SEC rejects Apple’s bid to block three shareholder proposals

An Apple Store in Cambridge, UK.

Enlarge / An Apple Store in Cambridge, UK. (credit: Martin Pope | Getty Images)

The Securities and Exchange Commission has rejected Apple’s petition to block three shareholder proposals from going to a vote at its next annual meeting—a win for activists that signals trouble for other US companies hoping the regulator will allow them to fend off unwanted attention.

The resolutions call for detailed reports regarding allegations of forced labor in Apple’s supply chain, explanations of why certain apps are deleted from the App Store in China, and a public report of what risks the iPhone maker could face by allegedly using nondisclosure agreements in the context of workplace harassment and discrimination.

The Financial Times reported in October that Apple asked the SEC for permission to block six shareholder petitions, the highest amount of proposals the company has had since 2017. Apple’s reasoning was that it had “substantially implemented” what the petitioners were asking for. Of the remaining three proposals, one was rejected and two remain outstanding.

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Microsoft pushed Apple for compromise to get Game Pass on the App Store

Microsoft pushed Apple for compromise to get Game Pass on the App Store

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson / Getty Images)

Last year, Apple rolled out a set of onerous guidelines that required streaming game subscription services like Xbox Game Pass to package each available title as a separate app in the iOS App Store. At the time, Microsoft said this solution “remains a bad experience for customers. Gamers want to jump directly into a game from their curated catalog within one app, just like they do with movies or songs, and not be forced to download over 100 apps to play individual games from the cloud.”

However, new emails revealed as part of the Epic v. Apple trial (and unearthed by The Verge) show how seriously Microsoft was considering working within these guidelines. The emails show that Microsoft engaged Apple in detailed negotiations about how individual xCloud streaming apps could work as a technical matter and even dangled the possibility of streaming “exclusive AAA titles” from outside of Game Pass to help broker a compromise position.

Splitting the baby

In the emails, sent between February and April of 2020, Microsoft Xbox head of business development Lori Wright laid out some concerns about the idea of packaging each Xbox streaming game as an individual iOS app. For users, such a system would lead to cluttered home screens and the potential for “orphaned” app icons when games were removed from Game Pass, Wright wrote. For Microsoft and Apple, the system would also lead to lots of extra overhead in terms of app store metadata management and app review time, she wrote.

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Apple wins a last-minute stay on App Store external payments injunction

Extreme close-up photograph of a hand holding a smartphone.

Enlarge / A Fortnite loading screen displayed on an iPhone in 2018, when Apple and Epic weren’t at each other’s throats. (credit: Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images)

Apple has won a last-minute stay on an injunction that would have required it to imminently begin allowing iPhone and iPad app developers to direct users to alternative payment options.

The requirement to allow in-app linking to third-party payment systems was ordered in a September 10 ruling by the judge in the ongoing Epic Games v. Apple lawsuit. This was one of the few wins for Epic, while Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers ruled in favor of Apple on most points.

The judge gave Apple until December 9 to make the necessary changes to allow outside payment systems, so this stay comes at the last possible moment. When Judge Gonzalez Rogers rejected Apple’s initial request to stay the ruling, the company went on to appeal to the ruling to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. It is that appeal that has led to this new development.

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Judge rejects Apple’s arguments for delaying ordered iOS App Store changes

iPhone home screen with the App Store icon displayed.

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | NurPhoto )

In September, US District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers ruled that Apple must allow iOS developers to direct users to external content-purchasing mechanisms outside of the App Store’s built-in In-App Purchases. Tuesday night, Rogers refused Apple’s request to stay that ruling, setting the stage for it to go into effect Dec. 9 pending further appeal.

In a blunt four-page ruling, Judge Rogers said Apple’s motion for a stay, filed last month, is “fundamentally flawed” and “based on a selective reading of this Court’s findings and ignores all of the findings which supported the injunction, namely incipient antitrust conduct including supercompetitive commission rates resulting in extraordinarily high operating margins and which have not been correlated to the value of its intellectual property.”

Apple’s anti-steering provisions, which prevent app makers from telling users about alternate payment methods inside of the apps themselves, “are one of the key provisions upon which Apple has been able to successfully charge supracompetitive commissions untethered to its intellectual property,” Judge Rogers writes. Those provisions depress royalty rates for Epic’s Unreal Engine specifically and “in the industry generally” she continues.

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Google halves its revenue share of in-app subscriptions on the Play store

Multicolored triangular logo.

Enlarge (credit: Google Play)

Google has made another tweak to the fee structure for apps hosted on the Google Play app store, again granting certain developers a larger slice of the pie. The change specifically affects apps that rely on recurring subscription revenue.

Previously, Google took a cut of 30 percent in the first year that a recurring subscription was active, then 15 percent in the years after that. Now, Google will take a cut of only 15 percent from the very start.

Some apps that fit the Play Media Experience Program, such as apps for distributing books or streaming video or audio, will see even smaller cuts—as low as 10 percent. To join that program, developers have to opt in.

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Apple turns post-lawsuit tables on Epic, will block Fortnite on iOS

Extreme close-up photograph of a hand holding a smartphone.

Enlarge / A Fortnite loading screen displayed on an iPhone in 2018, when Apple and Epic weren’t at each other’s legal throats. (credit: Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images)

Weeks after Epic’s apparent “win” against Apple in the Epic Games v. Apple case, Apple issued a letter denying Epic’s request to have its developer license agreement reinstated until all legal options are exhausted. This effectively bans Fortnite and any other software from the game maker from returning to Apple’s App Store for years.

Epic was handed an initial victory when the US District Court for Northern California issued an injunction on September 10 ordering Apple to open up in-game payment options for all developers. At the time, the injunction was something of a moral victory for Epic—allowing the developer to keep its in-game payment systems in its free-to-play Fortnite intact while avoiding paying Apple a 30 percent fee that had previously covered all in-app transactions.

But now Epic has faced a significant reversal of fortune.

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Apple and Google bow to pressure in Russia to remove Kremlin critic’s tactical voting app

Apple and Google have removed a tactical voting app created by the organization of jailed Kremlin critic, Alexei Navalny, from their respective mobile app stores in Russia.

Earlier this week Reuters reported that the Russian state had been amping up the pressure on foreign tech giants ahead of federal elections — appropriating the language of “election interference” to push US companies to censor the high profile political opponent to president Putin.

On Twitter today, a key Navalny ally, Ivan Zhdanov, tweeted that his organization is considering suing Apple and Google over removal of the apps — dubbing the act of censorship a “huge mistake”.

Zhdanov has also published what he says is Apple’s response to Team Navalny — in which the tech giant cites the Kremlin’s classification of a number of pro-Navalny organizations as “extremist” groups to justify its removal of the software.

(Image credit: Screengrab of detail from Apple’s notification to the developer, via Zhdanov’s tweet)

Apple and Google routinely say they comply with ‘all local laws’ in the countries where they operate.

However in Russia that stance means they have become complicit in acts of political censorship.

“We note that the Prosecutor’s Office of the Russian Federation and the Prosecutor’s Office of the City of Moscow have also determined that the app violates the legislation of the Russian Federation by enabling interference in elections,” Apple writes in the notification of takedown it sent to the developer of the tactical voting app.

“While your app has been removed from the Russia App Store, it is still available in the App Stores for the other territories you selected in App Store Connect,” Apple adds.

Apple and Google have been contacted for comment on the removal of Navalny’s app.

 

Also via Twitter, Zhdanov urged supporters to focus on the tactical voting mission — tweeting a link to a video hosted on Google-owned YouTube which contains recommendations to Russians on how to cast an anti-Putin vote in the parliamentary elections taking place today until Sunday.

Navalny’s supporters are hoping to mobilize voters across Russia to cast tactical ballots in a bid to unseat Putin by voting for whatever candidate has the best chance of defeating the ruling United Russia party.

Their tactical voting strategy has faced some criticism — given that many of the suggested alternatives are, at best, only very weakly opposed to Putin’s regime.

However Navalny’s supporters would surely point out they are having to operate within a flawed system.

After Apple and Google initially refused to remove Navalny’s ‘Smart Voting’ app, last month, the Russian state has been attempting to block access to his organization’s website.

It has even reportedly targeted Google docs — which supporters of Navalny have also been using to organize tactical voting efforts.

Screengrab of the Smart Voting app on the UK iOS app store (Image credits: Natasha Lomas/TechCrunch)

Earlier this month Reuters reported that Russia’s communications regulator, Roskomnadzor, had threatened Apple and Google with fines if they did not remove the Smart Voting app — warning that failure to comply could be interpreted as election meddling.

Russian press has also reported that Apple and Google were summoned to a meeting at the Federation Council on the eve of the election — as Putin’s regime sought to force them to do his anti-democratic bidding.

According to a report by Kommersant, the tech giants were warned the Russian Federation was preparing to tighten regulations on their businesses — and told to “come to their senses”, facing another warning that they were at a “red line”.

The last ditch effort to force the platforms to remove Navalny’s app did then pay off.

In recent weeks, Roskomnadzor has also been targeting VPN apps in the country for removal — making it hard for Russians to circumvent the local ban on Navalny’s app by accessing the software through the stores of other countries.

Local search giant, Yandex, has also reportedly been ordered not to display search results for the Smart Voting app.

Earlier this year, Putin’s regime also targeted Twitter — throttling the service for failing to remove content it wanted banned, although Roskomnadzor claimed the action was related to non-political content such as minors committing suicide, child sexual exploitation and drug use.

#activism, #alexei-navalny, #app-store, #apple, #apple-inc, #apps, #europe, #google, #politics, #president, #putin, #russia, #search-results, #tc, #united-states, #vpn, #yandex

Facebook revamps its business tool lineup following threats to its ad targeting business

Facebook today is announcing the launch of new products and features for business owners, following the threat to its ad targeting business driven by Apple’s new privacy features, which now allow mobile users to opt out of being tracked across their iOS apps. The social networking giant has repeatedly argued that Apple’s changes would impact small businesses that relied on Facebook ads to reach their customers. But it was not successful in getting any of Apple’s changes halted. Instead, the market is shifting to a new era focused more on user privacy, where personalization and targeting are more of an opt-in experience. That’s required Facebook to address its business advertiser base in new ways.

