The tech giant’s search market share remains undented and the most interesting regional search alternatives are being priced out of a Google-devised “remedy” that favors those who can pay the most to be listed as an alternative to its own dominant search engine on smartphones running Google’s Android OS.
Quarterly choice screen winners have been getting increasingly same-y. Alternatives to Google are expecting another uninspiring batch of “winners” to drop in short order.
The results for Q1 2021 were dominated by a bunch of ad-targeting search options few smartphone users would likely have heard of: Germany’s GMX; California-based info.com; and Puerto Rico-based PrivacyWall (which is owned by a company whose website is emblazoned with the slogan “100% programmatic advertising”) — plus another, more familiar (ad)tech giant’s search engine (Microsoft-owned) Bing.
Lower down the list: The Russian “Google” — Yandex — which won eight slots. And a veteran player in the Czech search market, Seznam.cz, which bagged two.
On the “big loser” side: Non-tracking search engine DuckDuckGo — which has been standing up for online privacy for over a decade yet won only one slot (in Belgium). It’s come to be almost entirely squeezed out versus winning a universal slot in all markets at the start of the auction process.
Tree-planting not-for-profit search engine Ecosia was almost entirely absent in the last round too: Gaining only one slot on the screen showed to Android users in Slovenia. Yet back in December Ecosia was added as a default search option with Safari on iOS, iPadOS and macOS — having grown its global usage to more than 15 million users.
While another homegrown European search option — which has a privacy-focus — France’s Qwant, went home with just one slot. And not in its home market, either (in tiny Luxembourg).
If Europe’s regulators had fondly imagined that a Google-devised “remedy” for major antitrust breaches they identified would automagically restore thriving competition to the Android search market, they should feel rudely awakened indeed. The bald fact is Google’s market share has not even been scratched, let alone dented.
Statista data for Google’s search market share on mobile (across both Android and iOS; the latter where the tech giant pays Apple billions of dollars annually to be set as the default on iPhones) shows that in February 2021 its share in Europe stood at 97.07% — up from 96.92% in July 2018 when the Commission made the antitrust ruling.
Yes, Google has actually gained share running this “remedy”.
By any measure that’s a spectacular failure for EU competition enforcement — more than 2.5 years after its headline-grabbing antitrust decision against Android.
The Commission has also been promoting a goal of European tech sovereignty throughout the period Google has been running this auction. President Ursula von der Leyen links this overarching goal to her digital policy programming.
On the measure of tech sovereignty the Android choice screen must be seen as a sizeable failure too — as it’s not only failed to support (most) homegrown alternatives to Google (another, Cliqz, pulled the plug on its search+browser effort entirely last year, putting part of the blame on the region’s political stakeholders for failing to understand the need for Europe to own its own digital infrastructure) — but it’s actively burying the most interesting European alternatives by forcing them to compete against a bunch of ad-funded Google clones.
(And if Brave Search takes off it’ll be another non-European alternative — albeit, one that will have benefitted from expertise and tech that was made-in-Europe… )
This is because the auction mechanism means only companies that pay Google the most can buy themselves a chance at being set as a default option on Android.
Even in the rare instances where European players shell out enough money to appear in the choice list (which likely means they’ll be losing money per search click) they most often do so alongside other non-European alternatives and Google — further raising the competitive bar for selection.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Nor was it wasn’t initially; Google started with a choice screen based on market share.
However, it very quickly switched to a pay to play model — throttling at a stroke the discoverability of alternative business models that aren’t based on exploiting user data (or, indeed, aren’t profit-driven in Ecosia’s case; as it uses ad-generated revenue to fund tree planting with a purely environmental goal).
Such alternatives say they typically can’t afford to win Google’s choice screen auctions. (It’s worth noting that those who do participate in the game are restricted in what they can say as Google requires they sign an NDA.)
Clearly, it’s no coincidence that the winners of Google’s auction skew almost entirely to the track and target side of the tracks, where its own business sits; all data-exploiting business models bandied together. And then, from a consumer point of view, why would you not pick Google with such a poorly and artificially limited “choice” on offer — since you’re generally only being offered weaker versions of the same thing?
