Twitter’s crazy week drives social apps’ growth, Google expands user choice billing • TechCrunch
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.
Global app spending reached $65 billion in the first half of 2022, up only slightly from the $64.4 billion during the same period in 2021, as hypergrowth fueled by the pandemic has slowed down. But overall, the app economy is continuing to grow, having produced a record number of downloads and consumer spending across both the iOS and Google Play stores combined in 2021, according to the latest year-end reports. Global spending across iOS and Google Play last year was $133 billion, and consumers downloaded 143.6 billion apps.
This Week in Apps offers a way to keep up with this fast-moving industry in one place with the latest from the world of apps, including news, updates, startup fundings, mergers and acquisitions, and much more.
Do you want This Week in Apps in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters
It’s a Twitter dumpster fire and I can’t look away
Where to even begin? This week Twitter became one of the most chaotic, most disastrous social networks in history — and arguably, also the most interesting, in a sort of rubbernecking kind of way. There was something new taking place either on the platform directly or within the company itself at nearly every minute.
In just a handful of days since Musk’s takeover, Twitter has seen the following:
- The launch of Twitter Blue (11/9) followed by a pause (11/10), followed by its disappearance from the app entirely (11/11).
- Widespread impersonation of high-profile accounts, including Musk’s own, by Verified users — including, almost immediately, the $8/month Twitter Blue Verified users after the new subscription went live.
- The launch of Official badges (11/8) for high-profile accounts, followed by their disappearance (11/9) followed by their return (11/11).
- Elon Musk’s reveal of his plan to have Twitter enter the payments business.
- Further departures of key execs, including its most senior cybersecurity staffer Lea Kissner (11/10), chief privacy officer Damien Kieran (11/10), chief compliance officer Marianne Fogarty (11/10) Head of Trust and Safety Yoel Roth (11/10) — the latter who has been one of the last remaining sane voices at the company amid the upheaval.
- Musk held a call with advertisers (11/9) that did not offer any solid assurances that all would be well.
- After this call, the call’s host and head of ad sales Robin Wheeler, quit. Later, she tweeted “I’m still here” after being persuaded by Musk to stay (11/10).
- After the departure of key executives across trust, safety, data governance and security, the FTC issued a rare warning to Twitter (11/10). The agency said had been “tracking the developments at Twitter with deep concern,” and that “no CEO or company is above the law.” Twitter was put under an FTC consent order in 2011 after being found to have misused user data. The order requires, among other things, that new product rollouts receive full security reviews and it dictates what Twitter can and cannot do with data. The number of rapid changes, eliminations of departments, departures of key personnel and fast launches and shutdowns of new products are now raising questions as to whether or not Twitter has managed to remain compliant with the FTC’s decree.
- The lead regulator in the European Union then came after Twitter, setting a meeting for next week to discuss concerns including the data protection officer’s departure and whether Twitter’s main establishment for GDPR purposes is still located in Ireland.
- Musk addressed employees at an all-hands (11/10) and warned them Twitter may have a net negative cash flow of billions in 2023 and suggested bankruptcy was not out of the question.
One can argue that Musk was right to take a new approach at Twitter, which was losing money and failing to grow its user base. Coming in with fresh ideas and swapping out the executive team isn’t that unusual in a takeover, nor are widespread layoffs when a company is in financial trouble. New product experimentation is also to be expected. And revamping Twitter Blue, which has so far failed to attract subscribers, makes sense too.
But it’s not the what that’s the issue here, really — it’s the how. Musk clearly had not thought through the impact of his changes and he laid off people who could have offered deeper insight. His move to immediately make deep cuts across Twitter (after weird ideas about code reviews, apparently), meant he missed the opportunity to actually listen to current staff who could explain what Twitter has tried, what’s failed and why they’re doing the things they are. Even if Musk disagreed with Twitter’s current direction, those understandings could be used to better inform his future decisions.
Instead, he’s approached Twitter as a toy to be played with, saying even “Twitter will do lots of dumb things in coming months.” And it already has.
Living up to its promise, the first project Twitter landed on saw it reinventing the wheel.
Musk, having only perceived the value of a blue Verified badge as a status symbol, believed a wide swath of Twitter users would pay for the privilege of owning one. What he didn’t understand (unlike most of Twitter’s user base), is that Verification is actually a service the platform provides its community, not just an ego-pleasing checkmark. In fact, many of those with the original badge don’t see it as a status symbol, and wouldn’t pay for the “honor” of having one. Instead, the original blue badge was a way to quickly see that someone is who they claim to be or that they’re a trusted source of news and information.
