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 data.ai’s “State of Mobile” report. 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.
Do you want This Week in Apps in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters
Meta starts selling blue badges…but also security and customer service
In a stealth announcement over the weekend, Meta announced a radical change to Facebook and Instagram with news that it would offer to sell its blue verified badge to customers, taking a play from Elon Musk’s Twitter playbook. The paid subscription includes other features as well, including improved impersonation protection and direct access to customer support, plus more visibility through upranked posts. It’s initially rolling out to Australia and New Zealand.
Twitter’s initial attempt at paid verification proved problematic, as users bought the badge then changed their name and profile picture to troll other high-profile accounts (including Musk) and businesses. Twitter had to pause the service and readjust.
Seemingly learning from Twitter’s mistakes, Meta’s paid badge has a few more rules in place.
For starters, users must verify their identity with a government-issued ID card, and then won’t be able to change their profile name, username, date of birth or photo after paying for verification. If they later want to make a change, they’ll need to unsubscribe and then get reverified. This dramatically cuts down on bad actors, though could be a bit of a pain for creators who like to refresh their photos from time to time. However, it may not always be this way — Meta said it’s working on a feature that will eventually allow users to change these settings through a new verification process that won’t require them to cancel and resubscribe… it’s just not ready yet.
Also of note: Meta Verified won’t verify users across Facebook and Instagram — users will have to buy separate plans for the two apps, and Facebook’s subscription, for now, is only sold on the web. That means customers will be shelling out $27 per month at the current prices for access to this badge and other perks across Meta’s apps. (The subscription is $11.99 per month on the web and $14.99 per month on iOS or Android.)
The trend toward paid verification is a potentially fraught move for social networks like Meta and Twitter, as they’re now responsible for services that users believe should be free — things like safety, security and customer service. Being able to identify an account as authentic is seen as a feature the networks should provide to ensure that their users can trust who they’re interacting with. And being able to get help with problems like impersonation or other customer support issues is also considered something that should be a part of the social network’s core service. By stratifying these features into pay-to-play tiers, the networks are setting up a system where people with money have a better class of service than those with less to spend. But security and trust shouldn’t be sold as if they’re upgraded seats on an airplane, they should be baked into the core offering.
Instagram co-founders launch their new app… and it’s for news
Artifact, the personalized news reader built by Instagram’s co-founders, is now open to the public, no sign-up required. Last month, Instagram’s creators Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger unveiled their latest venture as an invite-only experience, promising their news app would later evolve to include social elements, like being able to discuss the news with friends. With this week’s launch, Artifact is dropping its waitlist and phone number requirements, introducing the app’s first social feature and adding feedback controls to better personalize the news reading experience, among other changes.
In preparation for expanded social features, the company will now allow users to upload their contacts to see when articles are becoming popular with people in their network. But unlike a similar feature on Twitter, it won’t show you who is reading them.
Artifact will also now give users more visibility into their news reading habits with a newly added stats feature that shows you the categories you’ve read as well as the recent articles you read within those categories, plus the publishers you’ve been reading the most. But it will also group your reading more narrowly by specific topics. In other words, instead of just “tech” or “AI,” you might find you’ve read a lot about the topic “ChatGPT,” specifically.
The launch of a brand-new app from Instagram’s founders, and particularly one focused on news, was a surprise — especially given the difficulties of launching a news reader here in the U.S., where it would have to compete with offerings from the tech giants, like Google News, Apple News and, of course — from the founders’ earlier employer — Meta’s own News Feed. But Systrom believes that the underlying machine learning technology being used will help Artifact differentiate itself from others — it’s leveraging the transformer advances that are also powering new AI tools like ChatGPT.
While users are likely curious about the app because of its founders’ pedigree, it remains to be seen if there’s room for another news reader to carve out a niche under the tech giants’ shadow. Before the waitlist was lifted, the app had around 47,000 installs, according to data.ai. As of late this past week, it had climbed to No. 4 in the U.S. App Store’s News category, but hadn’t broken into the Top Free Charts. [Update: the most recent data now shows 66K installs and the app is ranking No. 5 in the News category in the U.S., No. 5 in the UK, and higher in some EMEA markets including Malta, Spain, Israel, and Hungary.)
Spotify launches an AI DJ
Ah, what a time to be alive! Music streaming service Spotify this week launched an AI DJ to personalize the music listening experience for its users. Similar to a radio DJ, Spotify’s DJ feature will deliver a curated selection of music alongside, in its case, AI-powered spoken commentary about the tracks and artists you like, using what Spotify says is a “stunningly realistic voice.” (The voice is based on Spotify’s Head of Cultural Partnerships Xavier “X” Jernigan, who had hosted Spotify’s morning show podcast, “The Get Up.”)
