a desktop version of Clubhouse is not a high priority for the company.
The company made a number of other announcements, as well, the most notable being its plans for more creator tools. These will be focused on helping creators grow their own audiences for their shows, and even monetize their events, if they choose, through things like direct payments, subscriptions, brand sponsorships, and even “paid events.” Clubhouse will also offer tools for managing memberships and tracking metrics around listeners and retention, but overall, details were light on what specific tools would be available or when they would roll out.
Clubhouse hasn’t responded to a request for further comment on the statements made during its Townhall event.
A team of advanced hackers exploited no fewer than 11 zeroday vulnerabilities in a nine-month campaign that used compromised websites to infect fully patched devices running Windows, iOS, and Android, a Google researcher said.
Using novel exploitation and obfuscation techniques, a mastery of a wide range of vulnerability types, and a complex delivery infrastructure, the group exploited four zerodays in February 2020. The hackers’ ability to chain together multiple exploits that compromised fully patched Windows and Android devices led members of Google’s Project Zero and Threat Analysis Group to call the group “highly sophisticated.”
Not over yet
On Thursday, Project Zero researcher Maddie Stone said that, in the eight months that followed the February attacks, the same group exploited seven more previously unknown vulnerabilities, which this time also resided in iOS. As was the case in February, the hackers delivered the exploits through watering-hole attacks, which compromise websites frequented by targets of interest and add code that installs malware on visitors’ devices.
Today, Google announced a major change to the revenue-sharing structure of Google Play apps—one that could significantly alter the fortunes of independent developers or small companies who rely on the Android platform’s app store for revenue.
Starting on July 1, Google will take a 15 percent cut of the first $1 million in annual Google Play revenue from Google Play that a developer earns. That’s down from 30 percent previously. The 30 percent figure will still apply to all revenue over $1 million each year.
Google claims that 99 percent of developers with apps and content on Google Play will experience reductions in fees paid to Google of up to 50 percent.
Google is making changes to its parental control system, Family Link, that aims to better reflect parents’ changing views on children’s screen time. In the pre-pandemic world, parents were more likely to see screen time as something in need of restriction — they’d rather their kids get offline or go outside to play with friends, perhaps. But the challenges of a locked-down world and the push towards virtual learning have impacted parents’ views. Google says today’s parents are more concerned about how kids are spending time on their devices, not how much time is being spent.
It’s a concession to a world where devices have become a savior of sorts to families who’ve stayed at home to avoid Covid — where they’ve been restricted from seeing extended family and friends, and where schools are closed and playdates and parties were cancelled. Parents came to realize that screen time in and of itself isn’t necessarily something to be avoided; they just wanted more control over how it’s used.
With the Family Link update, parents can now choose to make remote learning apps “always allowed,” so they don’t count toward overall screen time daily limits. This could include not only those apps that are used to attend school or communicate with teachers, but others that have popped up to help kids learn and be entertained, like the supplementalresources the school suggests — or the apps parents allow during break times from virtual class.
Parents will also now have access to more detailed daily, weekly and monthly activity reports that provide both an overview of how the child is spending their time in apps, as well as how screen time usage has changed over a week or month, and what portion of time was spent in the “always allowed” apps. This gives parents a better idea of what screen time was used for education versus play.
On Android, Family Link users will also be able to browse through a selection of teacher-recommended apps from the Google Play catalog for kids under 13 in the U.S. And parents can also now set screen time limits directly from the child’s device on Android.
Image Credits: Google
Though these updates will remain useful in a post-pandemic world where parents hold a more nuanced view of screen time, it’s unfortunate that Google waited until so late in the pandemic to roll these changes out. As more people in the U.S. are being vaccinated, restrictions are lifting — including the re-opening of schools in many places. That means parents’ stress over kids’ increased screen time usage will soon become a moot point. The devices will be replaced with in-person learning, and screen time may become villainized yet again.