Musk, on the other hand, thinks “citizen journalists” and everyday folks (or as he likes to call them, “peasants“) deserve some sort of verification, too. Which is…well, okay, he’s free to have that opinion and test it out as a paid product after spending $44 billion on this thing, I guess. (We don’t have space to talk about his misunderstandings around citizen journalism right now!)
But it could have been implemented in a different way — perhaps as a verified badge of a different shade or symbol, or even just as a system that would boost Twitter Blue subscribers’ tweets and replies on the platform above the non-paying users. After all, this is the core value Musk envisions for Twitter Blue, believing this is what would appeal to subscribers. Not to mention, such a system would make sense to test, given that it’s one that’s already been proven to work elsewhere. Paid elevation is a monetization lever other social networks utilize — like YouTube and Instagram, where products like YouTube’s Super Chat and IG Badges allow people to have their posts highlighted above others.
Twitter’s twist could have been that paid elevation like this wouldn’t necessarily be about getting the attention of top creators, per se, but would gain subscribers entry into everyone’s Verified tab or at least bumped to the top of the “All” notifications tab. Or, a secondary filter on the Verified tab could allow people to toggle on or off the visibility of “official” accounts, addressing complaints that the Verified tab is now no longer useful when checkmarks are for sale.
What a great thing this would have been to A/B test with a small percentage of the audience before fully diving in! But alas.
Rather than moving forward more thoughtfully, Musk simply trashed the existing Verification program — and without seemingly foreseeing the potential for widespread abuse. He then retroactively realized that identifying “Official” accounts had value for the wider community and for those who wanted a certain type of experience in the Verified tab itself.
His haphazard leadership led to new products launching, being shut off, then relaunching in a matter of hours and days. As a result, Twitter became a dumpster fire of sorts — and one that could have been avoided if Musk simply listened and learned before acting.
Google Play rolls out User Choice Billing more broadly, Epic Games’ Tim Sweeney trashes it as a ‘sham’
Google announced it’s expanding its user choice billing pilot, which allows Android app developers to use other payment systems besides Google’s own. The program will now become available to new markets, including the U.S., Brazil and South Africa, and Bumble will now join Spotify as one of the pilot testers.
The company first announced its intention to launch a third-party billing option back in March of this year, with Spotify as the initial tester. Now, Spotify says it will begin rolling out its implementation of this program with Google’s blessing.
The user choice billing program has steadily expanded over the course of the year. Last month, for example, Google invited non-game developers to apply for the user choice billing program in select markets, including India, Australia, Indonesia, Japan and the European Economic Area (EEA). The company also introduced a similar policy for developers in the EEA region in July, but the new guidelines raised the commission discount from 3% to 4% for developers who opted in. With today’s expansion, user choice billing will be made available to 35 countries worldwide.
Google says it’s been working with Spotify to help develop the experience and now the streaming music service will begin to put the new features into action in supported markets. The experience could still change over time, Google warned, as this is still the early days of the pilot test. In addition, Bumble has now joined Google to test user choice billing in its own app, with plans to roll out the options to users in select countries in the coming months.
It’s not clear what sort of deal Spotify and Bumble have received as Spotify won’t say beyond noting it meets the company’s standards of fairness.
In the meantime, not all developers think the deal is a good one.
Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney, who is suing both Apple and Google for alleged monopolistic practices, called the new system a sham as Google still takes 26% of the revenue — a reference to the 4% discount for switching to another payment provider.
“This is Google’s dishonest attempt to thwart EU and Korean regulators by feigning compliance with their new rules for billing competition, while still collecting their monopoly rent and rendering competing payment services non-viable,” Sweeney wrote.
Mastodon and others gain in wake of Twitter chaos
The drama at Twitter has seen some users looking for an exit. In recent days, alternative social and microblogging platforms have seen strong gains, including, most notably, the open source decentralized Twitter alternative Mastodon. The service’s founder and CEO recently announced Mastodon had topped 1 million monthly active users, as more than half a million users joined the network since October 27.
