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This Week in Apps: Conservative apps surge, Instagram redesigned, TikTok gets ghosted

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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.

Top Stories

Trump administration backs down on TikTok ban

CULVER CITY, CA - OCTOBER 13: General view of the TikTok headquarters on October 13, 2020 in Culver City, California. (Photo by AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)

(Photo by AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)

The Trump administration seemingly forgot it had banned the TikTok app in the U.S., as the president focused this week instead on sowing doubt over the integrity of the U.S. elections — which the Dept. of Homeland Security just called the “most secure in American History,” by the way.

The inaction on the Trump administration’s part revealed what many suspected all along: that the TikTok ban was largely performative.

Earlier this week, TikTok went public with the fact that it hadn’t heard anything about its ban for weeks, despite the fact that it had a deadline of November 12 to divest its U.S. assets. The company filed a petition in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit on Tuesday, calling for a review of actions by CFIUS (Trump’s committee on foreign investment in the United States).

TikTok had earlier asked for an extension, but never heard back, it said.

Or, as the winning headline put it, courtesy of The Verge: “TikTok says the Trump administration has forgotten about trying to ban it, would like to know what’s up.”

In a statement, TikTok said:

“For a year, TikTok has actively engaged with CFIUS in good faith to address its national security concerns, even as we disagree with its assessment. In the nearly two months since the President gave his preliminary approval to our proposal to satisfy those concerns, we have offered detailed solutions to finalize that agreement – but have received no substantive feedback on our extensive data privacy and security framework.

Facing continual new requests and no clarity on whether our proposed solutions would be accepted, we requested the 30-day extension that is expressly permitted in the August 14 order. Today, with the November 12 CFIUS deadline imminent and without an extension in hand, we have no choice but to file a petition in court to defend our rights and those of our more than 1,500 employees in the US. We remain committed to working with the Administration — as we have all along — to resolve the issues it has raised, but our legal challenge today is a protection to ensure these discussions can take place.”

After getting the reminder, the Commerce Dept. on Thursday said it wouldn’t enforce the order that required TikTok to shut down, citing a preliminary injunction against the shutdown last month that came about as a result of the lawsuit by TikTok stars, who claimed the app’s closure would impact their ability to make an income. However, it also appealed that same ruling, leading to further confusion.

The question now is how will the incoming Biden administration proceed with regard to the Trump TikTok ban. Though Biden has criticized Trump’s China policy, concern over TikTok was one that saw bipartisan support. Biden even said during a campaign stop in September that it was worrisome that a Chinese operation would have access to over 100 million young people in the U.S.

Election results send conservative apps up the charts

After a nerve-wracking week of election results which devolved into political chaos as Trump rallied his base to believe baseless claims of fraud, a number of right-wing Trump supporters turned to alternative apps for social media and news.

The App Store’s top charts, which are determined by a combination of downloads and velocity, among other factors, soon featured a new set of alternative apps, led by free speech network Parler, which found itself in the No. 1 spot. (It’s since slipped thanks to Walmart’s Black Friday sales, which sent the retailer’s app flying up to No. 1.)

Image Credits: Screenshot from App Store

According to one estimate, Parler saw 980K downloads from November 3 through November 8. Other apps also benefitted from the election drama, including social network MeWe (now No. 10 on the iPhone Top Free Apps chart in the U.S. and right-wing news network Newsmax TV (No. 7).

Unlike Facebook and Twitter — which increasingly use fact-checking services to label or, in extreme cases, hide false claims behind an extra click — alternative apps do not. But they are not neutral platforms by any means. The verified account from “Team Trump” was among those that automatically greeted new Parler users, for example. Right-wing politicians like senator Ted Cruz and representative Devin Nunes as well as other conservative personalities have set up shop on Parler, too.

As a result, the community is lopsided. Users are posting to amplify their beliefs among those who largely feel the same as they do. And, because Parler does not combat misinformation and conspiracy theories with fact-checking, it’s already been targeted by a conspiracy theory of its very own. A Photoshopped image of a Fox News ticker spread confusion on Parler this week, as the modified image claimed that George Soros owned the social network. The conspiracy got enough traction that Parler founder John Matze had to post that it was not true. But Parler’s true origins and ownership are still being discussed.

It’s unclear to what extent the conservative apps represent a new wave of social media with long-term staying power, given that any relative newcomer to the space will still ultimately have to compete with very large networks, like Facebook’s 2 billion users. Though smaller than Facebook, Twitter’s 330 million monthly active users is still much larger than Parler’s monthly active user base of about 4 million (its active users are around half of its registered users, which is now 8 million.)

