UK’s CMA opens market study into Apple, Google’s mobile “duopoly”

The UK’s competition watchdog will take a deep dive look into Apple and Google’s dominance of the mobile ecosystem, it said today — announcing a market study which will examine the pair’s respective smartphone platforms (iOS and Android); their app stores (App Store and Play Store); and web browsers (Safari and Chrome). 

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is concerned that the mobile platform giants’ “effective duopoly” in those areas  might be harming consumers, it added.

The study will be wide ranging, with the watchdog concerns about the nested gateways that are created as a result of the pair’s dominance of mobile ecosystem — intermediating how consumers can access a variety of products, content and services (such as music, TV and video streaming; fitness tracking, shopping and banking, to cite some of the examples provided by the CMA).

“These products also include other technology and devices such as smart speakers, smart watches, home security and lighting (which mobiles can connect to and control),” it went on, adding that it’s looking into whether their dominance of these pipes is “stifling competition across a range of digital markets”, saying too that it’s “concerned this could lead to reduced innovation across the sector and consumers paying higher prices for devices and apps, or for other goods and services due to higher advertising prices”.

The CMA further confirmed the deep dive will examine “any effects” of the pair’s market power over other businesses — giving the example of app developers who rely on Apple or Google to market their products to customers via their smart devices.

The watchdog already has an open investigation into Apple’s App Store, following a number of antitrust complaints by developers.

It is investigating Google’s planned depreciation of third party tracking cookies too, after complaints by adtech companies and publishers that the move could harm competition. (And just last week the CMA said it was minded to accept a series of concessions offered by Google that would enable the regulator to stop it turning off support for cookies entirely if it believes the move will harm competition.)

The CMA said both those existing investigations are examining issues that fall within the scope of the new mobile ecosystem market study but that its work on the latter will be “much broader”.

It added that it will adopt a joined-up approach across all related cases — “to ensure the best outcomes for consumers and other businesses”.

It’s giving itself a full year to examine Gapple’s mobile ecosystems.

It is also soliciting feedback on any of the issues raised in its statement of scope — calling for responses by 26 July. The CMA added that it’s also keen to hear from app developers, via its questionnaire, by the same date.

Taking on tech giants

The watchdog has previously scrutinized the digital advertising market — and found plenty to be concerned about vis-a-vis Google’s dominance there.

That earlier market study has been feeding the UK government’s plan to reform competition rules to take account of the market-deforming power of digital giants. And the CMA suggested the new market study, examining ‘Gapple’s’ mobile muscle, could similarly help shape UK-wide competition law reforms.

Last year the UK announced its plan to set up a “pro-competition” regime for regulating Internet platforms — including by establishing a dedicated Digital Markets Unit within the CMA (which got going earlier this year).

The legislation for the reform has not yet been put before parliament but the government has said it wants the competition regulator to be able to “proactively shape platforms’ behavior” to avoid harmful behavior before it happens” — saying too that it supports enabling ex ante interventions once a platform has been identified to have so-called “strategic market status”.

Germany already adopted similar reforms to its competition law (early this year), which enable proactive interventions to tackle large digital platforms with what is described as “paramount significance for competition across markets”. And its Federal Cartel Office has, in recent months, wasted no time in opening a number of proceedings to determine whether Amazon, Google and Facebook have such a status.

The CMA also sounds keen to get going to tackle Internet gatekeepers.

Commenting in a statement, CEO Andrea Coscelli said:

“Apple and Google control the major gateways through which people download apps or browse the web on their mobiles – whether they want to shop, play games, stream music or watch TV. We’re looking into whether this could be creating problems for consumers and the businesses that want to reach people through their phones.

“Our ongoing work into big tech has already uncovered some worrying trends and we know consumers and businesses could be harmed if they go unchecked. That’s why we’re pressing on with launching this study now, while we are setting up the new Digital Markets Unit, so we can hit the ground running by using the results of this work to shape future plans.”

The European Union also unveiled its own proposals for clipping the wings of big tech last year — presenting its Digital Markets Act plan in December which will apply a single set of operational rules to so-called “gatekeeper” platforms operating across the EU.

The clear trend in Europe on digital competition is toward increasing oversight and regulation of the largest platforms — in the hopes that antitrust authorities can impose measures that will help smaller players thrive.

Critics might say that’s just playing into the tech giants’ hands, though — because it’s fiddling around the edges when more radical intervention (break ups) are what’s really needed to reboot captured markets.

Apple and Google were contacted for comment on the CMA’s market study.

A Google spokesperson said: “Android provides people with more choice than any other mobile platform in deciding which apps they use, and enables thousands of developers and manufacturers to build successful businesses. We welcome the CMA’s efforts to understand the details and differences between platforms before designing new rules.”

According to Google, the Android App Economy generated £2.8BN in revenue for UK developers last year, which it claims supported 240,000 jobs across the country — citing a Public First report that it commissioned.

The tech giant also pointed to operational changes it has already made in Europe, following antitrust interventions by the European Commission — such as adding a choice screen to Android where users can pick from a list of alternative search engines.

Earlier this month it agreed to shift the format underlying that choice screen from an unpopular auction model to free participation.

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Mobile game spending hits record $1.7B per week in Q1 2021, up 40% from pre-pandemic levels

The Covid-19 pandemic drove increased demand for mobile gaming, as consumers under lockdowns looked to online sources of entertainment, including games. But even as Covid-19 restrictions are easing up, the demand for mobile gaming isn’t slowing. According to a new report from mobile data and analytics provider App Annie in collaboration with IDC, users worldwide downloaded 30% more games in the first quarter of 2021 than in the fourth quarter of 2019, and spent a record-breaking $1.7 billion per week in mobile games in Q1 2021.

That figure is up 40% from pre-pandemic levels, the report noted.

Image Credits: App Annie

The U.S. and Germany led other markets in terms of growth in mobile game spending year-over-year as of Q1 2021 in the North American and Western European markets, respectively. Saudi Arabia and Turkey led the growth in the rest of the world, outside the Asia-Pacific region. The latter made up around half of the mobile game spend in the quarter, App Annie said.

 

The growth in mobile gaming, in part accelerated by the pandemic, also sees mobile further outpacing other forms of digital games consumption. This year, mobile gaming will increased its global lead over PC and Mac gaming to 2.9x and will extend its lead over home games consoles to 3.1x.

Image Credits: App Annie

However, this change comes at a time when the mobile and console market is continuing to merge, App Annie notes, as more mobile devices are capable of offering console-like graphics and gameplay experiences, including those with cross-platform capabilities and social gaming features.

Games with real-time online features tend to dominate the Top Grossing charts on the app stores, including things like player-vs-player and cross-play features. For example, the top grossing mobile game worldwide on iOS and Google Play in Q1 2021 was Roblox. This was followed by Genshin Impact, which just won an Apple Design Award during the Worldwide Developer Conference for its visual experience.

Image Credits: App Annie

The report also analyzed the ad market around gaming and the growth of mobile companion apps for game consoles, including My Nintendo, Xbox Game Pass, PlayStation App, Steam, Nintendo Switch, and Xbox apps. Downloads for these apps peaked under lockdowns in April 2020 in the U.S., but continue to see stronger downloads than pre-pandemic.

Image Credits: App Annie

On the advertising front, App Annie says user sentiment towards in-game mobile ads improved in Q3 2020 compared with Q3 2019, but rewarded video ads and playable ads were preferred in the U.S.

#app-store, #apps, #asia-pacific, #gaming, #germany, #google-play, #mobile-devices, #mobile-game, #nintendo, #nintendo-switch, #roblox, #saudi-arabia, #super-mario-run, #tc, #turkey, #united-states, #xbox

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Everyone you know is a Disney princess, which means AR is queen

This weekend, all of your friends morphed one by one into animated, Pixar-inspired characters. This isn’t a fever dream, and you’re not alone.

On Thursday, Snapchat released a Cartoon 3D Style Lens, which uses AR to make you look like a background character from “Frozen.” Naturally, even though TikTok’s own AR cartoon effects aren’t quite as convincing as Snapchat’s, people are turning to TikTok to share videos of themselves as Disney princesses, because of course they are.

This isn’t the first time that a Disney-esque AR trend has gone viral. In August 2020, Snapchat had 28.5 million new installs, which was its biggest month since May 2019, when it got 41.2 million new installs. It might not be a coincidence that in early August 2020, Snapchat released the Cartoon Face lens, which users realized could be used to “Disneyfy” their pets – the tag #disneydog got 40.9 million views across platforms on TikTok. Then, Snapchat struck viral gold again in December, when they released the Cartoon lens, which rendered more realistic results for human faces than the previous iteration.

According to Sensor Tower, Snapchat’s global installs continued to climb month-over-month throughout the rest of 2020, though installs slightly declined in December. Still, Snapchat got 36 million downloads that month. Now, after the newest Cartoon Style 3D lens went viral again, Snapchat hit number 6 on the App Store’s free apps charts, compared to TikTok’s number 2 slot. Still, Snapchat downloads in May were 32 million, down from 34 million in April, while TikTok saw 80.3 million installs in May, up from 59.3 million in April.

Image Credits: Snapchat, screenshots by TechCrunch

But there’s a new app in the number 1 slot that also made an impact on this weekend’s cartoon explosion. Released in March, Voilà AI Artist is yet another platform that turns us into cartoon versions of ourselves. Unlike the AR-powered effects on Snapchat or TikTok, Voilà is a photo editor. Users upload a selfie, and after watching an ad (the ad-free version costs $3 per week), it reveals what you would look like as a cartoon.

Voilà AI Artist was only downloaded 400 times globally in March 2021. By May, the app surpassed 1 million downloads, and during the first two weeks of this month alone, the app has been downloaded over 10.5 million times.

Again, like the repetitive iterations on the “Disneyfy” trend, apps like Voilà aren’t new. FaceApp went viral in 2019, showing people what they’ll look like when they’re old, graying, and wrinkled. The app became the center of a privacy controversy, since it uploaded users’ photos to the cloud to edit their selfies with AI. FaceApp made a statement that it “might store updated photos in the cloud” for “performance and traffic reasons,” but that “most images” are deleted “within 48 hours.” Still, this ambiguous language set off the warning bells, urging us to think about the potentially nefarious implications of seeing what we’ll look like in sixty years. Two years earlier, FaceApp put out a “hotness” filter, which made users’ skin lighter – FaceApp apologized for its racist AI. Voilà, which is owned by Wemagine.AI LLP in Canada, has also been criticized for its AI’s eurocentrism. As these apps grow in popularity, they can also uphold some of our culture’s most harmful biases.

Image Credits: Voilà

Like FaceApp, Voilà requires an internet connection to use the app. Additionally, its terms outline that users grant the company “a non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free, sublicensable, and transferable license to host, store, use in any way, display, reproduce, modify, adapt, edit, publish, and distribute Uploaded and Generated content.” Basically, that means that if you upload an image to the platform, Voilà has the right to use it, but they don’t own it. This isn’t abnormal for these apps – when we upload photos to Instagram, for example, we also grant the platform the right to use our images.

Still, it’s a good thing that apps like Voilà force us to consider what we give up in exchange for the knowledge that we’d make a good Disney princess. Earlier this month, TikTok updated its U.S. privacy policy to dictate that the app “may collect biometric identifiers and biometric information” from users’ content. This includes “faceprints and voiceprints,” terms that TikTok left undefined. When TechCrunch reached Tiktok for comment, they couldn’t confirm why the terms now changed to allow for the automatic collection of biometric data, which refers to any features, measurements, or characteristics of our body that distinguish us, even fingerprints.

