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 number of downloads and consumer spending across both the iOS and Google Play stores combined in 2021, according to the latest year-end reports. App Annie says global spending across iOS and Google Play is up to $135 billion in 2021, and that figure will likely be higher when its annual report, including third-party app stores in China, is released next year. Consumers also downloaded 10 billion more apps in 2021 than in 2020, reaching nearly 140 billion in new installs, it found.
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 was 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 much more.
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Apps celebrate Global Accessibility Awareness Day
This past Thursday, May 19, 2022, marked the 11th Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD), which is a day focused on raising awareness about digital access and inclusion for the more than 1 billion people who live with disabilities or impairments. A number of app makers and tech companies took part in GAAD this year to either highlight or announce new features designed to better meet the needs of those with vision impairment, hearing loss and other disabilities.
Instagram’s @creators account shared information with its community about how and why to use accessibility features, like alt-text and auto-generated captions to create a better experience for your audience. The company also noted other developments it had rolled out, like dark mode, screen reader improvements, improved automatic and custom alternative text options for people with vision impairments, caption stickers for Reels and Stories, and more. The company also said it has started rolling out closed caption features to improve the Instagram experience for the deaf and hard of hearing communities. These changes help to improve the experience for everyone, however, as Instagram said one-third of video plays on Instagram are with the sound off. In March, Instagram made auto-generated captions the default for creators, which are supported globally across iOS and Android.
Google shared its approach to both hiring people with disabilities and building products to meet their needs. For example, it highlighted projects like Project Relate, a communication tool for people with speech impairments; the update to TalkBack, Android’s built-in screen reader; and the improved Select-to-Speak Chromebook tool; a multi-pin feature for Google Meet, which allows users to pin multiple tiles, like a presenter’s screen and interpreter’s screen. The company also noted all its English-language YouTube Originals content from the past year — and moving forward — will now have English audio descriptions available globally.
These included a universal Live Captions feature, improved visual and auditory detection modes and iOS access to WatchOS apps. Live Captions will be able to transcribe any audio content, like FaceTime calls, video conferencing apps and streaming video, as well as in-person conversations, all in English to start.
Apple’s Sound Recognition feature will be able to be programmed to recognize sounds unique to a person’s own home, like their doorbell or appliances. The Magnifier app will add a new ML and lidar-powered Door Detection feature within a new Detection Mode section. This will help users locate a door, understand how far they are from it and describe door attributes. Apple Maps will offer sound and haptics feedback for VoiceOver users. And Apple Watch will help users control Apple Watch remotely from their paired iPhone with Apple Watch Mirroring. It also gains new Quick Action like a double-pinch gesture to answer or end a phone call, dismiss a notification, take a photo, play or pause media in the Now Playing app, and start, pause or resume a workout.
Snap’s platform policies for third-party apps aren’t yet fully enforced
A handful of Snap Kit platform developers have not yet complied with the new guidelines around anonymous messaging and friend-finding apps announced in March. The Snapchat maker revamped its developer platform policies on March 17, 2022, to ban anonymous apps and require developers to build friend-finding apps to limit access to users 18 or older. The policy changes were effective immediately and existing developers were given 30 days to come into compliance — a date that would have passed last month.
It is now mid-May and some developers of the newly banned and restricted apps are not yet meeting Snap’s new requirements.
Snap confirmed to TechCrunch a small number of apps were given extensions, including anonymous apps LMK and Send It. But others seemed to be working around Snap’s ban with their friend-finding apps marketed to users ages 12+, instead of the now required 18+. They got away with this by not actually using the SDK — something impossible to tell from their App Store marketing and screenshots which imply they’re directly integrated with Snap’s features. Another app had flown under the radar, continuing to operate in violation of the rules unless TechCrunch pointed it out, resulting in a belated ban. This lack of clarity on which apps are platform apps, and which are only pretending to be, could complicate things for Snap, which is engaged in litigation over bullying-related suicides. And like all social media, the company could be under new U.S. regulation related to child safety matters in the future, as well.
Twitter deal still a go… for now
First, Elon Musk tweeted that the Twitter deal was “temporarily on hold” until Twitter could prove the percentage of spambots on its platform was actually less than 5%, as it reports. This Tuesday, he reiterated the deal would not move forward until Twitter would show him proof of this <5% figure. Twitter was having none of it, though. The company filed a proxy statement, saying it’s committed to the deal as agreed and is ready to close “as promptly as possible.”
