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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A new Senate bill could put an end to app stores’ dominance
A bipartisan group of three U.S. senators — Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) — introduced a new piece of legislation called the Open Markets Act, could change the way mobile software is distributed. The bill would give developers the right to tell their customers about lower prices outside the app stores (without fear of punishment), and permit alternative payment mechanisms, sideloading and third-party app stores where developers could avoid platform fees. It would also bar platform makers like Apple and Google from using non-public information they collect via app stores to build out competing products, or rank those products more favorably.
The bill is being applauded by Apple critics, including the Coalition for App Fairness and its members, Epic Games, Spotify, Tile and others, who are now urging Congress to swiftly pass the legislation to level the playing field.
As regulatory pressure on platform makers has intensified, the companies looked for ways to better cater to smaller developers with drops in commission rates, as well as increased privacy and security measures — the latter which could help boost their arguments that the app store model is favorable to consumer interests.
Such a bill is a notable first step toward some sort of market changes, but it’s still too early to know if or when the bill will gain traction, much less be passed into law.
Tech giants Google, YouTube and TikTok follow Instagram with increased protections for minors
Google and YouTube (as well as TikTok) this week rolled out a series of changes to their products and services to increase the privacy and security of accounts belonging to teenaged users under the age of 18. The specific changes vary a bit from service to service, but are largely focused on making younger people’s accounts more private by default, ensuring they’re making an intentional choice when shifting accounts or content to become public, and limiting to what extent advertisers can target them. TikTok went a bit further to restrict push notifications after “bedtime” hours for its teen users, while YouTube chose to turn on its “take a break” and “bedtime” reminders by default instead.
The changes follow similar moves announced just weeks ago by Instagram, and follow increased pressure from the U.S. Congress to do more to protect younger users from the harmful impacts of using technology.
One piece of legislation, which tech companies may be trying to get ahead of, is an update to COPPA that would expand some protections to children under the age of 18, instead of just under 13. What’s missing from all these initiatives, however, is any plan to more strictly verify children’s ages on an app. Since many kids already know to lie about their birth year at sign-up, it’s unclear how effective these measures will be in the long term.
Samsung Unpacked Wrap-Up
Samsung this week hosted its Unpacked event, where it debuted the company’s latest mobile products. This time, the smartphone maker showed off a new crop of foldables, including the Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Galaxy Z Flip 3 (clamshell, woo!), which will give app makers even more device styles and formats to consider when designing their apps. Well, if these foldables ever gain market traction that is, instead of existing in consumers’ minds as a gimmick. (For what it’s worth, Microsoft hopped on the bandwagon.)
Samsung also introduced a new smartwatch powered by Google’s WearOS (if you can’t beat ’em…), the Galaxy Watch 4, and entry-level wireless earbuds, the Galaxy Buds 2.
- Apple released the fifth betas of iOS 15 and iPadOS 15 to developers, which offer some more minor tweaks and stability improvements as the platforms head toward a fall release. New additions include an updated weather icon, shading around the tab interface in Safari on iPad, an option to use larger icons on iPad, a new warning pop-up that reminds you the iPhone is still findable when off, new splash screens for Apple’s apps, the integration of TestFlight info in the App Store and more.
- Apple released a new developer tool that allows app makers to test how their app behaves when the device is connected to 5G instead of Wi-Fi. The tool is necessary because iOS 15/iPadOS 15 devices can automatically prioritize 5G over Wi-Fi when the latter’s performance is slow.
- Apple settled a 2019 lawsuit with Corellium, a company that builds virtual iOS devices used by security researchers. Apple had said Corellium was infringing on its copyright, selling its product indiscriminately and compromising platform security. A judge dismissed Apple’s claims as “puzzling,” noting Corellium established “fair use.” The settlement terms were not disclosed.
- Apple’s Find My app in iOS 15 will use Bluetooth technology to precisely locate AirPods (Pro and Max) devices, and will tie AirPods to users’ Apple ID.
- Google launched Android 12 beta 4, whose biggest new feature is that the platform has now reached stability. Developers can now test apps before the public release, without having to worry about future breaking changes. Android 12 offers a big redesign, with a more personalized “Material You” design language and increased privacy protections.
- Google banned the location data firm SafeGraph, funded by a former head of Saudi intelligence, which was paying developers to include their data collection tools in their apps so they could resell the data to other companies or government agencies. Any apps working with SafeGraph will have to remove the code.
- DoorDash recently held talks to buy Instacart, according to a report from The Information. The $40 billion-$50 billion deal would have combined two top food delivery apps — one for restaurants, the other for groceries — but talks fell through.
- Weedmaps added in-app cannabis purchasing for iPhone users. Thanks to looser App Store restrictions, Weedmaps users can now browse, select and purchase cannabis and have it delivered or set for pickup directly within the app.
- Instagram is testing ads in its Shop tab, which allow brands to feature either an image or image carousel. The ads will launch with an auction-based model and will only appear on mobile devices.
- Snap hired a Facebook AR executive, Joe Darko, The Information reported. The new AR leader, who previously launched the Spark AR Partner Network at Facebook, will now oversee Snap’s AR Developer Relations.
- Venmo announced it would allow its credit card holders to automatically buy cryptocurrency with their card’s cashback, through a new feature called Cash Back to Crypto. Cardholders can select between Bitcoin, Ethereum, Litecoin and Bitcoin Cash, which will be purchased monthly with no transaction fees.
- Some Snap creators have left for other platforms as the company’s creator bonuses dried up, CNBC found. Snap had been paying $1 million per day in prize money for creators posting to its…