This Week in Apps: Instagram’s founders’ new app, another Twitter rival, Biden admin criticizes app stores
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 economy in 2023 hit a few snags, as consumer spending last year dropped for the first time by 2% to $167 billion, according to the latest “State of Mobile” report by data.ai (previously App Annie). However, downloads are continuing to grow, up 11% year-over-year in 2022 to reach 255 billion. Consumers are also spending more time in mobile apps than ever before. On Android devices alone, hours spent in 2022 grew 9%, reaching 4.1 trillion.
This Week in Apps offers a way to keep up with this fast-moving industry in one place with the latest from the world of apps, including news, updates, startup fundings, mergers and acquisitions, and much more.
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Instagram’s co-founders launch a Toutiao-like news app
Surprising news this week saw Instagram’s co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger return to the mobile app market with the launch of a news reading app called Artifact. The app is part of a new venture aimed at exploring social apps, a report in The Verge noted.
Artifact itself is not yet publicly available but offers a waitlist where interested users can sign up. As described, it sounds like a modern-day twist on Google Reader, a long-ago RSS newsreader app that Google shut down back in 2013. Except in this case, Artifact is described as a newsreader that uses machine learning to personalize the experience for the end user, while also adding social elements that allow users to discuss articles they come across with friends. (To be fair, Google Reader had a similar feature, but the app itself had to be programmed by the user who would add RSS feeds directly.)
The app presents a curated selection of news stories, which become more attuned to the user’s interests over time. According to a demo version of the app, you’ll need to read at last 25 articles for the app to personalize your feed. (You can track your progress in the app.)
During onboarding, you’ll tap on news interests you want to track to initially customize the experience. Users can also add their own paid news subscriptions for top publishers, like The New York Times and Bloomberg, if they choose. This will then prioritize those outlets in the app’s interface but links open in a web view. There’s no publisher integration or exclusive deals here, it seems.
Future app features will include comment controls, separate feeds for articles posted by people you follow alongside their commentary, and a direct message inbox for discussing posts more privately. But for now, you can thumbs down articles or hide the publisher, save articles to read later, share articles through iOS or Android’s built-in sharing features, report content, view your reading history and read articles in a cleaned-up reader mode.
There are some odd design choices, like the slightly too-small font for a text-heavy app and the italicized font styling on the sign-up page, but the latter isn’t present in the app itself. The app had two news reading tabs, which is strange, as one is a scrollable list of headlines, similar to an RSS reader like Feedly, while the other is a browsable page, similar to Apple News’ Today tab, but with categories at the top.
The app doesn’t immediately feel original, as it overlaps with other news readers and read-it-later apps, like Flipboard, SmartNews, Newsbreak, Pocket and Matter, plus other RSS readers and the default news apps from Apple and Google. It seems as if the company is hoping to reproduce the success of something like ByteDance’s Toutiao, but in the U.S. that’s difficult to do. The new market is more competitive here, where consumers also rely heavily on getting news from Google Search and Facebook — a platform not available in China. Plus, as TechCrunch’s Catherine Shu previously reported, many people in the country skipped the PC and first went online with their phones, paving the way for a mobile news app to eat up market share.
It will be interesting to track how well Artifact fares in this environment.
The Biden administration calls out app stores as anticompetitive
The Biden administration called out Apple and Google’s app stores for stifling competition. A new report, issued on Wednesday by the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), said it had investigated the competitive conditions in the mobile app ecosystem and found that it’s “not a level playing field, which is harmful to developers and consumers.”
The report also made several policy suggestions that could improve the ecosystem and open up competition. These included pushes for more transparent app review process; limits on pre-installed apps and self-preferencing; bans on rules that restrict other means of installing apps, like sideloading; support for third-party payments; support for links to developers’ websites from apps; and more.
The recommendations, however, are just that — ideas, not policy. The report only helps to solidify and clarify the Biden administration’s position on app store competition. As the report points out, “Congress should enact laws” and “relevant agencies should consider measures” to limit anticompetitive conduct.
The Biden administration, so far, has seen mixed success in actually holding tech giants accountable. On the one hand, the Department of Justice is now suing Google over its digital ad monopoly, while on the other, Meta is winning against the FTC to move forward with its latest acquisition. The DoJ has yet to sue Apple, though it has been building a case and weighing in on Epic Games’ antitrust lawsuit. In the meantime, record lobbying spending from tech giants, including Apple and Google, has helped to block bipartisan bills that would curb anti-competitive behavior from advancing in Congress.
