This Week in Apps: TikTok viral hit breaks Spotify records, inauguration boosts news app installs, judge rules against Parler

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 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020.
Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

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. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.
This week, we’re looking into how President Biden’s inauguration impacted news apps, the latest in the Parler lawsuit, and how TikTok’s app continues to shape culture, among other things.
Top Stories
Judge says Amazon doesn’t have to host Parler on AWS

Logos for AWS (Amazon Web Services) and Parler. Image Credits: TechCrunch

U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein in Seattle this week ruled that Amazon won’t be required to restore access to web services to Parler. As you may recall, Parler sued Amazon for booting it from AWS’ infrastructure, effectively forcing it offline. Like Apple and Google before it, Amazon had decided that the calls for violence that were being spread on Parler violated its terms of service. It also said that Parler showed an “unwillingness and inability” to remove dangerous posts that called for the rape, torture and assassination of politicians, tech executives and many others, the AP reported.

Judge denies Parler’s bid to make Amazon restore service

Amazon’s decision shouldn’t have been a surprise for Parler. Amazon had reported 98 examples of Parler posts that incited violence over the past several weeks before its decision. It told Parler these were clear violations of the terms of service.
Parler’s lawsuit against Amazon, however, went on to claim breach of contract and even made antitrust allegations.
The judge shot down Parler’s claims that Amazon and Twitter were colluding over the decision to kick the app off AWS. Parler’s claims over breach of contract were denied, too, as the contract had never said Amazon had to give Parler 30 days to fix things. (Not to mention the fact that Parler breached the contract on its side, too.) It also said Parler had fallen short in demonstrating the need for an injunction to restore access to Amazon’s web services.
The ruling only blocks Parler from forcing Amazon to again host it as the lawsuit proceeds, but is not the final ruling in the overall case, which is continuing.
TikTok drives another pop song to No. 1 on Billboard charts, breaks Spotify’s record

@livbedumb♬ drivers license – Olivia Rodrigo

We already knew TikTok was playing a large role in influencing music charts and listening behavior. For example, Billboard last year noted how TikTok drove hits from Sony artists like Doja Cat (“Say So”) and 24kGoldn (“Mood”), and helped Sony discover new talent. Columbia also signed viral TikTok artists like Lil Nas X, Powfu, StaySolidRocky, Jawsh 685, Arizona Zervas and 24kGoldn. Meanwhile, Nielsen has said that no other app had helped break more songs in 2020 than TikTok.
This month, we’ve witnessed yet another example of this phenomenon. Olivia Rodrigo, the 17-year-old star of Disney+’s “High School Musical: The Musical: the Series” released her latest song, “Drivers License” on January 8. The pop ballad and breakup anthem is believed to be referencing the actress’ relationship with co-star Joshua Bassett, which gave the song even more appeal to fans.
Upon its release the song was heavily streamed by TikTok users, which helped make it an overnight sensation of sorts. According to a report by The WSJ, Billboard counted 76.1 million streams and 38,000 downloads in the U.S. during the week of its release. It also made a historic debut at No. 1 on the Hot 100, becoming the first smash hit of 2021.
On January 11, “Drivers License” broke Spotify’s record for most streams per day (for a non-holiday song) with 15.17 million global streams. On TikTok, meanwhile, the number of videos featuring the song and the views they received doubled every day, The WSJ said.
Charli D’Amelio’s dance to it on the app has now generated 5 million “Likes” across nearly 33 million views, as of the time of writing.

@charlidamelio♬ drivers license – Olivia Rodrigo

Of course, other TikTok hits have broken out in the past, too — even reaching No. 1 like “Blinding Lights” (The Weeknd) and “Mood” (24kGoldn). But the success of “Drivers License” may be in part due to the way it focuses on a subject that’s more relevant to TikTok’s young, teenage user base. It talks about first loves and being dumped for the other girl. And its title and opening refer to a time many adults have forgotten: the momentous day when you get your driver’s license. It’s highly relatable to the TikTok crowd who fully embraced it and made it a hit.
Weekly News
Platforms: Apple

Apple stops signing iOS 12.5, making iOS 12.5.1 the only versions of iOS available to older devices.