It’s no wonder that as Voilà climbed to the number one slot on the App Store, Snapchat re-upped their Pixar-inspired AR lens. Facebook’s own Spark AR platform is rolling out new features, and last week at WWDC, Apple announced a major update to RealityKit, its AR software. But these trends reveal more about our growing comfort with face-altering AR than they do about our nostalgia for Disney.

#app-store, #apple, #apps, #ar, #augmented-reality, #canada, #computing, #disney, #instagram, #internet-culture, #mobile-applications, #photo-editor, #realitykit, #snapchat, #software, #technology, #tiktok, #united-states

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Yana’s mental health tool for Spanish speakers nears 5 million users

Andrea Campos has struggled with depression since she was 8 years old. Over the years, she’s tried all sorts of therapies — from behavioral to pharmacotherapy.

In 2017, when Campos was in her early 20s, she learned to program and created a system to help manage her mental health. It started as a personal project but as she talked to more people, Campos realized that many others might benefit from the system as well.

So, she then built an application to provide access to mental health tools to Spanish-speaking people and began testing it with a small group of people. At first, Campos herself was her own chatbot, texting with users who were tired of dealing with depression.

“During the month, I was pretending I was an app, and would send these people a list of activities they had to complete during the day, such as writing in a gratitude journal, and then asking them how those activities made them feel,” Campos recalls.

Her thinking was that sometimes with depression and anxiety comes “a lot of avoidance,” where people resist potential treatment out of fear.

The results from her small experiment were encouraging. So, Campos set out to conduct a bigger sample of experiments, and raised about $10,000 via crowdfunding campaign. With that money, she hired a developer to build a chatbot for her app, which was mostly being used via Facebook Messenger.

Then an earthquake hit Mexico City and that developer lost everything — including his home and computer — and had to relocate.

“I was left with nothing,” Campos says. But that developer introduced her to another, who disappeared with his payment, and again, left Campos, “with nothing.”

“I realized at the beginning of 2019, I was going to have to do this by myself,” Campos said. So she used a site that she described as a “Wix for chatbots,” and created one herself.

After experimenting with the app with a sample of 700 people, Campos was even more encouraged and raised an angel round of funding for Yana, the startup behind her app. (Yana is an acronym for “You Are Not Alone.”) By early 2020, with just three months of runway left, she pivoted to create an app with chatbot integration that wasn’t just limited to use via Facebook Messenger.

Campos ended up launching the app more broadly during the same week that her city in Mexico went into quarantine.

Image Credits: Yana

At first, she said, she saw “normal, steady growth.” But then on Oct. 10, 2020, Apple’s App Store highlighted Yana for International Mental Health Day, and the response was overwhelming.

“It was also my birthday so I was at a spa in a nearby town, relaxing, when I started hearing my cell phone go crazy,” Campos recalls. “Everything went nuts. I had to go back to Mexico City because our servers were exploding since they were not used to having that kind of volume.”

As a result of that exposure, Yana went from having around 80,000 users to reaching 1 million users two weeks later. Soon after that, Google highlighted the app as one of best for personal growth in 2020, and that too led to another spike in users. Today, Yana is about to hit the 5 million-user mark and is also announcing it has raised $1.5 million in funding led by Mexico’s ALLVP, which has also invested in the likes of Cornershop, Flink and Nuvocargo.

When the pandemic hit last year, six of Yana’s 9-person team decided to quarantine together in a “startup house” in Cancun to focus on building the company. Earlier this year, the company had raised $315,000 from investors such as 500 Startups, Magma and Hustle Fund. The company had pitched ALLVP, who was intrigued but wanted to wait until it could write a bigger check. 

That time is now, and Yana is now among the top three downloaded apps in Mexico and 12 countries including Spain, Chile, Ecuador and Venezuela.

With its new capital, Yana is planning to “move away from the depression/anxiety narrative,” according to Campos.

“We want to compete in the wellness space,” she told TechCrunch. “A lot of people were looking for us to deal with crises such as a breakup or a loss but then they didn’t always see a necessity to keep using Yana for longer than the crisis lasted.”

Some of those people would download the app again months later when hit with another crisis.

“We don’t want to be that app anymore,” Campos said. “We want to focus on whole wellness and mental health and transmit something that needs to be built every single day, just like we do with exercise.”

Moving forward, Yana aims to help people with their mental health not just during a crisis but with activities they can do on a daily basis, including a gratitude journal, a mood tracker and meditation — “things that prevent depression and anxiety,” Campos said.

“We want to be a vitamin for our soul, and keeping people mentally healthy on an ongoing basis,” she said. “We also want to include a community inside our application.”

ALLVP’s Federico Antoni is enthusiastic about the startup’s potential. He first met Campos when she was participating in an accelerator program in 2017 and then again recently.

The firm led Yana’s latest round because it “wanted to be on her team.”

“She [Campos] has turned into an amazing leader, and we realized her potential and strength,” he said. “Plus, Yana is an amazing product. When you download it, it’s almost like you can see a soul in there.”

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Apple’s iPadOS 15 breaks the app barrier

The announcement of new iPad software at this year’s WWDC conference had an abnormally large expectation hung on it. The iPad lineup, especially the larger iPad Pro, has kept up an impressively frantic pace of hardware innovation over the past few years. In that same time frame, the software of the iPad, especially its ability to allow users to use multiple apps at once and in its onramps for professional software makers, has come under scrutiny for an apparently slower pace. 

This year’s announcements about iOS 15 and iPadOS 15 seemed designed to counter that narrative with the introduction of a broad number of quality of life improvements to multitasking as well as a suite of system-wide features that nearly all come complete with their own developer-facing APIs to build on. I had the chance to speak to Bob Borchers, Apple’s VP of Worldwide Product Marketing, and Sebastien (Seb) Mariners-Mes, VP, Intelligent System Experience at Apple about the release of iPadOS 15 to discuss a variety of these improvements. 

Mariners-Mes works on the team of Apple software SVP Craig Federighi and was pivotal in the development of this new version.

iPad has a bunch of new core features including SharePlay, Live Text, Focuses, Universal Control, on-device Siri processing and a new edition of Swift Playgrounds designed to be a prototyping tool. Among the most hotly anticipated for iPad Pro users, however, are improvements to Apple’s multitasking system. 

If you’ve been following along, you’ll know that the gesture-focused multitasking interface of iPadOS has had its share of critics, including me. Though it can be useful in the right circumstances, the un-discoverable gesture system and confusing hierarchy of the different kinds of combinations of apps made it a sort of floppy affair to utilize correctly for an apt user much less a beginner. 

Since the iPad stands alone as pretty much the only successful tablet device on the market, Apple has a unique position in the industry to determine what kinds of paradigms are established as standard. It’s a very unique opportunity to say, hey, this is what working on a device like this feels like; looks like; should be.

 

So I ask Borchers and Mariners-Mes to talk a little bit about multitasking. Specifically Apple’s philosophy in the design of multitasking on iPadOS 15 and the update from the old version, which required a lot of acrobatics of the finger and a strong sense of spatial awareness of objects hovering out off the edges of the screen. 

“I think you’ve got it,” Borchers says when I mention the spatial gymnastics, “but the way that we think about this is that the step forward and multitasking makes it easier discover, easier to use even more powerful. And, while pros I think were the ones who were using multitasking in the past, we really want to take it more broadly because we think there’s applicability to many, many folks. And that’s why the, the discovery and the ease of use I think were critical.”

“You had a great point there when you talked about the spatial model and one of our goals was to actually make the spatial model more explicit in the experience,” says Mariners-Mes, “where, for example, if you’ve got a split view, and you’re replacing one of the windows, we kind of open the curtain and tuck the other app to the side, you can see it — it’s not a hidden hidden mental model, it’s one that’s very explicit.

Another great example of it is when you go into the app, switcher to reconfigure your windows, you’re actually doing drag and drop as you rearrange your new split views, or you dismiss apps and so on. So it’s not a hidden model, it’s one where we really try to reinforce a spatial model with an explicit one for the user through all of the animations and all of the kinds of affordances.”

Apple’s goal this time around, he says, was to add affordances for the user to understand that multitasking was even an option — like the small series of dots at the top of every app and window that now allows you to explicitly choose an available configuration, rather than the app-and-dock-juggling method of the past. He goes on to say that consistency was a key metric for them on this version of the OS. The appearance of Slide Over apps in the same switcher view as all other apps, for instance. Or the way that you can choose configurations of apps via the button, by drag and drop in the switcher and get the same results.

In the dashboard, Mariners-Mes says, “you get an at a glance view of all of the apps that you’re running and a full model of how you’re navigating that through the iPad’s interface.”

This ‘at a glance’ map of the system should be very welcome by advanced users. Even as a very aggressive Pro user myself, Slide Over apps became more of a nuisance than anything because I couldn’t keep track of how many were open and when to use them. The ability to combine them on the switcher itself is one of those things that Apple has wanted to get into the OS for years but is just now making its way onto iPads. Persistence of organization, really, was the critical problem to tackle.

“I think we believe strongly in building a mental model where people know where things are [on iPad],” says Mariners-Mes. “And I think you’re right when it comes persistence I think it also applies to, for example, home screen. People have a very strong mental model of where things are in the home screen as well as all of the apps that they’ve configured. And so we try to maintain a well maintained that mental model, and also allow people to reorganize again in the switcher.”

He goes on to explain the new ‘shelf’ feature that displays every instance or window that an app has open within itself. They implemented this as a per-app feature rather than a system-wide feature, he says, because the association of that shelf with a particular app fit the overall mental model that they’re trying to build. The value of this shelf may jump into higher relief when more professional apps that may have a dozen documents or windows open at once and active during a project ship later this year.

Another nod to advanced users in iPadOS 15 is the rich keyboard shortcut set offered across the system. The interface can be navigated by arrow keys now, many advanced commands are there and you can even move around on an iPad using a game controller. 

“One of the key goals this year was to make basically everything in the system navigable from the keyboard,” says Mariners-Mes, “so that if you don’t want to, you don’t have to take your hands off the keyboard. All of the new multitasking affordances and features, you can do through the keyboard shortcuts. You’ve got the new keyboard shortcut menu bar where you can see all the shortcuts that are available. It’s great for discoverability. You can search them and we even, you know, and this is a subtle point, but we even made a very conscious effort to rationalize the shortcuts across Mac and iPadOS. So that if you’re using universal control, for example, you’re going to go from one environment to the other seamlessly. You want to ensure that consistency as you go across.”

The gestures, however, are staying as a nod to consistency for existing users that may be used to those. 

To me, one of the more interesting and potentially powerful developments is the introduction of the Center Window and its accompanying API. A handful of Apple apps like Mail, Notes and Messages now allow items to pop out into an overlapping window.

“It was a very deliberate decision on our part,” says Mariners-Mes about adding this new element. “This really brings a new level of productivity where you can have, you know, this floating window. You can have content behind it. You can seamlessly cut and paste. And that’s something that’s just not possible with the traditional [iPadOS] model. And we also really strive to make it consistent with the rest of multitasking where that center window can also become one of the windows in your split view, or full size, and then go back to to being a center window. We think it’s a cool addition to the model and we look really look forward to 3rd parties embracing it.”