Larger platforms have resources to pour into more than just the basics of keeping the servers running. And, to date, that’s led to the demise of numerous other would-be Facebook rivals. The few apps that manage to grow a following these days are those that get a majority of younger, mainstream users, like TikTok and Snapchat.

Regardless of your political leanings, I think we can all agree there was a lot of this going on this week:

Instagram Redesign

Image Credits: Instagram

Instagram this week put its TikTok competitor Reels front-and-center in a redesigned version of its app by giving it the center position on its new navigation bar. The update also replaced the Activity tab (heart icon) with the Shop tab, following a test that had changed this aspect of the app’s home screen earlier this summer. And it revamped the Camera interface and did away with the IGTV button.

In the redesigned app, both the Compose button and the Activity tab have been relocated to the top-right of the home screen, while the center middle button now belongs to Reels.

Image Credits: Instagram

The redesign is an aggressive attempt on Instagram’s part to direct users to its short-form video feed, Reels, which has so far seen only a lukewarm reception from reviewers, who have called it stale, lacking in effects and another contributor to Instagram bloat.

The changes were also a big push to make the Instagram app more of an online shopping destination at a critical time for the e-commerce market. The coronavirus pandemic accelerated the shift to e-commerce by at least five years, according to some analysts. That means any plans Instagram had to become a major player in online commerce were also just expedited.

Both moves signal a company that’s worried about the impact TikTok may have on the long-term future of its business. TikTok is now projected to top 1.2 billion monthly active users in 2021. And as its recent partnership with Shopify on social commerce indicates, it could be a new home for social commerce soon too.

Weekly News

Platforms

  • Apple at its Mac event detailed that its new Apple Silicon Macs would be able to run iOS apps. The news was first announced at WWDC, but is now officially going to roll out with Big Sur and the new Macs. Apple showed off Among Us and HBO Max apps during a demo, but it’s unclear if others are being allowed to opt out.
  • Apple’s TestFlight beta testing app now supports automatic updates. At last!
  • iOS 14.3 and iPadOS 14.3 beta 1 releases arrived.
  • Android added support for PyTorch for on-device AI processing.
  • Epic Games scores a point in the App Store legal battle over in-app purchase fees. A judge dismissed Apple’s claims that Epic’s actions were wrong, which reduces the potential risk of its lawsuit, limiting Apple’s counterclaims to breach of contract. (Punitive damages have not yet been discussed.)
  • Apple to suggest third-party apps during setup, with iOS 14.3, according to details found in the app’s code. This appears to be there for compliance with local laws in select countries where antitrust issues are a concern.
  • Android Enterprise Recommended program adds Samsung and others. The program, launched in 2018, helps enterprise customers evaluate and approve devices that meet Google’s requirements for hardware, software and updates. This change brings Samsung Galaxy devices and others into the fold.
  • Time to vote for Google Play’s “Best of 2020.” You can vote through November 23 to help pick Google’s Users’ Choice winners.

Security & Privacy

  • Zoom settled with FTC after making deceptive security claims. The company had claimed its video calls were protected by “end-to-end” encryption that made it impossible for anyone, including Zoom to listen in. This wasn’t true, as Zoom maintained the cryptographic keys that could allow it to access the content of its customers’ meetings.

Apps in the News

Image Credits: Facebook

  • Facebook copies Snapchat…again. Messenger and Instagram are getting a new “Vanish Mode” feature that lets you enable disappearing messages from within a conversation. The upgrade on Instagram is only part of the big messaging update that unifies the inbox with Facebook.
  • Apple cracked down on iOS terminal apps. a-Shell and iSH, two terminal apps popular with developers, were blocked from the App Store because they…drum roll…execute scripts. Oh c’mon, Apple. iSH appealed and was returned to the App Store. a-Shell has appealed as well. Apple ended up apologizing.
  • No more free storage for your Google Photos. Google this week said all your photo uploads will now count towards your Google account’s 15GB of free storage. Get ready to pay for Google One.
  • TikTok expands fundraising features. The company already allowed users to fundraise from donation stickers. Now you can do so directly from your profile, too.
  • Disney+ app reaches 100M+ global downloads, with 62% coming from the U.S., according to Apptopia data. 
  • TikTok to top 1.2B MAUs by 2021, per App Annie’s forecast.
  • Bumble’s new feature prevents bad actors from using “unmatch” to avoid being reported for harassment and other issues. The change came following reports of victims of harassment and crime, including rape, were unable to report their abusers because they had unmatched their victims.
  • Zynga recorded a 46% rise in revenue in Q3 2020, to reach $503 million, an increase in DAUs of 53% to 31 million, and a 23% increase in MAUs to 83 million.

