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 out this week. App Annie says global spending across iOS and Google Play is up to $135 billion in 2021, and that figure will likely be higher when its annual report, including third-party app stores in China, is released next year. Consumers also downloaded 10 billion more apps this year than in 2020, reaching nearly 140 billion in new installs, it found.
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 was up 27% year-over-year.
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 and games to try, too.
Do you want This Week in Apps in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters
Instagram to bring back the chronological feed
Instagram said it will begin testing a new feature that will allow users to select between three different feeds: the current algorithmically generated timeline as well as two new options, Favorites and Following, which are sorted chronologically. This is similar to the Recent & Favorites section that Facebook today offers — though that version is buried in the app’s More menu, making it difficult to access. It’s unclear how easy it will be to access Instagram’s new feed options — especially given the app’s growing clutter and strategic priorities. The latter even saw Instagram shifting its critical “post” button to an out-of-reach spot to give the prime real estate in the app’s navigation to Instagram’s Reels instead.
The feed changes were announced following a Senate hearing where Instagram head Adam Mosseri testified for the first time. The hearing had focused on the app’s teen safety track record but often branched into other areas, like user privacy, and to what extent users were being “manipulated by algorithms,” as one Senator put it. Mosseri had then responded by saying the company was developing a feature that would allow consumers to choose to view a chronological feed. In other words, it’s likely this “test” will soon evolve into a public-facing feature for all users, in order to deflect further pressure from Congress over the matter.
Although users have clamored for an option or full-on return to a chronological feed for some time, Instagram ignored those demands until now — when it’s a topic of legislative inquiry. That fact indicates the need for increased tech regulations as it proves companies won’t listen to user demands unless pressured to do so.
South Korea blocks new “play-to-earn” (P2E) games
The South Korean government’s Game Management Committee in the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism (or GMC for short) has asked the major app stores to block any games that require an in-app purchase before users play. The games, which have become popular in the crypto industry, often require that players first purchase game pieces as NFT. Players can then compete for in-game rewards and prizes, giving them the name “play-to-earn” (or P2E). The GMC said it asked the app stores to remove the existing P2E games on the market and block the release of new ones.
The changes follow other difficulties for these types of games in South Korea, which have been battling in the courts to get age ratings required to be listed in the domestic app stores. The government limits in-game rewards to 10,000 Korean won (~$8.40), but some of the games’ cashouts exceed that figure but were being listed anyway — which would technically be illegal.
The government views this genre of gaming as a money-making scheme and is now taking a harsher stance to get them removed from the app stores and out of kids’ hands, in particular. In addition to penalizing games themselves, the new restrictions may impact other titles associated with games in this genre, like those tied to games like Axie Infinity and Splinterlands.
- Apple launched App Analytics for in-app events. Events are a newer feature that allow developers to promote something happening inside their app at the present time — like game competitions, the release of seasonal features, livestreamed experiences, new movie releases and more. Now developers will be able to view information about their events’ performance, including event page views, reminder and notification data, and the number of downloads and redownloads that were driven by their in-app events. This data can also be viewed by territory, source type, device and more, Apple said.
- Google is working to catch up with Apple with a new series of integrations between its various platforms, including Android, Wear OS and Chromebooks. At CES, the company showed off a number of new software features that would allow its users to be able to do things like mirror their Android screen on their Chromebook or use its Fast Pairing feature generally meant for headphones on other devices like TVs and smart home devices. Later this year, Chromebook owners will also be able to instantly set up their devices using an Android handset to port over their data and logins. Smartwatches running Wear OS 3 will also be able to unlock Android phones and Chromebooks, the way Apple Watch works today. Plus, Windows PCs and Android will also work more closely, Google says.
- Google also at CES introduced a new integration with Volvo which will allow owners to do things like turn their car on and off, control the temperature, and get car information using voice commands on Google Assistant-enabled home and Android mobile devices.
- XDA Developers reportedly got ahold of Android 13 screenshots (aka “Tiramisu”) which show updates and changes in areas like app language selection, runtime permissions for notifications, the lockscreen clock and more. They also include a look at The Android Resource Economy (TARE), which focuses on energy use management.
