This Week in Apps: Another App Store settlement, Apple asks to personalize ads, Twitter launches Super Follows

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

The app industry continues to grow, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

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

This Week in Apps offers a way to keep up with this fast-moving industry in one place with the latest from the world of apps, including news, updates, startup fundings, mergers and acquisitions… and suggestions about new apps and games to try, too!

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Top Story

Apple settles another App Store antitrust case…but it’s still winning the war with developers

Netflix app icon iOS

Photo: TechCrunch

Another day, another App Store settlement announced late at night in the hopes that reporters will miss it. (Apparently, publishing press releases after 8 PM ET is a good time to try to hide the news, huh?)

PR theatrics aside, this week’s settlement is only a minor concession on Apple’s part that its aggressive anti-steering guidelines could be considered anticompetitive. The company said it reached a settlement with Japanese regulator, the Japan Fair Trade Commission (JFTC), to change its policies for “reader apps” that would allow them to point users to their own website. Yes, Apple literally had to be drug through an antitrust investigation to agree to allow a subgroup of developers the ability to add a link to a website inside their app.

Anyone celebrating this as a major win for developers needs to think again. Apple is still winning this war.

The rule change, which kicks in globally in early 2022, will only apply to “reader” apps, Apple says. Reader apps provide access to purchased content, like books or audiobooks, or content subscriptions, like streaming music and video. The rule could also apply to apps that provide access to digital magazines or newspapers. Think: Spotify, Netflix, Kindle and others. Of course, “reader apps” is a sort of made-up category Apple invented years ago in hopes of forcing a revenue share, but instead forced some smaller apps out of business. But now, having this category allows Apple to make up rules that only apply to a subgroup of apps. That is some forward thinking.

Historically, reader apps that have not wanted to share subscription revenue with Apple (or that got big enough to no longer need the in-app purchase option) have offered only a sign-in form for existing subscribers on the home screen that appears at first launch. Some also don’t offer any way to buy their content through the app itself, forcing users to figure out how to purchase the content they want through the company’s website. Now they can finally say, “here is our website.” Big whoop, we knew where Netflix.com was.

Overall, the iOS reader app experience from a consumer perspective has been a crappy one. It doesn’t “just work,” it’s a hassle. It’s an annoyance.

Now, Apple says these apps will be able to offer users a link to a website that launches inside their app so users can “set up and manage their account.” Presumably, that could include entering in payment information — after all, once the website is open, it would seem users could navigate it freely, right? But Apple hints that it will have specific rules about these links to come, saying the company “will also help developers of reader apps protect users when they link them to an external website to make purchases.” (Hopefully, Apple just means something like https is required, not that it’s planning to tell developers how to design their own websites and payment processing.)

Apple critics largely panned the settlement, saying they want better rules for everyone.

“This is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t solve the problem,” said Spotify CEO Daniel Ek. “App developers want clear, fair rules that apply to all apps. Our goal is to restore competition once and for all, not one arbitrary, self-serving step at a time. We will continue to push for a real solution.”

For whatever reason, Apple appears to want to battle App Store antitrust complaints on a case-by-case basis, instead of just rewriting its rules to even the playing field. That decision seems pretty obstinate, not to mention expensive. But, so far, it’s working. The changes emerging from these settlements so far (including last week’s) are the very smallest of updates to App Store guidelines. Apple is ceding very little ground here.

But the fight is far from over. As soon as the JFTC ruling hit, news broke that Apple is facing another antitrust challenge in India over in-app payments. There are similar cases underway in the EU, too, and U.S. lawmakers have been pursuing their own legislation, as well. Time will tell.

Apple asks users to opt-in to its personalized ads

Does this seem fair?

Today, developers have to show their users a pop-up box that asks if they can track their users, with options like “Ask App not to Track” or “Allow.” Most users decline tracking. After Apple introduced this new policy, aka App Tracking Transparency (ATT), there was some pushback around the fact that Apple didn’t have to follow its own rules — even though it had an ads business of its own where personalized ads were switched on by default.

While Apple, to be clear, is only sharing its data in-house — and not, say, with a third-party data broker — it also was doing so without any sort of opt-out screen presented to users who would prefer that data wasn’t gathered by anyone, you know, at all. 