Ecosia tells TechCrunch it’s now considering pulling out of the auction process altogether — which would be a return to its first instinct; which was to boycott the auction before saying it felt it had to participate. A few months playing Google’s pay-to-play “no choice” (as Ecosia dubs the auction) game has cemented its view that the system is stacked against genuine alternatives.
Over two auction rounds when Ecosia has only ended up winning the one slot each time it says it’s seen no positive effect on user numbers. A decision on whether or not to withdraw entirely will be taken after the results of the next auction process are revealed, it said. (The next round of results are expected shortly, in early March.)
“We definitely realized it’s less and less ‘fun’ to play the game,” Ecosia founder Christian Kroll told us. “It’s a super unfair game — where it’s not only ‘David against Goliath’ but also Goliath gets to choose the rules, gets a free ticket, he can change the rules of game if he likes to. So it’s not amusing for us to participate in that.
“We’ve been participating now for nine months and if you look at overall market share in Europe nothing has changed. We don’t know the results yet of this round but I assume also nothing will change — the usual suspects will be there again… Most of the options that you see there now are not interesting to users.”
“Calling it a ‘choice’ screen is still a little bit ironic if you remove all the interesting choices from the screen. So the situation is still the same and it becomes less and less fun to play the game and at some point I think we might make the decision that we’re not going to be part of the game anymore,” he added.
Other alternative search engines we spoke to are continuing to participate for now — but all were critical of Google’s “pay-to-play” model for the Android “choice screen”.
He pointed to a blog post the company put out last fall, denouncing the “fundamentally flawed” auction model — and saying that “whole piece still stands”. In the blog post the company wrote that despite being profitable since 2014 “we have been priced out of this auction because we choose to not maximize our profits by exploiting our users”.
“In practical terms, this means our commitment to privacy and a cleaner search experience translates into less money per search. This means we must bid less relative to other, profit-maximizing companies,” DuckDuckGo went on, adding: “This EU antitrust remedy is only serving to further strengthen Google’s dominance in mobile search by boxing out alternative search engines that consumers want to use and, for those search engines that remain, taking most of their profits from the preference menu.”
“This auction format incentivizes bidders to bid what they can expect to profit per user selection. The long-term result is that the participating Google alternatives must give most of their preference menu profits to Google! Google’s auction further incentivizes search engines to be worse on privacy, to increase ads, and to not donate to good causes, because, if they do those things, then they could afford to bid higher,” it also said then.
France’s Qwant has been similarly critical and it told us it is “extremely dissatisfied” with the auction — calling for “urgent modification” and saying the 2018 Commission decision should be fully respected “in text and in spirit”.
“We are extremely dissatisfied with the auction system. We are asking for an urgent modification of the Choice Screen to allow consumers to find the search engine they want to use and not just the three choices that are only the ones that pay the most Google. We demand full respect for the 2018 decision, in text and in spirit,” said CEO Jean-Claude Ghinozzi.
“We are reviewing all options and re-evaluating our decision on a quarterly basis. In any case, we want consumers to be able to freely choose the search engine they prefer, without being limited to the only three alternative choices sold by Google. Consumers’ interests must always come first,” he added.
Russia’s Yandex confirmed it has participated in the upcoming Q2 auction. But it was also critical of Google’s implementation, saying it falls short of offering a genuine “freedom of choice” to Android users.
“We aim to offer high-quality and convenient search engine around the world. We are confident that freedom to select a search engine will lead to greater market competition and motivate each player to improve services. We don’t think that the current EU solution fully ensures freedom of choice for users, by only covering devices released from March 2020,” a Yandex spokeswoman said.
“There are currently very few such devices on the EU market in comparison with the total number of devices in users’ hands. It is essential to provide the freedom of choice that is genuine and real. Competition among service providers ultimately benefits users who will receive a better product.”
One newcomer to the search space — the anti-tracking browser Brave (which, as we mentioned above, just bought up some Cliqz assets to underpin the forthcoming launch of an-own brand Brave Search) — confirmed it will not be joining in at all.
