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 growing, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spending 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. The average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV daily 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 up 27% year-over-year.
This week, our series will dive into the key announcements impacting app developers from WWDC 21. Apple’s WWDC went virtual again this year, but it didn’t slow down the pace of announcements. This week, Apple introduced a slate of new developer tools and frameworks, changes to iOS that will impact how consumers use their devices, and new rules for publishing on its App Store, among other things. We can’t dig into every dev update — and truly, there are better places to learn about, say, the new concurrency capabilities of Swift 5.5 or what’s new with SwiftUI. But after a few days of processing everything new, here’s what’s jumping out as the bigger takeaways and updates.
Apple’s development IDE, Xcode 13, now includes Xcode Cloud, a built-in continuous integration and delivery service hosted on Apple’s cloud infrastructure. Apple says the service, birthed out of its 2018 Buddybuild acquisition, will help to speed up the pace of development by combining cloud-based tools for building apps along with tools to run automated tests in parallel, deliver apps to testers via TestFlight and view tester feedback through the web-based App Store Connect dashboard. Beyond the immediate improvements to the development process (which developers are incredibly excited about based on #WWDC21 tweets), Xcode Cloud represents a big step by Apple further into the cloud services space, where Amazon (AWS), Google, and Microsoft have dominated. While Xcode Cloud may not replace solutions designed for larger teams with more diverse needs, it’s poised to make app development easier — and deliver a new revenue stream to Apple. If only Apple had announced the pricing!
Swift Playgrounds 4
Swift Playgrounds got a notable update in iPadOS 15, as it will now allow developers to build iPhone and iPad apps right on their iPad and submit them to the App Store. In Swift Playgrounds 4, coming later this year, Apple says developers will be able to create the visual design of an app using SwiftUI, see the live preview of their app’s code while building, and cun their apps full-screen to test them out. App projects can also be opened and edited with ewift Playgrounds or Xcode. Now, they can build real apps and hit the publish button, too. While it’s not the Xcode on iPad system, some developers have been requesting that it will make app building more accessible because of iPad’s lower price point than Mac. It could also encourage more people to try app development, as Swift Playgrounds helps student coders learn the basics and move up to more challenging lessons.
Antitrust pressure swirling around Apple has contributed to a growing sentiment among some developers that Apple doesn’t do enough to help them grow their businesses — and, therefore, is undeserving of a 15%-30% cut of the developers’ revenues themselves worked to gain. The new App Store updates may start to chip away at that perception. Soon, developers can create up to 35 custom product pages targeted toward different users, each with a unique URL for sharing and analytics for measuring performance. The pages can include other preview videos, screenshots, and text.
Apple will also allow developers to split traffic between three treatments of the app’s default page to measure which ones convert best, then choose the percentage of the App Store audience that will see one of the three treatments. Meanwhile, the App Store will begin to show customers in-app events inside developers’ apps — like game competitions, fitness challenges, film premieres, and more — effectively driving app traffic and re-engaging users. Combined, Apple is making the case that its App Store can move discovery beyond just offering an app listing page.
Beyond the App Store product, Apple overhauled its App Store policies to address the growing problem of scam apps. The changes allow Apple to crack down on scammers by removing offenders from its Developer Program. The new guidelines also allow developers to report spam directly to Apple instead of, you know, relying on tweets and press. Apple has historically downplayed the scam problem. For example, it noted how the App Store stopped over $1.5 billion in fraudulent transactions in 2020. Even if it’s a small percentage of the App Store, scam apps with fake ratings can cheat users out of millions of dollars and reduce consumer trust in the App Store and Apple itself, which has longer-term consequences for the ecosystem’s health. What’s unclear, however, is why Apple is seemingly trying to solve the App Review issues using forms — to report fraud (and now, to appeal rulings, too) when it’s becoming apparent that Apple needs a more systematic way of keeping tabs on the app ecosystem beyond the initial review process.
The App Store discovery updates mentioned above also matter more because developers may need to reduce their reliance on notifications to send users back into their apps. Indeed, iOS 15 users can choose which apps they don’t need to hear from right away — these will be rounded up into a new Notification Summary that arrives on a schedule they configure, where Siri intelligence helps determine which apps get a top spot. If an app is struggling to re-engage users through push notifications, getting relegated to the end of a summary will not help matters. Users can “Send to Summary” from the Lock Screen notification and the existing options to “Deliver Quietly” or be turned off. That means any ill-timed push could be an app developer’s last.
