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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

read more about Apple's WWDC 2021 on TechCrunch

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

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Facebook buys studio behind Roblox-like Crayta gaming platform

Facebook has been making plenty of one-off virtual reality studio acquisitions lately, but today the company announced that they’re buying something with wider ambitions — a Roblox-like game creation platform.

Facebook shared that they’re buying Unit 2 Games, which builds a platform called Crayta. Like some other platforms out there it builds on top of the Unreal Engine and gives users a more simple creation interface teamed with discovery and community features. Crayta has cornered its own niche pushing monetization paths like Battle Pass seasons giving the platform a more Fortnite-like vibe as well.

Unit 2 has been around for just over 3 years and Crayta launched just last July. Its audience has likely been limited by the studio’s deal to exclusively launch on Google’s cloud-streaming platform Stadia though it’s also available on the Epic Games Store as of March.

The title feels designed for the lightweight nature of cloud-gaming platforms with users able to share access to games just by linking other users and Facebook seems keen to use Crayta to push forward their own efforts in the gaming sphere.

“Crayta has maximized current cloud-streaming technology to make game creation more accessible and easy to use. We plan to integrate Crayta’s creation toolset into Facebook Gaming’s cloud platform to instantly deliver new experiences on Facebook,” Facebook Gaming VP Vivek Sharma wrote in an announcement post.

The entire team will be coming on as part of the acquisition, though financial terms of the deal weren’t shared.

#computing, #epic-games, #epic-games-store, #facebook, #fortnite, #google-stadia, #online-games, #roblox, #software, #stadia, #tc, #tencent, #video-gaming, #virtual-reality, #vp

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This one email explains Apple

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

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

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

Apple University should have a course dedicated to this email. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then let them do their job. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Apple’s Fortnite Trial Ends With Pointed Questions and a Toast to Popeyes

A decision over the antitrust suit filed by Epic Games, and the future of the $100 billion market for iPhone apps, is now in the hands of a federal judge.

#antitrust-laws-and-competition-issues, #apple-inc, #computer-and-video-games, #cook-timothy-d, #decisions-and-verdicts, #epic-games, #games, #gonzalez-rogers-yvonne-1965, #iphone, #mobile-applications, #prices-fares-fees-and-rates, #regulation-and-deregulation-of-industry, #sweeney-tim-1970

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Equity Monday: Crypto’s awful weekend, Apple v. Epic, and funding rounds galore

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This is Equity Monday, our weekly kickoff that tracks the latest private market news, talks about the coming week, digs into some recent funding rounds and mulls over a larger theme or narrative from the private markets. You can follow the show on Twitter here and myself here.

After a somewhat quiet weekend, things are kicking off in rapid-fire fashion this week. Here’s what you need to know:

  • The cryptocurrency selloff that was in full-swing on Friday continued over the weekend. Though bitcoin and ether managed to recoup some of their losses since they set new local minima, the value of popular cryptos is vastly depressed compared to recent highs.
  • Looking ahead, it’s the final day of arguments at the Epic Games vs. Apple trial. And we’re seeing a smaller company try to crack some of the hold that a major tech incumbent enjoys over a huge piece of the digital economy. So, if you like startups, you might want to put aside your Apple fandom for a minute.
  • More than a few funding rounds are cracking off this morning, including neat rounds from African fintech Mono, India-and-UAE-based Zeta, Emitwise raising $3.2 million, and Aurora Solar raising $250 million.

With a busy funding market and a yet-busy IPO cycle, it should be yet another busy week. Strap in!

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PST, Wednesday, and Friday at 6:00 AM PST, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts!

#africa, #apple, #aurora-solar, #bitcoin, #coinbase, #crypto, #cryptocurrency, #emitwise, #epic-games, #equity, #equity-podcast, #ethereum, #fundings-exits, #india, #mono, #startups, #trial, #uae, #zeta

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If 12% is the new 30%, 4% is the new 12%

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

The whole team was aboard for this recording, with Grace and Chris behind the scenes, and Danny, Alex, and Natasha on the mics. We had to cut more than we included this week, which should give you a good idea of how busy the startup and VC worlds are of late.

Make sure that you are following the podcast on Twitter, where we post all sorts of memes and cuts and, perhaps, the occasional video here and there. That aside, here’s the rundown:

  • Investing legend David Swenson passed away.
  • Twitter is buying Scroll (neat, very cool) as part of its subscription push, but also killing Nuzzel in the process (bad, very uncool). Natasha and Danny fill us in on why Nuzzel will be missed. Alex has thoughts on why Twitter-Scroll is good.
  • Epic bought ArtStation and cut its marketplace take rate. This is the future, says Danny, who throws his own estimates in, too.
  • Sony and Discord are tying up after the Microsoft-Discord deal fell apart.
  • Edtech is doing the edtech thing in which it raises money and consolidates, as shown by Kahoot’s latest scoop.
  • A friend of the pod, Jomayra Herrera, is joining Reach Capital as its first ever outside-partner hire.
  • Uber is teaming up with Arrival for ride-hailing designed electric vehicles. We’re pretty bullish on the idea. Also Alex likes to say “microfactories.”
  • IVF startups are raising venture capital, and this time its Alife Health that we’re talking about. 
  • WorkBoard raised again. Alex once again made us talk about OKR-focused startups. He needs to get a life, and so does the rest of the Equity team which fought to do the transition into this segment.
  • To end, we spoke about Leda Health, a new startup focused on at-home rape kits for sexual assault survivors. It’s a controversial company, and we discuss critiques and opportunities,

And that’s our show! No private equity deal can slow the Equity team down, so we’ll see you Monday!

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PST, Wednesday, and Friday at 6:00 AM PST, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts!

#alife-health, #arrival, #clever, #discord, #early-stage, #edtech, #electric-vehicles, #epic, #epic-games, #equity, #equity-podcast, #ev, #kahoot, #leda-health, #microsoft, #nuzzel, #okr, #reach-capital, #scroll, #sony, #tc, #twitter, #uber, #venture-capital, #workboard

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Apple and Epic Trial Opens With a Tour of the Fortnite ‘Metaverse’

Epic has accused Apple of unfairly using its App Store’s power to take an undeserved cut of the money made in Fortnite, a popular online game.

#antitrust-laws-and-competition-issues, #apple-inc, #computers-and-the-internet, #e-commerce, #epic-games, #forrest-katherine-b, #google-inc, #iphone, #mobile-applications, #suits-and-litigation-civil, #sweeney-tim-1970

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Epic Games buys artist community ArtStation, drops commissions to 12%

One the same day as Fortnite maker Epic Games goes to trial with one of the biggest legal challenges to the App Store’s business model to date, it has simultaneously announced the acquisition of the artist portfolio community ArtStation — and immediately lowered the commissions on sales. Now standard creators on ArtStation will see the same 12% commission rate found in Epic’s own Games Store for PCs, instead of the 30% it was before. This reduced rate is meant to serve as an example the wider community as to what a “reasonable” commission should look like. This could become a point of comparison with the Apple App Store’s 30% commission for larger developers like Epic as the court case proceeds.

ArtStation today offers a place for creators across gaming, media, and entertainment to showcase their work and find new jobs. The company has had a long relationship with Epic Games, as many ArtStation creators work with Epic’s Unreal Engine. However, ArtStation has also been a home to 2D and 3D creators across verticals, including those who don’t work with Unreal Engine.

The acquisition won’t change that, the team says in its announcement. Instead, the deal will expand the opportunities for creators to monetize their work. Most notably, that involves the commission drop. For standard creators, the fees will drop from 30% to 12%. For Pro members (who pay $9.95/mo for a subscription), the commission goes even lower — from 20% to 8%. And for self-promoted sales, the fees will be just 5%. ArtEngine’s streaming video service, ArtStation Learning, will also be free for the rest of 2021, the company notes.

The slashed commission, however, is perhaps the most important change Epic is making to ArtStation because it gives Epic a specific example as to how it treats its own creator communities. It will likely reference the acquisition and the commission changes during its trial with Apple, along with its own Epic Games Store and its similarly low rate. Already, Epic’s move had prompted Microsoft to lower its cut on game sales, too, having recently announced a similar 30% to 12% drop.

In the trial, Epic Games will try to argue that Apple has a monopoly on the iOS app ecosystem and it abuses its market power to force developers to use Apple’s payment systems and pay it commissions on the sales and in-app purchases that flow through those systems. Epic Games, like several other larger app makers, would rather use its own payment systems to avoid the commission — or at the very least, be able to point users to a website where they can pay directly. But Apple doesn’t allow this, per its App Store guidelines.

Last year, Epic Games triggered Fortnite’s App Store expulsion by introducing a new direct way to pay on mobile devices which offered a steep discount. It was a calculated move. Both Apple and Google immediately banned the game for violating their respective app store policies, as a result. And then Epic sued.

While Epic’s fight is technically with both Apple and Google, it has focused more of its energy on the former because Android devices allow sideloading of apps (a means of installing apps directly), and Apple does not.