If Musk’s move was an attempt to renegotiate the price, it didn’t seem to be working. Twitter’s top lawyer and head of policy, Vijaya Gadde, told staff at an all-hands meeting there’s “no such thing as a deal being on hold,” reported Bloomberg. Twitter execs also suggested that it could try to enforce the deal terms in court, if need be, but said that would be “pretty rare” for such a thing to occur. (Not that this Twitter deal is proceeding normally though!) There’s still some speculation that Musk is looking to fully back out and will find a way to do so, billion-dollar breakup fee notwithstanding. In the meantime, the bankers are still preparing the paperwork and execs are still leaving. This week, it was Twitter Service VP Katrina Lane, head of data science Max Schmeiser and VP of product management Ilya Brown — all of whom chose to leave on their own.
Apple’s new rules let apps raise subscription prices automatically
Alongside the launch of the iOS 15.5 update, Apple introduced a new set of rules to govern auto-renewing subscriptions on the App Store. Now, instead of asking users to agree to any subscription price increases, developers will be able to roll out a price increase with the user’s explicit consent. The feature allows developers to simply inform customers they’ll be charged more, but not require the customer to opt-in to the higher pricing.
We first broke the news that Apple was pilot testing this program last month, when it appeared Disney+ subscription customers had simply been told their price was increasing but weren’t asked for their consent. Apple then confirmed this was the result of a “new commerce feature” it planned to launch soon, which it said would be “great for both developers and users.”
Apple’s position is that this could save customers the hassle of having their subscriptions automatically canceled just because they didn’t see the notification or email that asked them to opt in to the price increase.
“This has led to some services being unintentionally interrupted for users and they must take steps to resubscribe within the app, from Settings on iPhone and iPad, or in the App Store on Mac,” the company explained in its announcement on Monday.
However, the flip side of this argument is that those same customers who would have missed the consent notification will likely be the same ones who would now miss the notification informing them their subscription will be increasing in price. There’s also an argument here that this change could enable unscrupulous developers and scammers to better profit from their victims if Apple doesn’t carefully enforce the program rules.
Currently, those state that developers can’t increase prices more than once per year. The increase also can’t exceed 50% of the subscription price, and the difference in price can’t exceed $5 USD per period for non-annual subscriptions or $50 USD for annual subscriptions.
Apple released the first public betas of iOS 15.6, iPadOS 15.6, tvOS 15.6, watchOS 8.7 and macOS 12.5. Now included in the beta lineup is HomePod Software 15.6.
Apple also released iOS 15.5 to the public, which included a new way to request and send money from their Apple Cash card through the Wallet app, as well as a slew of new features for the Apple Podcasts app, and other features.
The latest Swift Playgrounds update (ver. 4.1) added App Store Connect integration for macOS users.
Apple targeted data brokers in its latest ad that promotes iOS privacy features.
Google Play expanded its app sanctions against Russia to include Belarus. The company will block the download of paid apps and updates to paid apps in both Russia and Belarus, it said in an update to its help article on the matter.
Alongside its announcement of its new Fire 7 tablet, Amazon also revealed that its upcoming Fire OS 8, its own Android-based OS, will launch in June.
An update to the Google System Update changelog again indicates that Google’s Family Link software will allow parents to set a persistent launcher on their child’s supervised device. This would make it so that a child couldn’t change the phone’s launcher to do anything other than what’s approved. The feature hasn’t been publicly announced.
E-commerce and Food Delivery
Uber announced a partnership with Grocery Outlet to pilot on-demand and scheduled grocery delivery. Initially, users can shop at 72 Grocery Outlet stores in California, Oregon and Washington state via the Uber or Uber Eats app.
Uber also announced a whole host of new features at its global product event earlier in the week. Here, Uber launched an “Uber Travel” feature that helps riders pre-book rides to and from upcoming events, like flights or restaurant reservations. It also announced an Uber Charter service for booking party buses, passenger vans and coach buses; plus event vouchers, an EV and charging map, various new Uber Eats products and additional perks for its Uber One membership; and more.
Snapchat and eBay announce integrations. Snapchat users can now share eBay listings with their friends using the Snapchat Camera on Android and iOS.
YouTube teased new features that it claims will make it easier for viewers to discover and buy from brands. One new feature will allow two creators to go live at the same time to co-host a single live shopping stream. This could effectively double the draw for the event, as each creator would bring their own fanbase to the stream. Another upcoming option is called “live redirects.” With this, creators are able to start a shopping livestream on their channel, then redirect their audience over to a brand’s channel for fans to keep watching. This allows brands to tap into the power of the creator’s platform and reach their fanbase, but then gives the brands themselves access to that audience — and the key metrics and analytics associated with their live event — directly on their own YouTube channel.
FTX US plans to launch FTX Stocks, a zero-commission stock trading feature available through the FTX mobile app, rolling out in the U.S. in the “coming months.” The news is particularly notable given that billionaire FTX US founder Sam Bankman-Fried recently acquired a 7.6% stake in Robinhood.
