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This Week in Apps: Spotify debuts a Clubhouse rival, Facebook tests Audio Rooms in US, Amazon …

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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 we’re looking at more Clubhouse competitors, including Facebook’s first test of its Live Audio Rooms in the U.S. and Spotify’s launch of its Greenroom app for live discussions across an array of topics. Also, Amazon is reducing its Appstore fees, after similar moves by Apple and Google.

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Spotify launches its Clubhouse competitor

Image Credits: Spotify

In March, Spotify announced it was acquiring the company behind the sports-focused audio app Locker Room to help speed its entry into the live audio market. This week, the company made good on that deal with the launch of Spotify Greenroom, a new mobile app and likely Clubhouse rival, that allows Spotify users worldwide to join or host live audio rooms, and optionally turn those conversations into podcasts.

The Spotify Greenroom app itself is based on Locker Room’s existing code, with the earlier Locker Room app basically updating to become Greenroom. To join the new app, Spotify users sign in with their current Spotify account information. They’re then walked through an onboarding experience designed to connect them with their interests. Spotify considers the app a soft launch, as it has plans to announce shows later this summer. It’s also funding shows through a new Creator Fund, whose details have not yet been revealed at this time.

Longer-term, the company believes it will be able to take advantage of its personalization tech to make smart recommendations about live shows, based on what music or podcasts a user listens to, and could notify users when favorite creators go live.

The bigger advantage Spotify has here is that its Greenroom sessions are recorded. After a show wraps, the creator can request an audio file which they can then turn into a podcast episode. This ability to straddle both worlds of live and recorded audio could prove to be more useful as the post-COVID world opens up, and users are no longer stuck at home, bored, able to tune in at any time to audio programs.

Amazon lowers its cut of app developer revenues

Amazon this week quietly announced it would follow in the footsteps of app store giants Apple and Google with its introduction of the Amazon Appstore Small Business Accelerator Program. The new program will reduce the commissions Amazon takes on app developer revenues for qualifying smaller businesses. Previously, Amazon’s Appstore took a 30% cut of revenue, including that from in-app purchases. Now, it will take only 20% from developers who earned up to $1 million in the prior calendar year. The company also said developers with less than $1 million in Appstore revenue in a calendar year will receive 10% of their revenue as promotional credit for AWS services, bringing the total program benefits up to an equivalent of 90% of revenue.

The program’s overall structure is similar to Apple’s App Store Small Business Program, announced in late 2020, which reduced Apple’s cut to 15% for developers who earn up to a $1 million threshold, after which they’re moved to the higher 30% standard rate. This rate then continues as they enter the following year. Google, more recently, took a slightly different course, by lowering the commissions to 15% on the first $1 million of developer revenue earned through the Play billing system each year.

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The lack of attention to Amazon’s announcement, both in the developer community and by press, demonstrates how inconsequential Amazon’s own Appstore has become in the greater app ecosystem.

Platforms: Google

Android announced several new features which will roll out this summer, including starring text messages to easily find them later, getting contextual Emoji Kitchen suggestions depending on what you’re typing, as well as updates that emphasize security, safety and accessibility. The latter include updates to Google Assistant, Android Auto and Google’s Gaze detection feature.

A teardown of the newly released Google Play Services app (v.21.24.13) suggests Google is working on a “Find My Device” network that would allow Android users to locate your phone and other devices, similar to Apple’s “Find My.”

Google apps will return to Honor devices with the launch of the Honor 50 series devices. The company had not been able to ship Google apps, including the Play store, on its phones due to parent company Huawei’s placement on the U.S.’s entity list, which forced Google to pull its license. But Huawei sold off Honor last year, allowing it to work with Google again.

Google introduced AppSearch in Jetpack, which is now available in Alpha. AppSearch is an on-device search library that provides high-performance and feature-rich full-text search functionality, said Google, and lives completely on-device, allowing for offline search.

E-commerce/Marketplaces

Mobile-first marketplace OfferUp, which connects local buyers and sellers, hired a new CEO. The company brought on former Booking.com managing director Todd Dunlap as CEO, while co-founder and former CEO Nick Huzar will remain as chief product officer.

