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This Week in Apps: Apple scolds adtech, Facebook hit with antitrust suits, Twitter buys Squad

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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 downloads and $120 billion in global consumer spend in 2019. Not including third-party Chinese app stores, iOS and Android users downloaded 130 billion apps in 2020. Consumer spend also hit a record $112 billion across iOS and Android alone. 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.

Top Stories

Apple defends its consumer privacy moves

Image Credits: Apple

Apple SVP Craig Federighi took aim at the adtech industry in a speech to European lawmakers this week, where he downplayed and dismissed the industry backlash against the forthcoming app tracking changes as “outlandish” and even “false.” He said that online tracking is privacy’s biggest challenge and that Apple’s forthcoming App Tracking Transparency (ATT) is the front-line of defense.

“The mass centralization of data puts privacy at risk — no matter who’s collecting it and what their intentions might be,” Federighi said, reiterating that Apple aimed to have as little data on its customers as possible.

This has been the company’s line to date, and it’s not necessarily the whole truth. Apple has so far characterized its decision to allow consumers to opt-out of being tracked as one that’s solely focused on consumer privacy. It positions Apple as consumers’ savior and the only one fighting for our privacy. But the changes are also an example of Apple leveraging its platform power, potentially in an anticompetitive way, to give itself a seat at the table of a multi-billion-dollar market today dominated by its competitors Google and Facebook.

In this case, Apple is inserting itself in the world of mobile advertising by forcing a shift from IDFA to its own SKAdNetwork, which limits the individualized data advertisers can access. This is good for consumers who don’t want to be targeted and tracked just because they’re using an app. Publishers, however, have argued they won’t be able to charge as much for ads where users opted out of tracking. This could have a snowball effect of hurting ad-supported businesses beyond the tech giants like Facebook.

Meanwhile, Apple does get to collect a lot of consumer data which it uses to personalize ads. Its own App Store and Apple News apps personalize ads unless consumers opt out in their iPhone’s Settings (and not through a scary pop-up warning like third-party apps have to display). Apple says what it does in terms of personalization doesn’t count as “tracking” because it doesn’t share the data with others or follow customers around websites and apps.

But as Apple moves into its own services businesses, the amount of data that can be used to personalize its own ads grows. Today, Apple’s ad targeting system includes users in segments based on the music, books, TV shows and apps they download, as well as in-app purchases and subscriptions. It also tracks users as they search the app search with keywords and tap to read App Store stories, and tracks location if permission has been granted to Apple News or the App Store.

In related news, Facebook-owned WhatsApp criticized Apple’s forthcoming privacy label requirements this week, saying that the labels are anti-competitive because they won’t apply to first-party apps, like iMessage, that come pre-installed on iPhones. WhatsApp also argued that they don’t allow companies to share enough details about the measures they’re taking to protect consumer data.

Apple responded by saying labels for its own apps will be on its website for those apps not distributed through the App Store.

Facebook antitrust lawsuits

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Forty-eight attorneys general across 46 states, the territory of Guam and the District of Columbia have filed an antitrust lawsuit that accuses Facebook of suppressing its competition through monopolistic business practices. The states are asking the court to restrain Facebook from making further acquisitions in excess of $10 million without notifying the plaintiffs, and is asking for additional relief, including “the divestiture or restructuring of illegally acquired companies, or current Facebook assets or business lines.”

The FTC also voted to pursue its own antitrust suit against Facebook at the federal level.

While the lawsuits are much larger than an app story alone, they do have the potential to impact the app ecosystem if the plaintiffs prevail, as they ask for the acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp, and maybe others, to be retroactively judged to be illegal and divested. This would allow for increased competition among the social app market, where Facebook leverages its power to maintain its dominant position. For instance, Facebook just integrated its messaging platform with Instagram’s, meaning users can now message friends across two of the largest social platforms via just one app — either Messenger or Instagram. WhatsApp could be integrated in the future, as well.

Twitter buys Squad

Image Credits: Twitter

Twitter on Friday announced the acquisition of the screen-sharing social app Squad. The startup’s co-founders, CEO Esther Crawford and CTO Ethan Sutin, along with the rest of Squad’s team will be joining Twitter’s design, engineering and product departments. The Squad app, which had heavily relied on Snap’s Snap Kit developer tools, will shut down.

Twitter may be shuttering Periscope as well, code reveals, which leaves some wondering what Twitter’s plans are in terms of streamlining its services. The company has more recently been experimenting with its own version of Stories, aka Fleets, and an audio-based networking product for group conversations.

