Amazon adds support for Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu in local Indian languages push ahead of Diwali

More than seven years after Amazon began its e-commerce operations in India, and two years after its shopping service added support for Hindi, the most popular language in the country, the American giant is embracing more local languages to court hundreds of millions of new users.

Amazon announced on Tuesday its website and apps now support Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu in a move that it said would help it reach an additional 200-300 million users in the country.

Localization is one of the most crucial — and popular — steps for companies to expand their potential reach in India. Netflix added support for Hindi last month, and Amazon’s Alexa started conversing in the Indian language last year. (Amazon’s on-demand video streaming service, Prime Video, also supports Hindi, in addition to Tamil and Telugu.)

The company said the usage of Hindi, which it rolled out on its website and apps in India in 2018, has grown by three times in the past five months, and “hundreds of thousands” of Amazon customers have switched to Hindi shopping experience.

Amazon’s further language push comes months after its chief rival in India, Walmart -owned Flipkart, added support for Tamil, Telugu and Kannada, three languages that are spoken by roughly 200 million people in India.

Like Flipkart, Amazon worked with expert linguists to develop an accurate and comprehensible experience in each of the languages, the American e-commerce firm said.

But simple translation is not enough to make inroads with users in India. YouTube and YouTube Music, for instance, understand when Bollywood fans in India search for music by the name of the movie character or actor who played the part instead of the actual musician or song title — a phenomenon unique among Indian users.

Amazon appears to have incorporated similar learnings into its shopping experience. The company said for translations it preferred using commonly used terms from daily life over perfectly translated words.

Kishore Thota, Director of Customer Experience and Marketing at Amazon India, termed the availability of Amazon India shopping experience in four new languages a “major milestone.”

The move comes weeks ahead of Diwali, the biggest festival in India that sees hundreds of millions of Indians spend lavishly. “We are super excited to do this ahead of the upcoming festive season,” said Thota.

#amazon, #amazon-india, #apps, #asia, #ecommerce, #flipkart, #walmart

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Event discovery network IRL raises $16M Series B after refocusing on virtual events

The COVID-19 pandemic impacted the way a number of companies have had to do business. For the event discovery startup, IRL, it meant pivoting into the virtual events space. This April, the startup quickly reacted to government lockdowns and restrictions on in-person gatherings to focus on helping people find their online counterparts and other virtual events, like live-streamed concerts, Zoom parties, esports tournaments, and more. Today, those efforts are paying off as IRL announces $16 million in Series B funding and the expansion of its social calendaring app to colleges.

The new round was led by Goodwater Capital with participation from Founders Fund, Floodgate, and Raine, and comes on top of the $11 million IRL had previously raised, including its $8 million Series A last year.

The coronavirus pandemic, surprisingly, may have made IRL relevant to a wider audience. Before, IRL was mostly useful to those who lived in areas where there were a lot of events to attend, or who could afford to travel. But with the refocusing on “remote life” instead of “real life,” more people could launch the app to find something interesting to do — even if it was only online.

In fitting with its new focus, IRL redesigned its app earlier this year to create a new homescreen experience where users could discover events they could attend remotely. This design continues to be tweaked, and now features a colorful “discover” tab in the app where you can tap into various event categories, like gaming, music, tv, wellness, sports, podcasts, lifestyle, and more, including those sourced from partners like TikTok, Meetup, Twitch, Spotify, SoundCloud, HBO, Ticketmaster, Eventbrite, and others.

There are also dedicated sections for events you’re following and a curated Top Picks. The IRL in-app calendar, meanwhile, lets you easily see what’s happening today and in the weeks and months ahead.

Since its refocusing on virtual events, IRL has brought people together for online happenings like Burning Man’s Multiverse and TikTok Live’s The Weekend Experience, for example.

According to TikTok, IRL had helped it gauge early interest in its The Weekend Experience event, with some 52,000 IRL RSVPs and 1.1 million followers on its IRL profile.

Image Credits: IRL screenshot via TechCrunch

“IRL has been an amazing platform for us to engage with more of our audience and meet new potential users,” said Jenny Zhu, Head of Integrated Marketing U.S. at TikTok. She also added that TikTok sees “major traffic coming from IRL” and is “excited to continue our partnership.”

In terms of growth, IRL claims its users are now tracking over 1 million hours per spent daily in “Time Together” — a metric that tabulates the number of hours users are spending together at the events they RSVP’d to, virtual or otherwise. In addition, IRL says it has seen 10x growth in daily active users and a total of 300 million “Time Together” hours since last June. It also claims 5.5 million MAUs.

While IRL doesn’t share its download figures, app store intelligence firm Sensor Tower estimates the app has seen a total of 7.7 million installs across iOS and Android.

With the additional capital, IRL is expanding with the launch of a college network.

Its goal is to improve upon the Facebook experience for the younger, student demographic by helping college users find, share, and attend academic and social events, both physical and virtual. However, just this month Facebook launched its own college network, Facebook Campus, which allows students to privately network and track student events on the Facebook platform, outside of their main Facebook profile.

IRL says it’s starting its college network with 100 colleges and universities across the North America, including Harvard, Columbia and NYU. Facebook Campus, meanwhile, launched with 30 schools.

“IRL is the only social platform that helps users find the best ways to spend their time and actually encourages them to get off the platform,” said IRL founder and CEO Abraham Shafi, Founder, about the launch of the new network. “Colleges and universities, in particular, need a way to build and foster a sense of community, whether their students are away from campus remote learning or on campus practicing hybrid learning,” he explained.

For IRL’s investor, Chi-Hua Chien, a Managing Partner at Goodwater Capital, the potential in IRL is its focus on real connections and community-building.

“We believe IRL will grow to become one of the major social networks powering communities on the Internet and in the real world,” Chien said. “IRL delivers on the promise to make social media less isolating, by helping drive authentic connection between friends and family around events they care about,” he added.

 

#apps, #funding, #social, #startups

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TikTok, WeChat and the growing digital divide between the U.S. and China

Over the past decade, the dynamic between Chinese and United States tech companies has undergone dramatic shifts. Once seen as a promising market for American companies, that narrative flipped as China’s tech innovation and investment power became increasingly evident, and the expanding reach of the Chinese Communist Party’s cybersecurity regulations fueled concerns about data privacy. For years, however, there still seemed to be room for a flow of ideas between the two countries. But that promise has eroded, against the backdrop of the tariff wars and, most recently, the Trump administration’s executive orders against TikTok and WeChat.

The U.S. Commerce Department was set to enforce the shutdown of TikTok and WeChat in the United States last weekend, but both apps got reprieves. In WeChat’s case, a U.S. district court judge issued a temporary stay against the ban, while TikTok owner ByteDance is in the process of finalizing a complicated deal with Oracle.

The TikTok and WeChat imbroglios underline how much America’s perception of Chinese tech has evolved. Not only is TikTok the first consumer app by a Chinese company to gain a major foothold in the United States, but it’s also had a significant impact on popular culture there. This would have been almost unimaginable just ten, or even five, years ago.

China as a target for expansion

For a long time, China, with its population of 1.4 billion people, was seen as a lucrative market by many foreign tech companies, even as government censorship began to expand. In 2003, China’s Ministry of Public Security launched the Golden Shield Project, commonly referred to as the Great Firewall of China, the apparatus that controls what overseas sites and apps Chinese internet users have access to. At first the Great Firewall mainly targeted access to Chinese-language sites with anti-Chinese Communist Party content. Then it began blocking more services.

A laptop computer screen in Beijing shows the homepage of Google.cn, 26 January 2006, a day after its debut in mainland China where the US online search engine launched a new service after agreeing to censor websites and content banned by the Beijing authorities (AFP PHOTO/Frederic J. BROWN)

A laptop computer screen in Beijing shows the homepage of Google.cn, 26 January 2006, a day after its debut in mainland China where the US online search engine launched a new service after agreeing to censor websites and content banned by the Beijing authorities (AFP PHOTO/Frederic J. BROWN)

Even as the Communist Party’s online censorship became more stringent, many American internet companies were still keen to expand into China. Perhaps the most prominent example from that era is Google, which added Chinese support to Google.com in 2000.

Though access to the search engine was spotty (according to a 2010 timeline from the Financial Times, this may have been because of “extensive filtering” by China’s licensed internet service providers) and it was briefly blocked in 2002, Google continued launching new services targeted to users in China, including a simplified Chinese language version of Google News.

Then in 2005, the company announced plans to set up a research and development center in China. The next year, it officially launched Google.cn. In order to do so, Google agreed to exclude search results on sensitive political topics, causing controversy.

Despite its concessions to the Chinese government, Google’s relationship with China began deteriorating, foreshadowing what other foreign tech companies, particularly those offering online services, would deal with when they tried to enter China. After being blocked on and off, access to YouTube was completely cut off in 2009 after footage was uploaded that appeared to show the brutal beatings of Tibetan protestors in Lhasa. That year, China also blocked access to Facebook and Twitter.

In January 2010, Google announced it was no longer willing to censor searches in China and would withdraw from the country if necessary. It also began redirecting all search queries on Google.cn to Google.com.hk.

But the company continued its R&D operations there and maintained a sales team. (In 2018, an investigation by The Intercept found that Google had started to work on a censored search engine for China again, code-named “Project Dragonfly”). Other big U.S. tech companies also continued courting China, even though their services were blocked there.

For example, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg made several trips to China in the mid-2010s, including a 2015 visit to Tsinghua University, a leading research university. Zuckerberg had joined the university’s board the previous year, and delivered several public talks in Mandarin. Speculation mostly focused on Facebook’s efforts to get a version of its service into China, but China-based companies were, and continue to be, one of Facebook’s most important sources of advertising revenue.

Chinese government policies designed to help domestic companies become more competitive also began to have an impact and by 2015, many American tech firms needed to find a local partner to enter China. The narrative that China needed American tech innovation began to turn on its head.

A shifting dynamic

Since Google Play was also blocked in China, that led the way for the rise of third-party Android app stores, including Chinese internet giant Tencent’s My App.

But Tencent’s most influential product is WeChat, the messenger that launched in 2011. Two years later, Tencent added mobile payments by integrating it with TenPay. In less than five years, WeChat became a vital part of daily life for hundreds of millions of users in China. WeChat Pay and Alibaba’s Alipay, its main competitor, have revolutionized payments in China, where about one-third of consumer payments are now cashless, according to research by think tank CGAP.

BEIJING, CHINA - SEPTEMBER 19: A Chinese customer uses his mobile to pay via a QR code with the WeChat app at a local market on September 19, 2020 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

BEIJING, CHINA – SEPTEMBER 19: A Chinese customer uses his mobile to pay via a QR code with the WeChat app at a local market on September 19, 2020 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

In 2017, Wechat launched “mini-programs,” that allows developers to create “apps within an app” that run on WeChat. The program took off quickly, and within less than two years, Tencent said it had reached one million mini-programs and 200 million daily users. Even Google quietly launched its own mini-program in 2018.

Despite its ubiquity in China, WeChat’s international presence is relatively small, especially when compared to other messengers like WhatsApp. WeChat claims more than one billion monthly active users in total, but only an estimated 100 million to 200 million are international users. Many are members of the Chinese diaspora who use it to keep in touch with family and associates in mainland China since many other popular messengers, including WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Line, are blocked there.

In the meantime, another company was gaining ascendancy, and would eventually succeed where Tencent hadn’t.

Founded in 2012 by Microsoft veteran Zhang Yiming, ByteDance had its own early run-ins with the Chinese government. The first app it launched, a social media platform called Neihan Duanzi that reached 200 million users by 2017, was shut down the next year after the National Radio and Television Administration accused it of hosting inappropriate content. Despite that early setback, ByteDance continued to grow, releasing apps like Toutiao, one of China’s top news aggregators.

