The ride-hailing and on-demand food delivery giant has published a white paper today in which it lobbies European policymakers for what it couches as a “new standard” for platform work.
In the paper Uber talks of the need to expand some benefits to gig workers — seeking to eschew the nightmare scenario (for Uber) of having to fund the full suite of employment rights if its drivers and riders were reclassified as workers/employees.
It’s also trying to steer policy discussion away from issue of collective bargaining — with the paper floating the notion that app workers need more “meaningful” representation, which they say is needed to reflect varying (aka individualized) needs, and suggest could be achieved via a variety of channels of ongoing engagement between platform and worker.
Uber’s white paper is framed with the title: “A Better Deal”. And the ride-hailing giant is unquestionably after the best possible deal for its business as lawmakers look at whether new laws are needed to ensure a fairer deal for app-based workers.
The question EU lawmakers will need to pay close attention to in the coming months is exactly what kind of deal platforms workers are getting and, as they dig into the detail underlying tech giants’ PR, whether and how to create a legislative framework that improves conditions for armies of “contractors” without undermining the much vaunted European social contract.
Uber has said it will push for a California style “Prop 22” outcome globally — after successfully defeating a law to reclassify gig workers in its own backyard last year.
But the legal and social context is very different in Europe, where many platforms have faced litigation on the issue of employment classification and courts have frequently found in workers’ favor.
On Friday Uber faces perhaps its biggest regional court test yet when the U.K. Supreme Court is expected to hand down its verdict on a long-running challenge by a group of former Uber drivers to its classification of them as self-employed. (The U.K. is now outside the EU but the outcome of the case is nonetheless likely to influence courts across the region.)
Greater clarification and enforcement of existing employment laws could be a way for policymakers in Europe to clamp down on platform giants that, critics say, have used self-serving classifications of algorithmic micromanagement as a high-tech hack of the legal system to profit at the expense of society (in lost tax revenue) and off the labor of individual workers deprived of stable employment (and its associated rights).
At the same time, increasing consolidation in the on-demand space is concentrating the power of gig giants. So how can platform workers expect “meaningful” representation or “improved” conditions when a handful of mega platforms are busy closing off the possibility of something better by assimilating the competition — unless there’s a legislative intervention to protect them?
In a blog post accompanying Uber’s white paper today, CEO Dara Khosrowshahi reiterates the tech giant’s preferred “new standard” for gig worker rights should be “grounded in the principles drivers and couriers say are most important to them: Flexibility and control over when and where they want to work, earning a decent wage, access to relevant benefits and protections, and meaningful representation”.
“To make a real difference, reform must also be industry-wide, requiring all platform companies to offer benefits and protections that are standardised across the sector, so that workers are protected no matter which apps they use,” Khosrowshahi goes on.
A universal standard for platform benefits may sound progressive, but the notion of “relevant” benefits for gig workers risks fixing this labor force to a floor far below agreed standards for employment — closing off any chance of a better deal for a class of workers who are subject to persistent, algorithmic management.
Such an industry-wide standard may also kill the imperative for gig platforms to compete with each other by offering workers a better deal. So policymakers need to tread carefully to avoid cementing a bad deal for workers they claim they want to help.
Uber’s white paper is pushing for some key principles at this point, rather than delineating a detailed “deal” model for workers — which the company says would need to be developed in consultation with stakeholders.
It also says it recognizes that platforms are likely to remain subject to a patchwork of national rules across the EU. And even if the Commission opts to legislate it would be years before such laws take effect — so case law will remain hugely important. But Uber is evidently keen to try to steer any overarching EU guidance which might exert top-down pressure on how Member States approach and apply policy in the area of gig work.
Platform giants have long sought to frame employment classification as a question of “flexibility vs benefits” — claiming workers value flexibility (which they define as meaning “the ability to choose when to work”) above all else, even as they apply datafication and tracking to manage individuals’ service delivery via high-tech micromanagement of a non-employed labor force.
Thing is: Sure you can log on to such a platform to work “when you choose” but without legal protections such as a mandatory minimum wage there’s no guarantee that gig work “flexibility” will sum to a livable income for the individual. Which in turn means platform workers may not have de facto flexibility/freedom to choose when and how they work — unless they have other income to rely on.
The platforms are therefore often pushing a paradoxical defence of a business model that critics accuse of being abusive by design — with critical unions dubbing it exploitative and extractive of human labor, accusing platforms of circumventing the social contract and stability offered by traditional employment.
In a section of Uber’s white paper that argues why “employment is not the answer for platform workers” the tech giant points on cue to “flexibility” — saying its model means that “drivers can connect freely to meet that demand or choose a quieter time of day if they wish”. Yet people who need to earn a living may not be able to “choose” a quieter time of day if they’re being paid by the job, since doing so would reduce their earnings, so how much flexibility (or pay decency) does Uber really offer?
(Related: The large sums of money many of these gig giants have spent on trying to accelerate the development of automation technologies; ergo, money they save on not paying employment-linked taxes is being ploughed into trying to replace human workers entirely. So where’s the dignity in that?)
Decision time for the gig economy
In her December 2019 mission letter to the job commissioner, the European Commission president Ursula Von der Leyen tasked Nicolas Schmit with looking at “ways to improve the labour conditions of platform workers” — including by ensuring that enforcement of current laws is working — writing that: “Dignified, transparent and predictable working conditions are essential to our economic model.”
