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This Week in Apps: Elections’ impact on the app store, new app privacy requirements, iOS 14.2 arrives

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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.

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Apps and the Elections

The tight, nail-biting U.S. elections this week had a number of impacts on the app market.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

The apps Americans chose to watch the elections on their iPhone were reflective of the nation’s divisions. Instead of a more neutral news source, like a broadcast network, the top 2 apps were CNN and Fox News — cable news channels that lean left and right, respectively.

On the day after Election Day, the Fox News app hit No. 2 among the top free iPhone apps on the U.S. App Store. This is the highest it has ever ranked. The second-highest ranking it reached was No. 9 on November 9, 2016.

Meanwhile, the CNN app hit No. 3 on the same — its highest rank since it hit No. 2 back on Jan. 20, 2017, the date of Trump’s inauguration. This was also the 3rd highest ever rank. (The app previously reached No, 1 on Nov. 9, 2016).

As of Nov. 5, CNN maintained a top ranking at No. 4 but Fox News slipped to No. 14.

Other news apps didn’t do as well, barely cracking the top 50 at best

Android users showed less interest in the elections, where Fox News only got as high as No. 12 on Nov. 5 and CNN reached No. 16.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

In lighter news from this stressful week, Calm’s meditation app made headlines for its hilarious ad campaign that saw it sponsoring CNN’s coverage of the presidential election. The app popped up on the screen during CNN’s “Key Race Alert.” The move seemed to benefit the app in terms of downloads and rankings. 

On social media apps, companies had to react quickly to clamp down on the rapid-fire spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories, and other violating content. Facebook and Instagram ran notifications to inform users that votes were still being counted after Trump falsely claimed he had won.

Facebook also removed conspiracy groups and hashtags associated with election misinformation, as did TikTok. In Facebook’s case, a hashtag block is not a full removal — content will still be returned if you search for a blocked phrase, even if it’s largely from news organizations reporting on the trend. On TikTok, however, a blocked terms returns nothing. TikTok also took more decisive action to fully remove videos spreading election misinformation.

However, for those in the market for misinformation, it’s still fairly easy to find across TikTok, as many other hashtags and terms where misinfo is shared remained untouched.

YouTube, however, took a more controversial stance on its handling of misinformation. The platform this week demonstrated how it’s complicit in the spread of false and dangerous information, when it refused to remove a video that falsely claimed Trump won the election and worked to undermine Americans’ trust in democratic elections. YouTube believes demonetization and warning labels are the solution, but by keeping this content online, it retains users. And then those people do, in fact, watch ads elsewhere, allowing YouTube to profit.

The company did draw the line, at least, at a video from Steve Bannon, that called for violence against and deaths of Anthony Fauci and FBI director Christopher Wray.

According to Sensor Tower, the top social media apps in the U.S. including TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter saw their combined iOS and Android installs from November 3 to November 5 decline 8% week-over-week when compared to the installs from October 27 to October 29.

Right-wing social app Parler, meanwhile, ranked at No. 1,023 on iOS on November 2. On November 5, it had climbed to No. 241. As of Friday, it was No. 29.

Apple rolls out a big update to iOS 14

Apple this week released iOS 14.2, which brings a number of new features in addition to the usual bug fixes and security updates.

Of note to consumers, the update brings 117 new emojis.

Among the new emoji is a tweaked version of the “Face with Medical Mask,” which changes the face so the eyes are smiling. Other notable additions include the transgender flag, pinched fingers, people hugging, a smiling face with tear, a man bottle-feeding a baby and a more inclusive set of tuxedo-wearing people and people wearing a veil. There’s also a gender-inclusive alternative to Santa and Mrs. Claus, which offers a gender neutral option of a person in a Santa hat.

The updated iOS also offers eight new wallpapers in both light and dark version; new AirPlay controls; the ability to connect the HomePod to Apple TV for stereo, surround sound and Dolby Atmos audio; support for iPhone 12 Leather Sleeve with MagSafe; optimized battery charging for AirPods; headphone audio level notifications; and more.