Meanwhile, Apple’s argument is that Epic Games agreed to Apple’s terms and guidelines and then purposefully violated them in an effort to get a special deal. But Apple says the guidelines apply to all developers equally, and Epic doesn’t get an exception here.

However, throughout the course of the U.S. antitrust investigations into big tech, it was discovered that Apple did, in fact, make special deals in the past. Emails shared by the House Judiciary Committee as a part of an investigation revealed that Apple had agreed to a 15% commission for Amazon’s Prime Video app at the start, when typically subscription video apps are 30% in year one, then 15% in year two and beyond. (Apple says Amazon simply qualified for a new program.) Plus, other older emails revealed Apple had several discussions about raising commissions even higher than 30%, indicating that Apple believed its commission rate had some flex.

Ahead of today’s acquisition by Epic Games, ArtStation received a “Megagrant” from Epic during the height of the pandemic to help it through an uncertain period. This could may have pushed the two companies to further discuss deeper ties going forward.

“Over the last seven years, we’ve worked hard to enable creators to showcase their work, connect with opportunities and make a living doing what they love,” said Leonard Teo, CEO and co-founder of ArtStation, in a statement. “As part of Epic, we will be able to advance this mission and give back to the community in ways that we weren’t able to on our own, while retaining the ArtStation name and spirit.”

#android, #app-store, #apple, #apple-inc, #apps, #artist, #computing, #energy, #epic-games, #epic-games-store, #gaming, #google, #ma, #mobile-devices, #software, #streaming-video, #united-states, #unreal-engine

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Europe charges Apple with antitrust breach, citing Spotify App Store complaint

The European Commission has announced that it’s issued formal antitrust charges against Apple, saying today that its preliminary view is Apple’s app store rules distort competition in the market for music streaming services by raising the costs of competing music streaming app developers.

The Commission begun investigating competition concerns related to iOS App Store (and also Apple Pay) last summer.

“The Commission takes issue with the mandatory use of Apple’s own in-app purchase mechanism imposed on music streaming app developers to distribute their apps via Apple’s App Store,” it wrote today. “The Commission is also concerned that Apple applies certain restrictions on app developers preventing them from informing iPhone and iPad users of alternative, cheaper purchasing possibilities.”

The statement of objections focuses on two rules that Apple imposes in its agreements with music streaming app developers: Namely the mandatory requirement to use its proprietary in-app purchase system (IAP) to distribute paid digital content (with the Commission noting that it charges a 30% commission fee on all such subscriptions bought via IAP); and ‘anti-steering provisions’ which limit the ability of developers to inform users of alternative purchasing options.

“The Commission’s investigation showed that most streaming providers passed this fee [Apple’s 30% cut] on to end users by raising prices,” it wrote, adding: “While Apple allows users to use music subscriptions purchased elsewhere, its rules prevent developers from informing users about such purchasing possibilities, which are usually cheaper. The Commission is concerned that users of Apple devices pay significantly higher prices for their music subscription services or they are prevented from buying certain subscriptions directly in their apps.”

Commenting in a statement, EVP and competition chief Margrethe Vestager, added: “App stores play a central role in today’s digital economy. We can now do our shopping, access news, music or movies via apps instead of visiting websites. Our preliminary finding is that Apple is a gatekeeper to users of iPhones and iPads via the App Store. With Apple Music, Apple also competes with music streaming providers. By setting strict rules on the App store that disadvantage competing music streaming services, Apple deprives users of cheaper music streaming choices and distorts competition. This is done by charging high commission fees on each transaction in the App store for rivals and by forbidding them from informing their customers of alternative subscription options.”

Apple sent us this statement in response:

“Spotify has become the largest music subscription service in the world, and we’re proud for the role we played in that. Spotify does not pay Apple any commission on over 99% of their subscribers, and only pays a 15% commission on those remaining subscribers that they acquired through the App Store. At the core of this case is Spotify’s demand they should be able to advertise alternative deals on their iOS app, a practice that no store in the world allows. Once again, they want all the benefits of the App Store but don’t think they should have to pay anything for that. The Commission’s argument on Spotify’s behalf is the opposite of fair competition.”

Spotify’s founder, Daniel Ek, has also responded to the news of the Commission’s charges against Apple with a jubilant tweet — writing: “Today is a big day. Fairness is the key to competition… we are one step closer to creating a level playing field, which is so important for the entire ecosystem of European developers.”

Vestager is due to hold a press conference shortly — so stay tuned for updates.

This story is developing… 

A number of complaints against Apple’s practices have been lodged with the EU’s competition division in recent years — including by music streaming service Spotify; video games maker Epic Games; and messaging platform Telegram, to name a few of the complainants who have gone public (and been among the most vocal).

The main objection is over the (up to 30%) cut Apple takes on sales made through third parties’ apps — which critics rail against as an ‘Apple tax’ — as well as how it can mandate that developers do not inform users how to circumvent its in-app payment infrastructure, i.e. by signing up for subscriptions via their own website instead of through the App Store. Other complaints include that Apple does not allow third party app stores on iOS.

Apple, meanwhile, has argued that its App Store does not constitute a monopoly. iOS’ global market share of mobile devices is a little over 10% vs Google’s rival Android OS — which is running on the lion’s share of the world’s mobile hardware. But monopoly status depends on how a market is defined by regulators (and if you’re looking at the market for iOS apps then Apple has no competitors).

The iPhone maker also likes to point out that the vast majority of third party apps pay it no commission (as they don’t monetize via in-app payments). While it argues that restrictions on native apps are necessary to protect iOS users from threats to their security and privacy.

Last summer the European Commission said its App Store probe was focused on Apple’s mandatory requirement that app developers use its proprietary in-app purchase system, as well as restrictions applied on the ability of developers to inform iPhone and iPad users of alternative cheaper purchasing possibilities outside of apps.

It also said it was investigating Apple Pay: Looking at the T&Cs and other conditions Apple imposes for integrating its payment solution into others’ apps and websites on iPhones and iPads, and also on limitations it imposes on others’ access to the NFC (contactless payment) functionality on iPhones for payments in stores.

The EU’s antitrust regulator also said then that it was probing allegations of “refusals of access” to Apple Pay.

In March this year the UK also joined the Apple App Store antitrust investigation fray — announcing a formal investigation into whether it has a dominant position and if it imposes unfair or anti-competitive terms on developers using its app store.

US lawmakers have, meanwhile, also been dialling up attention on app stores, plural — and on competition in digital markets more generally — calling in both Apple and Google for questioning over how they operate their respective mobile app marketplaces in recent years.

Last month, for example, the two tech giants’ representatives were pressed on whether their app stores share data with their product development teams — with lawmakers digging into complaints against Apple especially that Cupertino frequently copies others’ apps, ‘sherlocking’ their businesses by releasing native copycats (as the practice has been nicknamed).

Back in July 2020 the House Antitrust Subcommittee took testimony from Apple CEO Tim Cook himself — and went on, in a hefty report on competition in digital markets, to accuse Apple of leveraging its control of iOS and the App Store to “create and enforce barriers to competition and discriminate against and exclude rivals while preferencing its own offerings”.

“Apple also uses its power to exploit app developers through misappropriation of competitively sensitive information and to charge app developers supra-competitive prices within the App Store,” the report went on. “Apple has maintained its dominance due to the presence of network effects, high barriers to entry, and high switching costs in the mobile operating system market.”

The report did not single Apple out — also blasting Google-owner Alphabet, Amazon and Facebook for abusing their market power. And the Justice Department went on to file suit against Google later the same month. So, over in the U.S., the stage is being set for further actions against big tech. Although what, if any, federal charges Apple could face remains to be seen.

At the same time, a number of state-level tech regulation efforts are brewing around big tech and antitrust — including a push in Arizona to relieve developers from Apple and Google’s hefty cut of app store profits.

While an antitrust bill introduced by Republican Josh Hawley earlier this month takes aim at acquisitions, proposing an outright block on big tech’s ability to carry out mergers and acquisitions. Although that bill looks unlikely to succeed, a flurry of antitrust reform bills are set to introduced as U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle grapple with how to cut big tech down to a competition-friendly size.

In Europe lawmakers are already putting down draft laws with the same overarching goal.

In the EU, the Commission recently proposed an ex ante regime to prevent big tech from abusing its market power. The Digital Markets Act is set to impose conditions on intermediating platforms who are considered ‘gatekeepers’ to others’ market access.

While over in the UK, which now sits outside the bloc, the government is also drafting new laws in response to tech giants’ market power. It has said it intends to create a ‘pro-competition’ regime that will apply to platforms with so-called  ‘strategic market status’ — but instead of a set list of requirements it wants to target specific measures per platform.

#alphabet, #android, #antitrust, #app-store, #apple, #apple-inc, #apple-pay, #competition, #digital-markets, #epic-games, #europe, #european-commission, #european-union, #google, #ios, #ios-app-store, #ipad, #iphone, #lawsuit, #margrethe-vestager, #mobile-devices, #operating-system, #policy, #spotify, #tc, #tim-cook

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Fortnite-maker Epic completes $1B funding round

How much is Epic Games worth? Well, we’ve long ago surpasses the realm of dollar figures regular humans can contextualize. With its latest round, the gamer hits an equity valuation of $28.7 billion. Yes, “b” for “billion.” That’s a lot of micro-transactions.