Related to today’s news, Google has launched a new website for families whose kids are beginning to use technology at families.google. The company also launched a new content series with meditation app Headspace that will help families with kids practice mindfulness together. Again, that’s a resource that was desperately needed in 2020 during the pandemic’s heights, more so than it is today as the world begins reopening.
Still, the pandemic has forced families to think more about screen time and what sort of on-device experiences they want their children to have. As a result of this increased scrutiny, social apps like TikTok and Instagram — the latter just today, in fact — have rolled out more family-friendly safety features, aimed at encouraging parents to see their apps in a better light, rather than being the first to go when screen time gets locked down. It has also encouraged new hybrid learning and education startups to launch, hoping to build out a new category of edutainment apps that can avoid screen time lockdowns.
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 is as hot as ever, 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, we’re taking a look at some of the buzzier stories from the world of apps, including the latest around Parler’s attempted return to the App Store, a review of Walmart’s second livestream shopping event, and Instagram Lite’s global rollout. We also have new Clubhouse data on its total installs and its global footprint and info about Disney’s new service that could replace your MagicBand, among other things.
Parler tries and fails to re-enter App Store
The right-wing social app was booted from the App Store, Google Play and Amazon AWS following the U.S. Capitol riot, for violations of community guidelines. Apple had specifically asked Parler to change its moderation policies, which had been fairly hands-off prior to its removal from the App Store. Though Apple has a number of rules about what apps can and cannot do, Parler’s own policies were guided by the First Amendment’s approach to free speech — basically, users could say almost anything without consequence.
According to documents obtained by Bloomberg, Parler again tried to gain entry into the App Store after the original ban, and was again denied. Following the new review, Apple reportedly told Parler’s chief policy officer on Feb. 25, there was no place for “hateful, racist, discriminatory content” on the App Store. The review had also included several offensive images, including profile pictures with swastikas and other white nationalist imagery, as well as misogynistic, homophobic and racist usernames and posts.
Parler last month had said negotiations with Apple were underway, and it expected to get back in the App Store. But with this new rejection, Parler cut its three remaining iOS developers from its team, out of a total of seven who were let go, Bloomberg reported.
The controversy around Parler is reflective of a larger conversation underway in the U.S. over tech’s responsibility to moderate the content on its platforms, as users’ posts and comments are increasingly leading to real-world violence. The U.S. government has not yet regulated these platforms, leaving decisions like this up to tech itself. Parler, in a statement, said it had added filters and human review to address threats of violence, as well as optional tools that let users filter and block certain kinds of hate speech. But this didn’t go far enough to address Apple’s claims about hate symbols and offensive speech still present on the network.
Apple released important security patches across all platforms. The patches fix a vulnerability — a memory corruption bug in WebKit, the engine that powers Apple’s Safari browser. An attacker can exploit the vulnerability via a malicious web page.
Image Credits: Walmart
Walmart again teamed up with TikTok to host a new livestream shopping event on Thursday night. The event, co-hosted by Gabby Morrison and Nabela Noor, focused on beauty products, offering demos and tutorials where viewers could buy the products through an integrated shopping cart. The content itself was engaging, feeling very much like the makeup tutorials and “get ready with me” vlogs users already watch across social media platforms. Gabby, who demoed all the products, was adept at balancing the more casual makeup try-on portions of the live event with the QVC-like call-to-action to actually buy the item being shown.
At times, there were as many as 8,000+ concurrent viewers participating in the live event, we noticed during our viewing. (We joined about 20 mins. after its start). During the event, we saw high engagement in the stream’s comments, including a number of positive comments — like jokes from users who lamented they were buying everything, shout-outs from those who just added an item to their cart, or compliments directed at the hosts. But there were also some trolling remarks that should have violated TikTok’s guidelines over cyberbullying, which were not moderated out — an issue TikTok will need to address as these events grow larger and more common.