Robinhood will launch a standalone app that lets users hold their own cryptocurrencies and NFTs, putting it in direct competition with Coinbase and startups like MetaMask or Rainbow. The move comes at a time when Robinhood’s stocks are off by more than 70% since its IPO.
Coinbase backtracked on its hiring plans, citing the crypto market turmoil. The company had earlier planned to triple headcount this year, but is now reassessing its headcount needs.
Coinbase also said it would let a “small set” of users access Ethereum-based decentralized apps directly from its own app via the new dApp browser. The feature would allow users to purchase NFTs on OpenSea and Coinbase’s NFT platform; trade on decentralized exchanges like Uniswap and SushiSwap; and borrow and lend through DeFi platforms like Curve and Compound.
Plaid, whose service powers a number of fintech aps, announced two products for ACH transfers, including identity verification, putting it into competition with Stripe.
Greenlight, a $2.3 billion fintech focused on kids, launched a credit card for parents. The Greenlight-branded card, offered through Mastercard, offers up to 3% unlimited cash back on all purchases and gives parents the option to automatically invest those cash rewards in stocks and ETFs. They also can choose to invest the cash in other ways through the Greenlight mobile app or transfer funds to their bank.
TikTok launched Branded Mission, a new ad product that lets advertisers crowdsource content from creators with at least 1,000 followers. Advertisers can launch branded campaigns by developing a brief and releasing it to the creator community, encouraging them to participate in Branded Missions. Eligible creators whose videos are selected by brands will then benefit from a cash payment and boosted traffic.
TikTok launched its first creator crediting tool to help video creators cite their inspiration for dances, jokes, sounds and other content. The tool allows a creator to pick a video that’s then automatically added to their own video’s caption, linking back to the original creator. The changes follow years of complaints that top TikTok stars were lifting choreography from smaller creators, often Black creators. The problem got so bad that last year, some Black creators went on strike, refusing to create new dance moves for a recently dropped Megan Thee Stallion single as a form of protest.
Twitter rolled out the ability for creators to host Super Follows-only Spaces as a subscriber perk. Subscribers globally on iOS and Android will be able to join and request to speak in Super Follows-only Spaces. (Web users can only join and listen for now.) Users who aren’t Super Following a creator can still see the Space but won’t be able to access it unless they subscribe.
Snap announced its new Snap Originals shows, which were also recently previewed at a company event. The show features stars like Simone Biles, winner of 32 Olympic and World Championship medals; NAACP Image Award winner La’Ron Hines; Dixie and Charli D’Amelio; and others.
Facebook and Twitter struggled to contain the Buffalo shooting video which was circulating across their platforms where it was being reported by end users. The New York AG also announced plans to investigate Twitch, Discord and 4chan for their role in the mass shooting.
Snap-owned social maps app Zenly, used by 35 million people monthly, rolled out its own mapping data and engine following last month’s redesign. The project was built using open source data from OpenStreetMap and acquired datasets from third parties. The maps feature 3D landmarks, animated effects, tiny cars, people, 3D trees and more. The new maps are live in Taipei, Tokyo, Paris, Los Angeles, New York and Seoul.
Photo and video-editing app Picsart laid off 90 employees, or around 8% of its workforce, amid the market downturn.
Regulatory filings indicated Tiger Global sold off its entire stake in Bumble, along with other apps like Airbnb and Didi, as well as ~80% of its stake in Robinhood during 2022’s tech stock sell-off, FT reported.
Match Group-owned Hinge introduced a new feature aimed at helping users initiate conversations about self-care. The new Self-Care Prompts may include things like “The last time I cried happy tears was…,” “My friends ask me for advice about…,” “To me, relaxation is…,” “I feel most supported when…,” “A boundary of mine is…,” and others.
Meta launched its free WhatsApp Cloud API, aimed at SMBs, to all businesses worldwide after earlier beta testing. The API allows companies to build on top of WhatsApp to better serve their customers, but without the costs and longer integration time for the on-premise version. WhatsApp also said it would roll out paid features for its WhatsApp Business app later this year, including things like the ability to manage chats across up to 10 devices. The company will also provide new customizable WhatsApp click-to-chat links that help businesses attract customers across their online presence, it said.
WhatsApp is also developing a feature that will allow users to stealthily exit group chats without informing the group, according to a leak from WABetaInfo. The feature was developed for the new Communities feature rolling out slowly this year.
Indian users of the Google Messages app say RCS is being abused by businesses to spam users with ads, with the frequency of the ads picking up over the past few months.
Apple’s Communication Safety in Messages expanded to more countries with iOS 15.5, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the U.K.