Time to start talking metaverse!

Best known for the wildly successful battle royale title, Fortnite, Epic just announced another $1 billion funding round, featuring a $200 million Sony Group Corporation investment. The rest of the list is, predictably, a long one, including [deep breath], Appaloosa, Baillie Gifford, Fidelity Management & Research Company LLC, GIC, T. Rowe Price Associates-managed accounts, Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan Board, BlackRock managed accounts, Park West, KKR, AllianceBernstein, Altimeter, Franklin Templeton and Luxor Capital.

“We are grateful to our new and existing investors who support our vision for Epic and the Metaverse,” CEO and founder Tim Sweeney said in a statement tied to the news. “Their investment will help accelerate our work around building connected social experiences in Fortnite, Rocket League and Fall Guys, while empowering game developers and creators with Unreal Engine, Epic Online Services and the Epic Games Store.”

Sweeney has plenty of reason to be grateful, as the controlling shareholder.

Developing…

#epic, #epic-games, #fortnite, #funding, #gaming, #sony

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Apple, Epic Games lay out detailed arguments for upcoming legal battle

<em>Fortnite</em> seen in the App Store on an iPhone on May 10, 2018.

Enlarge / Fortnite seen in the App Store on an iPhone on May 10, 2018. (credit: Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images)

With Epic Games and Apple set to face off before a judge in their high-profile trial in just a few weeks, new court filings from both companies outline the evidence and arguments each intends to make in detail.

Unsurprisingly, each document paints a radically different picture of Apple’s App Store and its role in the gaming and technology industry.

The disagreement between the two companies escalated publicly when Epic attempted to implement its own in-app payments system in Fortnite, one of the most popular games on Apple’s App Store. This set into motion a series of events that led to Apple removing Fortnite from the App Store as Epic ran a social media campaign around the hashtag “#SaveFortnite,” leveraging angry gamers against the tech giant.

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#antitrust, #app-store, #apple, #apple-app-store, #epic-games, #fortnite, #ios, #tech

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Epic cries monopoly as Apple details secret ‘Project Liberty’ effort to provoke ‘Fortnite’ ban

The Epic v. Apple lawsuit alleging monopolistic practices by the latter will begin next month, and today the main arguments of each company were published, having been trimmed down somewhat at the court’s discretion. With the basic facts agreed upon, the two companies will go to battle over what they mean, and their CEOs will likely take the (virtual) stand to do so.

As we’ve covered in previous months, the thrust of Epic’s argument is that Apple’s hold over the app market and 30 percent standard fee amount to anti-competitive behavior that must be regulated by antitrust law. It rebelled against what it describes as an unlawful practice by slipping its own in-game currency store into the popular game Fortnite, circumventing Apple payment methods. (CEO Tim Sweeney would later, and unadvisedly, compare this to resisting unjust laws in the civil rights movement.)

Apple denies the charge of monopoly, pointing out it faces enormous competition all over the market, just not within its own App Store. And as for the size of the fees — well, perhaps it’s a matter that could stand some adjustment (the company dropped its take to 15% for any developer’s first million following criticism throughout 2020), but it hardly amounts to unlawfulness.

For its part, Apple contends that the whole antitrust allegation and associated dust-kicking is little more than a PR stunt, and it has something in the way of receipts.

Epic did, after all, have a whole PR strategy ready to go when it filed the lawsuit, and the filings describe “Project Liberty,” a long-term program within the company to, in Apple’s opinion, shore up sagging revenues from Fortnite. Epic does seem to have paid a PR firm some $300K to advise on the “two-phase communications plan,” involving a multi-company complaint campaign against Apple and google via the “Coalition for App Fairness.”

Project Liberty makes up a whole section in Apple’s filing, detailing how the company and Sweeney planned to “draw Google into a legal battle over anti-trust,” (and presumably Apple) according to internal emails, by getting banned by the companies’ app stores for circumventing their payment systems. Epic only mentions Project Liberty in one paragraph, explaining that it kept the program secret because “Epic could not have disclosed it without causing Apple to reject Version 13.40 of Fortnite,” viz. the one with the offending payment system built in. It’s not much of a defense.

Whether Apple’s fees are too high, and whether Epic is doing this to extend Fortnite’s profitable days, the case itself will be determined on the basis of antitrust law and doctrine, and on this front things do not look particularly dire for Apple.

Although the legal arguments and summaries of fact run to hundreds of pages from both sides, the whole thing is summed up pretty well in the very first sentence of Epic’s filing: “This case is about Apple’s conduct to monopolize two markets within its iOS ecosystem.”

To be specific, it is about whether Apple can be said to be a monopolist over an ecosystem it created and administrated from the very beginning, and one that is provably assailed on all sides by competitors in the digital distribution and gaming space. This is a novel application of antitrust law and one that would carry a heavy burden of proof for Epic — and that an (admittedly amateur) review of the arguments doesn’t suggest there’s much chance of success.

But the opinion of a random reporter is not much in the accounting of things; there will have to be a trial, and one is scheduled to occur next month. There’s a lot of ground to cover, as Epic’s presentation of its arguments will need to be as meticulous as Apple’s dismantling of them. To that end we can expect live testimony from Apple CEO Tim Cook, Epic CEO Tim Sweeney, Apple’s former head of marketing and familiar face Phil Schiller, among others.

The timing and nature of that testimony or questioning will not be known until later, but it’s likely there will be some interesting interactions worth hearing about. The trial is scheduled to begin May 3 and last for about 3 weeks.

Notably there are a handful of other lawsuits hovering about relating to this, such as Apple’s countersuit against Epic alleging breach of contract. Many of these will depend entirely on the outcome of the main case — e.g. if Apple’s terms were found to be unlawful, there was no contract to break, or if not, Epic pretty much admitted to breaking the rules so the case is practically over already.

You can read the full “proposed findings of fact” documents from each party on the invaluable RECAP; the case number is 4:20-cv-05640.

#apple, #apple-v-epic, #epic, #epic-games, #epic-v-apple, #fortnite, #tc

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Arizona lawmaker: Big Tech “hired almost every lobbyist” to kill app store bill

Arizona lawmaker: Big Tech “hired almost every lobbyist” to kill app store bill

Enlarge (credit: Siriporn Kaenseeya / EyeEm / Getty)

An Arizona bill to expand payment options in Apple’s and Google’s app stores has failed in the state Senate, the law’s sponsor has told the Verge. The legislation narrowly passed the Arizona House last month.

Rep. Regina Cobb, a Republican, told the Verge that she thought she had the votes to pass the legislation in the Senate. But then, according to Cobb, Apple and Google “hired almost every lobbyist in town” to kill the legislation.

“We thought we had the votes before we went to the committee,” Cobb told the Verge. “And then we heard that the votes weren’t there and they weren’t going to take the time to put it up.”

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#app-store, #apple, #arizona, #epic-games, #google, #policy, #spotify

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Manticore Games raises $100 million to build a ‘creator multiverse’

The gaming sector has never been hotter or had higher expectations from investors who are dumping billions into upstarts that can adjust to shifting tides faster that the existing giants will.

Bay Area-based Manticore Games is one of the second-layer gaming platforms looking to build on the market’s momentum. The startup tells TechCrunch they’ve closed a $100 million Series C funding round, bringing their total funding to $160 million. The round was led by XN, with participation from Softbank and LVP alongside existing investors Benchmark, Bitkraft, Correlation Ventures and Epic Games.

When Manticore closed its Series B back in September 2019, VCs were starting to take Roblox and the gaming sector more seriously, but it took the pandemic hitting to really expand their expectations for the market. “Gaming is now a bonafide super category,” CEO Frederic Descamps tells TechCrunch.

Manticore’s Core gaming platform is quite similar to Roblox conceptually, the big difference is that the gaming company is aiming to quickly scale up a games and creator platform geared towards the 13+ crowd that may have already left Roblox behind. The challenge will be coaxing that demographic faster than Roblox can expand its own ambitions, and doing so while other venture-backed gaming startups like Rec Room, which recently raised at a $1.2 billion valuation, race for the same prize.

Like other players, Manticore is attempting to build a game discovery platform directly into a game engine. They haven’t built the engine tech from scratch, they’ve been working closely with Epic Games which makes the Unreal Engine and made a $15 million investment in the company last year.

A big focus of the Core platform is giving creators a true drag-and-drop platform for game creation with a specific focus on “remixing” allowing users to pick pre-made environments, drop pre-rendered 3D assets into them, choose a game mode and publish it to the web. For creators looking to inject new mechanics or assets into a title, there will be some technical know-how necessary but Manticore’s team hopes that making the barriers of entry low for new creators means that they can grow alongside the platform. Manticore’s big bet is on the flexibility of their engine, hoping that creators will come on board for the chance to engineer their own mechanics or create their own path towards monetization, something established app store wouldn’t allow them to.

“Creators can implement their own styles of [in-app purchases] and what we’re really hoping for here is that maybe the next battle pass equivalent innovation will come out of this,” co-founder Jordan Maynard tells us.

