This Week in Apps: Apple's Sherlocks, Instagram's 'nudges,' and a TikTok-Oracle deal
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 continues to grow, with a record number of downloads and consumer spending across both the iOS and Google Play stores combined in 2021, according to the latest year-end reports. Global spending across iOS, Google Play and third-party Android app stores in China grew 19% in 2021 to reach $170 billion. Downloads of apps also grew by 5%, reaching 230 billion in 2021, and mobile ad spend grew 23% year over year to reach $295 billion.
Today’s consumers now spend more time in apps than ever before — even topping the time they spend watching TV, in some cases. The average American watches 3.1 hours of TV per day, for example, but in 2021, they spent 4.1 hours on their mobile device. And they’re not even the world’s heaviest mobile users. In markets like Brazil, Indonesia and South Korea, users surpassed five hours per day in mobile apps in 2021.
Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours, either. They can grow to become huge businesses. In 2021, 233 apps and games generated more than $100 million in consumer spend, and 13 topped $1 billion in revenue. This was up 20% from 2020, when 193 apps and games topped $100 million in annual consumer spend, and just eight apps topped $1 billion.
This Week in Apps offers a way to keep up with this fast-moving industry in one place, with the latest from the world of apps, including news, updates, startup fundings, mergers and acquisitions, and suggestions about new apps to try, too.
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Social apps are taking a closer look at how they’re being used by teens and minors as regulatory pressure increases.
Last week, TikTok improved its protections for minor users when adding a new feature that allows users to remind themselves to “take a break” after watching videos for a certain amount of time on the app. As a part of this, the company also said it would notify younger teens on the app that the new tool was available if they had spent more than 100 minutes on TikTok the prior day.
This week, Instagram said it’s rolling out its own set of improvements to the teen experience. It’s expanding access to its existing parental control features outside the U.S. to users in the U.K., Japan, Australia, Ireland, Canada, France and Germany starting this month, and plans to make them globally available by year end.
In addition, Instagram will now allow parents and guardians to send invitations to teens to initiate the setup of supervision tools. Once enabled, they’ll be able to limit their teen’s usage of the app during specific times of day and days of the week. They’ll also be able to see more information when the teen reports an account or a post, including who they reported and the type of report. For parents who were already using parental controls in the U.S., the feature will be updated to include these new features.
Notably, Meta is also now taking a cue from last fall’s congressional line of inquiry into how Instagram’s algorithms could be leading teens to develop eating disorders as searches for healthy recipes push them down rabbit holes to content that encourages disordered eating, over-exercise and other things that could trigger negative body image issues. Instagram says it will roll out “nudges” in the app that encourage teens to switch to a different topic if it sees them repeatedly looking at the same type of content on the Explore page. This feature aims to help direct them away to content they may be obsessing over to discover something new. It also won’t nudge users toward content that’s associated with “appearance comparison,” the company said.
Of course, by limiting nudges to the Explore page, Instagram isn’t fully addressing the problem as users could still encounter this content while browsing their Feed, Stories or Reels. But in that case, the content is there because the user explicitly chose to follow someone — which is why parental monitoring of the time spent on the app remains important.
Apple introduced a number of new features and services across its platforms at this month’s Worldwide Developers Conference, but in doing so, the company appears to have once again pulled inspiration from the wider developer community. TechCrunch’s Ivan Mehta took a look at which apps got “sherlocked” during WWDC as a result. (The term refers to Apple’s old finder app called Sherlock which the company updated with features offered by a competitor, Watson. The move eventually put the latter out of business.)
This time around, Apple introduced a number of concepts popularized by other apps — like Continuity Camera, which seems to be inspired by companies like Camo, which had allowed users to use their iPhone as a computer webcam. This situation recalls how the makers of Duet Display and Luna had to refocus on serving a broader ecosystem after Apple introduced Sidecar in 2019 to offer a similar ability to use the iPad as a secondary display. Camo, too, will need to shift some of its focus to Windows and Android as Apple moves in on its market.
Other services that may see increased competition include: BNPL apps like Klarna and Afterpay, which will now go up against Apple Pay Later; apps for removing the background from photos, which is now a native iOS 16 feature; medication tracking apps, which will compete with a native Apple Health feature; Figjam and other collaboration tools, which will have a new first-party rival in the form of Apple’s Freeform; and sleep tracking apps, whose functionality has been added to Apple Health.
While this year was a particularly bad one for smaller startups that had seen an opportunity in the market, not everything Apple copies is a fully developed product. For instance, Camo saw the shift to online meetings in the wake of COVID was driving consumer demand for better webcams — and what better way to serve that market than to repurpose the excellent camera most people already carried as a smartphone? But, as Florian Mueller explained on the FOSS Patents blog this week, Camo was more of a feature than a product. And perhaps in those cases, developers should focus on patenting whatever feature it is they’ve come up with, rather than waiting for Apple to swoop in with an app or API that could significantly impact their business. At least then, some of their work could be compensated.
FOSS also noted, however, that there continues to be concern that apps delivering their software to users through Apple’s own App Store are inadvertently giving Apple access to valuable data about their customers and traction. Alternative app stores could help somewhat to alleviate this concern.
In fact, Apple’s “sherlocking” was a line of inquiry at last year’s antitrust hearing in the U.S. Senate, when a rep from Apple was asked whether there was a “strict firewall” or other internal policies in place that prevented them from leveraging the data from third-party businesses operating on their app stores to inform the development of their own competitive products. Apple had only offered vague responses as to whether or not it leveraged such App Store data for product development ideas.
“We don’t copy. We don’t kill. What we do is offer up a new choice and a new innovation,” Kyle Andeer, Apple’s chief compliance officer, had said at the time. He noted simply that Apple had “separate teams” and “controls in place” to avoid such issues.
In a huge move, TikTok said it would move its U.S. users’ data to Oracle servers located in the U.S. at the same time BuzzFeed published a remarkable report indicating that TikTok’s U.S. data was regularly being shared with ByteDance colleagues in China. Concern over China’s access to TikTok had previously led the Trump administration to ban the app in the U.S. The ban was initially held up by the courts and the appeals were then put on pause when Biden came into office. All the while, TikTok had repeatedly said it would never hand over U.S. user data to anyone.
When the Trump ban was underway, TikTok had engaged in discussions with several tech companies to acquire its U.S. business if it was forced to spin it off. Oracle had been among the suitors, so it’s not surprising it was named in the new deal.
In recent days, TikTok had come under fire in media reports about its toxic workplace culture where employees were quitting because of being overworked — spending some 12 hours a day at their job due to requirements to align themselves with China’s business hours. The company was said to also reward the overworked and punish those who set more reasonable boundaries, as it seemed to enforce China’s 996 work schedule on non-Chinese employees. This dictates a schedule of working from 9 am to 9 pm, 6 days per week. A WSJ report also noted some U.S. employees said they had worked 85 hours per week on average, resulting in health concerns, stress, anxiety and emotional lows so severe they sought therapy.
This week, we took a deep dive into a new app trend involving social apps that are leveraging homescreen widgets to connect and engage with younger users who are looking for simpler, more private social networking apps that let them stay in touch with friends through casual photo-sharing. Read more here:This Week in Apps: Apple’s Sherlocks, Instagram’s ‘nudges’ and a TikTok-Oracle deal View Story