This Week in App News

Platforms: Apple

  • Reminder: Apple’s App Store Holiday shutdown is coming. The App Store will not accept new apps and app updates from December 23-27 (Pacific Time) for its annual holiday break.
  • Reminder: App privacy questions requirement starts December 8.
  • The iOS 14.3 Release Candidate arrives, adding support for the new ProRAW photo format on iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max, a new Apple TV+ tab that makes it easier to find Apple’s Originals, readies the platform for Fitness+, and makes a change to bypass launching the Shortcuts app when using custom app icons, among other things.
  • Apple Watch Family Setup arrives in Canada on December 14.
  • Apple Fitness+ launches December 14.

Platforms: Google

Image Credits: Google

  • Google is working on an ambitious project to improve GPS accuracy in apps. In dense urban areas, it’s often hard to get an accurate GPS reading — leading to issues like wrong-side-of-the-street and even wrong-city-block errors, which greatly impact ridesharing and navigation apps. Google’s new solution uses 3D mapping-aided corrections, comprised of 3D building models, raw GPS measurements and machine learning. Its Pixel Feature Drop in December adds these corrections to Pixel 5 and Pixel 4a (5G), which Google says will reduce wrong-side-of-street occurrences by approximately 75%. Other Android phones (Android 8+) have version 1 implemented in the FLP (Fused Location Provider API), which reduces those occurrences by around 50%. Version 2 will be available to the entire Android ecosystem (Android 8 or later) in early 2021.
  • Google Play Pass arrives in 7 new countries, including key Latin American markets. The subscription-based apps and games service came to Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Russia and Saudi Arabia. This brings the total number of markets where the service is live to 42.
  • Google’s Pixel Feature Drop adds Adaptive Sound, Hold for Me (where Google Assistant waits on hold for you), Extreme Battery Saver Mode, screen sharing on Duo calls and more.

Gaming

Image Credits: Microsoft

  • Microsoft confirms its Xbox cloud gaming service will launch on iOS in 2021. However, the company will route around the App Store rules by bringing the service to the iPhone and iPad in a web browser. This cuts Apple out of any revenues the game service can generate. Amazon’s Luna and Google’s Stadia are also planning to use the web browser on iOS to avoid the App Store. 
  • Google’s cloud gaming service Stadia is rolling out YouTube live streaming, allowing gamers to share their gameplay to YouTube. 
  • Apple asks for Epic Games’ Fortnite lawsuit in Australia to be thrown out because Epic had promised to settle disputes and litigation in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

Government and policy

  • The U.S. National Weather Service just saw a record year of weather-related disasters like the busiest Atlantic hurricane season on record and California’s wildfires. Now the agency says it’s running out of Internet bandwidth and will need to throttle the amount of data its clients and users can access. The move would impact weather consumers who get their weather from apps on their smartphones, as much of the forecasts and alerts they receive are based on Weather Service output and data.
  • California’s CA Notify contact-tracing app for COVID-19 now reaches the full state. The app uses Apple and Google’s exposure notification API.
  • Cydia files anti-competition lawsuit against Apple. Third-party App Store maker Cydia, home to jailbreak apps that often added functionality beyond what Apple permitted through its terms, is suing Apple for using anticompetitive means to destroy its rival app store. There are good examples of how denying third-party app stores a home on iOS may have been anticompetitive, but Cydia’s lawsuit may not be it. The store in its early days distributed pirated apps, not just those that fell outside Apple’s rules.

Augmented reality

Image Credits: Instagram

  • Instagram partnered with museums in the U.S. and France, including the Smithsonian, Palace of Versailles and Le Grand Palais, to bring AR versions of their exhibits to its camera’s AR effects lineup.
  • Snap partnered with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on a multi-year augmented reality project, “LACMA x Snapchat: Monumental Perspectives.” The initiative will pair local artists chosen by the museum to create site-specific monuments and murals that can be viewed in AR in the Snapchat app.

E-commerce & food delivery

Image Credits: Instagram

  • Instagram launches shopping in Reels, its TikTok rival. The feature is now one of many ways users can shop via video, including through video in Feed, Stories, Live and IGTV. Facebook Pay powers checkout for many sellers, allowing Instagram to generate revenue through transaction fees.
  • WhatsApp adds carts to make shopping easier. Facebook-owned WhatsApp added a new shopping feature that lets consumers buy multiple items from a business, and makes it easier for sellers to track orders.
  • DoorDash shares popped 92% in their trading debut to reach as high as $195.50 after raising $3.37 billion during its IPO.
  • E-commerce app Wish to price IPO between $22-$24 per share at up to $14 billion valuation.