This all comes at an added cost, developers earn 50% of revenues from their games, leaving more potential revenue locked up in fees routed to the platforms that Manticore depends on than if they built for the App Store directly, but this revenue split is still much friendlier to creators that what they can earn on platforms like Roblox.

Building cross-platform secondary gaming platforms is host to plenty of its own challenges. The platforms involved not only have to deal with stacking revenue share fees on non-PC platforms, but some hardware platforms that are reticent to allow them all, an area where Sony has been a particular stickler with PlayStation. The long-term success of these platforms may ultimately rely on greater independence, something that seems hard to imagine happening on consoles and mobile ecosystems.

#app-store, #ceo, #co-founder, #core, #correlation-ventures, #epic-games, #frederic-descamps, #funding, #gaming, #jordan-maynard, #online-games, #roblox, #softbank, #sony, #video-game, #video-games, #video-gaming

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Tim Cook and Tim Sweeney among potential witnesses for Apple/Epic trial

A proposed witness list filed by Apple for its upcoming trial against game-maker Epic reads like a who’s who of executives from the two companies. The drawn out battle could well prove a watershed moment from mobile app payments.

The two sides came to loggerheads when the Fortnite maker was kicked out of the App Store in August of last year after adding an in-game payment system designed to bypass Apple’s – along with Apple’s cut of the profiles.

Epic has accused Apple of monopolist practices pertaining to mobile payment. Apple, meanwhile, has argued that Epic broke the App Store agreement in order to increase its revenue.

Filed late last night by the hardware giant, the document includes top executives from bot sides. For Apple, the list includes CEO Tim Cook, Software Engineering SVP Craig Federighi and Apple Fellow, Phil Schiller. On team Epic, it’s Tim Sweeney and VP Mark Rein. Executives from Microsoft, Facebook and NVIDIA are also included, for good measure.

In a statement provided to TechCrunch, Apple notes,

Our senior executives look forward to sharing with the court the very positive impact the App Store has had on innovation, economies across the world and the customer experience over the last 12 years. We feel confident the case will prove that Epic purposefully breached its agreement solely to increase its revenues, which is what resulted in their removal from the App Store. By doing that, Epic circumvented the security features of the App Store in a way that would lead to reduced competition and put consumers’ privacy and data security at tremendous risk.

The trial is expected to kick off May 3. We’ve reached out to Epic for additional comment.

#app-stores, #apple, #apps, #epic-games, #fortnite, #gaming

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Google Play drops commissions to 15% from 30%, following Apple’s move last year

Google will lower its Play commissions globally for developers that sell in-app digital goods and services on its marquee store, the company said, following a similar move by rival Apple late last year.

The Android-maker said on Tuesday that starting July 1, it is reducing the service fee for Google Play to 15% — down from 30% — for the first $1 million of revenue developers earn using Play billing system each year. The company will levy a 30% cut on every dollar developers generate through Google Play beyond the first $1 million in a year, it said.

Citing its own estimates, Google said 99% of developers that sell goods and services with Play will see a 50% reduction in fees, and that 97% of apps globally do not sell digital goods or pay any service fee.

Google’s new approach is slightly different from Apple, which last year said it would collect 15% rather than 30% of App Store sales from companies that generate no more than $1 million in revenue through the company’s platform. That drop doesn’t apply to iOS apps if a developer’s revenue on Apple platform exceeds $1 million.

“We’ve heard from our partners making $2 million, $5 million and even $10 million a year that their services are still on a path to self-sustaining orbit,” wrote Sameer Samat, VP of Android and Google Play, in a blog post.

“This is why we are making this reduced fee on the first $1 million of total revenue earned each year available to every Play developer that uses the Play billing system, regardless of size. We believe this is a fair approach that aligns with Google’s broader mission to help all developers succeed.”

The move comes months after changes in Google billing system charges rattled many startups in India. More than 150 startups banded together last year after Google said it will collect as high as 30% cut on in-app purchases in a range of categories made by Android apps.

Following the backlash, Google delayed mandating the planned Play Store payments rule in India to April 2022 and had reached out to several firms in recent months in the country to better understand their concerns, people familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder and chief executive of mobile payments provider Paytm, India’s most valuable startup, dismissed Google’s move today as a “PR stunt.”

In an interview with TechCrunch, Sharma said established firms like his will still have to pay an exorbitant amount of fee to Google. Today’s announcement by Google, he said, further raises the question whether Google plans to address concerns raised by serious internet firms at all.

The biggest concern firms face today is the inability to use a third-party payments service for billing, he said. “They are basically saying that as soon as you build a business larger than $1 million — which is a very low bar — you are going to pay a 30% fee, which after taxes, becomes 44%,” he said.

A 30% sales cut and the inability to use third-party billing system have been points of contention between many developers and app store operators — Apple and Google — and led to a lawsuit by Fortnite-maker Epic Games against the iPhone-maker last year. Epic CEO Tim Sweeney had alleged that Apple’s move to lower the App Store fee for smaller developers was orchestrated to sow division among app creators.

Sharma said he was hopeful that Google will address other concerns, especially because in a country like India “we don’t have any other operating system, or distribution platform. They effectively control the destiny of every app developer in the country.”

Android commands 99% of the smartphone market in India, according to research firm Counterpoint. “Earlier India was powered by Android, then we became dependent on Android, and now it is controlled by Android,” said Sharma, whose payments app competes with Google Pay in the world’s second largest internet market.

Google’s Samat said,”We look forward to seeing more businesses scale to new heights on Android, and to further discussions with the Indian developer community to find new ways to support them technically and economically as they build their businesses.”

“Once developers confirm some basic information to help us understand any associated accounts they have and ensure we apply the 15% properly, this discount will automatically renew each year,” he wrote.

#apple, #apps, #asia, #ecommerce, #epic-games, #fortnite, #google, #google-play, #google-play-store, #india, #payments, #paytm

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The Roblox final fantasy

Hello friends, and welcome to Week in Review.

Last week, I talked a bit about NFTs and their impact on artists. If you’re inundated with NFT talk just take one quick look at this story I wrote this week about the $69 million sale of Beeple’s photo collage. This hype cycle is probably all the result of crypto folks talking each other up and buying each other’s stuff, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be lasting impacts. That said, I would imagine we’re pretty close to the peak of this wave, with a larger one down the road after things cool off a bit. I’ve been wrong before though…

This week, I’m interested in a quick look at what your kids have been talking about all these years. Yes, Roblox.

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


David Baszucki, founder and CEO of Roblox - Roblox Developer Conference 2019

(Photo by Ian Tuttle/Getty Images for Roblox)

The big thing

Roblox went public on the New York Stock Exchange this week, scoring a $38 billion market cap after its first couple days of trading.

Investors rallied around the idea that Roblox is one of the most valuable gaming companies in existence. More than Unity, Zynga, Take-Two, even gaming giant Electronic Arts. It’s still got a ways to go to take down Microsoft, Sony or Apple though… The now-public company is so freaking huge because investors believe the company has tapped into something that none of the others have, a true interconnected creative marketplace where gamers can evolve alongside an evolving library of experiences that all share the same DNA (and in-game currency).

The gaming industry has entered a very democratic stride as cross-play tears down some of the walls of gaming’s platform dynamics. Each hardware platform that operates an app store of their own still has the keys to a kingdom, but it’s a shifting world with uncertainty ahead. While massive publishers have tapped cloud gaming as the trend that will string their blockbuster franchises together, they all wish they were in Roblox’s position. The gaming industry has seen plenty of Goliath’s in its day, but for every major MMO to strike it rich, it’s still just another winner in a field of disparate hits with no connective tissue.

Roblox is different, and while many of us still have the aged vision of the image above: a bunch of rudimentary Minecraft/Playmobile-looking mini-games, Roblox’s game creation tools are advancing quickly and developers are building photorealistic games that are wider in ambition and scope than before. As the company levels-up the age range it appeals to — both by holding its grasp on aging gamers on its platform and using souped-up titles to appeal to a new-generation — there’s a wholly unique platform opportunity here: the chance to have the longevity of an app store but with the social base layer that today’s cacophony of titles have never shared.

Whether or not Roblox is the “metaverse” that folks in the gaming world have been hyping, it certainly looks more like it than any other modern gaming company does.


SHENYANG, CHINA – MARCH 08: Customers try out iPhone 12 smartphones at an Apple store on March 8, 2021 in Shenyang, Liaoning Province of China. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

Other things

Apple releases some important security patches
It was honestly a pretty low-key week of tech news, I’ll admit, but folks in the security world might not totally buy that characterization. This week, Apple released some critical updates for its devices, fixing a Safari vulnerability that could allow attackers to run malicious code on a user’s unpatched devices. Update your stuff, y’all.

TikTok gets proactive on online bullying
New social media platforms have had the benefit of seeing the easy L’s that Facebook teed itself up for. For TikTok, its China connection means that there’s less room for error when it comes to easily avoidable losses. The team announced some new anti-bullying features aimed at cutting down on toxicity in comment feeds.