Trends

Image Credits: Netflix/TechCrunch

  • Netflix tries a TikTok-like feature. Netflix experiments with a full-screen vertical video feed featuring comedy clips. The company says the goal is to help users discover new shows and add them to their watch list.
  • U.S. Elections boosted mental wellness app installs by 30%. According to Sensor Tower data, the top five meditation apps (Calm, Headspace, Pray.com, Breethe and Insight Timer) saw their installs collectively grow 30% week-over-week in the period from November 3 to November 5 as compared to October 27 to October 29.
  • App Annie 2021 forecast: Remote business apps (e.g. Zoom) are expected to see a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 57% and remote learning apps will see 62% growth in 2021. Total time in mobile banking and finance apps will surpass 31 billion hours annually in 2021, representing a four-year CAGR of 35%. Fitness and e-commerce will grow as well, at +23% and +40%, respectively.
  • Chinese e-commerce platforms are gamifying Single’s Day, the world’s largest shopping festival, to keep consumers in their apps longer. Friends can join each other’s teams to get even bigger deals. Some people, however, criticize.

Funding and M&A

  • JumpCloud raises $75M in Series E funding for its cloud directory and Apple MDM expansion
  • Nigeria’s Kuda raises $10M to be the mobile-first challenger bank for Africa.
  • Food delivery app and website DoorDash filed to go public. The company has raised $2.5 billion in capital to date.
  • Personal finance app Truebill raises $17M. The app and website help users track down subscriptions they no longer want to pay for, negotiate to lower bills and more.

Downloads

HBO’s “His Dark Materials: My Daemon”

HBO teamed up with creative studio Framestore to create a new iOS and Apple Watch app that lets fans of the show “His Dark Materials” interact with their own “daemons” — the magical animal companions that serve as an extension of characters’ souls, TechCrunch reported. The app uses AR to allow the daemon to interact with the world around you.

NightWare for Apple Watch treats PTSD

Image Credits: NightWare

The FDA approved an Apple Watch app for the treatment of PTSD. The app, NightWare, is only available with a prescription, and uses Apple Watch sensors to track body movements and the heart rate during sleep to create a profile. When it detects a PTSD nightmare, the watch vibrates to disrupt the the user’s sleep and bring them out.

OmniFocus launches iOS 14 widgets 

Image Credits: OmniFocus

Productivity app OmniFocus launched new iOS 14 widgets this week, including a forecast widget with a calendar view for today and the days ahead and a perspective items widget with a list of upcoming items in a perspective of your choice. The widgets are available in small, medium, and large sizes, and can have their font size customized.

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

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AutoX becomes China’s first to remove safety drivers from robotaxis

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Residents of Shenzhen will see truly driverless cars on the road starting Thursday. AutoX, a four-year-old startup backed by Alibaba, MediaTek and Shanghai Motors, is deploying a fleet of 25 unmanned vehicles in downtown Shenzhen, marking the first time any autonomous driving car in China tests without safety drivers or remote operators on public roads.

The cars, meant as robotaxis, are not yet open to the public, an AutoX spokesperson told TechCrunch.

The milestone came just five months after AutoX landed a permit from California to start driverless tests, following in the footsteps of Waymo and Nuro.

It also indicates that China wants to bring its smart driving industry on par with the U.S. Cities from Shenzhen to Shanghai are competing to attract autonomous driving upstarts by clearing regulatory hurdles, touting subsidies and putting up 5G infrastructure.

As a result, each city ends up with its own poster child in the space: AutoX and Deeproute.ai in Shenzhen, Pony.ai and WeRide in Guangzhou, Momenta in Suzhou, Baidu’s Apollo fleet in Beijing, to name a few. The autonomous driving companies, in turn, work closely with traditional carmakers to make their vehicles smarter and more suitable for future transportation.

“We have obtained support from the local government. Shenzhen is making a lot of rapid progress on legislation for self-driving cars,” said the AutoX representative.

The decision to remove drivers from the front and operators from a remote center appears a bold move in one of China’s most populated cities. AutoX equips its vehicles with its proprietary vehicle control unit called XCU, which it claims has faster processing speed and more computational capability to handle the complex road scenarios in China’s cities.

“[The XCU] provides multiple layers of redundancy to handle this kind of situation,” said AutoX when asked how its vehicles will respond should the machines ever go rogue.