A report claims Apple’s iOS 15 update will cut support for devices with an A9 chip, like the iPhone 6, iPhone 6s Plus and the original iPhone SE.

New analysis estimates Apple’s upcoming iOS privacy changes will cause a roughly 7% revenue hit for Facebook in Q2. The revenue hit will continue in following quarters and will be “material.”

Platforms: Google

Google adds “trending” icons to the Play Store. New arrow icons appeared in the Top Charts tab, which indicate whether an app’s downloads are trending up or down, in terms of popularity. This could provide an early signal about those that may still be rising in the charts or beginning to fall out of favor, despite their current high position.

Google appears to be working on a Restricted Networking mode for Android 12. The mode, discovered by XDA Developers digging in the Android Open Source Project, would disable network access for all third-party apps.

Gaming

Goama (or Go Games) introduced a way for developers to integrate social games into their apps, which was showcased at CES. The company focuses on Asia and Latin America and has more than 15 partners, including GCash and Rappi, for digital payments and communications.

Goama lets developers integrate a social gaming platform into their apps

Fortnite maker Epic Games is getting into movies. The animated feature film Gilgamesh will use Epic’s Unreal Engine technology to tell the story of the king-turned-deity. The movie is not an in-house project, but rather is financed through Epic’s $100M MegaGrants fund.

Augmented Reality

Patents around Apple’s AR and VR efforts describe how a system could be identified in a way that’s similar to FaceID, then either permitted or denied the ability to change their appearance in the game.

Pinterest launches AR try-on for eyeshadow in its mobile app using Lens technology and ModiFace data. The app already offered AR try-on for lipsticks.

Pinterest launches an AR-powered try-on experience for eyeshadow

Entertainment

The CW app became the No. 1 app on the App Store this week, topping TikTok, Instagram and YouTube, thanks to CW’s season premieres of Batwoman, All American, Riverdale and Nancy Drew.

Users of podcasting app Anchor, owned by Spotify, say the app isn’t bringing them any sponsorship opportunities, as promised, beyond those from Spotify and Anchor itself.

YouTube launches hashtag landing pages on the web and in its mobile app. The pages are accessible when you click hashtags on YouTube, not via search, and weirdly rank the “best” videos through some inscrutable algorithm.

YouTube launches hashtag landing pages to all users

Apple’s Podcasts app adds a new editorial feature, Apple Podcasts Spotlight, meant to increase podcast listening by showcasing the best podcasts as selected by Apple editors.

E-commerce

WeChat facilitated 1.6 trillion yuan (close to $250 billion) in annual transactions through its “mini programs” in 2020. The figure is more than double that of 2019.

WeChat advances e-commerce goals with $250B in transactions

Fintech

Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, launched an e-wallet, Douyin Pay. The wallet will supplement the existing payment options, Alipay and WeChat Pay, and will help to support the Douyin app’s growing e-commerce business.

Neobank Monzo founder Tom Blomfield left the startup, saying he struggled during the pandemic. “I think [for] a lot of people in the world…going through a pandemic, going through lockdown and the isolation involved in that has an impact on people’s mental health,” he told TechCrunch.

Monzo founder Tom Blomfield is departing the challenger bank and says he’s ‘struggled’ during the pandemic

New estimates indicate about 50% of the iPhone user base (or 507 million users) now use Apple Pay. 

Samsung’s newest phones drop support for MST, which emulates a mag stripe at terminals that don’t support NFC.

Social

Indian messaging app, StickerChat, owned by Hike, is shutting down. Founder Kavin Bharti Mittal said India will never have a homegrown messenger unless it bars Western companies from its market. Hike pivoted this month to virtual social apps, Vibe and Rush, which it believes have more potential.