Fintech

  • Robinhood is losing thousands of day traders to China-owned Webull, reports Bloomberg. Founded by Alibaba alum Wang Anquan, Webull has increased brokerage clients by 10x in 2020 to reach more than 2 million by offering free stock trades. Robinhood has 13 million, for comparison. Webull is expected to raise a round from private U.S. investors and expand into roboadvisor services.

Travel

Image credits: Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for WIRED25

  • Vacation rental app Airbnb began trading this week on public markets. After raising its range, the company opened at $146 per share on Thursday, more than double its $68 IPO price and valuing the company at over $100 billion. The stock closed at nearly $145.
  • China’s Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) announced it was banning 105 mobile apps for violating Chinese regulations. The majority of the apps were made by Chinese developers but the U.S.-based travel booking and review site Tripadvisor was also on the ban list, causing its shares to drop. Tripadvisor works in partnership with Nasdaq-listed Chinese travel firm Trip.com (previously called Ctrip).

Social & Photos

Image Credits: Twitter

  • Snap and Twitter worked together to make it possible for users to post their tweets to Snapchat through a native integration instead of screenshots. When Twitter users who are logged into Snapchat now share a tweet using the Snapchat icon from the share sheet in Twitter, they’ll be able to share, react or comment on the post, then send it to a Snapchat friend or post to their Story. The feature is live on iOS with Android in the works.
  • Triller says it can reach 250 million users through partnerships with Samsung and others. The app, which hosted a Pay Per View boxing match between Mike Tyson and Roy Jones Jr. this year, is planning more events for 2021, including a concert with K-pop group Blackpink.
  • A second federal judge rules against the Trump administration’s TikTok ban, saying the government “likely exceeded IEEPA’s [the International Emergency Economic Powers Act] express limitations as part of an agency action that was arbitrary and capricious.”
  • Instagram partnered for the first time with lyrics site Genius on “Lyric Reels,” a sort of variation of Spotify’s “Behind the Lyrics” feature. The addition will see artists break down their songs’ lyrics and meanings. Participants include Megan Thee Stallion​, ​24kGoldn and ​Tate McRae.
  • Tinder makes it easier to report bad actors who use “unmatch” to hide from victims. Rival Bumble had just done the same. But in Tinder’s implementation, it’s only making it more obvious how to access its help documentation while Bumble had included a button for reporting users who had already unmatched you.
  • Google’s Photos can now sync your “Liked” images with Apple’s Photos service on iOS.

Streaming & entertainment

  • Netflix’s StreamFest, a free trial weekend in India, boosted installs by 200% week-over-week, reaching approximately 3.6 million global installs, reports Sensor Tower.
  • Stitcher, recently acquired by SiriusXM, revamped its app for the first time in years. The new version offers a dedicated “My Podcasts” tab, better search filters, result sorting, user-curated groups of shows and more.
  • HBO Max is fastest-growing SVOD in U.S. According to Apptopia, the app hit a lifetime high for daily downloads three days after its debut, at 225,000. Since its May launch, DAUs have grown 242%.
  • Spotify had to reset an undisclosed number of user passwords after a software vulnerability exposed private account information to its business partners, including things like “email address, your preferred display name, password, gender, and date of birth.”

Health & fitness

  • Nike Run Club app adds home screen widgets for iOS 14+. The widgets can show your Run Level, post-run progress and make it easier to start your next run.

Productivity

  • Google Drive users on iOS and Android will be able to see and re-run desktop and mobile searches; view and select intelligent selections as they type, including suggestions for people, past searches, keywords and recently accessed files. 