But the product it is best known for launched in 2016. Called Douyin in China, ByteDance always planned to expand the short video-sharing app overseas. In an interview with Chinese tech news site 36Kr, Zhang said, “China is home to only one-fifth of the world’s internet users. If we don’t expand globally, we are bound to lose to our peers eyeing the rest of the world” — both echoing and contravening the viewpoint of U.S. internet companies that had seen China as a crucial market.

TikTok, the international version of Douyin, was launched in 2017. That year, ByteDance also bought Musical.ly, a lip-syncing app popular with teens, in a deal worth between $800 million to $1 billion. ByteDance merged Musical.ly with TikTok, consolidating their audiences.

By early 2019, TikTok had become popular among teens and people in their early 20s, though many older people still struggled to understand its appeal. But as TikTok was turning into a mainstay of Gen Z culture, it also began to face scrutiny by the U.S. government. In February 2019, the Federal Trade Commission fined TikTok $5.7 million for violating children’s privacy laws.

Then a few months later, the U.S. government reportedly began a national security review of TikTok, marking the first in a chain of events that led to Trump’s August executive order against the company, and ByteDance’s new, but confusing, agreement with “trusted technology partner” Oracle.

The impact of China’s 2017 cybersecurity law

The United States is not the only country where TikTok has been deemed a national security threat. In June, it was among 59 apps developed by Chinese companies banned in India for threatening the country’s “national security and defence.” It’s also under investigation by French data security watchdog CNIL over how it handles user data.

While some cybersecurity experts believe that TikTok’s data collection practices are similar to other social media apps that depend on targeted ads for revenue, the heart of the issue is a Chinese law, implemented in June 2017, that requires companies to comply with government requests for data stored in China. ByteDance has insisted repeatedly it would resist attempts by the Chinese government to access U.S. users’ data, which it says is stored in the United States and Singapore.

“Our data centers are located entirely outside of China, and none of our data is subject to Chinese law,” TikTok wrote in a October 2019 statement. “Further, we have a dedicated technical team focused on adhering to robust cybersecurity policies, and data privacy and security practices.”

In the same post, TikTok also addressed concerns that it censors content, including videos about the Hong Kong protests and China’s treatment of Uighurs and other Muslim groups. “We have never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content and we would not do so if asked. Period,” the company said.

WeChat and TikTok’s uncertain future in the U.S.

But as a Chinese company, ByteDance is ultimately still beholden to Chinese laws. Earlier this week, ByteDance said it will retain an 80% stake in TikTok, after selling a total of 20% to Oracle and Walmart. Then Oracle executive vice president Ken Glueck said that Oracle and Walmart would make their investment upon the creation of a new entity called TikTok Global. He added that ByteDance will have no ownership in TikTok Global.

This creates more questions, but doesn’t answer the most pressing one: how close will the U.S. version of TikTok remain to ByteDance, and will it still be subject to the Chinese cybersecurity regulations that cause so much concern?

Around the same time that ByteDance’s proposed deal with Oracle and Walmart was announced, a U.S. district court judge temporarily stayed the nationwide ban on WeChat, as part of a case brought against the U.S. government by the U.S. WeChat Users Alliance, a nonprofit organization initiated by attorneys who want to preserve access to WeChat for users in America. In her opinion, Judge Laurel Beeler wrote, “while the government has established that China’s activities raise significant national-security concerns—it has put in scant little evidence that its effective ban of WeChat for all U.S. users addresses those concerns.”

On its site, the U.S. WeChat Users Alliance said it believes Trump’s August 6 executive order against WeChat “violates many provisions of the U.S. Constitution and the Administrative Procedure Act.” Furthermore, the group argued that a WeChat ban would “severely affect the lives and the work of millions of people in the U.S.” who use WeChat to talk to family, friends and business associates in China.

While WeChat is heavily censored, users have often found ingenious ways to bypass bans on topics deemed sensitive by the Chinese government. For example, people used emojis, PDFs and fictional languages like Klingon to share an interview with Ai Fen, the director of Wuhan Central Hospital’s emergency department and one of the first whistleblowers to sound the alarm about COVID-19 even as the government attempted to stifle information about the disease.

The growing divide

The U.S. government’s actions against TikTok and WeChat are taking place against an increasingly fraught political landscape. Huawei and ZTE were first identified as potential threats to U.S. national security in a 2012 bipartisan House committee report, but legal actions against Huawei, one of the world’s biggest telecom equipment suppliers, escalated under the Trump administration. These include criminal charges brought against Huawei by the Department of Justice, and the arrest and indictment of chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou.

The U.S. government’s actions in the name of national security doesn’t just affect the Chinese government or China’s biggest companies. It also impacts individuals, as in the case of increasingly stringent visa restrictions for Chinese students.

At the same time, the Great Firewall has become more restrictive under President Xi Jinping’s regime and China’s cybersecurity laws are becoming increasingly invasive, granting the government even more access to citizens’ data. Increasingly sophisticated surveillance technology has been used to monitor Uighurs and other ethnic minorities, and a crackdown on VPN services that began escalating in 2017 is making it harder for people in China to circumvent the Great Firewall.

When compared to these social issues, the future of a video-sharing app might seem relatively minor. But it underscores one of the most unsettling developments in the relationship between U.S. and China over the past ten years.

In a prescient 2016 Washington Post article titled “America wants to believe China can’t innovate. Tech tells a different story,” Emily Rauhala wrote “China’s tech scene is flourishing in a parallel universe.” TikTok’s deep cultural impact gave a glimpse of what is possible when two parallel universes connect. Along with geopolitical tensions, the furore over TikTok and WeChat uncovers something else: that the exchange of ideas and information between people in two of the world’s most powerful countries is becoming increasingly restricted due to circumstances beyond their control.

#apps, #bytedance, #china, #policy, #tc, #tencent, #tiktok, #united-states, #wechat

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A tip from a kid helps detect iOS and Android scam apps’ 2.4 million downloads

Screenshot of App Store icon.

Enlarge (credit: Silas Stein/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Researchers said that a tip from a child led them to discover aggressive adware and exorbitant prices lurking in iOS and Android smartphone apps with a combined 2.4 million downloads from the App Store and Google Play.

Posing as apps for entertainment, wallpaper images, or music downloads, some of the titles served intrusive ads even when an app wasn’t active. To prevent users from uninstalling them, the apps hid their icon, making it hard to identify where the ads were coming from. Other apps charged from $2 to $10 and generated revenue of more than $500,000, according to estimates from SensorTower, a smartphone-app intelligence service.

The apps came to light after a girl found a profile on TikTok that was promoting what appeared to be an abusive app and reported it to Be Safe Online, a project in the Czech Republic that educates children about online safety. Acting on the tip, researchers from security firm Avast found 11 apps, for devices running both iOS and Android, that were engaged in similar scams.

Read 10 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#android, #apple, #apps, #biz-it, #google, #ios

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Daily Crunch: This TikTok deal is pretty confusing

Companies send out conflicting messages about the TikTok deal, Microsoft acquires a gaming giant and the WeChat ban is temporarily blocked. This is your Daily Crunch for September 21, 2020.

The big story: This TikTok deal is pretty confusing

This keeps getting more confusing. Apparently TikTok’s parent company ByteDance has reached a deal with Walmart and Oracle that will allow the Chinese social media app to continue operating in the United States, and the deal has been approved by Donald Trump. But it’s hard to tell exactly what this agreement entails.

ByteDance said it would retain 80% control of TikTok, while selling 20% of the company to Walmart and Oracle as “commercial partner” and “trusted technology partner,” respectively. However, Oracle released a seemingly conflicting statement, claiming that Americans will have majority ownership and “ByteDance will have no ownership in TikTok Global.”

So what’s going on here? We’re trying to figure it out.

The tech giants

Microsoft set to acquire Bethesda parent ZeniMax for $7.5B — ZeniMax owns some of the biggest publishers in gaming, including Bethesda Game Studios, id Software, ZeniMax Online Studios, Arkane, MachineGames, Tango Gameworks, Alpha Dog and Roundhouse Studios.

Trump administration’s WeChat ban is blocked by US district court — More news about the Trump administration’s efforts to ban some high-profile Chinese apps: A district court judge in San Francisco has temporarily stayed the nationwide ban on WeChat.

Nikola’s chairman steps down, stock crashes following allegations of fraud — This comes in the wake of a report from a noted short-seller accusing the electric truck company of fraud.

Startups, funding and venture capital

With $100M in funding, Playco is already a mobile gaming unicorn — Playco is a new mobile gaming startup created by Game Closure co-founder Michael Carter and Zynga co-founder Justin Waldron.

Indian mobile gaming platform Mobile Premier League raises $90 million — Mobile Premier League operates a pure-play gaming platform that hosts a range of tournaments.

A meeting room of one’s own: Three VCs discuss breaking out of big firms to start their own gigs — We talked to Construct Capital’s Dayna Grayson, Renegade Partners’ Renata Quintini and Plexo Capital’s Lo Toney.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Edtech investors are panning for gold — At Disrupt, investors told us how they separate the gold from the dust.

Despite slowdowns, pandemic accelerates shifts in hardware manufacturing — China continues to be the dominant global force, but the price of labor and political uncertainty has led many companies to begin looking elsewhere.

The Peloton effect — Alex Wilhelm examines the latest VC activity in connected fitness.

(Reminder: Extra Crunch is our subscription membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Ireland’s data watchdog slammed for letting adtech carry on ‘biggest breach of all time’ — The Irish Council for Civil Liberties is putting more pressure on the country’s data watchdog to take enforcement action.

Pandemic accelerated cord cutting, making 2020 the worst-ever year for pay TV — According to new research from eMarketer, the cable, satellite and telecom TV industry is on track to lose the most subscribers ever.

Original Content podcast: ‘Wireless’ shows off Quibi’s Turnstyle technology — I interviewed the director of the new Quibi series.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

#apps, #bytedance, #daily-crunch, #mobile, #oracle, #social, #tiktok, #walmart

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How to make the most of iOS 14 widgets and iPhone home screen customization

You’ve probably seen the screenshots going around that show iOS home screens that differ considerably from the stock options that Apple provides. Yes, if you’re an Android user you’re probably laughing at iPhone owners for finally (nearly) catching up to the customization features they’ve had for years, but if you’re an iOS fan, you probably just want to know how to join in. It’s actually relatively easy – provided you’ve got some time to spare, and you don’t mind a few slightly hacky workaround (don’t worry, no jailbreaking required).

Widgets

The big new addition that’s prompting all the shared screens across social media are home screen widgets, which are supported under iOS 14 for the first time. These can be either first- or third-party, and are included with apps you download from the App Store. There are a number of developers who pushed to ensure they were ready at or near the launch of iOS, and Sarah has created a growing list of some of the best for you to check out if you’re not sure where to start.

One of my personal favorite widget apps is Widgetsmith, an app that, as its name suggest, was created pretty much entirely for the purpose of making them. It allows you a range of customization options, has a number of handy, useful functions including calendar, weather and clock, and comes with different font choices to best suit your style. I’ve always aimed to create a clean, single tone look with iOS as much as possible, and Widgetsmith is the best I’ve found so far for creating homescreen displays that look like they’re borderless (provided your iOS wallpaper is a solid color that matches one of those the app supports).

Widgets are great at providing at-a-glance information that you don’t typically want to dive into an app to retrieve, right on your homescreen where you need them. Some can shortcut to useful features, like the search widget built into Google’s iOS app, but most are made primarily to reduce the amount of time you spend actually inside the apps themselves.

