Ben Rubin understands where social is going. In fact, he understands it so well, he’s always there early.
Rubin is the current CEO and co-founder of Slashtalk and an angel investor who scouts for Sequoia Capital. He previously founded Houseparty and Meerkat — apps that pioneered group video chat and mobile livestreaming, respectively — shaping massive social trends in their earliest stages.
Meerkat didn’t keep up, but it did transform. In 2016, the same team launched Houseparty, a group video chat app geared toward connecting established friends in casual virtual hangouts rather than streaming to the masses. Three years later, in a world not yet ravaged by the pandemic, it sold to Fortnite maker Epic Games.
With people driven indoors and away from IRL social interactions, Houseparty boomed. In a single month during the pandemic’s early phase, the app saw 50 million new signups and hit the top of the charts across the iOS App Store and Google Play. But Houseparty struggled to retain users, and by fall of 2021 Epic announced that it would unceremoniously wind down the project and pull Houseparty from app stores.
Only time will tell if Houseparty’s technology will play a role in Epic’s vision for the metaverse — an interconnected series of seamless virtual worlds for people to explore and socialize in. But regardless of the app’s eventual fate, Houseparty’s take on social spontaneity and casual group video was ahead of its time.
If anyone is well positioned to know where social networks are going in the near future, it’s probably Rubin. He’s now working on Slashtalk, “an anti-meeting tool for fast, decentralized conversations.” Slashtalk’s ethos echoes both Meerkat and Houseparty’s belief in social serendipity, but this time Rubin is focused on the workplace rather than consumer social.
Rubin will join us onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 to talk about his new company and the trends powering current upheavals in social networking, from decentralization and ownership to the future of a connected post-pandemic world.
After meeting an ignominious end in 2017, the anonymous gossip app once popular with college students lives again. Yik Yak returned to the iOS App Store on Monday (sorry, Android users) under new ownership, inspiring a fresh round of interest in the long-dead social network.
ICYMI: After a 4 year hiatus, Yik Yak is available in the App Store again!
Anonymity, location-based, the hot feed & more — everything you used to love about Yik Yak
Now available on iPhone in the US — more countries and devices coming soon!
With a reputation for rampant cyber-bullying and harassment, moderation woes were central to the app’s failure. Once ubiquitous on many college campuses, Yik Yak limped into 2016, laying off most employees and struggling to keep users engaged. The app tried to pivot away from campus gossip and toward location-based social networking that same year, but it wasn’t enough and the once high-flying social network was sold for scrap.
As co-founders Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington wound down the app in 2017, Square paid $1 million for several Yik Yak engineers and rights to some of the company’s intellectual property. The company had raised $73 million and was valued around $400 million in 2014, during its peak. TechCrunch contacted the company for information about its new ownership, which is apparently based in Nashville, but has yet to receive a response.
Though we’re still not sure who re-launched it, the new version of Yik Yak is well aware of the original app’s pitfalls. After providing a phone number to sign up, a short onboarding sequence warns users of a zero tolerance “one strike and you’re out” policy for bullying and threats.
“We’re committed to combating bullying and hate speech on the Yik Yak platform by any means necessary,” the new Yik Yak team, which acquired the rights to develop the app in February, wrote on a relaunched website.
Being aware of what issues will inevitably arise on a social network and being prepared to moderate those issues at scale are two very different propositions. Yik Yak is anonymous, but it’s also an app focused on what’s happening IRL nearby within a tight radius, two factors that could combine to pose even more of a moderation challenge.
Within the new app, a sidebar points users toward “stay safe” resources address an array of issues that could arise on the app, like ride-sharing, bullying, sexual consent and COVID-19, though the app doesn’t yet include explicit misinformation policies.
Another section in the sidebar offers a list of mental health resources and encourages users to downvote and report any bullying on the app so it can be reviewed by the Yik Yak team. The company says that yaks with a negative ranking from five or more downvotes will be automatically removed from the app’s feed, though we’ve asked the company for more details about its content moderation plans, including if a team at Yik Yak is dedicated to the task.
The new Yik Yak is built around location-based sharing and users can share messages, called “yaks,” to anyone within a five mile radius. If you’re in a rural area of otherwise quiet zone devoid of yaks, you can amuse yourself with the confessions that show up on a chart of popular national posts.
For now, many high-ranking posts are excited chatter about the app’s return from former Yik Yak devotees — mostly younger millennials who’ve since graduated from college. A smattering of popular posts warns that Gen Z-ers too young to have used Yik Yak during its heyday won’t know what hit them.