As the ability to track consumers declines — very few consumers are opting into tracking, studies find — Facebook is rolling out new features that will allow businesses to better position themselves in front of relevant audiences. This includes updates that will let them reach customers, advertise to customers, chat with customers across Facebook apps, generate leads, acquire customers and more.

The company earlier this year began testing a way for customers to explore businesses from underneath News Feed posts by tapping on topics they were interested in — like beauty, fitness, and clothing, and explore content from other related businesses. The feature allows people to come across new businesses that may also like, and would allow Facebook to create its own data set of users who like certain types of content. Over time, it could possibly even turn the feature into an ad unit, where businesses could pay for higher placement.

But for the time being, Facebook will expand this feature to more users across the U.S., and launch it in Australia, Canada, Ireland, Malaysia, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, South Africa, and the U.K.

Image Credits: Facebook

Facebook is also making it easier for businesses to chat with customers. They’re already able to buy ads that encourage people to message them on Facebook’s various chat platforms — Messenger, Instagram Direct, or WhatsApp. Now, they’ll be able to choose all the messaging platforms where they’re available, and Facebook will default the chat app showcased in the ad based on where the conversation is most likely to happen.

Image Credits: Facebook

The company will tie WhatsApp to Instagram, as well, as part of this effort. Facebook explains that many businesses market themselves or run shops across Instagram, but rely on WhatsApp to communicate with customers and answer questions. So, Facebook will now allow businesses to add a WhatsApp click-to-chat button to their Instagram profiles.

This change, in particular, represents another move that ties Facebook’s separate apps more closely together, at a time when regulators are considering breaking up Facebook over antitrust concerns. Already, Facebook interconnected Facebook’s Messenger and Instagram messaging services, which would make such a disassembly more complicated. And more recently, it’s begun integrating Messenger directly into Facebook’s platform itself.

Image Credits: Facebook

In a related change, soon businesses will be able to create ads that send users directly to WhatsApp from the Instagram app. (Facebook also already offers ads like this.)

Separately from this news, Facebook announced the launch of a new business directory on WhatsApp, allowing consumers to find shops and services on the chat platform, as well.

Another set of changes being introduced involve an update to Facebook Business Suite. Businesses will be able to manage emails through Inbox and sending remarketing emails; use a new File Manager for creating, managing, and posting content; and access a feature that will allow businesses to test different versions of a post to see which one is most effective.

Image Credits: Facebook

Other new products include tests of paid and organic lead generation tools on Instagram; quote requests on Messenger, where customers answer a few questions prior to their conversations; and a way for small businesses to access a bundle of tools to get started with Facebook ads, which includes a Facebook ad coupon along with free access to QuickBooks for 3 months or free access to Canva Pro for 3 months.

Image Credits: Facebook

Facebook will also begin testing something called “Work Accounts,” which will allow business owners to access their business products, like Business Manager, separately from their personal Facebook account. They’ll be able to manage these accounts on behalf of employees and use single-sign-on integrations.

Work Accounts will be tested through the remainder of the year with a small group of businesses, and Facebook says it expects to expand availability in 2022.

Other efforts it has in store include plans to incorporate more content from creators and local businesses and new features that let users control the content they see, but these changes were not detailed at this time.

Most of the products being announced are either rolling out today or will begin to show up soon.

#advertising-tech, #app-store, #australia, #canada, #canva, #computing, #facebook, #instagram, #ireland, #malaysia, #messenger, #new-zealand, #philippines, #private-message, #singapore, #social, #social-media, #software, #south-africa, #technology, #united-kingdom, #united-states, #whatsapp

App Annie and co-founder charged with securities fraud, will pay $10M+ settlement

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has charged App Annie, a leading mobile data and analytics firm, as well as its co-founder and former CEO and Chairman Bertrand Schmitt, with securities fraud. App Annie and Schmitt have agreed to pay over $10 million to settle the fraud charges which are related to “deceptive practices and making material misrepresentations about how App Annie’s alternative data was derived,” the SEC said.

App Annie is one of the largest sellers of mobile app performance data, offering details that are useful to developers, publishers, advertisers, and marketers — like how many times an app is downloaded, how often it’s used, the revenue it generates, and other competitive analysis and insights. This is what trading firms call “alternative data,” because it’s not detailed in their financial statements or other traditional data sources, the SEC explains. App Annie told app makers it would not disclose their data to third parties directly, but would rather use the data in an aggregated and anonymized way to provide app insights. Specifically, companies were told the data would be used to build a statistical model to generate estimates of app performance.

However, the SEC says from late 2014 through mid-2018, App Annie used non-aggregated and non-anonymized data to alter its model-generated estimates in order to make them more valuable to sell to trading firms. It also says that the company and Schmitt then misrepresented to its customers how it was able to generate the data, saying it did so with the appropriate consent from customers, and that it had effective internal controls to prevent the misuse of confidential data, ensuring it was in compliance with federal securities laws. Trading firms were making investment decisions based on this data and App Annie had even shared ideas as to how they could use the estimates to trading ahead of earnings announcements.

In the full complaint, the SEC further explains Schmitt had agreed to an internal policy where certain public company “Connect Data” — “Connect” being App Annies’ analytics product — would be excluded from its statistical model in late 2014. But he didn’t actually direct anyone at App Annie to document this policy until April 2017. And then when it was documented, it only said to exclude app revenue data from public companies whose app revenue exceeded 5% of the company’s total revenue. It never said to exclude app download or usage data.

The SEC says the documented policy was never properly enforced. It wasn’t until after App Annie learned of the SEC investigation in June 2018 that it amended the policy to exclude public company Connect Data from its estimate generation process, and began to fully implement the policy.

The investigation also discovered that App Annie engineers in Beijing, China were directed by Schmitt to manually alter estimates that would be of most interest to the company’s highest-paying customers. It did so by looking at the confidential Connect Data, which is one of the ways its estimates were able to be more accurate than rivals.

“The federal securities laws prohibit deceptive conduct and material misrepresentations in connection with the purchase or sale of securities,” said Gurbir S. Grewal, Director of the SEC’s Enforcement Division, in a statement. “Here, App Annie and Schmitt lied to companies about how their confidential data was being used and then not only sold the manipulated estimates to their trading firm customers, but also encouraged them to trade on those estimates—often touting how closely they correlated with the companies’ true performance and stock prices,” Grewal added.

The SEC says App Annie and Schmitt violated the anti-fraud provisions of Section 10(b) of the Exchange Act and Rule 10b-5. App Annie, without either admitting or denying the findings, consented to a cease-and-desist order and is paying a penalty. App Annie agreed to pay a penalty of $10 million. Meanwhile, Schmitt is ordered to pay a penalty of $300,000 and is prohibited from serving as an officer or director of a public company for three years.

Reached for comment, App Annie’s current CEO provided a statement:

“Since I have taken over as CEO, we have established a new standard of trust and transparency for the newly created alternative data market. App Annie is uniquely positioned to be the first to deliver on a unified data AI vision,” said Theodore Krantz, CEO at App Annie. “Many businesses may be unknowingly leveraging data reliant on confidential public company information without explicit consent which we believe puts companies using digital/mobile market data at significant risk. It is our opinion that the entire alternative data space needs to be regulated.”

In a newsroom post, the company also pointed out that the SEC investigation does not relate to its “current products,” nor did it relate to “our current relationships with customers.” And it says in the three years since the violating practices, it has appointed a new CEO and executive team, changed how it built its data estimates, and established a company-wide “culture of compliance,” which included the appointment of a Head of Global Compliance. It also documented its procedures for ensuring confidential data is excluded from its process of generating market estimates.

App Annie’s mobile market data solution was one of the first to serve the growing app ecosystem when it launched in 2010. Today, its firm counts more than 1,100 enterprise clients and over a million registered users, according to its corporate website.

The details of the complaint and settlement are below.

This story is breaking and may be updated. 

 

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Epic Games appeals last week’s ruling in antitrust battle with Apple

Fortnite maker Epic Games is appealing last week’s ruling in its court battle with Apple, where a federal judge said Apple would no longer be allowed to block developers from adding links to alternative payment mechanisms, but stopped short of dubbing Apple a monopolist. The latter would have allowed Epic Games to argue for alternative means of serving its iOS user base, including perhaps, through third-party app stores or even sideloading capabilities built into Apple’s mobile operating system, similar to those on Google’s Android OS.

Apple immediately declared the court battle a victory, as the judge had agreed with its position that the company was “not in violation of antitrust law” and had also deemed Apple’s success in the app and gaming ecosystem as “not illegal.” Epic Games founder and CEO Tim Sweeney, meanwhile, said the ruling was not a win for either developers or consumers. On Twitter, he hinted that the company may appeal the decision when he said, “We will fight on.”

In a court filing published on Sunday (see below), Epic Games officially stated its attention to appeal U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers’ final judgment and “all orders leading to or producing that judgment.”

As part of the judge’s decision, Epic Games had been ordered to pay Apple the 30% of the $12 million it earned when it introduced its alternative payment system in Fortnite on iOS, which was then in breach of its legal contract with Apple.

The appellate court will revisit how Judge Gonzalez Rogers defined the market where Epic Games had argued Apple was acting as a monopolist. Contrary to both parties’ wishes, Gonzalez Rogers defined it as the market for “digital mobile gaming transactions” specifically. Though an appeal may or may not see the court shifting its opinion in Epic Games’ favor, a new ruling could potentially help to clarify the vague language used in the injunction to describe how Apple must now accommodate developers who want to point their customers to other payment mechanisms.

So far, the expectation floating around the developer community is that Apple will simply extend the “reader app” category exception to all non-reader apps (apps that provide access to purchased content). Apple recently settled with a Japanese regulator by agreeing to allow reader apps to point users to their own website where users could sign up and manage their accounts, which could include customers paying for subscriptions — like Netflix or Spotify subscriptions, for instance. Apple said this change would be global.