“Brave does not plan to participate in this auction. Brave is about putting the user first, and this bidding process ignores users’ best interests by limiting their choices and selecting only for highest Google Play Store optimizing bidders,” a spokeswoman said.
“An irony here is that Google gets to profit off its own remedy for being found guilty of anti-competitive tying of Chrome into Android,” she added.
Asked about its strategy to grow usage of Brave Search in the region — outside of participation in the Android choice screen — she said: “Brave already has localized browsers for the European market, and we will continue to grow by offering best-in-class privacy showcased in marketing campaigns and referrals programs.”
Google’s self-devised “remedy” followed a 2018 antitrust decision by the Commission — which led to a record-breaking $5 billion penalty and an order to cease a variety of infringing behaviors. The tech giant’s implementation remains under active monitoring by EU antitrust regulators. However, Kroll argues the Commission is essentially just letting Google buy time rather than fix the abusive behavior it identified.
“The way I see this at the moment is the Commission feels like the auction screen isn’t necessarily something that they’ve requested as a remedy so they can’t really force Google to change it — and that’s why they also maybe don’t see it as their responsibility,” he said. “But at the same time they requested Google to solve the situation and Google isn’t doing anything.
“I think they are also allowing Google to get the credit from the press and also from users that it seems like Google is doing something — so they are allowing Google to play on time… I don’t know if a real choice screen would be a good solution but it’s also not for me to decide — it’s up to the European Commission to decide if Google has successfully remedied the damage… and has also compensated some of the damage that it’s done and I think that has not happened at all. We can see that in the [marketshare] numbers that basically still the same situation is happening.”
“The whole thing is designed to remove interesting options from the screen,” he also argued of Google’s current “remedy”. “This is how it’s ‘working’ and I’m of course disappointed that nobody is stepping in there. So we’re basically in this unfair game where we get beaten up by our competitors. And I would hope for some regulator to step in and say this is not how this should go. But this isn’t happening.
“At the moment our only choice is to hang in there but at the moment if we really see there is no effect and there’s also no chance that regulators will ever step in we still have the choice to completely withdraw and let Google have its fun but without us… We’re not only not getting anything out of the [current auction model] but we’re of course also investing into it. And there are also restrictions because of the NDA we’ve signed — and even those restrictions are a little bit of a pain. So we have all the negative effects and don’t get any benefits.”
While limited by NDA in what he can discuss about the costs involved with participating in the auction, Kroll suggested the winners are doing so at a loss — pursuing reach at the expense of revenue.
“If you look at the bids from the last rounds I think with those bids it would be difficult for us to make money — and so potentially others have lost money. And that’s exactly also how this auction is designed, or how most auctions are designed, is that the winners often lose money… so you have this winner’s curse where people overbid,” he said.
“This hasn’t happened to us — also because we’re super careful — and in the last round we won this wonderful slot in Slovenia. Which is a beautiful country but again it has no impact on our revenues and we didn’t expect that to happen. It’s just for us to basically participate in the game but not risk our financial health,” he added. “We know that our bids will likely not win so the financial risk [to Ecosia as it’s currently participating and mostly losing in the auction] is not that big but for the companies who actually win bids — for them it might be a different thing.”
Kroll points out that the auction model has allowed Google to continue harvesting market share while weakening its competitors.
“There are quite a few companies who can afford to lose money in search because they just need to build up market share — and Google is basically harvesting all that and at the same time weakening its competitors,” he argued. “Because competitors need to spend on this. And one element that — at least in the beginning when the auction started — that I didn’t even see was also that if you’re a real search company… then you’re building up a brand, you’re building up a product, you’re making all these investments and you have real users — and if you have those then, if there was really a choice screen, people would naturally choose you. But in this auction screen model you’re basically paying for users that you would have anyway.
“So it’s really putting those kind of companies at a disadvantage: DuckDuckGo, us, all kinds of companies who have a ‘real USP’. Also Lilo, potentially even Qwant as well if you have a more nationalist approach to search, basically. So all of those companies are put at an even bigger disadvantage. And that’s — I think — unfair.”