Instagram head Adam Mosseri, in a Verge podcast, said he’s not happy with Reels so far, and how he feels most people probably don’t understand the difference between Instagram video and IGTV. He says the social network needs to simplify and consolidate ideas.

Facebook and Instagram improve their accessibility features. The apps’ AI-generated image captions now offer far more details about who or what is in the photos, thanks to improvements in image recognition systems.

TikTok launches a Q&A feature that lets creators respond to fan questions using text or videos. The feature, rolled out to select creators with more than 10,000 followers, makes it easier to see all the questions in one place.

TikTok’s new Q&A feature lets creators respond to fan questions using text or video

Health & Fitness

Health and fitness app spending jumped 70% last year in Europe to record $544 million, a Sensor Tower report says. The year-over-year increase is far larger than 2019, when growth was just 37.2%. COVID-19 played a large role in this shift as people turned to fitness apps instead of gyms to stay in shape.

Government & Policy

Biden’s inauguration boosted installs of U.S. news apps up to 170%, Sensor Tower reported. CNN was the biggest mover, climbing 530 positions to reach No. 41 on the App Store, and up 170% in terms of downloads. News Break was the second highest, climbing 13 positions to No. 65. Right-wing outlet Newsmax climbed 43 spots to reach No. 108. In 2020, the top news apps were: News Break (23.7 million installs); SmartNews (9 million); CNN (5 million); and Fox News (4 million). This month, however, News Break saw 1.2 million installs, followed by Newsmax with about 863,000 installs, the report said.

Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) sent a draft decision to fellow EU Data Protection Authorities over the WhatsApp-Facebook data sharing policy. This means a decision on the matter is coming closer to a resolution in terms of what standards of transparency is required by WhatsApp.

WhatsApp-Facebook data-sharing transparency under review by EU DPAs after Ireland sends draft decision

German app developer Florian Mueller of FOSS Patents filed a complaint with the EU, U.S. DOJ and other antitrust watchdogs around the world over Apple and Google’s rejection of his COVID-related mobile game. Both stores had policies to only approve official COVID-19 apps from health authorities. Mueller renamed the game Viral Days and removed references to the novel coronavirus to get the app approved. However, he still feels the stores’ rules are holding back innovation.

Productivity

Basecamp’s Hey, which famously fought back against Apple’s App Store rules over IAP last year, has launched a business-focused platform, Hey for Work, expected to be public in Q1. The app has more App Store ratings than rival Superhuman, a report found. Currently, Hey has a 4.7-star rating across 3.3K reviews; Superhuman has 3.9 rating across only 274 reviews.

Trends

Baby boomers are increasingly using apps. Baby boomers/Gen Xers in the U.S. spent 30% more time year-over-year in their most used apps, App Annie reports. That’s a larger increase than either Millennials or Gen Z, at 18% and 16%, respectively.

Funding and M&A

Curtsy, a clothing resale app for Gen Z women, raised an $11 million Series A led by Index Ventures. The app tackles some of the problems with online resale by sending shipping supplies and labels to sellers, and by making the marketplace accessible to new and casual sellers.

Storytelling platform Wattpad acquired by South Korea’s Naver for $600 million. The reading apps whose stories have turned into book and Netflix hits will be incorporated into Naver’s publishing platform Webtoon.

Wattpad, the storytelling platform, is selling to South Korea’s Naver for $600 million

On-demand delivery app Glovo partnered with Swiss-based real estate firm, Stoneweg, which is investing €100 million in building and refurbishing real estate in key markets to build out Glovo’s network of “dark stores.”

Pocket Casts app is up for sale. The podcast app was acquired nearly three years ago by a public radio consortium of top podcast producers (NPR, WNYC Studios, WBEZ Chicago and This American Life). The owners have now agreed to sell the app, which posted a net loss in 2020. (NPR’s share of the loss was over $800,000.)

Travel app Maps.me raised $50 million in a round led by Alameda Research. The funding will go toward the launch of a multi-currency wallet. Cryptocurrency lender Genesis Capital and institutional cryptocurrency firm CMS Holdings also participated in the round, Coindesk reported.