Early reception of the loop Apple gave at iPadOS 15 has an element of reservation about it still given that many of the most powerful creative apps are made by third parties that must adopt these technologies in order for them to be truly useful. But Apple, Borchers says, is working hard to make sure that pro apps adopt as many of these new paradigms and technologies as possible, so that come fall, the iPad will feel like a more hospitable host for the kinds of advanced work pros want to do there.

One of the nods to this multi-modal universe that the iPad exists in is Universal Control. This new feature uses Bluetooth beaconing, peer-to-peer WiFi and the iPad’s touchpad support to allow you to place your devices close to one another and — in a clever use of reading user intent — slide your mouse to the edge of a screen and onto your Mac or iPad seamlessly. 

CUPERTINO, CALIFORNIA – June 7, 2021: Apple’s senior vice president of Software Engineering Craig Federighi showcases the ease of Universal Control, as seen in this still image from the keynote video of AppleÕs Worldwide Developers Conference at Apple Park. (Photo Credit: Apple Inc.)Ê

“I think what we have seen and observed from our users, both pro and and otherwise, is that we have lots of people who have Macs and they have iPads, and they have other iPhones and and we believe in making these things work together in ways that are that are powerful,” says Borchers. “And it just felt like a natural place to be able to go and extend our Continuity model so that you could make use of this incredible platform that is iPadOS while working with your Mac, right next to it. And I think the big challenge was, how do you do that in kind of a magical, simple way. And that’s what Seb and his team and been able to accomplish.

“It really builds on the foundation we made with Continuity and Sidecar,” adds Mariners-Mes. “We really thought a lot about how do you make the experience — the set up experience — as seamless as possible. How do you discover that you’ve got devices side by side.?

The other thing we thought about was what are the workflows that people want to have and what capabilities that will be essential for that. That’s where thinks like the ability to seamlessly drag content across the platforms or cut and paste was we felt to be really, really important. Because I think that’s really what brings to the magic to the experience.”

Borchers adds that it makes all the continuity features that much more discoverable. Continuity’s shared clipboard, for instance, is an always on but invisible presence. Expanding that to visual and mouse-driven models made some natural sense.

“It’s just like, oh, of course, I can drag that all the way across all the way across here,” he says.

“Bob, you say, of course,” Mariners-Mes laughs. “And yet for those of us working in platforms for a long time, the ‘of course’, is technically very, very challenging. Totally non obvious.”

Another area where iPadOS 15 is showing some promising expansionary behavior is in system-wide activities that allow you to break out of the box of in-app thinking. These include embedded recommendations that seed themselves into various apps, Shareplay, which makes an appearance wherever video calls are found and Live Text, which turns all of your photos into indexed archives searchable with a keyboard. 

Another is Quick Note, a system extension that lets you swipe from the bottom corner of your screen wherever you are in the system.

“There are, I think a few interesting things that we did with with Quick Note,” says Mariners-Mes. “One is this idea of linking. So, that if I’m working in Safari or Yelp or another app, I can quickly insert a link to whatever content I’m viewing. I don’t know about you, but it’s something that I certainly do a lot when I do research. 

“The old way was, like, cut and paste and maybe take a screenshot, create a note and jot down some notes. And now we’ve made that very, very seamless and fluid across the whole system. It even works the other way where, if I’m now in Safari and I have a note that refers to that page in Safari, you’ll see it revealed as a thumbnail at the bottom of the screen’s right hand side. So, we’ve really tried to bring the notes experience to be something that just permeates the system and is easily accessible from, from everywhere.” 

Many of the system-wide capabilities that Apple is introducing in iPadOS 15 and iOS 15 have an API that developers can tap into. That is not always the case with Apple’s newest toys, which in years past have often been left to linger in the private section of its list of frameworks rather than be offered to developers as a way to enhance their apps. Borchers says that this is an intentional move that offers a ‘broader foundation of intelligence’ across the entire system. 

This broader intelligence includes Siri moving a ton of commands to its local scope. This involved having to move a big chunk of Apple’s speech recognition to an on-device configuration in the new OS as well. The results, says Borchers, are a vastly improved day-to-day Siri experience, with many common commands executing immediately upon request — something that was a bit of a dice roll in days of Siri past. The removal of the reputational hit that Siri was taking from commands that went up to the cloud never to return could be the beginning of a turnaround for the public perception of Siri’s usefulness.

The on-device weaving of the intelligence provided by the Apple Neural Engine (ANE) also includes the indexing of text across photos in the entire system, past, present and in-the-moment.

“We could have done live text only in camera and photos, but we wanted it to apply to anywhere we’ve got images, whether it be in in Safari or quick look or wherever,” says Mariners-Mes. “One of my favorite demos of live text is actually when you’ve got that long complicated field for a password for a Wi-Fi network. You can just actually bring it up within the keyboard and take a picture of it, get the text in it and copy and paste it into into the field. It’s one of those things that’s just kind of magical.”

On the developer service front of iPadOS 15, I ask specifically about Swift Playgrounds, which add the ability to write, compile and ship apps on the App Store for the first time completely on iPad. It’s not the native Xcode some developers were hoping for, but, Borchers says, Playgrounds has moved beyond just ‘teaching people how to code’ and into a real part of many developer pipelines.

“ think one of the big insights here was that we also saw a number of kind of pro developers using it as a prototyping platform, and a way to be able to be on the bus, or in the park, or wherever if you wanted to get in and give something a try, this was super accessible and easy way to get there and could be a nice adjunct to hey, I want to learn to code.”

“If you’re a developer,” adds Mariners-Mes, “it’s actually more productive to be able to run that app on the device that you’re working on because you really get great fidelity. And with the open project format, you can go back and forth between Xcode and Playgrounds. So, as Bob said, we can really envision people using this for a lot of rapid prototyping on the go without having to bring along the rest of their development environment so we think it’s a really, really powerful addition to our development development tools this year.”

Way back in 2018 I profiled a new team at Apple that was building out a testing apparatus that would help them to make sure they were addressing real-world use cases for flows of process that included machines like the (at the time un-revealed) new Mac Pro, iMacs, MacBooks and iPads. One of the demos that stood out at the time was a deep integration with music apps like Logic that would allow the input models of iPad to complement the core app. Tapping out a rhythm on a pad, brightening or adjusting sound more intuitively with the touch interface. More of Apple’s work these days seems to be aimed at allowing users to move seamlessly back and forth between its various computing platforms, taking advantage of the strengths of each (raw power, portability, touch, etc) to complement a workflow. A lot of iPadOS 15 appears to be geared this way.

Whether it will be enough to turn the corner on the perception of iPad as a work device that is being held back by software, I’ll reserve judgement until it ships later this year. But, in the near term, I am cautiously optimistic that this set of enhancements that break out of the ‘app box’, the clearer affordances for multitasking both in and out of single apps and the dedication to API support are pointing towards an expansionist mentality on the iPad software team. A good sign in general.

#api, #app-store, #apple-inc, #california, #computing, #craig-federighi, #cupertino, #game-controller, #ios, #ios-11, #ipad, #ipados, #ipads, #peer-to-peer, #portable-media-players, #safari, #sidecar, #siri, #speech-recognition, #tablet-computers, #tc, #touchscreens, #wi-fi

0

Shopify acquires augmented reality home design app Primer

In Friday acquisition news, Shopify shared today that they’ve acquired augmented reality startup Primer, which makes an app that lets users visualize what tile, wallpaper or paint will look like on surfaces inside their home.

In a blog post, co-founders Adam Debreczeni and Russ Maschmeyer write that Primer’s app and services will be shutting down next month as part of the deal. Debreczeni tells TechCrunch that Primer’s team of eight employees will all be joining Shopify following the acquisition.

Primer had partnered with dozens of tile and textile design brands to allow users to directly visualize what their designs would look like using their iPhone and iPad and Apple’s augmented reality platform ARKit. The app has been highlighted by Apple several times including this nice write-up by the App Store’s internal editorial team.

Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed. Primer’s backers included Slow Ventures, Abstract Ventures, Foundation Capital and Expa.

There’s been a lot of big talk about how augmented reality will impact online shopping, but aside from some of the integrations made in home design, there hasn’t been an awful lot that’s found its way into real consumer use. Shopify has worked on some of their own integrations — allowing sellers to embed 3D models into their storefronts that users can drop into physical space — but it’s clear that there’s much more room left to experiment.

#abstract-ventures, #app-store, #apple, #apple-inc, #augment, #augmented-reality, #companies, #foundation-capital, #ipad, #iphone, #online-shopping, #paint, #primer, #shopify, #slow-ventures, #software, #technology, #tile

0

Apple’s StoreKit 2 simplifies App Store subscriptions and refunds by making them accessible inside apps

If you’ve ever bought a subscription inside an iOS app and later decided you wanted to cancel, upgrade or downgrade, or ask for a refund, you may have had trouble figuring out how to go about making that request or change. Some people today still believe that they can stop their subscription charges simply by deleting an app from their iPhone. Others may dig around unsuccessfully inside their iPhone’s Settings or on the App Store to try to find out how to ask for a refund. With the updates Apple announced in StoreKit 2 during its Worldwide Developers Conference this week, things may start to get a little easier for app customers.

StoreKit is Apple’s developer framework for managing in-app purchases — an area that’s become more complex in recent years, as apps have transitioned from offering one-time purchases to ongoing subscriptions with different tiers, lengths, and feature sets.

Image Credits: Apple

Currently, users who want to manage or cancel subscriptions can do so from the App Store or their iPhone Settings. But some don’t realize the path to this section from Settings starts by tapping on your Apple ID (your name and profile photo at the top of the screen). They may also get frustrated if they’re not familiar with how to navigate their Settings or the App Store.

Meanwhile, there are a variety of ways users can request refunds on their in-app subscriptions. They can dig in their inbox for their receipt from Apple, then click the “Report a Problem” link it includes to request a refund when something went wrong. This could be useful in scenarios where you’ve bought a subscription by mistake (or your kid has!), or where the promised features didn’t work as intended.

Apple also provides a dedicated website where users can directly request refunds for apps or content. (When you Google for something like “request a refund apple” or similar queries, a page that explains the process typically comes up at the top of the search results.)

Still, many users aren’t technically savvy. For them, the easiest way to manage subscriptions or ask for refunds would be to do so from within the app itself. For this reason, many conscientious app developers tend to include links to point customers to Apple’s pages for subscription management or refunds inside their apps.

But StoreKit 2 is introducing new tools that will allow developers to implement these sort of features more easily.

One new tool is a Manage subscriptions API, which lets an app developer display the manage subscriptions page for their customer directly inside their app — without redirecting the customer to the App Store. Optionally, developers can choose to display a “Save Offer” screen to present the customer with a discount of some kind to keep them from cancelling, or it could display an exit survey so you can ask the customer why they decided to end their subscription.

When implemented, the customer will be able to view a screen inside the app that looks just like the one they’d visit in the App Store to cancel or change a subscription. After cancelling, they’ll be shown a confirmation screen with the cancellation details and the service expiration date.

If the customer wants to request a refund, a new Refund request API will allow the customer to begin their refund request directly in the app itself — again, without being redirected to the App Store or other website. On the screen that displays, the customer can select which item they want refund and check the reason why they’re making the request. Apple handles the refund process and will send either an approval or refund declined notification back to the developer’s server.

However, some developers argue that the changes don’t go far enough. They want to be in charge of managing customer subscriptions and handling refunds themselves, through programmatic means. Plus, Apple can take up to 48 hours for the customer to receive an update on their refund request, which can be confusing.