Image Credits: screenshot of Walmart’s account on TikTok
Walmart last year had run an apparel-focused live shopping holiday event — the first pilot of TikTok’s live shopping feature in the U.S. The retailer has not commented on sales from its first event, but says they hit Walmart’s projections. Walmart also said the event drove a 25% increase in TikTok follower growth, and 7x more views than anticipated.
Facebook is targeting emerging markets with launch of Instagram Lite, a lightweight Android version of the app that takes up just 2MB of space. The app was made available across 170 countries this week, offering the ability to view and share photos and videos, Stories, IGTV, discover content through Explore, and more. However, the app lacks the ability to film Reels — Instagram’s TikTok rival — users can only view them.
Image Credits: Facebook
The app is not Facebook’s first attempt to develop a lightweight version of Instagram. The company previously released an Progressive Web App, which was pulled in 2020. A new app was then launched in December in India in a limited test, ahead of this broader release.
Clubhouse has now reached 12 million worldwide downloads, an increase of 600K since March 1, according to new data from App Annie. The largest market for the app is still the U.S. which accounts for 3.1 million downloads. But the app has a strong global footprint, with 1.8m downloads in Japan, 710K in Germany, 600K in Brazil, 505K in Russia, 420K in Italy, 375K in the U.K., 370K in South Korea, 350K in Turkey, and 107K in France, the firm said. Clubhouse was said to have 8 million global downloads just in February, so this is notable growth.
Facebook expands creator monetization options with the addition of ads for short-form video content — including videos as short as 1 minute, instead of previous minimum of 3 minutes. Those ads will now play 30 seconds after the start of a shorter video. It also opened its in-stream ads program for Live videos out of invite-only mode. The move could encourage creators to make content for Facebook instead of rival platforms like TikTok, by wooing them with more money-making opportunities.
TikTok rolled out new commenting features aimed at preventing bullying. Creators will now be able to control which comments can be posted on their content, before those comments go live. Another new addition, aimed at users who are commenting, will pop up a box that prompts the user to reconsider posting a comment that may be inappropriate or unkind.
Image Credits: TikTok
Pakistan again bans TikTok over “immoral and objectionable” videos. The app, which has around 33 million users in the country, was blocked by the Pakistan Telecom Authority after Peshawar High Court’s Chief Justice Qaiser Rashid Khan said some TikTok videos were “unacceptable for Pakistani society,” and were “peddling vulgarity.”
A new app called Limit App is offering an Instagram-like service but only for those ages 18 to 25. Reviewed by Geekwire, the app’s creator said it’s not about ageism, but rather about giving young people a place to be themselves. The app uses a secure ID and age verification process to onboard users and, when they turn 26, they’re giving 30 days to download their content before being booted out. Begone, boomers.
Pinterest saw over 193M downloads worldwide in 2020,according to App Annie — a 50% YoY increase, driven by consumers using the platform for product discovery, design ideas, and shopping.
Facebook tests a feature in India that will share Instagram Reels on the Facebook News Feed. The move is an indication of how seriously Facebook is taking the TikTok threat — it’s now leveraging not just one, but two of the world’s largest social networks to fight back.
TikTok in the U.K. launched a new “music hub” that highlights trending artists and tracks. The company has already been driving music streams and sales through the social app, and the hub will now offer a dedicated section to keep up with what’s currently trending.
Twitter’s head of consumer product, Kayvon Beykpour, defended Apple’s App Store commission rates in recent interview. The exec said the commission isn’t a “highway tax,” but reflects the cost and effort that goes into accepting online payments, including issues with fraud and risk, and the customer service flow around refunds.
India’s government threatened to jail Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter employees if they don’t comply with data and takedown requests related to the protests by Indian farmers over agricultural law changes.
Google will link Android phones with Chromebooks through a new Phone Hub feature, allowing Chrome OS users to respond to texts, check their battery life, enable a Wi-Fi hotspot and locate a misplaced device, among other things.