Social

After lawsuits, injuries and deaths, Snapchat finally removed its controversial “speed filter” which displays how fast a user was going at the time of posting. Critics argued the sticker encouraged reckless driving, as teens would try to post themselves traveling at excess speeds.

Snapchat launched Creative Kit for Spotlight, which will allow third-party apps to publish directly to Snap’s TikTok rival, Spotlight, similar to TikTok’s SDK. Early adopters include Videoleap, Beatleap by Lightricks, Splice, Powder and Pinata Farms.

ByteDance revenues more than doubled in the past year thanks to TikTok. According to an internal memo, ByteDance saw a 111% increase in revenues, to $34.3 billion, and a 93% increase in gross profit, to $19 billion in 2020.

Instagram’s TikTok rival, Reels, is rolling out ads worldwide. The ads will be up to 30 seconds in length, like Reels themselves, and vertical in format, similar to ads found in Instagram Stories. Also like Reels, the new ads will loop, and people will be able to like, comment on, and save them, the same as other Reels videos.

Twitter said it’s considering a new feature that would allow users to untag themselves from tweets, in order to control unwanted attention, like harassment and abuse. The feature could be useful when troll armies attack at scale before a user can block and report attacks or Twitter has a chance to respond.

Messaging

WhatsApp for iOS is making it easier for users to search for stickers. With a coming update, already live on TestFlight, users will be able to type a word or emoji and WhatsApp will animate the sticker button if a matching sticker is found.

Streaming & Entertainment

Image Credits: Apple

Apple Podcasts Subscriptions went live across more than 170 countries and regions this week. First unveiled this spring, subscriptions allow listeners to unlock additional benefits for their favorite podcasts, including things like ad-free listening, early access to new episodes, bonus material, exclusives or whatever else the podcast creator believes will be something their fans will pay for.

✨ Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg this week hosted the first test of Facebook’s Clubhouse competitor, Live Audio Rooms, in the U.S. The exec was joined by Facebook VP and Head of Facebook Reality Labs Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, Head of Facebook App Fidji Simo and three Facebook Gaming creators. It’s pretty incredible that Zuckerberg only months ago was appearing on Clubhouse to talk about the future of audio-based networking before essentially cloning the Clubhouse experience for Facebook’s own platform.

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Streaming app Deezer launched a new iOS app, Deezer for Creators, which allows musicians and podcasters to track trends, audience insights and more, similar to Spotify for Artists.

An app for pirated movies and TV that disguised itself as a Sudoku game climbed up the App Store charts this week, before being pulled by Apple. The app, Zoshy+, seems to have circumvented App Review by taking advantage of server-side controls.

In a change that represents a significant shift underway in the creators economy, TikTok signed on as creator conference VidCon’s title sponsor for 2021, taking the spot formerly held by YouTube. The latter will still be involved as a secondary sponsor.

Apple-owned music identification and discovery app Shazam announced this week it had surpassed 1 billion Shazams per month. The company noted it took 10 years for Shazam to reach its first billion tags. Less than 10 years after that, Shazam has crossed 1 billion monthly recognitions and has successfully matched over 50 billion tags with over 51 million songs. At WWDC, Apple announced its plans for Shazam’s future with the launch of ShazamKit, which brings Shazam’s audio identification capabilities to third-party apps.

Gaming

Popular mobile game PUBG Mobile returned to India after being banned more than nine months ago. The game was banned as part of the country’s decision to boot out over 200 apps with links to China due to national security concerns. The new game has been rebranded to Battlegrounds Mobile India, but is largely the same same as before, but “with data compliance, green blood, and a constant reminder that you’re in a ‘virtual world’ with such messaging present as you start a game and when you’re in menus,” said IGN India editor Rishi Alwani.

Pokémon Go creator Niantic is working with Hasbro on a new AR game. Transformers: Heavy Metal, is being built by Very Very Spaceship for Niantic, and is scheduled for a 2021 release. The company has around a dozen games in development, including a collaboration with Nintendo to adapt its Pikmin game, and a game based on the board game Settlers of Catan.

An upcoming Apple Arcade update will bring a new, special edition of Alto’s Odyssey, a new Angry Birds title called Angry Birds Reloaded and a remastered Doodle God Universe. The update will be the largest since April.