In briefings with reporters, Apple said the details of the injunction issued with the Epic Games ruling, however, would still need to be worked out. Given the recency of the decision, the company has not yet communicated with developers on how this change will impact them directly nor has it updated its App Store guidelines with new language.

Reached for comment, Epic Games said it does not have any further statements on its decision to appeal at this time.

#android, #app-store, #apple, #apple-inc, #apps, #ceo, #computing, #epic-games, #itunes, #judge, #mobile, #netflix, #operating-system, #software, #spotify, #technology, #tim-sweeney, #united-states

Major win for Epic Games: Apple has 90 days to open up app store payments

Major win for Epic Games: Apple has 90 days to open up app store payments

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson | Getty Images)

On Friday, the Northern California judge handling the massive Epic Games v. Apple court case turned in a ruling that, in many ways, works out in Apple’s favor—but with one massive, App Store-changing exception.

The ruling includes a single-page permanent injunction demanding that Apple open up payment options for any software sellers on the App Store. In other words, Epic Games’ effort to add an Epic-specific payment system inside the free-to-play game Fortnite, and thus duck out of paying Apple’s 30-percent fee on in-app transactions, can now happen.

Specifically, the injunction is aimed at Apple, not Epic, and tells the device and software manufacturer to no longer prevent developers from either including their own direct buy links within their apps or communicating with customers about those purchasing options via any method customers opt into (i.e. an email newsletter). Apple has 90 days from today, September 10, 2021, until this injunction becomes live and actionable.

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Apple prohibited from blocking outside payment in Epic ruling

A judge this morning issued a ruling in California’s Epic v. Apple case, siding with the Fortnite maker on the topic of third-party payments. Effectively, the judge has ruled that Apple cannot prohibit developers from adding links for alternative payments beyond Apple’s App Store-based monetization.

The mobile giant’s control over fees on iOS has long been a sticking point for Epic and the veritable cash cow of its in-gaming micro-transactions.

The ruling notes, in part,

Apple Inc. and its officers, agents, servants, employees, and any person in active concert or participation with them (“Apple”), are hereby permanently restrained and enjoined from prohibiting developers from (i) including in their apps and their metadata buttons, external links, or other calls to action that direct customers to purchasing mechanisms, in addition to In-App Purchasing and (ii) communicating with customers through points of contact obtained voluntarily from customers through account registration within the app.

We’ve reached out to Apple and Epic for comment on this morning’s ruling.

Developing…

#app-store, #apple, #apps, #epic, #fortnight, #ios

Epic Games to shut down Houseparty in October, including the video chat ‘Fortnite Mode’ feature

Houseparty, the social video chat app acquired by Fortnite maker Epic Games for a reported $35 million back in 2019, is shutting down. The company says Houseparty will be discontinued in October when the app will stop functioning for its existing users; it will be pulled from the app stores today, however. Related to this move, Epic Games’ “Fortnite Mode” feature, which leveraged Houseparty to bring video chat to Fortnite gamers, will also be discontinued.

Founded in 2015, Houseparty offered a way for users to participate in group video chats with friends and even play games, like Uno, trivia, Heads Up and others. Last year, Epic Games integrated Houseparty with Fortnite, initially to allow gamers to see live feeds from friends while gaming, then later adding support to livestream gameplay directly into Houseparty. At the time, these integrations appeared to be the end goal that explained why Epic Games had bought the social startup in the first place.

Now, just over two years after the acquisition was announced, and less than half a year since support for livestreaming was added to the app, Houseparty is shutting down.

The company didn’t offer any solid insight into what, at first glance, feels like an admission of failure to capitalize on its acquisition. But the reality is that Epic Games may have something larger in store beyond just video chat. That said, all Epic Games would say today is that the Houseparty team could no longer give the app the attention it required — a statement that indicates an executive decision to shift the team’s focus to other matters.

While none of the Houseparty team members are being let go as a result of this move, we’re told, they will be joining other teams where they will work on new ways to allow for “social interactions” across the Epic Games family of products. The company’s announcement hinted that those social features would be designed and built at the “metaverse scale.”

The “metaverse” is an increasingly used buzzword that references a shared virtual environment, like those provided by large-scale online gaming platforms such as Fortnite, Roblox and others. Facebook, too, claims the metaverse is the next big gambit for social networking, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg having described it as an “embodied internet that you’re inside of rather than just looking at.”

To some extent, Fortnite has begun to embrace the metaverse by offering non-gaming experiences like online concerts you attend as your avatar, and other live events. Ahead of its shutdown, Houseparty also toyed with live events that users would co-watch and participate in alongside their friends.

An Epic Games spokesperson tells TechCrunch the Houseparty team has worked on (and continues to work on) a number of other projects that focus on social. But some of the “multiple, larger projects” Epic Games has in the works remain undisclosed, we’re told.

In terms of social products, Houseparty’s technology now underpins all of Fortnite voice chat and the features they built are widely available for free to developers through Epic Games Services. They also worked on building out new social experiences, which have ranged from the social RSVP functions for Fortnite’s global events, like the recent Ariana Grande concert, to the upcoming “Operation: Sky Fire” event for collaborating quests and other game mechanics. More social functionality and new experiences are also being built into Fortnite’s user-generated content platform, Create Mode.

While it may seem odd to close an app that only last year experienced a boost in usage due to the pandemic, it appears the COVID bump didn’t have staying power.

At the height of lockdowns, Houseparty had reported it had gained 50 million new sign-ups in a month’s time as users looked to video apps to connect with family and friends while the world was shut down. But as the pandemic wore on, other video chat experiences gained more ground. Zoom, which had established itself as an essential tool for remote work, became a tool for hanging out with friends after-hours, as well. Facebook also started to eat Houseparty’s lunch with its debut of drop-in video chat “Rooms” last year, which offered a similar group video experience. And bored users shifted to audio-based social networking on apps like Clubhouse or Twitter Spaces.

Image Credits: Apptopia

According to data from Apptopia, Houseparty has been continually declining since the pandemic bump. To date, its app has seen a total of 111 million downloads across iOS and Android, with the majority (63 million) on iOS. The U.S. was Houseparty’s largest market, accounting for 43.4% of downloads, followed by the U.K. (9.8%), then Germany (5.6%).

Epic Games, meanwhile, said the app served “tens of millions” of users worldwide. It insists the closure wasn’t decided lightly, nor was the decision to shutter “Fortnite Mode” made due to lack of adoption.

Houseparty will alert users to the shutdown via in-app notifications ahead of its final closure in October. At that point, Fortnite Mode will also no longer be available.

#android, #app-store, #apps, #computing, #epic-games, #exit, #facebook, #fortnite, #gaming, #houseparty, #mark-zuckerberg, #metaverse, #mobile, #online-games, #roblox, #social, #social-networking, #software, #uno, #video-gaming

Dispo launches a test to gauge user interest in selling their photos as NFTs

The photo-sharing app that emulates disposable cameras, Dispo started rolling out a test yesterday that will record user interest in selling photos as NFTs. Some users will now see a sell button on their photos, and when they tap it, they can sign up to be notified when the ability to sell Dispo photos launches.

CEO and co-founder Daniel Liss told TechCrunch that Dispo is still deciding how it will incorporate NFT sales into the app, which is why the platform is piloting a test with its users. Dispo doesn’t know yet what blockchain it would use, if it would partner with an NFT marketplace, or what cut of sales Dispo would take.

“I think it’s safe to say from the test that there will be an experience native to the Dispo app,” Liss said. “There are a number of ways it could look — there could be a native experience within Dispo that then connects through an API to another platform, and in turn, they’re our partner, but to the community, it would look native to the Dispo app.”

Image Credits: Dispo

This marks a new direction for the social media app, which seeks to redefine the photo-sharing experience by only letting users see the photos they took at 9 AM the next morning. From Dispo’s perspective, this gimmick helps users share more authentically, since you take one photo and then you’re done — the app isn’t conducive to taking dozens of selfies and posting the “best” image of yourself. But though it only launched in December 2019, Dispo has already faced both buzzy hype and devastating controversy.

Until about a year ago, the app was called David’s Disposables, named after co-founder and YouTuber David Dobrik. The app was downloaded over a million times in the first week after its release and hit number one on the App Store charts. In March 2021, the app dropped its waitlist and relaunched with social network features, but just weeks later, Insider reported sexual assault allegations against a member of Vlog Squad, Dobrik’s YouTube prank ensemble. In response, Spark Capital severed ties with the company, leading to Dobrik’s departure. Other investors like Seven Seven Six and Unshackled Ventures, who contributed to the company’s $20 million Series A round, announced that they would donate any profits from their investments in Dispo to organizations working with survivors of sexual assault.

Liss told TechCrunch in June, when the company confirmed its Series A, that Dobrik’s role with the company was as a marketing partner — Liss has been CEO since the beginning. In light of the controversy, Liss said the app focused on improving the product itself and took a step back from promotion.

According to data from the app analytics firm SensorTower, Dispo has reached an estimated 4.7 million global installs to date since launch. Though the app saw the most downloads in January 2020, when it was installed over 1 million times, the app’s next best month came in March 2021, when it removed its waitlist — that month, about 616,000 people downloaded Dispo. Between March and the end of August, the app was downloaded around 1.4 million times, which is up 118% year over year compared to the same time frame in 2020 — but it should be expected that this year’s numbers would be higher, since last year, the app’s membership was exclusive.

Image Credits: Dispo

Now, with the announcement that Dispo is pursuing NFTs, Liss hopes that his company won’t just change how people post photos, but what the relationship will be between platforms and the content that users create.

“Why NFTs? The most powerful memories of our lives have value. And they have economic value, because we created them, and the past of social media fails to recognize that,” Liss told TechCrunch. “As a result, the only way that a creator with a big following is compensated is by selling directly to a brand, as opposed to profiting from the content itself.”

Adding NFT sales to the app offers Dispo a way to profit from a cut of user sales, but it stands to question how adding NFT sales could impact the community-focused feel of Dispo.

“I think there is tremendous curiosity and interest,” Liss said. “But these problems and questions are why we need more data.”