Dropbox buys DocSend
Cloud storage giants are probably in need of a little reinvention, the enterprise software boom of the pandemic has seemed to create mind-blowing amounts of value for every SaaS company except these players. This week, Dropbox made a relatively big bet on document sharing startup DocSend. It’s seemingly a pretty natural fit for them, but can they turn in into a bigger opportunity?

Epic Games buys photogrammetry studio
As graphics cards and consoles have hit new levels of power, games have had to satisfy desired for more details and complexity. It takes a wild amount of time to create 3D assets with that complexity so plenty of game developers have leaned on photogrammetry which turns a series of photos or scans of a real world object or environment into a 3D model. This week, Epic Games bought one of the better known software makers in this space, called Capturing Reality, with the aim of integrating the tech into future versions of their game engine.

Twitter Spaces launches publicly next month
I’ve spent some more time with Twitter Spaces this week and am growing convinced that it has a substantial chance to kneecap Clubhouse’s growth. Twitter is notoriously slow to roll out products, but it seems they’ve been hitting the gas on Spaces, announcing this week that it will be available widely by next month.

Seth Rogen starts a weed company
There’s a lot of money in startups, there’s really never been a better time to get capital for a project… if you know the right people and have the right kind of expertise. Seth Rogen and weed are a pretty solid mental combo and him starting a weed company shouldn’t be a big shock.


A Coupang Corp. delivery truck drives past a company's fulfillment center in Bucheon, South Korea, on Friday, Feb. 19, 2021. South Korean e-commerce giant Coupang filed for an initial public offering in the U.S. and that could raise billions of dollars to battle rivals and kick off a record year for IPOs in the Asian country. Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg via Getty Images

SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Extra things

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

Coupang follows Roblox to a strong first day of trading
“Another day brings another public debut of a multibillion-dollar company that performed well out of the gate.This time it’s Coupang, whose shares are currently up just over 46% to more than $51 after pricing at $35, $1 above the South Korean e-commerce giant’s IPO price range. Raising one’s range and then pricing above it only to see the public markets take the new equity higher is somewhat par for the course when it comes to the most successful recent debuts, to which we can add Coupang.” More

How nontechnical talent can break into deep tech
“Startup hiring processes can be opaque, and breaking into the deep tech world as a nontechnical person seems daunting. As someone with no initial research background wanting to work in biotech, I felt this challenge personally. In the past year, I landed several opportunities working for and with deep tech companies. More

Does your VC have an investment thesis or a hypothesis?
“Venture capitalists love to talk investment theses: on Twitter, Medium, Clubhouse, at conferences. And yet, when you take a closer look, theses are often meaningless and/or misleading…” More


Once more, if you liked reading this, you can get it in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny.

#apple, #apple-inc, #china, #cloud-gaming, #computing, #coupang, #docsend, #dropbox, #electronic-arts, #epic-games, #extra-crunch, #facebook, #gamer, #getty, #getty-images, #iphone, #microsoft, #online-games, #roblox, #smartphones, #software, #sony, #tc, #technology, #twitter, #week-in-review, #zynga

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Epic Games buys photogrammetry software maker Capturing Reality

Epic Games is quickly becoming a more dominant force in gaming infrastructure M&A after a string of recent purchases made to bulk up their Unreal Engine developer suite. Today, the company announced that they’ve brought on the team from photogrammetry studio Capturing Reality to help the company improve how it handles 3D scans of environments and objects.

Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed.

Photogrammetry involves stitching together multiple photos or laser scans to create 3D models of objects that can subsequently be exported as singular files. As the computer vision techniques have evolved to minimize manual fine-tuning and adjustments, designers have been beginning to lean more heavily on photogrammetry to import real world environments into their games. 

Using photogrammetry can help studio developers create photorealistic assets in a fraction of the time it would take to create a similar 3D asset from scratch. It can be used to quickly create 3D assets of everything from an item of clothing, to a car, to a mountain. Anything that exists in 3D space can be captured and as game consoles and GPUs grow more capable in terms of output, the level of detail that can be rendered increases as does the need to utilize more detailed 3D assets.

The Bratislava-based studio will continue operating independently even as its capabilities are integrated into Unreal. Epic announced some reductions to the pricing rates for Capturing Reality’s services, dropping the price of a perpetual license fee from €15,000 to $3,750 USD. In FAQs on the studio’s site, the company notes that they will continue to support non-gaming use clients moving forward.

In 2019, Epic Games acquired Quixel which hosted a library of photogrammetry “mega scans” that developers could access.

 

#3d-imaging, #3d-modeling, #computer-graphics, #epic-games, #forward, #gaming, #laser, #photogrammetry, #tc, #tencent, #unreal-engine, #video-gaming

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Arizona House advances bill targeting Apple, Google mobile app stores

The Arizona State Capitol museum, flanked by the House of Representatives building (R) and a cactus (L).

Enlarge / The Arizona State Capitol museum, flanked by the House of Representatives building (R) and a cactus (L). (credit: mixmotive | Getty Images)

The Arizona state House of Representatives this week passed a landmark bill that would, if adopted, require Google and Apple to allow Arizona-based app developers to choose their own alternate payment systems.

The House voted 31-29 in favor of the bill (PDF), which does not directly mention either major mobile platform but nonetheless squarely targets both, as the text specifically applies to any “digital application distribution platform” that has more than 1 million cumulative downloads in a calendar year from Arizona users.

The text prohibits those platforms from locking either Arizona-based developers or Arizona-based users into using proprietary first-party in-app payment systems. It also prohibits platforms from retaliating against Arizona consumers or developers for opting into using a payment system “that is not owned by, operated by or affiliated with the provider.”

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#apple, #arizona, #coalition-for-app-fairness, #epic, #epic-games, #google, #laws, #policy, #state-laws, #states

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Epic continues its studio-acquisition spree, buys Fall Guys devs

An adorable video game character wears a crown that reads Epic Games.

Enlarge / At this time, we’re unsure whether Mediatonic was paid by Epic in cash, stock options, or golden crowns. (credit: Mediatonic / Aurich Lawson)

On Tuesday, Epic Games, the maker of Unreal Engine and studio behind Fortnite, continued its push into owning a corner of the game- and software-development ecosystem by acquiring Mediatonic, the makers of popular video game series Fall Guys.

The studio, headquartered in London with satellite operations throughout Europe, was formed in 2005 and is mostly known for contract work on licensed games (along with a significant stint making “web” games for platforms like Facebook), only to explode last year with Fall Guys, a quirky, family-friendly twist on the burgeoning “battle royale” genre. The game’s 2020 success was propelled in part by a PlayStation Plus giveaway and high viewership on Twitch.

Steam wiggle room?

This studio acquisition means Devolver Digital has been relieved as Fall Guys’ publisher. In its stead, Epic Games’ ownership of Unreal Engine will be leveraged, as per Mediatonic’s announcement on Fall Guys‘ future:

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#epic-games, #fall-guys, #fortnite, #gaming-culture, #rad, #rocket-league

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Epic is buying ‘Fall Guys’ developer, Mediatonic

Fortnite maker Epic today announced plans to acquire Tonic Games Group, most notably the publisher behind the fellow massive battle royale hit title, Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout. Tonic Games Group is the parent company for the Irregular Corporation, Fortitude Games and Fall Guys developer, Mediatonic. Other titles developed under the umbrella include Murder by Numbers, Gears of War/Funko spinoff Gears Pop and Yahtzee with Buddies.

“It’s no secret that Epic is invested in building the metaverse and Tonic Games shares this goal,” Epic founder and CEO Tim Sweeney said in a release tied to the news. “As Epic works to build this virtual future, we need great creative talent who know how to build powerful games, content and experiences.”

Epic notes in its announcement post that gameplay for the popular title won’t change under the new ownership. As with Fornite, the company says it’s investing in cross platform play for the title, which is currently available on the PlayStation and PC with Nintendo Switch and Xbox arriving later this year.

Mediatonic was founded in the U.K. in 2005. Tonic Games Group was developed as a parent company last year. Based in London, the group now employs roughly 300 people, globally. Released last August, Fall Guys has proven a major hit for audiences and critics, alike.

“With Epic, we feel like we have found a home that was made for us,” Tonic cofounder and CEO Dave Bailey said in the release. “They share our mission to build and support games that have a positive impact, empower others and stand the test of time and we couldn’t be more excited to be joining forces with their team.”

Epic, of course, has money to burn. In addition to massive revenue generated from Fortnite, the company has raised $3.4 billion to date, including a $1.78 billion round in August of last year.

 

#entertainment, #epic-games, #fortnite, #gaming, #mediatonic, #tonic

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Meet Smash Ventures, the low-flying outfit that has quietly funded Epic Games among others

When in 2018, Smash Ventures showed up as an investor in a $1.25 billion round for Epic Games — reportedly the largest ever investment in a video game company at the time — it was the first time many had heard of the investing outfit.

When the brand showed up again last summer in an even bigger round for Epic —  last August, the games giant announced $1.78 billion in fresh funding at a post-money equity valuation of $17.3 billion — a diner near Epic’s Cary, North Carolina headquarters that sells “smash waffles” started getting calls from reporters, says Eric Garland, who used to lead venture and growth deals for The Walt Disney Company after selling his company, BigChampagne, to Live Nation in 2011.