Amazon’s cross-platform cloud gaming service Luna will open up priority access during Prime Day, June 21-22, meaning all Prime members will be able to access the service without an invite.

Mobile users worldwide downloaded 30% more games in the first quarter of 2021 than in the fourth quarter of 2019, and spent a record-breaking $1.7 billion per week in mobile games in Q1 2021, up 40% from pre-pandemic levels, per a new App Annie/IDC report.

Image Credits: App Annie

Productivity

An email that surfaced during the Epic trial discussed the issue of Apple’s Files app ranking first when users searched for a competitor’s app, Dropbox, for 11 months. The app had been manually boosted, the emails seemed to reveal. But Apple this week stated the issue was due to the Files app having a Dropbox integration. Apple put Dropbox in the metadata, causing it to rank higher — an explanation that doesn’t match up with the internal emails.

Home Automation

Third-party Alexa devices can now incorporate setup for their products in the Alexa app, thanks to an update to Alexa Voice Services.

Although Samsung’s SmartThings is no longer making its own smart home hardware, the company this week launched a new SmartThings mobile app on Android, which aims to make it simpler to get to actions and automations. The app includes a new Favorites section to replace the existing home screen, a Life section where users can explore new SmartThings services, plus pages for Devices, Automations and a Menu. The iPhone version will arrive soon.

An update to the Wyze mobile app added support for Google Home and Google Assistant, allowing users to control smart home devices with voice commands.

Government & Policy

A report published this week by U.S. advocacy group Fight for the Future and China-based GreatFire highlighted government censorship of LGBTQ+ apps around the world, due to government restrictions. It documented 1,377 cases of app access restrictions across 152 App Stores. However, the study contained several inaccuracies, Apple pointed out. For example, Grindr and Scruff are both available worldwide in the App Store, despite what the report said. Also, none of the 27 apps mentioned in the report with regard to China had been removed by Apple. Of the total 64 apps monitored, only four had been removed by a particular country because of legal issues.

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Security & Privacy

A security bug in Google’s Android app, installed over 5 billion times, could have allowed attackers to steal personal data from a user’s device. Google says it fixed the vulnerability last month and found no evidence it had ever been exploited.

💰 Messaging social network IRL raised $170 million in a Series C round led by SoftBank’s Vision Fund 2, valuing the social events calendar and group chat app at $1.17 billion. New investor Dragoneer also participated in the oversubscribed round, alongside returning investors Goodwater Capital, Founders Fund and Floodgate. To date, IRL has raised over $200 million.

🤝 Delivery service Gopuff, which is available on web and mobile, acquired fleet management platform rideOS for $115 million. This acquisition comes a few months after the delivery startup announced a $1.15 billion funding round at a $8.9 billion valuation.

🤝 Spotify acquired Podz, a podcast delivery platform focused on solving issues around podcast discovery. Podz has been using machine learning to choose clips that can help introduce shows to new listeners. The startup had raised $2.5 million in pre-seed funding ahead of its acquisition. Deal terms weren’t disclosed.

📈  PUBG Mobile maker Krafton is preparing to raise $5 billion in a South Korean IPO, expected to be the country’s largest ever. The company will sell more than 10 million shares at 458,000 won to 557,000 won apiece, a filing said. It will finalize the price July 9 and list on July 22.

💰 Mobile banking app Novo, which targets an SMB customer base, raised $40.7 million in Series A funding, after growing its user base to 100,000 businesses.

💰 Mobile banking app FamPay, aimed at Indian teens, raised $38 million in Series A funding. Investors include Elevation Capital, General Catalyst, Rocketship VC, Greenoaks Capital, and others, and makes for one of India’s largest Series A rounds to date.

💰 Apna, a jobs app built by an Apple alum, raised $70 million in Series B funding co-led by Insight Partners and Tiger Global, valuing the business at $570 million. The app aims to help blue and gray-collar workers upskill themselves, find communities, and land jobs.

