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This Week in Apps: Apple bans party app, China loses 39K iOS games, TikTok births a ‘Ratatousical’

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion total downloads and $120 billion in global consumer spend in 2019. Not including Chinese third-party app stores, iOS and Android users in 2020 downloaded 130 billion apps and spent a record $112 billion. In 2019, people spent three hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV.

Due to COVID-19, time spent in apps jumped 25% year-over-year on Android. 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.

This week (after a week off for the holidays), we’re taking a look at holiday app store spending, how the Chinese gaming licensing rules have impacted the App Store, Apple’s move to ban a party app that could have helped spread COVID, and the collaborative musical created by TikTok users, among other things.

Top Stories

Christmas Day app spending grows 35% year-over-year

Global app spending didn’t seem to be impacted by the pandemic in 2020, according to data from Sensor Tower. The firm reports that consumers spent $407.6 million in apps from the iOS App Store and Google Play on Christmas Day, 34.5% from the $303 million spent in 2019. The majority of the spending was on mobile games, up 27% year-over-year to $295.6 million. Tencent’s Honor of Kings led the games category, while TikTok led non-game apps with $4.7 million in spending on Christmas Day.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

As in prior years, Apple accounted for the majority of the spending, or 68.4% ($278.6M) vs Google Play’s $129M. The spending was led by the U.S., who accounted for ~$130 million of the total

Apple takes a stand on pandemic parties

Apple’s App Store Review guidelines don’t specifically detail how the company will handle apps that could contribute to the spread of COVID-19, but Apple found a way to draw the line when it came to a social app that encouraged unsafe gatherings. This past week, Apple banned the app Vybe Together, which had allowed people to locate “secret” indoor house parties in their area, sometimes including those held in violation of state guidelines.

NYT reporter Taylor Lorenz first called attention to the problem with a tweet. The app had been posting to TikTok to gain attention, but its account has since been removed. Following its removal, the company defended itself by saying that it was only meant for small get-togethers and the founder lamented being “canceled by the liberal media.”

There’s no good defense, really, for the unnecessary and ill-timed promotion of an app that encouraged people from different households to gather, which spreads COVID. And what the founder seemed to not understand, by nature of his recent tweets and statements on the app’s website, is that many cities and states also already prohibit small private gatherings of varying degrees, including those he believes are fine, like small parties in folks’ “own apartments with people in your area.”

The U.S. is coping with 346,000 COVID deaths, and in New York, where the app was promoting NYE parties, 74% of all COVID-19 cases from Sept.-Nov. 2020 have been linked to private gatherings.

The media may have reported on what the app was doing, but ultimately the decision to “cancel” it was Apple’s. And it was the correct one.

Apple removes 39K games from its China App Store.

Apple on Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020 removed 39,000+ games from China App Store. This was the biggest removal of games in a single day, Reuters reported, citing data from Qimai.

iOS games have long been required to obtain a Chinese gaming license in order to operate in the country, but Apple skirted this rule for years by hosting unlicensed titles even as Android app stores complied. Apple began to enforce the rule in 2020 and gave publishers a Dec. 31, 2020 deadline to obtain the license — a process that can be tedious and time-consuming.

Clearly, a large number of publishers were not able to meet the deadline. Included in the new sweep were Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Identity and NBA 2K20. Qimai says only only 74 of the top 1,500 paid games remained following the removals. To date, Apple purged more than 46,000 titles from the China App Store, the report said.

TikTok births a “Ratatousical”

The TikTok musical version of Ratatouille has become a real thing. The pandemic forced a lot of creative types out of work in 2020, leading them to find new ways to express themselves online. On TikTok, this collective pent-up energy turned into a large-scale collaborative event: a musical version of Disney’s Ratatouille. (Or Ratatousical, as it was nicknamed.) TikTokers composed music, wrote lyrics and dialogue, choreographed dances, designed costumes, sets and more, as they worked together through the app.

Surprisingly, Disney is allowing a charity version of this collaboration to become a real event without any interference or lawsuits. The Ratatouille musical live-streamed on Jan. 1 at 7 p.m. Eastern, and will be available via video-on-demand through Jan. 4, for a minimum $5 donation to The Actors Fund.

The musical itself was lighthearted fun for a younger, Gen Z crowd. It also cleverly incorporated actual TikTok videos that featured the app’s well-known visual effects — like cloning yourself or the flashing colored lights typically associated with TikTok’s “you think you can hurt me” meme, for example. That made it more accessible and familiar to kids who had spent the past year being entertained via the internet.