#app-store, #apps, #ceo, #co-founder, #computing, #daniel-liss, #david-dobrik, #dispo, #freeware, #instagram, #internet-culture, #mobile, #mobile-applications, #nfts, #operating-systems, #series-a, #social, #social-media, #social-media-app, #software

Spotify playlist curators complain about ongoing abuse that favors bad actors over innocent parties

A number of Spotify playlist curators are complaining that the streaming music company is not addressing the ongoing issue of playlist abuse, which sees bad actors reporting playlists that have gained a following in order to give their own playlists better visibility. Currently, playlists created by Spotify users can be reported in the app for a variety of reasons — like sexual, violent, dangerous, deceptive, or hateful content, among other things. When a report is submitted, the playlist in question will have its metadata immediately removed, including its title, description, and custom image. There is no internal review process that verifies the report is legitimate before the metadata is removed.

Bad actors have learned how to abuse this system to give themselves an advantage. If they see a rival playlist has more users than their own, they will report their competitors in hopes of giving their playlist a more prominent ranking in search results.

According to the curators affected by this problem, there is no limit to the number of reports these bad actors can submit, either. The curators complain that their playlists are being reported daily, and often multiple times per day.

The problem is not new. Users have been complaining about playlist abuse for years. A thread on Spotify’s community forum about this problem is now some 30 pages deep, in fact, and has accumulated over 330 votes. Victims of this type of harassment have also repeatedly posted to social media about Spotify’s broken system to raise awareness of the problem more publicly. For example, one curator last year noted their playlist had been reported over 2,000 times, and said they were getting a new email about the reports nearly every minute. That’s a common problem and one that seems to indicate bad actors are leveraging bots to submit their reports.

Many curators say they’ve repeatedly reached out to Spotify for help with this issue and were given no assistance.

Curators can only reply to the report emails from Spotify to appeal the takedown, but they don’t always receive a response. When they ask Spotify for help with this issue, the company only says that it’s working on a solution.

While Spotify may suspend the account that abused the system when a report is deemed false, the bad actors simply create new accounts to continue the abuse. Curators on Spotify’s community forums suggested that an easy fix to the bot-driven abuse would be to restrict accounts from being able to report playlists until their accounts had accumulated 10 hours of streaming music or podcasts. This could help to ensure they were a real person before they gained permission to report abuse.

One curator, who maintains hundreds of playlists, said the problem had gotten so bad that they created an iOS app to continually monitor their playlists for this sort of abuse and to reinstate any metadata once a takedown was detected. But not all curators have the ability to build an app or script of their own to deal with this situation.

Image Credits: Spotify (screenshot of reporting flow)

TechCrunch asked Spotify what it planned to do about this problem, but the company declined to provide specific details.

“As a matter of practice, we will continue to disable accounts that we suspect are abusing our reporting tool. We are also actively working to enhance our processes to handle any suspected abusive reports,” a Spotify spokesperson told us.

The company said it is currently testing several different improvements to the process to curb the abuse, but would not say what those tests may include, or whether tests were internal or external. It could not provide any ballpark sense of when its reporting system would be updated with these fixes, either. When pressed, the company said it doesn’t share details about specific security measures publicly as a rule, as doing so could make abuse of its systems more effective.

Often, playlists are curated by independent artists and labels who are looking to promote themselves and get their music discovered, only to have their work taken down immediately, without any sort of review process that could sort legitimate reports from bot-driven abuse.

Curators complain that Spotify has been dismissing their cries for help for far too long, and Spotify’s vague and non-committal response about a coming solution only validates those complaints further.

#abuse, #app-store, #computing, #curator, #mobile, #operating-systems, #playlist, #search-results, #social-media, #software, #spotify, #techcrunch

Playbyte’s new app aims to become the ‘TikTok for games’

A startup called Playbyte wants to become the TikTok for games. The company’s newly launched iOS app offers tools that allow users to make and share simple games on their phone, as well as a vertically scrollable, fullscreen feed where you can play the games created by others. Also like TikTok, the feed becomes more personalized over time to serve up more of the kinds of games you like to play.

While typically, game creation involves some aspect of coding, Playbyte’s games are created using simple building blocks, emoji and even images from your Camera Roll on your iPhone. The idea is to make building games just another form of self-expression, rather than some introductory, educational experience that’s trying to teach users the basics of coding.

At its core, Playbyte’s game creation is powered by its lightweight 2D game engine built on web frameworks, which lets users create games that can be quickly loaded and played even on slow connections and older devices. After you play a game, you can like and comment using buttons on the right-side of the screen, which also greatly resembles the TikTok look-and-feel. Over time, Playbyte’s feed shows you more of the games you enjoyed as the app leverages its understanding of in-game imagery, tags and descriptions, and other engagement analytics to serve up more games it believes you’ll find compelling.

At launch, users have already made a variety of games using Playbyte’s tools — including simulators, tower defense games, combat challenges, obbys, murder mystery games, and more.

According to Playbyte founder and CEO Kyle Russell — previously of Skydio, Andreessen Horowitz, and (disclosure!) TechCrunch — Playbyte is meant to be a social media app, not just a games app.

“We have this model in our minds for what is required to build a new social media platform,” he says.

What Twitter did for text, Instagram did for photos and TikTok did for video was to combine a constraint with a personalized feed, Russell explains. “Typically. [they started] with a focus on making these experiences really brief…So a short, constrained format and dedicated tools that set you up for success to work within that constrained format,” he adds.

Similarly, Playbyte games have their own set of limitations. In addition to their simplistic nature, the games are limited to five scenes. Thanks to this constraint, a format has emerged where people are making games that have an intro screen where you hit “play,” a story intro, a challenging gameplay section, and then a story outro.

In addition to its easy-to-use game building tools, Playbyte also allows game assets to be reused by other game creators. That means if someone who has more expertise makes a game asset using custom logic or which pieced together multiple components, the rest of the user base can benefit from that work.

“Basically, we want to make it really easy for people who aren’t as ambitious to still feel like productive, creative game makers,” says Russell. “The key to that is going to be if you have an idea — like an image of a game in your mind — you should be able to very quickly search for new assets or piece together other ones you’ve previously saved. And then just drop them in and mix-and-match — almost like Legos — and construct something that’s 90% of what you imagined, without any further configuration on your part,” he says.

In time, Playbyte plans to monetize its feed with brand advertising, perhaps by allowing creators to drop sponsored assets into their games, for instance. It also wants to establish some sort of patronage model at a later point. This could involve either subscriptions or even NFTs of the games, but this would be further down the road.

The startup had originally began as a web app in 2019, but at the end of last year, the team scrapped that plan and rewrote everything as a native iOS app with its own game engine. That app launched on the App Store this week, after previously maxing out TestFlight’s cap of 10,000 users.

Currently, it’s finding traction with younger teenagers who are active on TikTok and other collaborative games, like Roblox, Minecraft, or Fortnite.

“These are young people who feel inspired to build their own games but have been intimidated by the need to learn to code or use other advanced tools, or who simply don’t have a computer at home that would let them access those tools,” notes Russell.

Playbyte is backed by $4 million in pre-seed and seed funding from investors including FirstMark (Rick Heitzmann), Ludlow Ventures (Jonathon Triest and Blake Robbins), Dream Machine (former Editor-in-Chief at TechCrunch, Alexia Bonatsos), and angels such as Fred Ehrsam, co-founder of Coinbase; Nate Mitchell, co-founder of Oculus; Ashita Achuthan, previously of Twitter; and others.

The app is a free download on the App Store.

#alexia-bonatsos, #andreessen-horowitz, #app-store, #apps, #blake-robbins, #byte, #ceo, #co-founder, #coinbase, #editor-in-chief, #firstmark, #fred-ehrsam, #gaming, #instagram, #internet-culture, #iphone, #jonathon-triest, #kyle-russell, #legos, #ludlow-ventures, #mobile, #mobile-applications, #mobile-software, #nate-mitchell, #oculus, #rick-heitzmann, #roblox, #skydio, #social-media-app, #software, #startups, #tiktok, #twitter, #web-app

Apple will let video and music apps—but not games—link to other payment options

The app icons for Spotify, Netflix, and Podcasts on an iPhone screen.

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | stockcam)

Apple has made another concession related to its restrictive App Store rules, saying that it will let several types of media apps link to their own websites, where users can purchase subscriptions without Apple getting its usual commission. Apple was forced to make the change to settle an investigation by the Japan Fair Trade Commission (JFTC). The change will take effect in early 2022, Apple said in an announcement yesterday.

“The update will allow developers of ‘reader’ apps to include an in-app link to their website for users to set up or manage an account,” Apple said. “While the agreement was made with the JFTC, Apple will apply this change globally to all reader apps on the store. Reader apps provide previously purchased content or content subscriptions for digital magazines, newspapers, books, audio, music, and video.”

The JFTC issued a statement saying that the planned change “would eliminate” Apple’s suspected violations of Japan’s Antimonopoly Act. The regulator said it “decided to close the investigation on this case after the JFTC confirms the measure has been taken.”

Read 12 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#app-store, #apple, #policy

Report: India may be next in line to mandate changes to Apple’s in-app payment rules

Summer is still technically in session, but a snowball is slowly developing in the world of apps, and specifically the world of in-app payments. A report in Reuters today says that the Competition Commission of India, the country’s monopoly regulator, will soon be looking at an antitrust suit filed against Apple over how it mandates that app developers use Apple’s own in-app payment system — thereby giving Apple a cut of those payments — when publishers charge users for subscriptions and other items in their apps.

The suit, filed by an Indian non-profit called “Together We Fight Society”, said in a statement to Reuters that it was representing consumer and startup interests in its complaint.

The move would be the latest in what has become a string of challenges from national regulators against app store operators — specifically Apple but also others like Google and WeChat — over how they wield their positions to enforce market practices that critics have argued are anti-competitive. Other countries that have in recent weeks reached settlements, passed laws, or are about to introduce laws include Japan, South Korea, Australia, the U.S. and the European Union.