Soon after Schmit got his instructions, he sounded a balanced tone on the contentious issue of platform (profits) versus worker (rights), telling Euroactiv that he’s “not against platforms”, and sees them as “part of our new economy” — arguing too that it’s “important for Europe, not to lose the edge with this economy”.
But he also warned that the bloc must not allow high-tech tools to be used to embed a new “underprivileged” worker underclass, saying: “We cannot have the economy of the 21st century with working conditions that are more comparable to those in the 19th century.”
Quite how the Commission will square the circle of “improving” precarious platform work in policy terms remains to be seen. But the imperative for it to do good work here has only increased since Von der Leyen issued the instruction: The coronavirus pandemic has shone an excoriating spotlight on the risks — individual and societal — of the lack of a proper social safety net for platform workers, even as on-demand platform work (especially in areas like food and grocery delivery) has been fired up as a side effect of COVID-19.
Uber’s white paper riffs on the theme of the pandemic and the need for platform businesses to “go further” in supporting workers — aka “to ensure independent workers have access to benefits and protections when they need them most”, as it puts it — even as it lobbies against providing all the rights and benefits of employment.
“It makes sense for them to be pushing for a minimum standard of benefits,” says Joe Aiston, senior associate in the employment group at international law firm Taylor Wessing, discussing Uber lobbying for a “new standard” for gig work in the white paper. “As sort of appropriate minimums/protections. And perhaps things which are easier to give without significant disruption to the business model.
“Whereas having to reclassify everyone as employees or as workers would involve quite significant disruption to the business model — and is obviously going to result in significant extra cost for them as a business. Both from the point of view of things like minimum wage and holiday pay, but also the potential knock-on effect from a tax perspective as well.”
And whilst analysis of worker status does not automatically make those people employees for tax purposes, Aiston says tests are “pretty similar”. Hence litigation over employment classification presents a clear risk to Uber’s tax status — and thus to its (potential) profitability.
On the issue of how to improve gig work, the European Commission has been gathering evidence as it works toward determining how best to proceed — including holding a conference on platform work last September. But big decisions are looming for EU lawmakers this year.
Later this month the Commission will launch a formal consultation of workers’ and employers’ representatives. And Uber’s white paper is clearly targeted at that process so we’re likely to see a number of self-interested attempts to influence platform working condition “improvements” kick off in earnest.
Exactly what will be in play, policy wise, isn’t yet clear. But, last March, the Commission published a 285-page study in which it said the “main” challenges identified vis-à-vis the working conditions of platform workers include: Employment status; information available to the workers about their working conditions; dispute resolution; collective rights and non-discrimination. (So pretty much a full house, then.)
Dig into the actual study and it also discusses low remuneration and insecure income in plenty of detail and as “significant stressors” for platform workers.
Pay certainly looks set to be a significant area of discussion/contention — not least because another of Von der Leyen’s instructions to Schmit asked him to put forward a legal instrument “to ensure that every worker in our Union has a fair minimum wage”.
It’s a common criticism of platform work that earnings may fall below the legal minimum for a worker (as pay by gig jobs typically only generate earnings during a job or on completion of a delivery, not for all the down time spent waiting to score a gig or pick up the goods). So if the EU’s fair minimum wage for “every worker” ends up meaning “except platform workers” that will sum to the Commission rubberstamping a tech-enabled “underprivileged” worker class — just as Schmit said it mustn’t.
Uber’s approach to the issue of pay in its white paper sidesteps the minimum wage issue by talking only of “fair and transparent earnings” (or “decent” pay) for platform workers.
The tech giant also says it’s “ready to lead the industry by advocating for changes to the way platform workers are paid” — though it makes it clear it won’t budge on remuneration without the sought for industry-wide enabling framework (“for flexible earning opportunities, with industry-wide benefits and protections that all platform companies must offer independent workers”).
“This could include universal standards, such as the Proposition 22 legislation recently introduced in California. Or it could be based on a European model of social dialogue, where platform workers, policy-makers and industry representatives work together to set earning principles for the industry,” Uber suggests.
“For example, in Italy the food delivery industry and the General Labour Union signed an agreement confirming the self employed status of couriers while requiring the industry to provide working standards for couriers, including provisions about earnings, injury, third-party insurance and training.”
“Critically, whatever the earning model, it must be based on an industry-wide level playing field to ensure all independent workers have a consistent earnings baseline, whichever platform they choose to work with,” Uber adds.
Clearly, then, the stakes are high all round on this one: For gig workers’ rights; for platform giants’ profits; and for EU lawmakers’ credibility in claiming a socially progressive agenda.
Although it’s not 100% certain the bloc will come with legislation at this point, either. A Commission spokeswoman suggested policymaking could be off the table if platforms and workers can come to a consensus agreement over what “better” precarious work looks like. (But, yeah, good luck with that.)
The formal consultation of “social partners” that’s set to kick off later this month will consist of two stages, per the Commission spokeswoman.
“The first stage seeks their views on the need of a possible EU initiative to improve the working conditions of people working through platforms. In the second stage, they will be consulted on the possible content of such an initiative,” she said, noting that the Commission will “carefully assess social partners’ replies”.