- Amazon dropped to No. 4 in global shopping app installs in 2021, according to data from Apptopia. Amazon had topped the list last year, but has now fallen behind Singapore’s Shopee, China’s Shein and India’s Meesho. Amazon is still No. 1 in the U.S., however.
- Snapchat released a new AR filter ahead of the holidays which lets you see what you’d look like in the “metaverse.” In other words, the filter makes you look more like a virtual character (your SIMS self?) or some sort of gaming avatar. This is maybe even more impressive than that Disney filter?
- Messaging app Signal’s cryptocurrency feature seemed to have quietly launched to worldwide users in mid-November, but was only picked up on this past week. The feature, which was previously being tested in the U.K., integrates with a privacy-focused cryptocurrency called MobileCoin. Signal users can now send MobileCoin to others in the app worldwide. MobileCoin founder Josh Goldbard confirmed the rollout to Wired, noting Signal’s adoption helped the cryptocurrency jump to thousands of daily transactions compared with just dozens before the global release.
- Spare change investing app Acorns is inching into Robinhood territory with its plan to build a feature that allows users to customize their own stock portfolios instead of just using Acorns’ own ETFs.
- China’s WeChat will begin supporting the digital yuan (e-CNY), the country’s sovereign digital currency that’s been in the works since 2014. The move would bring the currency to WeChat Pay’s over 800 million MAUs.
- Apptopia revealed the top finance apps for 2021, including to 10 most downloaded crypto apps — a list that was led by Binance, Crypto.com, and Coinbase.
- Twitter released a handful of new features this week, including its own take on TikTok’s video reactions and updated Spaces features, including the ability for hosts to see how many listeners joined live and how many replayed the Space after the fact.
- Microsoft-owned LinkedIn is the latest to clone Clubhouse with this week’s beta launch of interactive audio events, which will be followed by a video version in the spring. Hosts will be able to record and run their events directly on LinkedIn, host live conversations, moderate rooms and more.
- Snap is suing the USPTO for rejecting its application to trademark the word “spectacles” for its digital AR glasses. The application was rejected because spectacles is a generic term, and Snap’s version “has not acquired distinctiveness,” according to a report from The Verge.
- TikTok is testing its own version of a retweet with a new “Repost” button that shows up on video on the For You feed. Reposted videos will then appear on the For You feed for those who you’re mutual friends with on the app. You can also add a comment as to why you shared the video. TikTok said the feature is live for a limited number of users for the time being.
- Instagram was spotted testing a new Stories feature that would allow users to “like” each other’s stories, but privately. Only the person who had posted the Story would be able to see the total number of likes and that there were not any plans to make the like count public.
- Tumblr has been getting in trouble with Apple’s App Review over the mature content in its app, leading it to new crackdowns that have confused Tumblr users. The company had been struggling to remove content featuring pornography, sex and other adult material from its iOS app, amid constant App Store rejections. It seems Tumblr’s own system requiring blogs to be labeled as “adult” wasn’t getting the job done to keep this sort of content out of the hands of iOS users. Complicating matters is how Apple’s review system works. Apple randomly assigns an app review to whoever is available at the time instead of allowing a company to work with an Apple employee on a more direct basis to solve a specific problem. That leads to inconsistent responses based on how each reviewer interprets Apple’s rules or their overall thoroughous. For Tumblr, it’s meant a lot of jumping through hoops to try to get its app cleaned up enough to be allowed back in the App Store.
- Tinder was spotted developing a feature called Swipe Party that lets users invite friends to their swiping session. Users send friends a link to establish a guest account, and then those friends can watch their friend using audio and video while they vet their dating prospects.
- China’s WeChat (to be fair, a super app not just a social messenger) said DAUs of its mini-programs grew about 12.5% to 450 million in 2021 and its native search function added 200 million MAUs over the past year. The growth took place among government crackdowns on local tech companies.