One of the more interesting new features, however, is an accessibility upgrade for blind users that takes advantage of the lidar support in iPhone 12, 12 Pro Max and iPad Pro.

The “People Detection” features leverages lidar to detect how close people are to the device owner, as a way to help blind users better navigate the world. 

Get ready for Apple’s new “app privacy” labels

Image Credits: Apple

Apple this week announced a deadline of December 8, 2020 for app developers to submit their app’s privacy information to the App Store. This information will be required to submit new apps and app updates, and will give consumers a better understanding of how apps are accessing their data.

On each app’s product page following the deadline, users will be able to see what data an app collects and how that data is used to track them, Apple says. This doesn’t only include data the app developers collect themselves, but also data that’s transmitted off the device for later use by the developer or a third-party partner. That means app developers will have to disclose how data is being handed over to analytics tools, ad networks and other third-party SDKs and other vendors.

With this pro-consumer privacy change, Apple customers will know how developers are tracking and/or sharing their personal info, health data, financial information, location, contacts data, user content, browsing and search histories, purchases, app usage, diagnostic and more.

While it’s hard to argue that this is a change for the better, in terms of consumer benefits, Apple’s reasons may not be just about serving their customer base.

By cutting off the ad analytics industry with its upcoming crippling of IDFA and making it more obvious which apps track user data, Apple is putting its own ad tech in a more favored position. Its framework SKAdNetwork hugely benefits from these changes — effectively giving Apple a seat at the table in the multi-billion-dollar ad industry. So, let’s stop pretending this is all about how much Apple cares for its users. This is business.

Weekly News Round-Up

Platforms

  • Fortnite finds a way to skirt App Store ban. The game, banned by Apple in a battle over App Store fees, may have another way to reach the iPhone user base by way of Nvidia’s GeForce cloud gaming service that runs on the mobile web.
  • WhatsApp rolls out a payments service in India. The Facebook-owned messaging app began testing the service in 2018, but struggled to get government approval. The service, which is built on UPI, offers a challenge to Google and Walmart which currently dominate the mobile payments market in India.
  • WhatsApp adds disappearing messages. The new ephemeral messages disappear after seven days and rolled out across iOS and Android. It also made it easier for users to delete large files and manage storage.
  • Apple announces a new event. The expectation is that this one will be Mac-focused.
  • Apple warns investors that reduced App Store revenues would hurt its financial results. The warning comes amidst increasing regulatory pressure on the App Store, which today requires developers to distribute through its platform to reach iOS users, and requires IAPs through Apple Pay.

Services

Politics

  • PUBG Mobile plots a way to return to the Indian market, after a ban over cybersecurity concerns due to its connections with Chinese giant Tencent. The company is looking for a local publisher.
  • Facebook and Instagram added notifications during the tight U.S. election this week to alert users that votes were still being counted. The move follows Trump’s spread of conspiracies that elections were rigged and his lies saying he had won before all votes had been counted.

Security & Privacy

Apps in the News

  • Spotify adds standalone streaming support to its Apple Watch app. That means users can leave their iPhone behind and stream directly from their Watch over Wi-Fi or cellular.
  • Facebook tests “dark mode” on Android. The new dark mode option had been tested earlier on desktop.
  • Triller names Daniel Gillick its Global Head of Partnerships. The exec was previously senior manager of music content and industry relations at Triller rival TikTok.
  • TikTok signed a new, longer-term agreement with Sony Music. The deal allows the app to continue to offer music from Sony artists in its app.
  • TikTok tests iOS 14 “App Clips.” The test was spotted in beta, and would allow users a full-screen preview with a download prompt.
  • NBC News launched an iOS 14 widget for putting election news and results on your home screen.
  • Pokémon GO reaches $1 billion in 2020; lifetime revenue tops $4 billion, says Sensor Tower.
  • Tencent claims record 100 million daily users on mobile game, Honor of Kings. The game consistently ranks among the world’s top-grossing games, as well.
  • Match Group reported Tinder subscriber growth despite a pandemic where people are supposed to be social distancing. Tinder had 6.6 million subscribers in the quarter, up from 6.2 million in the prior quarter. Tinder revenue rose 15%, but ARPU slipped 1%.

