This Week in Apps: Elon joins Twitter’s board, Apple’s subscriptions pilot, WWDC stays online
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 […]
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. Global spending across iOS, Google Play and third-party Android app stores in China grew 19% in 2021 to reach $170 billion. Downloads of apps also grew by 5%, reaching 230 billion in 2021, and mobile ad spend grew 23% year over year to reach $295 billion.
Today’s consumers now spend more time in apps than ever before — even topping the time they spend watching TV, in some cases. The average American watches 3.1 hours of TV per day, for example, but in 2021, they spent 4.1 hours on their mobile device. And they’re not even the world’s heaviest mobile users. In markets like Brazil, Indonesia and South Korea, users surpassed five hours per day in mobile apps in 2021.
Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours, either. They can grow to become huge businesses. In 2021, 233 apps and games generated over $100 million in consumer spend, and 13 topped $1 billion in revenue. This was up 20% from 2020, when 193 apps and games topped $100 million in annual consumer spend, and just eight apps topped $1 billion.
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 to try, too.
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Apple pilot tests a commerce feature for subscription apps
Apple may be changing how iOS subscriptions operate when price increases are involved. Recently, some developers noticed that the streaming service Disney+ was seemingly only informing users of upcoming price changes, then automatically opting them in. This is different from how subscription price increases would typically be handled. In most other cases, a customer is presented with options to either agree to the new, higher price or visit the subscriptions management page to cancel the service. If customers ignore this warning without clicking the “agree” button, the subscription is automatically canceled on their behalf.
The feature was first spotted when developers noticed Disney+ seemed to be informing them about a subscription price increase, but not requiring them to agree to the new pricing for the subscription to continue. While in this case, the price change was small, it’s easy to see how unscrupulous developers could potentially use such a feature to raise prices by much higher amounts without users’ awareness.
Apple’s developer documentation doesn’t reference this new option yet, but Apple confirmed that’s because it’s still in pilot testing. An Apple spokesperson said:
We are piloting a new commerce feature we plan to launch very soon. The pilot includes developers across various app categories, organization sizes, and regions to help test an upcoming enhancement that we believe will be great for both developers and users, and we’ll have more details to share in the coming weeks.
Apple didn’t offer more detail, so there are still a number of questions here — like how apps will qualify to use this commerce feature, who’s already in the pilot test group (raising their prices, perhaps unbeknownst to users), whether this has anything to do with the recent changes to “reader” apps and their ability to include external links, how Apple would police such a feature to ensure it was not used by bad actors and much more. The pilot also arrives at a time when Apple’s commission structure is under attack from lawmakers and regulators in global markets, with some countries allowing users to route around in-app payment systems. It’s interesting to note that this new commerce feature could serve as a means for Apple to retain users’ subscription commitments when prices fluctuate, rather than losing them to developers’ own payment systems. (Read my full story on TC here.)
Elon buys a chunk of Twitter
Was there any bigger story in the tech world this week than the news that infamous Twitter sh**poster Elon Musk bought himself $3 billion worth of Twitter’s stock? The deal saw the Telsa and SpaceX CEO become Twitter’s single largest individual shareholder, with a 9.2% stake in the company, and gained Musk an appointment on Twitter’s board — the latter further suggesting Musk’s intentions to influence Twitter’s future direction. Employees, rightfully, were concerned about what this meant for the company, given that Musk’s own values are often in conflict with Twitter’s own, particularly in areas like how social networks should approach content moderation. Twitter will hold a Town Hall to address employee questions, it said. (sarahp at techcrunch.com if anyone wants to share!)
Musk didn’t wait long to stir the pot, tweeting out a poll to users as to whether or not they wanted an Edit button on the site — a continual user request that Twitter, for years, has refused to honor due to the ramifications that a malleable public record would bring. But Twitter then confirmed such a feature was actually in the works as a tool for Twitter Blue subscribers.
The shakeup at Twitter (a company with a history of shakeups, in fact) comes shortly after Jack Dorsey stepped down as CEO to fully devote his time to Square, now called Block. His exit made then-CTO Parag Agrawal the new CEO. Agrawal had earlier been working on Project Bluesky — an effort to create a decentralized protocol for social networking, which would ultimately result in putting users more in charge of their online experience. This project dovetails with Musk’s interests in allowing people to speak freely on the platform, while dictating their own product experience through user-provided controls. And it fits in with the broader web3 initiative that, at its core, is about redistributing power on the web back to its users through decentralized platforms, not Big Tech-controlled portals. (Whether it’s actually achieving that, however…well, we’ll see.)