“They’ve made the process a bit smoother, but developers still can’t initiate refunds or cancellations themselves,” notes RevenueCat CEO Jacob Eiting, whose company provides tools to app developers to manage their in-app purchases. “It’s a step in the right direction, but could actually lead to more confusion between developers and consumers about who is responsible for issuing refunds.”

In other words, because the forms are now going to be more accessible from inside the app, the customer may believe the developer is handling the refund process when, really, Apple continues to do so.

Some developers pointed out that there are other scenarios this process doesn’t address. For example, if the customer has already uninstalled the app or no longer has the device in question, they’ll still need to be directed to other means of asking for refunds, just as before.

For consumers, though, subscription management tools like this mean more developers may begin to put buttons to manage subscriptions and ask for refunds directly inside their app, which is a better experience. In time, as customers learn they can more easily use the app and manage subscriptions, app developers may see better customer retention, higher engagement, and better App Store reviews, notes Apple.

The StoreKit 2 changes weren’t limited to APIs for managing subscriptions and refunds.

Developers will also gain access to a new Invoice Lookup API that allows them to look up the in-app purchases for the customer, validate their invoice and identify any problems with the purchase — for example, if there were any refunds already provided by the App Store.

A new Refunded Purchases API will allow developers to look up all the refunds for the customer.

And a new Renewal Extension API will allow developers to extend the renewal data for paid, active subscriptions in the case of an outage — like when dealing with customer support issues when a streaming service went down, for example. This API lets developers extend the subscription up to twice per calendar year, each up to 90 days in the future.

Another change will help customers when they reinstall apps or download them on new devices. Before, users would have to manually “restore purchases” to sync the status of the completed transactions back to that newly downloaded or reinstalled app. Now, that information will be automatically fetched by StoreKit 2 so the apps are immediately up-to-date with whatever it is the user paid for.

While, overall, the changes make for a significant update to the StoreKit framework, Apple’s hesitancy to allow developers more control over their own subscription-based customers speaks, in part, to how much it wants to control in-app purchases. This is perhaps because it got burned in the past when it tried allowing developers to manage their own refunds.

As The Verge noted last month while the Epic Games-Apple antitrust trial was underway, Apple had once provided Hulu will access to a subscription API, then discovered Hulu had been offering a way to automatically cancel subscriptions made through the App Store when customers wanted to upgrade to higher-priced subscription plans. Apple realized it needed to take action to protect against this misuse of the API, and Hulu later lost access. It has not since made that API more broadly available.

On the flip side, having Apple, not the developers, in charge of subscription management and refunds means Apple takes on the responsibilities around preventing fraud — including fraud perpetrated by both customers and developers alike. Customers may also prefer that there’s one single place to go for managing their subscription billing: Apple. They may not want to have to deal with each developer individually, as their experience would end up being inconsistent.

These changes matter because subscription revenue contributes to a sizable amount of Apple’s lucrative App Store business. Ahead of WWDC 21, Apple reported the sale of digital goods and services on the App Store grew to $86 billion in 2020, up 40% over the the year prior. Earlier this year, Apple said it paid out more than $200 billion to developers since the App Store launched in 2008.

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0

Spotlight gets more powerful in iOS 15, even lets you install apps

With the upcoming release of iOS 15 for Apple mobile devices, Apple’s built-in search feature known as Spotlight will become a lot more functional. In what may be one of its bigger updates since it introduced Siri Suggestions, the new version of Spotlight is becoming an alternative to Google for several key queries, including web images and information about actors, musicians, TV shows and movies. It will also now be able to search across your photo library, deliver richer results for contacts, and connect you more directly with apps and the information they contain. It even allows you to install apps from the App Store without leaving Spotlight itself.

Spotlight is also more accessible than ever before.

Years ago, Spotlight moved from its location to the left of the Home screen to become available with a swipe down in the middle of any screen in iOS 7, which helped grow user adoption. Now, it’s available with the same swipe down gesture on the iPhone’s Lock Screen, too.

Apple showed off a few of Spotlight’s improvements during its keynote address at its Worldwide Developer Conference, including the search feature’s new cards for looking up information on actors, movies and shows, as well as musicians. This change alone could redirect a good portion of web searches away from Google or dedicated apps like IMDb.

For years, Google has been offering quick access to common searches through its Knowledge Graph, a knowledge base that allows it to gather information from across sources and then use that to add informational panels above and the side of its standard search results. Panels on actors, musicians, shows and movies are available as part of that effort.

But now, iPhone users can just pull up this info on their home screen.

The new cards include more than the typical Wikipedia bio and background information you may expect — they also showcase links to where you can listen or watch content from the artist or actor or movie or show in question. They include news articles, social media links, official websites, and even direct you to where the searched person or topic may be found inside your own apps. (E.g. a search for “Billie Eilish” may direct you to her tour tickets inside SeatGeek, or a podcast where she’s a guest).

Image Credits: Apple

For web image searches, Spotlight also now allows you to search for people, places, animals, and more from the web — eating into another search vertical Google today provides.

Image Credits: iOS 15 screenshot

Your personal searches have been upgraded with richer results, too, in iOS 15.

When you search for a contact, you’ll be taken to a card that does more than show their name and how to reach them. You’ll also see their current status (thanks to another iOS 15 feature), as well as their location from FindMy, your recent conversations on Messages, your shared photos, calendar appointments, emails, notes, and files. It’s almost like a personal CRM system.

Image Credits: Apple

Personal photo searches have also been improved. Spotlight now uses Siri intelligence to allow you to search your photos by the people, scenes, elements in your photos, as well as by location. And it’s able to leverage the new Live Text feature in iOS 15 to find the text in your photos to return relevant results.

This could make it easier to pull up photos where you’ve screenshot a recipe, a store receipt, or even a handwritten note, Apple said.

Image Credits: Apple

A couple of features related to Spotlight’s integration with apps weren’t mentioned during the keynote.

Spotlight will now display action buttons on the Maps results for businesses that will prompt users to engage with that business’s app. In this case, the feature is leveraging App Clips, which are small parts of a developer’s app that let you quickly perform a task even without downloading or installing the app in question. For example, from Spotlight you may be prompted to pull up a restaurant’s menu, buy tickets, make an appointment, order takeout, join a waitlist, see showtimes, pay for parking, check prices and more.

The feature will require the business to support App Clips in order to work.

Image Credits: iOS 15 screenshot

Another under-the-radar change — but a significant one — is the new ability to install apps from the App Store directly from Spotlight.

This could prompt more app installs, as it reduces the steps from a search to a download, and makes querying the App Store more broadly available across the operating system.

Developers can additionally choose to insert a few lines of code to their app to make data from the app discoverable within Spotlight and customize how it’s presented to users. This means Spotlight can work as a tool for searching content from inside apps — another way Apple is redirecting users away from traditional web searches in favor of apps.

However, unlike Google’s search engine, which relies on crawlers that browse the web to index the data it contains, Spotlight’s in-app search requires developer adoption.

Still, it’s clear Apple sees Spotlight as a potential rival to web search engines, including Google’s.

“Spotlight is the universal place to start all your searches,” said Apple SVP of Software Engineering Craig Federighi during the keynote event.

Spotlight, of course, can’t handle “all” your searches just yet, but it appears to be steadily working towards that goal.

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Apple’s new ShazamKit brings audio recognition to apps, including those on Android

Apple in 2018 closed its $400 million acquisition of music recognition app Shazam. Now, it’s bringing Shazam’s audio recognition capabilities to app developers in the form of the new ShazamKit. The new framework will allow app developers — including those on both Apple platforms and Android — to build apps that can identify music from Shazam’s huge database of songs, or even from their own custom catalog of pre-recorded audio.

Many consumers are already familiar with the mobile app Shazam, which lets you push a button to identify what song you’re hearing, and then take other actions — like viewing the lyrics, adding the song to a playlist, exploring music trends, and more. Having first launched in 2008, Shazam was already one of the oldest apps on the App Store when Apple snatched it up.

Now the company is putting Shazam to better use than being just a music identification utility. With the new ShazamKit, developers will now be able to leverage Shazam’s audio recognition capabilities to create their own app experiences.

There are three parts to the new framework: Shazam catalog recognition, which lets developers add song recognition to their apps; custom catalog recognition, which performs on-device matching against arbitrary audio; and library management.

Shazam catalog recognition is what you probably think of when you think of the Shazam experience today. The technology can recognize the song that’s playing in the environment and then fetch the song’s metadata, like the title and artist. The ShazamKit API will also be able to return other metadata like genre or album art, for example. And it can identify where in the audio the match occurred.

When matching music, Shazam doesn’t actually match the audio itself, to be clear. Instead, it creates a lossy representation of it, called a signature, and matches against that. This method greatly reduces the amount of data that needs to be sent over the network. Signatures also cannot be used to reconstruct the original audio, which protects user privacy.

The Shazam catalog comprises millions of songs and is hosted in cloud and maintained by Apple. It’s regularly updated with new tracks as they become available.

When a customer uses a developer’s third-party app for music recognition via ShazamKit, they may want to save the song in their Shazam library. This is found in the Shazam app, if the user has it installed, or it can be accessed by long pressing on the music recognition Control Center module. The library is also synced across devices.

Apple suggests that apps make their users aware that recognized songs will be saved to this library, as there’s no special permission required to write to the library.

Image Credits: Apple

ShazamKit’s custom catalog recognition feature, meanwhile, could be used to create synced activities or other second-screen experiences in apps by recognizing the developer’s audio, not that from the Shazam music catalog.

This could allow for educational apps where students follow along with a video lesson, where some portion of the lesson’s audio could prompt an activity to begin in the student’s companion app. It could also be used to enable mobile shopping experiences that popped up as you watched a favorite TV show.

ShazamKit is current in beta on iOS 15.0+, macOS 12.0+, Mac Catalyst 15.0+, tvOS 15.0+, and watchOS 8.0+. On Android, ShazamKit comes in the form of an Android Archive (AAR) file and supports music and custom audio, as well.

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0

Amid controversy, Dispo confirms Series A funding, high-profile advisors, and investors

It’s only been nine months since Dispo rebranded from David’s Disposables. But the vintage-inspired photo sharing app has experienced a whiplash of ups and downs, mostly due to the brand’s original namesake, YouTuber David Dobrik.

Like Clubhouse, Dispo was one of this year’s most hyped up new social apps, requiring an invite from an existing member to join. On March 9, when the company said “goodbye waitlist” and opened the app up to any iOS user, Dispo looked poised to be a worthy competitor to photo-sharing behemoths like Instagram. But, just one week later, Business Insider reported on sexual assault allegations regarding a member of Vlog Squad, a YouTube prank ensemble headed by Dispo co-founder David Dobrik. Dobrik had posted a now-deleted vlog about the night of the alleged assault, joking, “we’re all going to jail” at the end of the video.

It was only after venture capital firm Spark Capital decided to “sever all ties” with Dispo that Dobrik stepped down from the company board. In a statement made to TechCrunch at the time, Dispo said, “Dispo’s team, product, and most importantly — our community — stand for building a diverse, inclusive and empowering world.”

Dispo capitalizes on Gen Z and young millennial nostalgia for a time before digital photography, when we couldn’t take thirty selfies before choosing which one to post. On Dispo, when you take a photo, you have to wait until 9 AM the following day for the image to “develop,” and only then can you view and share it.

In both February and March of this year, the app hit the top ten of the Photo & Video category in the U.S. App Store. Despite the backlash against Dobrik, which resulted in the app’s product page being bombarded with negative comments, the app still hit the top ten in Germany, Japan, and Brazil, according to their press release. Dispo reportedly has not yet expended any international marketing resources.