Since most winners of auction slots are, like Google, involved in surveillance capitalism — gathering data on search users to profit off of ad targeting — if anyone was banking on EU competition enforcement being able to act as a lever to crack open the dominant privacy-hostile business model of the web (and allow less abusive alternatives get a foot in the door) they must be sorely disappointed.
Better alternatives — that do not track consumers for ads, or, in the case of Ecosia, are on an entirely non-profit mission — are clearly being squeezed out.
The Commission can’t say it wasn’t warned: The moment the auction model was announced by Google rivals decried it as flawed, rigged, unfair and unsustainable — warning it would put them at a competitive disadvantage (exactly because they aren’t just cloning Google’s “track and target for ad profit model”).
Nonetheless, the Commission has so far shown itself unwilling or unable to respond — despite making a big show of proposing major new rules for the largest platforms which it says are needed to ensure they play fair. But that raises the question of why it’s not better-enforcing existing EU rules against tech giants like Google?
When we raised criticism of Google’s Android choice screen auction model with the Commission it sent us its standard set of talking points — writing that: “We have seen in the past that a choice screen can be an effective way to promote user choice”.
“The choice screen means that additional search providers are presented to users on start-up of every new Android device in every EEA country. So users can now choose their search provider of preference when setting up their newly purchased Android devices,” it also said, adding that it is “committed to a full and effective implementation of the decision”.
“We are therefore monitoring closely the implementation of the choice screen mechanism,” it added — a standard line since Google begin its “compliance” with the 2018 EU decision.
In a slight development, the Commission did also confirm it has had discussions with Google about the choice screen mechanism — following what it described as “relevant feedback from the market”.
It said these discussions focused on “the presentation and mechanics of the choice screen and to the selection mechanism of rival search providers”.
But with the clock ticking, and genuine alternatives to Google search being actively squeezed out of the market — leaving European consumers to be offered no meaningful choice to privacy-hostile search on Android — you do have to wonder what regulators are waiting for?
A pattern of reluctance to challenge tech giants where it counts seems to be emerging from Margrethe Vestager’s tenure at the helm of the competition department (and also, since 2019, a key shaper of EU digital policy).
Despite gaining a reputation for being willing to take on tech giants — and hitting Google (and others) with a number of headline-grabbing fines over the past five+ years — she cannot claim success in rebalancing the market for mobile search nor smartphone operating systems nor search ad brokering, in just the most recent Google cases.
Nonetheless, she was content to green light Google’s acquisition of wearable maker Fitbit at the end of last year — despite a multitude of voices raised against allowing the tech giant to further entrench its dominance.
On that she argued defensively that concessions secured from Google would be sufficient to address concerns (such as a promise extracted from Google not to use Fitbit data for ads for at least 10 years).
But, given her record on monitoring Google’s compliance with a whole flush of EU antitrust rulings, it’s hard to see why anyone other than Google should be confident in the Commission’s ability or willingness to enforce its own mandates against Google. Complaints against how Google operates, meanwhile, just keep stacking up.
“I think they are listening,” says Kroll of the Commission. “But what I am missing is action.”
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 looking into the app store bill in Arizona, the trend of animating family photos and what’s next for Twitter’s Clubhouse rival, among other things.
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Arizona House passes a bill that would allow developers to avoid the “Apple tax”
The Arizona House of Representatives this week passed a bill (HB 2005) that could significantly impact Apple and Google’s grip on the App Store market. Unlike a similar measure recently shot down by the North Dakota Senate, this new bill doesn’t force app stores to offer alternative ways for developers to distribute their apps. Instead, it focuses on giving developers the right to use third-party systems that would allow them to circumvent the 15%-20% cut that Apple and Google take from app sales, in-app purchases and subscriptions.
Apple and Google lobbyists were already fighting against this bill before it was even formally introduced by Arizona State Rep. Regina Cobb. Cobb says she was approached by a lobbyist representing Match Group and the Coalition for App Fairness (CAF) — the latter, which has organized some of Apple’s largest competitors — like Epic Games, Match Group, Spotify and Tile — to fight back against Apple’s control of the app ecosystem.