“Is this app now 100% 25-30 year olds?” one post reads. “The Zoomers aren’t ready for the return of the Yak,” another user wrote.
Great news for typo-prone tweeters: Twitter Blue, a $2.99 monthly subscription, appears to be coming soon to a Timeline near you.
Two weeks ago, researcher Jane Manchun Wong first reported that Twitter’s new subscription service is in the works. But yesterday, Twitter’s iOS App Store listing updated to list Twitter Blue as an in-app purchase, confirming earlier findings from this unofficial source. Though users can’t yet subscribe to Twitter Blue – even after downloading app update – Wong dug up details about the service, signaling that its launch could be imminent.
In addition to the undo button, which Wong uncovered as early as March, this service will include a reader mode, which turns tweet threads into “easy-to-read text.” Twitter acquired Scroll and Revue this year in an effort to improve users’ reading experience on the app, so this addition makes sense. Plus, users will be able to change the color of the Twitter app icon, as well as the color theme of their Timeline, a feature that’s already available on the web. Twitter Blue subscribers can also organize tweets into Collections – this feature looks like an updated version of Bookmarks, but with the added ability to organize tweets into folders.
This week at J.P. Morgan’s Global Technology, Media, and Communications conference, Twitter CFO Ned Segal indicated that the company views Twitter Blue and Super Follows as two separate types of subscriptions. On Google Play, the Twitter app page lists an in-app product priced at $4.99 per item, which might indicate the upcoming launch of Super Follows, too. Segal also said that Twitter would offer more information about the service in the coming months, then “ultimately roll it out to people around the world.”
Finally, for those of us wondering – no, there’s no indication of plans for an “edit tweet” button at this time.
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.”
Today is a big day. Fairness is the key to competition. With the @EU_Commission Statement of Objections, we are one step closer to creating a level playing field, which is so important for the entire ecosystem of European developers. https://t.co/dOw1K0Qo1W
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.
Apple has launched a new app, Find My Certification Asst., designed for use by MFi (Made for iPhone) Licensees, who need to test their accessories’ interoperability with Apple’s Find My network. The network helps users find lost Apple devices — like iPhones, AirPods, and Mac computers, among other things — but is poised to add support for finding other compatible accessories manufactured by third parties.
The launch of the testing app signals that Apple may be ready to announce the launch of the third-party device program in the near future.
According to the app’s description, MFi Licensees can use Find My Certification Asst. to test the “discovery, connection, and other key requirements” for their accessories that will incorporate Apple’s Find My network technology. It also points to information about the Find My network certification program on Apple’s MFi Portal at mfi.apple.com, which currently references Find My network as a MFi program technology that’s “launching soon.”
The new app’s screenshots indicate it allows device makers to run a wide variety of tests in areas like connectivity, sound (for example, if the item can make a noise when misplaced), firmware, key management, NFC, power, and more.
Image Credits: App Store screenshot
The app became publicly available on Sunday, April 4th on the iOS App Store, according to Sensor Tower data. It’s brand-new so is not yet ranking in any App Store categories, including its own, “Developer Tools,” or others. It also has no ratings and reviews at this time.
The app’s launch is step towards the larger goal of opening up the Apple Find My network to third-parties and Apple’s planned launch of its own new accessory, AirTags.
Apple at last year’s Worldwide Developer Conference had first announced it would open up Find My to third-party devices after facing pressure from regulators in the U.S. and Europe who had been looking into, among other things, whether Apple had been planning to give itself an advantage with its forthcoming launch of AirTags, a competitor to Tile’s lost-item finder.
Image Credits: screenshot of FMCA app
A prominent Apple critic, Tile had complained that AirTags would be able to connect with Apple’s U1 chips, which use UWB (ultra-wideband) technology for more precise finding capabilities, and at a Congressional hearing noted that AirTags would work with Apple’s own Find My app, which ships by default on Apple devices. This, Tile believed, would give Apple a first-party advantage in the lost-item finder market that Tile had successfully established and dominated for years.
More recently, Apple updated its Find My app to include a new tab called “Items” in preparation for the app’s expanded support for AirTags and other third-party accessories, like those from Tile and others. This “Items” tab is enabled in latest Apple’s iOS 14.5 beta release, where the app explains how the Find My app will now be able to help users keep track of their everyday items — including accessories and other items that are compatible with Find My.
However, Tile (and likely others) feel that Apple’s concessions still disadvantage their businesses because participation in Apple’s FindMy program means that the third-party device maker would have to abandon its existing app and instead require its customers to use Apple’s FindMy app — effectively turning over its customers and their data to Apple.