Now, early investors in Dispo like Spark Capital, Seven Seven Six, and Unshackled have committed to donate any potential profits from their investment in the app to organizations working with survivors of sexual assault. Though Axios reported the app’s $20M Series A funding news in February, Dispo put out a press release this morning confirming the financing event. Though Seven Seven Six and Unshackled Ventures intend to donate profits from the app, they remain listed as investors, while Spark Capital is not. Other notable names involved in the project include high-profile photographers like Annie Leibovitz and Raven B. Varona, who has worked with artists like Beyoncé and Jay-Z. Actresses Cara Delevingne and Sofía Vergara, as well as NBA superstars Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala, are also involved with the app as investors or advisors.

Dobrik’s role in the company was largely as a marketer – CEO Daniel Liss co-founded the app with Dobrik and has been leading the team since the beginning. After Dobrik’s departure, the Dispo team – which remains under twenty members strong – took a break from communications and product updates on the app. It’s expected that after today’s funding confirmation, the app will continue to roll out updates.

Dispo is quick to shift focus to the work of their team, which they call “some of the most talented, diverse leaders in consumer tech.” With the capital from this funding round, they hope to hire more staff to become more competitive with major social media apps with expansive teams, like Instagram and TikTok, and to experiment with machine learning. They will also likely have some serious marketing to do, now that their attempt at influencer marketing has failed massively.

Now more than ever, Dispo is promoting the app as a mental health benefit, hoping to shift the tide away from manufactured perfectionism toward more authentic social media experiences.

“A new era of start ups must emerge to end the scourge of big tech’s destruction of our political fabric and willful ignorance of its impact on body dysmorphia and mental health,” CEO Daniel Liss writes in a Substack post titled Dispo 2.0. “Imagine a world where Dispo is the social network of choice for every teen and college student in the world. How different a world would that be?”

But, for an app that propelled to success off the fame of a YouTuber with a history of less than savory behavior, that messaging might fall flat.

According to Sensor Tower, the highest Dispo has ever ranked in the Photo & Video category on the U.S. App Store was in January 2020, when it was still called David’s Disposables. The app ranked No. 1 in that category from January 7 to January 9, and on January 8, it reached No. 1 among all free iPhone apps.

#advisors, #andre-iguodala, #annie-leibovitz, #app-store, #apps, #brazil, #ceo, #co-founder, #computing, #david-dobrik, #digital-photography, #dispo, #freeware, #germany, #instagram, #internet-culture, #japan, #kevin-durant, #mobile-applications, #national-basketball-association, #nba, #social-media, #software, #spark-capital, #techcrunch, #united-states, #unshackled-ventures, #venture-capital, #world-wide-web

0

Apple finally launches a Screen Time API for app developers

Just after the release of iOS 12 in 2018, Apple introduced its own built-in screen time tracking tools and controls. In then began cracking down on third-party apps that had implemented their own screen time systems, saying they had done so through via technologies that risked user privacy. What wasn’t available at the time? A Screen Time API that would have allowed developers to tap into Apple’s own Screen Time system and build their own experiences that augmented its capabilities. That’s now changed.

At Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference on Monday, it introduced a new Screen Time API that offers developer access to frameworks that will allow parental control experience that also maintains user privacy.

The company added three new Swift frameworks to the iOS SDK that will allow developers to create apps that help parents manage what a child can do across their devices and ensure those restrictions stay in place.

The apps that use this API will be able to set restrictions like locking accounts in place, preventing password changes, filtering web traffic, and limiting access to applications. These sorts of changes are already available through Apple’s Screen Time system, but developers can now build their own experiences where these features are offered under their own branding and where they can then expand on the functionality provided by Apple’s system.

 

Developers’ apps that take advantage of the API can also be locked in place so it can only be removed from the device with a parent’s approval.

The apps can authenticate the parents and ensure the device they’re managing belongs to a child in the family. Plus, Apple said the way the system will work lets parents choose the apps and websites they want to limit, without compromising user privacy. (The system returns only opaque tokens instead of identifiers for the apps and website URLs, Apple told developers, so the third-parties aren’t gaining access to private user data like app usage and web browsing details. This would prevent a shady company from building a Screen Time app only to collect troves of user data about app usage, for instance.)

The third-party apps can also create unique time windows for different apps or types of activities, and warn the child when time is nearly up. When it registers the time’s up, the app lock down access to websites and apps and perhaps remind the child it’s time to their homework — or whatever other experience the developer has in mind.

And on the flip side, the apps could create incentives for the child to gain screen time access after they complete some other task, like doing homework, reading or chores, or anything else.

Developers could use these features to design new experiences that Apple’s own Screen Time system doesn’t allow for today, by layering their own ideas on top of Apple’s basic set of controls. Parents would likely fork over their cash to make using Screen Time controls easier and more customized to their needs.

Other apps could tie into Screen Time too, outside of the “family” context — like those aimed at mental health and wellbeing, for example.

Of course, developers have been asking for a Screen Time API since the launch of Screen Time itself, but Apple didn’t seem to prioritize its development until the matter of Apple’s removal of rival screen time apps was brought up in an antitrust hearing last year. At the time, Apple CEO Tim Cook defended the company’s decision by explaining that apps had been using MDM (mobile device management) technology, which was designed for managing employee devices in the enterprise, not home use. This, he said, was a privacy risk.

Apple has a session during WWDC that will detail how the new API works, so we expect we’ll learn more soon as the developer info becomes more public.

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0

Apple’s new App Store Guidelines aim to crack down on fraud and scams

Apple today is releasing a new version of its App Store Review Guidelines, its lengthy document which dictates the rules which apps must abide by in order to be published to its App Store. Among the more notable changes rolling out today are several sections that will see Apple taking a harder stance on App Store fraud, scams and developer misconduct, including a new process that aims to empower other developers to hold bad actors accountable.

One of the key updates on this front involves a change to Apple’s Developer Code of Conduct (Section 5.6 and 5.6.1-5.6.4 of the Review Guidelines).

This section has been significantly expanded to include guidance stating that repeated manipulative or misleading behavior or other fraudulent conduct will lead to the developer’s removal from the Apple Developer Program. This is something Apple has done for repeated violations, it claims, but wanted to now ensure was clearly spelled out in the guidelines.

In an entirely new third paragraph in this section, Apple says that if a developer engages in activities or actions that are not in accordance with the developer code of conduct, they will have their Apple Developer account terminated.

It also details what, specifically, must be done to restore the account, which includes providing Apple with a written statement detailing the improvements they’ve made, which will have to be approved by Apple. If Apple is able to confirm the changes has been made, it may then restore the developer’s account.

Apple explained in a press briefing that this change was meant to prevent a sort of catch and release scenario where a developer gets caught by Apple, but then later reverts their changes to continue their bad behavior.

As part of this update, Apple added a new section about developer identity (5.6.2). This is meant to ensure the contact information for developers provided to Apple and customers is accurate and functional, and that the developer isn’t impersonating other, legitimate developers on the App Store. This was a particular issue in a high-profile incident of App Store fraud which involved a crypto wallet app that scammed a user out of his life savings (~$600,000) in Bitcoin. The scam victim had been deceived because the app was using the same name and icon as a different company that made a hardware crypto device, and because the scan app was rated 5 stars. (Illegitimately, that is).

Related to this, Apple clarified the language around App Store discovery fraud (5.6.3) to more specifically call out any type of manipulations of App Store charts, search, reviews and referrals. The former would mean to crack down on the clearly booming industry of fake App Store ratings and reviews, which can send scam app up higher in charts and search.

Meanwhile, the referral crackdown would address consumers being shown incorrect pricing outside the App Store in an effort to boost installs.

Another section (5.6.4) addresses issues that come up after an app is published, including negative customer reports and concerns and excessive refund rates, for example. If Apple notices this behavior, it will investigate the app for violations, it says.

Of course, the question here is: will Apple actually notice the potential scammers? In recent months, a growing number of developers believe Apple is allowing far too many scammers to fall through the cracks of App Review.

One particular thorn in Apple’s side has been Fleksy keyboard app founder Kosta Eleftheriou, who is not only suing Apple for the revenue he’s personally lost to scammers, but also formed a sort of one-man bunco squad to expose some of the more egregious scams to date. This has included the above-mentioned crypto scam; a kids game that actually contained a hidden online casino; and a VPN app scamming users out of $5 million per year, among many others.

The rampant fraud taking place on the App Store was also brought up during Apple’s antitrust hearing, when Georgia’s Senator Jon Ossoff asked Apple’s Chief Compliance Officer Kyle Andeer why Apple was not able to locate scams, given they’re “trivially easy” to identify.

Apple downplayed the concerns then, and continues to do so through press releases like this one which noted how the App Store stopped over $1.5 billion in fraudulent transactions in 2020.

But a new update to these Guidelines seems to be an admission that Apple may need a little help on this front. It says developers can now directly report possible violations they find in other developers’ apps. Through a new form that standardizes this sort of complaint, developers can point to guideline violations and any other trust and safety issues they discover. Often, developers notice the scammers whose apps are impacting their own business and revenue, so they’ll likely turn to this form now as a first step in getting the scammer dealt with.

Another change will allow developers to appeal a rejection if they think there was unfair treatment of any kind, including political bias. Previously, Apple had allowed developers to appeal App Store decisions and suggest changes to guidelines.

Apple told us it has 500 app reviewers covering 81 languages who see new scenarios daily that have to be accounted for in updated guidelines and policies. Apple says it takes what it learns from these individual issues it encounters to invest in its systems, algorithms and training so it can prevent similar issues in the future. The company believes the new Code of Conduct rules, in particular, will give it the tools needed to better crack down on App Store fraud.

The rules about scams are only a handful of the many changes rolling out with today’s updated App Store Review Guidelines.

There are a few others, however, also worth highlighting:

  • Apple clarified rules around “hookup” apps to ensure developers understand porn and prostitution are not allowed on the App Store — often an issue with the fly-by-night hookup apps, which bait and switch users.
  • Creator content apps are instructed that they must follow rules for user-generated content, when applicable, meaning they must have content blocking, reporting and robust moderation.
  • Apple added the ability for licensed pharmacies and licensed cannabis dispensaries to facilitate purchasing provided they’re legal and geogated.
  • Apps that report criminal activity require the developers to work with local law enforcement. (Citizen is a recent example of an app gone awry when users hunted down the wrong person. That level of carelessness may be coming to an end now.)
  • Bait-and-switch marketing and ads about app pricing isn’t allowed.
  • Cellular carrier apps can now include other kinds of subscription apps besides music and video services.
  • Apple clarifies that developers can communicate on email with anyone, but says they can’t target customers acquired through the App Store with messages about how to make purchases outside of the App Store.
  • Apple has enough drinking game apps. Stop sending them in.
  • Apps that offer account creation also have to offer account deletion.
  • Other clarity was added around in-app purchases for gift cards, app metadata, bug fix submissions, and more. But these were not major changes.

read more about Apple's WWDC 2021 on TechCrunch

#app-store, #apple, #apple-inc, #apple-news, #apps, #computing, #epic-games, #georgia, #itunes, #kosta-eleftheriou, #tc, #technology, #video-services, #vpn, #wwdc-2021

0

Apple to introduce A/B testing and in-app events to the App Store

Apple today announced a number of coming changes and improvements to the App Store that will help developers better target their apps to users, get their apps discovered by more people, and even highlight what sort of events are taking place inside their apps to entice new users to download the app and encourage existing users to return.