Image Credits: iOS 15 screenshot

Now, things are changing. In iOS 15, Apple has begun popping up a message that allows users to turn off personalized ads in the App Store and other Apple apps. But wow, does it have a lot of screen space to make its case. Not only does Apple explain the many ways its personalized ads are beneficial to users, it also says its ad platform “does not track you” because it doesn’t link the data it collects with other data, nor does it share any personally identifiable information with third parties.

But there is an argument to be made here that Apple’s distinction between data-gathering across a set of first-party apps (Apple News, App Store and Stocks) and what it calls “tracking” — where app data is shared externally, or combined with others — is a line in the sand that is not only about Apple’s user privacy mission, but also about harming other ad-dependent businesses (like Facebook’s, naturally) in order to boost its own.

Weekly News

Apple updates

  • Apple delays plans to roll out CSAM detection in iOS 15. Apple says it will delay its CSAM detection tech in light of the feedback from customers and policy groups. While everyone agrees that a system to discover and report CSAM is overall a good thing, critics are concerned about how the system itself was built. They’re worried that it could be abused by authoritarian governments in the future, who would use it to implicate innocent victims or to detect non-CSAM materials they find objectionable. (China comes to mind here.) Apple says it will now take the time to make improvements before releasing these “critically important child safety features.”
  • Apple’s Wallet app will soon be able to hold your ID. The company said it now secured two states, Arizona and Georgia, to bring digital driver’s license and state IDs to the app. Connecticut, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Oklahoma and Utah are expected to follow. The TSA will allow you to present your digital wallet by tapping it on an identity reader, similar to how Apple Pay works.

Android updates

  • Android apps will not run on Windows 11 when the new OS launches on October 5. Although support for Android apps was touted as one of Windows’ biggest new features, Microsoft said it will only start previewing the feature in the “coming months.”

E-commerce

Image Credits: Instagram

  • Instagram is kicking off a live shopping event on September 1. Instagram’s 10+ Days of Live Shopping will feature events with Selena Gomez, Kacey Musgraves, Lil Yachty and other surprise guests, and will be found in the “Live” section in the Shop tab. Participating brands include Outdoor Voice, Hologear, Peloton, DragunBeauty, Aveda and others.
  • Time spent in shopping apps grew 49% year-over-year in the first quarter of 2021, reports App Annie. The typical mobile consumer is currently spending $88 every time they order from a shopping app. By May 2021, Android users averaged 2 billion shopping hours per week — up 51% from pre-pandemic levels.

Fintech

  • China’s Twitter-like app Weibo bans stock-tip accounts with millions of followers in an effort to comply with Beijing’s new rules focused on removing content that bad-mouths China’s financial markets or misinterprets domestic policies or economic data.
  • Indian digital payments company launched Pulse, a free product that offers insights into the digital payments market across Indian states, districts and over 19,000 postal codes.
  • PayPal is exploring a stock-trading service for U.S. customers, according to a CNBC report. The company hired Rich Hagen, previously of Ally Invest, to lead the new division. It’s unlikely that the service will launch this year, CNBC said, citing undisclosed sources.

Social

  • Twitter launched Super Follows, allowing users to subscribe to favorite creators via in-app purchases for exclusive content. But the system is chaotic on the App Store, as each Super Follow is listed as an individual IAP. The App Store can only show 10 IAPs, because there are too many options available. There’s got to be a better way to do this.
  • Twitter also launched Safety Mode to a small group on iOS for feedback and testing. The feature lets users protect themselves from harassment by temporarily blocking accounts for seven days that send harmful language or send repetitive, uninvited replies.
  • LinkedIn is shutting down Stories. The Microsoft-owned business networking platform informed advertisers they will need to adjust their ad campaigns when the format leaves the platform on September 30. Instead of Stories, LinkedIn will pursue short-form videos instead, it says.
  • TikTok added educational resources to its app to help parents using its Family Pairing parental control feature better understand how to help teens navigate their digital life.
  • TikTok launched a new Creator Marketplace API that allows influencer marketing companies the ability to tap into first-party data from the social video app, including things like audience demographics, growth trends, best-performing videos and real-time campaign reporting (e.g. views, likes, shares, comments, engagement, etc.) Alpha testers include Captiv8, Influential, Whalar and INCA.
  • Facebook said a glitch in its ad platform caused it to send faulty campaign data to advertisers — an example of how Apple’s privacy rules have impacted the adtech industry.
  • Instagram is requiring users to share their birthday with the company. The app will now start popping up a notification that asks you to add your birthday to “personalize your experience.” But the prompt can only be dismissed a handful of times before becoming a requirement. Instagram says it needs this information to aid with its new safety features aimed at younger users, including the teen privacy protections it recently added.