And in India specifically, the regulator is currently working through a similar investigation as it relates to in-app payments in Android apps, which Google mandates use its proprietary payment system. Google and Android dominate the Indian smartphone market, with the operating system active on 98% of the 520 million devices in use in the country as of the end of 2020.

It will be interesting to watch whether more countries wade in as a result of these developments. Ultimately, it could force app store operators, to avoid further and deeper regulatory scrutiny, to adopt new and more flexible universal policies.

In the meantime, we are seeing changes happen on a country-by-country basis.

Just yesterday, Apple reached a settlement in Japan that will let publishers of “reader” apps (those for using or consuming media like books and news, music, files in the cloud and more) to redirect users to external sites to provide alternatives to Apple’s proprietary in-app payment provision. Although it’s not as seamless as paying within the app, redirecting previously was typically not allowed, and in doing so the publishers can avoid Apple’s cut.

South Korean legislators earlier this week approved a measure that will make it illegal for Apple and Google to make a commission by forcing developers to use their proprietary payment systems.

And last week, Apple also made some movements in the U.S. around allowing alternative forms of payments, but relatively speaking the concessions were somewhat indirect: app publishers can refer to alternative, direct payment options in apps now, but not actually offer them. (Not yet at least.)

Some developers and consumers have been arguing for years that Apple’s strict policies should open up more. Apple however has long said in its defense that it mandates certain developer policies to build better overall user experiences, and for reasons of security. But, as app technology has evolved, and consumer habits have changed, critics believe that this position needs to be reconsidered.

One factor in Apple’s defense in India specifically might be the company’s position in the market. Android absolutely dominates India when it comes to smartphones and mobile services, with Apple actually a very small part of the ecosystem.

As of the end of 2020, it accounted for just 2% of the 520 million smartphones in use in the country, according to figures from Counterpoint Research quoted by Reuters. That figure had doubled in the last five years, but it’s a long way from a majority, or even significant minority.

The antitrust filing in India has yet to be filed formally, but Reuters notes that the wording leans on the fact that anti-competitive practices in payments systems make it less viable for many publishers to exist at all, since the economics simply do not add up:

“The existence of the 30% commission means that some app developers will never make it to the market,” Reuters noted from the filing. “This could also result in consumer harm.”

Reuters notes that the CCI will be reviewing the case in the coming weeks before deciding whether it should run a deeper investigation or dismiss it. It typically does not publish filings during this period.

#android, #app-store, #apple, #apple-inc, #asia, #australia, #competition-commission-of-india, #computing, #european-union, #google, #government, #india, #itunes, #japan, #mobile, #operating-system, #policy, #smartphone, #smartphones, #software, #south-korea, #technology, #united-states, #wechat

How a Vungle-owned mobile marketer sent Fontmaker to the top of the App Store

Does this sound familiar? An app goes viral on social media, often including TikTok, then immediately climbs to the top of the App Store where it gains even more new installs thanks to the heightened exposure. That’s what happened with the recent No. 1 on the U.S. App Store, Fontmaker, a subscription-based fonts app which appeared to benefit from word-of-mouth growth thanks to TikTok videos and other social posts. But what we’re actually seeing here is a new form of App Store marketing — and one which now involves one of the oldest players in the space: Vungle.

Fontmaker, at first glance, seems to be just another indie app that hit it big.

The app, published by an entity called Mango Labs, promises users a way to create fonts using their own handwriting which they can then access from a custom keyboard for a fairly steep price of $4.99 per week. The app first launched on July 26. Nearly a month later, it was the No. 2 app on the U.S. App Store, according to Sensor Tower data. By August 26, it climbed up one more position to reach No. 1. before slowly dropping down in the top overall free app rankings in the days that followed.

By Aug. 27, it was No. 15, before briefly surging again to No. 4 the following day, then declining once more. Today, the app is No. 54 overall and No. 4 in the competitive Photo & Video category — still, a solid position for a brand-new and somewhat niche product targeting mainly younger users. To date, it’s generated $68,000 in revenue, Sensor Tower reports.

But Fontmaker may not be a true organic success story, despite its Top Charts success driven by a boost in downloads coming from real users, not bots. Instead, it’s an example of how mobile marketers have figured out how to tap into the influencer community to drive app installs. It’s also an example of how it’s hard to differentiate between apps driven by influencer marketing and those that hit the top of the App Store because of true demand — like walkie-talkie app Zello, whose recent trip to No. 1 can be attributed to Hurricane Ida

As it turns out, Fontmaker is not your typical “indie app.” In fact, it’s unclear who’s really behind it. Its publisher, Mango Labs, LLC, is actually an iTunes developer account owned by the mobile growth company JetFuel, which was recently acquired by the mobile ad and monetization firm Vungle — a longtime and sometimes controversial player in this space, itself acquired by Blackstone in 2019.

Vungle was primarily interested in JetFuel’s main product, an app called The Plug, aimed at influencers.

Through The Plug, mobile app developers and advertisers can connect to JetFuel’s network of over 15,000 verified influencers who have a combined 4 billion Instagram followers, 1.5 billion TikTok followers, and 100 million daily Snapchat views.

While marketers could use the built-in advertising tools on each of these networks to try to reach their target audience, JetFuel’s technology allows marketers to quickly scale their campaigns to reach high-value users in the Gen Z demographic, the company claims. This system can be less labor-intensive than traditional influencer marketing, in some cases. Advertisers pay on a cost-per-action (CPA) basis for app installs. Meanwhile, all influencers have to do is scroll through The Plug to find an app to promote, then post it to their social accounts to start making money.

Image Credits: The Plug’s website, showing influencers how the platform works

So while yes, a lot of influencers may have made TikTok videos about Fontmaker, which prompted consumers to download the app, the influencers were paid to do so. (And often, from what we saw browsing the Fontmaker hashtag, without disclosing that financial relationship in any way — an increasingly common problem on TikTok, and area of concern for the FTC.)

Where things get tricky is in trying to sort out Mango Labs’ relationship with JetFuel/Vungle. As a consumer browsing the App Store, it looks like Mango Labs makes a lot of fun consumer apps of which Fontmaker is simply the latest.

JetFuel’s website helps to promote this image, too.

It had showcased its influencer marketing system using a case study from an “indie developer” called Mango Labs and one of its earlier apps, Caption Pro. Caption Pro launched in Jan. 2018. (App Annie data indicates it was removed from the App Store on Aug. 31, 2021…yes, yesterday).

Image Credits: App Annie

Vungle, however, told TechCrunch “The Caption Pro app no longer exists and has not been live on the App Store or Google Play for a long time.” (We can’t find an App Annie record of the app on Google Play).

They also told us that “Caption Pro was developed by Mango Labs before the entity became JetFuel,” and that the case study was used to highlight JetFuel’s advertising capabilities. (But without clearly disclosing their connection.)

“Prior to JetFuel becoming the influencer marketing platform that it is today, the company developed apps for the App Store. After the company pivoted to become a marketing platform, in February 2018, it stopped creating apps but continued to use the Mango Labs account on occasion to publish apps that it had third-party monetization partnerships with,” the Vungle spokesperson explained.

In other words, the claim being made here is that while Mango Labs, originally, were the same folks who have long since pivoted to become JetFuel, and the makers of Caption Pro, all the newer apps published under “Mango Labs, LLC” were not created by JetFuel’s team itself.

“Any apps that appear under the Mango Labs LLC name on the App Store or Google Play were in fact developed by other companies, and Mango Labs has only acted as a publisher,” the spokesperson said.

Image Credits: JetFuel’s website describing Mango Labs as an “indie developer”

There are reasons why this statement doesn’t quite sit right — and not only because JetFuel’s partners seem happy to hide themselves behind Mango Labs’ name, nor because Mango Labs was a project from the JetFuel team in the past. It’s also odd that Mango Labs and another entity, Takeoff Labs, claim the same set of apps. And like Mango Labs, Takeoff Labs is associated with JetFuel too.

Breaking this down, as of the time of writing, Mango Labs has published several consumer apps on both the App Store and Google Play.

On iOS, this includes the recent No. 1 app Fontmaker, as well as FontKey, Color Meme, Litstick, Vibe, Celebs, FITme Fitness, CopyPaste, and Part 2. On Google Play, it has two more: Stickered and Mango.

Image Credits: Mango Labs

Most of Mango Labs’ App Store listings point to JetFuel’s website as the app’s “developer website,” which would be in line with what Vungle says about JetFuel acting as the apps’ publisher.

What’s odd, however, is that the Mango Labs’ app Part2, links to Takeoff Labs’ website from its App Store listing.

The Vungle spokesperson initially told us that Takeoff Labs is “an independent app developer.”

And yet, the Takeoff Labs’ website shows a team which consists of JetFuel’s leadership, including JetFuel co-founder and CEO Tim Lenardo and JetFuel co-founder and CRO JJ Maxwell. Takeoff Labs’ LLC application was also signed by Lenardo.

Meanwhile, Takeoff Labs’ co-founder and CEO Rhai Goburdhun, per his LinkedIn and the Takeoff Labs website, still works there. Asked about this connection, Vungle told us they did not realize the website had not been updated, and neither JetFuel nor Vungle have an ownership stake in Takeoff Labs with this acquisition.

Image Credits: Takeoff Labs’ website showing its team, including JetFuel’s co-founders.

Takeoff Labs’ website also shows off its “portfolio” of apps, which includes Celeb, Litstick, and FontKey — three apps that are published by Mango Labs on the App Store.

On Google Play, Takeoff Labs is the developer credited with Celebs, as well as two other apps, Vibe and Teal, a neobank. But on the App Store, Vibe is published by Mango Labs.

Image Credits: Takeoff Labs’ website, showing its app portfolio.

(Not to complicate things further, but there’s also an entity called RealLabs which hosts JetFuel, The Plug and other consumer apps, including Mango — the app published by Mango Labs on Google Play. Someone sure likes naming things “Labs!”)

Vungle claims the confusion here has to do with how it now uses the Mango Labs iTunes account to publish apps for its partners, which is a “common practice” on the App Store. It says it intends to transfer the apps published under Mango Labs to the developers’ accounts, because it agrees this is confusing.