Funding and M&A

Image Credits: Calm

  • Meditation app Calm raises $75 million more at $2 billion valuation, in a round led by prior investor Lightspeed Venture Partners.
  • Twitter buys video app Squad. (see above) 
  • AI financial assistant Cleo raises $44 million Series B, led by EQT Ventures. The app and chatbot aimed at Gen Z connects to bank accounts to give proactive advice and timely nudges.
  • Mexican challenger banking app albo raises $45 million to expand into lending and insurance products.
  • Sweden’s MTG acquires mobile racing game studio Hutch Games, based in London, for up to $375 million. The studio produces titles like Rebel Racing, F1 Manager and Top Drives.
  • Seattle’s Freespira raises $10 million for its therapeutic device for panic attacks PTSD that worked with a connected app and proprietary software.
  • Banking app for teens GoHenry raises $40 million to build out its business in the U.S. and U.K.
  • Retail loyalty app Fetch Rewards raises $80 million Series C led by Iconiq Growth. The app offers rewards to users who scan their receipts after shopping.
  • Pear Therapeutics raises $80 million in a round led by SoftBank’s Vision Fund 2. The company makes prescription apps aimed at treating substance use disorders, schizophrenia and multiple sclerosis. The FDA has already approved its treatments for substance abuse, opioid use and insomnia.
  • Reface raises $5.5 million in seed funding led by a16z for its viral face-swapping video app.

Downloads

Google Health Studies

Image Credits: Google

Google takes on Apple’s Research app with an alternative for Android users. The new Google Health Studies app will work in partnership with leading research institutions, which will connect with study participants through the app. The first study is timely, as it focuses on respiratory illnesses, including the flu and COVID-19. The study will use federated learning and analytics — a privacy technology that keeps a person’s data stored on the device.

Google Look to Speak

Google launched an accessibility-focused app, Look to Speak, that lets people use their eyes to choose pre-written phrases for their phone to say out loud. To use the app, people have to look left, right or up to select what they want to say from the phrase list and navigate the app. Look to Speak can also be personalized by letting users edit the words and phrases they want to say and adjust the gaze settings to their needs.

Retro Widget

Image Credits: Retro Widget 2

Gaming via a home screen widget? The fun Retro Widget 2 ($1.99) has been updated to bring the classic Snake II game from old Nokia handsets to the iPhone’s home screen. The app includes five mazes and nine levels and lets you play Snake II using the 1, 3, 7 and 9 keys.

Barter

Barter is an app designed for app developers alone. From the maker of the HomePass and HomeCam apps, Barter offers a way for app developers to view their app sales in a widget on iOS 14+ devices. The app includes no analytics or tracking beyond what Apple builds in to protect developer data. In the future, Pearce says he’ll expand the app to be able to show things like downloaded units, by product and more. The current version was an MVP to see if Apple would allow the app to pass App Review. Since it passed, it will soon be upgraded.

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

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Instacart to eliminate about 2,000 jobs and GitHub head of HR resigns

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Hey y’all. You’ve just landed on Human Capital, the weekly newsletter that details the latest in labor, and diversity and inclusion in tech. The week kicked off with GitHub making a public apology to the person the company terminated for cautioning his employees about Nazis in D.C. on the day of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Later in the week, Google revoked corporate access from AI ethicist Margaret Mitchell in what some are saying is reminiscent of the company’s treatment of Dr. Timnit Gebru. Meanwhile, Instacart is making some changes to its platform that will result in job loss. 

Sign up below to get this in your email every Friday at 1 p.m. PT.

GitHub’s head of HR resigns; company offers fired Jewish employee his job back

A GitHub internal investigation revealed the company made “significant errors of judgment and procedure” in the firing of the Jewish employee who cautioned his coworkers about the presence of Nazis in the D.C. area on the day of insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

In a blog post, GitHub COO Erica Brescia said the company’s head of HR took full responsibility for what happened and resigned from the company yesterday. GitHub did not disclose the name of the person who resigned, but it’s widely known that Carrie Olesen was the chief human resources officer at GitHub.

GitHub said it has “reversed the decision to separate with the employee” and is talking to his representative.

“To the employee we wish to say publicly: We sincerely apologize,” Brescia said in the blog post. However, the terminated employee previously told me that he did not want his job back but instead some other form of reconciliation.

Google AI ethicist under investigation 

Google is investigating AI ethicist Margaret Mitchell for reportedly using automated scripts to find examples of mistreatment of Dr. Timnit Gebru, according to Axios. Gebru says she was fired from Google while Google has maintained that she resigned. In a statement to Axios, Google said the company had locked Mitchell’s account:

Our security systems automatically lock an employee’s corporate account when they detect that the account is at risk of compromise due to credential problems or when an automated rule involving the handling of sensitive data has been triggered. In this instance, yesterday our systems detected that an account had exfiltrated thousands of files and shared them with multiple external accounts. We explained this to the employee earlier today.

