Google goes visual, Twitter copies TikTok, OG app drama • TechCrunch

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.

Global app spending reached $65 billion in the first half of 2022, up only slightly from the $64.4 billion during the same period in 2021, as hypergrowth fueled by the pandemic has diminished. But overall, the app economy is continuing to grow, having produced 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 and Google Play last year was $133 billion, and consumers downloaded 143.6 billion apps.

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So we’re just TikTok-ing all the things now

The TikTok-ification of today’s web is nearly overwhelming. Already we’ve seen top social apps like Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube clone the vertical feed format in their own apps. And it seems not a day goes by when some other app announces its own TikTok-like feed has arrived. This week, it was the NBA app that added a vertical video feed of sports content, for some reason, while Twitter announced the introduction of a TikTok-inspired feed for watching videos on its app.

It’s all starting to get a little ridiculous, isn’t it?

Twitter video feed

Image Credits: Twitter

Still, there’s something more going on here, it seems.

This isn’t just about adopting a new format — as apps did when Stories became popular, for example. What’s really happening is that there’s a broader shift in how younger people are using the web, and apps are rushing to adapt. Younger users are looking for more immersive content, visual experiences and easy access to information through intuitive user interfaces that allow for fast scrolling or simple navigation.

Throwing a TikTok feed into an app is a quick way to address these users’ unique interests, but they’re certainly not the only way.

Google Goes Visual

Image Credits: Google

Google, to its credit, has identified this shift as a threat to its core business. It understands that the days when people taught themselves how to use Boolean operators to narrow search results, then clicked back and forth through dozens of blue links, are now behind us.

At an event this week, Google introduced how it’s revamping its products as a result of these behavioral changes, starting with Google Search and Maps.

One of the most notable updates is how Google now plans to redesign Google Search for the TikTok generation.

Instead of starting with a list of links, some Google searches will return highly visual results, where pieces of information are presented in colorful cards alongside other imagery and videos — including both YouTube content and TikToks. For instance, if you search for a place, you might see maps and directions, weather, photos and snippets from Wikipedia all placed in boxes at the top of the search results. And all this could be interspersed with creator-based content that shows off famous landmarks, sights, tourist attractions, places to dine and other ideas.

The changes follow Google’s recent acknowledgment that it had been losing younger users to apps like Instagram and TikTok for some types of searches. This is its attempt to bring those users back to its search engine instead.

The idea now is that you wouldn’t just come to Google to be informed, but to also discover and be inspired — much like you do on social video apps.

The company will cater to users’ interest in visual content in other ways as well, including with shopping searches, where it will integrate more 3D imagery, allow users to browse through “shoppable looks” where they can buy outfits, not locate individual pieces, and have their experiences customized to their own interests in terms of product categories and favorite brands.

Meanwhile, in Google Maps the company is allowing users to explore cities in an “Immersive View” that leverages a combination of computer vision and AI technology to fuse Street View and aerial imagery together. This gives users a way to more visually explore an area, like a bird in flight, then glide down to the street level. Here, users can even go inside places, like restaurants, to get a sense of what they look like inside, layered with “busy-ness” data — so you know if the restaurant would be likely to have a table for you at that time.

Google Maps is also updating its new Live View feature — the AR experience that overlays information atop the real world in Maps just by holding up your phone’s camera. With Live View, you can find places like shops, restaurants or ATMs highlighted over the view of the street your camera displays. And now, you can search within Live View, too.

Another interesting feature is Neighborhood Vibe — a way for Google Maps users to get a sense of the most popular and trendy places in a given neighborhood by adding reviews, photos and videos directly atop Google Maps. (Why turn to TikTok, after all, if you can open a real maps app and watch videos there, attached to exact locations?)

Then there’s the feature that seemingly sets the stage for an AR future — multisearch near me.

This allows you to view items in the real world and find out where to find them nearby. For instance, you could point your phone’s camera (and maybe one day, your AR glasses) toward a dress, then find out which shops in your town carry it. This is a step beyond video-based e-commerce experiences, as seen on TikTok or YouTube, because you’re instead shopping from the real world — not a recorded version of it.