🤝 WordPress.com owner Automattic acquired popular journaling app Day One. The app has been downloaded more than 15 million times since its March 2011 launch on the Mac and iTunes App Store, offering users a private place to share their thoughts. Since then, it’s been awarded the App Store Editor’s Choice, App of the Year and the Apple Design Award, along with praise from various reviewers. Deal terms were not disclosed. Day One had been bootstrapped and self-funded for 10 years. The app will further integrate with other Automattic-owned writing platforms, including WordPress.com and Tumblr.

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Facebook Adds New Trend Insights in Creator Studio, Which Could Help Shape Your Posting Strategy

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Facebook’s looking to provide more content insight within Creator Studio with the rollout of a new ‘Inspiration Hub’ element, which highlights trending content and hashtags within categories related to your business Page.

Facebook Inspiration Hub

As you can see in these screenshots, posted by social media expert Matt Navarra, when it becomes available to you, you’ll be able to access the new Inspiration Hub from the Home tab in Creator Studio.

At the right side of the screen, you can see the first of the new insights, with trending hashtags and videos from the last 24 hours, posted by Pages similar to yours, displayed above a ‘See more’ prompt.

When you tap through to the new hub, you’ll have a range of additional filters to check out trending content from across Facebook, including Page category, content type, region, and more.

Facebook Inspiration Hub

That could be hugely valuable in learning what Facebook users are responding to, and what people within your target market are engaging with in the app.

The Hub also includes insights into trending hashtags, within your chosen timeframe, which may further assist in tapping into trending discussions.

Facebook Inspiration Hub

How valuable hashtags are on Facebook is still up for debate, but you’ll also note that you can filter the displayed results by platform, so you can additionally display Instagram hashtag trends as well, which could be very valuable in maximizing your reach.

Much of this type of info has been available within CrowdTangle, Facebook’s analytics platform for journalists, for some time, but not everyone can access CrowdTangle data, which could make this an even more valuable proposition for many marketers.

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Of course, overall performance really relates to your own creative, and thinking through the action that you want your audience to take when reading your posts. But in terms of detecting new content trends, including hashtag usage, caption length, videos versus image posts, and more, there’s a lot that could be gleaned from these tools and filters.

It’s a significant analytics addition – we’ve asked Facebook for more info on the rollout of the new option, and whether it’s already beyond test mode, etc. We’ll update this post if/when we hear back.

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Meta Updates Policy on Cryptocurrency Ads, Opening the Door to More Crypto Promotions in its Apps

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With cryptocurrencies gaining momentum, in line with the broader Web 3.0 push, Meta has today announced an update to its ad policies around cryptocurrencies, which will open the door to more crypto advertisers on its platforms.

As per Meta:

Starting today, we’re updating our eligibility criteria for running ads about cryptocurrency on our platform by expanding the number of regulatory licenses we accept from three to 27. We are also making the list of eligible licenses publicly available on our policy page.”

Essentially, in order to run any crypto ads in Meta’s apps, that currency needs to adhere to regional licensing provisions, which vary by nation. With crypto becoming more accepted, Meta’s now looking to enable more crypto companies to publish ads on its platform, which will provide expanded opportunity for recognized crypto providers to promote their products, while also enabling Meta to make more money from crypto ads.

“Previously, advertisers could submit an application and include information such as any licenses they obtained, whether they are traded on a public stock exchange, and other relevant public background on their business. However, over the years the cryptocurrency landscape has matured and stabilized and experienced an increase in government regulation, which has helped to set clearer responsibilities and expectations for the industry. Going forward, we will be moving away from using a variety of signals to confirm eligibility and instead requiring one of these 27 licenses.”

Is that a good move? Well, as Meta notes, the crypto marketplace is maturing, and there’s now much wider recognition of cryptocurrencies as a legitimate form of payment. But they’re also not supported by most local financial regulators, which reduced transaction protection and oversight, which also brings a level of risk in such process.

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But then again, all crypto providers are required to clearly outline any such risks, and most also highlight the ongoing market volatility in the space. This expanded level of overall transparency means that most people who are investing in crypto have at least some awareness of these elements, which likely does diminish the risk factor in such promotions within Meta’s apps.

But as crypto adoption continues to expand, more of these risks will become apparent, and while much of the crypto community is built on good faith, and a sense of community around building something new, there are questions as to how much that can hold at scale, and what that will then mean for evolving scams and criminal activity, especially as more vulnerable investors are brought into the mix.