The recently-formed Alphabet Workers Union made a statement saying it was concerned by Mitchell’s suspension of corporate access:

“Regardless of the outcome of the company’s investigation, the ongoing targeting of leaders in this organization calls into question Google’s commitment to ethics—in AI and in their business practices. Many members of the Ethical AI team are AWU members and the membership of our union recognizes the crucial work that they do and stands in solidarity with them in this moment.”

Google’s Sundar Pichai to meet with HBCU leaders

At least five HBCU presidents are scheduled to meet with Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Chief Diversity Officer Melonie Parker later this month to discuss recent allegations of racism and discrimination at the company, according to CNN. Additionally, the goal of the meeting is to ensure HBCUs have a good relationship with Google and that the company offers a good environment for its students and graduates.

Context:

Amazon launches anti-union website

Ahead of Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama gearing up to vote on whether to form a union, Amazon launched an anti-union website. Called Do It Without Dues, the site aims to dissuade workers from voting to unionize.

Instacart plans to terminate nearly 2,000 jobs 

Instacart plans to lay off nearly 2,000 of its workers, including the 10 workers from the Kroger-owned Mariano’s who unionized early last year, Vice reports. These workers are responsible for in-store shopping and packing of groceries.

According to Vice, 10 of the workers affected unionized with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1546 in Skokie, Illinois. However, they have yet to negotiate a contract with Instacart, according to Vice. Instacart notified the union of the planned changes earlier this week. In the letter, Instacart said it planned to stop using in-store shoppers at Kroger-owned stores, which includes the Mariano’s store in Skokie, in Q1 and Q2 of this year, but no earlier than mid-March.

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How VCs and founders see 2021 differently

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Welcome back to The TechCrunch Exchange, a weekly startups-and-markets newsletter. It’s broadly based on the daily column that appears on Extra Crunch, but free, and made for your weekend reading. Click here if you want it in your inbox every Saturday morning.

Ready? Let’s talk money, startups and spicy IPO rumors.


We’re shaking things up this weekend in the newsletter, focusing on a series of larger themes and news items instead of having a few discrete sections. Why? Because there was too much to fit into our usual format. If you were a fan of the original layout, we’ll be back to it next week.

Today we’re talking Coinbase’s growth, how Juked.gg tapped the equity crowdfunding market, a noodle or two on the a16z media game, Talkspace’s SPAC, VC and founder predictions for 2021, and where’s the right place to found a company.

Sound good? Let’s get into it!

Coinbase’s deposits scale ahead of IPO

Thanks to Kazim Rizvi of Drop, parent company to Cardify which provides data on consumer spending, we have a look into how quickly deposits have scaled at American cryptocurrency platform Coinbase. As Coinbase has filed to go public, and we’re eagerly anticipating its eventual S-1 filing, we were stoked to get a directional look at how quickly consumer interest was growing for the assets it helps folks buy.

They are scaling rapidly. Using the first week of January 2019 as a baseline, by the last week of December 2020 deposits and withdrawals from Coinbase had grown by more than 12x apiece. That’s staggering growth, and while the data is somewhat volatile — and we’d treat it as directional instead of exact — on a week-to-week basis, it underscores how well companies like Coinbase may be performing as Bitcoin booms once again, bringing in more trading interest and consumer demand.

Via Cardify, Cardify data.

The Cardify data also indicates a multiplying of new customer acquisition at Coinbase over the same time period, and deposits scaling alongside the price of Bitcoin. As Bitcoin has topped the $30,000 mark recently, sharply higher than in recent quarters, the price gains may have helped Coinbase not only a solid Q4 2020, but perhaps put it on a path for a bonkers Q1 2021 as well.

If we were 10/10 excited about the Coinbase S-1 before this dataset, we’re now a heckin’ 12/10.

Equity crowdfunding seven-figures for esports content

Esports is super cool and if you don’t agree, you are incorrect. But it doesn’t matter if you or I are right or not on the question, as the market has largely decided that competitive gaming is worth time, attention and investors’ money.

The proliferation of esports leagues and games and the like has led to a decidedly fragmented universe, however, lacking a central hub akin to what ESPN provides the world of traditional sports.

But not to worry, Juked.gg just raised capital to build a content hub for esports. This means that old folks like myself can still find out when tournaments are happening, and enjoy a dabble of League of Legends or Starcraft 2 pro play when we can, sans hunting around the internet for dates and times.

Juked.gg went through 500 Startups (more on its class here), catching our eye at the time as a neat nexus for esports-related content. Now flush with a little over $1 million that it raised on the Republic platform, it has big plans.