App intelligence firm Sensor Tower noted Mastodon has seen approximately 322,000 installs from U.S. app stores in the 12 days following the acquisition (October 27 through November 7), which is more than 100 times the 3,000 it saw in the prior 12-day period. Globally, the app grew 657% to 1 million installs during that same October 27-November 7 time frame, up from 15,000 in the 12 days prior.
Other third-party Mastodon clients saw a bump, too, with Metatext and Tootle both growing from less than 1,000 installs to 19,000 and 7,000, respectively, between the two periods.
But Mastodon isn’t the only network seeing an uptick in installs, as it turns out.
Tumblr also saw its U.S. installs grow 96% from 47,000 to 92,000 between the two timeframes and saw global installs grow 77% from 170,000 to 301,000.
Alternative social app CounterSocial also grew 2,300% to 24,000 installs in U.S. app stores in the 12 days following the acquisition, and grew 3,200% globally, with 33,000 installs.
Another app intelligence firm, data.ai, sliced the data in a different way. It examined various social apps’ worldwide download growth during a seven-day period following the acquisition (October 27 through November 2), then compared that with the prior seven-day period. Its data also confirmed the sizable gains made by Mastodon and CounterSocial in terms of global install increases between the two timeframes. Mastodon’s installs jumped 2,200% and CounterSocial’s grew 1,200%.
Data.ai saw a number of other social apps seeing bumps, as well, beyond direct Twitter alternatives. This included David’s Disposable (up 83%), nFollowers (up 50%), CocoFun (up 46%), Substack Reader (up 24%), Tribel (up 11%), Tumblr (up 7%) and Pinterest (up 2%).
Read more about this here.
- Apple is planning to launch its Emergency SOS with Satellite in November. The service will see the tech giant paying $405 million to the U.S. companies enabling the feature, with the majority going to Globalstar.
- A change in the iOS 16.1.1 update will now restrict the “Everyone” option in AirDrop to 10 minutes on iPhones purchased in mainland China. Apple said it is improving the AirDrop experience by automatically reverting the receiving setting back to “Contacts Only” after 10 minutes to help mitigate unwanted file sharing.
- Apple rolled out the ability for users in Colorado to store their driver’s license or state ID in the Apple Wallet app. The feature has only rolled out to select states so far, including Arizona and Maryland, though Connecticut, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Utah are signed up.
- Apple released the second developer betas for iOS 16.2, iPadOS 16.2, tvOS 16.2 and watchOS 9.2.
- Apple is said to be working on a Custom Accessibility Mode for iOS 16.2, beta 2, codenamed Clarity, that will make the iPhone and iPad’s interface more user-friendly for those who find it overly complicated today. (Could be a good tool for a tech-unsavvy grandma or grandpa, it seems.)
- Apple is reportedly working on simplifying its voice assistant trigger from “Hey Siri” to just “Siri,” said Bloomberg.
- Apple launched another week of its Ask Apple developer series, where developers can connect directly with Apple experts in one-on-one consultations and group Q&As. This latest series will run from November 14 to 18 across time zones.
- Google is now allowing users to preview its newly redesigned Google Home app for iOS and Android. The new app lets you favorite devices, run automation (coming), enable new triggers for routines and more.
- Google released the public beta of the new Android Auto UI, first announced at Google I/O. Some of the notable changes in this release include: the map will now be closer to the driver in the new dashboard with improved size and reachability; the dashboard media card has a completely new look and now grows and shrinks dynamically; the map fills the entire Android Auto area; a new app dock in the rail makes it easier to switch between recent apps; more Material You and modernized UI; music and media recommendations from Google Assistant can be accessed with a swipe of the dashboard media card; and it consolidates the old status icons and notification center bell into one tappable area on the rail that includes the number of unread messages.
- The world’s once-third-largest crypto exchange, FTX, was struggling to stay alive after a bailout deal with Binance failed this week. Sam Bankman-Fried began winding down trading firm Alameda Research and was attempting to raise liquidity for FTX International after the FTX exchange experienced a liquidity crunch. Those efforts didn’t pan out and on Friday, FTX announced it was filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the U.S. About 130 additional affiliated companies — including FTX US and Alameda Research — also began the bankruptcy process.
- Meta announced massive layoffs of 13% of its workforce, or 11,000 people, following Twitter’s layoffs of half its workforce, or 7,500 people after Elon Musk’s takeover. Meta employees will receive 16 weeks of severance pay, plus two extra weeks for each year of service, and six months of health insurance. Meta announced its first-ever quarterly decline in June, and saw its revenue decline again in Q3.