In taking the top spot, Agrawal inherited a list of lofty objectives, including Twitter’s plans to double revenue and reach 315 million daily users by 2023. But so far, Twitter’s plan to achieve its goals has been best described as a throw-a-bunch-of-spaghetti-at-the-wall approach to see what sticks. The company last fall said it would more rapidly roll out, test and then either advance or kill features based on user feedback and adoption. Already, Twitter killed its version of Stories (“Fleets”) as a result. But despite Twitter’s breakneck pace and speed to launch dozens of new features, ranging from live shopping to creator tools to NFT support to subscriptions and more, the company missed expectations on earnings, revenue and user growth in Q4 — its first earnings with Agrawal at the helm. It’s clear that even without Musk’s arrival, the road was going to be tough for the network that has, for so long, failed to significantly achieve user growth or revenue outside of ads.
Twitter, by way of its recent activities, has acknowledged that it’s time to get more experimental in product development. And yet so much of what it’s building now, outside of Spaces, are things that still see the tweet as the core user experience.
That’s almost funny, because this is a company that was early to ideas that are now defining the modern-day internet.
For instance, Twitter closed down its TikTok precursor, Vine, a home to short-form video content that now all social rivals (except Twitter!) are trying to reinvent. Twitter also shut down its dedicated app for live video, Periscope, just ahead of the mainstream adoption of live shopping services and the growth of the video-first creator economy. And over a half dozen years ago, Twitter killed a dedicated app for music discovery, (#Music), years before Musical.ly-turned-TikTok figured out how to smartly capitalize on the intersection between pop culture, music and social networking to create a product that now has massive influence over the Billboard charts, award winners and the music industry as a whole.
But instead of pursuing diverging paths, Twitter at its core has largely remained committed to its idea of a text-based social networking product that continues to reflect its original “public SMS” concept — a place where other forms of media are mere add-ons to the front-and-center tweet. Live video, for example, is now buried in the camera feature’s switcher and not often used by regular tweeters.
So maybe it was time to shake up Twitter with ideas that aren’t just about serving the existing users, like Twitter Blue or Super Follow, but those that would actually bring in new users. But maybe Elon Musk, a polarizing figure and Twitter troll with an obsessive fandom, isn’t the right person for that job. His experience doesn’t represent that of the everyday user, after all. And his involvement could distract the company from focusing on its current objectives — or even employees’ usual, day-to-day tasks.
Whatever may happen with Twitter in the months to come under Musk’s influence is entirely unpredictable. And whether or not Twitter will be better off for it — whether in terms of business objectives, product or user experience — is also an unknown. But one thing everyone can agree on is that the future of Twitter will certainly not be dull.
- Apple announced that WWDC would return again as an online-only event (“Call to Code”) running from June 6-10. However, the company noted it would also host a special day for developers and students at Apple Park on June 6 to watch the keynote and State of the Union videos together. Space for this event will be limited and details on how to apply to attend will be provided soon, Apple said. The company, for the third year, will support student developers through its Swift Student Challenge, as well.
- Apple released another commissioned report by Analysis Group which aimed to prove that Apple’s own apps account for a relatively small share of usage among iPhone users, even when they’re preinstalled. The company is under pressure from regulators who are investigating whether it’s using its platform and market power to give itself an unfair advantage over rivals. The data is meant to show it’s not. However, what a report like this doesn’t account for is the fact that Apple’s apps don’t have to win because Apple takes a commission on the revenue generated by its competitors’ businesses, as well.
- Apple released iOS 15.5 beta 1, alongside the first betas for iPadOS 15.5, watchOS 8.6 and macOS 12.4. The iOS beta now allows reader apps to display external links to redirect users to their websites for account management and added Apple Pay and Wallet updates, among other things. The beta also included references to “Apple Classical,” believed to be the upcoming classical music service resulting from Apple’s Primephonic acquisition.
- Following Google’s deadline to shift to its own billing systems, users found they could no longer buy e-books from Audible or Barnes & Noble’s Android apps.
- Google released the Android 12 QPR3 beta 2 for Pixel devices, which includes bug fixes and security updates ahead of the public release.
- Indian conglomerate Tata Group takes on Walmart-owned Flipkart, Amazon and Jio Platforms with the launch of its superapp Tata Neu, offering e-commerce, grocery and hotels in one app experience.
- Snapchat launched a new Lens that teaches users American Sign Language via fingerspelling. The company partnered with SignAll and is using computer vision and machine learning to recognize users’ hand gestures. The company also reached out to marketers with its “Generation Report” which talks about how different groups of users engage with its app.
- Robinhood said it will expand its crypto wallet to over 2 million users on its waitlist and will support transacting on the Bitcoin Lightning Network in the months to come.
