This Week in Apps: Apple’s antitrust war, TikTok ban, alt app ecosystems
Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the TechCrunch series* that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.
The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion downloads and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019. People are now spending three hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.
In this series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.
* This Week in Apps was previously available only to Extra Crunch subscribers. We’re now making these reports available to all TechCrunch readers.
We missed some Epic news while This Week in Apps was on vacation, but this week the backlash against the App Store continues.
Apple at war with developers
Fortnite maker Epic may be one of the few companies with pockets deep enough to fund a battle with Apple over its App Store policies. And Google, while it’s at it. But it’s not the only company that would benefit from a change to App Store policy.
Critics call Epic a hypocrite because it’s not fighting console makers who take the same 30% cut of revenues, just app stores. They say that the move is anti-consumer, because it hurts the end user when Epic’s top game is removed. (And it may potentially impact other games made with Epic’s Unreal Engine, as well, when Apple bans Epic’s developer accounts.)
But, clearly, Epic is looking at these App Store issues from a long-term perspective. Gaming is shifting to mobile and that makes it a market to fight for: 2.7 billion gamers will spend $159.3 billion on games in 2020, and mobile will account for $77.2 billion of that, up 13.3% year-over-year. Mobile gaming is growing faster than PC and consoles, as well. This is also why Apple is swatting down alternative gaming platforms like Facebook Gaming, Microsoft’s xCloud and Google Stadia from running their businesses on its App Store.
At this point, the argument about whether Apple is entitled to its 30% cut or not is becoming secondary to the concern that Apple is now dictating what type of businesses are being allowed to operate on Apple mobile devices, period. The company may eventually be forced to allow developers a way to install apps directly on iOS/iPad OS, with the App Store as an option, not a must. You know, like on Mac.
At the antitrust drama continues, this week Epic announced a #FreeFortnite tournament will be held on August 23, where it will dole out prizes like #FreeFortnite hats and non-Apple hardware, like gaming laptops, Android phones and tablets, and other gaming consoles. News publishers also banded together to complain that they deserve the same sort of sweetheart deal that Apple gave Amazon (a 15% commission from day 1, Congress’ antitrust investigation revealed.)
One has to wonder how Apple would have handled such a problem in years past. Maybe it would have just lowered its commission a bit and moved on — knowing that eventually the growth in mobile gaming would help to make up for the near-term losses. Or that an all-in-one subscription could drive services revenue in other ways.
More Opinions: How Apple’s and Google’s defenses to Fortnite maker Epic Games’ antitrust lawsuits over their app store policies will likely differ (FOSS Patents); Apple might win the battle with Epic Games but it’s losing the war (Pando); App stores, trust and anti-trust (Benedict Evans).
TikTok ban could have big repercussions for Apple
The Trump administration’s decision to ban TikTok and WeChat due to national security concerns could have further impacts beyond just the loss of the apps themselves. According to The Information, Chinese regulators are closing loopholes that allows the App Store and other services to operate without government licenses and local partners in China. Already, Apple removed thousands of unlicensed mobile games from the App Store in China. As pressure tenses between the U.S. and China, Apple could be required to partner with a local business to run the App Store as a joint venture — a Chinese law it had managed to skirt. This would give China editorial control over the China App Store, and they would likely find a large number of apps were non-compliant. Apple also operates other services in China that could be threatened by a tit-for-tat battle with the U.S. Apple Music, for example, is the only music service owned by a foreign company that operates in China without a Chinese partner.
There’s an alt App Store outside the App Store, powered by TestFlight
A fascinating report from Protocol dug into the growing ecosystem of non-App Store apps. A Square product designer couldn’t get his minimally functional “lil apps” published on the App Store, so they’re now distributed through TestFlight instead. TestFlight is meant to serve as an app beta testing platform, but it’s turning into an alternative app store platform of sorts. This lets users try out pre-release apps from developers big and small. Some will remain in TestFlight indefinitely, with no need to serve a user base of more than the TestFlight limit of 10,000 users. But not all TestFlight apps are meant to forever live outside the App Store. The buzzy voice-based networking app Clubhouse, for example, has been leveraging the power of its invite-only status for building clout and a core user base before a public release.