The company said its App Store today sees 600 million weekly users across 175 countries, and has paid out over $230 billion to developers since the App Store launched, highlighting the business opportunity for app developers.

However, as the App Store has grown, it’s become harder for app developers to market their apps to new users or get their apps found. The new features aim to address that.

Image Credits: Apple

One change involves the app’s product page. Starting this year, app developers will be able to create multiple custom product pages to showcase different features of their app for different users. For instance, they’ll be able to try out things like different screenshots, videos, and even different app icons to A/B test what users like the most.

They’ll also be able to advertise the dynamic things that are taking place inside their apps on an ongoing basis. Apple explained that apps and games are constantly rolling out new content and limited time events like film premieres on streaming services, events like Pokémon Go fests, or Nike fitness challenges. But these events were often only discoverable by those who already had the app installed and then opted in to push notifications.

Image Credits: Apple

Apple will now allow developers to better advertise these events, with the launch in-app events “front and center on the App Store.” The events can be showcased on the app’s product page. Users can learn more about the events, sign up to be notified, or quickly join the event, if it’s happening now. They can also discover events with personalized recommendations and through App Store search.

App Store editors will curate the best events and the new App Store widget will feature upcoming events right on users’ homescreens, too.

Apple says the feature will be open to all developers, including those who already run events and those who are just getting started.

read more about Apple's WWDC 2021 on TechCrunch

#app-store, #apple, #apple-inc, #apps, #google-play, #instagram, #ios-8, #itunes, #mobile-software, #nike, #operating-systems, #software, #streaming-services, #wwdc-2021

0

In search of a new crypto deity

Hello friends, and welcome back to Week in Review!

Last week, I wrote about tech taking on Disney. This week, I’m talking about the search for a new crypto messiah.

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

Elon has worn out his welcome among the crypto illuminati, and the acolytes of Bitcoin are searching out a new emperor god king.

This weekend, thousands of crypto acolytes and investors have descended on a Bitcoin-themed conference in Miami, a very real, very heavily-produced conference sporting crypto celebrities and actual celebrities all on a mission to make waves.

Even though I am not at the conference in person (panels from its main stage were live-streamed online), I have plenty of invites in my email for afterparties featuring celebrities, open bars and endless conversations on the perils of fiat. The cryptocurrency community has never been larger or richer thanks to its most fervent bull run yet, and despite a pretty noteworthy correction in the past few weeks, people believe the best is yet to come.

Despite having so much, what they still seem to be lacking is a patron saint.

For the longest bout, that was SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk who bolstered the currency by pushing Tesla to invest cash on its balance sheet into bitcoin, while also pushing for Tesla to accept bitcoin payments for its vehicles. As I’ve noted in this newsletter in the past, Musk had a tough time reconciling the sheer energy use of bitcoin’s global network with his eco warrior bravado which has seemed to lead to his mild and uneven excommunication (though I’m sure he’s welcome back at any time).

There are plenty of celebrities looking to fill his shoes — a recent endorsement gone wrong by Soulja Boy was one of the more comical instances.

Crypto has been no stranger to grift — of that even the most hardcore crypto grifters can likely agree — and I think there’s been some agreement that the only leader who can truly preach the gospel is someone who is already so rich they don’t even need more money. It’s one reason the community has offered up so much respect for Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin who truly doesn’t seem to care too much about getting any wealthier — he donated about $1 billion worth of crypto to Covid relief efforts in India. A Musk-like cheerleader serves a different purpose though, and so the community is in search of a Good Billionaire.

The best runner-up at the moment appears to be one Jack Dorsey, and while — like Musk — he is also another double-CEO, he is quite a bit different from him in demeanor and desire for the spotlight. He was, however, a headline speaker at Miami’s Bitcoin conference.

Dorsey gathers the most headlines for his work at Twitter but it’s Square where he is pushing most of his crypto enthusiasm. Users can already use Square’s Cash App to buy Bitcoin. Minutes before going onstage Friday, Dorsey tweeted out a thread detailing that Square was interested in building its own hardware wallet that users could store cryptocurrency like bitcoin on outside of the confines of an exchange.

“Bitcoin changes absolutely everything,” Dorsey said onstage. “I don’t think there is anything more important in my lifetime to work on.”

And while the billionaire Dorsey seems like a good choice on paper — he tweets about bitcoin often, but only good tweets. He defends its environmental effects. He shows up to House misinformation hearings with a bitcoin tracker clearly visible in the background. He is also unfortunately the CEO of Twitter, a company that’s desire to reign in its more troublesome users — including one very troublesome user — has caused a rift between him and the crypto community’s very vocal libertarian sect.

Dorsey didn’t make it very far into his speech before a heckler made a scene calling him a hypocrite because of all this with a few others piping in, but like any good potential crypto king would know to do, he just waited quietly for the noise to die down.


(Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Other things 

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

Facebook’s Trump ban will last at least 2 years
In response to the Facebook Oversight Board’s recommendations that the company offer more specificity around its ban of former President Trump, the company announced Friday that it will be banning Trump from its platforms through January 2023 at least, though the company has basically given itself the ability to extend that deadline if it so desires…

Nigeria suspends Twitter
Nigeria is shutting down access to Twitter inside the country with a government official citing the “use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence.” Twitter called the shutdown “deeply concerning.”

Stack Overflow gets acquired for $1.8 billion
Stack Overflow, one of the most-visited sites of developers across the technology industry, was acquired by Prosus. The heavy hitter investment firm is best known for owning a huge chunk of Tencent. Stack Overflow’s founders say the site will continue to operate independently under the new management.

Spotify ups its personalization
Music service Spotify launched a dedicated section this week called Only You which aims to capture some of the personalization it has been serving up in its annual Spotify Wrapped review. Highlights of the new feature include blended playlists with friends and mid-year reviews.

Supreme Court limits US hacking law in landmark case
Justices from the conservative and liberal wings joined together in a landmark ruling that put limits on what kind of conduct can be prosecuted under the controversial Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

This one email explains Apple
Here’s a fun one, the email exchange that birthed the App Store between the late Steve Jobs and SVP of Software Engineering, Bertrand Serlet as annotated by my boss Matthew Panzarino.


illustration of money raining down

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

Extra things

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

For SaaS startups, differentiation is an iterative process
“The more you know about your target customers’ pain points with current solutions, the easier it will be to stand out. Take every opportunity to learn about the people you are aiming to serve, and which problems they want to solve the most. Analyst reports about specific sectors may be useful, but there is no better source of information than the people who, hopefully, will pay to use your solution..”

3 lessons we learned after raising $6 million from 50 investors
“…being pre-product at the time, we had to lean on our experience and our vision to drive conviction and urgency among investors. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t enough. Investors either felt that our experience was a bad fit for the space we were entering (productivity/scheduling) or that our vision wasn’t compelling enough to merit investment on the terms we wanted.

The existential cost of decelerated growth
“Just because a technology startup has a hot start, that doesn’t mean it will grow quickly forever. Most will wind up somewhere in the middle — or worse. Put simply, there is a larger number of tech companies that do fine or a little bit worse after they reach scale.”

 

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.

#analyst, #app-store, #bertrand-serlet, #bitcoin, #blockchain, #bryce-durbin, #ceo, #cryptocurrencies, #cryptocurrency, #digital-currencies, #elon-musk, #extra-crunch, #facebook, #india, #jack-dorsey, #king, #matthew-panzarino, #miami, #nigeria, #president, #prosus, #soulja-boy, #spacex, #spotify, #stack-overflow, #steve-jobs, #supreme-court, #svp, #tc, #technology, #tencent, #tesla, #trump, #twitter, #united-states, #vitalik-buterin, #week-in-review

0

This one email explains Apple

An email has been going around the internet as a part of a release of documents related to Apple’s App Store based suit brought by Epic Games. I love this email for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that you can extrapolate from it the very reasons Apple has remained such a vital force in the industry for the past decade. 

The gist of it is that SVP of Software Engineering, Bertrand Serlet, sent an email in October of 2007, just three months after the iPhone was launched. In the email, Serlet outlines essentially every core feature of Apple’s App Store — a business that brought in an estimated $64B in 2020. And that, more importantly, allowed the launch of countless titanic internet startups and businesses built on and taking advantage of native apps on iPhone.

Forty five minutes after the email, Steve Jobs replies to Serlet and iPhone lead Scott Forstall, from his iPhone, “Sure, as long as we can roll it all out at Macworld on Jan 15, 2008.”

Apple University should have a course dedicated to this email. 

Here it is, shared by an account I enjoy, Internal Tech Emails, on Twitter. If you run the account let me know, happy to credit you further here if you wish:

First, we have Serlet’s outline. It’s seven sentences that outline the key tenets of the App Store. User protection, network protection, an owned developer platform and a sustainable API approach. There is a direct ask for resources — whoever we need in software engineering — to get it shipped ASAP. 

It also has a clear ask at the bottom, ‘do you agree with these goals?’

Enough detail is included in the parentheticals to allow an informed reader to infer scope and work hours. And at no point during this email does Serlet include an ounce of justification for these choices. These are the obvious and necessary framework, in his mind, for accomplishing the rollout of an SDK for iPhone developers. 

There is no extensive rationale provided for each item, something that is often unnecessary in an informed context and can often act as psychic baggage that telegraphs one of two things:

  1. You don’t believe the leader you’re outlining the project to knows what the hell they’re talking about.
  2. You don’t believe it and you’re still trying to convince yourself. 

Neither one of those is the wisest way to provide an initial scope of work. There is plenty of time down the line to flesh out rationale to those who have less command of the larger context. 

If you’re a historian of iPhone software development, you’ll know that developer Nullriver had released Installer, a third-party installer that allowed apps to be natively loaded onto iPhone, in the summer of 2007. Early September, I believe. It was followed in 2008 by the eventually far more popular Cydia. And there were developers that August and September already experimenting with this completely unofficial way of getting apps on the store, like the venerable Twitterific by Craig Hockenberry and Lights Off by Lucas Newman and Adam Betts.

Though there has been plenty of established documentation of Steve being reluctant about allowing third-party apps on iPhone, this email establishes an official timeline for when the decision was not only made but essentially fully formed. And it’s much earlier than the apocryphal discussion about when the call was made. This is just weeks after the first hacky third-party attempts had made their way to iPhone and just under two months since the first iPhone jailbreak toolchain appeared. 

There is no need or desire shown here for Steve to ‘make sure’ that his touch is felt on this framework. All too often I see leaders that are obsessed with making sure that they give feedback and input at every turn. Why did you hire those people in the first place? Was it for their skill and acumen? Their attention to detail? Their obsessive desire to get things right?

Then let them do their job. 

Serlet’s email is well written and has the exact right scope, yes. But the response is just as important. A demand of what is likely too short a timeline (the App Store was eventually announced in March of 2008 and shipped in July of that year) sets the bar high — matching the urgency of the request for all teams to work together on this project. This is not a side alley, it’s the foundation of a main thoroughfare. It must get built before anything goes on top. 

This efficacy is at the core of what makes Apple good when it is good. It’s not always good, but nothing ever is 100% of the time and the hit record is incredibly strong across a decade’s worth of shipped software and hardware. Crisp, lean communication that does not coddle or equivocate, coupled with a leader that is confident in their own ability and the ability of those that they hired means that there is no need to bog down the process in order to establish a record of involvement. 

