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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.

The latest iOS 12 beta all but confirms a bigger iPhone X

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iOS 12 has truly been a treasure trove of both heating up the rumor mill and strongly hinting at upcoming devices.

Since last’s September iPhone X unveiling, rumors have been swirling that a larger model, presumably the iPhone X Plus, was en route for 2018. Now, legendary iOS developer, Guilherme Rambo, has taken to Twitter to show off a sketch of the presumed iPhone.

While digging through the latest iOS 12 beta, now up to version 5 for developers, he discovered a new sketch of what looks like a larger iPhone carrying the X’s trademark notch. You might recall that he found the original iPhone X in an iOS 11 beta at around this time in 2017. Read more…

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Amazon starts shipping its $249 DeepLens AI camera for developers

Back at its re:Invent conference in November, AWS announced its $249 DeepLens, a camera that’s specifically geared toward developers who want to build and prototype vision-centric machine learning models. The company started taking pre-orders for DeepLens a few months ago, but now the camera is actually shipping to developers.

Ahead of today’s launch, I had a chance to attend a workshop in Seattle with DeepLens senior product manager Jyothi Nookula and Amazon’s VP for AI Swami Sivasubramanian to get some hands-on time with the hardware and the software services that make it tick.

DeepLens is essentially a small Ubuntu- and Intel Atom-based computer with a built-in camera that’s powerful enough to easily run and evaluate visual machine learning models. In total, DeepLens offers about 106 GFLOPS of performance.

The hardware has all of the usual I/O ports (think Micro HDMI, USB 2.0, Audio out, etc.) to let you create prototype applications, no matter whether those are simple toy apps that send you an alert when the camera detects a bear in your backyard or an industrial application that keeps an eye on a conveyor belt in your factory. The 4 megapixel camera isn’t going to win any prizes, but it’s perfectly adequate for most use cases. Unsurprisingly, DeepLens is deeply integrated with the rest of AWS’s services. Those include the AWS IoT service Greengrass, which you use to deploy models to DeepLens, for example, but also SageMaker, Amazon’s newest tool for building machine learning models.

These integrations are also what makes getting started with the camera pretty easy. Indeed, if all you want to do is run one of the pre-built samples that AWS provides, it shouldn’t take you more than 10 minutes to set up your DeepLens and deploy one of these models to the camera. Those project templates include an object detection model that can distinguish between 20 objects (though it had some issues with toy dogs, as you can see in the image above), a style transfer example to render the camera image in the style of van Gogh, a face detection model and a model that can distinguish between cats and dogs and one that can recognize about 30 different actions (like playing guitar, for example). The DeepLens team is also adding a model for tracking head poses. Oh, and there’s also a hot dog detection model.

But that’s obviously just the beginning. As the DeepLens team stressed during our workshop, even developers who have never worked with machine learning can take the existing templates and easily extend them. In part, that’s due to the fact that a DeepLens project consists of two parts: the model and a Lambda function that runs instances of the model and lets you perform actions based on the model’s output. And with SageMaker, AWS now offers a tool that also makes it easy to build models without having to manage the underlying infrastructure.

You could do a lot of the development on the DeepLens hardware itself, given that it is essentially a small computer, though you’re probably better off using a more powerful machine and then deploying to DeepLens using the AWS Console. If you really wanted to, you could use DeepLens as a low-powered desktop machine as it comes with Ubuntu 16.04 pre-installed.

For developers who know their way around machine learning frameworks, DeepLens makes it easy to import models from virtually all the popular tools, including Caffe, TensorFlow, MXNet and others. It’s worth noting that the AWS team also built a model optimizer for MXNet models that allows them to run more efficiently on the DeepLens device.

So why did AWS build DeepLens? “The whole rationale behind DeepLens came from a simple question that we asked ourselves: How do we put machine learning in the hands of every developer,” Sivasubramanian said. “To that end, we brainstormed a number of ideas and the most promising idea was actually that developers love to build solutions as hands-on fashion on devices.” And why did AWS decide to build its own hardware instead of simply working with a partner? “We had a specific customer experience in mind and wanted to make sure that the end-to-end experience is really easy,” he said. “So instead of telling somebody to go download this toolkit and then go buy this toolkit from Amazon and then wire all of these together. […] So you have to do like 20 different things, which typically takes two or three days and then you have to put the entire infrastructure together. It takes too long for somebody who’s excited about learning deep learning and building something fun.”

So if you want to get started with deep learning and build some hands-on projects, DeepLens is now available on Amazon. At $249, it’s not cheap, but if you are already using AWS — and maybe even use Lambda already — it’s probably the easiest way to get started with building these kind of machine learning-powered applications.

Apple opens App Accelerator in India to foster iOS app development

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Apple is taking further steps to foster the developer ecosystem in the world’s fastest growing smartphone market. 

The Cupertino-based company said it will open a new App Accelerator in Bangalore, India. The announcement comes less than a year after the company said it would open an iOS App Design and Development Accelerator in India’s Silicon Valley. 

Through the new App Accelerator, the company hopes to offer specialised support to developers as well as tools to help them push the boundaries. 

At the centre, a group of experts will lead briefings and provide one-on-one app reviews for developers. The company is calling it “the first-of-its-kind facility” for the nation which already has tens of thousands of developers making apps for iOS.   Read more…

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Cloud Foundry launches its developer certification program

a foundry for clouds Cloud Foundry, a massive open source project that allows enterprises to host their own platform-as-a-service for running cloud applications in their own data center or in a public cloud, today announced the launch of its “Cloud Foundry Certified Developer” program. The Cloud Foundry Foundation calls this “the world’s largest cloud-native developer certification… Read More

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Email delivery service Mailgun spins out of Rackspace and raises $50M

an envelope or letter made from light trails hovering above illuminated spot on beach Mailgun, a Y Combinator-incubated email delivery service that was acquired by Rackspace in 2012, today announced that it is being spun our of Rackspace and that it has raised $50 million. Rackspace itself, of course, is going through a transition period now that it is has become a private company again and given that email delivery isn’t one of its core service, the company likely… Read More

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