Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.
The app industry continues to grow, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.
Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.
This week we’re looking at more Clubhouse competitors, including Facebook’s first test of its Live Audio Rooms in the U.S. and Spotify’s launch of its Greenroom app for live discussions across an array of topics. Also, Amazon is reducing its Appstore fees, after similar moves by Apple and Google.
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Spotify launches its Clubhouse competitor
Image Credits: Spotify
In March, Spotify announced it was acquiring the company behind the sports-focused audio app Locker Room to help speed its entry into the live audio market. This week, the company made good on that deal with the launch of Spotify Greenroom, a new mobile app and likely Clubhouse rival, that allows Spotify users worldwide to join or host live audio rooms, and optionally turn those conversations into podcasts.
The Spotify Greenroom app itself is based on Locker Room’s existing code, with the earlier Locker Room app basically updating to become Greenroom. To join the new app, Spotify users sign in with their current Spotify account information. They’re then walked through an onboarding experience designed to connect them with their interests. Spotify considers the app a soft launch, as it has plans to announce shows later this summer. It’s also funding shows through a new Creator Fund, whose details have not yet been revealed at this time.
Longer-term, the company believes it will be able to take advantage of its personalization tech to make smart recommendations about live shows, based on what music or podcasts a user listens to, and could notify users when favorite creators go live.
The bigger advantage Spotify has here is that its Greenroom sessions are recorded. After a show wraps, the creator can request an audio file which they can then turn into a podcast episode. This ability to straddle both worlds of live and recorded audio could prove to be more useful as the post-COVID world opens up, and users are no longer stuck at home, bored, able to tune in at any time to audio programs.
Amazon lowers its cut of app developer revenues
Amazon this week quietly announced it would follow in the footsteps of app store giants Apple and Google with its introduction of the Amazon Appstore Small Business Accelerator Program. The new program will reduce the commissions Amazon takes on app developer revenues for qualifying smaller businesses. Previously, Amazon’s Appstore took a 30% cut of revenue, including that from in-app purchases. Now, it will take only 20% from developers who earned up to $1 million in the prior calendar year. The company also said developers with less than $1 million in Appstore revenue in a calendar year will receive 10% of their revenue as promotional credit for AWS services, bringing the total program benefits up to an equivalent of 90% of revenue.
The program’s overall structure is similar to Apple’s App Store Small Business Program, announced in late 2020, which reduced Apple’s cut to 15% for developers who earn up to a $1 million threshold, after which they’re moved to the higher 30% standard rate. This rate then continues as they enter the following year. Google, more recently, took a slightly different course, by lowering the commissions to 15% on the first $1 million of developer revenue earned through the Play billing system each year.
The lack of attention to Amazon’s announcement, both in the developer community and by press, demonstrates how inconsequential Amazon’s own Appstore has become in the greater app ecosystem.
Android announced several new features which will roll out this summer, including starring text messages to easily find them later, getting contextual Emoji Kitchen suggestions depending on what you’re typing, as well as updates that emphasize security, safety and accessibility. The latter include updates to Google Assistant, Android Auto and Google’s Gaze detection feature.
A teardown of the newly released Google Play Services app (v.21.24.13) suggests Google is working on a “Find My Device” network that would allow Android users to locate your phone and other devices, similar to Apple’s “Find My.”
Google apps will return to Honor devices with the launch of the Honor 50 series devices. The company had not been able to ship Google apps, including the Play store, on its phones due to parent company Huawei’s placement on the U.S.’s entity list, which forced Google to pull its license. But Huawei sold off Honor last year, allowing it to work with Google again.
Google introduced AppSearch in Jetpack, which is now available in Alpha. AppSearch is an on-device search library that provides high-performance and feature-rich full-text search functionality, said Google, and lives completely on-device, allowing for offline search.
Mobile-first marketplace OfferUp, which connects local buyers and sellers, hired a new CEO. The company brought on former Booking.com managing director Todd Dunlap as CEO, while co-founder and former CEO Nick Huzar will remain as chief product officer.
After lawsuits, injuries and deaths, Snapchat finally removed its controversial “speed filter” which displays how fast a user was going at the time of posting. Critics argued the sticker encouraged reckless driving, as teens would try to post themselves traveling at excess speeds.