There are even online communities popping up to help connect users with unreleased apps. One, called Departures, has several big-name apps listed as well. People also find links through social media to TestFlight builds.
This alt app universe isn’t only about testing. It’s about building things that don’t — for whatever reason — fit the App Store paradigm. Maybe it’s an app that serves a niche user need or one that will only work for a large audience once the app’s core community gets built first. Or maybe it’s more experimental in nature. Maybe it’s evolving as users offer feedback. Maybe the app was built for fun, not for longevity. The App Store limits these different types of ideas by declaring every app has to be ready for the millions of users its ecosystem could potentially deliver.
The alt app community’s existence represents another argument for allowing developers to distribute apps outside the App Store and through their own websites. TestFlight, after all, has limits that a more open ecosystem would not.
- Massive Adobe gaffe wiped out Lightroom app users’ photos and presets that weren’t synced to the cloud. There’s no way to get them back. What ever happened to no single point of failure? Redundant backups? Maybe they should have used iCloud sync instead?
- Did you hear the one about the Michigan college that forced students to use a contact-tracing app that tracks the students’ real-time locations around the clock? When people fear and reject contact-tracing technology designed with privacy in mind, it’s because of incidents like these. Nice work, Albion College.
- David Dobrik wants to turn his gimmicky disposable camera app into a social network. I’d joke, but maybe the world needs a new Instagram now that Instagram has become Facebook’s junk drawer instead of the photo-focused social network it once was. So sure, why not go try to build whatever Disposable 2.0 is.
- The Hidden Album toggle switch you’ve always needed has arrived in iOS 14, public beta 5.
- Pure Sweat Basketball is the latest developer to leverage tech giants’ antitrust investigations for its own legal battle. The company filed a suit against Google over its 30% app store fees on Google Play and wants others to join.
- Android 11 removes the option to choose your preferred third-party camera app in the camera picker. Google says it’s to prevent geotag hijacking and protect user privacy. Fans says this is a good move that doesn’t impact most of the ways users leverage third-party camera apps. Critics say the reason many buy Android phones is for broader choice — and limiting apps to only opening the default camera impacts their experience.
- Apple and Google’s coronavirus contact-tracing tech is coming to Pennsylvania. But will anyone use it?
- Samsung is bringing its promise of at least 3 Android updates to low-end phones too.
Funding and M&A
- Take-Two Interactive acquires Two Dots game developer, Playdots, for $192 million ($90 million is cash). Playdots spun out of betaworks in 2014. Its games include Dots, Two Dots and Dots & Co.
- Restaurant rewards booking app Seated raised $30 million and acquired VenueBook to add events.
- Conversational commerce platform Yalochat raised $15 million Series B led by B Capital Group, co-founded by Facebook’s Eduardo Saverin. Existing investor Sierra Ventures participated. The tech allows businesses to manage sales and customer service over messaging apps, like WhatsApp, Messenger and iMessage.
- Apple acquired Israel’s Camerai, formerly Tipit, an AR and camera tech specialist. The deal took place quietly sometime between 2018 and 2019 but has only just been discovered.
- Robinhood raised $200 million more at a $11.2 billion valuation for its mobile investing app. The company has raised capital multiple times this year, including an initial $280 million round at an $8.3 billion valuation, and a later $320 million addition that brought its valuation to $8.6 billion.
- U.K.-based Hammock raised £1 million in seed funding for its fintech app for landlords and property managers.
Google Kormo Jobs (India)
Google’s latest app helps people in India find entry-level jobs. The app first launched Kormo Jobs in Bangladesh in 2018 and expanded it to Indonesia last year. The app highlights the different approach Google is taking in emerging markets, where the company sees an opportunity to build services outside of just an ad business.
The AI-powered deep fake app Reface, previously known as Doublicat, makes face-swapping tech easily accessible. Whether that’s a good thing or not remains to be seen. In the meantime, the app is worth a look from a pure tech perspective as to how far we’ve come. You can read a TC profile about Reface here.