Now, whether Google’s investments will pay off in the long term remain to be seen, of course. These are broader bets on the future of search and discovery. But at least we can say this for it — it’s not ignoring the market shifts or thinking that simply cramming a TikTok-like feed into its apps will keep it relevant.

OG Drama

Instagram on mobile

Image Credits: Un1feed

Hoping to cater to user demand for a more classic version of Instagram without the clutter from ads and suggested posts, a pair of developers built a customized app for viewing Instagram content, called OG App. While users may have briefly appreciated the experience of what felt like the old Instagram experience, the app’s existence was short-lived and filled with drama.

Apparently, the company didn’t exactly have permission to use Instagram’s API the way it was doing. Because soon after the app launched, Meta took enforcement actions against the app, confirming it was in violation of its policies. Apple also then removed the app from its App Store as a result of its behavior, noting that its rules state that apps displaying content from third-party services must do so in accordance with the service’s own terms of use.

OG App had already racked up nearly 10,000 downloads by the time of its removal, after just a couple of days of availability.

While this particular app is no more, it does serve as a test case for consumer interest in an algorithm-free photo-sharing experience that looks and feels more like Instagram once did.

Of course, a number of apps have entered the market hoping to capture users’ interest on that front, but have failed to gain significant traction. Among those were apps like Poparazzi, Later Cam and the ill-fated Dispo, which offer some sort of spin on analog photo-sharing — like replicating the disposable camera experience or only allowing friends to post pics of you. Then there were the apps that try to elevate photo-sharing, like Glass.

But many users either churned out of these experiences or never joined to begin with. Instead, users found a variation on casual, social photo-sharing with the app BeReal. But its notification-based “time to post” trick still needs to prove it can be a successful draw in the long term — and that’s not a given.

That’s why, as we said last week, now is a great time for developers to test the waters by building other privacy-focused social networking experiences — including those centered around photos.

Platforms: Apple

  • Apple’s latest iOS 16 developer beta allows Stage Manager to work with older iPad Pro models, but that support doesn’t allow extending the display to an external monitor. The feature was previously only compatible with the M1-powered iPad Air and the 11-inch and 12.9-inch iPad Pro models released last year.
  • Apple pulled from its App Store apps owned by the Russian tech giant VK, including the music service VK Music. Apple said the apps have been removed due to new U.K. sanctions on Russian-owned companies. Apple also terminated the developer accounts associated with these apps.
  • References to Apple Music Classical, a new Apple Music service, were spotted in the latest iOS beta.
  • Apple rolled out iOS 16.1 beta 3, iPadOS 16.1 beta 4, watchOS 9.1 beta 3, tvOS 16.1 and macOS Ventura beta 9. It appears that iOS 16.1 could bring Adaptive Transparency to the original AirPods Pro, reports said.
  • Apple launched a new App Store Foundations Program in the U.K., with a focus on supporting women developers. The program will feature both one-on-one and group sessions with App Store leaders across the U.K. and Europe.
  • Apple News partner Fast Company’s account was hacked, leading the Apple News app to send offensive news notifications to users.

Platforms: Google

Image Credits: Google

  • Google officially announced the Play Store reorg that has been rolling out for some days. The changes make it easier to filter for and remotely install non-phone apps, including those for watches, tablets, cars and smart TVs.
  • Google upgraded its Speech Services by Google speech engine to provide “more natural voices.” The company says all 421 voices in 67 languages have been updated with a new voice model and synthesizer.

E-commerce and Food Delivery

Image Credits: Walmart

  • Walmart updated its AR feature, View in Your Home, to all users to view TV models to see if the set they liked looks good in their space.
  • Instagram began a new test in its app that ditches the Shopping tab. In one version, Messages takes the place of Shopping on the app’s home screen, while others saw the Notifications tab in its place.
  • iFood in Brazil controls more than 80% of the delivery market. A new report by Rest of World analyzes the impact of the government’s own delivery app Valeu on the market.
  • Shopify announced new mobile hardware, POS Go, that allows merchants to take payments anywhere via their phone, including through tapping, swiping or an integrated reader for chip cards.