Snapchat launched Creative Kit for Spotlight, which will allow third-party apps to publish directly to Snap’s TikTok rival, Spotlight, similar to TikTok’s SDK. Early adopters include Videoleap, Beatleap by Lightricks, Splice, Powder and Pinata Farms.
ByteDance revenues more than doubled in the past year thanks to TikTok. According to an internal memo, ByteDance saw a 111% increase in revenues, to $34.3 billion, and a 93% increase in gross profit, to $19 billion in 2020.
Instagram’s TikTok rival, Reels, is rolling out ads worldwide. The ads will be up to 30 seconds in length, like Reels themselves, and vertical in format, similar to ads found in Instagram Stories. Also like Reels, the new ads will loop, and people will be able to like, comment on, and save them, the same as other Reels videos.
Twitter said it’s considering a new feature that would allow users to untag themselves from tweets, in order to control unwanted attention, like harassment and abuse. The feature could be useful when troll armies attack at scale before a user can block and report attacks or Twitter has a chance to respond.
WhatsApp for iOS is making it easier for users to search for stickers. With a coming update, already live on TestFlight, users will be able to type a word or emoji and WhatsApp will animate the sticker button if a matching sticker is found.
Streaming & Entertainment
Image Credits: Apple
Apple Podcasts Subscriptions went live across more than 170 countries and regions this week. First unveiled this spring, subscriptions allow listeners to unlock additional benefits for their favorite podcasts, including things like ad-free listening, early access to new episodes, bonus material, exclusives or whatever else the podcast creator believes will be something their fans will pay for.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg this week hosted the first test of Facebook’s Clubhouse competitor, Live Audio Rooms, in the U.S. The exec was joined by Facebook VP and Head of Facebook Reality Labs Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, Head of Facebook App Fidji Simo and three Facebook Gaming creators. It’s pretty incredible that Zuckerberg only months ago was appearing on Clubhouse to talk about the future of audio-based networking before essentially cloning the Clubhouse experience for Facebook’s own platform.
Streaming app Deezer launched a new iOS app, Deezer for Creators, which allows musicians and podcasters to track trends, audience insights and more, similar to Spotify for Artists.
An app for pirated movies and TV that disguised itself as a Sudoku game climbed up the App Store charts this week, before being pulled by Apple. The app, Zoshy+, seems to have circumvented App Review by taking advantage of server-side controls.
In a change that represents a significant shift underway in the creators economy, TikTok signed on as creator conference VidCon’s title sponsor for 2021, taking the spot formerly held by YouTube. The latter will still be involved as a secondary sponsor.
Apple-owned music identification and discovery app Shazam announced this week it had surpassed 1 billion Shazams per month. The company noted it took 10 years for Shazam to reach its first billion tags. Less than 10 years after that, Shazam has crossed 1 billion monthly recognitions and has successfully matched over 50 billion tags with over 51 million songs. At WWDC, Apple announced its plans for Shazam’s future with the launch of ShazamKit, which brings Shazam’s audio identification capabilities to third-party apps.
Popular mobile game PUBG Mobile returned to India after being banned more than nine months ago. The game was banned as part of the country’s decision to boot out over 200 apps with links to China due to national security concerns. The new game has been rebranded to Battlegrounds Mobile India, but is largely the same same as before, but “with data compliance, green blood, and a constant reminder that you’re in a ‘virtual world’ with such messaging present as you start a game and when you’re in menus,” said IGN India editor Rishi Alwani.
Pokémon Go creator Niantic is working with Hasbro on a new AR game. Transformers: Heavy Metal, is being built by Very Very Spaceship for Niantic, and is scheduled for a 2021 release. The company has around a dozen games in development, including a collaboration with Nintendo to adapt its Pikmin game, and a game based on the board game Settlers of Catan.
An upcoming Apple Arcade update will bring a new, special edition of Alto’s Odyssey, a new Angry Birds title called Angry Birds Reloaded and a remastered Doodle God Universe. The update will be the largest since April.
Amazon’s cross-platform cloud gaming service Luna will open up priority access during Prime Day, June 21-22, meaning all Prime members will be able to access the service without an invite.