“Provided social partners do not decide to negotiate an agreement among themselves, the Commission intends to put forward a legislative initiative by the end of 2021,” she added.
The spokeswoman confirmed that the policy areas where challenges had been identified — and where “improvements may be needed” — include “precarious working conditions, transparency and predictability of contractual arrangements, health and safety challenges and adequate access to social protection”.
Asked to confirm whether “precarious working conditions” includes low and unstable remuneration she declined to specify, saying: “I’m afraid the [aforementioned list] is as far as we can go regarding the initiative at this stage.”
Among a number of policy considerations summarized at the end of the Commission-instigated study into gig worker conditions is the statement that employment status remains a core challenge.
“Some platforms seem to operate at the margins between self-employed and employee, adjusting practices to maximise control over platform workers without unequivocally assuming the role of employers,” the report observes, noting the discrepancy between the (plodding) pace of case law clarifying where the employment classification line lies and the “fast-changing business practices characterising platform work”.
“Unless Member States widen the concept of employee or introduce a rebuttable presumption on the employment status of platform workers [through legislation or case law], platforms are likely to continue or expand their reliance on labour from self-employed individuals,” it continues.
“Reclassification of individual cases may happen on the basis of EU law or on national legislation, but it is unlikely that this will drastically reverse the main trend.”
“Actions aimed at protecting self-employed platform workers who are economically dependent on the platforms to ensure some minimum standards as to their ‘working conditions’ seem advisable,” the report also adds — while an associated “policy implication” suggests that the EU and Member States “should consider clarifying which platform practices are incompatible with self-employment for platform workers”.
Clarification of self-employment tests — or of practices that should fail the test — is one way for pan-EU policymakers to move. Though, again, it remains to be seen which ideas the Commission will choose to champion as it takes more feedback on the gig economy.
On the employment classification case law front, a major decision is looming in the U.K. in relation to Uber’s ride-hailing business. A 2016 employment tribunal challenge to Uber’s classification drivers as self employed is headed for a final judgement on Friday — when the U.K. Supreme Court is expected to deliver its verdict on a case that has seen Uber lose a number of appeals over the last five years.
The Supreme Court ruling will likely have ramifications for the ~45,000 drivers who Uber says operate on its platform in London — and likely more widely across the U.K.
It could also ripple out beyond that, given the active attention now being paid to improving the lot of gig workers by EU policymakers.
Last year a French court of last resort ruled that a former Uber driver should have been considered an employee instead of a self-employed partner. It found there was a relationship of subordination between the company and the driver — flagging issues such as the inability of drivers to set prices; build their own customer base; or choose how to execute a task. “The driver participates in a managed transportation service and Uber unilaterally defines the operating terms,” it wrote.
However, Uber denied the case set a precedent while also claiming to have made a number of changes to how its platform operates since the challenge was lodged in 2017 — suggesting drivers have been given more control over how they use Uber and now have greater “stronger social protections” (such as free accident insurance).
The case underlines the difficulties of relying on complaint-based case law to shape coherent outcomes for platform workers, plural.
The length of time such challenges take to reach a final outcome also give the platforms plenty of time to reconfigure their operations so they can at least try to claim specific findings no longer apply.
So legislation may indeed be required to lock in improvements for the conditions of gig workers.
“It’s true to say that things can change — so if Uber, following [the Supreme Court] decision materially change how the business model works then it’s possible they could then bring the drivers outside of the definition again,” says Aiston, although he points out the required changes in that context may, as it turns out, not be “acceptable” to Uber.
“We’ll have to wait to see what the variables the Supreme Court decides push it one way or the other but they would have to make a determination as to whether it works in the context of their business model to make such potentially significant changes to how things work,” he goes on, adding: “I suspect that they may already have been putting in place changes to how the business model works — perhaps to prepare for the judgement.
“So I guess the point there is the case law is so context-specific that that’s an argument to say that actually legislation and specific definitions are key rather than perhaps relying on very specific case law.”
The Commission’s study also notes a number of challenges holding back policymaking in this area — even things as basic as clearly defining platform work; or gathering sufficiently comprehensive data to inform evidence-based policymaking.
“Once someone is classified as a worker, rather than an independent contractor, then that does potentially increased their ability and right to collectively bargain — so it’s another potential knock on effect should the Supreme Court decision go against Uber,” adds Aiston. “It might lead to the potential for a greater ability for their drivers/riders to collectively bargain so that will be something the relevant unions are looking out for keenly as well.”
Attempts to regulate and legislate are, meanwhile, in train in Europe at a national level. Such as in Spain where the government has sought for several years to crack down on platforms using so called “falsos autonomos” (aka falsely self-employed workers), and is in the process of reforming labor laws to reflect and capture platform work.
That national labor reform process could result in platforms being required to hire delivery workers, per recent reports — and such moves give platform giants added incentive to lobby the Commission for “more flexible” pan-EU rules which may at least limit how far national law can travel to influence rules on the grounds elsewhere in the bloc (so limit potential damage to their business model).
The U.K. government has also suggested legislation is coming. It conducted a major review of modern working practices back in 2017 — which included looking at gig work. And among the Taylor Review’s recommendations was that the current (U.K.) legal classification of “worker” should be updated to better reflect gig work — with the report suggesting “dependent contractor” would be a more appropriate framing now — and also that greater focus should be paid to the control exercised over workers by platforms.