It’s worth noting that, upon launch, the app features an icon that shows three items: headphones, a backpack and a suitcase. Not coincidentally, perhaps, Tile’s first integrations were with Bose headphones and luggage and bag makers, Away and Herschel.
Apple has not responded to a request for comment about the new app’s launch.
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 204 billion total downloads and $120 billion in global consumer spend in 2019. Not including Chinese third-party app stores, iOS and Android users in 2020 downloaded 130 billion apps and spent a record $112 billion. In 2019, people spent three hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV.
Due to COVID-19, time spent in apps jumped 25% year-over-year on Android. 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.
This week (after a week off for the holidays), we’re taking a look at holiday app store spending, how the Chinese gaming licensing rules have impacted the App Store, Apple’s move to ban a party app that could have helped spread COVID, and the collaborative musical created by TikTok users, among other things.
Christmas Day app spending grows 35% year-over-year
Global app spending didn’t seem to be impacted by the pandemic in 2020, according to data from Sensor Tower. The firm reports that consumers spent $407.6 million in apps from the iOS App Store and Google Play on Christmas Day, 34.5% from the $303 million spent in 2019. The majority of the spending was on mobile games, up 27% year-over-year to $295.6 million. Tencent’s Honor of Kings led the games category, while TikTok led non-game apps with $4.7 million in spending on Christmas Day.
Image Credits: Sensor Tower
As in prior years, Apple accounted for the majority of the spending, or 68.4% ($278.6M) vs Google Play’s $129M. The spending was led by the U.S., who accounted for ~$130 million of the total
Apple takes a stand on pandemic parties
Apple’s App Store Review guidelines don’t specifically detail how the company will handle apps that could contribute to the spread of COVID-19, but Apple found a way to draw the line when it came to a social app that encouraged unsafe gatherings. This past week, Apple banned the app Vybe Together, which had allowed people to locate “secret” indoor house parties in their area, sometimes including those held in violation of state guidelines.
There’s no good defense, really, for the unnecessary and ill-timed promotion of an app that encouraged people from different households to gather, which spreads COVID. And what the founder seemed to not understand, by nature of his recent tweets and statements on the app’s website, is that many cities and states also alreadyprohibit small private gatherings of varying degrees, including those he believes are fine, like small parties in folks’ “own apartments with people in your area.”
The U.S. is coping with 346,000 COVID deaths, and in New York, where the app was promoting NYE parties, 74% of all COVID-19 cases from Sept.-Nov. 2020 have been linked to private gatherings.
The media may have reported on what the app was doing, but ultimately the decision to “cancel” it was Apple’s. And it was the correct one.
iOS games have long been required to obtain a Chinese gaming license in order to operate in the country, but Apple skirted this rule for years by hosting unlicensed titles even as Android app stores complied. Apple began to enforce the rule in 2020 and gave publishers a Dec. 31, 2020 deadline to obtain the license — a process that can be tedious and time-consuming.
Clearly, a large number of publishers were not able to meet the deadline. Included in the new sweep were Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Identity and NBA 2K20. Qimai says only only 74 of the top 1,500 paid games remained following the removals. To date, Apple purged more than 46,000 titles from the China App Store, the report said.
TikTok births a “Ratatousical”
The TikTok musical version of Ratatouille has become a real thing. The pandemic forced a lot of creative types out of work in 2020, leading them to find new ways to express themselves online. On TikTok, this collective pent-up energy turned into a large-scale collaborative event: a musical version of Disney’s Ratatouille. (Or Ratatousical, as it was nicknamed.) TikTokers composed music, wrote lyrics and dialogue, choreographed dances, designed costumes, sets and more, as they worked together through the app.
Surprisingly, Disney is allowing a charity version of this collaboration to become a real event without any interference or lawsuits. The Ratatouille musical live-streamed on Jan. 1 at 7 p.m. Eastern, and will be available via video-on-demand through Jan. 4, for a minimum $5 donation to The Actors Fund.
The musical itself was lighthearted fun for a younger, Gen Z crowd. It also cleverly incorporated actual TikTok videos that featured the app’s well-known visual effects — like cloning yourself or the flashing colored lights typically associated with TikTok’s “you think you can hurt me” meme, for example. That made it more accessible and familiar to kids who had spent the past year being entertained via the internet.
TikTok users, of course, aren’t the only ones designing, creating and editing productions through remote and collaborative processes in 2020 — Hollywood itself has had to reorient itself for remote work at a much larger scale. TikTok was simply the platform of choice for theater kids looking for something to do.