Bumble launched “Night In,” a new feature in the U.S. and Canada that lets online daters play games together from the app. At launch, users can play trivia games but the company says it plans more virtual experiences in the future. The timing of the launch is interesting — it comes a year into the pandemic which has forced people to stay home and social distance. But as “Night In” arrives, vaccinations are ramping up and, likely, so will real-world, in-person dating. That Bumble still invested in virtual dating experiences indicates the company sees the feature as something with longer-term potential, rather than a temporary stand-in for that first drink or coffee date.
Bumble also filed its first quarterly report since its Feb. 2021 IPO, topping Wall St. estimates with $165.6 million in revenue and 2.7 million paid users (up 32.5% YoY) in the fourth quarter.
Streaming & Entertainment
Amazon adds a merch store to its streaming music app. The company’s Amazon Music app is now offering in-app product sales from Billie Eilish, Selena Gomez, and other artists via a Merchbar integration. (Just wait until it actually remembers it has a whole retail website it could connect.)
YES Network debuts an app that will live stream New York Yankees, Brooklyn Nets, NYFC, and New York Liberty games via a TV Everywhere integration. This is the first live streaming app from the network. Sure, we need another one.
Apple Podcasts is replacing the “subscribe” button with a “follow” button for keeping up with favorite podcasts. The change, first reported by Podnews, came about because people increasingly think of subscribe as referring to a paid option. I’m sure they didn’t get that idea from…THE APP STORE.
Spotify this week updated its app with support for 36 new languages, as promised during last month’s “Stream On” event, including: Afrikaans, Amharic, Azerbaijani, Bengali, Bhojpuri, Bulgarian, Simplified Chinese, Croatian, Danish, Estonian, Filipino, Gujarati, Hindi, Icelandic, Kannada, Latvian, Lithuanian, Malayalam, Marathi, Nepali, Norwegian, Odia, Persian, Portuguese for Portugal, Eastern Punjabi, Western Punjabi, Romanian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian, Swahili, Tamil, Telugu, Ukrainian, Urdu, and Zulu. The app is now available in 62 languages in total, and is expanding to over 80 global markets.
New streaming service Paramount+ saw its app downloaded 277K+ times in the first 5 days,reports Apptopia. The app launched similarly to how HBO Max did — it took an existing app and transitioned it to a new one. In its case, the CBS All Access app transitioned to Paramount+. This impacts the number of early downloads, as many users are just upgraded. Thanks to a pre-launch sale, the app also saw $86.7K in IAP revenue on March 2, the highest single-day revenue to date.
Image Credits: Apptopia
Epic Games takes its app store legal fight to Australia with a new anti-competitive claim against Google, over the 30% commissions on in-app purchases. The company is fighting Apple and Google in many markets now, including the U.S., E.U., and U.K.
The average size of the U.S. App Store’s top games has grown 76% in the past 5 years, says Sensor Tower. The average game file size in 2016 was approximately 264 megabytes across the top 100 revenue generating games on the U.S. App Store. This has grown to 465 MB in 2020. Top games driving the file size growth include DoubleDown, Fortnite, Clash of Clans, Roblox and Homescapes.
Image Credits: Sensor Tower
Food & Drink
Data from App Annie indicates app sessions in food and drink apps grew 105% YoY in 2020, as the pandemic led to a surge of adoption for food delivery apps. Deliveroo in particular had a standout year in 2020, as the No. 2 “breakout” food & drink app in France and No. 3 in the U.K. — a metric App Annie uses to track growth in total sessions. App sessions grew from their lowest point of 1.81 billion on March 22, 2020 to 3.02 billion by the end of Dec. 2020, the firm said.
Disney is bringing the service that powers its existing MagicBands to Apple devices with the launch of Disney MagicMobile. The service, which will launch in phases starting later this year, will allow guests to create a mobile pass using the My Disney Experience app, then add it to their smart device’s digital wallet. Users can then hold up their smart device, including their Apple iPhone or Watch, to check into rides at the access points.