The review led to a government plan to bolster worker rights, as it was billed with much fanfare. However, the “Good Work Plan” reform package unveiled at the end of 2018 was instantly dismissed as weak and lacking substance by labor unions (versus the government trumpeting it as a massive expansion of workers rights). Not that it seems to have done much to address gig work specifically, as yet.
A commitment by the U.K. government as part of that plan in 2018 by the U.K. government to legislate to improve the clarity of employment status tests — in order to “reflect the reality of the modern working relationships” — has not amounted to anything yet.
The planned legislation may have been delayed as a result of the pandemic. Aiston suggests it’s also possible the government is waiting for the Supreme Court judgement in the Uber tribunal case to inform its policy thinking. So for all Uber’s slick regional PR push to influence policymaking, it may have relatively little say in the matter versus European case law and the court of public opinion.
“If the Supreme Court judgement does against [Uber] in the sense that the drivers were workers I think that’s probably going to make things at least a bit more difficult for them. Because in the UK at least they’re going to have decide that well either we accept that all drivers are workers or — depending on reasons given for the judgement — can we adjust our business model to bring it away from that analysis,” says Aiston.
“They may be keen to do the latter, on the basis that they are obviously keen to keep people being self-employed rather than workers but I guess from a PR perspective that might not look great for them to do that. Once a judgement has been made that they are workers, one view is that you just need to accept that now and move on and acknowledge that they have those rights.”
He points to examples of gig economy companies trying to “pre-empt or negate” the risk of reclassification of “self-employed” contractors as workers by putting in place benefits packages — such as Uber offering free or low cost insurances to drivers and riders in Europe — “to show that they are a ‘good’ company and they want to look after people”.
Such efforts fall short of the suite of rights reclassified platform workers could get so there’s more movement that could happen here — and may have to in order to keep the travelling public on side.
“They tend not to go to the extreme and say well we’ll acknowledge that they’re workers and therefore they’re entitled to minimum wage and their rest breaks and that kind of thing. So it’s something to look out for as well with these gig economy businesses,” Aiston suggests. “I think it will become more competitive from that perspective.
“Whether or not they acknowledge that people are workers is one thing but I think you can see a definite move towards gig economy businesses realizing that they have a duty to look after people… Obviously that serves a dual purpose of people getting some benefits but also it being a positive thing from a PR perspective and the point of view of the public view of these companies.”
It’s also worth noting that U.K. employment law is more nuanced than some national employment law — as it does already recognize the concept of a “worker” (i.e. not an employee and not self-employed) — while Aiston notes some other European countries (and also the U.S.) have a more limited set of classifications (i.e. employed versus self employed).
“European courts will look to things like the Supreme Court decision in the UK. And whilst they’re not bound by that decision you can imagine that the way that this swings will have at least some kind of knock-on effect to how any similar judgements are taken across Europe,” he suggests. “The interesting thing to bear in mind is that in the UK we have this middle classification of a worker. Whereas in most European countries you’re either self employed, a contractor or an employee. So there’s a bigger dichotomy elsewhere in Europe.”
“In a way the UK’s in a better position because we have this middle ground. And some people might say that has made the UK courts be in a position more easily to reclassify — assuming that the Supreme Court goes the same was as the court of appeal did [in the Uber employment tribunal case], which was to state that these drivers were in fact workers. So it’s important to note there’s a difference there,” he adds.
“In the UK you can understand why it has perhaps been a bit more easy for a court to make a decision that the driver should fit within this middle category where they attract some protections but not all of them.”
If EU policymakers were to decide to create a pan-EU standard akin to “worker” that would present a huge opportunity/risk for Uber et al. — with the chance to influence key parameters in their interests as a means of reducing the threat employment litigation poses to their core business model (and staving off a larger tax bill).
Though there will clearly be costs involved in an expansion of the level of protection offered to gig workers. The question for tech giants would be how much they can shrink those costs — aka what’s the bare minimum in “relevant” standards they can sell across Europe?
Alternatively, EU lawmakers could seek to stipulate and enforce a list of “dos and don’ts” for platforms vis-à-vis workers — as a way to establish appropriately “fair” operational employment limits — which in turn might have the potential to be disruptive to the business model of on-demand giants whose profits (often still theoretical at this point) depend on access to plentiful, low cost labor supplied by lots of people they claim not to employ.
Setting a list of specific operational requirements for platforms is exactly what the Commission has proposed in an overarching platform regulation that EU lawmakers set out in December (the Digital Markets Act) — in that case aimed at intermediating platforms which have the most market power to push for fair dealing with other businesses (and foster digital competition).
Something similar for gig platforms that aims to ensure a fair deal for workers is at least conceivable.
It would surely be preferable to Uber et al. versus being legally required to put hundreds of thousands of on-demand workers on the payroll. But it would also put an end to the free ride these giants used to scale in the first place.
So it may not be the end of the road for the platform economy in Europe but a period of considerable adjustment looks inevitable — and business models will need to adapt to changing (and/or better enforced) employment laws.