“Some reporters really turned over rocks,” he says.

Garland knows this, he says, because he cofounded Smash Ventures with Evan Richter, a former member of Disney’s corporate strategy and business development team (and who, before that, was an investor at Insight Partners).

They pair say they weren’t trying to duck the press after striking out on their own a few years ago; they were mostly just trying to get their firm off the ground, which they’ve seemingly done and then some. First, there’s the newly closed $75 million debut fund from strategic partners and notable investors like Kevin Mayer, the former CEO of TikTok and the former Disney executive; Pixar cofounder Ed Catmull; and journalist Willow Bay, who is now dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Yet it’s just small notable piece of what they have assembled.

Indeed, at a time when money is more of a commodity than ever and can be accessed easily by many founders, Smash has a few tricks up its sleeve, Richter and Garland suggest.

One thing to know, for example, is that the two apparently have little spinning up side vehicles when they wedge their way into an interesting deal. While they got to know Epic Games through Disney (it made an investment in the company in 2017 when Epic took part in its accelerator program), when they persuaded founder Tim Sweeney to take a bigger check from Smash Ventures in 2018, they were able to package together “several hundred million dollars” from their LPs for a stake in the business.

The also “flexed up” with the help of its limited partners to put a separate $200 million into others of its handful of portfolio companies. These include DraftKings, before it went public through a blank-check company last year; the footwear, apparel and accessory brand Nobull; the men’s grooming company Manscaped; and India’s biggest e-learning startup, Byju’s.

Disney — one of the world’s most powerful brands —  is a common thread throughout. In addition to inviting Epic into its accelerator program, Disney began work on an education app with Byju back in 2018 and it owned 6% of DraftKings when it went public last year.

Mayer, the former Disney exec who more recently began launching special purpose acquisition vehicles, credits Richter and Garland with finding “a lot of really cool companies like Epic” while inside Disney, saying he has “been supporting them ever since, because I think they’re great.”

Underscoring the strength of that former Disney network — another apparent advantage here — Mayer says that in addition to being a limited partner, he will sometimes “try and talk to their CEOs, give strategic advice, and talk about exits and M&A with some of their portfolio companies.” (Catmull, who was the president of Walt Disney Animation Studios after Disney acquired Pixar in 2006, was also pulled in to help seal the Epic deal, says Garland.)

As for whether Smash’s dealings have irritated current execs at Disney — it isn’t hard to imagine the entertainment giant would have liked a bigger stake in Epic — Garland says no, adding that “Disney is not generally in the venture business.”

In the meantime, Smash also says it’s getting into deals by helping companies tell stories to their respective, captive audiences. As Richter explains it, “The leading consumer software and internet businesses are building massive, and dedicated, user bases, and media, whether it’s a Travis Scott experience within Epic Games, or an IP collaboration between Marvel or Disney [and Byju’s], or whether it’s doing something with the UFC [which last year partnered with Manscaped], can be an incredible way to keep and grow a user base.”

The firm certainly appears to spend a lot of time with its portfolio companies on these efforts. While Smash wrote its first check in 2018, it has just five portfolio companies to date, and it plans only to invest in 10 to 12 companies altogether with that $75 million pool of capital, writing checks as small as $5 million to $10 million, with the ability to write far larger checks when the opportunity arises and its LP network says yes to it.

Asked why the firm is suddenly going public with those efforts, Richter suggests it’s time to cast a wider net. Even still, Garland says that “we like to stay focused. We make a lot of noise for our portfolio companies,” he adds,” but we are ourselves very heads down.”

#byjus, #disney, #draftkings, #ed-catmull, #epic-games, #kevin-mayer, #smash-ventures, #tc, #venture-capital

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Fortnite fight expands as Epic claims Apple broke EU competition law

<em>Fortnite</em> on an iPhone... back when that was a thing.

Enlarge / Fortnite on an iPhone… back when that was a thing. (credit: Savusia Konstantin | Getty Images)

Epic Games, maker of Fortnite, is loading up a new map in its ongoing fight against Apple as it files an antitrust complaint against the mobile phone maker in the European Union.

Epic alleges in its complaint that Apple uses its sole control over iOS apps to block competitors and benefit itself at developers’ expense in violation of European competition law, the company said today.

“What’s at stake here is the very future of mobile platforms,” Epic CEO Tim Sweeney said in a written statement. “We will not stand idly by and allow Apple to use its platform dominance to control what should be a level digital playing field. It’s bad for consumers, who are paying inflated prices due to the complete lack of competition among stores and in-app payment processing. And it’s bad for developers, whose very livelihoods often hinge on Apple’s complete discretion as to who to allow on the iOS platform, and on which terms.”

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#antitrust, #apple, #complaints, #epic, #epic-games, #eu, #european-union, #policy

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Epic Games takes its Apple App Store fight to Europe

Epic Games has taken its fight against Apple’s App Store rules to the European Union where it’s lodged a complaint with the bloc’s antitrust regulators.

In a blog post today the maker of the popular online game Fortnite said it’s extending its battle for what it dubbed “fairer digital platform practices for developers and consumers” to Europe, noting the bloc is already looking into competition concerns attached to the Apple App Store (and its payment service, Apple Pay).

The EU opened a formal probe into certain Apple practices last year.

Regional lawmakers have also recently set out a plan to expand platform regulation to put specific strictures on ‘gatekeeper’ platforms with the aim of ensuring fairness and accountability vis-a-vis third parties. And the issue of platform power is certainly one that’s now under close scrutiny by regulators and lawmakers around the world.

“The complaint, filed with the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Competition, alleges that through a series of carefully designed anti-competitive restrictions, Apple has not just harmed but completely eliminated competition in app distribution and payment processes,” Epic writes, adding: “Apple uses its control of the iOS ecosystem to benefit itself while blocking competitors and its conduct is an abuse of a dominant position and in breach of EU competition law.”

It’s not seeking damages against Apple but wants EU competition authorities to impose remedies against what it describes as the iPhone maker’s “monopoly channels”.

“What’s at stake here is the very future of mobile platforms,” said Epic Games founder and CEO, Tim Sweeney, in a statement. “Consumers have the right to install apps from sources of their choosing and developers have the right to compete in a fair marketplace. We will not stand idly by and allow Apple to use its platform dominance to control what should be a level digital playing field. It’s bad for consumers, who are paying inflated prices due to the complete lack of competition among stores and in-app payment processing. And it’s bad for developers, whose very livelihoods often hinge on Apple’s complete discretion as to who to allow on the iOS platform, and on which terms.”

Epic launched a US lawsuit against Apple last August after Apple banned Fortnite from the App Store.

The tech giant made the move after Epic tried to bypass its in-app purchase framework (and circumvent the cut Apple takes) by adding its own payment mechanism to Fortnite to let users purchase in-game currency directly — in direct contravention of Apple’s rules.

As well as banning Fortnight, Apple said it would go further and revoke Epic’s developer account and access to developer tools for its Unreal Engine — a move that would have affected third party app makers that rely on Epic’s engine. However it was barred from going that far.

A US judge quickly denied Epic’s motion to force Apple to unblock the game but Cupertino was ordered not to block Epic’s ability to provide and distribute its Unreal Engine on iOS — limiting Apple’s ability to take a scorched earth approach to try to shut Epic’s battle down.

Since then Epic has filed legal complaints against Apple in Australia and the UK. It’s now also petitioning EU regulators.

The EU’s antitrust division, meanwhile, opened a formal investigation of Apple last summer — more than a year after the Europe-based music streaming service Spotify had made a similar complaint over ‘restrictive’ App Store rules and the 30% cut Cupertino takes on iOS in-app payments.

The Commission said at the time that an unnamed e-book/audiobook distributor had also complained about the impact of App Store rules on competition.

It confirmed today that it has received a complaint by Epic Games against Apple. We will assess it based on our standard procedures,” a Commission spokesperson told us. 

Epic’s argument is that Apple is denying Fortnight users on iOS a choice between Apple payment and Epic direct payment — claiming savings would be passed to direct purchasers (although Epic of course stands to gain money if it can open up a channel that bypasses Apple’s cut on in-app payments).

Epic has also tried to push Apple to let it operate an Epic Games Store on iOS — a move Apple refused, citing the “exacting standards for security, privacy, and content” which it argues are predicated on the App Store rules (although Apple’s claims of curation equaling ‘quality’ don’t always live up to the reality of what it allows to operate on its App Store).

Back in 2019, Apple also launched its own gaming distribution service, Apple Arcade — a pure-play content play that offers access to new and exclusive games playable across Apple’s device ecosystem.

That move was perhaps the straw the broke the camel’s back vis-a-vis Epic Games deciding to go all in on an antitrust brawl with Apple. (Its blog post references Apple Arcade, and notes that Apple has barred competitors, including itself, from doing the same).

It’s worth noting that Epic has also squared up to Google, which similarly takes a cut of in-app payments of Android apps distributed via its Play Store — and which also removed Fortnight from the Play Store last year.