Trends

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Funding and M&A (and IPOs)

  • Delivery startup goPuff, whose app lets you order convenience store items and alcohol for same-day delivery, acquires alcoholic beverage chain BevMo for $350 million. 
  • TikTok parent company ByteDance looking to raise $2 billion before its IPO on the Hong Kong StockExchange.
  • Kuaishou Technology, the world’s second-largest short term video app and TikTok rival, filed for IPO in Hong Kong
  • European challenger banking app Vivid Money raises $17.6 million. The bank offers a metal debit card controlled by an app, and other tech-forward features.

Downloads

The Roku Channel app

The recently released app lets anyone, including non-Roku users, stream from Roku’s catalog of free, live and premium movie and TV content on their iOS or Android device. The app also offers more than 115 live channels including live news, weather, sports, food & home, reality TV, science fiction, true crime, kids’ entertainment and Spanish language content.

The Collage Atlas

Looking to wind-down from a week of stress and anxiety? The Apple Arcade game, The Collage Atlas, may help. This unique hand-drawn game created by developer John William Evelyn is a work of art where players are invited to journey through a pen-and-ink dream world, accompanied by a soundtrack shaped by your gameplay. The title, which was in development for more than four years, is more of something to experience than something to more actively “play” — and that may be just what’s needed right now.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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What to make of Stripe’s possible $100B valuation

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This is The TechCrunch Exchange, a newsletter that goes out on Saturdays, based on the column of the same name. You can sign up for the email here.

Welcome to a special Thanksgiving edition of The Exchange. Today we will be brief. But not silent, as there is much to talk about.

Up top, The Exchange noodled on the Slack-Salesforce deal here, so please catch up if you missed that while eating pie for breakfast yesterday. And, sadly, I have no idea why Palantir is seeing its value skyrocket. Normally we’d discuss it, asking ourselves what its gains could mean for the lower tiers of private SaaS companies. But as its public market movement appears to be an artificial bump in value, we’ll just wait.

Here’s what I want to talk about this fine Saturday: Bloomberg reporting that Stripe is in the market for more money, at a price that could value the company at “more than $70 billion or significantly higher, at as much as $100 billion.”

Hot damn. Stripe would become the first or second most valuable startup in the world at those prices, depending on how you count. Startup is a weird word to use for a company worth that much, but as Stripe is still clinging to the private markets like some sort of liferaft, keeps raising external funds, and is presumably more focused on growth than profitability, it retains the hallmark qualities of a tech startup, so, sure, we can call it one.

Which is odd, because Stripe is a huge concern that could be worth twelve-figures, provided that gets that $100 billion price tag. It’s hard to come up with a good reason for why it’s still private, other than the fact that it can get away with it.

Anyhoo, are those reported, possible prices bonkers? Maybe. But there is some logic to them. Recall that Square and PayPal earnings pointed to strong payments volume in recent quarters, which bodes well for Stripe’s own recent growth. Also note that 14 months ago or so, Stripe was already processing “hundreds of billions of dollars of transactions a year.”

You can do fun math at this juncture. Let’s say Stripe’s processing volume was $200 billion last September, and $400 billion today, thinking of the number as an annualized metric. Stripe charges 2.9% plus $0.30 for a transaction, so let’s call it 3% for the sake of simplicity and being conservative. That math shakes out to a run rate of $12 billion.

Now, the company’s actual numbers could be closer to $100 billion, $150 billion and $4.5 billion, right? And Stripe won’t have the same gross margins as Slack .

But you can start to see why Stripe’s new rumored prices aren’t 100% wild. You can make the multiples work if you are a believer in the company’s growth story. And helping the argument are its public comps. Square’s stock has more than tripled this year. PayPal’s value has more than doubled. Adyen’s shares have almost doubled. That’s the sort of public market pull that can really help a super-late-stage startup looking to raise new capital and secure an aggressive price.

To wrap, Stripe’s possible new valuation could make some sense. The fact that it is still a private company does not.

Market Notes

Various and Sundry

And speaking of edtech, Equity’s Natasha Mascarenhas and our intrepid producer Chris Gates put together a special ep on the education technology market. You can listen to it here. It’s good.