- Reddit launched a “community muting” feature that lets users mute an entire community on the platform. After muting, posts from that specific community will be removed from the user’s notifications, Home feed and Popular feed. The new feature is launching on Reddit’s mobile apps over the next few weeks and will later expand to the desktop.
- Instagram rolled out an in-app scheduling tool to all professional accounts. The tool allows creators and businesses to schedule posts in advance without having to use third-party apps or Creator Studio.
- Pinterest’s new collage-making app Shuffles is now available to the public in select markets, after starting off as an invite-only app earlier this summer. Users can add their own photos or those from Pinterest boards to their collages as image cutouts. Shuffles grew in popularity with Gen Z users, who used the creative expression tool to make “aesthetic” collages, sometimes set to music and posted to TikTok, or shared privately with friends or the Shuffles community. The app is still considered a test, Pinterest says.
- Amazon Photos finally updated its Android app a year after the iOS version was redesigned. The new design is more modern with a focus on improved navigation, sharing, search and more. With a swipe up, you can access tools to filter photos by object, place or year. Prime members are offered unlimited full-res photo storage and 5GB of video storage.
- Popular third-party camera app Halide updated to version 2.10, which brought a 2X zoom to iPhone 14 Pro users, plus updates to Depth mode, a 48/12MP quick toggle and more.
- Telegram added several new features, including Collectible Usernames secured on the TON blockchain, voice-to-text for video messages new emoji packs, a redesign night mode on iOS, resizing text on Android, topics in groups and more. The company also threw shade at Apple for the update’s delay, writing it took two weeks for the update to be approved. Founder Pavel Durov added in a post, “Apple claims they review apps within 24 hours, but, in our experience, it takes at least 7-10 days for any meaningful product update to reach the App Store.”
- Signal launched a Stories feature on iOS and Android. The feature lets users share Stories that expire after 24 hours, much like other social apps. Users can choose who can see their Stories — which can be everyone in your phone’s contact list who uses Signal, anyone you’ve had a one-on-one conversation with in Signal or anyone whose message request you’ve accepted. The company plans to release Stories on the desktop soon.
Streaming & Entertainment
- Spotify redesigned its Apple Watch app with larger artwork, smoother animations and several new features. It’s now easier to see and select individual tracks and episodes from any playlist, podcast, artist or album directly on your watch, and you can swipe to “like” tracks and toggle shuffle mode “on” or “off ” before you start playing. Podcast pages have a new look too, and new episodes will be highlighted with a blue dot. Paying subscribers can also now download favorite songs, albums and playlists directly from the Watch app itself instead of using the mobile app, as before.
- All three major music labels — UMG, Sony and Warner — are asking TikTok to pay them a share of its ad revenues, hoping to reach a deal before their existing deals expire in the coming months, Bloomberg reported. The news comes at a bad time for TikTok, which is said to be cutting its revenue projections for 2022 to $10 billion, down from the $12-14.5 billion it had previously predicted, the FT said.
- TikTok also overhauled its U.S. operations after an advertising slump, which included moving GM Sandie Hawkins to TikTok Shop, per the FT.
- YouTube announced it surpassed 80 million YouTube Music and Premium subscribers globally, including customers using free trials, representing a year-over-year increase of 30 million subscribers.
- YouTube launched Shorts on TV to global users. The feature will require a smart TV from 2019 or later, a newer gaming console or a streaming device. The videos themselves can be found on the new Shorts shelf on the homepage of the YouTube app or on a creator’s channel page. It also added a “Live Q&A” feature to make it easier for fans and viewers to interact during livestreams.
- Disney said it now has 235.7 million global subscribers, above Netflix’s 223.1 million. Disney+ had 164.2 million, Hulu accounted for 47.2 million and ESPN+ had 24 million.
- Giphy launched its first connected TV app with GIPHY Arts for Roku. The app brings short-form video content made by artists to the big screen in select markets.
- Nintendo and mobile games company DeNA are forming a joint venture company called Nintendo Systems that will aim to “strengthen the digitization of Nintendo’s business” and create “value-added services to further reinforce Nintendo’s relationship with customers,” Nintendo said. The two have worked together on a handful of titles, including Super Mario Run, Fire Emblem Heroes, Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp, Mario Kart Tour, Miitomo and Pokémon Masters.