Aiston says organisations will have to weigh up the pros and cons of adjusting their business models — with a view to either seeking to keep arrangements away from employee or worker status (but potentially reducing how much control they can apply, e.g. over price); or to accept people are workers and adapt the business model and pricing structure accordingly (such as by, say, restricting the ability to work for rival platforms).
The app industry is as hot as ever, 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 taking a look at the Bumble IPO, app store subscription revenue and talk to a developer on a crusade against the fake ratings plaguing the App Store. We’re also checking in on the missing Google privacy labels…with a spreadsheet of all 100 apps.
This Week in Apps will soon be a newsletter! Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters.
Bumble, the dating app positioned as one of Tinder’s biggest rivals, began trading on public markets on Thursday. The company priced its shares at $43, above its earlier target range of $37 to $39. But once live, BMBL began trading up nearly 77% at $76 per share on Nasdaq, closing the day with a market cap of $7.7 billion and the stock at $70.55.
The app itself was founded in 2014 by early Tinder exec Whitney Wolfe Herd, who now, at 31, is the youngest woman founder to take a U.S. company public and, thanks to the IPO, the world’s youngest self-made woman billionaire, as well, said Fortune.
Wolfe Herd successfully leveraged her knowledge of the online dating market, then combined that with an understanding of how to position a dating app to make it more appealing to women.
On Bumble, women message first, for example, and the company often touts features and updates designed to protect women from bad actors. A lot of what Bumble does is just marketing and spin overlaid on the Tinder model. Like other dating apps, Bumble uses a similar format to connect potential matches: a swipeable “people catalog,” where users look at photos, primarily, to determine interest. Bumble, like others, also makes money by charging for extra features that give users a better shot or more efficient experience.
But all this works because users believe Bumble to be different. They believe Bumble is also capable of delivering higher-quality matches than Tinder, which has increasingly re-embraced its persona as a hook-up app.
The IPO’s success also sends a signal that investors are expecting in-person dating to rebound post-pandemic, and getting in early on the next big mass market dating app is an easy win.
Developer crusades against scammy subscription apps
Developer Kosta Eleftheriou, a Fleskly co-founder, has been on a crusade against the scammy and spammy apps overrunning the App Store, as well as Apple’s failure to do much about it.
Earlier this month, Kosta complained that copycat apps were undermining his current business, as the developer of an Apple Watch keyboard app, FlickType. Shady clones boosted by fake ratings and reviews promised the same features as his legit app, but then locked their customers into exorbitant subscriptions, earning the scammers hundreds of thousands per month.
In his eyes, the problem wasn’t just that clones existed, but that Apple’s lack of attention to fake reviews made those apps appear to be the better choice.
Although Apple finally removed most of his fraudulent competitors after his rants gained press attention, he’s frustrated that the system was so broken in the first place.
This week, Kosta returned with another Twitter thread detailing the multimillion-dollar scams that pretend to be the best Roku remote control app. One app, “Roku Remote Control – Roki,” for example, had a 4.5 stars across 15K+ ratings. The app was a free download, but immediately tries to lock users into a $4.99/week subscription or a lifetime payment of $19.99. However, the app offers a “buggy, ad-infested, poorly designed” experience, Kosta says.
He then used AppFigures to see only those reviews of the Roki app that also had text. When displayed like this, it was revealed that “Roki” was really just a 1.7-star app, based on consumers who took the time to write a review.
What’s worse, Kosta has also argued, that even when Apple reacts by removing a bad actor’s app, it will sometimes allow the developer to continue to run other, even more profitable scams.
Kosta says he decided to spearhead a campaign about App Store scams to “get the word out about how all these scams manage to sustain themselves through a singular common flaw in the App Store — one that has been broken for years.”
He also notes that although Apple responded to him, he believes the company is hoping for the story to blow over.
“The way Apple tried to communicate with me also didn’t help ease my concern — they either don’t get it, or are actively trying to let the story fizzle out through some token gestures. But what they need to do first and foremost, is acknowledge the issue and protect their customers,” Kosta told TechCrunch.
One potential argument here is that because Apple financially benefits from successful subscription app scams, it’s not motivated to prioritize work that focuses on cleaning up the App Store or fake ratings and reviews. But Kosta believes Apple isn’t being intentionally malicious in an effort to grow the subscription business, it’s just that fake App Store reviews have become “a can that’s been perpetually kicked down the road.” Plus, since Apple touts the App Store as a place users can trust, it’s hard for them to admit fault on this front, he says.
Since the crusade began, Kosta has heard from others developers who have sent him examples “dozens and dozens of scams.”
“I will just keep exposing them until Apple acknowledges the problem,” he says.
Top subscription apps grew 34% to $13B in 2020
Apps saw record downloads and consumer spending in 2020, globally reaching somewhere around $111 billion to $112 billion, according to various estimates. But a growing part of that spend was subscription payments, a report from Sensor Tower indicates. Last year, global subscription app revenue from the top 100 subscription apps (excluding games), climbed 34% year-over-year to $13 billion, up from $9.7 billion in 2019.
The App Store, not surprisingly, accounted for a sizable chunk of this subscription revenue, given it has historically outpaced the Play Store on consumer spending. In 2020, the top 100 subscription apps worldwide generated $10.3 billion on the App Store, up 32% over 2019, compared with $2.7 billion on Google Play, which grew 42% from $1.9 billion in 2019. (Read more here.)