Mobile users worldwide downloaded 30% more games in the first quarter of 2021 than in the fourth quarter of 2019, and spent a record-breaking $1.7 billion per week in mobile games in Q1 2021, up 40% from pre-pandemic levels, per a new App Annie/IDC report.
Image Credits: App Annie
An email that surfaced during the Epic trial discussed the issue of Apple’s Files app ranking first when users searched for a competitor’s app, Dropbox, for 11 months. The app had been manually boosted, the emails seemed to reveal. But Apple this week stated the issue was due to the Files app having a Dropbox integration. Apple put Dropbox in the metadata, causing it to rank higher — an explanation that doesn’t match up with the internal emails.
Third-party Alexa devices can now incorporate setup for their products in the Alexa app, thanks to an update to Alexa Voice Services.
Although Samsung’s SmartThings is no longer making its own smart home hardware, the company this week launched a new SmartThings mobile app on Android, which aims to make it simpler to get to actions and automations. The app includes a new Favorites section to replace the existing home screen, a Life section where users can explore new SmartThings services, plus pages for Devices, Automations and a Menu. The iPhone version will arrive soon.
An update to the Wyze mobile app added support for Google Home and Google Assistant, allowing users to control smart home devices with voice commands.
Government & Policy
A report published this week by U.S. advocacy group Fight for the Future and China-based GreatFire highlighted government censorship of LGBTQ+ apps around the world, due to government restrictions. It documented 1,377 cases of app access restrictions across 152 App Stores. However, the study contained several inaccuracies, Apple pointed out. For example, Grindr and Scruff are both available worldwide in the App Store, despite what the report said. Also, none of the 27 apps mentioned in the report with regard to China had been removed by Apple. Of the total 64 apps monitored, only four had been removed by a particular country because of legal issues.
Security & Privacy
A security bug in Google’s Android app, installed over 5 billion times, could have allowed attackers to steal personal data from a user’s device. Google says it fixed the vulnerability last month and found no evidence it had ever been exploited.
Funding and M&A
Messaging social network IRL raised $170 million in a Series C round led by SoftBank’s Vision Fund 2, valuing the social events calendar and group chat app at $1.17 billion. New investor Dragoneer also participated in the oversubscribed round, alongside returning investors Goodwater Capital, Founders Fund and Floodgate. To date, IRL has raised over $200 million.
Delivery service Gopuff, which is available on web and mobile, acquired fleet management platform rideOS for $115 million. This acquisition comes a few months after the delivery startup announced a $1.15 billion funding round at a $8.9 billion valuation.
Spotify acquired Podz, a podcast delivery platform focused on solving issues around podcast discovery. Podz has been using machine learning to choose clips that can help introduce shows to new listeners. The startup had raised $2.5 million in pre-seed funding ahead of its acquisition. Deal terms weren’t disclosed.
PUBG Mobile maker Krafton is preparing to raise $5 billion in a South Korean IPO, expected to be the country’s largest ever. The company will sell more than 10 million shares at 458,000 won to 557,000 won apiece, a filing said. It will finalize the price July 9 and list on July 22.
Mobile banking app Novo, which targets an SMB customer base, raised $40.7 million in Series A funding, after growing its user base to 100,000 businesses.
Mobile banking app FamPay, aimed at Indian teens, raised $38 million in Series A funding. Investors include Elevation Capital, General Catalyst, Rocketship VC, Greenoaks Capital, and others, and makes for one of India’s largest Series A rounds to date.
Apna, a jobs app built by an Apple alum, raised $70 million in Series B funding co-led by Insight Partners and Tiger Global, valuing the business at $570 million. The app aims to help blue and gray-collar workers upskill themselves, find communities, and land jobs.
WordPress.com owner Automattic acquired popular journaling app Day One. The app has been downloaded more than 15 million times since its March 2011 launch on the Mac and iTunes App Store, offering users a private place to share their thoughts. Since then, it’s been awarded the App Store Editor’s Choice, App of the Year and the Apple Design Award, along with praise from various reviewers. Deal terms were not disclosed. Day One had been bootstrapped and self-funded for 10 years. The app will further integrate with other Automattic-owned writing platforms, including WordPress.com and Tumblr.