Image Credits: Disney
This doesn’t necessarily mean the end for MagicBands, though. The bands still make sense for kids without devices or for anyone who doesn’t want to worry about pulling out their phone for every ride (or who doesn’t own an Apple Watch). Plus, some Disney fans like collecting MagicBands in new styles. Disney said it will soon release a new set with favorite characters.
India’s Paytm will turn Android phones into POS terminals by introducing a card acceptance feature in the NFC-enabled Paytm Business app. Once activated, merchants will be able to process transactions by tapping a payment card to their smartphone.
The new Google Pay app exited beta this week, to replace the older version that will close down on April 5 in the U.S. The updated version include NFC tap-to-pay functionality and p2p payments, but an Ars Technica review slams the app as being less convenient and laden with more fees, among other things.
Chinese beauty app Meitu bought $40 million worth of cryptocurrency, including 15,000 units of Ether and 379.1214267 units of Bitcoin — worth around $22.1 million and $17.9 million, respectively. Meitu chairman Cai Wensheng has been bullish on cryptocurrency and believes in diversifying beyond holding just cash.
Security & Privacy
Apple must face a consumer lawsuit over FaceTime and iMessage privacy in court, not through private arbitration. The case, Ohanian v Apple Inc. focuses on an iOS bug coupled with T-Mobile’s approach to recycling phone numbers that gave third-parties access to users’ communications, despite Apple’s marketing of iMessage and FaceTime as secure features.
Apple is also now facing a privacy complaint in Europe from startup lobby group, France Digitale. The complaint focuses on the IDFA changes, which will required third-party apps to have to ask to track users, while Apple’s own apps are able to track user activity and run personalized ads by default without a similar opt-in pop-up, giving it an unfair advantage.
Funding and M&A
Social networking app Wefarm, aimed at independent farmers in Africa, raised $11 million in an extension of its 2019 Series A led by Octopus Ventures. The London-based company now has 2.5 million users and has hosted over 37 million conversations via SMS.
Gaming platform Roblox made its stock market debut on Wednesday under the ticker symbol RBLX. The stock closed the day at $69.50 per share, giving the business a market cap of $38.26 billion. The cross-platform gaming service works across a range of devices, including mobile.
Chatbot startup Heyday raised $5.1 million from existing investors Innovobot and Desjardins Capital for its system that lets businesses respond to customers’ messages across apps like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Google Business Messages or even email.
Songclip raised $11 million in new funding to bring music to more social media apps. The company is working to popularize the short audio clip media format, and make it accessible across a range of services.
Real estate software and data firm VTS acquired Chicago-based Rise Buildings, the makers of a property tech mobile app used in over 130 million sq ft of office space.
Japan’s SoftBank Group announced this week it will invest $4.7 billion into Tokyo-based messaging app Line, owned by Naver. The investment aims to help develop Line into a “super app,” similar to China’s WeChat, by integrating online news and entertainment from Yahoo Japan (which it owns) as well as financial services from SoftBanks’s mobile payments app PayPay, and more.
Mobile payments service PayPal to acquire cryptocurrency security startup Curv in a deal valued at less than $200 million. PayPal has recently partnered with Paxos to allow U.S. users to buy, hold and sell cryptocurrencies in its app.
TikTok competitor Triller bought livestream music competition Verzuz, created by Timbaland and Swizz Beatz. To date, the competition has hosted 43 artists including RZA, Nelly, Ludacris, 2 Chainz, DMX, and Gucci Mane. The program will continue to air on IG Live in addition to now, Triller.
Detail raised $2 million in pre-seed funding led by Connect Ventures for its app that that will turn your iPhone into a software-optimized camera for live video.
Krafton, the developer of PUBG Mobile, invested $22.4 million into the Indian esports firm Nodwin Gaming, a subsidiary of gaming giant Nazara and one of the largest esports firms in India.