TikTok users, of course, aren’t the only ones designing, creating and editing productions through remote and collaborative processes in 2020 — Hollywood itself has had to reorient itself for remote work at a much larger scale. TikTok was simply the platform of choice for theater kids looking for something to do.

It will be interesting to see if the TikTok-based collaborative process that birthed this musical ultimately becomes a one-off event that arose from the pandemic’s impacts — including the ability for many creative people to devote time and energy on side projects, for example, due to shuttered productions and stay-at-home orders. Or perhaps in-app collaborations have a real future? Time will tell.

TikTok has already proven it can drive the music charts, fashion trends, and app downloads, so it can probably generate an audience for this production, as well. But the cynic may wonder if such an event would have been as popular and buzzworthy had it been some entirely original production, rather than one based on already popular and beloved Disney IP.  But you may as well watch — it’s not like you have any other plans these days.

Weekly News

Platforms

Gaming

  • Samsung teams up with Epic Games on Apple battle over Fortnite. Samsung and Epic Games worked together on the “Free Fortnite” marketing campaign, which recently involving sending packages to influencers that contained a Free Fortnite bomber jacket and Samsung Galaxy Tab S7. Fortnite was the Samsung Galaxy Store game of the year in 2020, and the store also distributes the Epic Games app which distributes the Fortnite updates. This is an odd move as Epic alleges the app stores leverage their power to engage in monopolistic practices, but this makes it clear that Samsung is offering them distribution. Apple has the right to set its own pricing for its services (and it recently lowered commissions for small businesses, too). But even if Epic Games is not the knight in shining armor one would hope for, its lawsuit could help set precedent. And regulators may still decide one day that Apple can’t dictate rules about how businesses operate outside its app store — meaning, they should have the right to collect their own payments, for example.

Augmented Reality

Image Credits: The New York Times

  • The New York Times gets into AR gaming. The media company has experimented with augmented reality as a way to augment storytelling both in its app and through other efforts on social media. But it has now taken AR into the world of gaming with an AR-enabled crossword puzzle where you swipe to rotate broken pieces floating above the puzzle to find clues.

Social & Photos

Telegram photo by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

  • Telegram begins to make money. The messaging app, now nearing 500 million users, will introduce an ad platform for its public one-to-many channels that is “user-friendly” and “respects privacy.” The company says it needs to generate revenue to cover the costs of server and traffic. Telegram earlier abandoned a blockchain token project due to regulatory issues.
  • Mr. Beast announces the second annual “Finger on the App” challenge on Feb. 19. The game doles out $100,000 to whoever can keep their finger on their smartphone the longest, via an app designed for this purpose. Last year, it was a four-way tie after 70 hours, and the prize money was divided. The new app introduces in-app challenges to dissuade cheating. YouTuber Mr. Beast rose to fame for his philanthropic-based viral videos and stunts. He has made sizable donations to people in need and those impacted by the pandemic. But this year, the otherwise silly game has a darker tone as it involves competitors who will likely be in more desperate situations.
  • Bumble uproar over indoor bikini and bra photos. The dating app found itself in the middle of a small controversy this week when a woman who wanted to pose in her bra had her photos taken down. The company said its existing policy prohibits things like shirtless bathroom mirror selfies and indoor photos of people wearing swimsuits and underwear. Bumble’s policies were crafted in response to user data and feedback, but may also help to prevent adult sites from spamming with fake profiles. However, there’s still something weird about an app that markets itself as female-friendly telling a woman to go put some clothes on.
  • ByteDance filings reveal TikTok U.K. business recorded a $119.5 million loss over 2019. The losses were driven by advertising and marketing expenses, indicating the app is still very much in a growth mode.
  • TikTok launches its first personalized annual recap feature. The company “year on TikTok” in-app experience joins other personalized wrap-ups like the Top Nine for Instagram or Spotify’s Wrapped. It also introduces a floating, tappable button to connect users to the experience. This could pave way for other sorts of mini-applications in the future.
  • Clubhouse power users invited to special club. A select group of creators inside the already invite-only audio conversations app have now been given exclusive access to tools and private meetings with Clubhouse leadership and influencers. In one meeting, the creators discussed monetization strategies. The app grew to popularity amid the pandemic as people have been prevented from typical forms of networking, but it’s also struggled with moderation as conversations go off the rails. Today, Clubhouse also hosts many adult topics, as well, which would give the app a 17+ rating if it were actually submitted to the App Store instead of being in a private beta.