Broader promotional capacity through Meta’s apps will certainly help to boost exposure in this respect – though again, the relative risk factors are lessened by expanded regulatory oversight outside of the company.

You can read more about Meta’s expanded crypto ad regulations here.

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Meta Outlines Evolving Safety Measures in Messaging as it Seeks to Allay Fears Around the Expansion of E2E Encryption

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Amid rising concern about Meta’s move to roll out end-to-end encryption by default to all of its messaging apps, Meta’s Global Head of Safety Antigone Davis has today sought to provide a level of reassurance that Meta is indeed aware of the risks and dangers that such protection can pose, and that it is building safeguards into its processes to protect against potential misuse.

Though the measures outlined don’t exactly address all the issues raised by analysts and safety groups around the world.

As a quick recap, back in 2019, Facebook announced its plan to merge the messaging functionalities of Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp, which would then provide users with a universal inbox, with all of your message threads from each app accessible on either platform.

The idea is that this will simplify cross-connection, while also opening the door to more opportunities for brands to connect with users in the messaging tool of their choice – but it also, inherently, means that the data protection method for its messaging tools must rise to the level of WhatsApp, its most secure messaging platform, which already includes E2E encryption as the default.

Various child safety experts raised the alarm, and several months after Facebook’s initial announcement, representatives from the UK, US and Australian Governments sent an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg requesting that the company abandon its integration plan.

Meta has pushed ahead, despite specific concerns that the expansion of encryption will see its messaging tools used by child trafficking and exploitation groups, and now, as it closes in on the next stage, Meta’s working to counter such claims, with Davis outlining six key elements which she believes will ensure safety within this push.

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Davis has explained the various measures that Meta has added on this front, including:

  • Detection tools to stop adults from repeatedly setting up new profiles in an attempt to connect minors that they don’t know
  • Safety notices in Messenger, which provide tips on spotting suspicious behavior
  • The capacity to filter messages with selected keywords on Instagram
  • More filtering options in chat requests to help avoid unwanted contact
  • Improved education prompts to help detect spammers and scammers in messages
  • New processes to make it easier to report potential harm, including an option to select “involves a child”, which will then prioritize the report for review and action

Meta messaging security options

Which are all good, all important steps in detection, while Davis also notes that its reporting process “decrypts portions of the conversation that were previously encrypted and unavailable to us so that we can take immediate action if violations are detected”.

That’ll no doubt raise an eyebrow or two among WhatsApp users – but the problem here is that, overall, the broader concern is that such protections will facilitate usage by criminal groups, and the reliance on self-reporting in this respect is not going to have any impact on these networks operating, at scale, under a more protected messaging framework within Meta’s app eco-system.

Governments have called for ‘backdoor access’ to break Meta’s encryption for investigations into such activity, which Meta says is both not possible and will not be built into its future framework. The elements outlined by Davis do little to address this specific need, and without the capacity to better detect such, it’s hard to see any of the groups opposed to Meta’s expanded encryption changing their stance, and accepting that the merging of all of the platform’s DM options will not also see a rise in criminal activity organized via the same apps.

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Of course, the counterargument could be that encryption is already available on WhatsApp, and that criminal activity of this type can already be undertaken within WhatsApp alone. But with a combined user count of 3.58 billion people per month across its family of apps, that’s a significantly broader interconnection of people than WhatsApp’s 2 billion active users, which, arguably, could open the door to far more potential harm and danger in this respect.

Really, there’s no right answer here. Privacy advocates will argue that encryption should be the standard, and that more people are actually more protected, on balance, by enhanced security measures. But there is also an undeniable risk in shielding even more criminal groups from detection.

Either way, right now, Meta seems determined to push ahead with the plan, which will weld all of its messaging tools together, and also make it more difficult to break-up its network, if any antitrust decisions don’t go Meta’s way, and it’s potentially pressed to sell-off Instagram or WhatsApp as a result.

But expect more debate to be had, in more countries, as Meta continues to justify its decision, and regulatory and law enforcement groups seek more options to help maintain a level of accessibility for criminal investigations and detection.

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