Some legislators may oppose the bill on the grounds that these decisions are more of a federal matter and concerns over how the state would be able to enforce such a policy. The Arizona bill still has to make it through the Senate (and could be vetoed by Governor Doug Ducey) in order to become a law. If it did pass, it would make Arizona an attractive place to set up an app business and could set the groundwork for other states to pass similar legislation.
Animated family photos top the App Store
MyHeritage’s recently launched update that lets users animate their old photos helped to send the app to the top of the App Store this week. The company had last week introduced “Deep Nostalgia” — a facial animation feature powered by technology from Israeli tech company (and TechCrunch Battlefield alum) D-ID. To animate the photos, the tech maps the facial features from the photo to a driver video to create what it calls a “live portrait.”
The app went viral on social media, including TikTok, as people used the photo to animate long-ago relatives and other historical figures.
@thomasflanigan_The app is called MyHeritage ##greenscreenvideo ##myheritage ##McDonaldsCCSing ##ancestors♬ record before u listen – penny lane
But in a number of more touching videos, people film themselves reacting to seeing their mom or dad “come to life” again through the tech, blinking, smiling and nodding, often set to “Remember When” by Alan Jackson or “Sign of the Times” by Harry Styles as the background track.
Though MyHeritage shot up to become the No. 1 Overall app on the App Store as of Tuesday, a smaller startup, Rosebud, quietly pivoted to address the same use case with its TokkingHeads app. The app, founded by Berkeley PhD Lisha Li, was originally intended for making funny videos and memes with friends, video game avatars or celebs by animating portrait photos with text, speech and puppetry via video — but not so well that it would cross into “deepfake” territory.
But after the release of MyHeritage’s update, TokkingHeads quickly updated to alert users to its own feature set, while also elevating the MyHeritage-like animations it offers in the app. As a result, the app started to gain a following of its own. On February 28, 2021, TokkingHeads saw 1,000 downloads. The next day, it had 8,000 downloads. The following two days, March 2 and 3, it saw 24,000 downloads and 28,000 downloads, respectively.
The app has since reached as high as No. 12 in the App Store’s Entertainment category, as of the time of writing, and No. 94 Overall. (And was climbing daily.)
The YC-backed startup’s ambitions extend beyond animated photos, however. It’s been developing internal tools which it used to generate backgrounds and visuals for use in personalized media. It’s been testing these tools with personalized meditation videos on TikTok, but isn’t yet ready to fully announce a new product. Rosebud is backed by $2.2 million in seed funding led by Khosla Ventures, with participation from Twitch COO Kevin Lin, OpenAI co-founder Ilya Sutskever, former Coinbase CTO Balaji Srinivasan and others.
Apple clarifies you can’t actually set a “default” music service in iOS 14.5. It explains that the Siri feature that asks you how you want to play the music or other audio (like podcasts or audiobooks) that you’ve requested is only an example of Siri Intelligence, and is not technically making that service a “default.”
Apple’s courtroom battle with Epic Games over the App Store’s alleged anti-competitive behavior is set to start May 3. The judge believes the case is significant enough to hold an in-person trial with witnesses.
The U.K.’s anti-competition authority, CMA (Competition and Markets Authority) is opening its own investigation into Apple’s App Store, following a number of complaints from developers alleging unfair terms.
Apple releases iOS 14.5 beta 3. The new release adds a notification banner to iPhone if you have your Apple Watch set to unlock your paired phone; brings back the Siri feature to choose your preferred audio app for certain requests; updates the Find My screen with plans to support accessories; and makes reference to Apple Card Family features, among other things.
In a bit of App Store history revealed this week, Apple’s Scott Forstall once told Pandora to use jailbroken iPhones to develop their music app ahead of the App Store’s launch.
Apple shuts down Buddybuild, the app development service it acquired in 2018. The team had joined the Xcode group at Apple, but Buddybuild remained online for existing customers. An email has now informed those customers it will cease operations on March 31, 2021.