Custom app icons

While Widgets are new, another big component of this customization push is not – that’s the ability to create custom homescreen icons for iOS apps. That’s been around ever since Apple introduced its Shortcuts app on iOS a couple of years ago, but many people are discovering the feature for the first time as a result of the increased attention around homescreen customization with the introduction of Widgets in iOS 14.

Creating custom icons on iOS isn’t actually doing that, strictly speaking – what you’re in fact doing is creating new Shortcuts that trigger the launch of an app, and using a custom image for that bookmark that then lives on your homescreen instead. This is not an ideal solution, because it means that A) you won’t have any notification badges on your ‘apps,’ and B) the system first directs you to Apple’s Shortcuts app, which opens for a split-second before bumping you into the actual app you selected for the shortcut.

Apple clearly didn’t design this Shortcuts feature for this use (opening a target app is meant to be the start of a string of automated actions), but Apple also hasn’t really ever seemed interested in letting users choose their own custom icons, so it’s the best we can do for now. Luckily, the process is relatively simple. Unluckily, there are a lot of steps involved, so it’s pretty time-consuming to customize your entire homescreen.

Here’s a video of how to do this as simply as possible:

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

There are some fantastic examples out there of what creative individuals have been able to do with this, given a little time and some elbow grease. With more widget options coming online all the time, we’ve probably only begun to see the limits of testing the boundaries of what’s possible under Apple’s rules, too.

#android, #app-store, #apple, #apps, #ios, #iphone, #itunes, #mobile-software, #operating-systems, #shortcuts, #smartphones, #social-media, #tc

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Launcher brings its powerful widget-making app to iOS 14

Launcher is bringing its customizable widgets to iOS 14 with new functionality, including the ability to rotate a widget’s icons by date, time or even location. It also supports customizable widget backgrounds, icons of different sizes or those with no labels for a cleaner look.

The app, which first debuted in 2014, had been well-known for being one of the few to push the envelope when it came to the functionality offered by Apple’s classic Today View widgets. In the years since, the app served as the launchpad for common tasks — like messaging a favorite contact, calling home, getting directions, playing your favorite music and much more right from the Today View.

Now you can do the same from your home screen, but with a more customizable experience that matches your current iOS 14 theme.

Image Credits: Cromulent Labs

Apple wasn’t quite sure what to think of Launcher back in 2014.

The app had once been banned from the App Store for several months because its sole reason for existence was to be a Today View widget provider, without offering other functionality beyond widget configuration. Apple eventually decided that Launcher had value, despite this limitation, and allowed it back in.

What’s more, Apple later realized there was a market for workflow automation and eventually acquired a Launcher competitor of sorts, Workflow, which was turned into Apple’s Shortcuts app and expanded to include additional functionality — like Siri integration, for instance.

Now, with the release of iOS 14, Apple has fully embraced the idea of customizable widgets for the home screen. Meanwhile, users are leveraging Shortcuts to create custom icons, then building creative home screen themes using a custom combination of widgets, icons and wallpapers.

Launcher, however, offers a simpler alternative for those who don’t want to spend hours creating a customized experience.

Instead, you can create a widget with favorite apps and tasks, change the widget’s background color and adjust the icons’ size in one go.

For example, you can now create Launcher widgets that let you tap an icon to immediately call, message, FaceTime or email a favorite contact; get directions to a location; start playing an artist, album or playlist in Apple Music; access a favorite website; launch actions within apps (like Compose Tweet or Run Shortcut); turn common phone settings on or off (like WiFi, Bluetooth, Low Power Mode, DND, Airplane mode, etc.); or launch any other app on your device.

 

Image Credits: Cromulent Labs

Launcher aims to tap into the growing iOS 14 home screen customization trend as its app lets you customize the icons and widget background, even allowing for tiny icons within the widget or removing icon labels. (See above). The widget’s background can be styled to match the existing wallpaper or can be configured using images.

Widgets can also be stacked for better space utilization and the icons they contain can change based on the day of the week, time of day or your location. That way, you could have a widget that shows up only when you hit the gym, for example, or one that appears when you’re in the office. Your home screen widget could also be different during the work week than on the weekend.

Image Credits: Cromulent Labs

Many of the app’s features were previously offered in the classic Today View widgets, but the home screen widgets work differently. Where before, you were limited to a fixed number of widgets that could be shown or hidden based on time or location, the new widgets support different icon sets that appear at different times. However, you can’t configure a home screen widget to automatically disappear as that would cause the home screen itself to rearrange.

Launcher’s creator, Greg Gardner, says he’s seen a surge of interest in his app due to the iOS 14 release, even before its update, out today, which delivers the iOS 14 widget support.

Image Credits: Cromulent Labs

“People on iOS 14 seem to be pretty excited about home screen widgets, so they are searching the App Store for widgets and are finding my app. Unfortunately some of them have been disappointed that the app didn’t have home screen widgets,” he says. “I hope that now that it has home screen widgets the downloads will continue to increase and the new users won’t be disappointed any longer,” Gardner adds.

The surprise release of iOS 14 probably didn’t help things on this front. Apple gave its developers less than 24 hours notice of iOS 14’s arrival this year, even making its announcement before the necessary developer tools (e.g., Xcode) were available for download. That means some developers’ iOS 14-compatible apps weren’t ready and available on the iOS launch day, as in years past.

In addition to the expanded functionality, there’s another reason to appreciate Launcher’s new app: Its business model.

The app doesn’t monetize by way of subscriptions but instead only charges its users a one-time fee for an expanded feature set. While the earlier version of the app had offered two different pricing tiers, Launcher 5 has simplified pricing to just the one.

Its new “Premium” in-app purchase will unlock all the new home screen widgets and customization options. However, existing users only have to pay $2.99 for the upgrade while new users will pay the full price of $7.99.

“The amount of work required to implement the new widgets was enough that I thought it justified a new in-app purchase,” says Gardner. Plus, he notes, the App Store also doesn’t offer any official means of charging upgrade pricing for scenarios like this.

Launcher 5 is rolling out now on the App Store. (If you don’t see the app with an updated date of Sept. 21, 2020, just try again later as the update may not have reached your region yet.)

#apps, #biotech, #cromulent-labs, #homescreen-widgets, #ios-14, #ios-apps, #launcher, #widgets

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ByteDance says it will own a majority of TikTok. Oracle says ByteDance will own 0%. WTF is this deal?

You know a deal is signed and going to close when the parties keep fact checking each other and no one can agree on what the deal actually says.

We’ve been following the TikTok / Oracle deal for sometime here on TechCrunch, and over the weekend, it seemed like we finally got to the finish line of one of the strangest M&A processes we’ve seen. But the last 48 hours have made everything so confused, I am not sure we even know what the deal is despite it being approved.

Overnight, my colleague Rita Liao put together a nice fact check on what we know now about the TikTok deal, based on ByteDance’s official statements. The key is that “China’s ByteDance confirms it will retain an 80% stake in TikTok after selling a total of 20% to Oracle, its ‘trusted technology partner,’ and Walmart, its ‘commercial partner.’”

That’s been our assumption, that Oracle is taking 12.5% in TikTok Global, and Walmart will take 7.5%. The deal terms would value TikTok at about $60 billion by some estimates.

That’s a simple story, but apparently not the full one, because now there is another wrinkle happening here.

In a new statement attributed to its executive vice president Ken Glueck, Oracle said that “Upon creation of TikTok Global, Oracle/Walmart will make their investment and the TikTok Global shares will be distributed to their owners, Americans will be the majority and ByteDance will have no ownership in TikTok Global.”

President Donald Trump has spoken out about the deal himself in places like CNBC, arguing that TikTok must be completely controlled by Americans.

From what I can glean (and to be honest, given the shifting landscape and war of words, it’s not clear that even the participants know what is going on), “TikTok” the app is going to be housed in a new company called TikTok Global, that will be located outside of China proper. There appears to be no other “TikTok” entity. ByteDance will continue to own its China-centric apps Douyin (which also is a short video social service targeting the Chinese market), Toutiao, and others and obviously keep running them.

So how can a company simultaneously own a majority of the company and 0% of a company? TechCrunch is investigating, or at least, combing through the rubble of this deal and trying to make heads or tails of it.

#apps, #bytedance, #douyin, #government, #oracle, #policy, #tiktok, #toutiao

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Indian mobile gaming platform Mobile Premier League raises $90 million

Mobile Premier League (MPL) has raised $90 million in a new financing round as the two-year-old Bangalore-based esports and mobile gaming platform grows its user base and looks to expand outside of India.

SIG, early-stage tech investor RTP Global, and MDI Ventures led MPL’s $90 million Series C financing round, with participation from existing investors Sequoia India, Go-Ventures, and Base Partners. The new investment brings MPL’s to-date raise to $130.5 million.

MPL operates a pure-play gaming platform that hosts a range of tournaments. The app, which has amassed over 60 million users and hosts about 70 games, also serves as a publishing platform for other gaming firms.

The Bangalore-based startup also offers fantasy sports, a segment that has taken off in many parts of India in recent years.

Because fantasy sports is only one part of the business, the coronavirus outbreak that has shut most real-world matches has not impeded the startup’s growth in recent months. The startup claimed it has grown four times since March this year and more than 2 billion cash transactions have been recorded on the app to date.

“Even in an environment as challenging as the current one, we are impressed with the success and accessibility of the platform concept – giving users a unique variety of experiences and social interaction. MPL’s track record speaks for itself, so we’re excited to support the team as they grow and expand,” said Galina Chifina, Managing Partner at RTP Global, in a statement.

But since an aspect of MPL is about fantasy sports, its app is not available on the Google Play Store. Google Play Store prohibits online casino, and other kinds of betting, a guideline Google reiterated last week as it pulled Indian financial services platform Paytm from the app store for eight hours. Sai Srinivas, co-founder and chief executive of Mobile Premier League, declined to comment on Google and Paytm’s episode. 

In an interview with TechCrunch, he said the startup plans to expand outside of India in the following months. He did not name the new markets, but suggested that India’s neighboring countries will likely be part of it. 

More to follow…

#apps, #asia, #dream-sports, #funding, #india, #paytm, #sports

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Thanks to Google, app store monopoly concerns have now reached India

Last week, as Epic Games, Facebook, and Microsoft continued to express concerns about Apple’s “monopolistic” hold over what a billion people can download on their iPhones, a similar story unfolded in India, the world’s second largest internet market, between a giant developer and the operator of the only other large mobile app store.

Google pulled Paytm, the app from India’s most valuable startup, off of the Play Store on Friday. The app returned to the store eight hours later, but the controversy and acrimony Google has stirred up in the country will linger for years.

TechCrunch reported on Friday that Google pulled Paytm app from its app store after a repeat pattern of violations of Google Play Store guidelines by the Indian firm.

Paytm, which is locked in a battle against Google to win India’s payments market, has been frustrated at Google’s policies — which it argues gives Google an unfair advantage — for several past quarters over how the Android-maker is limiting its marketing campaigns to acquire new users, sources familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

The explanation provided by Google to Paytm for why it pulled the Indian firm’s app this week from its app store is the latest attempt by the company to thwart the Noida-headquartered firm’s ability to acquire new users, Paytm executives said.

In a blog post Paytm posted Sunday evening (local India time), the Indian firm said Google took issue with the company for giving customers cashbacks and scratch cards for initiating transactions over UPI, a government-backed payments infrastructure in India that has become the most popular way for people to exchange money digitally in the country.

Paytm said it rolled out this new version of scratch cards that are linked to cricket on September 11. Users collected these cricket-themed stickers for sending money to others, or making transactions such as topping up credit on their phone or paying their broadband or electricity bill.