The Exchange spoke with Juked.gg’s co-founder and CEO Ben Goldhaber about his company’s performance to date. Per Goldhaber, Juked has scaled from 500 users when it launched in late 2019, to 50,000 in December of 2020. Ahead, Juked may invest more in journalism, more into social features, and more into user-generated content. We’ll have more on Juked as it gets its vision built, now powered by over a million dollars from 2,524 investors, each betting that the startup is building the right product to help unify a growing, if distributed, entertainment category.

The a16z media push

To preserve our collective sanity, I’m not going to bang on at length here, but building out content at a VC firm is not new. Hell, how long ago did the First Round Review launch? What a16z appears to have in mind is different in scale, not substance. We chatted about it on Equity this week, in case you need more on the matter.

Talkspace’s maybe-not-stupid SPAC

While it is enjoyable to mock SPACs, featuring as many do companies that are nascent to say the least, not all SPAC-led debuts are as silly as the rest. This is the case with the impending Talkspace deal, the deck for which you can read here.

What matters is this set of charts:

Look at that! Historical revenue growth! Improving gross margins! Rising gross profit!

You may argue that the company is not really worth an enterprise value of $1.4 billion that it will sport after its combination with Hudson Executive Investment Corp., but, hey, at least it’s a real business.

How VCs and founders see 2021 differently

Seed VC NFX dropped a VC and founder survey the other day that I’ve been meaning to share with you. You can read the whole thing here, if you’d like.

I have two pull-outs for you this morning:

  1. VCs are more bullish on the economy than founders, with around 30% of founders expecting consumer spending to stay flat or decline, positions that only around 17% of VCs agreed with.
  2. And when it comes to leaving the Bay Area — yes, that chestnut again — 35% of founders have itchy feet, while just 20% of investors are similarly inclined. I think this is because the latter have houses in the Bay Area while most founders do not. But it should temper the view that all the money and talent are leaving. They aren’t.

There’s no place like no place

Initialized Capital put together some data on where founders think it is best to found a company. In 2020, nearly 42% of surveyed founders said the Bay Area. By 2021 that number had slipped to a little over 28%, with a plurality of 42% indicating that a distributed company is the best way to go.

I hear about this a lot from early-stage founders. They are often building what I call micro-multinationals, small companies that have a few employees in one country, and then a handful in others. Making that setup work is going to be a hotspot for HR software I reckon.

Regardless, the requirement of founding companies in the Bay Area is kaput. The advantages of founding there will linger much longer.

Coming up!

Coming up on The Exchange next week: The first entries of our new $50 million ARR series, featuring interviews with Assembly, SimpleNexus, Picsart, OwnBackup and others. And we have some $100 million ARR interviews in the can, as well.

Finally, to keep the The Powers That Be happy, The Exchange covered some neat stuff this week, including American VC results, fintech and unicorn venture capital, European and Asian venture capital results, how the IPO market is even more bonkers than you thought, and notes on what Qualtrics may be worth when it goes public.

Hugs, and let’s all get a nap in,

Alex

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Augmented reality and the next century of the web

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Howdy friends, this is the web version of my Week in Review newsletter, it’s here to entice you to sign up and get it in your inbox every week.

Last week, I showcased how Twitter was looking at the future of the web with a decentralized approach so that they wouldn’t be stuck unilaterally de-platforming the next world leader. This week, I scribbled some thoughts on another aspect of the future web, the ongoing battle between Facebook and Apple to own augmented reality. Releasing the hardware will only be the start of a very messy transition from smartphone-first to glasses-first mobile computing.

Again, if you so desire you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny


The Big Thing

If the last few years of new “reality” tech has telegraphed anything, it’s that tech companies won’t be able to skip past augmented reality’s awkward phase, they’re going to have to barrel through it and it’s probably going to take a long-ass time.

The clearest reality is that in 2021 everyday users still don’t seem quite as interested in AR as the next generation of platform owners stand to benefit from a massive transition. There’s some element of skating to where the puck is going among the soothsayers that believe AR is the inevitable platform heir etc. etc., but the battle to reinvent mobile is at its core a battle to kill the smartphone before its time has come.

A war to remake mobile in the winner’s image

It’s fitting that the primary backers of this AR future are Apple and Facebook, ambitious companies that are deeply in touch with the opportunities they could’ve capitalized on if they could do it all over again.