Another decentralized social app launches to take on Twitter, then gets kicked out of the China App Store
Twitter has another competitor, with this week’s arrival of Damus, a decentralized social networking application that’s powered by an open and decentralized social networking protocol known as Nostr, which is based on cryptographic key pairs.
Last year, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey donated around $245,000 in bitcoin (then roughly 14 BTC) to fund the development of Nostr even though he’s already investing in a different decentralized protocol with his Bluesky project.
Though there are some venture-backed Twitter rivals coming onto the scene, like Spill, T2 and Post, Damus is not one of them. It’s an experiment in decentralized social networking. The app’s promise is a social network without a central authority that makes decisions about the network’s content or who’s allowed to participate, as Facebook or Twitter do. Explains the app’s homepage, “you are in control…there is no platform that can ban or censor you. You are in control of your data,” it reads.
There’s no requirement to sign up with a phone number, email or name because of how the Nostr works. That’s a big point of differentiation with the federated platform, Mastodon, where a user’s account is attached to a particular server and admins have some control over their server’s registered users. That means issues with the Mastodon server you’re using — like an outage — could impact your ability to use the network. And you could risk losing data if that shutdown was sudden or permanent.
The new app also includes end-to-end encrypted messaging — something Twitter does not have, and which has concerned users in the wake of the Musk takeover. Messages are distributed through decentralized relays — in fact, the name Nostr is an acronym for “Notes and Other Stuff Transmitted by Relays.” And users can tip one another thanks to Bitcoin Lightning Network integrations.
The decentralization and promise of anonymity brought a flood of Chinese users to the app at launch, as typical social networks in China have censorship tools to eliminate content that’s illegal or banned in the country. Plus, anonymity is not allowed. Not surprisingly, China’s government soon took action on Damus and the iOS app was pulled from the App Store in China just two days after its launch.
- Apple missed on earnings. The company reported fiscal Q1 revenue that was down 5% year-over-year to $117.2 billion, its largest annual quarterly revenue decline since 2016 and below expectations of $121.10 billion. Net income was down 13% year-over-year to $30 billion.
- Except for Services (up 6.4%) and iPad (up 30%), all business lines were down, including iPhone (down 8%), Mac (down 29%), Wearables/Home/Accessories (down 8%). Revenue in Greater China also fell 7.3% year-over-year to $23.9 billion.
- Apple said it now has more than 2 billion active devices worldwide and 935 million paid subscriptions. Services, including iCloud, Apple Music, Apple TV , Apple Arcade, Apple News , Apple Fitness , Apple One and Apple Pay, brought in $20.8 billion in the quarter.
- Apple will raise the App Store app and IAP prices in the U.K. and some other markets on February 13. The company said it’s adjusting for taxes and conversion rate changes. Additional countries impacted include Colombia, Egypt, Hungary, Nigeria, Norway and South Africa. Prices in Uzbekistan will decrease to reflect a reduction of the value-added tax rate from 15% to 12%, the company also noted. Meanwhile, proceeds are being adjusted in Ireland, Luxembourg, Singapore and Zimbabwe due to tax changes, but prices aren’t changing.
- Apple’s Support app adds Bulgarian, Croatian and Greek and expanded into 118 new markets.
- Spotify, an earlier tester of Google’s User Choice Billing option for third-party payments, said during earnings the offering has now expanded to more than 140 markets worldwide. The streamer didn’t say which markets were included nor how much of a commission cut it receives, but Google had previously said the program would reduce commissions by 4%.
- Google’s new policy requiring digital lenders in Kenya to submit proof of license to operate has taken effect. The policy aims to cut down on the rogue loan apps that have been offering unsecured personal and business loans. Some apps have been sharing contact info from browsers with third-party debt collectors without consent.
- Meta reported Q4 earnings, with revenue down 4% year-over-year to $32.2 billion and net income down 55% year-over-year to $4.7 billion. However, the company said its family daily active users were up 5% year-over-year to 2.96 billion and Facebook had 2 billion daily active users, after adding 16 million DAUs in the quarter. WhatsApp had passed 2 billion DAUs in October. The stock jumped up by 24% after earnings, and is now up 110% since November, adding $250 billion to its market cap. (Apple observer John Gruber suggested that maybe Meta should maybe now stop “whining” about ATT!)