In a statement on Sunday evening, a Google spokesperson said, “offering cashbacks and vouchers alone do not constitute a violation of our Google Play gambling policies” and that Play Store “policies are applied and enforced on all developers consistently.”

But it’s arguably anything but consistent.

On September 18, Google told Paytm that it had pulled its app for not complying with Play Store’s “gambling policy” as it offered games with “loyalty points.” Paytm said that Google had not expressed any concerns over Paytm’s new marketing campaign prior to its notice on Friday, in which it revealed that Paytm app had been temporarily removed from the Play Store.

But Google itself is running a similar campaign linked to cricket in India, Paytm argues. (Why cricket? Cricket is immensely popular in India and one of the biggest cricket tournaments globally, Indian Premier League, kicked off its latest season on Saturday.)

Cricket-themed cashback offered by Paytm (left) and Google Pay (right) in India

Google Play Store in India has long prohibited apps that promote gambling such as betting on sporting events, and Google has raised concerns about Paytm’s marquee app promoting Paytm First Games, a fantasy sports app run by Paytm, in the past.

Paytm executives argued that PhonePe, a Walmart-owned payments app in India, also promoted Dream11, the most popular fantasy sports app in the country, and got away without any action.

Google also permits fantasy sports app operators — including Paytm — to advertise on Search in India.

“This is bullshit of a different degree,” Paytm chief executive Vijay Shekhar Sharma said of Google’s objection to Paytm offering cashback in a televised interview Friday. The removal of Paytm app was only on the grounds of Paytm offering cricket-themed cashback, he claimed. “Google is not allowing us to acquire new customers right now. That’s all what this is,” he added.

Google’s payments app, Google Pay, competes with Paytm in India. In fact, Google Pay is the largest payments app for peer-to-peer transaction between users in India and holds the largest market share in UPI.

Without identifying any names, Sharma, the poster child of Indian startup ecosystem, claimed that many founders in India have just accepted that it is Google that has the final say on any matter in India — and not the country’s regulatory agencies.

For Google, which reaches more users than any other company in India and whose Android operating system commands 99% of the local smartphone market, this kind of accusation is exactly what it needs to avoid in the country. The Silicon Valley search and advertising giant has launched a charm offensive in India, including a recently commitment to invest $10 billion — more than any other American or Chinese technology firm.

The timing for Google’s parent company, Alphabet, couldn’t be worse. Google is currently the subject of an antitrust complaint in India over an allegation that it has abused its market position to unfairly promote its mobile payments app in the country; and in the U.S., Congress has intimidated that it may pursue antitrust regulatory action against Alphabet and Apple over app store concerns.

In India, Google’s moves could have a devastating impact on businesses and everyday consumers.

Paytm is not just a payments app. It is also a fully licensed digital bank. And just an eight-hour of absence from the Play Store created a panic among a portion of its users. A source familiar with the matter told TechCrunch that Paytm saw several people withdraw their fixed deposit in Paytm Payments Bank on Friday.

Anecdotally, TechCrunch heard of instances where vendors who previously preferred Paytm for accepting money digitally asked their customers to use a different payments method as they had heard that Paytm was “banned” in India.

Sharma said Google’s monopoly on Indian app ecosystem is of a magnitude unparalleled elsewhere in the world.

“If paying someone and getting a cashback is gambling, then the same rule should be applied to everyone,” said Sharma. “It’s disgraceful that we are standing here at the cusp of an internet revolution in India and we are being sanctioned by companies that are not governed by the law of this country.”

If this sentiment gained traction in India it could create challenges for Google’s future in the world’s second largest internet market.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is forcing a Chinese company to sell stakes to local firms to continue operations in the country. In a recent episode of Dithering podcast, Ben Thompson cautioned that Trump administration’s move — which some have argued is a long due tit for tat against Chinese companies (as China has long prevented U.S. firms from meaningfully operating in the world’s largest  internet market) — might encourage other open markets to do to American firms what it is doing to TikTok.

Several U.S. tech executives share these concerns.

“I’ve said this before, but a US TikTok ban would be quite bad for Instagram, Facebook, and the internet more broadly,” Instagram chief executive Adam Mosseri tweeted earlier this week. “If you’re skeptical keep in mind that most of the people who use Instagram are outside the US, as is most of our potential growth. The long term costs of moods countries making aggressive demands and banning us over the next decade outweigh slowing down one competitor today.”

India, which Google, Facebook, and many other tech giants count as their biggest market by users, has made several proposals in the past three years — including mandates that foreign firms store payments information of users locally in India and companies help local enforcement agencies identify the originator of questionable messages circulating on their platforms — that are widely seen as protectionist moves.

And India is not even that open anymore. New Delhi has also banned more than 200 Chinese apps including TikTok, UC Browser, and PUBG Mobile citing cybersecurity concerns in recent months. India has not made public what those cybersecurity concerns are and in its orders acknowledged that users had expressed concerns.

Enough noise against a foreign firm might just be enough to face an avalanche of serious troubles in India.

#apps, #asia, #dream-sports, #dream11, #google, #google-play-store, #india, #paytm, #phonepe

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Trump administration’s WeChat ban is blocked by U.S. district court

A few days ago, the U.S. Commerce Department published a series of rules that aimed to block the downloading of TikTok and WeChat by American users, following an executive order signed by President Trump back in August. TikTok got a last minute reprieve yesterday following its signing of an investment and cloud services deal with Oracle and Walmart, which delayed the implementation of its download ban at least for a week. However, WeChat was effectively going to be shut down today, with a ban on downloads and a ban on any services that powered the service.

Now, there is a new wrinkle in the battle over the future of the social app, which is widely used in Chinese-speaking communities and is owned by China-based Tencent. A district court judge in San Francisco has temporarily stayed the nationwide ban, following a lawsuit of WeChat users arguing that the ban undermined the free speech rights of American citizens. That court case, U.S. WeChat Users Alliance v. Trump, will be allowed to proceed.

In her short opinion published yesterday, United States magistrate judge Laurel Beeler, argued that the government’s case showed weaknesses on First Amendment grounds, its authority to act within existing legislation to allow the government to control industry, and its overall vagueness compared to the damage a ban would likely have on the Chinese-speaking community in the United States.

From her opinion:

Certainly the government’s overarching national-security interest is significant. But on this record — while the government has established that China’s activities raise significant national- security concerns — it has put in scant little evidence that its effective ban of WeChat for all U.S. users addresses those concerns. And, as the plaintiffs point out, there are obvious alternatives to a complete ban, such as barring WeChat from government devices, as Australia has done, or taking other steps to address data security.

Given the likelihood of a lawsuit proceeding and the immediate damage a ban would have if implemented, the judge initiated a nationwide injunction against implementation of the Commerce Department’s order to ban the app.

Commerce will have a chance to respond to this development, and whether it chooses to edit its order, pursue other avenues through the courts, or just rescind the order entirely, we will see in the coming days.

#apps, #government, #oracle, #policy, #tencent-holdings, #tiktok, #walmart, #wechat

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Gangster capitalism and the American theft of Chinese innovation

It used to be “easy” to tell the American and Chinese economies apart. One was innovative, one made clones. One was a free market while the other demanded payments to a political party and its leadership, a corrupt wealth generating scam that by some estimates has netted top leaders billions of dollars. One kept the talent borders porous acting as a magnet for the world’s top brains while the other interviewed you in a backroom at the airport before imprisoning you on sedition charges (okay, that might have been both).

The comparison was always facile yes, but it was easy and at least directionally accurate if failing on the specifics.

Now though, the country that exported exploding batteries is pioneering quantum computing, while the country that pioneered the internet now builds planes that fall out of the sky (and good news, we’ve identified even more planes that might fall out of the sky at an airport near you!)

TikTok’s success is many things, but it is quite frankly just an embarrassment for the United States. There are thousands of entrepreneurs and hundreds of venture capitalists swarming Silicon Valley and the other American innovation hubs looking for the next great social app or building it themselves. But the power law of user growth and investor returns happens to reside in Haidian, Beijing. ByteDance through its local apps in China and overseas apps like TikTok is the consumer investor return of the past decade (there’s a reason why all the IPOs this seasons are enterprise SaaS).

It’s a win that you can’t chalk up just to industrial policy. Unlike in semiconductors or other capital-intensive industries where Beijing can offer billions in incentives to spur development, ByteDance builds apps. It distributes them on app stores across the world. It has exactly the same tools available to it that every entrepreneur with an Apple Developer account has access to. There is no Made in China 2025 plan to build and popularize a consumer app like TikTok (you literally can’t plan for consumer success like that). Instead, it’s a well-executed product that’s addictive to hundreds of millions of people.

So much as China protected its industry from overseas competitors like Google and Amazon through market-entry barriers, America is now protecting its entrenched incumbents from overseas competitors like TikTok. We’re demanding joint ventures and local cloud data sovereignty just as the Communist Party has demanded for years.

Hell, we’re apparently demanding a $5 billion tax payment from ByteDance, which the president says will fund patriotic education for youth. The president says a lot of things of course, but at least the $5 billion price point has been confirmed by Oracle in its press release over night (what the tax revenue will actually be used for is anyone’s guess). If you followed the recent Hong Kong protests for a long time, you will remember that patriotic youth education was some of the original tinder for those demonstrations back in 2012. What comes around, goes around, I guess.

Development economists like to talk about “catch-up” strategies, tactics that countries can take to avoid the middle income trap and cut the gap between the West and the rest. But what we need now are developed economists to explain America’s “fall behind” strategy. Because we are falling behind, in pretty much everything.

As the TikTok process and the earlier Huawei imbroglio show, America is no longer on the leading edge of technology in many key strategic markets. Mainland Chinese companies are globally winning in areas as diverse as 5G and social networks, and without direct government intervention to kill that innovation, American and European tech purveyors would have lost those markets entirely (and even with those interventions, they may still lose them). In Taiwan, TSMC has come from behind Intel to take a year or two lead in the fabrication of the most advanced semiconductors.

I mean, we can’t even pilfer Chinese history and mythology and turn it into a decent god damn film these days.

And the fall-behind strategy continues. Immigration restrictions from an administration hell-bent on destroying the single greatest source of American innovation, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, have fused into the largest single drop in international student migration in American history.

Why does that matter? In the U.S. according to relatively recent data, 81% of electrical engineering grad students are international, 79% in computer science are, and in most engineering and technical fields, the number hovers above a majority.

It’s great to believe the fantasy that if only these international grad students would stay home, then “real” Americans would somehow take these slots. But what’s true of the strawberry pickers and food service workers is also true for EE grad students: proverbial “Americans” don’t want these jobs. They are hard jobs, thankless jobs, and require a ridiculous tenacity that American workers and students by and large don’t have. These industries have huge contingents of foreign workers precisely because no one domestic wants to take these roles.

So goes the talent, so goes the innovation. Without this wellspring of brainpower lodging itself in America’s top innovation hubs, where exactly do we think it will go? That former aspiring Stanford or MIT computer scientist with ideas in his or her brain isn’t just going to sit by the window gazing at the horizon waiting for the moment when they can enter the gilded halls of the U.S. of A. It’s the internet era, and they are just going to get started on their dreams wherever they are, using whatever tools and resources they have available to them.

All you have to do is look at the recent YC batches and realize that the future cohorts of great startups are going to increasingly come from outside the continental 48. Dozens of smart, brilliant entrepreneurs aren’t even trying to migrate, instead rightfully seeing their home markets as more open to innovation and technological progress than the vaunted superpower. The frontier is closed here, and it has moved elsewhere.