Vungle also claims that JetFuel “does not make nor own any consumer apps that are currently live on the app stores. Any of the apps made by the entity when it was known as Mango Labs have long since been taken down from the app stores.”

JetFuel’s system is messy and confusing, but so far successful in its goals. Fontmaker did make it to No. 1, essentially growth hacked to the top by influencer marketing.

But as a consumer, what this all means is that you’ll never know who actually built the app you’re downloading or whether you were “influenced” to try it through what were, essentially, undisclosed ads.

Fontmaker isn’t the first to growth hack its way to the top through influencer promotions. Summertime hit Poparrazzi also hyped itself to the top of the App Store in a similar way, as have many others. But Poparazzi has since sunk to No. 89 in Photo & Video, which shows influence can only take you so far.

As for Fontmaker, paid influence got it to No. 1, but its Top Chart moment was brief.

#app-developer, #app-store, #apps, #blackstone, #co-founder, #federal-trade-commission, #google-play, #indie-developer, #itunes, #linkedin, #mobile-applications, #mobile-software, #snapchat, #social-media, #software, #spokesperson, #tc, #technology, #tiktok, #vibe, #video-hosting, #vungle

CryptoPunks blasts past $1 billion in lifetime sales as NFT speculation surges

Hello friends, and welcome back to Week in Review! Last week we dove into Bezos’s Blue Origin suing NASA. This week, I’m writing about the unlikely and triumphant resurgence of the NFT market.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny.


The big thing

If I could, I would probably write about NFTs in this newsletter every week. I generally stop myself from actually doing so because I try my best to make this newsletter a snapshot of what’s important to the entire consumer tech sector, not just my niche interests. That said, I’m giving myself free rein this week.

The NFT market is just so hilariously bizarre and the culture surrounding the NFT world is so web-native, I can’t read about it enough. But in the past several days, the market for digital art on the blockchain has completely defied reason.

Back in April, I wrote about a platform called CryptoPunks that — at that point — had banked more than $200 million in lifetime sales since 2017. The little pop art pixel portraits have taken on a life of their own since then. It was pretty much unthinkable back then but in the past 24 hours alone, the platform did $141 million in sales, a new record. By the time you read this, the NFT platform will have likely passed a mind-boggling $1.1 billion in transaction volume according to crypto tracker CryptoSlam. With 10,000 of these digital characters, to buy a single one will cost you at least $450,000 worth of the Ethereum cryptocurrency. (When I sent out this newsletter yesterday that number was $300k)

It’s not just CryptoPunks either; the entire NFT world has exploded in the past week, with several billions of dollars flowing into projects with drawings of monkeys, penguins, dinosaurs and generative art this month alone. After the NFT rally earlier this year — culminating in Beeple’s $69 million Christie’s sale — began to taper off, many wrote off the NFT explosion as a bizarre accident. What triggered this recent frenzy?

Part of it has been a resurgence of cryptocurrency prices toward all-time-highs and a desire among the crypto rich to diversify their stratospheric assets without converting their wealth to fiat currencies. Dumping hundreds of millions of dollars into an NFT project with fewer stakeholders than the currencies that underlie them can make a lot of sense to those whose wealth is already over-indexed in crypto. But a lot of this money is likely FOMO dollars from investors who are dumping real cash into NFTs, bolstered by moves like Visa’s purchase this week of their own CryptoPunk.

I think it’s pretty fair to say that this growth is unsustainable, but how much further along this market growth gets before the pace of investment slows or collapses is completely unknown. There are no signs of slowing down for now, something that can be awfully exciting — and dangerous — for investors looking for something wild to drop their money into… and wild this market truly is.

Here’s some advice from Figma CEO Dylan Field who sold his alien CryptoPunk earlier this year for 4,200 Eth (worth $13.6 million today).


Image Credits: Kanye West

Other things

Here are the TechCrunch news stories that especially caught my eye this week:

OnlyFans suspends its porn ban
In a stunning about-face, OnlyFans declared this week that they won’t be banning “sexually explicit content” from their platform after all, saying in a statement that they had “secured assurances necessary to support our diverse creator community and have suspended the planned October 1 policy change.”

Kanye gets into the hardware business
Ahead of the drop of his next album, which will definitely be released at some point, rapper Kanye West has shown off a mobile music hardware device called the Stem Player. The $200 pocket-sized device allows users to mix and alter music that has been loaded onto the device. It was developed in partnership with hardware maker Kano.

Apple settles developer lawsuit
Apple has taken some PR hits in recent years following big and small developers alike complaining about the take-it-or-leave-it terms of the company’s App Store. This week, Apple shared a proposed settlement (which still is pending a judge’s approval) that starts with a $100 million payout and gets more interesting with adjustments to App Store bylines, including the ability of developers to advertise paying for subscriptions directly rather than through the app only.

Twitter starts rolling out ticketed Spaces
Twitter has made a convincing sell for its Clubhouse competitor Spaces, but they’ve also managed to build on the model in recent months, turning its copycat feature into a product that succeeds on its own merits. Its latest effort to allow creators to sell tickets to events is just starting to roll out, the company shared this week.

CA judge strikes down controversial gig economy proposition
Companies like Uber and DoorDash dumped tens of millions of dollars into Prop 22, a law which clawed back a California law that pushed gig economy startups to classify workers as full employees. This week a judge declared the proposition unconstitutional, and though the decision has been stayed on appeal, any adjustment would have major ramifications for those companies’ business in California.


Image of a dollar sign representing the future value of cybersecurity.

Image Credits: guirong hao (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Extra things

Some of my favorite reads from our Extra Crunch subscription service this week:

Future tech exits have a lot to live up to
“Inflation may or may not prove transitory when it comes to consumer prices, but startup valuations are definitely rising — and noticeably so — in recent quarters. That’s the obvious takeaway from a recent PitchBook report digging into valuation data from a host of startup funding events in the United States…”

OpenSea UX teardown
“…is the experience of creating and selling an NFT on OpenSea actually any good? That’s what UX analyst Peter Ramsey has been trying to answer by creating and selling NFTs on OpenSea for the last few weeks. And the short answer is: It could be much better...

Are B2B SaaS marketers getting it wrong?
“‘Solutions,’ ‘cutting-edge,’ ‘scalable’ and ‘innovative’ are just a sample of the overused jargon lurking around every corner of the techverse, with SaaS marketers the world over seemingly singing from the same hymn book. Sadly for them, new research has proven that such jargon-heavy copy — along with unclear features and benefits — is deterring customers and cutting down conversions…”


Thanks for reading! And again, if you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny.

Lucas Matney

#analyst, #app-store, #apple, #bezos, #blockchain, #blockchains, #blue-origin, #california, #ceo, #cryptocurrencies, #cryptocurrency, #cryptography, #distributed-computing, #doordash, #dylan-field, #ethereum, #extra-crunch, #figma, #judge, #kano, #kanye-west, #lucas-matney, #onlyfans, #peter-ramsey, #uber, #united-states

Apple will finally let devs tell users about non-App Store purchase options

iPhone home screen with the App Store icon displayed.

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | NurPhoto )

Apple will finally let developers tell users about purchase options available outside the iOS App Store. The iPhone maker agreed to this and other concessions—including $100 million in payments to developers—in a proposed settlement of a class-action lawsuit filed by two app developers in 2019.

Apple and the developer plaintiffs who sued the company filed motions today urging a federal judge to approve the settlement. The case is in US District Court for the Northern District of California.

“Apple has agreed to revise its App Store Guidelines to permit developers of all app categories to communicate with consenting customers outside their app, including via email and other communication services, about purchasing methods other than in-app purchase… This injunctive relief is extremely valuable. By informing customers of alternative payment options, developers can avoid paying Apple’s commissions and, moreover, exert competitive pressure on Apple to discipline its pricing,” the plaintiffs’ brief said.

Read 16 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#app-store, #apple, #policy

Apple will now let App Store developers talk to their customers about buying direct

Apple announced today it has reached a proposed settlement (embedded below) in a lawsuit filed against it by developers in the United States. The agreement, which is still pending court approval, includes a few changes, the biggest one being that developers will be able to share information on how to pay for purchases outside of their iOS app or the App Store—which means they can tell customers about payment options that aren’t subject to Apple commissions. The settlement also includes more pricing tiers and a new transparency report about the app review process.

The class-action lawsuit was filed against Apple in 2019 by app developers Donald Cameron and Illinois Pure Sweat Basketball, who said the company engaged in anticompetitive practices by only allowing the downloading of iPhone apps through its App Store.

In today’s announcement, Apple said it is “clarifying that developers can use communications, such as emails, to share information about payment methods outside of their iOS app. As always, developers will not pay Apple a commission on any purchases taking place outside of their app or the App Stores.”

This would allow developers to communicate with customers by email and “other communication services,” which was difficult to do under the App Store’s rules, which forbid developers from using contact information obtained within an app to contact users outside of the app. The settlement would lift this rule for all app categories, enabling developers to tell consenting users about payment methods that avoid Apple’s commissions.

In terms of pricing tiers, Apple said it will expand the number of price points available to developers from fewer than 100 to more than 500. It also agreed to publish a new annual transparency report that will share information about the app review process, including how many apps are rejected, the number of customer and developer accounts deactivated, “objective data regarding search queries and results,” and the number of apps removed from the App Store.

The company also said it will create a new fund for qualifying developers in America who earned $1 million or less through the U.S. App Store, which includes 99% of developers in America. Hagens Berman, one of the law firms representing plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said the fund will be $100 million, with payments ranging from $250 to $30,000.

Cameron et al v. Apple Inc. proposed settlement by TechCrunch on Scribd

#anti-competition, #app-store, #apple, #apple-app-store, #developers, #lawsuit, #tc

Popcorn’s new app brings short-form video to the workplace

A new startup called Popcorn wants to make work communication more fun and personal by offering a way for users to record short video messages, or “pops,” that can be used for any number of purposes in place of longer emails, texts, Slack messages, or Zoom calls. While there are plenty of other places to record short-form video these days, most of these exist in the social media space which isn’t appropriate for a work environment. Nor does it make sense to send a video you’ve recorded on your phone as an email attachment, when you really just want to check in with a colleague or say hello.