To access the DJ, you’ll head to the Music Feed on the Home page of Spotify’s iOS or Android app, then tap Play on the DJ card to begin. The DJ will then begin to play a lineup of music and short commentary. As listeners engage with the DJ feature, they’ll be presented with a personalized stream of songs that will include both newer tracks and old favorites, and a variety of genres. But it’s not a long-running playlist. After you move through one style of music or selection (like your summer throwbacks), you’re then presented with another (like your favorite hip-hop tracks). This experience feels more like Spotify tied its personalized playlists together, then interspersed them with commentary.
The interesting thing here is that Spotify said it’s leveraging Generative AI through the use of OpenAI technology to create the commentary, which is meant to scale its in-house music experts’ insights about music, artists and genres. Meanwhile, its AI voice comes from its 2022 Sonantic acquisition. Spotify has led the market for years with its personalization tech for crafting playlists, but now its rivals have their own versions of this type of experience. By adding an AI DJ, Spotify hopes to attract and retain users who want a more lean-back experience while introducing a new feature that can’t be quickly copied by the competition.
- Elon Musk tweeted Twitter would open source its algorithm next week. We’ll believe it when we see it, Twitter!
- Twitter also laid off dozens more sales and engineering staff last week.
- Snapchat rolled out new features for Sounds that let users add licensed song clips, excerpts from TV shows and movies, or their own original audio to Snaps and Stories. One new feature will let you tap an icon to be suggested relevant Sounds to add to a Snap. Another lets you create montage videos that are automatically in rhythm to the beat of audio tracks.
- A new study of U.S. adults found that 14% of Gen Z adults start researching news on TikTok, versus 2% of all adults. I guess when Google said TikTok was a threat to its business, it was right.
- Tumblr’s parody of paid verification delivered a 125% boost in iOS in-app purchase revenue since November, according to a new analysis of the app’s in-app consumer spending by data.ai. The company had launched a sort of tongue-in-cheek rebuttal to the idea that subscription-based verification had any real value by launching paid “double checkmarks” as an IAP. Consumer spending on Tumblr’s iOS app increased since the November 2022 launch of the feature, now totaling $263,000 in net revenue. A small figure, but a boost nonetheless.
Media & Entertainment
- Spotify is planning to launch a TikTok-style feed for music discovery in its app, according to Bloomberg, which said the news would be announced at the company’s upcoming Stream On event in March. Spotify previewed the feature at its Investor Day last June.
- Podcasts are coming to YouTube Music. YouTube announced that ad-supported podcasts would be made available on YouTube Music, with support for background listening included for free. The feature will include both audio and video podcasts, initially for users in the U.S.
- YouTube Music’s redesign brought a new feature that lets users create their own automatically generated radio stations by picking up to 30 artists and then applying mood filters. The stations can also be further refined with other specific filters like “new discoveries” or “chill songs,” for example.
- Nexstar Media Group launched a free NewsNation app for streaming devices, including Apple TV, Roku, Fire TV and others.
- Spotify re-org’d again. After last month’s departure of Dawn Ostroff, who oversaw podcast content and advertising, Spotify’s head of audio talk shows and partnerships Max Cutler is also leaving the company on May 1 as part of a larger re-org. Cutler notably oversaw deals with top creators like Joe Rogan and Alex Cooper (“Call Her Daddy”), after joining the company when it bought his network Parcast. Julie McNamara, who oversaw originals, will now manage exclusives too as Cutler departs.
- Clubhouse is adding a “Mutals” feature that lets you see who you know in common with other participants in one of its live audio rooms. The company said it could serve as a good icebreaker for chatting up new folks.
- Spotify began testing playlists that could only be unlocked by NFT holders. The feature was being tested by the metaverse band Kingship and communities like Overlord, Fluf and Kevin Rose’s Moonbirds.
- YouTube launched a new multi-language audio feature that allows creators to add dubbing to their videos after creating the dubbed tracks with a third-party partner. The feature was tested by select creators, like MrBeast, and is now expanding to thousands more creators for use in long-form videos.
- Celeb greetings app Cameo named Meta vet Matty de Castro as its GM of Enterprise Sales, Cameo for Business.
- Xiaomi is shutting down its short-form video app Zili next month, citing an “operational adjustment.”