One cannot exist without the other. A clear, well argued RFP or project outline that is sent up to insecure or ineffective management just becomes fodder for territorial games or endless rounds of requests for clarification. And no matter how effective leadership is and how talented their employees, if they do not establish an environment in which clarity of thought is welcomed and rewarded then they will never get the kind of bold, declarative product development that they wish. 

All in all, this exchange is a wildly important bit of ephemera that underpins the entire app ecosystem era and an explosive growth phase for Internet technology. And it’s also an encapsulation of the kind of environment that has made Apple an effective and brutally efficient company for so many years. 

Can it be learned from and emulated? Probably, but only if all involved are willing to create the environment necessary to foster the necessary elements above. Nine times out of ten you get moribund management, an environment that discourages blunt position taking and a muddy route to the exit. The tenth time, though, you get magic.

And, hey, maybe we can take this opportunity to make that next meeting an email?

#api, #app-store, #apple, #apple-inc, #apple-university, #bertrand-serlet, #crisp, #epic-games, #ios, #iphone, #mobile-app, #mobile-phones, #science-and-technology, #scott-forstall, #software-development, #software-engineering, #steve-jobs, #svp, #tc, #technology

0

Apple’s App Store facilitated $643 billion in commerce, up 24% from last year

In its antitrust trial with Epic Games, which has just adjourned, Apple argued it doesn’t evaluate its App Store profit and loss as a standalone business. But today, the company put out new figures that indicate it does have a good understanding of the money that flows through its app marketplace, at the very least. The company has now released an updated version of a study performed by the economists at the Analysis Group, which claims the App Store ecosystem facilitated $643 billion in billings and sales in 2020, up 24% from the $519 billion seen the year prior. The new report focuses on the pandemic impacts to apps and the small business developers the App Store serves, among other things.

It also noted that about 90% of the billings and sales facilitated by the App Store actually took place outside its walls, meaning Apple took no commission on those purchases. This is up from the 85% figure reported last year, and is a figure Apple has been using in antitrust battles to paint a picture of an App Store that facilitates a lot commerce where it doesn’t take a commission.

The study then broke down how the different categories of App Store billings and sales were distributed.

Apple takes a commission on the sales of digital goods and services, which were $86 billion in 2020, or 13% of the total. But another $511 billion came from the sale of physical goods and services through apps — think online shopping, food delivery, ride hailing, etc. — or 80% of the total. These aren’t commissioned. And $46 billion came from in-app advertising, or 7% of the total.

The larger point being made with some of these figures is that, while the dollar amount flowing through apps being commissioned is large, it’s much smaller than most of the business being conducted on the App Store.

The report also noted how much of that business originates from China, which accounted for 47% of total global billings and sales ($300B) versus the U.S.’s 27% ($175+B).

Apple app store iOS

Image Credits: TechCrunch

The study additionally dove into how some App Store categories had been heavily impacted by the pandemic — particularly those apps that helped businesses and schools move online, those that offered ways to shop from your phone, or helped consumers stay entertained and healthy, among other things.

This led to an over 40% increase in billings and sales from apps offering digital goods and services, while sales in the travel and ride hailing sectors decreased by 30%. While the latter may gradually return to pre-pandemic levels, some of the acceleration driven by the pandemic in other categories — like online shopping and grocery delivery — could be here to stay.

To break it down further, general retail grew to $383 billion in 2020, up from $268 billion last year. Food delivery and pickup grew from $31 billion in 2019 to $36 billion in 2021. Grocery shopping jumped from $14 billion to $22 billion. But travel fell from $57 billion in 2019 to $38 billion in 2020, and ride hailing dropped from $40 billion to $26 billion. (None of these categories are commissioned.)

The study then continued with a deep dive into how the App Store aided small businesses.

Highlighting how smaller businesses benefit from a tech giant’s ecosystem is a tactic others have taken to, as well, in order shore up support for their own operations, which have similarly been accused of being monopolies in recent months.

Amazon, for example, raves about the small businesses benefitting from its marketplace and its sales event Prime Day, even as it stands accused of leveraging nonpublic data to compete with those same small business sellers. Facebook, meanwhile, pushed the small business impact angle when Apple’s new privacy protections in iOS 14 allowed customers to opt out of being tracked — and therefore out of Facebook’s personalized ads empire.

In Apple’s case, it’s pointing to the fact that the number of small developers worldwide has grown by 40% since 2015. This group now makes up more than 90% of App Store developers. The study defines this group of “small” developers as those with fewer than 1 million downloads and less than $1 million in earnings across all their apps. It also excludes any developers that never saw more than 1,000 downloads in a year between 2015 and 2020, to ensure the data focuses on businesses, not hobbyists. (This is a slightly different definition than Apple uses for its Small Business Program, we should note.)

Among this group, more than 1 in 5 saw at least an increase in downloads of at least 25% annually since their first full year on the App Store. And 1 in 4 who sold digital goods and services saw an earnings increase of at least 25% annually.

The study also connected being on the App Store with growing a business’s revenue, noting that only 23% of large developers (those with more than $1 million in earnings in 2020) had already earned more than $1 million back in 2015. 42% were active on the App Store in 2015 but hadn’t crossed the $1 million threshold, and another 35% were not even on the App Store — an indication their success has been far more recent.

The research additionally identified over 75 businesses in the U.S. and Europe, where iOS was essential to their business, that went public or were acquired since 2011. Their valuation totaled nearly $500 billion.

Finally, the study examined how apps transact outside their home market, as around 40% of all downloads of apps from small developers came from outside their home countries and nearly 80% were operating in multiple storefronts.

Image Credits: Apple WWDC 2021 imagery 

While the antitrust scrutiny may have pushed Apple into to commissioning this type of App Store research last year, it’s interesting to see the company is now updating the data on an annual basis to give the industry a deeper view into the App Store compared with the general developer revenue figure it used to trot out at various events and occasions.

Like last year’s study, the updated research has been released in the days leading up to Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference. It’s a time of the year when Apple aims to renew its bond with the developer community as it rolls out new software development kits (SDKs), application programming interfaces (API)s, software and other tools — enhancements it wants remid developers are made possible, in part, because of its App Store fees.

Today, Apple notes it has more than 250,000 APIs included in 40 SDKs. At WWDC 2021, it will host hundreds of virtual sessions, 1-on-1 developer labs, and highlight App Store favorites.

“Developers on the App Store prove every day that there is no more innovative, resilient or dynamic marketplace on earth than the app economy,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook, in a statement about the research. “The apps we’ve relied on through the pandemic have been life-changing in so many ways — from groceries delivered to our homes, to teaching tools for parents and educators, to an imaginative and ever-expanding universe of games and entertainment. The result isn’t just incredible apps for users: it’s jobs, it’s opportunity, and it’s untold innovation that will power global economies for many years to come,” he added.

#app-ecosystem, #app-store-research, #app-stores, #app-store, #apple, #apple-inc, #apps, #developers, #mobile, #mobile-app, #mobile-apps, #tc, #tim-cook, #wwdc, #wwdc-2021

0

Tencent helps Chinese students skip prohibitively low speeds for school websites overseas

Hundreds of thousands of Chinese students enrolled in overseas schools are stranded as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt life and airlines worldwide. Learning at home in China, they all face one challenge: Their school websites and other academic resources load excruciatingly slowly because all web traffic has to pass through the country’s censorship apparatus known as the “great firewall.”

Spotting a business opportunity, Alibaba’s cloud unit worked on connecting students in China to their university portals abroad through a virtual private network arrangement with American cybersecurity solutions provider Fortinet to provide, Reuters reported last July, saying Tencent had a similar product.

Details of Tencent’s offering have come to light. An app called “Chang’e Education Acceleration” debuted on Apple’s App Store in March, helping to speed up loading time for a selection of overseas educational services. It describes itself in a mouthful: “An online learning free accelerator from Tencent, with a mission to provide internet acceleration and search services in educational resources to students and researchers at home and abroad.”

Unlike Alibaba’s VPN for academic use, Chang’e is not a VPN, the firm told TechCrunch. The firm didn’t say how it defines VPN or explain how Chang’e works technically. Tencent said Chang’e rolled out on the app’s official website in October.

The word “VPN” is a loaded term in China as it often implies illegally bypassing the “great firewall.” People refer to its euphemism “accelerator” or “scientific internet surfing tool” otherwise. When Chang’e is switched on, iPhone’s VPN status is shown as “on”, according to a test by TechCrunch.

Tencent’s Chang’e website ‘accelerator’ helps Chinese students stuck home get on their school websites faster. Screenshot: TechCrunch

On the welcome page, Chang’e asks users to pick from eight countries, including the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., for “acceleration”. It also shows the latency time and expected speed increased for each region.

Once a country is picked, Chang’e shows a list of educational resources that users can visit on the app’s built-in browser. They include the websites of 79 top universities, mostly U.S. and the U.K. ones; team collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams, Trello and Slack; remote-learning platforms UDemy, Coursera, Lynda and Khan Academy; research networks such as SSRN and JSTOR; programming and engineering communities like Stack Overflow, Codeacademy and IEEE; economics databases from the World Bank and OECD; as well as resources for medical students like PubMed and Lancet.

Many of these services are not blocked in China but load slowly on mainland China behind the “great firewall.” Users can request sites not already on the list to be included.

Accessing Stanford’s website through Chang’e. Screenshot: TechCrunch

Chang’e appears to have whitelisted only its chosen sites rather than all traffic on a user’s smartphone. Google, Facebook, YouTube and other websites banned in China are still unavailable when the Chang’e is at work. The app, available on both Android and iOS for free, doesn’t currently require users to sign up, a rare gesture in a country where online activities are strictly regulated and most websites ask for users’ real-name registrations.

Services accessible through Chang’e. Screenshot: TechCrunch

The offerings from Alibaba and Tencent are indicative of the inadvertent consequences caused by Beijing’s censorship system designed to block information deemed illegal or harmful to China’s national interest. Universities, research institutes, multinational corporations and exporters are often forced to seek censorship circumvention apps for what the authorities would consider innocuous purposes.

VPN providers have to obtain the government’s green light to legally operate in China and users of licensed VPN services are prohibited from browsing websites thought of us endangering China’s national security. In 2017, Apple removed hundreds of unlicensed VPN apps from its China App Store at Beijing’s behest.

In October, TechCrunch reported that the VPN app and browser Tuber gave Chinese users a rare glimpse into the global internet ecosystem of Facebook, YouTube, Google and other mainstream apps, but the app was removed shortly after the article was published.

#alibaba, #app-store, #apple, #apple-app-store, #asia, #beijing, #china, #firewall, #fortinet, #great-firewall, #tc, #tencent, #vpn

0

RevenueCat raises $40M Series B for its in-app subscription platform

RevenueCat, a startup offering a series of tools for developers of subscription-based apps, has raised $40 million in Series B funding, valuing its business at $300 million, post-money. Founded by developers who understood the difficulties in scaling a subscription app first-hand, RevenueCat’s software development kit (SDK) solution gives companies the tools they need to build a subscription business, including not just adding subscriptions themselves, but maintaining them over time even as the app stores implement changes. It also aids by sharing subscription data with other tools the business uses, like those for advertising, analytics or attribution.

The funding round was led by Y Combinator’s Continuity Fund and included participation from Index Ventures, SaaStr, Oakhouse, Adjacent, and FundersClub, as well as Blinklist CTO Tobias Balling and Algolia CEO Nicolas Dessaign. With the round, YC Continuity Partner Anu Hariharan is joining RevenueCat’s board, which today includes Index’s Mark Fiorentino in addition to the founders.