Meanwhile, the clever new “Focus” modes let iOS users configure different quiet methods for work, play, sleeping, and more, each with their own set of rules and even their home screens. But making this work across the app ecosystem will require developer adoption of four “interruption levels,” ranging from passive to critical. For example, a new episode of a fav show should be a “passive” notification. “Active” is the default setting — which doesn’t get to break into Focus. “Time-sensitive” messages should be reserved for alerting to more urgent matters, like a delivery that’s arrived on your doorstep or an account security update. These may be able to break through Focus if allowed.
“Critical” notifications would be reserved for emergencies, like severe weather alerts or local safety updates. While there is a chance developers may abuse the new system to get their attention through, they risk users silencing their notifications entirely or deleting the app. Focus mode users will be power users and more technically savvy, so they’ll understand that the errant information here was a choice and not a mistake on the developer’s part.
Apple has been steadily pushing out more tools for building augmented reality apps, but this WWDC introduced a huge update that will make it easier for developers to get started with AR. With the launch of RealityKit 2, Apple’s new Object Capture API will allow developers to create 3D models in minutes using only an iPhone or iPad (or a DSLR or drone if they choose).
Explains Apple; this will address one of the most difficult parts of making great AR apps: the ting 3D models. Before, this could take hours and cost thousands of dollars — now, developers with just an iPhone and Mac can participate. The impacts of this update will be seen in the months and years ahead as developers adopt the new tools for things like AR shopping, games, and other AR experiences — including ones we may not have seen yet,but are enabled by more accessible AR technology tools and frameworks.
This update is unexpected and interesting despite missing what would have been an ideal launch window: mid-pandemic back in 2020. With SharePlay, developers can bring their apps into what Apple calls “Group Activities” — or shared experiences that occur right inside FaceTime. You would get the idea if you co-watched Hulu with friends during the pandemic. But Apple isn’t tacking on some co-viewing system here. Instead, it’s introducing new APIs that let users listen to music, stream video, or screen share with friends in a way that feels organic to FaceTime. There was a hint of serving the locked-down COVID-19 pandemic crowd with this update, as Apple talks about making people feel as if they’re “in the same room” — a nod to those many months when that was not possible. And that may have inspired the changes, to be sure. Similarly, FaceTime’s support for Android and scheduled calls — a clear case of Zoom envy — feels like a case of playing catch-up on Apple’s part.
The immediate demand for these experiences may be dulled by a population recovering from the pandemic — people are now going out and seeing others in person again, thanks to vaccines. The ability to use apps while FaceTime’ing has a lifespan that extends beyond the COVID era, particularly among iPhone’s youngest users. The demographic growing up with smartphones at ever-younger ages don’t place phone calls — they text and FaceTime. Some argue Gen Z even prefers the latter. With its immediate support for Apple services like Apple Music and Apple TV+, SharePlay will hit the ground running — but it will only fully realize its vision with developer adoption. But such a system seems possible only because of Apple’s tight control over its platform. It also gives a default iOS app a big advantage over third parties.
There were, of course, hundreds of updates announced this week, like Spatial audio, Focus modes, AirPods updates, iPadOS improvements (widgets! multi-tasking), Health updates, iCloud+ with Private Relay, watchOS improvements,, macOS 12 Monterey (with Continuity with Universal Control), HomePod updates, , Screen Time APIs, ShazamKit, App Clips improvements, Photos improvements, and others. However, many were iterative updates — like , for example, or Siri support for third-party devices. Others are Apple’s attempt to catch up with competitors as the Google Lens-like for taking action on things snapped in your photos. The more significant changes, however, aren’t yet here — like the plan to and the . These will change how we use devices for years to come.
✨ Not to be outdone by WWDC (ha), GoogleThis release brings more of the new features and ddesignchanges to users that weren’t yet available in the first beta, which debuted at Google I/O. the new privacy dashboard, the addition of the mic and camera indicators that show when an app is using those features, an indication , and a new panel that makes it easier to switch between internet providers or Wi-Fi networks.
Google also this week, which brought a new camera and photo features, privacy features, Google Assistant improvements, and more. Highlights included creating stargazing videos, a car crash detection feature, and a way to answer or reject calls hands-free.
Pinterest wants to get more users to click “buy.” This week, the companythat automatically organizes your saved Product Pins for easier access.
Facebook’s Messenger appfor person-to-person payments inside its app in the U.S. Users could scan the codes to send or request a price, even if they’re not Facebook friends with the other party. Payments are sent over Facebook Pay, backed by a user’s credit card, debit card, or PayPal account.
Downloads of fintech appsglobally YoY, according to an AppsFlyer marketing .
Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey said Square is considering adding a Bitcoin hardware wallet to its product lineup. The exec detailed some of the thinking behind the plan in a.