So what are we left with here in the U.S. and increasingly Europe? A narrow-minded policy of blocking external tech innovation to ensure that our sclerotic and entrenched incumbents don’t have to compete with the best in the world. If that isn’t a recipe for economic disaster, I don’t know what is.

But hey: at least the youth will be patriotic.

#apps, #asia, #bytedance, #government, #policy, #tiktok

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This Week in Apps: iOS 14’s surprise arrival, Apple’s app bundle, TikTok & WeChat banned from app stores Sunday

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the TechCrunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion downloads and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019. People are now spending three hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

In this series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

Top Stories

How iOS 14 and Apple’s other new plans impact apps

At Apple’s hardware event this week, the company announced a new Apple Watch Series 6, an Apple Watch SE, an eighth-generation iPad and a new iPad Air, among other things.

But the bigger news for app makers was the surprise release of iOS 14. Typically, developers are given a much longer heads-up and at least have the updated version of their developer tools well before the actual iOS launch day. This year, however, Apple shocked app developers with an announcement during its live event that its new software platforms, iOS 14, iPadOS 14, watchOS 7 and tvOS 14, would arrive in less than 24 hours.

The move was a low blow from Apple at a time when its developer community was already feeling disrespected by Apple’s tougher stance on the use of in-app purchases and increase in capricious app rejections, not to mention the language Apple used to describe their contributions to iPhone’s success in Apple’s lawsuit with Epic Games.

But now iOS 14 is here, and with it comes a radical change to how apps are presented and used on iPhone.

App Clips will allow users to launch “mini app” experiences when a full app download isn’t needed, like in the case of needing to pay at a parking meter using a native app. Widgets will allow developers to increase their presence on the home screen, potentially increasing their importance to their most loyal users. But on the flip side, infrequently used apps may now be abandoned in the new App Library.

Any app that doesn’t get a home screen spot in the new version of iOS either as an app icon or widget may soon find that its MAUs and DAUs decline after users upgrade to iOS 14.

Being relegated to the App Library is the equivalent of being stuck inside a folder on the back screen — out of sight and forgotten. App developers who suspect they haven’t made the cut in the big iOS redesign will need to make clever use of push notifications to rekindle their relationship with users. But this, too, is a fine line. Too many notifications or pushing low-value notifications will see users turning to other iOS tools — like the option to easily silence or switch off notifications entirely for the app in question. And then, without any visibility or a way to connect, the app will be truly forgotten.

Apple also challenged the entire fitness app industry with its launch of a Fitness+ subscription service. Wall Street investors weren’t too worried about the long-term potential impact to top brands, like Peloton and Fitbit. But these companies are not necessarily representative of the smaller fitness app maker. For $10 per month or just $80 per year, Apple is offering a home gym membership of sorts, with deep integrations with Apple Watch. Fitness+ offers workouts and instructions set to music that can be used across Apple devices. Because it’s from Apple, the workouts will also correctly sync to the Apple Watch for accurate recording of various workout metrics, like calories burned, pace or distance, for example.

The service is also being bundled in Apple’s new Apple One subscription in the upper tier, which may appeal to Apple’s current subscribers looking to save money by paying for an all-in-one service instead of individual apps. And what could a fitness app maker do to compete with this? Or a music app, for that matter? Third-parties don’t typically have the option to get bundled into a high-value package alongside other top apps from unrelated industries, unless the company goes out and forges those deals itself — like Spotify once did with Hulu.

Given that Apple is still being investigated over antitrust issues, it’s rather bold to launch a bundle deal like this while continuing to commission its competitors — rivals who have no other means of reaching iPhone’s audience outside the App Store.

Another new Apple service puts family tracking apps on notice. Though apps like Life360 have become must-have tools in the helicopter parent era, Apple’s new Family Setup aims to transform the kid-tracking industry by taking a different tactic: it’s for families who aren’t buying kids an iPhone just yet. Instead, Apple will lure new customers by making its Apple Watch — and specifically, the more affordable Apple Watch SE — kids’ first Apple device.

Kids get to use Apple Watch’s key features, like Emergency SOS, Maps, Siri, Alarms, Memoji, Apple Pay, and more, while parents get to restrict who the child can call or text. By the time the child upgrades to iPhone and the wider world of apps that comes with it, families may see no need for a third-party alternative for family safety. That means kid trackers will need to upgrade their offerings to include features that Apple doesn’t, like Life360 does with its driving features, like crash detection or weekly driver reports, for instance.

Continuing chaos around the TikTok ban

There is nothing straightforward about the TikTok ban. Like much of the Executive Order activity coming from the current administration, a broad order is issued but the details are left to be worked out on the fly, leading to chaos.

In the case of the TikTok deal and the app’s potential ban in the U.S., at the beginning of this week we learned China would rather see TikTok banned than forced into a sale, and that neither Oracle nor Microsoft would get to acquire TikTok’s U.S. business. Microsoft was said to have apparently pissed off TikTok owner ByteDance by calling the app a security risk and was cut out of the deal. Later in the week, Oracle put out a press release saying it would be the technology partner for TikTok, and Walmart separately claimed to still be involved.

Oh, and it seems Instagram founder and former CEO Kevin Systrom was approached for the TikTok CEO job at one point. Lord.

So what’s happening now? The U.S. government and ByteDance continue to negotiate on specific terms. As of late, the U.S. wants Oracle to agree to review TikTok source code for backdoors, ByteDance to create a new organization for its U.S. operations with a board approved by the U.S. government and for there to be a license agreement for TikTok’s algorithms. As TechCrunch reported, these terms beg the question as to how TikTok could possibly continue to refine its algorithms in real time without access to U.S. TikTok user data, or when it has to rebuild its infrastructure on Oracle, separated from a core product being developed elsewhere. But nevertheless, reports claim ByteDance has agreed to the government’s terms and also plans to IPO TikTok’s global business.

On Friday, the Commerce Dept. announced the details of how it plans to enforce a shutdown, saying that both TikTok and WeChat, the other Chinese app impacted by the ban, would no longer be distributed on U.S. app stores as of September 20. But TikTok gets an extension that allows it to still operate until November 12 as the parties attempt to hammer out the complicated deal. That deadline means the app will continue to work through the U.S. elections, based on how the terms are spelled out now. But those could change at any time, given the chaotic nature of how this potential ban has progressed so far.

Despite being one of TikTok’s chief rivals, Instagram — which recently copied TikTok with its own feature, Reels — has come out against the ban. Instagram head Adam Mosseri said a U.S. ban of the app would be bad for the internet more broadly, including companies like Facebook and Instagram. TikTok interim CEO  Vanessa Pappas then publicly asked him for help with its litigation.

By the time you read this, several more updates about the TikTok deal may have been released. Stay tuned.

Weekly News

  • U.S. government scrutinizes Epic and Riot Games’ deals with Tencent. First TikTok and WeChat, then the full slate of Chinese investment in tech? The TikTok-Oracle partnership isn’t even a done deal yet, but the U.S. government is moving on to its next targets. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) has now sent letters to Epic, Riot and other gaming companies to inquire about how they’re handling U.S. users’ personal data due to their ties with China’s Tencent. The Chinese giant has made over 300 investments, including those in many of the top gaming companies worldwide. (Jenny Leonard, Saleha Mohsin and David McLaughlin/Bloomberg)
  • Google bans stalkerware from Play Store. Apps that allow a user to track someone’s location, movement, phone calls or messages, and record other apps’ activity — a category broadly known as “stalkerware” — are marketed toward people looking to track cheating spouses or spy on their kids. Google has hosted hundreds of these apps to date. This week, the company updated its Developer Program Policy to specify that any apps of this nature have to inform the end user or gain consent and show a persistent notification that their actions are being tracked. The updated policy also added other new restrictions, including on misrepresentation and gambling. (Catalin Cimpanu/ZDNet)
  • Tinder relaunches Swipe Night, its in-app interactive video series, in the U.S. on September 12. Tinder claims the pandemic has not heavily impacted its business. But the company is working to add video dating and is readying another run of a video series in its app — indications that the primary focus for Tinder these days is not on helping users make real-life connections. (Tinder)
  • Google banned India’s Paytm from Play Store for gambling violations. Paytm is India’s most valuable startup and claims over 50M MAUs. Its app, a rival to Google Play, was removed from the Play Store in India this week. Paytm is accused of repeatedly violating Play Store’s policies around gambling. The app had recently launched “Paytm Cricket League,” which Google believed to be in violation of its newly updated policies around gambling apps. The app returned to the store in a few hours. (Manish Singh/TechCrunch)
  • YouTube launches a TikTok rival, Shorts. YouTube this week launched a new short-form video experience called YouTube Shorts. The feature will allow users, initially in India, to upload 15-second or less short-form videos using a new set of creator tools, including a multi-segment camera, similar to TikTok, speed controls and a timer and a countdown feature. The videos can also be set to music, thanks to YouTube’s access to a large library of songs that it says will continue to grow over time. (Sarah Perez/TechCrunch)
  • Apple calls Epic Games a bully in latest court filing. Apple attacked the game maker, saying Epic follows a “strategy of coercing platforms for its own gain.” Pot, meet kettle. (Stephen Warwick/iMore)
  • Facebook Messenger adds “Watch Together.” Facebook joins the co-viewing trend with the launch of a new feature that lets up to eight friends in a Messenger video call or up to 50 in Messenger Room watch video content together via Facebook Watch integrations. (Sarah Perez/TechCrunch)
  • Summer sent travel apps consumer spend up 30%. Despite the pandemic, consumer global spend in travel apps indicate there was 30% growth in travel apps during summer months, compared with the three months prior. Still, those prior months were at the height of the lockdown, when almost no one was going anywhere. So this may not be as rosy a picture of a recovery as you’d think. (Lexi Sydow/App Annie)
  • Triller capitalizes on TikTok drama to onboard influencers. At TechCrunch Disrupt, Triller CEO Mike Lu talked about recent high-profile additions, including influencers and public figures like TikTok star Charli D’Amelio and family, Addison Rae, and even Trump. (Sarah Perez/TechCrunch)
  • iOS 14 bug resets Mail and Safari as the default apps. A bug you say? Okay, I believe you. (Chance Miller/9to5Mac)

Suggested Reading

  • Addicted to losing: How casino-like apps have drained people of millions, by Cyrus Farivar, NBC News. The story delves into the casino app industry, which is almost entirely unregulated. The story features interviews with 21 people who got hooked on these apps and lost significant sums of money.
  • In-App Purchase Rules, by Marco Arment, Marco.org. In a blog post, Arment highlights how convoluted Apple’s IAP rules have become by listing out all the exceptions Apple has carved out for itself over the years as it attempts to justify its right to collect from all IAPs.

Funding and M&A

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Aviary

Image Credits: Aviary (widget shown in top right)

Aviary’s recently launched Twitter app ($4.99) is ready for iOS 14, with home screen widgets and support for multiple columns on iPad.

Color Widgets

Image Credits: Color Widgets

A simple app is No. 1 on the (non-game) App Store because, clearly, iOS users were ready for widgets. The Color Widgets app lets you pick a color, font and theme for a basic widget that displays the date, day of the week, time and battery level. Isn’t that pretty?

 

#apps, #tc, #this-week-in-apps

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Daily Crunch: Partial US TikTok ban is imminent

The Trump administration moves forwards with plans to ban TikTok and WeChat (although TikTok gets a partial extension), Unity goes public and we announce the winner of this year’s Startup Battlefield. This is your Daily Crunch for September 18, 2020.

The big story: US TikTok ban is imminent

The U.S. Commerce Department has released details about how it will be implementing the Trump administration’s domestic ban of TikTok and WeChat. Both apps will no longer be available (and will not be able to distribute updates) in U.S. app stores starting this Sunday, September 20.