Hugs and let’s both go do some cardio,

Alex

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How Ryan Reynolds and Mint Mobile worked without becoming the joke

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In the past decade, celebrity interest and investment in tech companies has significantly increased. But not all celebrity investments are created equally. Some investors, like Ashton Kutcher, have prioritized the VC pursuits. Some have invested casually without getting overly involved. Others have used their considerable platforms to market their portfolio to varying degrees of success.

It’s been a little over a year since Ryan Reynolds bought a majority stake in Mint Mobile, a deal that has already had a dramatic impact on the the MVNO (mobile virtual network operator).

The four-year-old company has seen a tremendous amount of growth, boosting revenue nearly 50,000% in the past three years. However, the D2C wireless carrier has seen its highest traffic days on the backs of Reynolds’ marketing initiatives and announcements.

There is a long history of celebrities getting involved with brands, either as brand ambassadors or ‘Creative Directors’ without much value other than the initial press wave.

Lenovo famously hired Ashton Kutcher as a product engineer to help develop the Yoga 2 tablet, on which I assume you are all reading this post. Alicia Keys was brought on as BlackBerry’s Global Creative Director, which felt even more convoluted a partnership than Lady Gaga’s stint as Polaroid’s Creative Director. That’s not to say that these publicity stunts necessarily hurt the brands or the products (most of the time), but they probably didn’t help much, and likely cost a fortune.

And then there are the actual financial investments, in areas where celebrities fundamentally understand the industry, that still didn’t get to ‘alpha.’

Even Jay-Z has struggled to make a music streaming service successful. Justin Bieber never really got a selfie app off the ground. Heck, not even Justin Timberlake could breathe life back into MySpace. Reynolds seemingly has an even heavier lift here. It’s hard to imagine a string of words in the English language less sexy than, “mobile virtual network operator.”

Reynolds tells TechCrunch that he viewed celebrity investments as a kind of “handicapping,” prior to the Mint acquisition.

“I’ve just sort of seen how most celebrities are doing very, very well,” he explains. “We’re generally hocking or getting behind or investing in luxury and aspirational items and projects. Then George and I had a conversation about a year-and-a-half ago, maybe longer, about what if we swerved the other way? What if he kind of got into something that was hyper practical and just forget about the sexy aspirational stuff.”

Mint isn’t Reynolds’ first entrepreneurial venture. He bought a majority stake in Portland-based Aviation Gin in 2018, which recently sold for $610 million. He also cofounded marketing agency Maximum Effort alongside George Dewey, which has made its own impact over the past several years.

Maximum Effort was founded to help promote the actor’s first Deadpool film. Reynolds and Dewey had come up with several low-budget spots to get people excited about an R-rated comic book movie. The bid appears to have worked. The film raked in $783.1 million at the box office — a record for an R-rated film that held until the 2019 release of Joker.

Maximum Effort (and Reynolds) was also behind the viral Aviation Gin spot, which poked fun at the manipulative Peloton ad that aired last year around the holidays. The same actress who portrayed a woman seemingly tortured by her holiday gift of a Peloton sits at a bar with her friends, shell-shocked, sipping a Martini.

The original ad on YouTube, not counting recirculation by the media, has more than 7 million hits. Reynolds calls it ‘fast-vertising’.

“We get to react,” he told TechCrunch. “We get to acknowledge and play with the cultural landscape in real time and react to it in real time. There isn’t any red tape to come through, because it’s just a matter of signing off on the approval. So in a way, it’s unfair, in that sense, because most big corporations, they take weeks and weeks or months to get something approved. Our budgets are down and dirty, fast and cheap.”

He explained that this type of real-time marketing is only possible because he’s the owner of Maximum Effort (and in some cases of the client businesses, as well), but because there is no red tape to cut through when a great idea presents itself.

Reynolds has brought this marketing acumen to Mint Mobile in a big way. Last year during the Super Bowl, Reynolds took out a full page ad in The New York Times, explaining that the decision to spend $125,000 on a print ad instead of $5 million+ on a Super Bowl commercial would enable the prepaid carrier to pass the savings on to consumers.