It will be interesting to see if the TikTok-based collaborative process that birthed this musical ultimately becomes a one-off event that arose from the pandemic’s impacts — including the ability for many creative people to devote time and energy on side projects, for example, due to shuttered productions and stay-at-home orders. Or perhaps in-app collaborations have a real future? Time will tell.
TikTok has already proven it can drive the music charts, fashion trends, and app downloads, so it can probably generate an audience for this production, as well. But the cynic may wonder if such an event would have been as popular and buzzworthy had it been some entirely original production, rather than one based on already popular and beloved Disney IP. But you may as well watch — it’s not like you have any other plans these days.
The iPhone 11 was the most activated device on Christmas Day 2020, according to Flurry data, with activations 5% higher versus the 7 day average between December 18 to December 24. However, overall new smartphone activations were down 23% year-over-year, likely because of the economic hardships due to the COVID health crisis, including delayed stimulus checks.
Samsung teams up with Epic Games on Apple battle over Fortnite. Samsung and Epic Games worked together on the “Free Fortnite” marketing campaign, which recently involving sending packages to influencers that contained a Free Fortnite bomber jacket and Samsung Galaxy Tab S7. Fortnite was the Samsung Galaxy Store game of the year in 2020, and the store also distributes the Epic Games app which distributes the Fortnite updates. This is an odd move as Epic alleges the app stores leverage their power to engage in monopolistic practices, but this makes it clear that Samsung is offering them distribution. Apple has the right to set its own pricing for its services (and it recently lowered commissions for small businesses, too). But even if Epic Games is not the knight in shining armor one would hope for, its lawsuit could help set precedent. And regulators may still decide one day that Apple can’t dictate rules about how businesses operate outside its app store — meaning, they should have the right to collect their own payments, for example.
Image Credits: The New York Times
The New York Times gets into AR gaming. The media company has experimented with augmented reality as a way to augment storytelling both in its app and through other efforts on social media. But it has now taken AR into the world of gaming with an AR-enabled crossword puzzle where you swipe to rotate broken pieces floating above the puzzle to find clues.
Social & Photos
Telegram photo by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Telegram begins to make money. The messaging app, now nearing 500 million users, will introduce an ad platform for its public one-to-many channels that is “user-friendly” and “respects privacy.” The company says it needs to generate revenue to cover the costs of server and traffic. Telegram earlier abandoned a blockchain token project due to regulatory issues.
Mr. Beast announces the second annual “Finger on the App” challenge on Feb. 19. The game doles out $100,000 to whoever can keep their finger on their smartphone the longest, via an app designed for this purpose. Last year, it was a four-way tie after 70 hours, and the prize money was divided. The new app introduces in-app challenges to dissuade cheating. YouTuber Mr. Beast rose to fame for his philanthropic-based viral videos and stunts. He has made sizable donations to people in need and those impacted by the pandemic. But this year, the otherwise silly game has a darker tone as it involves competitors who will likely be in more desperate situations.
Bumble uproar over indoor bikini and bra photos. The dating app found itself in the middle of a small controversy this week when a woman who wanted to pose in her bra had her photos taken down. The company said its existing policy prohibits things like shirtless bathroom mirror selfies and indoor photos of people wearing swimsuits and underwear. Bumble’s policies were crafted in response to user data and feedback, but may also help to prevent adult sites from spamming with fake profiles. However, there’s still something weird about an app that markets itself as female-friendly telling a woman to go put some clothes on.
TikTok launches its first personalized annual recap feature. The company “year on TikTok” in-app experience joins other personalized wrap-ups like the Top Nine for Instagram or Spotify’s Wrapped. It also introduces a floating, tappable button to connect users to the experience. This could pave way for other sorts of mini-applications in the future.
Clubhouse power users invited to special club. A select group of creators inside the already invite-only audio conversations app have now been given exclusive access to tools and private meetings with Clubhouse leadership and influencers. In one meeting, the creators discussed monetization strategies. The app grew to popularity amid the pandemic as people have been prevented from typical forms of networking, but it’s also struggled with moderation as conversations go off the rails. Today, Clubhouse alsohostsmanyadulttopics, as well, which would give the app a 17+ rating if it were actually submitted to the App Store instead of being in a private beta.
HBO Max’s mobile app set a single-day download record following the release of “Wonder Woman 1984.” During the release weekend (Fri.-Sun.) the app saw 554K downloads, including 244K downloads on Sunday alone, reported Apptopia. The firm estimates the app now has just under 12M mobile users.