Fintech

  • Robinhood debuted a new non-custodial crypto wallet with Polygon, Robinhood Wallet. The crypto wallet, the company’s first international app, was initially rolled out to 10,000 beta testers on its waitlist. It expects to reach over a million users at the beta test’s end before the end of 2022.
  • Public.com added support for alternative asset investing, which includes contemporary art, high-end trading cards, luxury items, vintage comics and more. Users can manage these new investments alongside their portfolio of stocks, crypto and ETFs.
  • Square added support for Tap to Pay on iPhone, which allows users to accept contactless payments directly in the Square Point of Sale app for iOS.

Social

  • TikTok is said to be bleeding U.S. executives, Forbes reported, because China is still calling the shots. Ex-employees said their ability to lead departments was minimized in the U.S. because of corporate reorgs that had them reporting to ByteDance leadership in Beijing, rather than TikTok leadership.
  • TikTok said it removed 33.6 million fake accounts in the past quarter, a 61% increase from the 20.8 million accounts it removed in the prior quarter. TikTok’s fake account removal rate has grown by more than 2,000% over 12 months.
  • Meta is testing a new interface that allows users to more easily create, manage and switch between multiple Facebook and Instagram accounts. When logged into either Facebook or Instagram’s app, users will be able to toggle between the two apps now through the profile menu.
  • Meta said all Facebook and Instagram users in the U.S. can now share NFTs and cross-post between both apps, after announcing the start of the rollout last month.
Meta Instagram NFT

Image Credits: Meta

  • Snapchat is going to pay out $100,000 to creators across 12 Spotlight Challenges from October 3 through the end of the month. Most will focus on Halloween or fall themes and will be used to help promote Snapchat features.
  • Twitter said Elon Musk has failed to provide Signal messages, with Marc Andreessen, relevant to the case involving Musk’s attempt to exit the $44 billion acquisition. It also said Musk’s own data scientists had estimated Twitter spam at 5-11% of users. Meanwhile, other court filings provided insight into Musk’s conversations ahead of the deal, including exchanges with former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, revealing that Dorsey had wanted to give Musk a board seat.
  • Twitter rolled out a redesigned DM experience on Android, catching up to iOS with an improved composer, better forwarding, clearer read receipts and more.

Photos

Messaging

Image Credits: WhatsApp

  • WhatsApp rolled out a way to share links for video calls, similar to apps like FaceTime or Zoom. The new link is found under the calls tab and can be sent to family and friends so they can tap to join the call. The company additionally confirmed it’s now testing 32-person encrypted video calls as well.
  • Intel announced the Unison app that allows Intel PC users to text, take calls and send files to their iOS and Android devices. The app will launch with 12th-gen PCs this fall.
  • The U.S. SEC and CFTC fined 16 financial firms $1.1 billion and $710 million in penalties, respectively, for employees’ use of unauthorized messaging apps. Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley and Bank of America were among those fined.

Dating

  • The NYT examined the dating market in China, where the number of apps with over 1,000 downloads grew to 275 in 2022, up from 81 in 2017 and have received $5.3 billion in funding in 2021, up from $300 million in 2019. Despite a nationwide crackdown on tech, the dating app market has been allowed to flourish, the report found.
  • Dating app Inner Circle launched a new group of anti-ghosting features called “The Date Conscious Suite.” The toolset includes things like anti-ghosting reminders, end conversation options, closure messages, pinned conversations and decision prompts.

Streaming & Entertainment

  • An iOS 16 bug appears to be impacting videos recorded in Cinematic Mode, which are no longer recognized by iMovie and Final Cut Pro, users are reporting.
  • YouTube added support for narration voiceovers for Shorts on iOS, copying another popular feature from TikTok’s app.
  • Even the NBA app is copying TikTok. The updated app includes a “For You” vertical video feed that offers highlights from NBA games and behind-the-scenes footage, content from influencers, NBA clips and more.
  • Deezer launched a new technology called SongCatcher music ID, which can search for songs based on humming, whistling and singing.
  • Twitter rolled out podcasts to its Twitter Blue subscribers on Android after first launching the feature on iOS a few weeks ago.