Apple’s upcoming AirTags gains an anti-stalking feature. In the latest iOS 14.5 beta, a new “Item Safety Features” option was found to be on by default. It would warn you if someone secretly hid an AirTag in your possessions.
Google Play announced it’s reducing the minimum price limit for products in over 20 markets across Latin America, EMEA and APAC. In these markets, developers can now set prices in the range of 10-30 cents U.S. equivalent — or “sub dollar” prices. Google says this will allow developers to reach new potential buyers.
Google debuted Flutter 2, an upgrade that broadens Flutter from a mobile framework to a portable framework. Flutter 2 will allow developers to ship native apps across iOS, Android, Windows, macOS and Linux, as well as web experiences for Chrome, Safari, Firefox and Edge, and cars, TVs and smart TVs. Google says there are now more than 150,000 Flutter apps on the Play Store today, including WeChat, Grab, Yandex Go, Sonos, Betterment and others.
The Google Play Console added a new suite of metrics and comparison benchmarks that will allow developers to evaluate the app’s engagement and monetization against up to 250 different peer sets.
Twitter tests new e-commerce features for tweets. The company was spotted testing a different style of organic tweet which includes product info, pricing and a big “Shop” button. The company confirmed it’s one of many commerce tests in the works.
Amazon’s mobile app got a new icon…again. Customers complained the first iteration, which featured Amazon’s smiling arrow across a brown box with a piece of blue tape at the top, reminded them of Hitler. The updated look gives the tape a smooth edge.
The Google Play Service for AR app, which delivers ARCore updates to Android phones, was updated to include support for dual cameras instead of just one, as before. The change was spotted by Android Police, which noted that the support would arrive on Pixel 4 devices first.
More evidence of Apple Card Family support spotted in iOS 14.5 beta 3. The new feature will allow family members to share the same Apple Card through iCloud Family Sharing, so each member can access the card in the Wallet app.
Twitter Spaces beat Clubhouse to Android. Twitter’s social audio service and Clubhouse rival, Twitter Spaces, has been iterating at a rapid pace. The company has been sharing features in public as they’re designed and prototyped, including titles and descriptions, scheduling options, support for co-hosts and moderators, guest lists and more. Twitter also updated the preview card that appears in the timeline and relabeled its “captions” feature to be more accurate, from an accessibility standpoint. This fast pace of development allowed the new product to reach Android users this week, ahead of Clubhouse. However, Android users can only join Spaces for the time being, they can’t host them. Still, the move will help to serve the pent-up demand for social audio among a huge chunk of the mobile market.
LinkedIn says it will stop using IDFA ahead of the iOS App Tracking Transparency launch. The business social network is getting ahead of the change and says it will instead leverage “first-party data” to help advertisers.
Instagram accidentally hid “likes” for a number of users in the U.S., who were unintentionally added to the ongoing test where likes are no longer displayed. The company attributed this to a bug and said it was fixing the issue ASAP.
Right-wing social app Parler had dropped its lawsuit against AWS to get its cloud hosting services reinstated, but its fight isn’t over yet. In a new case, Parler is now going after Amazon with more charges, including defamation, negligence and breach of contract. The suit claims Parler lost “tens of millions” of users and future users” as well as “hundreds of millions” in revenue.
TikTok adds a Business Profile section for marketers and brands. The section offers marketing tips, insights on app usage and advertising events — and likely, in the future, e-commerce tools.
TikTok forms a Safety Advisory Council in Europe, following the death of a girl who fatally attempted the blackout challenge she saw on the app, leading to emergency intervention by Italy’s data protection authority.
Instagram launches “Live Rooms” for live broadcasts with up to four creators. Previously only two people could go live. The launch has a bit of Clubhouse envy to it, as Instagram notes it could be used for things like talk shows, Q&As and interviews, for example. A similar feature has been spotted in TikTok in recent weeks, as well.
Facebook launched BARS, a TikTok-like app for creating and sharing raps. In the app, users react with “fire” emoji while flipping through a full-screen, vertical video feed of people’s raps.