Streaming

  • HBO Max’s mobile app set a single-day download record following the release of “Wonder Woman 1984.” During the release weekend (Fri.-Sun.) the app saw 554K downloads, including 244K downloads on Sunday alone, reported Apptopia. The firm estimates the app now has just under 12M mobile users.

Health & Fitness

Government & Policy

Security & Privacy

Funding and M&A

Image Credits: Tappity

Downloads

Yayzy

Image Credits: Yayzy

This U.K. startup’s new app will calculate the environmental impact of what you buy using payment data via Open Banking standards. You you can use this information to adjust your spending or buy offsets in-app in order to become carbon neutral. iOS only.

Waterscope

Image Credits: Iconfactory

The popular app maker Iconfactory released a new app, Waterscope, that is a weather app more specifically designed to provide users with information on water conditions. Creator Craig Hockenberry explains the app is something he largely built for himself, an ocean swimmer often in need of information about the tides, wave heights, water temperature, wind speed, air temperature, forecasts and more. The app could be useful to those who live around the water, whether they’re swimming, fishing, boating or anything else. iOS only.

Run Boggo Run

Image Credits: BuzzFeed

This endless runner is BuzzFeed’s first mobile game, which makes it worth noting if not exactly recommending. The mental health-themed game, inspired by BuzzFeed’s animated series The Land of Boggs, was created by BuzzFeed Animation Studios. In the game, characters try to avoid things like stress monsters and gremlins, which is a humorous take on the anxieties of 2020. However, early user reviews indicate the game’s controls are too difficult and complain the game is too hard to be fun. How stressful! $0.99 on iOS and Android.

Enso

A new meditation game Enso promises to help users relax, meditate or fall asleep faster using gameplay that involves soothing visuals and sounds, composed by A.I. The app consists of 5-minute journeys where users concentrate on a task while guiding their movements and breath to achieve their goals. iOS and Android.

Portal

Image Credits: Portal

Not Facebook’s Portal! This sleep and relaxation-focused app, also called Portal, has been updated with Apple’s new privacy measures in mind. The company announced in December it will not collect user data from its app, and will now no longer use any in-app analytics tracking. The app also never required a login or collected personal information, and didn’t include third-party ads and ad trackers.

That’s resulted in an App Store rare find:

How refreshing.

The Portal app is a free download and offers a $35 per year membership for those who want access to the full content library.

This Week in Apps: App Store outrage, WWDC20 prep, Android subscriptions change

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the Extra Crunch 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 Extra Crunch series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

This week, one story completely took over the news cycle: Hey vs. Apple. An App Store developer dispute made headlines not because Apple was necessarily in the wrong, per its existing rules, but because of a growing swell of developer resentment against those rules. We’re giving extra bandwidth to this story this week, before jumping into the other headlines.

Also this week we look at what’s expected to arrive at next week’s WWDC20, the TikTok clone Zynn getting banned from both app stores (which is totally fine, I guess!), Facebook’s failed attempts to get its Gaming app approved by Apple, as well as some notable Android updates and other app industry trends.

Main Story: Hey vs. Apple

One story dominated this week’s app news. Unless you were living under the proverbial rock, there’s no way you missed it. After Basecamp received App Store approval for its new email app called Hey, the founders, David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried, turned to Twitter to explain how Apple had now rejected the app’s further updates. Apple told Basecamp it had to offer in-app purchases (IAP) for its full email service within the app, in addition to offering it on the company website. They were not happy, to say the least.

This issue came to a head at a time when regulators are taking a closer look at Apple’s business. The company is facing antitrust investigations in both the U.S. and the E.U. which, in part, will attempt to determine if Apple is abusing its market power to unfairly dominate its competitors. In Hey’s case, the subscription-based app competes with Apple’s built-in free Mail app, which could put this case directly in the regulators’ crosshairs.

But it also brings up the larger concerns over how Apple’s App Store rules have evolved to become a confusing mess which developers — and apparently even Apple’s own App Store reviewers — don’t fully understand. (Apple reportedly told Basecamp that Hey should have never been approved in the first place without IAP.)

Apple has carved out a number of conditions where apps don’t have to implement IAP, by making exceptions for enterprise apps that may have per-seat licensing plans for users and for a set of apps that more directly compete with Apple’s own. These, Apple calls “reader” apps, as they were originally directed making an exception for Amazon’s Kindle. But now this rule offers exceptions to the IAP rule for apps focused on magazines, newspapers, books, audio, music, video, VoIP, access to professional databases, cloud storage, and more.