- WhatsApp is preparing to introduce profile photo notifications in a future update, according to WABetaInfo. The feature is being rolled out to beta users on iOS (iOS 15+).
Streaming & Entertainment
- Spotify introduced a new ad format for podcasts. The cards will appear as the audio ad begins playing, and is supported by Spotify’s investment in streaming ad insertion technology. The cards will also remain on show and episode pages for users to discover later on.
- Clubhouse finally added support for listening to its shows via the web. The feature is first launching in the U.S. as an experiment. The company also rolled out a “Share on Clubhouse” feature that lets you post to social media when you’re in an interesting room that you want others to join. Creators will also be able to see Share and Clip counts at the bottom of their rooms, and access a new Room Insights page which will include more insights over time.
- TikTok teamed up with business-focused streaming service Atmosphere, which offers video content for commercial venues like bars, gyms and restaurants. Atmosphere will offer a new channel featuring curated TikTok content — the first time TikTok is offered on an out-of-home service.
- Apple is reportedly considering an entry into the audiobook market, according to a report by The Economist. A new service would fit into Apple’s broader goal of offering more subscriptions to its users, and the rumor fits with other reports of a services expansion in 2022.
- Samsung at CES announced its 2022 TVs will bring cloud gaming services, including GeForce Now and Google’s Stadia, to a new gaming hub, where viewers can also watch YouTube gaming videos. The TVs will also support NFTs somehow but details were light on the implementation details.
- China’s continued gaming crackdown has put a freeze on new video game licenses, leading 14,000 gaming-related firms and small studios to shut down over the past several months. Regulators haven’t released a list of approved new video game titles since the end of July, making this the longest crackdown since the nine-month pause in 2018.
- Brave’s browser, available for both mobile and web, says it has doubled the number of MAUs for the fifth year in a row, going from 24 million MAU on December 31st, 2020, to over 50 million by the end of 2021. It also has over 15.5 million daily active users and sees 2.3 billion searches per year. In 2021, the browser added Brave Search, Brave Wallet, Brave Talk and, for iOS, Brave Playlist.
- At CES, gaming PC maker Razer introduced plans for a new Razer Smart Home app that will allow users to set up a range of smart home devices from across manufacturers.
- Hey’s email app was updated with a vacation auto-responder called “Away Autoresponder” that will send out pre-written automatic replies to incoming emails. Users can just toggle the feature on when they’re out, and can opt to restrict the auto-replies to screened-in contacts or to all.
Health & Fitness
- Apple updated its Apple Fitness+ service which will include Collections and Time to Run features starting on January 10. Collections are a series of workouts and meditations from the Fitness+ library focused on helping users reach a specific goal, like improving your posture or running your first 5K. Meanwhile, Time to Run is an audio experience designed for runners, where each episode focuses on a popular running route in select major cities, and includes music that aims to capture the spirit of the city and photos of the route being run. Time to Walk will also roll out its third season with new guests like Rebel Wilson, Bernice A. King and Hasan Minhaj. New Artist Spotlight workouts are being added as well.
- A study of over 2,000 adults by Sleep Junkie found that TikTok was the worst app to use before bed, as it causes difficulties in falling asleep. TikTok users took over one hour longer than average to fall asleep and spent 14% of their sleep in the REM phase, which is half of the recommended amount.
- Meditation app Calm has launched its first foray into physical activity and short-form video content with its new “Daily Move” video series. The series will feature elements from yoga, tai chi, Pilates, stretching, dance, walking and more, and each video will be 3-5 minutes in length.
- Most of the U.S. still isn’t using COVID-19 exposure identification apps, even as omicron surges, The Washington Post reported. More than 20 U.S. states don’t use the technology for exposure notifications built by Apple and Google, it found.
Travel & Transportation
- China’s ride-sharing app Didi disclosed a $4.7 billion loss after its revenues shrank in the last quarter, driven by new government regulations in the country, Bloomberg reported. The company plans to shift its listing to Hong Kong next year.