Eco, a startup building a personal finance app for saving and spending money, raised $26 million led by a16z Crypto. Uber co-founder Garrett Camp came up with the idea and now advises Eco as a board member. His startup studio, Expa, is also an investor, Fortune reported.
Runway gets YC backing for its service aimed at streamlining mobile app releases. The app was built by the first iOS team for Rent the Runway, and focuses on automating many common pain points that can stop an app release’s progress.
Image Credits: WildWorks
A new game, Fer.al, has entered the market to compete for Gen Z’s time and attention which is currently spent in virtual worlds like Roblox, Minecraft and Fortnite. The game was developed by WildWorks, the makers of what’s often kids’ first virtual world game, Animal Jam. It also continues the animal-as-avatar metaphor, but this time with fantasy creatures you customize yourself, and a storyline about a animal-themed reality show, dueling queens, factions, and adventures. The game is available across platforms including Mac, PC, iOS and Android.
Last week, “deep nostalgia” was going viral as people animated their long-lost relatives or even closer family members using apps like MyHeritage or TokkingHeads. But this week, everyone’s trying out Wombo — an AI-powered deepfake app that can animate any face to lip sync to songs like “Thriller” or “I Will Survive,” as well as many meme songs, like “Never Gonna Give You Up” or “Numa Numa.” The results are…ugh, cringe. But the attention sent a surge of downloads to the app, moving it up to (as of the time of writing) No. 30 Overall on the App Store. Since its Feb. 2020 launch, the app has been downloaded 2M+ times across iOS and Android.
Google Chrome version 89 began rolling out to users in the stable channel on March 2 and should be on most people’s machines by now. The new build offers significant memory savings on 64-bit Windows platforms thanks to increased use of Google’s PartitionAlloc memory allocator. On macOS, Chrome 89 plays catch-up and gets closer to the performance of the flagship Windows builds.
Chrome on Windows
Google says use of RAM in 64-bit Windows is down up to 22 percent in the browser process, 8 percent in the renderer, and 3 percent in the GPU. The company also claims a 9 percent decrease in latency, meaning a more responsive browser. The improvements are largely due to intercepting malloc() calls with PartitionAlloc.
Chrome 89 has also gotten significantly more aggressive about discarding unused RAM. When you scroll resources such as large images off-screen in the foreground tab, Chrome discards the memory those resources used. The change impacts background tabs as well, resulting in a savings of as much as 100MiB per tab.
This is the road editing tool Google plans to introduce. [credit: Google ]
Google plans to introduce a new feature to Google Maps that will allow users to draw missing roads directly in the map, ostensibly improving the service’s coverage in some areas where Google’s data sources are not comprehensive.
The feature will only be available on the desktop web version of Google Maps, not on mobile phone apps. And it will—at least at first—be offered in 80 countries. Google says it will “vet” these suggested map changes before publishing them for other users to see.
A new alliance between Swedish electric performance automaker Polestar and EV infrastructure startup ChargePoint takes aim at the charging experience with the debut of an in-car app that will let customers seamlessly charge their Polestar 2 model vehicles.
Seamless charging—being able to pull up to a charging station, plug in and let the vehicle handle billing and payment—has been dominated by Tesla through its branded Supercharger network. Most other EV drivers have to pay for charging using an RFID card or smartphone, and the convenience level is on-par with a traditional gas station. The partnership eliminates the need for these extra items at ChargePoint’s more than 130,000 stations. The app will embed directly into Polestar 2’s in-car “infotainment system,” which runs on Google’s Android Automotive OS.
There have been some inroads into seamless charging elsewhere, most notably by Electrify America, the entity established by Volkswagen as part of its settlement with U.S. regulators over its diesel-emissions scandal. It introduced an in-car payment technology dubbed Plug&Charge last November that will allow 2021 models of the Porsche Taycan, Ford Mustang Mach-E and Lucid Air to seamlessly charge at its stations.