- Venmo rival Zelle, backed by banks, may be expanding to retail stores, The WSJ reported. The move would put the money transfer service in direct competition with Mastercard and Visa.
- Block (formerly, Square) said its Cash App breach impacted 8.2 million users. Stolen info included the value of customer portfolios and stock trade details, names and brokerage account numbers, but didn’t involve the company’s payments system. SSNs and passwords and various other personally identifiable information were not accessed.
- A Piper Sandler survey found that Apple Pay has now surpassed Venmo and PayPal and teens’ favorite payment app.
- PayPal updated its credit card with 3% cashback on all PayPal purchases, online or off. The PayPal app was also updated with improved card management features.
- Social network Peanut launched a new offering called Peanut Pro that connects women with information from trusted experts, including doulas, psychologists, therapists, sex coaches and sleep consultants. The experts and other creators can make money from their work through a new in-app tipping feature.
- Facebook and Instagram are developing digital tokens and “creator coins” to help diversify the social giant’s income, The FT reported, noting that employees referred to these internally as “Zuck Bucks.”
- Neighborhood social network Nextdoor launched a new advertising offering in an expansion of its self-serve campaign management platform. The new Nextdoor Ads will help SMBs leverage the platform to reach local communities in the U.S.
- Some creators are reporting Instagram had dialed back on Reels payouts, per The FT. The direct payments for short videos are designed to help Instagram help compete with TikTok for creator talent, and have reportedly dropped by up to 70%, while the view threshold for getting paid is over 10x higher.
- TikTok launched a new program that will allow creative agencies to reach its audience. The new Creative Agency Partnerships (CAP) University program is designed to help creative agencies become “TikTok experts,” through a five-week course of live webinars beginning April 19.
- TikTok again delayed opening its first European data center in Dublin, saying the center won’t be online until next year. The center would store data for EU, EEA and U.K. users in the region. Currently, this data is held in Singapore or the U.S.
- Facebook said it would not hold its developer conference F8 this year as it’s now focused on new initiatives, like the metaverse.
- Pinterest announced it will ban all climate information on its platform, including both in posts and ads. The company said it was the first major digital platform to take this step.
- Meta added the ability for users to post to Facebook Reels from third-party apps, including from launch partners like Smule, Vita and VivaVideo.
- Koo, a rival to Twitter in India, announced it would allow users to self-verify using their government-approved ID cards. The option is aimed at improving conversation health and to curb trolling, spam and bots.
- A former ByteDance employee accused the company of scraping content from rivals like Instagram and Snapchat to make fake accounts on its video app, Flipagram, a TikTok predecessor.
- College-friendly social app BeReal has increased user growth 315% year-to-date, per Apptopia. The a16z-backed app pushes users to post just once per day and has seen 65% of its downloads take place in 2022.
- Adobe Creative Cloud Express added new features to its mobile and web apps, including a library of customizable basic shapes; a new Adobe Color integration for selecting from preset palettes and themes; new Quick Actions (Crop and Resize Video) on iOS; and more.
- U.S. record keepers, including the National Archives and Records Administration, said they’re worried that Wickr and other messaging apps offering auto-deletion help agencies, such as CBP, sidestep transparency requirements.
Streaming & Entertainment
@danieljmertzlufft “For You, Paige” #projectbroadway #musicaltheatre #foryoupaige #broadway @romanwbanks @sri @tiktok ♬ original sound – danieljmertzlufft
- TikTok funds its first original musical from the creative lead Daniel Mertzlufft, behind the user-led “Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical.” The show, “For You, Paige,” will livestream on the app on April 14 at 7 PM and will be performed live in NYC. The success follows “The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical,” which originated on TikTok and won a Grammy.
- Clubhouse added support for spatial audio. The company says the technology is a “great way to make conversations on the app feel more authentic.”
- Amazon said it’s increasing its Music Unlimited plan for Prime members on May 5. The plan price is going from $7.99 to $8.99 per month, or from $79 to $89 per year for Prime members The Single-Device plan, which only allows you to stream music from an Echo device or Fire TV, is going from $3.99 to $4.99 per month.
- Hulu added support for Apple’s SharePlay to its streaming app, following parent company Disney’s recent move to add SharePlay to ESPN+ and, as of late last year, Disney+.
- Spotify began testing a new “Featured Creators” feature that promotes popular user-created playlists in the app alongside its own. It also began testing a TikTok-like feed for music discovery.
- Fortnite maker Epic Games partnered with Lego to build a metaverse for children. The digital experience will allow children to play safely online. The company additionally announced the raise of $144 million for Ukraine relief efforts.