Gaming

  • Google is shutting down its cloud-based game streaming service Stadia. The service allowed users to stream games across platforms, including Chromecast Ultra, Android TV, computers, Google Chrome’s browser, Chromebook and Chrome OS tablets, the Stadia app for Android phones and on iOS via a progressive web app. Subscribers will have access to their games library through January 18 and refunds will be issued. The company says it will apply Stadia’s technology to other areas, including Google Play, YouTube and AR in the future.
  • Netflix is establishing an internal games studio based in Helsinki, Finland, led by the former co-founder and general manager of the Zygna Helsinki game development studio, Marko Lastikka. The studio will be the fourth for Netflix, joining others including Next Games, Night School Studio and Boss Fight Entertainment, each designed to develop games catering to different tastes.
  • India’s financial crimes agency searched the premises of Coda Payments India, the distributor of Sea’s Free Fire — a game banned by the government earlier this year over its China ties. The Enforcement Directorate said it searched three premises as part of an “ongoing investigation” into the distributor.
  • Android’s share of hypercasual game advertising spending reached a record high of 57%, according to a report from Tenjin.
  • Walmart launched metaverse experiences in Roblox, including Walmart Land and Walmart’s Universe of Play, designed to reach younger shoppers. The virtual worlds let Roblox players collect new virtual merchandise, play games featuring toys and characters, earn toys from a blimp, attend live concerts, win fashion competitions and more.

Image Credits: Walmart

Health & Fitness

  • YouTube announced a new feature called “Personal Stories” that will appear in search results when users enter health-related queries. When people now search for certain health conditions on the app, YouTube will display a panel featuring videos from people who are diagnosed with those disorders.

Utilities

  • Microsoft says it will end support for the predictive keyboard app SwiftKey on iOS and remove it from the App Store on October 5 but will continue to support the app on Android.
  • Apple’s Dark Sky weather app has been removed from the App Store. The app was supposed to be available through January 1, 2023, according to a prior notification display in the app, making its removal ahead of schedule. The app’s technology had been merged into Apple’s own Weather app following the acquisition.

Government & Policy

  • South Korean antitrust officials raided Apple’s offices in the country to investigate allegations raised by mobile game developers that Apple is actually taking a 33% cut of their business, due to the way it handles the local sales tax — or VAT (value added tax).
  • TikTok is facing a $29 million fine in the U.K. for “failing to protect children’s privacy.” The U.K.’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) provisionally said the company breached child data protection laws for a two-year period by processing data for kids under 13 without parental consent, among other things.
  • The North London Coroner’s Court has concluded that social media, including content on Instagram and Pinterest, played a role in the death of a 14-year-old British girl, who died by suicide in November 2017. The coroner will now compile a report laying out the concerns, which will be shared with the government and Ofcom, which will be responsible for regulating content under the Online Safety Bill.

Security & Privacy

  • Researchers found 75 apps on Google Play and 10 on the App Store that were engaging in ad fraud. The apps collectively had 13 million installs before their removal by the app stores.
  • WhatsApp warned users of a critical vulnerability, now patched, that could impact users on older versions of the app that haven’t been updated. The bug could allow an attacker to execute their own code on a victim’s phone.

💰 Milan-based developer Bending Spoons, makers of apps like Splice and Remini, raised $340 million from Italian banks Intesa Sanpaolo and Banco BPM, plus Ryan Reynolds’ Maximum Effort Holdings, the former CEO of Vimeo Kerry Trainor, and others.

💰 Scout, a mobile app that helps Gen Z invest in cars, food, games and other “themes,” raised $2.6 million in seed funding led by Chingona Ventures. The app is iOS only for now. It doesn’t charge transaction fees, but rather a subscription of $1/mo. for users with less than $1,000 AUM or 1% of AUM for larger accounts.

💰 Solvo, a new fintech app allowing users to invest in cryptocurrencies and cryptocurrency-related financial products, raised $3.5 million in seed funding from Index Ventures and others. The app, launching in October, was founded by two former Revolut employees and will feature 10 cryptocurriences to start.

💰 A new group camcorder app, Studio, raised $3.3 million in seed funding led by GV for an app that allows groups of friends to privately share everyday videos in albums.

💰 Triller said it raised $310 million from Luxembourg-based investment group Global Emerging Markets ahead of its IPO. The company, however, is not obligated to draw the entire amount — it can issue stock to investors on each draw, as needed.

 

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