At the same time, TikTok will be able to continue operations in the country until November 12, leaving the door open for a deal with Oracle or another partner.

TikTok, WeChat and their users aren’t the only ones unhappy about this decision. Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri said a TikTok ban would be “bad for US tech companies which have benefited greatly from the ability to operate across borders,” while the ACLU said the order “violates the First Amendment rights of people in the United States.”

The tech giants

Salesforce announces 12,000 new jobs in the next year just weeks after laying off 1,000 — Salesforce CEO and co-founder Marc Benioff announced in a tweet that the company would be hiring 4,000 new employees in the next six months, and 12,000 in the next year.

It’s game on as Unity begins trading — Unity Software, which sells a game development toolkit primarily for mobile phone app developers, raised $1.3 billion in its initial public offering.

Apple will launch its online store in India on September 23 — Apple currently relies on third-party online and offline retailers to sell its products in India.

Startups, funding and venture capital

And the winner of Startup Battlefield at Disrupt 2020 is … Canix — After five days of fierce pitching in a wholly new virtual Startup Battlefield arena, we have a winner.

Amid layoffs and allegations of fraud, the FBI has arrested NS8’s CEO following its $100+ million summer financing — Adam Rogas, the co-founder and former executive at the Las Vegas-based fraud prevention company NS8 was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Outschool, newly profitable, raises a $45 million Series B for virtual small group classes — Outschool’s services, which range from engineering lessons through Lego challenges to Spanish teaching by Taylor Swift songs, are now high in demand.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Are high churn rates depressing earnings for app developers? — RevenueCat’s Jacob Eiting writes that for all the hype around Apple’s 85/15 split for subscription revenue, very few developers are going to see a meaningful increase.

The stages of traditional fundraising — What you think when you hear “seed funding” and “A rounds” might be different from what investors think.

3 VCs discuss the state of SaaS investing in 2020 — Commentary from Canaan’s Maha Ibrahim, Andreessen Horowitz’s David Ulevitch and Bessemer’s Mary D’Onofrio.

(Reminder: Extra Crunch is our subscription membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

How the NSA is disrupting foreign hackers targeting COVID-19 vaccine research — “The threat landscape has changed,” the NSA’s director of cybersecurity Anne Neuberger said at Disrupt 2020.

NASA to test precision automated landing system designed for the moon and Mars on upcoming Blue Origin mission — The “Safe and Precise Landing – Integrated Capabilities Evolution” (SPLICE) system is made up of a number of lasers, an optical camera and a computer.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

#apps, #daily-crunch, #mobile, #tiktok

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Are high churn rates depressing earnings for app developers?

Ever since Apple opened up subscription monetization to more apps in 2016 — and enticed developers with an 85/15 split on revenue from customers that remain subscribed for more than a year — subscription monetization and retention has felt like the Holy Grail for app developers. So much so that Google quickly followed suit in what appeared to be an example of healthy competition for developers in the mobile OS duopoly.

But how does that split actually work out for most apps? Turns out, the 85/15 split — which Apple is keen to mention anytime developers complain about the App Store rev share — doesn’t have a meaningful impact for most developers. Because churn.

No matter how great an app is, subscribers are going to churn. Sometimes it’s because of a credit card expiring or some other billing issue. And sometimes it’s more of a pause, and the user comes back after a few months. But the majority of churn comes from subscribers who, for whatever reason, decide that the app just isn’t worth paying for anymore. If a subscriber churns before the one-year mark, the developer never sees that 85% split. And even if the user resubscribes, Apple and Google reset the clock if a subscription has lapsed for more than 60 days. Rather convenient… for Apple and Google.

Top mobile apps like Netflix and Spotify report churn rates in the low single digits, but they are the outliers. According to our data, the median churn rate for subscription apps is around 13% for monthly subscriptions and around 50% for annual. Monthly subscription churn is generally a bit higher in the first few months, then it tapers off. But an average churn of 13% leaves just 20% of subscribers crossing that magical 85/15 threshold.

In practice, what this means is that, for all the hype around the 85/15 split, very few developers are going to see a meaningful increase in revenue:

#android, #app-store, #apps, #column, #developer, #ios, #itunes, #mobile, #mobile-app, #startups, #tc

0

TikTok and WeChat will be banned in the U.S. from Sunday

The Commerce Department announced this morning that it will require mobile app stores to remove popular social media apps TikTok and WeChat. New users will not be able to download these apps, and while existing users will still be able to use their existing apps installed on their phones, new updates will not be allowed to be installed. In addition, the Commerce Department is also banning any payment transactions through WeChat within the United States.

The bans will go into force Sunday, September 20.

Those decisions are in line with an executive order signed by President Trump on August 6, which put ByteDance and Tencent, the respective owners of TikTok and WeChat, on notice of the government’s intention to block access to their products over purported concerns about national security.

That executive order precipitated the last few weeks of feverish dealmaking to avoid a shutdown of TikTok, discussions that remain on-going and are not finalized. As of today, Oracle and what looks like Walmart are still negotiating with the White House, Treasury Department, and ByteDance to come to a deal that will be acceptable to the president. China also has authority to approve a sale of TikTok.

Over the last few weeks, the administration has promoted a policy known as “Clean Network” designed to eliminate foreign interference in applications and cloud infrastructure that powers American technology. That policy calls for the removal of certain apps, data sovereignty to onshore American user data to the United States, mobile network infrastructure built from “clean” equipment, and a host of other measures to create a “clean” computing environment for U.S. citizens. While those policies are generally written broadly, their clear target has been China, based on speeches from administration officials.

TikTok and WeChat are not the only app removals announced over night. In India, one of the most popular payment apps in the country — Paytm — has been removed from Google’s Play Store for “repeat policy violations.” The app has tens of millions of monthly users. In late June, the country also announced a list of 59 apps developed by Chinese companies that would be banned, including TikTok.

Such national fights over the future of technology have increasingly come to a head as tech drives a larger segment of the global economy and increasingly becomes intertwined with competing national interests.

#apps, #bytedance, #government, #policy, #tencent-holdings, #tiktok, #wechat

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Google pulls India’s Paytm app from Play Store for repeat policy violations

Google has pulled popular Indian financial services app Paytm from the Play Store for violating its gambling policies. Paytm is India’s most valuable startup and claims over 50 million monthly active users. Its marquee app, which competes with Google Pay in India, disappeared from the Play Store in the country earlier Friday.

Google said that Play Store prohibits online casinos and other unregulated gambling apps that facilitate sports betting in India. Paytm, which promotes fantasy sports service within its marquee app, repeatedly violated Play Store’s policies, two people familiar with the matter told TechCrunch. Paytm’s fantasy sports service Paytm First Games, which is also available as a standalone app, was also pulled from the Play Store.

The Android-maker, which maintains similar guidelines in most other markets, additionally noted that if an app leads consumers to an external website that allows them to participate in paid tournaments to win real money or cash prizes is also in violation of its Play Store policies.

TechCrunch has reached out to Paytm for comment but has yet to hear back. Google’s Pay app currently dominates the payments market in India.

The announcement today from Google is also a preemptive attempt from the company to remind other developers about its gambling policies a day before the popular cricket tournament Indian Premier League is scheduled to kick off.

Previous seasons of IPL, which last for nearly two months and attract the attention of hundreds of millions of Indians, have seen a surge in apps that look to promote or participate in sports betting.

Sports betting is banned in India, but fantasy sports where users select their favorite players and win if their preferred team or players play well is not illegal in most Indian states.

A person familiar with the matter told TechCrunch that Google has also asked Disney+ Hotstar, one of the most popular on-demand video streaming services in India, to display a warning before running ads about fantasy sports apps.

“We have these policies to protect users from potential harm. When an app violates these policies, we notify the developer of the violation and remove the app from Google Play until the developer brings the app into compliance,” wrote Suzanne Frey, Vice President, Product, Android Security and Privacy, in a blog post.

“And in the case where there are repeated policy violations, we may take more serious action which may include terminating Google Play Developer accounts. Our policies are applied and enforced on all developers consistently,” she added.

#apps, #asia, #google, #paytm, #play-store

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Facebook launches Facebook Business Suite, an app for managing business accounts across Facebook, Instagram and Messenger

Facebook this morning launched a new app designed to make it easier for businesses to manage their pages and profiles across Facebook, Instagram and Messenger in a single place. The app, Facebook Business Suite, combines access to the business’s key updates and priorities, and offers a way to draft and schedule feed posts for both Facebook and Instagram, view insights and create ads.

To use the new app, business will first need to link their Facebook and Instagram business accounts, if they hadn’t already.

Once logged into Facebook, the Business Suite can be accessed on the desktop at business.facebook.com. On mobile, users of the existing Pages Manager App will see an option to join Business Suite instead. The app will also become available as a standalone download for both iOS and Android.

Image Credits: Facebook

Inside Business Suite, business owners will be able to see critical alerts, messages, comments and other activity taking place across Facebook and Instagram right in the new app’s homescreen. They can also set up personalized saved replies here, in order to respond to common customer inquiries.

The app offers tools for creating feed posts for Facebook and Instagram, scheduling posts, and provides insights on what’s working. Here, businesses can view their posts’ reach, engagement and performance across both Facebook and Instagram. They can also choose to create an ad to help boost that engagement and grow their audience, if needed.

Facebook says it’s initially building Facebook Business Suite with the needs of small businesses first, as so many have been forced by the pandemic to find new ways to reach customers and sell online. However, the long-term plan is to build out a set of tools that can be used by all businesses, including larger ones. The company aims to address that market sometime next year. Business Suite will also expand to include WhatsApp in the future.

Related to the news, Facebook published two surveys offering insights on small business trends. One, the monthly Global State of Small Business Report, produced in partnership with the World Bank and OECD, found that businesses that make more than 25% of sales online are more likely to be reporting higher sales this year, and are less likely to have laid off employees.

A second study details the impact of COVID-19 on consumer purchasing patterns and use of digital tools. Nearly half of respondents said they spent more money online overall since the outbreak, and 40% increased their use of social media and online messaging for product and business recommendations, Facebook says.

Of course, these fairly upbeat reports on the state of small businesses in the midst of the pandemic don’t provide the full picture. In the U.S., for example, Yelp is reporting that 60% of the U.S. businesses that closed due to COVID-19 won’t be re-opening. As of August, 163,735 of U.S. businesses have closed since the start of the pandemic, the report said, up 23% since mid-July.

These closures could impact Facebook as well, as the majority of Facebook’s advertisers are small and medium-sized businesses. But Facebook’s global nature protects it. Even if the U.S. loses more small businesses due to its mishandling of the pandemic, there are far more advertisers are outside the U.S. that Facebook taps into.

Facebook says the Business Suite will gradually roll out during the month of September. The app joins several others Facebook offers today for its business customers, including Facebook Pages Manager, Facebook Analytics, and Facebook Ads Manager. However, Facebook notes that its new Business Suite isn’t currently designed to serve those who use Ads Manager.

#advertising, #apps, #business, #businesses, #facebook, #marketing, #small-business, #social, #social-media

0

Supercell’s CEO talks about its majority owner Tencent, finding its next hit, and more

Mobile games maker Supercell has been one of the great, understated, breakthroughs of the European startup world. The Helsinki-based mobile games maker built an empire out of Clash of Clans, raking in tons of money and catching the eye of world class investors and eventually a new strategic majority shareholder in the form of Tencent at a $10.2 billion valuation.

That was in 2016. So how does a hot startup keep its edge?

As part of this year’s virtual Disrupt,we sat down to talk with the company’s founder and CEO, Ilkka Paananen, about that and the other challenges and opportunities facing the company, and asked for his tips and opinion on spinning up and running startups in Europe today.