- Rovio’s Angry Birds Classic returned to the App Store with a new engine and no in-app purchases.
Travel & Transportation
- Uber this week announced it’s adding buses, planes and car rentals to its U.K. app through partnerships with other companies. Users will be able to purchase tickets in the app. If successful, the plan is to roll out similar “super app” functionality to more countries.
Productivity & Utilities
- Google launched “multisearch” for Google Lens, available in the Google app for iOS and Android. The feature allows users to use a combination of text along with photos and screenshots when searching the web.
- Google updated its Google Maps app with a number of new features, including the ability to get directions from Maps directly on the Apple Watch. Other updates included a new pinned trip widget and toll prices.
Government & Policy
- Apple returned a Putin opposition app to the App Store. The voting app was run by supporters of Putin critic Alexei Navalny, but was removed from the App Store and Google Play after Russia said it would prosecute local Apple and Google employees.
- South Korea said Google is not allowed to block developers from providing an in-app link to an outside website for purchasing digital goods under the country’s new app payments law. Google was preparing to enact its new digital billing policy requiring apps to use its own payments system.
- Taking aim at Russia, Twitter placed new limits on government accounts engaged in propaganda and censorship while at war. To meet Twitter’s threshold for limitations, a country’s censorship of online information must impact either the majority of its population or severely limit a smaller group of people within its borders. Twitter also banned state-linked accounts from sharing PoW imagery with abusive intent.
- Facebook and Instagram had censored hashtags related to Russian massacres of Ukrainian civilians, but later unblocked them after being called out by the press. Among the tags were #RussianWarCrimes, #Bucha and #BuchaMassacre.
Security & Privacy
- Google removed dozens of Android apps from the Play Store, totaling over 10 million installs, after researchers discovered the apps included data-harvesting software tied to U.S. national security contractors. The apps included Mulsim prayer apps, a speed-trap detection app, QR-code reading apps and others.
Apple’s undocumented rules around NFT apps were put to the test when a developer’s “NFT” app was found to be misleading users, according to Apple’s guidelines, since assets were published to a private ledger not a decentralized, public blockchain. Here’s how Apple is thinking about what sort of apps can use the term “NFT” and what will get them banned:
Funding and M&A
OpenPhone raised $40 million in Series B funding led by Tiger Global to replace employees’ “work phone” and office PBX with a mobile app. The system caters to the SMB market and gives users a dedicated work number and tools for communicating with colleagues and customers.
China-based fast fashion app Shein raised between $1-2 billion in a round closed last week, valuing the business at $100 billion. The deal makes Shein more valuable than H&M and Zara combined. PE firm General Atlantic participated in the round, which also included prior Shein investors Tiger Global Management and Sequoia Capital China.
Avi Medical, a maker of app-based telehealth services, raised €50 million in Series B funding led by Balderton Capital. The company pairs its telehealth service with physical clinics, as 70% of its customers still access healthcare through in-person appointments.
No-code mobile app development service Thunkable raised $30 million in Series B funding led by Owl Ventures. The startup announced it has passed 3 million users and 6 million apps developed.
VerSe Innovation, the parent company of news aggregator app Dailyhunt and short video app Josh, raised $805 million in a Series J round of funding led by Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPP Investments). The round values the company at nearly $5 billion.
Pokémon GO maker Niantic Labs announced the acquisition of creative AR studio NZXR, based in New Zealand. The startup will join Niantic to help with the design and development of real-world AR experiences.
Playhouse, an app that’s like Zillow meets TikTok for browsing home listings, raised $2.8 million in seed funding from Agya Ventures, Gaingels, Goodwater Capital, Nomo Ventures, PKO Investments and Y Combinator. Agents can also use the app to create content related to home-buying in general.
Fintech Gotrade, an app that lets international users buy fractional shares of U.S. stocks and ETFs, raised $15.5 million in Series A funding in a round led by Velocity Capital Fintech Ventures. To date, the company has transacted about $400 million across 5 million trades.
Epic Games’ RealityScan
Fortnite maker Epic Games this week introduced a new 3D scanning app called RealityScan that turns smartphone photos into high-fidelity 3D models. The app was developed in collaboration with Capturing Reality (creator of RealityCapture) and Quixel (creator of Megascans) wth the goal of allowing more creators and hobbyists to enter the world of 3D photogrammetry to bring real-world objects into virtual projects. The app will guide the user through the scanning experience via interactive feedback, AR guidance and data-quality checks. When scanning is complete, the assets can be exported to Sketchfab, a platform for publishing, sharing and selling 3D, VR and AR content. RealityScan is a free download via TestFlight for the first 10,000 users, then will release to Early Access this spring. Android will follow later in the year.