Bangalore-based hyperlocal delivery app Dunzo raised $40 million in a round that included investment from Google, Lightbox, Evolvence, Hana Financial Investment, LGT Lightstone Aspada and Alteria.

London-based food delivery app Deliveroo raised $180 million in new funding from existing investors, led by Durable Capital Partners and Fidelity Management, valuing the business at more than $7 billion.

Dating Group acquired Swiss startup Once, a dating app that sends one match per day, for $18 million.

‘Slow dating’ app Once is acquired by Dating Group for $18M as it seeks to expand its portfolio

Downloads
Bodyguard

Image Credits: Bodyguard

A French content moderation app called Bodyguard, detailed here by TechCrunch, has brought its service to the English-speaking market. The app allows you to choose the level of content moderation you want to see on top social networks, like Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Twitch. You can choose to hide toxic content across a range of categories, like insults, body shaming, moral harassment, sexual harassment, racism and homophobia and indicate whether the content is a low or high priority to block.

Bodyguard is a mobile app that hides toxic content on social platforms

Beeper

Image Credits: Beeper

Pebble’s founder and current YC Partner Eric Migicovsky has launched a new app, Beeper, that aims to centralize in one interface 15 different chat apps, including iMessage. The app relies on an open-source federated, encrypted messaging protocol called Matrix that uses “bridges” to connect to the various networks to move the messages. However, iMessage support is more wonky, as the company actually ships you an old iPhone to make the connection to the network. But this system allows you to access Beeper on non-Apple devices, the company says. The app is slowly onboarding new users due to initial demand. The app works across MacOS, Windows, Linux‍, iOS and Android and charges $10/mo for the service.

Pebble founder launches Beeper, a universal chat app that works with iMessage and others

 

This Week in Apps: TikTok viral hit breaks Spotify records, inauguration boosts news app installs, judge rules against Parler

Google refreshes its mobile search experience

Google today announced a subtle but welcome refresh of its mobile search experience. The idea here is to provide easier to read search results and a more modern look with a simpler, edge-to-edge design.
From what we’ve seen so far, this is not a radically different look, but the rounded and slightly shaded boxes around individual search results have been replaced with straight lines, for example, while in other places, Google has specifically added more roundness. You’ll find changes to the circles around the search bar and some tweaks to the Google logo. “We believe it feels more approachable, friendly and human,” a Google spokesperson told me. There’s a bit more whitespace in places, too, as well as new splashes of color that are meant to help separate and emphasize certain parts of the page.

Image Credits: Google

“Rethinking the visual design for something like Search is really complex,” Google designer Aileen Cheng said in today’s announcement. “That’s especially true given how much Google Search has evolved. We’re not just organizing the web’s information, but all the world’s information. We started with organizing web pages, but now there’s so much diversity in the types of content and information we have to help make sense of.”

Image Credits: Google

Google is also extending its use of the Google Sans font, which you are probably already quite familiar with thanks to its use in Gmail and Android. “Bringing consistency to when and how we use fonts in Search was important, too, which also helps people parse information more efficiently,” Cheng writes.
In many ways, today’s refresh is a continuation of the work Google did with its mobile search refresh in 2019. At that time, the emphasis, too, was on making it easier for users to scan down the page by adding site icons and other new visual elements to the page. The work of making search results pages more readable is clearly never done.
For the most part, though, comparing the new and old design, the changes are small. This isn’t some major redesign — we’re talking about minor tweaks that the designers surely obsessed over but that the users may not even really notice. Now if Google had made it significantly easier to distinguish ads from the content you are actually looking for, that would’ve been something.