Google-Apple Privacy Label war drags on
Google said it would update its iOS apps with privacy labels weeks ago. While it did roll out some, it has yet to update top apps with Apple’s new labels, including key apps like the Google search app, Google Pay, Google Assistant, Google One, Google Meet, Google Photos, Google Calendar, Google Maps, Google News, Google Drive, Gmail and others. (Keep track of this with me here. Want to help? Email me.)
Overall, the majority of Google’s apps don’t have labels. While Google probably needed some time (and a lot of lawyers) to look this over, it’s now super late to put its labels out there. At this point, its iOS apps are out of date — which Google accidentally alerted users to earlier this week. This is awful optics for a company users already don’t trust, and a win for Apple as a result. (Which, of course, means we need to know for sure that Apple isn’t delaying Google’s submissions here…)
Still, Google had time to get this done. Its December code freeze is long over, and everyone else, for the most part, has gotten on board with the new labels. Why can’t Google?
Apple may soon allow users to set a different default music service. The company already opened up the ability to choose a different default browser and email app, but now a new feature in the iOS 14.5 beta indicates it may allow users to set another service, like Spotify, as the default option when asking Siri to play tunes. This, however, could be an integration with HomePod and Siri voice control support in mind, rather than something as universal as switching from Mail app to Gmail.
Apple Maps to gain Waze-like features for reporting accidents, hazards and speed traps. Another new feature in the iOS 14.5 beta will allow drivers to report road issues and incidents by using Siri on their iPhone or through Apple’s CarPlay. For example, during navigation, they’ll be able to tell Siri things like “there’s a crash up head,” “there’s something on the road,” or “there’s a speed trap here.”
Apple tests a new advertising slot on the App Store. Users of Apple’s new iOS 14.5 beta have reported seeing a new sponsored ad slot that appears on the Search tab of the App Store, under the “Suggested” heading (the screen that shows before you do a search). The ad slot is also labeled “Ad” and is a slightly color to differentiate it from the search results. It’s unclear at this time if Apple is planning to launch the ad slot or is just testing it.
The App Store announces price changes for Cameroon, Zimbabwe, Germany and the Republic of Korea.
Apple alerts developers to Push Notification service server certificate update, taking place on March 29, 2021.
Alleged Android 12 screenshots snagged from an early draft document by XDA Developers show Google could be borrowing some ideas from Apple’s iOS for its next update. One feature may put colored dots in the status bar to indicate when the camera or microphone are being accessing, for example. Users may also be able to toggle off their camera, microphone or location access entirely. Google may also add a “conversations” widget to show recent messages, calls and activity statuses, among other things.
Google bans data broker Predicio that was selling user data collected from a Muslim prayer app to Venntel, a government contractor that sells location data from smartphones to ICE, CBP and the FBI, following a Motherboard investigation. Google alerted developers they had a week to remove the SDK from their apps or they’d be removed from Google Play.
Google updated its instructor-led curriculum for Android Development with Kotlin, a major update for the course materials that were first released in 2018. The new materials are designed for either in-person or virtual learning, where educators combine lectures and codelabs.
Google briefly notified users that their Google iOS apps were “out of date” — an embarrassing mistake that was later corrected server-side. The bug arrived at a time when Google has yet to have updated its privacy labels for many of its largest apps, including Google, Gmail, Assistant, Maps, Photos and others.
Apple released a new iOS app, For All Mankind: Time Capsule, to promote its Apple TV+ series, “For All Mankind.” The app was built using Apple’s ARKit framework, offering a new narrative experience told in AR format featuring the show’s star. In the app, users join Danny as he examines keepsakes that connect to stories about impacting events in the lives of his parents, Gordo and Tracy Stevens, in the alternative world of the TV show.
TikTok is expanding its e-commerce efforts. The company told marketers it’s planning a push into livestreamed e-commerce, and will also allow creators to share affiliate links to products, giving them a way to earn commissions from their videos. The company also recently announced a partnership with global ad agency WPP that will give WPP agencies and clients early access to TikTok ad products. It will also connect top creators with WPP for brand deals.
The Single Day Shopping festival drove high mobile usage. Consumers spent 2.3 billion hours in Android shopping apps during week of November 8-15, 2020, reports App Annie.
TikTok’s sale of its U.S. operations to Oracle and Walmart is shelved. The Biden administration undertook a review of Trump’s efforts to address security risks from Chinese tech firms, including the forced sale of TikTok’s U.S. operations. The Trump administration claimed TikTok was a national security threat, and ordered TikTok owner ByteDance to divest its U.S. operations if it wanted to continue to operate in the country. Several large tech companies stepped up to the plate to take on the potential windfall. But Biden’s review of the agency action puts Trump’s plan on an indefinite pause. As a result, the U.S. government will delay its appeal of of federal district court judge’s December 2020 injunction against the TikTok ban. Discussions between U.S. national security officials and ByteDance are continuing, however.
Facebook is said to be building its own Clubhouse rival. Mark Zuckerberg made a brief appearance on Clubhouse earlier this month, which now seems more like a reconnaissance mission, if The NYT’s report is true. Facebook will have to tread lightly, given its still under regulatory scrutiny for anticompetitive practices, which included cloning and acquiring its competition.