Times are definitely not easy right now: all of us are living through a global health pandemic, and economies as a result of that are teetering; and there is an interesting sea change happening as gaming companies (along with other content makers) face off against big tech, where question of whether platforms or the games themselves have the upper hand. (The most visible and recent example of that: the counter-lawsuits between Epic and Apple over in-app payments.)

For Supercell specifically, its majority owner, Tencent, is in hot water in the US (a major market for Supercell); and it’s sitting on a still-popular but now-ageing game franchise that you could argue is in the middle of its own Battle Royale against the many other big games that are vying for people’s attention (and spending power to keep playing and levelling up). In short, the company itself, now 10 years old, may itself be facing more existential questions of, who are we now, and what comes next?

As you’ll see in the video below, Paananen is very sanguine and calm, which is to say quite Finnish, about a lot of this.

Even without the experience thus far of Supercell under his belt, he has been in the industry for years. Supercell is his second big hit company: before that he founded Sumea, which was acquired by Digital Chocolate, where he became president in the now-defunct bigger studio’s heyday. And, he has been and is an investor, too: most recently Paananen backed Zwift, the gamefied home fitness startup, in its most recent, $450 million round, which included him joining the company’s board. All of this is to say that he can see the bigger picture.

The Tencent issues in the US, he said, are something that the company is watching. But not only are they unresolved — indeed just this week, ahead of any proposed bans on Tencent properties and WeChat in particular, the US government issued more clarification on how people are liable for using WeChat. In any case, Paananen said in the interview that he believes that Supercell doesn’t fall under the US executive order to be shut down, since Tencent is only a shareholder, not a full owner. He’s still waiting to see how it all plays out.

“Our current understanding [is that] it’s about WeChat not Tencent as a whole,” he said, “and that it doesn’t apply to Tencent-invested companies like Supercell.” (Also: one of the good things to have come out of not getting fully acquired, it seems.)

Similarly, Paananen is not overly concerned about the fact that its big hit, while still one of the highest grossing apps globally, is getting on and slowly bringing in less revenues.

Judging by the fact that Supercell has yet to follow up with another successful franchise, and has killed quite a few attempts in the meantime, the process to produce a hit, in fact, still seems to be as elusive to a company that has produced a hit already as it is to those that have not.

“It would be nice to be always on this kind of a growth curve, but the reality is… it’s very much about hits or misses,” he said.

“Sometimes figures go up, and sometimes they go down [so] what’s your time horizon? We never ever think about the next quarter, and very, very rarely think about it and maybe next year, I think that’s a target in itself, you know. We try to think in decades. Our dream is to build a game so as many people as possible will play for a very long time. We are inspired by companies like, say, Nintendo. And if you’re going to take that… then that changes your perspective.”

The company has been building out its options, though, making about three investments a year in other gaming startups, and some full acquisitions of studios, to diversify the team and bring in more options for new games in the future. Later in the Q&A with viewers, Paananen said Supercell has no plans yet for anything in AR or VR, with a firm belief that mobile, and the mechanics of a touch screen, are the best for what it’s building.

It seems that most valuable lesson Paananen has learned, it turns out, is the thing that continues to be his top priority: building the right team for the long haul.

Making sure you have a group that can work together, inspire each other and be productive has been the constant, one that perhaps means even more as the company grows bigger and we continue to work under very decentralised circumstances.

“We are currently on the look-out for people from all around the world to join Supercell to build the be the best teams and then of course the best games,” he said.

Hear about all this, plus Paananen’s opinion on raising money and more, below.

#apps, #clash-of-clans, #disrupt, #europe, #finland, #gaming, #mobile-gaming, #startups, #supercell, #talent, #tc, #tc-disrupt, #tcuk, #tencent

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SmartNews’ Kaisei Hamamoto on how the app deals with media polarization

Six years ago, SmartNews took on a major challenge. After launching in Japan in 2012, the news discovery app decided that its first international market would be the United States. During Disrupt, co-founder Kaisei Hamamoto talked about how SmartNews adapts its app for two very different markets (the video is embedded below). Hamamoto, who is also chief operating officer and chief engineer of the startup, which hit unicorn status last year, also dove into how the company deals with media polarization, especially in the United States.

At Disrupt, SmartNews announced a roster of major new features for the U.S. version of the app, including sections dedicated to voting information and articles related to local and national elections. Hamamoto said the SmartNews’ goal is to make the app a “one-stop solution for users’ participation in the election process.”

The media landscape has changed a lot since SmartNews was founded in 2012. In the U.S., SmartNews is tackling the same issues as many journalists are: increasing polarization, especially along political lines, and monetization (SmartNews currently has more than 3,000 publishing partners around the world and splits ad revenue with them). And, of course, it’s up against a host of new competitors, including Apple News and Google News.

While many Japanese startups focus on other Asian markets when expanding internationally, SmartNews decided to enter the United States because it is home to some of the most influential media companies in the world. On the engineering side, Hamamoto said the company also wanted to tap into the country’s AI and machine learning talent pool.

“The U.S. is not only an attractive market, but also an important development center for SmartNews,” he said.

The Japanese and American versions of SmartNews share the same code base and its offices in both countries work closely together. While the company’s machine learning-based algorithms drive the bulk of news discovery and personalized recommendations, publishers are first screened by SmartNews’ content team before being added to its platform. The company’s vice president of content is Rich Jaroslovsky, a veteran journalist who wrote for publications like Bloomberg News and the Wall Street Journal.

While AI-based algorithms can perform tasks like filtering out obscene images, “it does not have the ability to evaluate how each publisher meets certain standards,” Hamamoto said. “We are doing everything we can to ensure that our users can read the news with trust every day thanks to efforts led by our team of journalism experts.”

Breaking readers out of information bubbles

In addition to their code base, the two versions of the app share some of the same features. For example, each has SmartNews’ COVID-19 channel, with continuous updates about the pandemic. In the States, this includes visualizations of confirmed cases by county or state, and information about local closing or reopening orders.

In terms of adapting the apps’ user experience, Hamamoto said Japanese readers prefer to have a lot of news displayed on one screen, so it uses a layout algorithm that deliberately increases the density of information presented in its Japanese app. But testing showed Americans prefer a simpler, cleaner layout with more white space.

But the differences go beyond the apps’ user interface. In 2016, members of the U.S. and Japanese team spent three weeks traveling across 13 states, including Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas, to talk to people they met through Craiglist postings or in diners and cafes. SmartNews’ leaders decided to do this after the Japan team realized that most of their U.S. trips were to their offices in New York and the Bay Area.

“We knew we couldn’t get a get a true sense of America by only visiting the East Coast and West Coast,” he said.

Hamamato said one of his biggest takeaways from the 2016 trip was that “we tend to categorize people into just two segments, our side or the other side, and we tend to think of the other side as the enemy, but in reality the world is not that simple.”

In a bid to tackle political polarization in American media, the company launched a “News from All Sides” feature last year, that displays articles about one topic from publications displayed on a slider from “most conservative” to “most liberal.” The U.S. app also has a stronger emphasis on local news. Based on users’ locations, this can be as specific as information from county or even city news outlets.

Hamamoto added that one of SmartNews’ guiding principles is a belief that “having a willingness to listen to other people and not easily label them will help solve the division of our society.”

#apps, #asia, #disrupt-2020, #japan, #media, #news-discovery, #smartnews, #startups, #tc, #techcrunch-disrupt

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SmartNews’ U.S. app unveils new features for the elections, COVID-19 and local weather

News discovery app SmartNews' new election features for U.S. users

News discovery app SmartNews’ new election features for U.S. users

At TechCrunch Disrupt today, SmartNews announced the release of major new features for the American version of its news discovery app, designed to make it easier for users to get updates about the elections, COVID-19 and the weather.

Several features focus on the presidential race, and other candidates up for vote this year. SmartNews, which has spent the past two years building its coverage of local news, also added sections devoted to local elections and ballot measures, and information on how to register to vote and cast a ballot.

During his Disrupt session, SmartNews co-founder, chief operating officer and chief engineer Kaisei Hamamato said the goal of the app’s new election features is to make it the “one-stop solution” for voters seeking information.

Another new feature is centered on the COVID-19 pandemic, and includes an expanded case counter that now breaks them down by county; the latest information on local closings, re-opening and other pandemic-related policies; and a vaccine and drug development tracker with a timeline of news articles from different sources.

SmartNews' new COVID-19 vaccine and drug news tracker

SmartNews’ new COVID-19 vaccine and drug news tracker

The final new feature is a “hyper-localized” weather report. Launched as Americans in many states are coping with wildfires or extreme weather events like hurricanes, the SmartNews’ Weather Radar uses its patented radar map design to show neighborhood-specific forecasts, including the predicted onset and intensity of rainfall.

SmartNews' Weather Radar feature

SmartNews’ Weather Radar feature

Founded in 2012 in Japan, SmartNews launched its American version in 2014, and shows articles from 3,000 publishing partners around the world. While its news discovery is mostly driven by machine learning-based algorithms, the company’s team also includes veteran journalists who help develop new features. In the United States, SmartNews has focused on addressing increasing media polarization with features intended to help break readers out of the kind of information bubbles they encounter on social media apps.

SmartNews' News From All Sides feature for the U.S. presidential election

The News From All Sides feature for the U.S. presidential election

Last year, SmartNews launched its News From All Sides feature in the U.S., which shows articles on a single topic from publications across the political spectrum that users can toggle through using a slider. Created for readers who want to see other perspectives, but might be overwhelmed by online searches, News From All Sides has been adapted for the 2020 presidential election, displaying articles about Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

#apps, #disrupt-2020, #media, #news-discovery, #smartnews, #startups, #tc, #techcrunch-disrupt

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Justice Department says WeChat users won’t be penalized under Trump’s executive order

In a Wednesday filing in federal court, the United States government said that users who use or download WeChat “to convey personal or business information” will not be subject to penalties under President Donald Trump’s executive order banning transactions with the Tencent-owned messaging app.

Trump issued the executive order against WeChat on August 6, the same day he issued a similar one banning transactions with ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, claiming national security concerns. Both orders caused confusion because they are set to go into effect 45 days after being issued, but said that Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross will not identify what transactions are covered until then.

With that deadline now looming at the end of this week, WeChat users in America are still uncertain about the app’s future. Though WeChat is the top messaging app by far in China, where it also serves as an essential conduit for payments and other services, the U.S. version of the app has relatively limited features. It is used by Chinese-Americans, and other members of the Chinese disapora in the U.S., to keep in touch with their family and other people in China. With other popular messaging apps, like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, banned in China, WeChat is often the most direct communication channel available to them.

The U.S. government’s filing (embedded below) was made as part of a request for a preliminary injunction against the executive order brought by the U.S. WeChat Users Alliance, a non-profit organization initiated by attorneys who want to preserve access to WeChat for users in the U.S. A hearing is scheduled for Thursday.

In it, attorneys from the Justice Department said the U.S. Commerce Department is continuing to review transactions and will clarify which ones are affected by Sept. 20, but “we can provide assurances that [Secretary Ross] does not intend to take actions that would target persons or groups whose only connection to WeChat is their use or downloading of the app to convey personal or business information between users, or otherwise define the relevant transaction in such a way that would impose criminal or civil liability on such users.”

But in a response (also embedded below), the U.S. WeChat Users Alliance said that the Department of Justice’s filing instead demonstrates why a preliminary injunction is necessary. “Having first failed to articulate any actual national security concerns, the administration’s latest ‘assurances’ that users can keep using WeChat, and exchange their personal and business information, only further illustrates the hollowness and pre-textual nature of the Defendants’ ‘national security rationales.’”