- Instagram’s newly launched Notes feature, which lets users post a status update that can be seen at the top of their inbox, expanded to global markets outside the U.S., including the EU, U.K. and Japan. The feature was already available in Latin America, North America and parts of Asia, and should have become available across all regions sometime during this past week.
- Instagram’s code reveals new references to a “paid blue badge” and a new subscription suggesting the company could be spinning up its own version of Twitter Blue-like paid verification.
- Debt-laden Twitter made its first interest payment under Elon Musk to seven banks, led by Morgan Stanley, on the $12.5 billion Musk borrowed to take the company private last year. The payment was around $300 million, Bloomberg reported.
- One of Meta’s last apps built by the experimental projects group, NPE Team, is shutting down. The company announced its social to-do list app Move will close down on March 2, 2023.
- Snap reported mixed Q4 earnings. The company missed on revenue ($1.30 billion versus $1.31 expected) but beat on earnings per share (14 cents versus 11 cents expected). The app now has global daily active users of 375 million, close to expectations of 375.3 million. Snap’s stock plunged following the results as investors reacted to the net loss of $288 million and lack of official guidance for Q1.
- Among Snap’s earnings highlights, it announced its subscription service Snapchat topped 2 million paid users and talked about how AI could be used in AR glasses in the future.
- Twitter killed a relatively unused feature called CoTweets which let two accounts author a tweet, similar to a feature Instagram offers.
- Twitter also expanded Twitter Blue to new markets and announced a plan to relaunch the Spaces tab with curated Spaces and podcasts.
- In unfortunate news for developers, Twitter announced it would end free access to its API on February 9, including both the legacy v1.1 and the newer v2 version, and will instead launch a paid plan. The community is lamenting how this change will mean the loss of a number of fun and helpful bots that added value to the Twitter experience.
- Spotify reported its Q4 earnings with revenue up 18% year-over-year to €3.2 billion and a €270 million loss, up from €39 million year-over-year. Paid subscribers were up 10 million to reach 205 million.
- Investors asked Spotify about the tests of a new Friends tab in the app, which suggests the company has expanded social ambitions as fewer young people use Facebook, which is what powers Spotify’s existing social features.
- Netflix’s “Kids Mystery Box” feature hit Android devices. The discovery tool works similarly to the Shuffle button offered to adult viewers but offers kids the ability to find new content in a more playful way.
- Apple rolled out Apple Music Replay 2023, its annual collection of the top songs by year. The playlist is made available to the music app’s subscribers alongside a website that offers personalized details, like your top albums, songs and artists of the year.
- Apple launched MLS Season Pass in more than 100 territories, offering soccer fans access to all MLS matches, playoffs and more for $14.99/mo or $99/year. The subscription service is available through the Apple TV app and can be shared with up to six family members with Apple’s Family Sharing.
- Google’s YouTube Shorts topped 50 billion daily views, the company said during earnings. The company began sharing ad revenue with creators on February 1 to help it better challenge TikTok, whose own ad rev share program has not been going well.
- YouTube launched “Go Live Together” which allows creators with 50 or more subscribers to co-host livestreams with one guest at a time on its iOS and Android apps.
- TikTok said it’s going to adopt a strike system, similar to YouTube, to deal with violations. Penalties of exceeding the threshold, which varies by offense, will result in permanent bans.
- TikTok will also test a new button that will allow users to refresh their For You feed with new content when it gets stale. After pressing the button, TikTok’s algorithm will then go off the user’s new engagement patterns with the refreshed content.
- EA surprised investors this week with the news that it’s pulling the plug on “Apex Legends Mobile,” which was just named Game of the Year by both Apple and Google. According to CEO Andrew Wilson, the issue was that the game failed to keep enough casual players engaged. The decision also led the company to kill the planned mobile version of “Battlefield.”
- Sony added support for Discord voice calls in beta on its PS5 in the U.S., Canada, Japan and the U.K., similar to support on the Xbox. The Xbox version was recently updated to allow for direct joining from the console itself without needing a phone or PC.