The U.S. government appealed the injunction against its TikTok ban on Dec. 28. Two U.S. judges had already stopped Trump’s E.O. from being carried out. U.S. District Court Judge Carl Nichols on Dec. 7 determined the Commerce Dept. had overstepped its authority, and declared the action “arbitrary and capricious.” The department said it would continue to pursue the ban, which it did this past week by filing the appeal. It’s still unclear what will happen to TikTok and this specific case the days to come when President-Elect Biden takes office, but many suspect it could be dropped as the new administration focuses on more pressing issues, like the COVID crisis.
Tappity raises $1.3 million for its interactive and educational video library for kids. The Y Combinator-backed startup using live action actors responding to kids’ actions in the apps to teach standards-based science.
Tencent-backed edtech startup Yuanfudao raises $300 million from Jack Ma’s Yufeng Capital. The company, which earned $1.53B USD in 2020, makes a variety of remote learning products, including live tutoring platform Yuanfudao, Zebra AI Class, online question bank Yuantiku, question searching app Xiaoyuan Souti, and arithmetic problem checking app Xiaoyuan Kousuan.
The popular app maker Iconfactory released a new app, Waterscope, that is a weather app more specifically designed to provide users with information on water conditions. Creator Craig Hockenberry explains the app is something he largely built for himself, an ocean swimmer often in need of information about the tides, wave heights, water temperature, wind speed, air temperature, forecasts and more. The app could be useful to those who live around the water, whether they’re swimming, fishing, boating or anything else. iOS only.
Run Boggo Run
Image Credits: BuzzFeed
This endless runner is BuzzFeed’s first mobile game, which makes it worth noting if not exactly recommending. The mental health-themed game, inspired by BuzzFeed’s animated series The Land of Boggs, was created by BuzzFeed Animation Studios. In the game, characters try to avoid things like stress monsters and gremlins, which is a humorous take on the anxieties of 2020. However, early user reviews indicate the game’s controls are too difficult and complain the game is too hard to be fun. How stressful! $0.99 on iOS and Android.
A new meditation game Enso promises to help users relax, meditate or fall asleep faster using gameplay that involves soothing visuals and sounds, composed by A.I. The app consists of 5-minute journeys where users concentrate on a task while guiding their movements and breath to achieve their goals. iOS and Android.
Image Credits: Portal
Not Facebook’s Portal! This sleep and relaxation-focused app, also called Portal, has been updated with Apple’s new privacy measures in mind. The company announced in December it will not collect user data from its app, and will now no longer use any in-app analytics tracking. The app also never required a login or collected personal information, and didn’t include third-party ads and ad trackers.
That’s resulted in an App Store rare find:
The Portal app is a free download and offers a $35 per year membership for those who want access to the full content library.
Spotify today has released its highly-anticipated iOS 14 widget with the latest app update. The new widget, which comes in both the small and medium sizes for the time being, allows you to quickly access your recently played artists, albums and podcasts with a tap.
The smaller widget will display just your most recently listened to item, while the medium-sized widget will instead show the five most recent items — four in a horizontal row and the most recent at the top. In that case, you can actually tap on the small thumbnail for which of the five you want to now stream to be taken directly to that page in the Spotify app.
Image Credits: Spotify widget, screenshot via TechCrunch
Another interesting aspect to the widget is that the background color automatically updates to match the thumbnail image. If the artist is wearing red, for example, the widget changes to red. If the album is blue, the widget becomes blue. And so on.
There seem to be a limited range of colors available, however. For example, when we streamed something with a gray-and-white color scheme in the thumbnail image (e.g. Taylor Swift’s “folklore”), the widget defaulted to Spotify’s green shade.
Image Credits: Spotify widget, screenshot via TechCrunch
The widget’s colorful experience can help it to stand out on the homescreen. But it could also be problematic for those who have customized their iOS 14 homescreen with a certain aesthetic — like all app icons and widgets in neutral shades, or another favorite color, such as pink, purple, blue, or black.
Based on Etsy trends, iOS 14 packs in neutral or fall shades are currently best sellers, as are those with lighter pinks and dark themes in black. Spotify’s widget could clash with those designs, at times.
Still, the demand for a Spotify widget has been so strong that before the official release it sent a third-party music widget provider flying up the App Store charts as users customized their iOS 14 homescreens. That widget provider, TuneTrack, even got as high at No. 8 Overall and No. 1 in Music on Sept. 19, 2020, when the customization trend was driving millions of new downloads.