TikTok launches TikTok Q&A. The new feature will allow creators to respond to viewer questions with either text or video replies, including during livestreams. The questions and answers will also be organized in a new Q&A page, linked from the bio. The feature is a direct response to how many creators were already using the app to interact with fans.
Apple introduced a service that will allow iCloud users to transfer their photos and videos to Google Photos. Anti-competitive scrutiny cracks the walled garden, it seems.
MyHeritage tops the App Store after launching a new feature called Deep Nostalgia that animates users’ old family photos.
Messaging & Communications
WhatsApp brought voice and video calls to the desktop companion app. The calls are end-to-end encrypted, and will later expand to include group calls.
WeChat updates its emojis to dial down the violence. It removed the cigar from the smoking soldier emoji and removed the blood from the meat cleaver emoji. It also no longer shows a hammer hitting a head — it’s now a frying pan.
Streaming & Entertainment
Netflix launches “Fast Laughs,” a TikTok-like feed of funny videos. The mobile feature is currently iOS-only and lets users flip through a full-screen vertical video feed with short clips from Netflix programming, react, share and add items to a watchlist or immediately start streaming.
Apple pulls Music Memos, a music creation tool, from the App Store. The app was used to analyze rhythm and chords from acoustic guitar and piano recordings. The company advised users to export their content to Voice Memos library instead.
Hulu brings back picture-in-picture mode with the latest iOS update. The feature had been available previously, but was pulled so Hulu could make refinements.
Spotify’s podcast listeners in the U.S. expected to top Apple Podcasts for the first time in 2021, at 28.2 million listeners on Spotify versus 28 million on Apple Podcasts.
Genshin Impact from miHoYo has reached $874 million in consumer spend since its September 2020 launch, reports Sensor Tower, making it already the world’s third-highest-earning mobile game.
Hypercasual games are now the largest genre for game downloads, a separate Sensor Tower report says. The genre has expanded from a 17% share of downloads in 2017 to now 31% in 2020. Other genres seeing growth include Arcade and Puzzle, increasing by 33% and 78% respectively.
Books and Reading
Flipboard expands its local coverage to over 1,000 cities and towns. The company last year launched a broader initiative around local news, allowing users to follow their local publications, TV stations, blogs and more.
Google Play Books was updated with new tools for younger readers, including “Read & Listen,” which will let kids listen to a book read out loud, “Tap to Read” to hear words spoken out loud and a kid-friendly dictionary.
Health & Fitness
COVID-19 exposure notification apps have still not seen widespread adoption, USA Today reports. Fewer than half of U.S. states offer the contact-tracing apps, and most people in participating states don’t use them.
Amazon Halo users, the app-paired health and fitness tracker from the retail giant, is being integrated with Alexa. The new feature will let you ask Echo and other Alexa devices for health stats.
Best Buy Health partnered with the Lively app to offer a range of health and safety services aimed at older adults on Apple Watch. Apple Watch users can use the app to get emergency and non-emergency assistance from the Lively agents and receive additional protection from things like Fall Detection.
Period tracking app Clue gets FDA clearance to launch a digital contraceptive. The app’s algorithmic prediction is based on Bayesian modeling and can display the days where there’s a higher risk of pregnancy.
Jamaica’s JamCOVID mobile app and website were taken offline following their third security lapse. The platform was exposing quarantine orders on over than half a million travelers.
Business and productivity apps reached 7.1 billion downloads in 2020, up 35% YoY, reports App Annie. The jump was attributed to the pandemic, with the biggest surge coming in mid-March when shelter-in-place orders kicked in.
Microsoft pulled the Delve mobile apps from the App Store and Google Play, which will be followed by a full shutdown of the service in June. Delve was designed to surface relevant info and insights using the Office Graph. Users were redirected to Outlook Mobile, which has some similar features.
Microsoft launched Group Transcribe, a new kind of mobile transcription app for in-person meetings. The app requires all meeting participants to record from their own phones, which improves accuracy and speaker identification. It also offers real-time translations to help non-native speakers follow along.