Popcorn, on the other hand, lets you create the short video and then send a URL to that video anywhere you would want add a personal touch to your message.

For example, you could use Popcorn in business networking scenario, where you’re trying to connect with someone in your industry for the first time — aka “cold outreach.” Instead of just blasting them a message on LinkedIn, you could also paste in the Popcorn URL to introduce yourself in a more natural, friendly fashion. You could also use Popcorn with your team at work for things like daily check-ins, sharing progress on an ongoing project, or to greet new hires, among other things.

Videos themselves can be up to 60 seconds in length — a time limit designed to keep Popcorn users from rambling. Users can also opt to record audio only if they don’t want to appear on video. And you can increase the playback speed if you’re in a hurry. Users who want to receive “pops” could also advertise their “popcode” (e.g. try mine at U8696).

The idea to bring short-form video to the workplace comes from Popcorn co-founder and CEO Justin Spraggins, whose background is in building consumer apps. One of his first apps to gain traction back in 2014 was a Tinder-meets-Instagram experience called Looksee that allowed users to connect around shared photos. A couple years later, he co-founded a social calling app called Unmute, a Clubhouse precursor of sorts. He then went on to co-found 9 Count, a consumer app development shop which launched more social apps like BFF (previously Wink) and Juju.

9 Count’s lead engineer, Ben Hochberg, is now also a co-founder on Popcorn (or rather, Snack Break, Inc. as the legal entity is called). They began their work on Popcorn in 2020, just after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. But the rapid shift to remote work that’s come in the days that followed could now help Popcorn gain traction among distributed teams. Today’s remote workers may never again return to in-person meetings at the office, but they’re also are growing tired of long days stuck in Zoom meetings.

With Popcorn, the goal is to make work communication fun, personal and bite-sized, Spraggins says. “[We want to] bring all the stuff we’re really passionate about in consumer social into work, which I think is really important for us now,” he explains.

“You work with these people, but how do you — without scheduling a Zoom — how do you bring the ‘human’ to it?,” Spraggins says. “I’m really excited about making work products feel more social, more like Snapchat than utility tools.”

There is a lot Popcorn would still need to figure out to truly make a business-oriented social app work, including adding enhanced security, limiting spam, offering some sort of reporting flow for bad actors, and more. It will also eventually need to land on a successful revenue model.

Currently, Popcorn is a free download on iPhone, iPad and Mac, and offers a Slack integration so you can send video messages to co-workers directly in the communication software you already use to catch up and stay in touch. The app today is fairly simple but the company plans to enhance its short videos over time using AR frames that let users showcase their personalities.

The startup raised a $400,000 pre-seed round from General Catalyst (Nico Bonatsos) and Dream Machine (Alexia Bonatsos, previously editor-in-chief at TechCrunch.) Spraggins says the company will be looking to raise a seed round in the fall to help with hires, including in the AR space.

#alexia-bonatsos, #app-store, #apps, #business, #chat, #computing, #funding, #general-catalyst, #instagram, #iphone, #mobile, #mobile-applications, #operating-systems, #popcorn, #recent-funding, #short-form, #slack, #social, #software, #startups, #video, #video-apps, #work

Netflix begins testing mobile games in its Android app in Poland

Netflix today announced it will begin testing mobile games inside its Android app for its members in Poland. At launch, paying subscribers will be able to try out two games, “Stranger Things: 1984” and “Stranger Things 3” — titles that have been previously available on the Apple App Store, Google Play and, in the case of the newer release, on other platforms including desktop and consoles. While the games are offered to subscribers from within the Netflix mobile app’s center tab, users will still be directed to the Google Play Store to install the game on their devices.

To then play, members will need to confirm their Netflix credentials.

Members can later return to the game at any time by clicking “Play” on the game’s page from inside the Netflix app or by launching it directly from their mobile device.

“It’s still very, very early days and we will be working hard to deliver the best possible experience in the months ahead with our no ads, no in-app purchases approach to gaming,” a Netflix spokesperson said about the launch.

The company has been expanding its investment in gaming for years, seeing the potential for a broader entertainment universe that ties in to its most popular shows. At the E3 gaming conference back in 2019, Netflix detailed a series of gaming integrations across popular platforms like Roblox and Fortnite and its plans to bring new “Stranger Things” games to the market.

On mobile, Netflix has been working with the Allen, Texas-based game studio BonusXP, whose first game for Netflix, “Stranger Things: The Game,” has now been renamed “Stranger Things: 1984” to better differentiate it from others. While that game takes place after season 1 and before season 2, in the “Stranger Things” timeline, the follow-up title, “Stranger Things 3,” is a playable version of the third season of the Netflix series. (So watch out for spoilers!)

Netflix declined to share how popular the games had been in terms of users or installs, while they were publicly available on the app stores.

With the launch of the test in Poland, Netflix says users will need to have a membership to download the titles as they’re now exclusively available to subscribers. However, existing users who already downloaded the game from Google Play in the past will not be impacted. They will be able to play the game as usual or even re-download it from their account library if they used to have it installed. But new players will only be able to get the game from the Netflix app.

The test aims to better understand how mobile gaming will resonate with Netflix members and determine what other improvements Netflix may need to make to the overall functionality, the company said. It chose Poland as the initial test market because it has an active mobile gaming audience, which made it seem like a good fit for this early feedback.

Netflix couldn’t say when it would broaden this test to other countries, beyond “the coming months.”

The streamer recently announced during its second-quarter earnings that it would add mobile games to its offerings, noting that it viewing gaming as “another new content category” for its business, similar to its “expansion into original films, animation and unscripted TV.”

The news followed what had been a sharp slowdown in new customers after the pandemic-fueled boost to streaming. In North America, Netflix in Q2 lost a sizable 430,000 subscribers — its third-ever quarterly decline in a decade. It also issued weaker guidance for the upcoming quarter, forecasting the addition of 3.5 million subscribers when analysts had been looking for 5.9 million. But Netflix downplayed the threat of competition on its slowing growth, instead blaming a lighter content slate, in part due to Covid-related production delays.

 

 

 

 

 

#android, #animation, #app-store, #apple-app-store, #apps, #computing, #gaming, #google-play, #google-play-store, #media, #mobile, #mobile-device, #mobile-game, #netflix, #north-america, #operating-systems, #poland, #roblox, #software, #spokesperson, #stranger-things, #texas

Apple lowers commissions on in-app purchases for news publishers who participate in Apple News

Apple today is launching a new program that will allow subscription news organizations that participate in the Apple News app and meet certain requirements to lower their commission rate to 15% on qualifying in-app purchases taking place inside their apps on the App Store. Typically, Apple’s model for subscription-based apps involves a standard 30% commission during their first year on the App Store which then drops to 15% in year two. But the new Apple News Partner Program, announced today, will now make 15% the commission rate for participants starting on day one.

There are a few caveats to this condition, and they benefit Apple. To qualify, the news publisher must maintain a presence on Apple News and they have to provide their content in the Apple News Format (ANF). The latter is the JavaScript Object Notation (JSON) format that’s used to create articles for Apple News which are optimized for Mac, iPhone and other Apple mobile devices. Typically, this involves a bit of setup to translate news articles from a publisher’s website or from their CMS (content management system) to the supported JSON format. For WordPress and other popular CMS’s, there are also plugins available to make this process easier.

Meanwhile, for publishers headquartered outside one of the four existing Apple News markets — the U.S., U.K., Australia, or Canada — they can instead satisfy the program’s obligations by providing Apple with an RSS feed.

On the App Store, the partner app qualifying for the 15% commission must be used to deliver “original, professionally authored” news content, and they must offer their auto-renewable subscriptions using Apple’s in-app purchase system.

While there is some initial work involved in establishing the publisher’s connection to Apple News, it’s worth noting that most major publishers already participate on Apple’s platform. That means they won’t have to do any additional work beyond what they’re already doing in order to transition over to the reduced commission for their apps. However, the program also serves as a way to push news organizations to continue to participate in the Apple News ecosystem, as it will make more financial sense to do so across their broader business.

That will likely be an area of contention for publishers, who would probably prefer that the reduced App Store commission didn’t come with strings attached.

Some publishers already worry that they’re giving up too much control over their business by tying themselves to the Apple News ecosystem. Last year, for example, The New York Times announced it would exit its partnership with Apple News, saying that Apple didn’t allow it to have as direct a relationship with readers as it wanted, and it would rather drive readers to its own app and website.

Apple, however, would argue that it doesn’t stand in the way of publishers’ businesses — it lets them paywall their content and keep 100% of the ad revenue from the ads they sell. (If they can’t sell it all or would prefer Apple to do so on their behalf, they then split the commission with Apple, keeping 70% of revenues instead.) In addition, for the company’s Apple News+ subscription service — where the subscription revenue split is much higher — it could be argued that it’s “found money.” That is, Apple markets the service to customers the publisher hadn’t been able to attract on its own anyway.

The launch of the new Apple News Partner program comes amid regulatory scrutiny over how Apple manages its App Store business and more recently, proposed legislation aiming to address alleged anticompetitive issues both in the U.S. and in major App Store markets, like South Korea.

Sensing this shift in the market, Apple had already been working to provide itself cover from antitrust complaints and lawsuits — like the one underway now with Epic Games — by adjusting its App Store commissions. Last year, it launched the App Store Small Business Program, which also lowered commissions on in-app purchases from 30% to 15% — but only for developers earning up to $1 million in revenues.

This program may have helped smaller publishers, but it was clear some major publishers still weren’t satisfied. After the reduced commissions for small businesses were announced in November, the publisher trade organization Digital Content Next (DCN) — a representative for the AP, The New York Times, NPR, ESPN, Vox, The Washington Post, Meredith, Bloomberg, NBCU, The Financial Times, and others — joined the advocacy group and lobbying organization the Coalition for App Fairness (CAF) the very next month.