Microsoft reportedly approached Pinterest about an acquisition of the $51 billion social media platform, but those talks are no longer active.
TikTok partnered with recipe app Whisk to add a way for users to save recipes featured in TikTok videos. The feature is currently in pilot testing with select creators.
Mark Cuban is co-founding a new podcast app, Fireside. The Shark Tank star and investor has teamed up with Falon Fatemi, who sold customer intelligence startup Node to SugarCRM last year. Fireside is basically Clubhouse, but adds the ability to export live conversations as podcasts.
Indian firm ShareChat will integrate Snapchat’s Camera Kit technology into its Moj app to enable AR features. The move will give Snap a foothold in a key emerging market.
Instagram said it will impose stricter penalties against those who send abusive messages, including account bans, and develop new controls to reduce the abuse people see in their DMs. The announcement followed a recent bout of racist abuse targeted at footballers in the U.K. A joint statement from Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Manchester City condemned the abuse, saying “there is no room for racism, hate or any form of discrimination in our beautiful game.”
Instagram tells creators that it won’t promote their recycled TikToks. The company announced via its @creators account a set of best practices for Reels, noting that those featuring a watermark or logo (which TikTok smartly attaches to its content), won’t be recommended frequently on Instagram’s platform. Of course, TikTok creators are already circulating videos with tips about how to cut out the logo from TikTok videos by first exporting the video as a Live Photo, then going to their iOS Photos app, clicking on the Live Photo and choosing “Save as Video.” Problem solved.
Google Photos for Android adds previously Pixel-only features — but only if users subscribe to Google One. The paywalled features include machine learning-powered editing tools like Portrait Blur, Portrait Light and Color Pop. There’s also a new video editor on iOS with an Android update planned. The editor now lets you crop, change perspective, add filters, apply granular edits (including brightness, contrast, saturation and warmth) and more.
Adobe adds collaboration and asynchronous editing to Photoshop, Illustrator and Fresco. The update will be supported across platforms, including desktop, iPad and iPhone.
Streaming and Entertainment
Waze adds Audible to its list of in-app audio players. The integration allows you to easily play your audiobooks while driving. Waze already supported in-app music integrations, like YouTube Music and Spotify, thanks to developer integrations with the Waze Audio Kit.
HBO Max is going international. The app will be expanded to 39 Latin American and Caribbean territories in June, replacing the existing HBO GO app.
Picture-in-picture mode returned to YouTube on iOS with the launch of the iOS 14.5 beta.
Facebook Messenger added a new feature that makes it easier to block and mass-delete Message Requests from people you don’t know. It also said it’s working on new ways to report abuse and providing better feedback on the status of those reports.
The Biden administration pauses the Trump ban on WeChat. The administration asked a federal appeals court to place a hold on proceedings over the WeChat a day after it asked for a similar delay over the TikTok case, saying it needed time to review the previous administration’s efforts, which are now in the appeals stage.
Health & Fitness
NHS Covid-tracing app has prevented 600,000 infections in England and Wales, researchers estimated in one of the first studies of smartphone-based tracing. The app used the tracing system built by Apple and Google.
The Robinhood backlash hasn’t stopped the downloads. Many users downrated the app after it halted meme stock trading earlier this month — a move that’s now under Congressional investigation and has prompted multiple lawsuits. But the app continues to receive downloads. The day after it halted trades was its second-largest by downloads ever, and downloads remained high in the days that followed. In January 2021, the app was installed 3.7 million times in the U.S., or 4x the installs of January 2020.
Government & Policy
The Chinese government blocked Clubhouse, which had been rapidly gaining attention in the country. The app itself had only briefly been made available in Apple’s China App Store last fall, but those had it installed could access its audio chat rooms without a VPN. Prior to the ban, a group discussing the 1989 pro-democracy Tiananmen protest reached 5,000 participants — the max number of participants Clubhouse supports.
A new North Dakota Senate bill proposes to ban app stores like Apple and Google from requiring developers to exclusively use their store and payment mechanisms to distribute apps, and would prevent them from retaliating, at the risk of fines. Apple’s Chief Privacy Engineer Erik Neuenschwander said the bill “threatens to destroy the iPhone as you know it,” and that Apple succeeds because it “works hard to keep the bad apps out of the App Store.”
The Coalition for App Fairness (CAF) announced that Meghan DiMuzio has now joined as its first executive director. The advocacy group fighting against app store anticompetitive behavior is made up of over 50 members, including Spotify, Tile, Basecamp, Epic Games and others.
Security & Privacy
The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce has asked Apple to improve the credibility of App Store privacy labels, so consumers aren’t harmed. The request was made after an investigation by The Washington Post revealed that many labels were false, leading to questions as to whether the labels could be trusted at all.
Apple will begin to proxy Google’s “Safe Browsing” service used by Safari through its own servers starting with iOS 14.5. Safari on iPhone and iPad includes a “Fraudulent Website Warning” feature that warns users if they’re visiting a possible phishing site. The feature leverages Google’s “Safe Browsing” database and blocklist. Before, Google may have collected user’s IP address during its interaction with Safari, when the browser would check the website URL against Google’s list. Now, Apple will proxy the feature through Apple’s own servers to limit the risk of information leaks. The change was reported by The 8-bit, MacRumors and others, after a Reddit sighting, and confirmed by Apple’s head of Engineering for WebKit.