Government & Policy
- Indian antitrust regulator ordered an investigation into Apple’s business practices, including its requirement for app developers to use its own payments system for apps and in-app purchases. The inquiry was triggered by a complaint filed by nonprofit Together We Fight Society, which said the requirement makes a significant dent in developers’ revenues.
- Germany’s antitrust regulator found that Google met the threshold for special abuse control under its competition laws for digital companies. The assessment included Google’s dominance in online advertising as well as its role as gatekeeper on key services like YouTube and the Play Store on Android.
- Spotify’s Head of Global Affairs and Chief Legal Officer Horacio Gutierrez, who led the company’s antitrust battles with Apple, is leaving the company for Disney. The move is also a loss for the Coalition for App Fairness, which recently saw its amicus curiae brief rejected by a regional appeals court in the Epic-Apple battle.
Funding and M&A
Twitter completed the sale of MoPub to AppLovin for $1.05 billion. The deal was first announced in October 2021, following Twitter’s reveal of its plan to double its revenue by 2023 to reach $7.5 billion or more. Twitter said it aims to redirect more resources toward performance-based ads, SMBs and commerce.
Pediatric mental health app Little Otter raised $22 million to scale its service providing treatment to kids and families. The round was led by CRV and brings the company’s total raise to date to $26.7 million.
Indian hyperlocal delivery startup Dunzo raised $240 million in funding led by Reliance Retail. Its $200 million investment will give it a 25.8% stake in the six-year-old startup that now operates in seven cities in India.
Emotional wellness app Mine’d raised $3.5 million in a seed round led by Listen Ventures. The app offers interactive and short-form live and on-demand classes on a variety of topics like dating, breakups, career and purpose. The six-month-old app now has a community of over 100,000 users and 1 million videos.
Vietnam-based digital banking firm Timo Bank raised $20 million in its first external funding led by Square Peg. Founded in 2015, Timo Bank lets users sign up without visiting a bank branch and helps customers visualize their financial goals.
Delivery Hero is acquiring a majority stake in Spanish delivery company Glovo. The deal, announced on December 31, 2021, will allow Delivery Hero to acquire an additional 39.4% on top of its existing 44% stake.
Prune-based mobile-first credit card company OneCard raised $75 million in a new round led by existing investor QED, valuing the business at $722 million, post-money. That’s up 4x from the valuation in the company’s Series B round in April 2021. OneCard is offered in 12 cities, including Mumbai, Delhi, NCR and Bengaluru.
Fintech Ant Money, a micro-income startup, raised $20 million in funding (a mix of previously unannounced seed and Series A capital) and acquired Blast, a startup offering financial tools for gamers, via a stock-for-stock merger. The funding was led by Franklin Templeton’s Franklin Venture Partners. The startup declined to share the acquisition price for Blast.
Indian neobank Jupiter raised $86 million in Series C funding to launch new lending and wealth management services. QED and Sequoia Capital India co-led the round, valuing the startup at $711 million, up from $300 million in August 2021.
The Oculus app, apparently
Consumers worldwide downloaded Meta’s Oculus app, the mobile companion for Oculus VR devices including the Quest 2, roughly 2 million times globally since Christmas Day, according to new data from third-party app intelligence firms Apptopia and Sensor Tower. Already, there had been some indication that the Quest 2 was a popular holiday gift after the Oculus app shot to the top of the Apple App Store for the first time ever on Christmas Day and became the most popular free app on Google Play in the U.S., as well.
During the week of Christmas in the U.S. (December 23-29), adoption of the Oculus app jumped up by 517% week-over-week to reach 1.5 million installs, Sensor Tower’s data indicates.
In the week that followed, the firm saw those installs drop 77% to 345,000 from December 30 through January 5, but this figure is still higher than the week before Christmas 2021 by 42%. And it’s likely that these more recent downloads still include those who recently received a new Oculus device for the holidays, but hadn’t gotten around to setting it up yet.
While the U.S. accounted for the majority of the post-Christmas installs, app intelligence firms estimate that, in total, the app has seen around 2 million global installs from Christmas Day through the present across the App Store and Google Play combined.
(Read TechCrunch’s full report here.)