Streaming & Entertainment
YouTube’s player gained new features, including Most Replayed, Video Chapters for big-screen devices, Single Loop and more. The company said it’s adding a graph that people can use to easily locate and watch the most replayed parts of a video — something that could be particularly helpful for longer videos or those that haven’t broken down their various sections using either timestamps or video chapters. It also rolled out Video Chapters to smart TVs and gaming consoles and an option to set a video on a looping mode.
Apple Music launched Apple Music Live, a new recurring series that will livestream concerts from major artists, kicking off with a Harry Styles concert Friday at 9 PM ET alongside the release of his third album, “Harry’s House.” Encore streams will run at 12:00 PM ET on May 22 and 5 AM ET on May 26. Apple wouldn’t say if VOD streams would ever be available.
Spotify and Accenture teamed up in order to offer Spotify Premium as an employee perk as part of a new offering called “Spotify for Work.” Accenture kicked off the deal by rolling out Spotify to its employees across Sweden, Latvia and Lithuania.
YouTube Music for Wear OS was updated to allow users to stream content over Wi-Fi and LTE. The feature means users will be able to listen to favorite songs even if their phone isn’t nearby.
Charli XCX is scheduled to play a “metaverse” concert on Roblox on June 17, 2022, at 7 PM ET. The concert will follow a five-week virtual event comprising mini-games and other digital challenges.
The Apple Podcasts app gained new storage clean-up tools, support for annual subscriptions and a new distribution system. The new Apple Podcasts Delegated Delivery system will soon allow creators to more easily distribute their podcasts directly to Apple Podcasts from third-party hosting providers, including Acast, ART19, Blubrry, Buzzsprout, Libsyn, Omny Studio and RSS.com. The clean-up tools, meanwhile, will come in handy for better controlling how many episodes are saved locally and give you a chance to bulk remove downloads for the first time, including on Mac.
Fortnite launched to all iOS users via Nvidia’s GeForce Now cloud gaming service after a few months of closed beta trials. The launch means iPhone users have yet another workaround to play the popular game on their device, despite its ban from the App Store, following Fortnite’s launch on Microsoft’s Cloud Gaming service earlier this month.
A report from Reuters said TikTok was testing HTML5 games in Vietnam, but TikTok told TechCrunch that was inaccurate — no games were currently testing in that market. However, the company had previously confirmed it was engaged in further gaming partnership discussions after its Zynga deal was announced.
TechCrunch also reported and confirmed a separate effort focused on bringing interactive minigames — like “Draw & Guess” — to the TikTok LIVE platform.
Niantic’s Pokémon GO partnered with Amazon Prime Gaming and Prime Student to offer exclusive bonus item bundles every two weeks to Prime members. Users can log in to Prime and get a code, which they can redeem on Niantic’s rewards page. The items will then appear in the game.
Security & Privacy
Brave’s iOS web browser was updated with a new Privacy Hub feature that offers users more visibility on exactly what Brave blocked, and how Brave protects your personal information online. It does so by showing a rolling update of how many trackers Brave blocked on a specific site, or in a given time span. The hub also offers education about trackers and privacy threats.
Apple patched almost 30 security flaws with iOS 15.5, as well as over 50 fixes for macOS 12.4.
Funding and M&A
Pintarnya, a startup building a super app for Indonesia’s blue-collar workers, raised $6.3 million in seed funding led by Sequoia Capital India and General Catalyst. The funding includes a $100,000 grant from Sequoia Spark, a program for women founders. The app offers verified job postings and financial services, like loans, for blue-collar workers.
Instant delivery app Gopuff, valued at $15 billion, announced a new advisor and investor: Bob Iger, the former CEO and chairman of The Walt Disney Company. The company wouldn’t say if the investment was coming as a separate investment, or as part of a $1 billion round (in debt and equity) that the company is in the process of closing.
Instabug, a startup that helps mobile developers monitor, identify and fix bugs within apps, raised $46 million in Series B funding led by Insight Partners. The company said its ARR doubled in 2021 and the number of enterprise customers grew 10x, as it added new clients like DoorDash, Verizon, Qualtrics, Porsche and Gojek. Last year, its software sat within 2.7 billion mobile devices, processed 110 billion mobile sessions (up at least 20x from 2020) and helped customers resolve 4.2 billion issues, it said.
Unit, a banking-as-a-service startup that allows developers to easily build new fintech apps, raised $100 million in Series C funding led by Insight Partners, at a $1.2 billion valuation. Unit said its transaction volume grew 7x over the past six months and has crossed an annualized transaction volume of $2.6 billion. It’s also issued over 430,000 cards to over 330,000 customers and saw a 10x increase in deposit volumes.