Explains RevenueCat CEO Jacob Eiting, the idea for the company came about after he and co-founder Miguel Carranza Guisado (CTO) struggled to figure out subscription infrastructure while working together at Elevate. After years of untangling a “subscription mess” in order to figure out answers to basic questions like subscriber retention and lifetime value, they realized there was potential in helping solve this problem for other developers.

Apple and Google, Eiting explains, aren’t always up to date with what companies actually need to build subscription businesses. “They’re kind of learning as they go. They just weren’t able to provide us the data we needed, and then also the infrastructure to do that is non-trivial.”

Image Credits: RevenueCat

When Eiting and Guisado sat down to work on on RevenueCat in 2017, no one else was even building anything like this. But the demand for the startup’s tools and integrations soon resonated with developers who had faced similar challenges it the growing subsection app market.

Using the service, developers can access a real-time dashboard that display key metrics, like subscription revenue, churn, LTV (lifetime value), subscriber numbers, conversions and more. The data can then be shared through integrations with other tools and services, like Adjust, Amplitude, Apple Search Ads, AppsFlyer, Branch, Facebook Ads, Google Cloud Intercom, Mixpanel, Segment, and several others. 

After launching out of Y Combinator’s accelerator the following year, RevenueCat was soon live with 100 apps and had crossed $1 million in tracked revenue by the time it raised its $1.5 million seed round.

Today, RevenueCat has over 6,000 apps live on its platform, with over $1 billion in tracked subscription revenue being managed by its tools. That’s double the number of apps that were using its service as of its $15 million Series A last August.

With the additional funding, the company will lower its pricing to put its tools in reach of more developers. Previously, it charged $120 per month for its charts and some of its integrations, or $499 per month for access to all integrations. This was affordable for larger companies, but could still be a difficult sell to the long tail of app developers where revenues ranged from $10K to $50K per month.

Now, RevenueCat will charge a small percentage of an app’s sales instead of a flat fee. Developers with up to $10,000 in monthly tracked revenue (MTR) can get started with the service for free and as their demands grow — like needing access to charts, support for web hooks, integrations and others — they can move up to either the Starter or Pro plans as $8/mo or $12/mo per $1,000 in MTR, respectively.

“I’m excited to give those tools to developers, especially on the small end, because it might be what they need to get out of that ‘less than $10K range,’” Eiting says. “Also, the beauty of freemium, or having a really generous free tier, is that it makes your tool the de facto — you remove as much friction as possible for providing software services and then, if you get your pricing right — which I think we have — it all kind of pays for itself,” he adds.

The company also plans to use the new funds to further invest in its business, expanding from App Store and Google Play support to include Amazon’s Appstore. It will also grow its team.

As part of its expected growth, RevenueCat recently hired a Head of Product, Jens-Fabian Goetzmann, previously a PM at Microsoft and then product head at fitness app 8fit. Currently 30 people, in the year ahead, RevenueCat will grow to 60 people, hiring across design, product, engineering, sales and other roles.

“The world is moving toward subscriptions — and for companies, building out this model translates to weeks of developers’ time,” says YC Continuity’s Hariharan. “RevenueCat helps developers rollout subscriptions in minutes and creates a source of truth for customer data. With developers creating solutions to problems in the world, it’s important that they can find ways to monetize, grow, and support their most committed customers. RevenueCat is doing so by building subscriptions 2.0.”

#app-stores, #app-store, #apple, #apps, #developers, #funding, #google, #jacob-eiting, #mobile, #mobile-apps, #recent-funding, #revenuecat, #software-development-kit, #startups, #subscriptions, #y-combinator

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Poparazzi hypes itself to the top of the App Store

If Instagram’s photo tagging feature was spun out into its own app, you’d have the viral sensation Poparazzi, now the No. 1 app on the App Store. The new social networking app, from the same folks behind TTYL and others, lets you create a social profile that only your friends can post photos to — in other words, making your friends your own ‘paparazzi.’ To its credit, the new app has perfectly executed on a series of choices designed to fuel day one growth — from its pre-launch TikTok hype cycle to drive App Store pre-orders to its post-launch social buzz, including favorable tweets by its backers. But the app has also traded user privacy in some cases to amplify network effects in its bid for the Top Charts, which is a risky move in terms of its long-term staying power.

The company positions Poparazzi as a sort of anti-Instagram, rebelling against today’s social feeds filled with edited photos, too many selfies, and “seemingly effortless perfection.” People’s real lives are made up of many unperfect moments that are worthy of being captured and shared, too, a company blog post explains.

This manifesto hits the right notes at the right time. User demand for less performative social media has been steadily growing for years — particularly as younger, Gen Z users wake up to the manipulations by tech giants. We’ve already seen a number of startups try to siphon users away from Instagram using similar rallying cries, including MinutiaeVeroDayflashOggl, and more recently, the once-buzzy Dispo and the under-the-radar Herd.

Even Facebook has woken up to consumer demand on this front, with its plan to roll out new features that allow Facebook and Instagram users to remove the Like counts from their posts and their feeds.

Poparazzi hasn’t necessarily innovated in terms of its core idea — after all, tagging users in photos has existed for years. In fact, it was one of the first viral effects introduced by Facebook in its earlier days.

Instead, Poparazzi hit the top of the charts by carefully executing on growth strategies that ensured a rocket ship-style launch.

@poparazziappcomment it! ##greenscreen ##poparazziapp ##positivity ##foryoupage♬ Milkshake – BBY Kodie

The company began gathering pre-launch buzz by driving demand via TikTok — a platform that’s already helped mint App Store hits like the mobile game High Heels. TikTok’s powers are still often underestimated, even though its potential for to send apps up the Top Charts have successfully boosted downloads for a number of mobile businesses, including TikTok sister app CapCut and e-commerce app Shein, for example.

And Poparazzi didn’t just build demand on TikTok — it actually captured it by pointing users to its App Store pre-orders page via the link in its bio. By the time launch day rolled around, it had a gaggle of Gen Z users ready and willing to give Poparazzi a try.

The app launches with a clever onboarding screen that uses haptics to buzz and vibrate your phone while the intro video plays. This is unusual enough that users will talk and post about how cool it was — another potential means of generating organic growth through word-of-mouth.

After getting you riled up with excitement, Poparazzi eases you into its bigger data grab.

First, it signs up and authenticates users through a phone number. Despite Apple’s App Store policy, which requires it, there is no privacy-focused option to use “Sign In with Apple,” which allows users to protect their identity. That would have limited Poparazzi’s growth potential versus its phone number and address book access approach.

It then presents you with a screen where it asks for permission to access to your Camera (an obvious necessity), Contacts (wait, all of them?), and permission to send you Notifications. This is where things start to get more dicey. The app, like Clubhouse once did, demands a full address book upload. This is unnecessary in terms of an app’s usability, as there are plenty of other ways to add friends on social media — like by scanning each other’s QR code, typing in a username directly, or performing a search.

But gaining access someone’s full Contacts database lets Poparazzi skip having to build out features for the privacy-minded. It can simply match your stored phone numbers with those it has on file from user signups and create an instant friend graph.

As you complete each permission, Poparazzi rewards you with green checkmarks. In fact, even if you deny the permission being asked, the green check appears. This may confuse users as to whether whether they’ve accidently given the app access.

While you can “deny” the Address Book upload — a request met with a tsk tsk of a pop-up message — Poparazzi literally only works with friends, it warns you — you can’t avoid being found by other Poparazzi users who have your phone number stored in their phone.

When users sign up, the app matches their address book to the phone number it has on file and then — boom! — new users are instantly following the existing users. And if any other friends have signed up before you, they’ll be following you as soon as you log in the first time.

In other words, there’s no manual curation of a “friend graph” here. The expectation is that your address book is your friend graph, and Poparazzi is just duplicating it.

Of course, this isn’t always an accurate presentation of reality.

Many younger people, and particularly women, have the phone numbers of abusers, stalkers and exes stored in their phone’s Contacts. By doing so, they can leverage the phone’s built-in tools to block the unwanted calls and texts from that person. But because Poparazzi automatically matches people by phone number, abusers could gain immediate access to the user profiles of the people they’re trying to harass or hurt.

Sure, this is an edge case. But it’s a non-trivial one.

It’s a well-documented problem, too — and one that had plagued Clubhouse, which similarly required full address book uploads during its early growth phase. It’s a terrible strategy to become the norm, and one that does not appear to have created a lasting near-term lock-in for Clubhouse. It’s also not a new tactic. Mobile social network Path tried address book uploads nearly a decade ago and almost everyone at the time agreed this was not a good idea.

As carefully designed as Poparazzi is — (it’s even a blue icon — a color that denotes trustworthiness!) — it’s likely the company intentionally chose the trade off. It’s forgoing some aspects of user privacy and safety in favor of the network effects that come from having an instant friend graph.

The rest of the app then pushes you to grow that friend graph further and engage with other users. Your profile will remain bare unless you can convince someone to upload photos of you. A SnapKit integration lets you beg for photo tags over on Snapchat. And if you can’t get enough of your friends to tag you in photos, then you may find yourself drawn to the setting “Allow Pops from Everyone,” instead of just “People You Approve.”

There’s no world in which letting “everyone” upload photos to a social media profile doesn’t invite abuse at some point, but Poparazzi is clearly hedging its bets here. It likely knows it won’t have to deal with the fallout of these choices until further down the road — after it’s filled out its network with millions of disgruntled Instagram users, that is.

Dozens of other growth hacks are spread throughout the app, too, from multiple pushes to invite friends scattered throughout the app to a very Snapchatt-y “Top Poparazzi” section that will incentivize best friends to keep up their posting streaks.

It’s a clever bag of tricks. And though the app does not offer comments or followers counts, it isn’t being much of an “anti-Instagram” when it comes to chasing clout. The posts — which can turn into looping GIFs if you snap a few in a row — may be more “authentic” and unedited than those on Instagram; but Poparazzi uses react to posts with a range of emojis and how many reactions a post receives is shown publicly.

For beta testers featured on the explore page, reactions can be in the hundreds or thousands — effectively establishing a bar for Pop influence.

Finally, users you follow have permission to post photos, but if you unfollow them — a sure sign that you no longer want them to be in your poparazzi squad — they can still post to your profile. As it turns out, your squad is managed under a separate setting under “Allow Pops From.” That could lead to trouble. At the very least, it would be nice to see the app asking users if they also want to remove the unfollowed account’s permission to post to your profile at the time of the unfollow.

Overall, the app can be fun — especially if you’re in the young, carefree demographic it caters to. Its friend-centric and ironically anti-glam stance is promising as well. But additional privacy controls and the ability to join the service in a way that offers far more granular control of your friend graph in order to boost anti-abuse protections would be welcome additions. 

TechCrunch tried to reach Poparazzi’s team to gain their perspective on the app’s design and growth strategy, but did not hear back. (We understand they’re heads down for the time being.) We understand, per SignalFire’s Josh Constine and our own confirmation, that Floodgate has invested in the startup, as has former TechCrunch co-editor Alexia Bonatsos’ Dream Machine and Weekend Fund.

#alexia-bonatsos, #app-store, #apple, #apps, #clubhouse, #computing, #e-commerce, #facebook, #freeware, #instagram, #internet-culture, #josh-constine, #mobile, #mobile-applications, #snapchat, #social-media, #software, #startups, #tc, #tiktok

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