Image Credits: Instagram

Messaging

  • Mobile messaging app Telegram has topped 1 billion downloads, according to data from Sensor Tower. The app, launched in 2013, passed the milestone last Friday. India makes up 22% of Telegram installs, followed by Russia (10%) and Indonesia (8%). In the first half of 2021, the app saw 214.7 million installs, up from 133 million in H1 2020.
  • Telegram also expanded its livestream feature to support an unlimited number of viewers, up from the prior limit of 1,000.
  • Google’s Messages app is redesigning its attachment menu’s UI, which previously opened a scrollable list with several carousels. It now shows a four-wide grid that expands to take up more space as you scroll, with buttons for GIFs, stickers, files, location, contacts and more.

Streaming & Entertainment

  • Clubhouse added support for spatial audio to give listeners a feeling that they’re really hanging out live with a group of people. To make this possible, the company is integrating licensed code from Second Life creator Philip Rosedale’s spatial audio company High Fidelity and blending it with its own custom audio processing.
  • YouTube Music says it has surpassed 50 million Music and Premium subscribers, including those on trials.

Dating

  • Tinder says daily swipe activity this summer was up 13% and messages were up 12%. Conversations were also 38% longer, compared with April, May and June 2020. And 76% of survey respondents went on more dates compared to last summer.

Health & Fitness

  • Meditation and mindfulness app Calm has topped 100 million downloads, solidifying its spot as the world’s most downloaded meditation app. The app was also the No. 1 Health and Fitness app on iOS (July 1, 2010-August 21, 2021) and Android (January 1, 2012-August 2021).
  • Strava’s iOS fitness app makes its Beacon location-sharing safety feature available to all users for free, instead of only to paid subscribers. Launched in 2016, Beacon allows users to share their live location with up to three people who can track you until you’re finished with your activity.

News/Reading

Image Credits: Flipboard

  • Flipboard added newsfeed personalization tools that help you personalize your home feed, aka the “For You” page, to your own interests. This has been a top request from users, who wanted to dial down the level of politics and other bad news about current events in their feeds.

Government & Policy

  • WhatsApp was fined $267 million for breaching Europe’s GDPR. The messaging app had been under investigation by the Irish DPC, a leading data supervisor in the EU, since December 2018. The regulator found that WhatsApp failed to fully inform its users what it does with their data, and gave the company three months to come into compliance with several provisions of Europe’s privacy law. A WhatsApp spokesperson said the decision would be appealed.
  • The grace period for compliance with the Age Appropriate Design Code (aka the “Children’s Code”) has ended. App makers offering digital services that are likely to be accessed by children now need to ensure that a high level of privacy is applied by default to users’ accounts, and geolocation and profiling should be off by default. The code also says app makers should provide parental controls while kids receive age-appropriate information about those tools. “Dark patterns” are also now forbidden.

Security & Privacy

  • The FTC bans spyware maker SpyFone, an Android stalkerware app that was marketed under the guise of parental control, but was often used by adults to spy on their partners. SpyFone secretly gathered data on people’s physical movements, phone use and online activities. The company will also be required to notify victims where the app had been installed on their devices.
  • Mozilla VPN, its private VPN that works across desktop and mobile devices, completed a security audit from cybersecurity firm Cure53 in Berlin. The audit found two medium and one high-severity issue, all of which have now been addressed.
  • A WhatsApp vulnerability discovered by Check Point could have allowed a hacker to read sensitive info from WhatsApp’s memory. The exploit, however, was complex and has now been fixed.

Funding and M&A

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