In October, Reynolds spun Mint’s 5G launch into another light-hearted spot. He brought on the head of mobile technology to explain what 5G actually is, and after hearing the technical explanation, happily said “We may never know, so we’ll just give it away for free.”

Mint also released a holiday ad just a couple of weeks ago warning of wireless promo season, wherein large wireless carriers may try to lure customers into expensive contracts using new devices. Standing over a bear trap, Reynolds dryly states: “At Mint Mobile, we don’t hate you.”

Reynolds enjoys nearly 17 million Twitter followers and more than 36 million Instagram followers. He uses both platforms to promote his various brands without alienating his followers. Moreover, he doesn’t exclusively promote his brands on social media, but weaves in his own funny personal commentary or gives followers a peek into his marriage with Blake Lively, which we can all agree is #relationshipgoals.

Mint Mobile partners exclusively with T-Mobile to provide service, and unlike some other MVNOs, it uses a direct-to-consumer model, foregoing any physical footprint. Plans start at $15/month and top out at $30/month. CMO Aron North says that Reynolds’ ownership and involvement with Mint Mobile is “absolutely critical.”

“Ryan is an A plus plus celebrity, and he’s very funny and entertaining and engaging,” said North. “His reach has given us a much bigger platform to speak on. I would say he is absolutely critical in our success and our growth.”

We asked Reynolds if he has any specific plans for further tech investment, or if there are any trends he’s keeping an eye on. He explained that his motivations are not purely capitalistic.

“I’m really focused on community and bringing people together,” said Reynolds. “We think it’s super cool to bring people together, particularly in a world that is very divisive. Even in our marketing, we try to find ways to have huge cultural moments without polarizing people without dividing people without saying one thing is wrong.”

In one of the company’s more notable recent spots, Reynolds enlisted the help of iconic comedian, Rick Moranis. It was an impressive coup, given the actor’s seeming retreat from the public eye, turning down two separate Ghostbusters film reboots.

“It’s funny what happens when you just ask,” says Reynolds. “I explained that people genuinely miss him and his performances and his energy. And he, for whatever reason, said yes, and the next thing I know, six days later, we were out of there in 15, 20 minutes and we shot our spot.”

Of course, it didn’t escape the internet’s notice that two well-known Canadian actors were standing in a field, selling a U.S.-only wireless service.

“I would love to see [Mint] in Canada,” Reynolds says. “There’s a Big Three here that’s challenging to crack. I don’t pretend to know the telecom business well enough to say why, how or what the path forward would be there. I see basically a tsunami of feedback from Canada, asking ‘why can’t we have this here?’ I think it’s sexy. It’s pragmatic and sexy. That’s why I got involved with it.”

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Original Content podcast: Just don’t watch Netflix’s ‘Holidate’ with your parents

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You might think that a new Netflix film called “Holidate” offers holiday-themed romance that’s perfect for a family watch party. You’d be wrong.

The film stars Emma Roberts and Luke Bracey as a pair of strangers who agree (in classic romantic comedy style) to keep each other company on holidays.

And while the movie can’t be completely pigeonholed as a raunchy comedy — it also includes a dash of metatextual commentary, with a healthy dose of undiluted romantic schmaltz — “Holidate” is certainly filled with sexually frank dialogue, and a couple of its biggest set pieces go all-in on gross-out humor. So, and as one of the hosts of the Original Content podcast discovered, watching it with your family can be extremely uncomfortable.

But, assuming you avoid that awkwardness, is it actually funny? Sometimes! A word that comes up repeatedly in our review is “adequate” — Darrell embraced the film’s surprisingly dirty humor, while Anthony and Jordan were at least mildly entertained.

In addition to reviewing “Holidate,” we also discussed the implications of Netflix’s decision to remove “Chappelle’s Show” at Dave Chappelle’s request.

You can listen to our review in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You can also follow us on Twitter or send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)

If you’d like to skip ahead, here’s how the episode breaks down:
0:00 Intro
1:11 Dave Chappelle discussion
13:50 “Holidate” review
37:39 “Holidate” spoiler discussion

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