These publishers, who had previously written to Apple CEO Tim Cook to demand lower commissions — had other complaints about the revenue share beyond just the size of the split. They also didn’t want to be required to use Apple’s services for in-app purchases for their subscriptions, saying this “Apple tax” forces them to raise their prices for consumers.

It remains to be seen how these publishers will now react to the launch of the Apple News Partner program.

While it gives them a way to lower their App Store fees, it doesn’t address their broader complaints against Apple’s platform and its rules. If anything, it ties the lower fees to a program that locks them in further to the Apple ecosystem.

Apple, in a gesture of goodwill, also said today it would recommit support to three leading media non-profits, Common Sense Media, the News Literacy Project, and Osservatorio Permanente Giovani-Editori. These non-profits offer nonpartisan, independent media literacy programs, which Apple views as key to its larger mission to empower people to become smart and active news readers. Apple also said it would later announce further media literacy projects from other organizations. The company would not disclose the size of its commitment from a financial standpoint however, or discuss how much it has sent such organizations in the past.

“Providing Apple News customers with access to trusted information from our publishing partners has been our priority from day one,” said Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of Services, in a statement. “For more than a decade, Apple has offered our customers many ways to access and enjoy news content across our products and services. We have hundreds of news apps from dozens of countries around the world available in the App Store, and created Apple News Format to offer publishers a tool to showcase their content and provide a great experience for millions of Apple News users,” he added.

More details about the program and the application form will be available at the News Partner Program website.

#advocacy, #app-store, #apple, #apple-inc, #apple-news, #apps, #australia, #canada, #ceo, #coalition-for-app-fairness, #common-sense, #common-sense-media, #computing, #content-management-system, #eddy-cue, #epic-games, #ios, #iphone, #itunes, #javascript, #json, #major, #media, #mobile-devices, #software, #south-korea, #the-financial-times, #the-new-york-times, #the-washington-post, #tim-cook, #united-kingdom, #united-states

LOVE unveils a modern video messaging app with a business model that puts users in control

A London-headquartered startup called LOVE, valued at $17 million following its pre-seed funding, aims to redefine how people stay in touch with close family and friends. The company is launching a messaging app that offers a combination of video calling as well as asynchronous video and audio messaging, in an ad-free, privacy-focused experience with a number of bells and whistles, including artistic filters and real-time transcription and translation features.

But LOVE’s bigger differentiator may not be its product alone, but rather the company’s mission.

LOVE aims for its product direction to be guided by its user base in a democratic fashion as opposed to having the decisions made about its future determined by an elite few at the top of some corporate hierarchy. In addition, the company’s longer-term goal is ultimately to hand over ownership of the app and its governance to its users, the company says.

These concepts have emerged as part of bigger trends towards a sort of “web 3.0,” or next phase of internet development, where services are decentralized, user privacy is elevated, data is protected, and transactions take place on digital ledgers, like a blockchain, in a more distributed fashion.

LOVE’s founders are proponents of this new model, including serial entrepreneur Samantha Radocchia, who previously founded three companies and was an early advocate for the blockchain as the co-founder of Chronicled, an enterprise blockchain company focused on the pharmaceutical supply chain.

As someone who’s been interested in emerging technology since her days of writing her anthropology thesis on currency exchanges in “Second Life’s” virtual world, she’s now faculty at Singularity University, where she’s given talks about blockchain, A.I., Internet of Things, Future of Work, and other topics. She’s also authored an introductory guide to the blockchain with her book “Bitcoin Pizza.”

Co-founder Christopher Schlaeffer, meanwhile, held a number of roles at Deutsche Telekom, including Chief Product & Innovation Officer, Corporate Development Officer, and Chief Strategy Officer, where he along with Google execs introduced the first mobile phone to run Android. He was also Chief Digital Officer at the telecommunication services company VEON.

The two crossed paths after Schlaeffer had already begun the work of organizing a team to bring LOVE to the public, which includes co-founders Chief Technologist, Jim Reeves, also previously of VEON, and Chief Designer, Timm Kekeritz, previously an interaction designer at international design firm IDEO in San Francisco, design director at IXDS, and founder of design consultancy Raureif in Berlin, among other roles.

Explained Radocchia, what attracted her to join as CEO was the potential to create a new company that upholds more positive values than what’s often seen today —  in fact, the brand name “LOVE” is a reference to this aim. She was also interested in the potential to think through what she describes as “new business models that are not reliant on advertising or harvesting the data of our users,” she says.

To that end, LOVE plans to monetize without any advertising. While the company isn’t ready to explain its business model in full, it would involve users opting in to services through granular permissions and membership, we’re told.

“We believe our users will much rather be willing to pay for services they consciously use and grant permissions to in a given context than have their data used for an advertising model which is simply not transparent,” says Radocchia.

LOVE expects to share more about the model next year.

As for the LOVE app itself, it’s a fairly polished mobile messenger offering an interesting combination of features. Like any other video chat app, you can you video call with friends and family, either in one-on-one calls or in groups. Currently, LOVE supports up to 5 call participants, but expects to expand that as it scales. The app also supports video and audio messaging for asynchronous conversations. There are already tools that offer this sort of functionality on the market, of course — like WhatsApp, with its support for audio messages, or video messenger Marco Polo. But they don’t offer quite the same expanded feature set.

Image Credits: LOVE

For starters, LOVE limits its video messages to 60 seconds for brevity’s sake. (As anyone who’s used Marco Polo knows, videos can become a bit rambling, which makes it harder to catch up when you’re behind on group chats.) In addition, LOVE allows you to both watch the video content as well as read the real-time transcription of what’s being said — the latter which comes in handy not only for accessibility’s sake, but also for those times you want to hear someone’s messages but aren’t in a private place to listen or don’t have headphones. Conversations can also be translated into 50 different languages.

“A lot of the traditional communication or messenger products are coming from a paradigm that has always been text-based,” explains Radocchia. “We’re approaching it completely differently. So while other platforms have a lot of the features that we do, I think that…the perspective that we’ve approached it has completely flipped it on its head,” she continues. “As opposed to bolting video messages on to a primarily text-based interface, [LOVE is] actually doing it in the opposite way and adding text as a sort of a magically transcribed add-on — and something that you never, hopefully, need to be typing out on your keyboard again,” she adds.

The app’s user interface, meanwhile, has been designed to encourage eye-to-eye contact with the speaker to make conversations feel more natural. It does this by way of design elements where bubbles float around as you’re speaking and the bubble with the current speaker grows to pull your focus away from looking at yourself. The company is also working with the curator of Serpentine Gallery in London, Hans Ulrich-Obrist, to create new filters that aren’t about beautification or gimmicks, but are instead focused on introducing a new form of visual expression that makes people feel more comfortable on camera.

For the time being, this has resulted in a filter that slightly abstracts your appearance, almost in the style of animation or some other form of visual arts.

The app claims to use end-to-end encryption and the automatic deletion of its content after seven days — except for messages you yourself recorded, if you’ve chosen to save them as “memorable moments.”

“One of our commitments is to privacy and the right-to-forget,” says Radocchia. “We don’t want to be or need to be storing any of this information.”

LOVE has been soft-launched on the App Store where it’s been used with a number of testers and is working to organically grow its user base through an onboarding invite mechanism that asks users to invite at least three people to join you. This same onboarding process also carefully explains why LOVE asks for permissions — like using speech recognition to create subtitles, or

LOVE says its at valuation is around $17 million USD following pre-seed investments from a combination of traditional startup investors and strategic angel investors across a variety of industries, including tech, film, media, TV, and financial services. The company will raise a seed round this fall.

The app is currently available on iOS, but an Android version will arrive later in the year. (Note that LOVE does not currently support the iOS 15 beta software, where it has issues with speech transcription and in other areas. That should be resolved next week, following an app update now in the works.)

#a-i, #android, #animation, #app-store, #apps, #berlin, #blockchain, #ceo, #chief-digital-officer, #co-founder, #computing, #curator, #deutsche-telekom, #encryption, #facebook-messenger, #financial-services, #google, #ideo, #instant-messaging, #london, #love, #marco-polo, #messenger, #mobile, #mobile-applications, #recent-funding, #san-francisco, #serial-entrepreneur, #singularity-university, #social, #social-media, #software, #speaker, #startups, #technology, #whatsapp

Final vote delayed for Korea’s plan to ban Google and Apple in-app payment rules

As Apple and Google continue to face increasing scrutiny over the rules they set for how third-party apps in their app stores charge for services, a significant development in that story is going down in South Korea.

South Korea’s parliamentary committee passed on Wednesday (25 August) a landmark bill to prevent Google and Apple from charging software developers’ commissions on in-app purchases, the first of its kind in the world. The final vote by all members of the National Assembly – required to pass and activate the proposal – which was expected to be held in a plenary session on the same day, was delayed until further notice.

The plenary session was tentatively delayed to 30 August, according to a media.

South Korea will be the first country to prohibit such global tech giants from imposing billing systems on in-app purchases if voted into law.

The bill, dubbed the “Anti-Google Law”, was approved by the legislation and judiciary committee of the National Assembly to revise the Telecommunication Business Act, seeking to restrict Google and Apple from requiring app developers to use their billing system.

Google said in September 2020 it would impose its billing system on all app developers, collecting up to 30 percent commission for all in-app purchases.

In July 2021, Google decided to defer its new billing policy to the end of March 2022 upon request by app developers and lowered its play store commission to 15 percent, based on local media reports.

Apple said in its statement, “The proposed Telecommunications Business Act will put users who purchase digital goods from other sources at risk of fraud, undermine their privacy protections, make it difficult to manage their purchases, and features like ‘Ask to Buy’ and Parental Controls will become less effective. We believe user trust in App Store purchases will decrease as a result of this proposal—leading to fewer opportunities for the over 482,000 registered developers in Korea who have earned more than KRW8.55 trillion to date with Apple.”

Apple and Google of course argue that there are bigger issues around better and safer user experience that come with mandating their own in-app payment systems. And this is the argument that it falls on here too.

Google did not immediately respond.

#app-store, #apple-inc, #asia, #google, #in-app-payments, #in-app-purchase, #korea, #payments, #south-korea, #tc