However Google’s Android platform allows sideloading of third party apps and alternative app stores, arguably making it harder to make an antitrust case stick vs the tighter restrictions applied by Apple.

At the same time, though, Android dominates smartphone marketshare — while Apple’s cut of the global market is less than a fifth.

#antitrust, #app-store, #apple, #apps, #epic-games, #eu, #europe, #lawsuit

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Big Tech’s Unlikely Next Battleground: North Dakota

A vote on a bill this week is part of a movement that could cost Apple and Google billions of dollars. State legislatures are becoming the fight’s new front.

#antitrust-laws-and-competition-issues, #apple-inc, #computers-and-the-internet, #epic-games, #google-inc, #hansson-david-heinemeier, #law-and-legislation, #mobile-applications, #north-dakota

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Epic shows off Unreal’s nearly-real ‘MetaHuman’ 3D character creator

One of the most difficult tasks in the increasingly high-fidelity world of gaming is making realistic-looking people — especially faces. Epic today showed off a new character creation tool in Unreal Engine that lets you make a near-infinite variety of near-photorealistic digital people with far less effort than it might have taken before.

MetaHuman Creator is an application for designing characters that lets people mix and match presets then dive into the tiniest details. It’s a cloud-hosted service, since the amount of computing power and storage needed to render these characters at this resolution and level of lighting and so on is more than most people will have on hand.

Anyone who’s used a high-quality character creator will recognize the pieces — a few dozen hairstyles, ear types, beards, and lip shapes, which can be added, subtracted, and adjusted like a digital Mr Potato Head. Bet you didn’t see that reference coming!

Close-up of CG faces showing details of skin reflectivity and wrinkles.

Image Credits: Epic

The difference between MetaHuman and, say, a state of the art consumer level creator like Cyberpunk 2077’s is fidelity and flexibility. As you can see in the videos, the quality of the hair, skin, eyes, teeth, and so on is extremely high — the older fellow on the left has has quite realistic wrinkles that shadow and deform properly when he moves his face, and the way the light interacts with the center lady’s light skin is very different from that of the dark-skinned man on the right.

The “center lady” also started as a middle-aged man, and was sculpted piece by piece to her current look rather than just switching to a “feminine” preset, demonstrating that the faces don’t “break” if you manipulate them too much — a risk in other creators for sure. You can see the process in fast forward in the video below:

Naturally it also integrates with the usual creator tools, allowing for animation by various means, fiddling with meshes, and exporting for use in other tools.

This level of detail isn’t exactly unprecedented, but the amount of work that goes into rendering a main character good enough for extreme close-ups and microexpressions is huge. Epic’s approach is not just to increase the potential quality of the assets and lighting and so on but to make it easy and efficient to implement. If only AAA studios can muster the resources to make characters like this, it’s not healthy for gaming as a whole.

Epic was humble enough to give credit right off the bat to companies like 3Lateral and Cubic Motion, both specialists in the field it has acquired. The Unreal Engine is presented as a sort of monolithic advance in computer graphics and design, but really it’s a very cleverly assembled amalgamation of dozens of improvements and advances made by individual (now acquired) companies and divisions over the years — more like an operating system with a bunch of integrated applications at this point.

MetaHuman Creator isn’t quite ready for use by just anyone, but Epic is running an early access program you can sign up for, and they’ve provided a pair of models for you to play with in your existing Unreal Engine environment in the meantime (check the “Learn” tab).

#developer, #epic, #epic-games, #gaming, #metahuman-creator, #unreal, #unreal-engine

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Apple updates App Store guidelines with tracking opt-in requirement and more

Screenshot of an Apple app asking for privacy permissions.

Enlarge (credit: Apple)

In a post to its portal for developers, Apple has outlined a number of new changes to its App Store Review Guidelines—including the requirement that developers request user opt-in to track users with IDFA (ID for advertisers) device identifiers.

That specific change was expected soon; Apple announced that it will come with iOS 14.5 in the “early spring” and has published a dedicated support page just for that issue. Apple has APIs for developers, called the App Tracking Transparency APIs, for managing these required prompts.

This isn’t the only change to the App Store Review Guidelines, of course. Among other things, Apple “clarified the prohibition of promoting certain substances.” The guidelines state that apps should not “encourage consumption” of tobacco and vape products, illegal drugs, or “excessive amounts of alcohol.”

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#app-store, #apple, #developers, #epic-games, #facebook, #ios, #ipados, #tech

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This Week in Apps: TikTok viral hit breaks Spotify records, inauguration boosts news app installs, judge rules against Parler

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020.

Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.

This week, we’re looking into how President Biden’s inauguration impacted news apps, the latest in the Parler lawsuit, and how TikTok’s app continues to shape culture, among other things.

Top Stories

Judge says Amazon doesn’t have to host Parler on AWS

logos for AWS (Amazon Web Services) and Parler

Logos for AWS (Amazon Web Services) and Parler. Image Credits: TechCrunch

U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein in Seattle this week ruled that Amazon won’t be required to restore access to web services to Parler. As you may recall, Parler sued Amazon for booting it from AWS’ infrastructure, effectively forcing it offline. Like Apple and Google before it, Amazon had decided that the calls for violence that were being spread on Parler violated its terms of service. It also said that Parler showed an “unwillingness and inability” to remove dangerous posts that called for the rape, torture and assassination of politicians, tech executives and many others, the AP reported.

Amazon’s decision shouldn’t have been a surprise for Parler. Amazon had reported 98 examples of Parler posts that incited violence over the past several weeks before its decision. It told Parler these were clear violations of the terms of service.

Parler’s lawsuit against Amazon, however, went on to claim breach of contract and even made antitrust allegations.

The judge shot down Parler’s claims that Amazon and Twitter were colluding over the decision to kick the app off AWS. Parler’s claims over breach of contract were denied, too, as the contract had never said Amazon had to give Parler 30 days to fix things. (Not to mention the fact that Parler breached the contract on its side, too.) It also said Parler had fallen short in demonstrating the need for an injunction to restore access to Amazon’s web services.

The ruling only blocks Parler from forcing Amazon to again host it as the lawsuit proceeds, but is not the final ruling in the overall case, which is continuing.

TikTok drives another pop song to No. 1 on Billboard charts, breaks Spotify’s record

@livbedumb♬ drivers license – Olivia Rodrigo

We already knew TikTok was playing a large role in influencing music charts and listening behavior. For example, Billboard last year noted how TikTok drove hits from Sony artists like Doja Cat (“Say So”) and 24kGoldn (“Mood”), and helped Sony discover new talent. Columbia also signed viral TikTok artists like Lil Nas X, Powfu, StaySolidRocky, Jawsh 685, Arizona Zervas and 24kGoldn. Meanwhile, Nielsen has said that no other app had helped break more songs in 2020 than TikTok.

This month, we’ve witnessed yet another example of this phenomenon. Olivia Rodrigo, the 17-year-old star of Disney+’s “High School Musical: The Musical: the Series” released her latest song, “Drivers License” on January 8. The pop ballad and breakup anthem is believed to be referencing the actress’ relationship with co-star Joshua Bassett, which gave the song even more appeal to fans.

Upon its release the song was heavily streamed by TikTok users, which helped make it an overnight sensation of sorts. According to a report by The WSJ, Billboard counted 76.1 million streams and 38,000 downloads in the U.S. during the week of its release. It also made a historic debut at No. 1 on the Hot 100, becoming the first smash hit of 2021.

On January 11, “Drivers License” broke Spotify’s record for most streams per day (for a non-holiday song) with 15.17 million global streams. On TikTok, meanwhile, the number of videos featuring the song and the views they received doubled every day, The WSJ said.

Charli D’Amelio’s dance to it on the app has now generated 5 million “Likes” across nearly 33 million views, as of the time of writing.

@charlidamelio♬ drivers license – Olivia Rodrigo

Of course, other TikTok hits have broken out in the past, too — even reaching No. 1 like “Blinding Lights” (The Weeknd) and “Mood” (24kGoldn). But the success of “Drivers License” may be in part due to the way it focuses on a subject that’s more relevant to TikTok’s young, teenage user base. It talks about first loves and being dumped for the other girl. And its title and opening refer to a time many adults have forgotten: the momentous day when you get your driver’s license. It’s highly relatable to the TikTok crowd who fully embraced it and made it a hit.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

  • Apple stops signing iOS 12.5, making iOS 12.5.1 the only versions of iOS available to older devices.
  • A report claims Apple’s iOS 15 update will cut support for devices with an A9 chip, like the iPhone 6, iPhone 6s Plus and the original iPhone SE.
  • New analysis estimates Apple’s upcoming iOS privacy changes will cause a roughly 7% revenue hit for Facebook in Q2. The revenue hit will continue in following quarters and will be “material.”

Platforms: Google

  • Google adds “trending” icons to the Play Store. New arrow icons appeared in the Top Charts tab, which indicate whether an app’s downloads are trending up or down, in terms of popularity. This could provide an early signal about those that may still be rising in the charts or beginning to fall out of favor, despite their current high position.
  • Google appears to be working on a Restricted Networking mode for Android 12. The mode, discovered by XDA Developers digging in the Android Open Source Project, would disable network access for all third-party apps.