Security & Privacy
Thousands of Android and iOS app are leaking data from the cloud, Wired reports. In analysis run on more than 1.3 million Android and iOS apps, researchers found almost 84,000 Android apps and nearly 47,000 iOS apps used public cloud services. Of those, misconfigurations were found in 14% — 11,877 Android apps and 6,608 iOS apps — which were exposing personal information, passwords and medical information.
Hackers released a new jailbreak tool for almost every iPhone by using the same vulnerability Apple said last month was under active attack by hackers. The jailbreak, released by the Unc0ver team, works on iOS 11 to iOS 14.3, and iPhone 5s and later.
Google’s apps with privacy labels have begun receiving updates after lengthy pause. Apps that have started to get updates include Gmail, Slides, Docs, Sheets, Calendar, YouTube, YouTube TV, YouTube Music, Google Tasks and Google Podcasts. Google’s key apps still missing labels include Search, Photos, Assistant, Maps, Pay and Chrome.
Stream raised $38 million for its service that lets developers build chat and activity feeds into apps with a few lines of code. The company now powers communications for 1 billion users, including in apps like TaskRabbit, NBC Sports, Delivery Hero, Gojek and others.
Whatnot raised $20 million in Series A funding for its livestreaming platform for selling collectible toys and cards. The round was led by a16z, and follows a $4 million seed raised at the end of 2020.
Snapcommerce raised $85 million for its platform that uses messaging to personalize the mobile shopping experience. Inovia Capital and Lion Capital co-led the new growth round, bringing the startup’s total raise to date to $100 million.
Food delivery app Instacart raised $265 million at a $39 billion valuation. The round was raised from existing investors, including Andreessen Horowitz, Sequoia Capital, D1 Capital Partners and others and pushes the valuation up from $17.7 billion in October 2020.
Okta acquired cloud identity startup Auth0 for $6.5 billion. Auth0 offers authentication and security for apps across native mobile, desktop, and web apps. Following the deal, Auth0 will continue to operate as an independent unit inside Okta.
Fintech Square acquired Jay-Z’s streaming service TIDAL for $297 million. Perhaps those yachting trips paid off? Square plans to offer financial tools to artists to help them collect revenue. Despite the deal’s seeming oddness, a good bet is that Square plans to expand into music-based NFTs.
App marketing company AppLovin filed its S-1 ahead of its IPO. The company was valued at $2 billion in 2018, but posted a net loss of $125.9 million in 2020 on revenue of $1.45 billion, up 46% YoY. The company warned investors that it may be impacted by Apple’s IDFA changes.
Maestro raised $15 million for its interactive commerce, community and engagement tools for livestreams across web and mobile. Maestro can also be embedded into native mobile apps using a web view.
Indie weather app Weather Line acquired. The company didn’t provide any details on its acquisition, including the buyer, but said the app will be removed from the App Store. Existing users will continue to have access until April 1, 2022.
Indian jobs app Apna raised $12.5 million in a round led by Sequoia Capital India and Greenoaks Capital. The app is now used by 80,000 employers and 6 million+ workers such as drivers, delivery personnel, electricians and beauticians.
Istanbul’s Dream Games raised $50 million and launched its first mobile gaming title, Royal Match. The round, led by Index Ventures, is the largest Series A raised by a startup in Turkey.
West Tenth’s new app aims to give local home-based business owners a platform to reach potential clients and make sales. The app focuses on women who have opted out of the traditional workforce to stay home, often to raise kids and work more flexible hours. Often targeted by predatory MLMs, West Tenth aims to convince women that many of their everyday skills are, in fact, marketable businesses — like cooking and meal prep, party planning, interior design, photography, home organization, baby sleep training, fitness instructions, homemade crafts and more. The startup also offers online education classes to teach women the basics of marketing and running a home business. (iOS and Android)
Social audio is growing in popularity thanks to apps like Clubhouse and Twitter’s Spaces. A startup called Cappuccino, reviewed here by TechCrunch, now wants to bring social audio to a more intimate setting: groups of friends. The anti-Clubhouse app lets friends record “podcasts,” which are designed for private consumption. (iOS and Android)