While Apple and Facebook both have thousands of employees toiling quietly in the background building out their AR tech moats, we’ve seen and heard much more on Facebook’s efforts. The company has already served up several iterations of their VR hardware through Oculus and has discussed publicly over the years how they view virtual reality and augmented reality hardware converging. 

Facebook’s hardware and software experiments have been experimentations in plain sight, an advantage afforded to a company that didn’t sell any hardware before they started selling VR headsets. Meanwhile Apple has offered up a developer platform and a few well-timed keynote slots for developers harnessing their tools, but the most ambitious first-party AR project they’ve launched publicly on iOS has been a measuring tape app. Everything else has taken place behind closed doors.

That secrecy tends to make any reporting on Apple’s plans particularly juicy. This week, a story from Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman highlights some of Apple’s next steps towards a long-rumored AR glasses product, reporting that Apple plans to release a high-end niche VR device with some AR capabilities as early as next year. It’s not the most surprising but showcases how desperate today’s mobile kingpins are to ease the introduction of a technology that has the potential to turn existing tech stacks and the broader web on their heads.

Both Facebook and Apple have a handful of problems getting AR products out into the world, and they’re not exactly low-key issues:

  1. hardware isn’t ready
  2. platforms aren’t ready
  3. developers aren’t ready
  4. users don’t want it yet

This is a daunting wall, but isn’t uncommon among hardware moonshots. Facebook has already worked its way through this cycle once with virtual reality over several generations of hardware, though there were some key difference and few would call VR a mainstream success quite yet.

Nevertheless, there’s a distinct advantage to tackling VR before AR for both Facebook and Apple, they can invest in hardware that’s adjacent to the technologies their AR products will need to capitalize on, they can entice developers to build for a platform that’s more similar to what’s coming and they can set base line expectations for consumers for a more immersive platform. At least this would all be the case for Apple with a mass market VR device closer to Facebook’s $300 Quest 2, but a pricey niche device as Gurman’s report details doesn’t seem to fit that bill quite so cleanly.

The AR/VR content problem 

The scenario I’d imagine both Facebook and Apple are losing sleep over is that they release serviceable AR hardware into a world where they are wholly responsible for coming up with all the primary use cases.

The AR/VR world already has a hefty backlog of burnt developers who might be long-term bullish on the tech but are also tired of getting whipped around by companies that seem to view the development of content ecosystems simply as a means to ship their next device. If Apple is truly expecting the sales numbers of this device that Bloomberg suggests — similar to Valve’s early Index headset sales — then color me doubtful that there will be much developer interest at all in building for a stopgap device, I’d expect ports of Quest 2 content and a few shining stars from Apple-funded partners.

I don’t think this will me much of a shortcut for them.

True AR hardware is likely going to have different standards of input, different standards of interaction and a much different approach to use cases compared to a device built for the home or smartphone. Apple has already taken every available chance to entice mobile developers to embrace phone-based AR on iPhones through ARKit, a push they have seemed to back off from at recent developer-centric events. As someone who has kept a close eye on early projects, I’d say that most players in the space have been very underwhelmed by what existing platforms enable and what has been produced widely.

That’s really not great for Apple or Facebook and suggests that both of these companies are going to have to guide users and developers through use cases they design. I think there’s a convincing argument that early AR glasses applications will be dominated by first-party tech and may eschew full third-party native apps in favor of tightly controlled data integrations more similar to how Apple has approached developer integrations inside Siri.

But giving developers a platform built with Apple or Facebook’s own dominance in mind is going to be tough to sell, underscoring the fact that mobile and mobile AR are going to be platforms that will have to live alongside each other for quite a bit. There will be rich opportunities for developers to create experiences that play with 3D and space, but there are also plenty of reasons to expect they’ll be more resistant to move off of a mutually enriching mobile platform onto one where Facebook or Apple will have the pioneer’s pick of platform advantages. What’s in it for them?

Mobile’s OS-level winners captured plenty of value from top-of-funnel apps marketplaces, but the down-stream opportunities found mobile’s true prize, a vastly expanded market for digital ads. With the opportunity of a mobile do-over, expect to find pioneering tech giants pitching proprietary digital ad infrastructure for their devices. Advertising will likely be augmented reality’s greatest opportunity allowing the digital ads market to create an infinite global canvas for geo-targeted customized ad content. A boring future, yes, but a predictable one.