The California judge in the legal skirmish between Epic Games and Apple has denied Epic’s request that Apple be forced to reinstate Fortnite in the App Store, but did affirm that Apple can not take action against the Epic Games developer accounts used to bring Unreal Engine developers access to Apple devices.
The court’s decision re-affirmed their proclamation from late August in a court hearing where Epic Games’ lawyers sought to obtain a temporary restraining order after Apple informed the Fortnite developer that they would be kicking the company off the App Store and terminating all of their company accounts.
The judge noted that “[p]reliminary injunctive relief is an extraordinary measure rarely granted,” and detailed that they were granting in part and denying in part Epic’s request, noting that “Epic Games bears the burden in asking for such extraordinary relief.”
Epic Games has strong arguments regarding Apple’s exclusive distribution through the iOS App Store, and the in-app purchase (“IAP”) system through which Apple takes 30% of certain IAP payments. However, given the limited record, Epic Games has not sufficiently addressed Apple’s counter arguments. The equities, addressed in the temporary restraining order, remain the same.
This confirms that Fortnite will not return to the App Store before the trial begins, a court filing this week signaled that the two companies will go to trial on May 3, 2021.
After taking a stand against Apple’s hefty cut of the money developers make through the App Store, Fortnite maker Epic Games shows no signs of backing down. The company filed an injunction against Apple in the U.S. District Court for California’s Northern District on Monday after it received a letter notifying Epic that its developer accounts and access to developer tools would be cut off at the end of next week.
Apple removed Fortnite from the App Store and has informed Epic that on Friday, August 28 Apple will terminate all our developer accounts and cut Epic off from iOS and Mac development tools. We are asking the court to stop this retaliation. Details here: https://t.co/3br1EHmyd8
In the injunction, Epic accuses Apple of “retaliation” and reasserts its mission to disrupt what it views as Apple’s monopoly over its mobile software market. The company cites concerns that Apple’s actions against its developer access will damage its business beyond Fortnite, particularly its work on Unreal Engine, the prominent game engine it licenses to third party software makers.
“[Apple] told Epic that by August 28, Apple will cut off Epic’s access to all development tools necessary to create software for Apple’s platforms—including for the Unreal Engine Epic offers to third-party developers, which Apple has never claimed violated any Apple policy,” the injunction states.
“Not content simply to remove Fortnite from the App Store, Apple is attacking Epic’s entire business in unrelated areas. Epic is likely to succeed on the merits of its claims, but without an injunction, Epic will be irreparably harmed long before final judgment comes.”
Epic ran afoul of both Apple and Google’s policies last week when it added a discounted direct payment option into its apps, essentially creating a workaround for Fortnite players to make purchases in the game without an intermediary. Knowing that Apple would act quickly to pull Fortnite from the Apple Store for violating its rules, Epic had a PR campaign against the tech giant prepared, launching an antitrust suit and a Fortnite-themed spoof on Apple’s iconic 1984 commercial shortly after the news broke.
When reached by TechCrunch, Apple did not provide additional comment on the latest development, pointing us back to its prior statement. The full text of Epic’s injunction to block Apple’s actions is available here.
Apple has another antitrust charge on its plate. Messaging app Telegram has joined Spotify in filing a formal complaint against the iOS App Store in Europe — adding its voice to a growing number of developers willing to publicly rail against what they decry as Apple’s app “tax”.
A spokesperson for Telegram confirmed the complaint to TechCrunch, pointing us to this public Telegram post where founder, Pavel Durov, sets out seven reasons why he thinks iPhone users should be concerned about the company’s behavior.
These range from the contention that Apple’s 30% fee on app developers leads to higher prices for iPhone users; to censorship concerns, given Apple controls what’s allowed (and not allowed) on its store; to criticism of delays to app updates that flow from Apple’s app review process; to the claim that the app store structure is inherently hostile to user privacy, given that Apple gets full visibility of which apps users are downloading and engaging with.
This week Durov also published a blog post in which he takes aim at a number of “myths” he says Apple uses to try to justify the 30% app fee — such as a claim that iOS faces plenty of competition for developers; or that developers can choose not to develop for iOS and instead only publish apps for Android.
“Try to imagine Telegram or TikTok as Android -only apps and you will quickly understand why avoiding Apple is impossible,” he writes. “You can’t just exclude iPhone users. As for the iPhone users, the costs for consumers to switch from an iPhone to an Android is so high that it qualifies as a monopolistic lock-in” — citing a study done by Yale University to bolster that claim.