That leaves other digital service providers wondering why their apps have to pay when others don’t.

Apple didn’t help its argument, when earlier in the week it released a report that detailed how its App Store facilitated $519B in commerce last year. The company had aimed to prove how much business flows through the App Store without Apple taking a 30% commission, positioning the portion of the market Apple profits from as a tiny sliver. But after the Hey debacle, this report only drives home how Apple has singled out one type of app-based business — digital services — as the one that makes the App Store its money.

Apple’s decision to squander its goodwill with the developer community the week before WWDC is an odd one. Heinemeier Hansson, a content marketing expert, easily bested the $1.5 trillion dollar company by using Apple’s hesitance to speak publicly against it. He set the discussion on fire, posted App Store review email screenshots to serve as Apple’s voice, and let the community vent.

Amid the Twitter outrage, large publishers’ antitrust commentary added further fuel to the fire, including those from Spotify, Match, and Epic Games.

For more reading on this topic, here are some of the key articles:

  • TechCrunch’s exclusive interview with iOS App Store head, Phil Schiller. The exec said Apple’s position on the Hey app is unchanged and no changes to App Store rules are imminent. “You download the app and it doesn’t work, that’s not what we want on the store,” he argued. (Except of course, at those times when such an experience is totally fine with Apple, as in the case of “reader” apps.) Schiller also said Basecamp could have avoided the problems if Hey had offered a free version with paid upgrades, or if it offered IAP at a higher price than on its own website.
  • Daring Fireball’s comments on the “flimsiness” of Business vs. Consumer as a justification for Apple’s rejection of Hey. John Gruber points out that the line between what’s a business app and a consumer app is too blurred. Apple allows some business apps to forgo IAP if they sell enterprise plans (e.g. per seat plans) that often involve upgraded feature sets that aren’t even iOS-specific. But in this day and age, who’s to say that an email service doesn’t deserve the same ability to opt out of IAP in order to serve its own business user base? After all, what if it upgrades its paid service with web-only features — why should Apple get a cut of that business, too?
  • App Store policy criticism from The Verge. Nilay Patel sat down with Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) and Basecamp CTO David Heinemeier Hansson to discuss the plight of Hey for its The Vergecast podcast. Cicilline said Apple’s fees were “exorbitant” and amounted to “highway robbery, basically.” He said Apple bullied developers by charging 30% of their business for access to its market — a decision which crushes smaller developers. “If there were real competition in this marketplace, this wouldn’t happen,” he added. The Verge’s Dieter Bohn also argued that Apple’s interpretation and enforcement of its App Store policies is terrible.
  • Basecamp CEO’s take on Apple’s App Store payment policies: Basecamp, the makers of the Hey app, put out a company statement about the App Store rules. The statement doesn’t add anything new to the conversation that wasn’t already in the tweetstorm, except the Basecamp response to Schiller’s suggestions which was something along the lines of 😝. The bottom line is that Hey wants to make the choice for its own business whether it needs the benefit of being able to acquire its users through the App Store or not. One way requires IAP and the other does not.
  • Vox’s Recode examines the antitrust case against Apple. The article doesn’t reference Hey, but lays out some of the other antitrust arguments being leveraged against Apple, including its “sherlocking” behavior,

Headlines

Apple has denied Facebook’s Gaming app at least 5 times since February

The Hey debacle is only one of many examples of how Apple exerts its market power over rivals. It has also repeatedly denied Facebook’s Gaming app entry to its App Store, citing the rule (Apple Store Review Guidelines, section 4.7) about not allowing apps whose main purpose is to sell other app, The NYT revealed this week.

Facebook’s Gaming app, which launched on Android in April, isn’t just another app store, however. The app offers users a hub to watch streamers play live, social networking tools, and the ability to play casual games like Zynga’s Words with Friends or Chobolabs Thug Life, for example. The latter is the point of contention, as Apple wants all games sold directly on the App Store, where it’s able to take a cut of their revenues.

One of the iterations Facebook tried was a version that looked almost exactly like how Facebook games are presented within the main Facebook iOS app — a single, alphabetized, unsortable list. The fact that this format was rejected when Apple already allows it elsewhere is an indication that even Apple doesn’t play by its own rules.

Zynn gets kicked out of App Store

Image Credits: Zynn

Zynn, the TikTok clone that shot to the top of the app store charts in late May, was pulled from Apple’s App Store on Monday. Before its removal, Sensor Tower estimates Zynn was downloaded 5 million times on iOS and 700,000 times on Google Play.