The U.S. WeChat Users Alliance filed for the injunction on August 21. In an open letter published on its site, it said a complete ban of WeChat “will severely affect the lives and the work of millions of people in the U.S. They will have a difficult time talking to family relatives and friends back in China. Countless people or businesses who use WeChat to develop and contact customers will also suffer significant economic losses.”

The group also believes that the executive order “violates many provisions of the U.S. Constitution,” and the Administrative Procedure Act.

#apps, #china, #department-of-justice, #messaging, #policy, #tc, #tencent, #u-s-government, #wechat

0

New iOS 14 widgets you can try today

Despite the surprise release of iOS 14 that left app developers unprepared, an ambitious few have managed to push their way through — or even pull an all-nighter — in order to make their apps available with iOS 14 support on launch day. For the first time in years, the new version of iOS offers a new way for consumers to organize their home screens. Now, your less frequently used apps can be shuffled away to the App Library on the iPhone’s back screen, while those apps offering information and updates can feature their content through new home screen widgets.

In time, widget support will be a standard feature for a large number of apps. But due to the way Apple chose to release iOS 14 this year, there may not be as many app widgets offered on day one.

Below are some of the first apps launching today alongside iOS 14 that include interesting iOS 14 widgets. These apps and their widgets should be available today shortly after the iOS 14 release.

Aviary

Twitter client Aviary released widgets that allow you to view either 1, 2 or 4 of the latest tweets (depending on which widget size you select) from your Twitter timeline. The widgets will update periodically by themselves, as well. The app will be available today after iOS 14 rolls out.

Image Credits: Aviary (widget shown in top right)

Brief

Unbiased news app Brief is keeping to its promises to avoid clickbait with its minimalist, monochromatic widget designed to stop attention hijacking. The “Front Page” widget’s content will be carefully curated by its news team, so only the most important stories of the day will show up on your home screen.

A second “Election Snapshot” widget will let you keep track of the current presidential, house and senate races at a glance. Users can customize this widget to track their own most-watched races, like those in their home state, for example.

Image Credits: Brief

Soor

Soor, a premium music player app for iPhone users, has released three widgets in various sizes. The “Now Playing” widget shows the current song and what’s up next, and updates in near real time. There’s also a “Magic Mixes” widget for your mixes and a “Music Collection” widget that can be configured to show eight types of curated content.

Image Credits: Soor

Readdle: Spark Mail, Calendar 5, Documents

Readdle has released widgets for its Calendar iOS app that show your appointments and the month.

Image Credits: Readdle/Calendar 5

Its Spark Mail app offers widgets for email and calendar, too.

Image Credits: Readdle/Spark Mail

And Documents by Readdle is adding widgets for quick access for file actions like VPN, music, player, browser, etc.

Image Credits: Readdle

Cheep

Cheep’s app lets you know about mistake fares or other ridiculously discounted flight deals. Its new iOS 14 widgets can be customized to feature deals from your airports and can be stacked together to make it easy to see the deals without opening the app.

Image Credits: Cheep

Dice

Dice, from PCalc, is a physics-based simulation of polyhedral dice for use in tabletop role-playing games. The app’s new widgets bring its dice to your home screen allowing you to open the app with just a tap.

Image Credits: PCalc

Weather Line

Forecasting app Weather Line already offers a lot of visual data related to weather and forecasts. Now it’s bringing its insights and graphs right to the iOS 14 home screen. The app’s all-in-one weather widget delivers current conditions, forecasts and other content like high/low, sunrise/sunset, incoming rain, extreme weather warnings and more.

Image Credits: Weather Line

Nighthawk

Nighthawk’s Twitter client will release its first widget today. “Vanity” lets you keep an eye on your Twitter profile metrics, like how many followers you have and how many you’re following.

Apollo for Reddit

Popular Reddit client app Apollo is offering a collection of widgets, including a Post widget that shows a post from a Reddit feed of your choosing, a Multiple Posts widgets that will show several posts from your favorite feed, a Post Feed Grid that presents posts in a more visual, grid-style layout, a Wallpaper widget that will rotate through photos from image-heavy subreddits you like, as well as Showerthoughts and Jokes widgets that put a little humor on your home screen.

Image Credits: Apollo for Reddit

Carrot Weather

The iOS 14 release of Carrot’s humorous weather app brings a forecast widget, hourly and daily widgets, a weather maps widget and — in true carrot fashion — a snark widget that delivers your weather with the app’s classic snarky comments.

Tangerine

Habit and mood tracking app Tangerine will offer a variety of widgets to remind you about your progress on your day’s goals, like your commitments to run, exercise, drink water or whatever else you may be tracking.

Image Credits: Tangerine

Nudget

Nudget’s mobile budgeting app will introduce widgets for keeping up with your household budget, including things like those categories where you’ve spent too much or have dropped your spending, and how much money you have left this week.

Image Credits: Nudget

Birch

Organized photo notes app Birch includes a Featured Photo widget that lets you put a photo on your home screen — a neat trick, since there’s not a way to do so with the iOS Photos app. (Submitting today)

Image Credits: Birch

The above apps should be live today after iOS 14 releases, barring some unforeseen rejection.

#apple, #apps, #ios-14, #ios-apps, #tc, #widgets

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iOS 14 is now available to download

Apple has just released the final version of iOS 14, the next major version of the operating system for the iPhone. It is a free download and it works with the iPhone 6s or later, both generations of iPhone SE and the most recent iPod touch model. If your device runs iOS 13, it supports iOS 14. The update may or may not be immediately available, but keep checking because people are now receiving the update.

The company is also releasing major updates for the iPad, Apple Watch and Apple TV today. So you can expect some new features with iPadOS 14, tvOS 14 and watchOS 7 as well.

The release of those updates caught many developers by surprise. Apple announced yesterday that iOS 14 would be ready for prime time today. Usually, the company announces the release date a week or two in advance. This way, developers have enough time to fix the last remaining bugs and submit updates to the App Store.

If you update your iPhone today, don’t be surprised if you encounter a few bugs here and there from third-party apps. There are some major changes under the hood and nobody expected such a short turnaround.

The update is currently rolling out and is available both over-the-air in the Settings app, and by plugging your device into iTunes for a wired update. But first, back up your device. Make sure your iCloud backup is up to date by opening the Settings app on your iPhone or iPad and tapping on your account information at the top and then on your device name. Additionally, you can also plug your iOS device into your computer to do a manual backup in iTunes (or do both, really).

Don’t forget to encrypt your backup in iTunes. It is much safer if somebody hacks your computer. And encrypted backups include saved passwords and health data. This way, you don’t have to reconnect to all your online accounts.

Once this is done, you should go to the Settings app, then ‘General’ and then ‘Software Update.’ Then you should see ‘Update Requested…’ It will then automatically start downloading once the download is available.

The biggest change of iOS 14 is the introduction of widgets on the home screen, a new App Library to browse all your apps and the ability to run App Clips — those are mini apps that feature a small part of an app and that you can run without installing anything.

There are also many refinements across the board, such as new features for Messages, with a big focus on groups with @-mentions and replies, a new Translate app that works on your device, cycling directions in Apple Maps in some cities and various improvements in Notes, Reminders, Weather, Home and more.

If you want to learn more about iOS 14, I looked at some of the features in the new version earlier this summer:

#apple, #apps, #gadgets, #ios, #ios-14, #mobile

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Alexa’s new celebrity wake words ‘Hey Samuel,’ turns the assistant into Samuel L. Jackson

Alexa just read me Monday’s baseball scores. It was great for two reasons. First, the A’s shut out the Mariners 9-0 in the second game of a doubleheader. And second, she did so in Samuel L. Jackson’s voice. With Amazon based in Seattle, I assume they’re happy I’ve chosen to focus on the latter fact for the rest of this post.

Alexa heads Toni Reid and Rohit Prasad joined us onstage today at Disrupt to discuss the smart assistant’s history, biggest obstacles and future. They also used the occasion to announce that the highest-grossing actor of all time now has his own wake word. After installing the Samuel L. Jackson celebrity voice skill, Alexa users can make the “Pulp Fiction” star their default assistant voice, triggering him with the wake words “Hey Samuel.”

I’ve been using the skill on an Echo Show this week, and it’s a fun addition to Alexa that swears sometimes. In fact, there’s a warning when you install it that it’s not particularly family-friendly (like the real Samuel L. Jackson, he uses MFer a fair bit more than your standard voice assistant). Most of the commands are just standard Alexa stuff in Jackson’s voice, but there are some gems on there, like asking questions about reptiles on aircraft. He’s a bit less up on some of the deeper cuts from his filmography.

The addition of Jackson for Alexa follows Google’s own introduction of celebrity voice cameos from John Legend and Issa Rae. It’s clear that both companies believe a little star power goes a long way toward keeping users engaged with a virtual assistant. Honestly though, Jackson is one of the best gets you can imagine, both in terms of name recognition and novelty. It’s hard to think of too many names that might top it (Obama? Oprah? Pee-Wee Herman?).

One of the stories Amazon is interested in telling here is how surprisingly difficult it was to create a secondary wake word. The Samuel L. Jackson skill was available before, but essentially required the user to say ““Hey Alexa, ask Samuel…” Essentially a smart assistant game of telephone. The novelty wears off pretty fast, to be honest.

“The Alexa wake word has billions of interactions every week,” Alexa Senior Machine Learning Manager Shiv Vitaladevuni says in a post tied to the news. “However, there was a paucity of training data for the ‘Hey, Samuel’ wake word. To develop the multi wake word model for ‘Hey Samuel’ and Alexa, we had to develop new training and data modeling techniques, while drawing on learnings from the past.”

#amazon, #amazon-alexa, #apps, #artificial-intelligence, #rohit-prasad, #techcrunch-disrupt, #toni-reid

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Four perspectives on Apple’s new service bundle

Apple’s hardware event yesterday wasn’t particularly eventful for its most popular devices, bringing only iterative changes to Apple Watch and the iPad. But the company tipped its hand as to a new, aggressive approach to services with a fitness product and new unified subscription called Apple One. What are the implications of this shift?

For one thing, Cupertino is engaging in a form of future-proofing to offset slowing hardware sales and potentially a loss of App Store income.

And yet some of the services may not survive the next few years. What happens when no one wants to pay for Apple Arcade or TV+? Will its newest service, Fitness+, impact self-employed fitness workers who are building their own brands by undercutting them and offering exclusive watchOS integration?

Lastly, the whole deal may look different depending on what country you live in — and no one likes to feel left out.

TC staff dilate on these possibilities below:

  • Brian Heater: This is Apple’s new bread and butter.
  • Kirsten Korosec: If you’re a self-employed fitness pro, Apple just ate your lunch.
  • Lucas Matney: Apple One is doomed from the start.
  • Devin Coldewey: Apple’s increasingly complex global ecosystem.

This is Apple’s new bread and butter

Brian Heater

Image Credits: Apple

Of course Apple’s not at any risk of losing money on the hardware front. It still sells a ton of iPhones, a lot of computers and more smartwatches than anyone else. But certain categories are seeing a slow down. The iPhone in particular — the long-time tentpole product of Apple’s hardware offering — has been impacted as smartphone sales have plateaued and slowed down nearly across the board.

Accordingly, services have become an increasingly important piece of Apple’s quarterly revenue. Earlier this year, the company noted a year-over-year sales increase of 17%, due in no small part to recent additions like Arcade and TV+. Today’s addition of Fitness+ will no doubt juice the numbers even further, arriving at a perfect moment for in-home workouts amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

#apple, #apple-hardware-event-2020, #apple-one, #apps, #gadgets, #hardware, #tc, #wearables

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