Image Credits: Google

Google refreshes its mobile search experience

Bodyguard is a mobile app that hides toxic content on social platforms

If you’re somewhat famous on various social networks, chances are you are exposed to hate speech in your replies or in your comments. French startup Bodyguard recently launched its app and service in English so that it can hide toxic content from your eyes. It has been available in French for a few years and the company has attracted 50,000 users so far.
“We have developed a technology that detects hate speech on the internet with a 90% to 95% accuracy and only 2% of false positive,” founder and CEO Charles Cohen told me.
The company has started with a mobile app that anyone can use. After you download the app and connect the app with your favorite social networks, you choose the level of moderation. There are several categories, such as insults, body shaming, moral harassment, sexual harassment, racism and homophobia. You can select whether it’s a low priority or a top priority for each category.

After that, you don’t have to open the app again. Bodyguard scans replies and comments from its servers and makes a decision whether something is OK. For instance, it can hide comments, mute users, block users, etc. When you open Instagram or Twitter again, it’s like those hateful comments never existed.
The app currently supports Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Twitch. Unfortunately, it can’t process content on Snapchat and TikTok due to API limitations.
Behind the scenes, most moderation services rely heavily on machine learning or keyword-based moderation. Bodyguard has chosen a different approach. It algorithmically cleans up a comment and tries to analyze the content of a comment contextually. It can determine whether a comment is offensive to you, to a third-party person, to a group of persons, etc.
More recently, the startup has launched a B2B product. Other companies can use a Bodyguard-powered API to moderate comments in real-time on their social platforms or in their own apps. The company charges its customers using a traditional software-as-a-service approach.

Facebook’s Oversight Board will review the decision to suspend Trump

Bodyguard is a mobile app that hides toxic content on social platforms

6 investors on 2021’s mobile gaming trends and opportunities

Many VCs historically avoided placing bets on hit-driven mobile gaming content in favor of clearer platform opportunities, but as more success stories pop up, the economics overturned conventional wisdom with new business models. As more accessible infrastructure allowed young studios to become more ambitious, venture money began pouring into the gaming ecosystem.
After tackling topics including how investors are looking at opportunities in social gaming, infrastructure bets and the moonshots of AR/VR, I asked a group of VCs about their approach to mobile content investing and whether new platforms were changing perspectives about opportunities in mobile-first and desktop-first experiences.
While desktop gaming has evolved dramatically in the past few years as new business models and platforms take hold, to some degree, mobile has been hampered. Investors I chatted with openly worried that some of mobile’s opportunities were being hamstrung by Apple’s App Store.
“We are definitely fearful of Apple’s ability to completely disrupt/affect the growth of a game,” Bessemer’s Ethan Kurzweil and Sakib Dadi told TechCrunch. “We do not foresee that changing any time in the near future despite the outcry from companies such as Epic and others.”
All the while, another central focus seems to be the ever-evolving push toward cross-platform gaming, which is getting further bolstered by new technologies. One area of interest for investors: migrating the ambition of desktop titles to mobile and finding ways to build cross-platform experiences that feel fulfilling on devices that are so differently abled performance-wise.
Madrona’s Hope Cochran, who previously served as CFO of Candy Crush maker King, said mobile still has plenty of untapped opportunities. “When you have a AAA game, bringing it to mobile is challenging and yet it opens up an entire universe of scale.”
Responses have been edited for length and clarity. We spoke with:

Hope Cochran, managing director, Madrona Venture Group

Daniel Li, partner, Madrona Venture Group

Ethan Kurzweil, partner, Bessemer Venture Partners

Sakib Dadi, investor, Bessemer Venture Partners

Alice Lloyd George, founding partner, Rogue VC

Gigi Levy-Weiss, general partner, NFX

Hope Cochran and Daniel Li, Madrona Venture Group
Does it ever get any easier to bet on a gaming content play? What do you look for?
Hope Cochran: I feel like there are a couple different sectors in gaming. There’s the actual studios that are developing games and they have several approaches. Are they developing a brand new game, are they reimagining a game from 25 years ago and reskinning it, which is a big trend right now, or are they taking IP that is really trendy right now and trying to create a game around it? There are different ways to predict which ones of those might make it, but then there’s also the infrastructure behind gaming and then there’s also identifying trends and which games or studios are embracing those. Those are some of the ways I try to parse it out and figure out which ones I think are going to rise to the top of the list.
Daniel Li: There’s this single-player narrative versus multiplayer metaverse and I think people are more comfortable on the metaverse stuff because if you’re building a social network and seeing good early traction, those things don’t typically just disappear. Then if you are betting more on individual studios producing games, I think the other thing is we’re seeing more and more VCs pop up that are just totally games-focused or devoting a portion of the portfolio to games. And for them it’s okay to have a hits-driven portfolio.
There seems to be more innovation happening on PC/console in terms of business models and distribution, do you think mobile feels less experimental these days? Why or why not?
Hope Cochran: Mobile is still trying to push the technology forward, the important element of being cross-platform is difficult. When you have a AAA game, bringing it to mobile is challenging and yet it opens up an entire universe of scale. The metrics are also very different for mobile though.
Daniel Li: It seems like the big monetization innovation that has happened over the last couple of years has been the “battle pass” type of subscription where you can unlock more content by playing. Obviously that’s gone over to mobile, but it doesn’t feel like mobile has had some sort of new monetization unlock. The other thing that’s happened on desktop is the success of the “pay $10 or $20 or $20 for this indie game” type of thing, and it feels like that’s not going to happen on mobile because of the price points that people are used to paying.
Alice Lloyd George, Rogue VC

6 investors on 2021’s mobile gaming trends and opportunities

Daily Crunch: WhatsApp responds to privacy backlash

WhatsApp delays enforcement of a controversial privacy change, Apple may get rid of the Touch Bar in future MacBooks and Bumble files to go public. This is your Daily Crunch for January 15, 2021.
The big story: WhatsApp responds to privacy backlash
Earlier this month, WhatsApp sent users a notification asking them to consent to sharing some of their personal data — such as phone number and location — with Facebook (which owns WhatsApp). The alert also said users would have to agree to the terms by February 8 if they wanted to continue using the app.

This change prompted legal threats and an investigation from the Turkish government. Now the company is pushing the enforcement date back three months.
“No one will have their account suspended or deleted on February 8. We’re also going to do a lot more to clear up the misinformation around how privacy and security works on WhatsApp,” the company said in a post. “We’ll then go to people gradually to review the policy at their own pace before new business options are available on May 15.”
The tech giants
Uber planning to spin out Postmates’ delivery robot arm — Postmates X is seeking investors in its bid to become a separate company.
Apple said to be planning new 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros with MagSafe and Apple processors — This could be the end for the Touch Bar.
Amazon’s newest product lets companies build their own Alexa assistant for cars, apps and video games — Yes, that means your next car could have two Alexas.
Startups, funding and venture capital
Bumble files to go public — The company plans to list on the Nasdaq stock exchange, using the ticker symbol “BMBL.”
Tracy Chou launches Block Party to combat online harassment and abuse — Currently available for Twitter, Block Party helps people filter out the content they don’t want to see.
Everlywell raises $75M from HealthQuest Capital following its recent $175M Series D round — Everlywell develops at-home testing kits for a range of health concerns, and it added a COVID-19 home collection test kit last year.
Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch
Fifteen steps to fundraising a new VC or private equity fund — Launching is easy; fundraising is harder.
Lessons from Top Hat’s acquisition spree — The acquisition of Fountainhead Press marks Top Hat’s third purchase of a publishing company in the past 12 months.
Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson says wisdom lies with your developers — Takeaways from Lawson’s new book “Ask Your Developer.”
(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)
Everything else
Video game spending increased 27% in 2020 — According to the latest figures from NPD, spending on gaming hardware, software and accessories was up 25% in December and 27% for the full year.
DOT evaluated 11 GPS replacements and found only one that worked across use cases —  The government wants to create additional redundancy and resiliency in the sector.
The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

Daily Crunch: WhatsApp responds to privacy backlash