Gaming

  • Goama (or Go Games) introduced a way for developers to integrate social games into their apps, which was showcased at CES. The company focuses on Asia and Latin America and has more than 15 partners, including GCash and Rappi, for digital payments and communications.
  • Fortnite maker Epic Games is getting into movies. The animated feature film Gilgamesh will use Epic’s Unreal Engine technology to tell the story of the king-turned-deity. The movie is not an in-house project, but rather is financed through Epic’s $100M MegaGrants fund.

Augmented Reality

  • Patents around Apple’s AR and VR efforts describe how a system could be identified in a way that’s similar to FaceID, then either permitted or denied the ability to change their appearance in the game.
  • Pinterest launches AR try-on for eyeshadow in its mobile app using Lens technology and ModiFace data. The app already offered AR try-on for lipsticks.

Entertainment

  • The CW app became the No. 1 app on the App Store this week, topping TikTok, Instagram and YouTube, thanks to CW’s season premieres of Batwoman, All American, Riverdale and Nancy Drew.
  • Users of podcasting app Anchor, owned by Spotify, say the app isn’t bringing them any sponsorship opportunities, as promised, beyond those from Spotify and Anchor itself.
  • YouTube launches hashtag landing pages on the web and in its mobile app. The pages are accessible when you click hashtags on YouTube, not via search, and weirdly rank the “best” videos through some inscrutable algorithm.
  • Apple’s Podcasts app adds a new editorial feature, Apple Podcasts Spotlight, meant to increase podcast listening by showcasing the best podcasts as selected by Apple editors.

E-commerce

  • WeChat facilitated 1.6 trillion yuan (close to $250 billion) in annual transactions through its “mini programs” in 2020. The figure is more than double that of 2019.

Fintech

  • Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, launched an e-wallet, Douyin Pay. The wallet will supplement the existing payment options, Alipay and WeChat Pay, and will help to support the Douyin app’s growing e-commerce business.
  • Neobank Monzo founder Tom Blomfield left the startup, saying he struggled during the pandemic. “I think [for] a lot of people in the world…going through a pandemic, going through lockdown and the isolation involved in that has an impact on people’s mental health,” he told TechCrunch.
  • New estimates indicate about 50% of the iPhone user base (or 507 million users) now use Apple Pay. 
  • Samsung’s newest phones drop support for MST, which emulates a mag stripe at terminals that don’t support NFC.

Social

  • Indian messaging app, StickerChat, owned by Hike, is shutting down. Founder Kavin Bharti Mittal said India will never have a homegrown messenger unless it bars Western companies from its market. Hike pivoted this month to virtual social apps, Vibe and Rush, which it believes have more potential.
  • Instagram head Adam Mosseri, in a Verge podcast, said he’s not happy with Reels so far, and how he feels most people probably don’t understand the difference between Instagram video and IGTV. He says the social network needs to simplify and consolidate ideas.
  • Facebook and Instagram improve their accessibility features. The apps’ AI-generated image captions now offer far more details about who or what is in the photos, thanks to improvements in image recognition systems.
  • TikTok launches a Q&A feature that lets creators respond to fan questions using text or videos. The feature, rolled out to select creators with more than 10,000 followers, makes it easier to see all the questions in one place.

Health & Fitness

  • Health and fitness app spending jumped 70% last year in Europe to record $544 million, a Sensor Tower report says. The year-over-year increase is far larger than 2019, when growth was just 37.2%. COVID-19 played a large role in this shift as people turned to fitness apps instead of gyms to stay in shape.

Government & Policy

  • Biden’s inauguration boosted installs of U.S. news apps up to 170%, Sensor Tower reported. CNN was the biggest mover, climbing 530 positions to reach No. 41 on the App Store, and up 170% in terms of downloads. News Break was the second highest, climbing 13 positions to No. 65. Right-wing outlet Newsmax climbed 43 spots to reach No. 108. In 2020, the top news apps were: News Break (23.7 million installs); SmartNews (9 million); CNN (5 million); and Fox News (4 million). This month, however, News Break saw 1.2 million installs, followed by Newsmax with about 863,000 installs, the report said.
  • Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) sent a draft decision to fellow EU Data Protection Authorities over the WhatsApp-Facebook data sharing policy. This means a decision on the matter is coming closer to a resolution in terms of what standards of transparency is required by WhatsApp.
  • German app developer Florian Mueller of FOSS Patents filed a complaint with the EU, U.S. DOJ and other antitrust watchdogs around the world over Apple and Google’s rejection of his COVID-related mobile game. Both stores had policies to only approve official COVID-19 apps from health authorities. Mueller renamed the game Viral Days and removed references to the novel coronavirus to get the app approved. However, he still feels the stores’ rules are holding back innovation.

Productivity

  • Basecamp’s Hey, which famously fought back against Apple’s App Store rules over IAP last year, has launched a business-focused platform, Hey for Work, expected to be public in Q1. The app has more App Store ratings than rival Superhuman, a report found. Currently, Hey has a 4.7-star rating across 3.3K reviews; Superhuman has 3.9 rating across only 274 reviews.

Trends

  • Baby boomers are increasingly using apps. Baby boomers/Gen Xers in the U.S. spent 30% more time year-over-year in their most used apps, App Annie reports. That’s a larger increase than either Millennials or Gen Z, at 18% and 16%, respectively.

Funding and M&A

  • Curtsy, a clothing resale app for Gen Z women, raised an $11 million Series A led by Index Ventures. The app tackles some of the problems with online resale by sending shipping supplies and labels to sellers, and by making the marketplace accessible to new and casual sellers.
  • Storytelling platform Wattpad acquired by South Korea’s Naver for $600 million. The reading apps whose stories have turned into book and Netflix hits will be incorporated into Naver’s publishing platform Webtoon.
  • On-demand delivery app Glovo partnered with Swiss-based real estate firm, Stoneweg, which is investing €100 million in building and refurbishing real estate in key markets to build out Glovo’s network of “dark stores.”
  • Pocket Casts app is up for sale. The podcast app was acquired nearly three years ago by a public radio consortium of top podcast producers (NPR, WNYC Studios, WBEZ Chicago and This American Life). The owners have now agreed to sell the app, which posted a net loss in 2020. (NPR’s share of the loss was over $800,000.)
  • Travel app Maps.me raised $50 million in a round led by Alameda Research. The funding will go toward the launch of a multi-currency wallet. Cryptocurrency lender Genesis Capital and institutional cryptocurrency firm CMS Holdings also participated in the round, Coindesk reported.
  • Bangalore-based hyperlocal delivery app Dunzo raised $40 million in a round that included investment from Google, Lightbox, Evolvence, Hana Financial Investment, LGT Lightstone Aspada and Alteria.
  • London-based food delivery app Deliveroo raised $180 million in new funding from existing investors, led by Durable Capital Partners and Fidelity Management, valuing the business at more than $7 billion.
  • Dating Group acquired Swiss startup Once, a dating app that sends one match per day, for $18 million.

Downloads

Bodyguard

Image Credits: Bodyguard

A French content moderation app called Bodyguard, detailed here by TechCrunch, has brought its service to the English-speaking market. The app allows you to choose the level of content moderation you want to see on top social networks, like Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Twitch. You can choose to hide toxic content across a range of categories, like insults, body shaming, moral harassment, sexual harassment, racism and homophobia and indicate whether the content is a low or high priority to block.

Beeper

Image Credits: Beeper

Pebble’s founder and current YC Partner Eric Migicovsky has launched a new app, Beeper, that aims to centralize in one interface 15 different chat apps, including iMessage. The app relies on an open-source federated, encrypted messaging protocol called Matrix that uses “bridges” to connect to the various networks to move the messages. However, iMessage support is more wonky, as the company actually ships you an old iPhone to make the connection to the network. But this system allows you to access Beeper on non-Apple devices, the company says. The app is slowly onboarding new users due to initial demand. The app works across MacOS, Windows, Linux‍, iOS and Android and charges $10/mo for the service.

 

#actress, #adam-mosseri, #alipay, #alteria, #amazon, #amazon-web-services, #android, #app-developer, #app-store, #apple, #apps, #arkansas, #asia, #bangalore, #biden, #bodyguard, #columbia, #computing, #data-protection-commission, #dating-group, #disney, #doj, #driver, #durable-capital-partners, #e-commerce, #epic-games, #eric-migicovsky, #europe, #european-union, #fidelity-management, #food, #fox-news, #glovo, #google, #hana-financial-investment, #india, #instagram, #iphone, #ireland, #itunes, #judge, #latin-america, #linux, #london, #macos, #microsoft-windows, #mobile, #mobile-app, #mobile-applications, #mobile-devices, #netflix, #operating-systems, #parler, #pinterest, #play-store, #president, #real-estate, #seattle, #sensor-tower, #social-network, #social-networks, #software, #sony, #south-korea, #spotify, #stoneweg, #superhuman, #this-american-life, #tiktok, #tom-blomfield, #twitch, #twitter, #united-states, #wattpad, #web-services, #wnyc

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