“Now that anti-monopoly investigations against Apple have started in the EU and the US, I expect Apple to double down on spreading such myths,” Durov adds. “We shouldn’t sit idly and let Apple’s lobbyists and PR agents do their thing. At the end of the day, it is up to us – consumers and creators – to defend our rights and to stop monopolists from stealing our money. They may think they have tricked us into a deadlock, because we’ve already bought a critical mass of their devices and created a critical mass of apps for them. But we shouldn’t be giving them a free ride any longer.”
We also reached out to Apple for comment but the company also declined to provide an on the record statement regarding Telegram’s complaint. A spokesperson did point to a piece of analyst research, from earlier this year, which found iOS had a marketshare of 15% vs Android’s 85%. They also flagged a separate analyst report, which looks at commission rates charged by app and digital content stores and marketplaces — suggesting this shows that rates charged for similar types of stores are generally also around 30%.
So the company’s overarching argument against ‘app tax’ complaints continues to be the claim that: A) Apple can’t have monopoly power, given its relatively small mobile OS marketshare (vs Android); and B) the App Store fee is fair because it’s basically the same as everyone else charges. (On the latter point it’s true Google also takes a 30% cut via the Play Store. However the Android platform lets users sideload apps; whereas, on iOS, users would have to jailbreak their device to get the same level of freedom to freely install apps of their choice).
Apple’s arguments are also now being actively looked into by EU regulators. Last month the Competition Commission announced it’s investigating Apple’s iOS store (and Apple Pay) — saying a preliminary probe of the store had identified concerns related to conditions and restrictions applied by the tech giant.
Specifically vis-a-vis the App Store, the Commission said it’s looking at Apple’s mandatory requirement that developers use its proprietary in-app purchase system, and at restrictions it applies on the ability of developers to inform iPhone and iPad users of alternative cheaper purchasing possibilities outside of the App Store.
Over in the US, meanwhile, lawmakers are also actively grappling with competition concerns that have long been attached to a number of tech giants — and are being exacerbated by the pandemic concentrating platform power. Apple is one of the tech giants of concern, though not, seemingly, top of US lawmakers’ target list.
Yesterday, a hearing of the House Antitrust Subcommittee took testimony from four big tech CEOs: Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Apple’s Tim Cook, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sundar Pichai — with Pichai, Bezos and Zuckerberg getting the most questions from lawmakers.
Cook did face a number of questions around how the company operates the App Store, though — including about the commission it charges developers and a specific line of enquiry on why it had removed rival screen time apps. Asked whether Apple could ever raise its 30% take on app subscriptions Cook sought to sidestep the question, saying the fee had remained unchanged since the launch of the store.
He then followed up by arguing Apple faces huge competition for developers — citing alternatives platforms such as Windows and Xbox as also fiercely vying for developers, and likening the competition to attract developers as akin to “a street fight for market share”.
The contention from complainants like Spotify and Telegram is that Cook’s claim of Apple facing fierce competition for developers’ wares, from its position as the world’s second largest smartphone OS by marketshare, does not stand up to scrutiny. But it’ll be up to EU regulators to determine how to define the market for smartphone apps and, flowing from that, whether they identify harm or not.
Apple is under formal investigation by antitrust regulators in European Union — following a number of complaints related to how it operates the iOS App Store and also its payment offering, Apple Pay.
The Commission said today that it has concerns that conditions and restrictions applied by the tech giant may be distorting competition in a number of areas, following a preliminary probe of the issues.
Back in March 2019, European music streaming service Spotify filed an antitrust complaint against Apple — railing very publicly against what it dubbed an “Apple tax”; aka the 30% tariff the tech giant applies on accepting payments in apps on its App Store. Spotify also accused Apple of impeding its business by applying arbitrary rules — such as making it harder to offer its own users discounts.
The Commission confirmed today that it’s looking formally into whether Apple’s rules for app developers on the distribution of apps via the App Store violate EU competition rules. It said the probe focuses on Apple’s mandatory requirement that app developers use its own 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.
As well as the very public complaint from Spotify, the Commission has received a similar complaint from an unnamed e-book/audiobook distributor related to the impact of the App Store rules on competition.
Two specific restrictions imposed by Apple in its agreements with companies that wish to distribute apps to users of Apple devices will be investigated, per the Commission — namely [emphasis its]:
(i) The mandatory use of Apple’s own proprietary in-app purchase system “IAP” for the distribution of paid digital content. Apple charges app developers a 30% commission on all subscription fees through IAP.
(ii) Restrictions on the ability of developers to inform users of alternative purchasing possibilities outside of apps. While Apple allows users to consume content such as music, e-books and audiobooks purchased elsewhere (e.g. on the website of the app developer) also in the app, its rules prevent developers from informing users about such purchasing possibilities, which are usually cheaper.