The partnership also takes aim at the buying experience, another area that Tesla’s cornered with its branded Wall Connector home charger. Polestar 2 drivers will now be able to order the $699 ChargePoint Home Flex home charger alongside the purchase of a Polestar 2 and arrange for home installation prior to vehicle delivery.
It’s a blueprint for future collaboration between the two companies, ChargePoint senior VP Bill Loewenthal said in a statement. The partnerships may be the start of many more alliances between automakers and EV infrastructure companies who see user experience as a key part of their value proposition.
At an online event, Google today announced Flutter 2, the newest version of its open-source UI toolkit for building portable apps. While Flutter started out with a focus on mobile when it first launched two years ago, it spread its wings in recent years and with version 2, Flutter now supports web and desktop apps out of the box. With that, Flutter users can now use the same codebase to build apps for iOS, Android, Windows, MacOS, Linux and the web.
“The big thing that justifies the major version number shift is, of course, the availability of web and desktop support,” Flutter product lead Tim Sneath told me. “And that’s just a fairly profound pivot. It’s rare for products that you suddenly have all these additional endpoints.”
Image Credits: Google
He noted that because of Flutter’s open-source nature, web and desktop support had been “cooking in the open” for a while, so the addition of these endpoints isn’t a surprise. A lot of that work in getting these new platforms ready for the 2.0 release involved getting the performance up to par on these new platforms.
It’s worth noting, though, that Flutter desktop support is still behind an early-release flag in Flutter’s stable release channel and Google says developers should think of it as a “beta snapshot.” Web support, however, has transitioned from beta to stable and has become just another target for building apps with Flutter.
Image Credits: Google
On the web platform, specifically, Sneath noted that the team deliberately started out with a very standard, DOM-centric approach. But while that worked fine, it also meant performance was held back by that, especially for more advanced features. Over the course of the last year or so, the team started working on what it calls Canvas Kit. This WebAssembly-based project takes the same Skia graphics engine that powers Android and Chrome itself and makes it available to web apps.
“What that’s meant is that we can now essentially bypass the core HTML — sort of the document-centric parts of the web platform — and really use the app-centric parts of the web platform without leaving [behind] things like auto-complete of text or passwords and all the things that keep the web feeling very unique,” Sneath said.
Image Credits: Google
On the desktop, Google is announcing that Canonical is going all-in on Flutter and making it the default choice of all its future desktop and mobile apps.
Microsoft, too, is expanding its support for Flutter and working with Google on Windows support for Flutter. Given Microsoft’s interest in Android, that’s maybe no huge surprise, and indeed, Microsoft today is releasing contributions to the Flutter engine to help support foldable Android devices.
In total, Google notes, there are now over 15,000 packages for Flutter and Dart from companies like Amazon, Microsoft, Adobe, Huawei, Alibaba, eBay and Square.
As always, there are dozen of other smaller updates to Flutter in this update, too.
Looking ahead, Sneath noted that the Flutter team plans to spend more time on Flutter as a framework for embedded devices and other somewhat non-traditional platforms. He also noted that the team is interested in how Flutter can help power ambient computing experiences.
“As we think about the ambient computing worlds where there are these core premises behind the ambient computing aspects — things like: can it be searched easily? Can people make money off of the apps that they build and do it in a responsible way? We’re building support for those kinds of services. Better analytics, better ads frameworks, connectivity into things like Firebase and Google Cloud, so that people can not just take advantage of Flutter but the broader ecosystem services that Google provides,” Sneath explained.
Mobile gaming hasn’t seen the same demand for streaming content in the past as desktop has, but Amazon sees a market there to extend Twitch’s dominance. After launching on Android back in November, the company’s mobile streaming centric app has just launched on Apple’s App Store.
The app lets users record short clips (anywhere from 30 seconds to 5 minutes of content) of gameplay from a variety of titles that support screen recording capture. Users can screen record these clips directly into the GameOn library at which point they can add commentary or additional edits before publishing to the GameOn platform or sharing links to the platform on other sites.