The company also stressed the experience it learned from “millions of miles” driven in China’s densest city centers through its 100 robotaxis in the past few years. Its rivals are also aggressively accumulating mileage to train their self-driving algorithms while banking sizable investments to fund R&D and pilot tests. AutoX itself, for instance, has raised more than $160 million to date.

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Google faces complaint from NLRB alleging surveillance of employees and other labor violations

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The National Labor Relations Board today issued a complaint against Google after investigating the firing of several employees last November. The complaint alleges Google violated parts of the National Labor Relations Act by surveilling employees, and generally interfered with, restrained and coerced employees in the exercise of their rights guaranteed by Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act.

The NLRB also alleges Google discouraged “its employees from forming, joining, assisting a union or engaging in other protected, concerted activities,” the complaint states.

“This complaint makes clear that workers have the right to speak to issues of ethical business and the composition of management,” Laurence Berland, one of the fired Google employees, said in a statement. “This is a significant finding at a time when we’re seeing the power of a handful of tech billionaires consolidate control over our lives and our society. Workers have the right to speak out about and organize, as the NLRB is affirming, but we also know that we should not, and cannot, cleave off ethical concerns about the role management wants to play in that society.”

Ex-Googlers Berland and Kathryn Spiers previously filed a federal complaint with the NLRB arguing Google fired them for organizing, which is a protected activity. They had organized around a variety of topics, including Google’s treatment of its temporary, vendor and contractor workers, Google’s alleged retaliation against employees who organized, the company’s work with Customs and Border Protection and more.

Additionally, in November 2019, Google put Rebecca Rivers and Berland on leave for allegedly violating company policies. At the time, Google said one had searched for and shared confidential documents that were not pertinent to their job, and one had looked at the individual calendars of some staffers. Following a protest in support of the two, Rivers, Berland, Duke and Waldman were fired.

“Google has always worked to support a culture of internal discussion, and we place immense trust in our employees,” a Google spokesperson said in a statement to TechCrunch. “Of course employees have protected labor rights that we strongly support, but we have always taken information security very seriously. We’re confident in our decision and legal position. Actions undertaken by the employees at issue were a serious violation of our policies and an unacceptable breach of a trusted responsibility.”

This comes shortly after the NLRB issued a formal complaint against Google contractor HCL, alleging the company repeatedly violated the rights of unionized workers. Moving forward, Berland and Spiers are hoping the NLRB prosecutes the case against Google and seeks reinstatement and damages for them. But the next step is for the complaint to head to the desk of an administrative judge.

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Neuroglee gets $2.3 million to develop digital therapeutics for neurodegenerative diseases

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There are now about 50 million people with dementia globally, a number the World Health Organization expects to triple by 2050. Alzheimer’s is the leading cause of dementia and caregivers are often overwhelmed, without enough support.

Neuroglee, a Singapore-based health tech startup, wants to help with a digital therapeutic platform created to treat patients in the early stages of the disease. Founded this year to focus on neurodegenerative diseases, Neuroglee announced today it has raised $2.3 million in pre-seed funding.

The round was led by Eisai Co., one of Japan’s largest pharmaceutical companies, and Kuldeep Singh Rajput, the founder and chief executive officer of predictive healthcare startup Biofourmis.

Neuroglee’s prescription digital therapy software for Alzheimer’s, called NG-001, is its main product. The company plans to start clinical trials next year. NG-001 is meant to complement medication and other treatments, and once it is prescribed by a clinician, patients can access its cognitive exercises and tasks through a tablet.

Neuroglee founder and CEO Aniket Singh Rajput (brother of Kuldeep) told TechCrunch that its first target markets for NG-001 are the United States and Singapore, followed by Japan. NG-001 needs to gain regulatory approval in each country, and it will start by seeking U.S. Food and Drug Administration clearance.

Once it launches, clinicians will have two ways to prescribe NG-001, through their healthcare provider platform or an electronic prescription tool. A platform called Neuroglee Connect will give clinicians, caregivers and patients access to support and features for reimbursement and coverage.

The software tracks patients’ progress, such as the speed of their fingers and the time it takes to complete an exercise, and delivers personalized treatment programs. It also has features to address the mental health of patients, including one that shows images that can bring up positive memories, which in turn can help alleviate depression and anxiety when used in tandem with other cognitive behavioral therapy techniques.

For caregivers and clinicians, NG-001 helps them track patient progress and their compliance with other treatments, like medications. This means that healthcare providers can work closely with patients even remotely, which is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

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