- ASO matters! Rovio said it’s delisting Angry Birds on Google Play and renaming it on the App Store because the older game is taking away attention and downloads from its newer versions, like Angry Birds 2, Angry Birds Friends and Angry Birds Journey. The older App Store game will be renamed to Red’s First Flight in order to redirect search traffic to the newer titles. The game will remain playable on devices it’s been downloaded to even after the rebranding and removal.
- Unreal sneak peek ahead. Epic Games said it’s returning to the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco on March 22 to give a glimpse of the future of game development with its Unreal Engine. The company promises to “look at some new projects” and “dive into the latest Epic tech.” The keynote will be livestreamed on Twitch and YouTube.
- WhatsApp was spotted developing a “private newsletter tool“ which would expand on its existing broadcast functionality to allow users to broadcast via newsletter, as well. The reveal follows Meta’s launch of a broadcast channels feature that lets users send a one-to-many message to Instagram users. The same feature is also being tested in Messenger.
- Messenger was spotted internally testing another BeReal clone, “Roll Call.” The feature asks users to add a photo or video to a prompt with a timed countdown to share what they’re up to at the moment with a group of friends in a chat.
- Google rebranded its chat features in the Google Messages app as “RCS Chat” and now refers to a “Chat Message” as an “RCS Message,” among other changes. The subtle shift in branding is meant to highlight Google’s adoption of the next-gen communication protocol meant to replace SMS. Apple has steadily refused to implement it on its own devices, as RCS offers many iMessage-like features and would reduce its grip on the blue bubble-demanding market.
- Two weeks after launching the new AI-enabled Bing on desktop, the new Bing became available in the Bing mobile app and through Microsoft’s Edge browser for Android and iOS. Skype, Microsoft’s messaging app, also now allows you to bring Bing into a text conversation to add additional information with the @Bing command. Bing’s AI has seen some drama since its launch as users trolled and tested the AI’s limits, which pushed Microsoft to adjust some parameters around things like the length of conversations and other things. Unfortunately, that means the AI is now restricting users to six turns per conversation and 60 total queries today.
- Google Photos made its AI-powered Magic Eraser photo editing feature available to Android and iOS users with a Google One paid subscription. The feature was previously Pixel-only. The company also rolled out a small handful of other editing tools, as well, like a new HDR video effect and exclusive collage styles.
- Amazon’s Alexa app was updated with a new feature that allows users to manage and move their music between multiple Echo devices or groups of speakers within the app instead of using voice commands.
- Google said it will begin the big Google Tasks merger in March. This will allow users to manage all the tasks created across Google apps like Gmail, Docs and Chat in the Tasks app itself. On May 22nd, it will also move reminders from Calendar and Assistant into Tasks too.
- Samsung’s Bixby mobile assistant added a new feature that lets users clone their own voice with AI to answer phone calls, but it’s only available in Korean for now.
- Stripe’s Tap to Pay arrived on Android in six countries, including the U.S., Canada, the U.K., New Zealand, Australia and Singapore. The feature supports payment methods using Google Pay, Mastercard, Visa and American Express debit and credit cards. Last year, Stripe was Apple’s first payment partner for “Tap to Pay.”
Travel and Transportation
- Researchers found bugs that would have allowed attackers to bypass Apple’s sandbox on iOS and Mac, allowing them to access messages, photos and call history. Apple fixed the bugs before the disclosure was made public.
- Twitter dumbly made SMS 2FA a paid subscription feature only…which we suppose is in keeping with the new social networking model where security and customer support are only available to paying customers now.
- Apple removed scammy authenticator apps from the App Store which couldn’t even scan QR codes until users subscribed to their service. Some also used dark patterns that should have never gotten through App Review — like tapping on the X to close the paywall would prompt a subscription confirmation.
- Florida’s Republican AG wrote letters to Apple and Google pushing the companies to label the country of origin of the apps on their app stores. The political move follows some lawmakers’ increasing concerns about China’s surveillance, which led to bans of the TikTok app from government officials’ phones.
- AliveCor and Apple will take their latest dispute to an appeals court. In December, the International Trade Commission (ITC) ruled Apple infringed on AliveCor patents around wearable electrocardiograms and called for a ban on Apple Watch sales. But that order had been on hold as the Patent Trial and Appeal Board ruled the patents were invalid. President Biden’s administration, however, has now upheld the ITC ruling, setting the stage for a broader legal battle to take place.
- The European Commission (EC) issued a directive instructing all EC employees to remove TikTok from their corporate devices as well as on any personal devices that get used for work purposes. The news follows similar rulings among U.S. lawmakers as the threat of Chinese surveillance looms.
- The U.S. DoJ has been meeting with Google’s competitors and customers for an antitrust lawsuit over Google Maps and its dominant position in the digital maps market.