For Facebook, being a platform owner in the 2020s means getting to set their own limitations on use cases, not being confined by App Store regulations and designing hardware with social integrations closer to the silicon. For Apple, reinventing the mobile OS in the 2020s likely means an opportunity to more meaningfully dominate mobile advertising.

It’s a do-over to the tune of trillions in potential revenues.

What comes next

The AR/VR industry has been stuck in a cycle of seeking out saviors. Facebook has been the dearest friend to proponents after startup after startup has failed to find a speedy win. Apple’s long-awaited AR glasses are probably where most die-hards are currently placing their faith.

I don’t think there are any misgivings from Apple or Facebook in terms of what a wild opportunity this to win, it’s why they each have more people working on this than any other future-minded project. AR will probably be massive and change the web in a fundamental way, a true Web 3.0 that’s the biggest shift of the internet to date.

That’s doesn’t sound like something that will happen particularly smoothly.

I’m sure that these early devices will arrive later than we expect, do less than we expect and that things will be more and less different from the smartphone era’s mobile paradigms in ways we don’t anticipate. I’m also sure that it’s going to be tough for these companies to strong-arm themselves into a more seamless transition. This is going to be a very messy for tech platforms and is a transition that won’t happen overnight, not by a long shot.


Other things

The Loon is dead
One of tech’s stranger moonshots is dead, as Google announced this week that Loon, it’s internet balloon project is being shut down. It was an ambitious attempt to bring high-speed internet to remote corners of the world, but the team says it wasn’t sustainable to provide a high-cost service at a low price. More

Facebook Oversight Board tasked with Trump removal
I talked a couple weeks ago — what feels like a lifetime ago — about how Facebook’s temporary ban of Trump was going to be a nightmare for the company. I wasn’t sure how they’d stall for more time of a banned Trump before he made Facebook and Instagram his central platform, but they made a brilliant move, purposefully tying the case up in PR-favorable bureaucracy, tossing the case to their independent Oversight Board for their biggest case to date. More

Jack is Back
Alibaba’s head honcho is back in action. Alibaba shares jumped this week when the Chinese e-commerce giant’s billionaire CEO Jack Ma reappeared in public after more than three months after his last public appearance, something that stoked plenty of conspiracies. Where he was during all this time isn’t clear, but I sort of doubt we’ll be finding out. More

Trump pardons Anthony Levandowski
Trump is no longer President, but in one of his final acts, he surprisingly opted to grant a full pardon to one Anthony Levandowski, the former Google engineer convicted of stealing trade secrets regarding their self-driving car program. It was a surprising end to one of the more dramatic big tech lawsuits in recent years. More

Xbox raises Live prices
I’m not sure how this stacks in importance relative to what else is listed here, but I’m personally pissed that Microsoft is hiking the price of their streaming subscription Xbox Live Gold. It’s no secret that the gaming industry is embracing a subscription economy, it will be interesting to see what the divide looks like in terms of gamer dollars going towards platform owners versus studios. More

Musk offers up $100M donation to carbon capture tech
Elon Musk, who is currently the world’s richest person, tweeted out this week that he will be donating $100 million towards a contest to build the best technology for carbon capture. TechCrunch learned that this is connected to the Xprize organization. More details


Extra Things

I’m adding a section going forward to highlight some of our Extra Crunch coverage from the week, which dives a bit deeper into the money and minds of the moneymakers.

Hot IPOs hang onto gains as investors keep betting on tech
“After setting a $35 to $39 per-share IPO price range, Poshmark sold shares in its IPO at $42 apiece. Then it opened at $97.50. Such was the exuberance of the stock market regarding the used goods marketplace’s debut.
But today it’s worth a more modest $76.30 — for this piece we’re using all Yahoo Finance data, and all current prices are those from yesterday’s close ahead of the start of today’s trading — which sparked a question: How many recent tech IPOs are also down from their opening price?” More

How VCs invested in Asia and Europe in 2020
“Wrapping our look at how the venture capital asset class invested in 2020, today we’re taking a peek at Europe’s impressive year, and Asia’s slightly less invigorating set of results. (We’re speaking soon with folks who may have data on African VC activity in 2020; if those bear out, we’ll do a final entry in our series concerning the continent.)” More

Hello, Extra Crunch Community!
“We’re going to be trying out some new things around here with the Extra Crunch staff front and center, as well as turning your feedback into action more than ever. We quite literally work for you, the subscriber, and want to make sure you’re getting your money’s worth, as it were.” More


Until next week,
Lucas Matney

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