A generically named app “Barcode Scanner” on the Google Play Store had been operating as a legit app for years before turning into malware. Users of the app, which had over 10 million installs, began to experience ads that would open their browser out of nowhere. The malware was traced to the app and Google removed it from the Play Store. Unfortunately, users review-bombed a different, innocent app as a result, leaving it 1-star reviews and accusing it of being malware.
Google Chrome’s iOS app is testing a feature that would lock your Incognito tabs with either Touch ID or Face ID to add more security to the browser app.
Google Fi VPN for Android exits beta and expands to iPhone. The VPN app, designed for Google Fi users, is meant to encrypt connections when on public Wi-Fi networks or when using sites that don’t encrypt data. Users, however, question the privacy offered by VPN from Google.
Twitter said the iOS 14 privacy update will have a “modest impact” on its revenue. The companies joins others, including Facebook and Snap, in saying that Apple is impacting their business’s monetization.
Quilt, a “Clubhouse” focused self-care, raised $3.5 million seed round led by Mayfield Fund. The app has a similar format to audio social network, Clubhouse, but rooms are dedicated less to hustle culture and more to wellness, personal development, spirituality, meditation, astrology and more.
Match Group, owner of dating apps like Match and Tinder, will buy Korean social media company Hyperconnect for $1.73 billion. The company runs two apps, Azar and Hakuna Live, both which focus on video, including video chats and live broadcasts.
Electronic Arts buys Glu Mobile, maker of the “Kim Kardashian: Hollywood” mobile game in a $2.4 billion deal. The all-cash deal will also bring other games, like “Diner Dash” and “MLB Tap Sports Baseball” to EA, which said it made the acquisition because mobile is the “fastest-growing platform on the planet.”
French startup Powder raised $12 million for its social app for sharing clips from your favorite games, and follow others with the same interests. The app can capture video content from both desktop and mobile games.
Reddit’s valuation doubled to $6 billion after raising $250 million in a late-stage funding round led by Vy Capital, following the r/WallStreetBets and GameStop frenzy. The company was previously valued at $3 billion, and is also backed by Andreessen Horowitz and Tencent Holdings Ltd.
SplashLearn raised $18 million for its game-based edtech platform. The startup offers math and reading courses for Pre-K through 5th grade, and over 4,000 games and interactive activities.
Goody raised $4 million for its mobile app that lets you send gifts to friends, family and other loved ones over a text message. The other user can then personalize the gift and share their address, if you don’t have that information.
VerSe Innovation, the Bangalore-based parent firm of news and entertainment app Dailyhunt and short video app Josh, a TikTok rival, raised over $100 million in Series H round led by Qatar Investment Authority and Glade Brook Capital Partners. The round turns the company into a unicorn.
Tickr, an app that lets U.K. consumers make financial investments based on their impact to society and the environment, raised $3.4 million in a round led by Ada Ventures, a VC firm focused on impact startups.
Huuuge Inc., a developer of free-to-play mobile casino games, raised $445 million in its IPO in Warsaw, becoming Poland’s largest-ever gaming industry listing.
Uptime, an educational app that offers 5-minute bits of insight from top books and courses, raised a $16 million “seed” round led by Tesco CEO Sir Terry Leahy; entrepreneur and chairman of N Brown, David Alliance; and members of private equity firm Thomas H Lee.
Modern Health, a mental health services provider for businesses to offer to their employees, raised $74 million, valuing its business at $1.17 billion. The Modern Health mobile app assesses each employee’s need and then provide care options.
Scalarr raised $7.5 million to fight mobile ad fraud. The company offers products to detect ad fraud before an advertiser bids and other tools used by ad exchanges, demand-side platforms, and supply-side platforms.
Dublin-based food ordering app Flipdish, a Deliveroo rival, raised €40 million from global investment firm Tiger Global Management. The app offers a lower commission than other delivery rivals and is even testing drone delivery with startup Manna Aero.
Jackpot, an NYC-based lottery ticket app, raised $50 million Series C. The app allows users to play the lottery games in nine different states, including Arkansas, Colorado, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Texas and Washington, D.C.
Insight’s iOS web browser supports “extensions”
A new startup called Insight is bringing web browser extensions to the iPhone, with the goal of delivering a better web browsing experience by blocking ads and trackers, flagging fake reviews on Amazon, offering SEO-free search experiences or even calling out media bias and misinformation, among other things. These features are made available by way of the browser’s “extensions,” which work by way of a “sub-tab” workflow where you navigate using swiping gestures. For example, when online shopping, you could view the product you’re interested in, then swipe over to see the available coupons, the trusted product reviews or to comparison shop across other sites.
The app is a free download on iOS.
App Annie Pulse
App Annie’s new app Pulse is aimed not at the more advanced analyst or marketer immersed in data, but rather at the executive who wants a “more elevated, top-down view” of the app ecosystem, TechCrunch reported. The app offers easy access to the app stores’ top charts, plus tools for tracking apps, and a news feed highlighting recent trends. Another feature, the App Annie Performance score, which aims to distill user acquisition, engagement, monetization and sentiment into a single benchmark.
The app is currently iOS-only.