- Roblox is going to host a free virtual Super Bowl concert featuring Saweetie. The concert will take place at 7:00 pm ET in Warner Music Group’s Rhythm City, a new destination on Roblox that was announced earlier this week.
- 1Password previewed new features coming to its iOS app, including the ability to reorder fields and sections inside items, the (returning) ability to search within any list of items, PIN unlock on mobile, improved Face ID unlock, better VoiceOver support and more.
- A victim of the recent Google Fi hack had his Coinbase and 2FA app, Authy, hijacked by hackers, raising concerns about further potential fallout from the Google Fi data breach, which was likely related to the recent security incident at T-Mobile.
- Password manager Dashlane published its source code to GitHub in a new transparency push. The published code includes the Android app code, iOS app code and code related to the Apple Watch and Mac apps. It plans to later publish the code for its web extension, too.
- Samsung reported a ~$1.38 billion mobile profit in Q4 2022, down from $2.15 billion in the year-ago quarter. Its operating profit was down 69% year-over-year to ~$3.5 billion, its lowest since Q3 2014. Revenue was down 8% year-over-year to ~$57.3 billion, due to weak chip and smartphone demand.
- Samsung’s SmartThings iOS app now supports Matter devices.
- Some users of queer dating app Lex are complaining about the company’s new focus on friends and community, as they preferred its prior raunchy nature.
- Pinterest is laying off 150 employees, or less than 5% of its workforce, but declined to share where the cuts were being made. This follows a first round of layoffs in December.
- PayPal said it’s laying off 2,000 employees, or around 7% of its workforce in the coming weeks.
- Car-sharing service Getaround is laying off 10% of its staff, or approximately 42 employees.
- Groupon laid off another 500 employees in a second round of layoffs.
Funding and M&A
- Twitter rival Spill, being built by former Twitter employees, raised $2.75 million in a pre-seed round of funding after receiving 60,000 handle reservations.
- Egyptian fintech and e-commerce MNT-Halan raised up to $400 million in equity and debt financing. A large portion of the equity, about $200 million, was provided by Abu Dhabi-based Chimera Investments. MNT-Halan runs the Halan digital wallet app offering bill pay, e-commerce, ride-hailing and loans.
- Meta won a ruling against the FTC in a closely watched case over its proposed acquisition of VR software company Within. A U.S. district court judge denied the FTC’s request to block Meta’s purchase of Within, which makes a VR fitness app called Supernatural. The FTC had said Meta’s purchase would help the company dominate in VR, potentially creating a monopoly in the market.
- U.K. neobank Zopa raised £75 million (around $93 million) in an all-equity investment round, without a lead investor. The company said it was an inside round from existing investors including IAG Silverstripe, Uprising and Augmentum, but not SoftBank.
- Mexican employee wellness company Minu raised $30 million in a combination of equity and debt. The round includes $10 million in a bridge round from Coppel Capital, Besant Capital and Enea Capital, plus existing investors FinTech Collective, QED and Salkantay, and $20 million of debt from Accial Capital.
TechCrunch’s Ivan Mehta took a look at Forum, a new app from Waverly Labs, the company behind wearables focused on translation. With Forum, users can translate and transcribe audio in real time across 20 languages and 42 dialects, including Arabic, Dutch, English, Hindi, German, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese and Spanish. Users can switch to a new language in the middle of a session to get both a text and audio translation. The app also works with video calling apps like Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Meet.
A new app called Rewind wants to make it easier for music fans to explore the top songs of decades past. Hoping to cater to consumer demand for nostalgic music experiences, Rewind allows users to “time travel” through the music charts from 1960 through 2010 to learn about how older songs have influenced today’s hits. Users can explore the music from a given year by top albums and top music videos, in addition to growing the top Billboard charts. It also delves into relevant trends from a given time period — like 1991’s selection of “grunge-defining records.”
Other sections present tracks that saw major radio airtime that year, highly anticipated releases and newly formed bands that emerged that year, and so on. A TikTok-like feed lets you swipe through the year’s top songs quickly.
There’s also a “news” section that includes major events and moments from the year, and “ads” that give the app a retro feel. For example, in 1965, listeners will see ads for the first distortion guitar pedal while users browsing the 1980s might see ads for new synth instruments that helped shape 80s sounds. The app, a side project from a TIDAL developer, integrates only with TIDAL for now. Everyone else can hear 30-second song clips.
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.