- Netflix is bringing back the “Stranger Things: Puzzle Tales” game with new gameplay based on the content from Season 4 of the show. The app was originally released in 2021 but was removed from the App Store and Play Store in August after Netflix acquired the game’s publisher for $72 million.
- Motto, a new app for gay and queer hookups and casual dating, hailing from Grindr founder Joel Simkhai and Alex Hostetler, launched in New York City.
Travel & Transportation
- Airbnb said it will refine its search to show users’ charges inclusive of fees — like cleaning fees. The company will roll out this feature through a toggle next month and will also prioritize the total charges for your trip in search instead of the nightly price. The move comes as Airbnb customers are growing increasingly angry about hosts’ excessive cleaning fees, particularly when they’re being asked to do much of the cleaning themselves. But the company doesn’t have a policy on what hosts can ask — just a suggestion for them to be reasonable.
Security & Privacy
- New research indicates Apple is collecting data about iPhone app usage even when users set the iPhone Analytics setting to off. When off, the message says it will “disable the sharing of Device Analytics altogether.” However, two app developers and security researchers found that the setting had no impact on Apple’s own data collection in its apps — including the App Store, Apple Music, Apple TV, Book and Stocks. In fact, the App Store was collecting data about everything users did like what you tapped on, searched for, the ads you saw, how long you looked at an app and more.
- Western security advisors are warning delegates to the COP27 climate summit not to download Egypt’s climate summit Android app, which they say could be used to spy on emails, texts and voice conversations, according to Politico.
💰 Paris-based photo-editing app PhotoRoom raised $19 million in Series A funding led by Balderton Capital for its app that allows users to quickly remove the background from photos of objects so e-commerce listings look more professional. The app has 7 million MAUs and plans to add generative AI.
💰 Mem, an app that uses AI to organize notes, raised $23.5 million in funding led by the OpenAI Startup Fund, valuing the startup at $110 million. The app’s workflow revolves around search and a chronological timeline, and lets users attach topic tags, tag other users and add recurring reminders to notes. Mem is available across desktop and mobile, and has raised $29 million to date.
💰 Seattle-based BrightCanary raised $4 million in seed funding led by Trilogy Equity Partners for its app that helps parents track their children’s activity on services like YouTube, Instagram and TikTok.
💰 Travel app Hopper raised $96 million in follow-on investment from Capital One, bringing the company’s total raise to $740 million. Capital One led Hopper’s Series F and will now work with the company to create new travel products aimed at Capital One customers.
🤝 Game engine maker Unity and adtech company ironSource completed their merger in a $4.4 billion all-stock deal. Unity’s stock is down around 75% and ironSource’s stock is down ~50% year-to-date. Both Unity and ironSource were impacted by Apple’s ATT and believed pooling their resources could help them address their declines. Unity earlier rejected an offer by AppLovin.
💰 African super app Yassir raised $150 million in Series B funding for its platform offering ride-hailing, food and grocery delivery, and payments. The funding was led by Mary Meeker’s Bond. Yassir has raised $193.25 million since its 2017 founding.
💰 Car rental app Kyte raised $60 million in Series B funding, led by InterAlpen Partners. The company now has access to a few thousand cars across 14 cities and is looking to expand. The startup to date has raised $300 million in both equity and debt.
TechCrunch’s Aisha Malik this week reviewed the launch of Pineapple, a new iOS app that aims to offer Gen Z users a new professional networking platform that relies on visual stories. The app allows users to create profiles that are a cross between LinkedIn and Instagram and showcase the user’s experience, projects and more using visuals. Users can also join Communities to connect with other members around topics and engage in thread conversations called “Jams.”
Pineapple feels TikTok-inspired with a main For You type of page where users keep up with their connections. The app has raised $1.1 million in a pre-seed round, which included investors like F7 Ventures, 500 Global, Bradley Horowitz (VP of product at Google) and Julie Zhou (former VP of design at Facebook).
Though not yet launched to the public, Apple’s new whiteboarding app, Freefrom, is now available in the iOS 16.2 and macOS 13.1 betas. TechCrunch’s Ivan Mehta took the app for a spin this week, testing out its ability to use multiple media formats — like text, images, videos, notes, docs and more — all in one space and collaborate with others. The app may not replace professional tools like Figma, but could be useful for everyday design tasks, including things like event planning, home redesigns, journaling, making charts and more.