The GameOn platform is interestingly fully disconnected from Twitch with separate branding and different channels. Amazon has been partnering with streamers to wholly focus on mobile gaming while promoting challenges unique to the app.
Developers have been increasingly vigilant about brining more full-featured ports of desktop titles to mobile though the lack of sophisticated controls has made this a challenge. As gaming platforms aim to bring cloud streaming networks to iOS there could end up being more demand for shot-on-mobile content and titles that users control with a gamepad, but this will depend on whether the App Store grows more amenable to these platforms over time.
An iPhone hacking team has released a new jailbreak tool for almost every iPhone, including the most recent models, by using the same vulnerability that Apple last month said was under active attack by hackers.
The Unc0ver team released its latest jailbreak this weekend, and says it works on iOS 11 (iPhone 5s and later) to iOS 14.3, which Apple released in December.
Jailbreaking is a cat-and-mouse game between security researchers who want greater control and customizations over their phones, and Apple, which says it locks down iPhones for security. Hackers build jailbreak tools by finding and exploiting vulnerabilities that can lift some of the restrictions that Apple puts in place, like installing apps outside of its app store, which most Android users are already used to.
In a tweet, the jailbreak group said it used its “own exploit” for CVE-2021-1782, a kernel vulnerability that Apple said was one of three flaws that “may have been actively exploited” by hackers. By targeting the kernel, the hackers are able to get deep hooks into the underlying operating system.
We wrote our own exploit based on CVE-2021-1782 for #unc0ver to achieve optimal exploit speed and stability.
Apple fixed the vulnerability in iOS 14.4, released last month, which also prevents the jailbreak from working on later versions. It was a rare admission that the iPhone was under active attack by hackers, but the company declined to say who the hackers were and who they were targeting. Apple also granted anonymity to the researcher who submitted the bug.
The group’s last jailbreak, which supported iPhones running iOS 11 to iOS 13.5, was fixed in a matter of days last year. Apple works quickly to understand and fix the vulnerabilities found by jailbreak groups, since these same vulnerabilities can be exploited maliciously.
Security experts generally advise iPhone users against jailbreaking because it makes the device more vulnerable to attacks. And while keeping your phone up to date may introduce security fixes that remove the jailbreak, it’s one of the best ways of keeping your device secure.
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Google is adding its password checkup feature to Android, making the mobile OS the latest company offering to give users an easy way to check if the passcodes they’re using have been compromised.
Password Checkup works by checking credentials entered into apps against a list of billions of credentials compromised in the innumerable website breaches that have occurred in recent years. In the event there’s a match, users receive an alert, along with a prompt that can take them to Google’s password manager page, which offers a way to review the security of all saved credentials.
Google today announced the next set of features coming to Android, including a new password checkup tool, a way to schedule your texts, along with other improvements to products like its screen reader TalkBack, Maps, Assistant, and Android Auto. This spring 2021 release is latest in a series of smaller update bundles, similar to iOS “point releases,” that add new functionality and features to Android outside of the larger update cycle.
One the security front, this update will integrate a feature called Password Checkup into devices running Android 9 and above to alert you to passwords you’re using that have been previously exposed.
The feature works with Autofill with Google, which lets you quickly sign in to apps and other services on Android. Now, when you use Autofill, Password Checkup will check your credentials against a list of known compromised passwords, then notify you if your credentials appear on that list and what to do about it.
Image Credits: Google
The prompt can also direct you to your Password Manager page on Google, where you can review all your other saved Autofill passwords for similar issues.
To use this feature, you’ll need to have Autofill enabled. (Settings > System > Languages & Input > Advanced, the tap Autofill. Tap Google to ensure the setting is enabled.)
The new Messages feature rolling out this update could see profilifc texters considering a switch to Android, as it’s one of the most in-demand features since SMS was invented: the ability to schedule your texts.