“Following a preliminary investigation the Commission has concerns that Apple’s restrictions may distort competition for music streaming services on Apple’s devices,” it writes in a press release. “Apple’s competitors have either decided to disable the in-app subscription possibility altogether or have raised their subscription prices in the app and passed on Apple’s fee to consumers.
“In both cases, they were not allowed to inform users about alternative subscription possibilities outside of the app. The IAP obligation also appears to give Apple full control over the relationship with customers of its competitors subscribing in the app, thus dis-intermediating its competitors from important customer data while Apple may obtain valuable data about the activities and offers of its competitors.”
Commenting in a statement, Commission EVP Margrethe Vestager — who heads up competition policy for the bloc — added: “Mobile applications have fundamentally changed the way we access content. Apple sets the rules for the distribution of apps to users of iPhones and iPads. It appears that Apple obtained a ‘gatekeeper’ role when it comes to the distribution of apps and content to users of Apple’s popular devices. We need to ensure that Apple’s rules do not distort competition in markets where Apple is competing with other app developers, for example with its music streaming service Apple Music or with Apple Books. I have therefore decided to take a close look at Apple’s App Store rules and their compliance with EU competition rules.”
Vestager’s reference to a “gatekeeper” role has specific significance as the Commission is currently consulting on updating regulations for digital platforms — including floating the possibility of ex ante regulation for platforms deemed to be gatekeepers vis-a-vis other suppliers. (In parallel, the Commission is consulting on updates to competition law that may allow it to intervene more swiftly in future, in instances where it suspects digital markets have ‘tipped’.)
Spotify welcomed the Commission’s action, writing in a statement:
Today is a good day for consumers, Spotify and other app developers across Europe and around the world. Apple’s anticompetitive behavior has intentionally disadvantaged competitors, created an unlevel playing field, and deprived consumers of meaningful choice for far too long. We welcome the European Commission’s decision to formally investigate Apple, and hope they’ll act with urgency to ensure fair competition on the iOS platform for all participants in the digital economy.
On Apple Pay, the Commission said a formal investigation of how it operates the payment tech will look at the “terms, conditions and other measures” Apple applies for integrating the payment solution in merchant apps and websites on iPhones and iPads; Apple’s limitation of access to the NFC functionality on iPhones for payments in stores; and allegations of “refusals of access to Apple Pay”.
Following a preliminary probe, the Commission said it is concerned Apple’s processes “may distort competition and reduce choice and innovation”.
It also notes that Apple Pay is the only mobile payment solution that is allowed to access NFC technology on iOS devices for making payments in stores.
“The investigation will also focus on alleged restrictions of access to Apple Pay for specific products of rivals on iOS and iPadOS smart mobile devices,” it added.
The Commission said it will carry out the investigations “as a matter of priority”, but there’s no set timeframe for how long this process might take.
EU antitrust investigations have tended to take a number of years from an announcement of a formal probe to a decision being reached. (Although, in an ongoing investigation against Broadcom, Vestager recently dusted off a tool to accelerate regulatory intervention — but as yet there’s no formal ‘statement of objections’ against Apple so it remains to be seen how this case will proceed, and whether regulators may seek to speed up any intervention.)
Reached for comment on the Commission’s announcement of the two antitrust investigations, Apple dubbed the complaints “baseless” — choosing to throw shade on the complainants by claiming these companies are after “a free ride, and don’t want to play by the same rules as everyone else”.
Here’s Apple’s statement on the two investigations in full:
Throughout our history, Apple has created groundbreaking new products and services in some of the most fiercely competitive markets in the world. We follow the law in everything we do and we embrace competition at every stage because we believe it pushes us to deliver even better results.
We developed the App Store with two goals in mind: that it be a safe and trusted place for customers to discover and download apps, and a great business opportunity for entrepreneurs and developers. We’re deeply proud of the countless developers who’ve innovated and found success through our platform. And as we’ve grown together, we’ve continued to deliver innovative new services — like Apple Pay — that provide the very best customer experience while meeting industry-leading standards for privacy and security.
It’s disappointing the European Commission is advancing baseless complaints from a handful of companies who simply want a free ride, and don’t want to play by the same rules as everyone else. We don’t think that’s right — we want to maintain a level playing field where anyone with determination and a great idea can succeed.
At the end of the day, our goal is simple: for our customers to have access to the best app or service of their choice, in a safe and secure environment. We welcome the opportunity to show the European Commission all we’ve done to make that goal a reality.