This Week in Apps: the year and decade in review, gaming acquisitions and a Facebook OS

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the Extra Crunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with 194 billion downloads last year and more than $ 100 billion in consumer spending. People spend 90% of their mobile time in apps and more time using their mobile devices than watching TV. Apps aren’t just a way to waste idle hours — they’re big business, one that often seems to change overnight.

In this Extra Crunch series, we help you to keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

Headlines

The top apps of the year… and the decade

App Annie this week released its list of the year’s top apps. And this time around, it also included the top apps of the past 10 years in its analysis. Outside of games, Facebook dominated the decade, the firm reported. It ran the four most-downloaded apps of the decade, including Facebook (#1), Messenger (#2), WhatsApp (#3), and Instagram (#4). Other communication and social media apps were also among the most popular over the past 10 years, claiming seven out of the 10 top spots, including Snapchat (#5), Skype (#6) and Twitter (#10). Social video platforms TikTok and YouTube also placed on the list at #7 and #9, respectively. And yes, it’s pretty notable that TikTok — an app that only launched outside of China in 2017 — is one of the most-downloaded apps of the past decade. Meanwhile, even though dating app Tinder was the most profitable app this year, Netflix was the No. 1 app by all-time consumer spend over the past decade.

2019 app downloads and consumer spending

Related to its round-up of the top apps, App Annie also offered some preliminary data on downloads and consumer spending in 2019. Its current figures don’t include calculations from third-party app stores in China, (like those referenced above), which App Annie tends to provide in its annual State of Mobile report. Instead, App Annie reports we’re on track to see 120 billion apps from Apple’s App Store and Google Play by the end of 2019, a 5% increase from 2018. Consumer spending was also up 15% year-over-year to reach $ 90 billion, it says. Expect a full analysis to come in Q1 2020.

Facebook still sat at the top of the charts for 2019. The company’s Messenger app was the most downloaded non-game app of 2019, followed by Facebook’s main app, then WhatsApp. Tinder switched places with Netflix for the No. 1 spot on this chart — last year, it was the other way around. (For more details, TechCrunch’s full review is here.)

2019 in Mobile Gaming

According to a year-end report by GamesIndustry.biz, mobile gaming grew 9.7% year-over-year in 2019 to reach a market value of $ 68.2 billion. The gaming market as a whole was worth $ 148.8 billion, the report said. Smartphone games were the biggest piece of this figure, at $ 54.7 billion, compared with $ 13.4 billion for tablet games. That means smartphone games are still bigger than PC, browser PC games, boxed and downloaded PC games, and console games.

Big moves in cloud gaming

To beef up its new cloud gaming service Stadia, Google this week bought game development firm Typhoon Studios, who were set to release their cross-platform title and first game, Journey to the Savage Planet. Google had said it wants to build out a few different first-party studios to release content on Stadia, which is where this acquisition fits in. Meanwhile, Facebook this week acquired the cloud gaming startup, PlayGiga, which had been working with telcos to create streaming game technology for 5G.

Stadia has a big mobile component, as its controller can play games on compatible mobile devices like Pixel phones. Gaming has been a big part of Facebook’s mobile efforts, as not only a platform where games can be played, but also a place to watch live game streams, similar to Twitch. But the big gaming trend of the past year (which will continue into 2020) is cross-platform gaming — thanks to games like Fortnite, Roblox and PUBG Mobile, as well as devices like Nintendo Switch, gamers expect to continue playing no matter what screen they happen to be using at the time.

Apple Developer app expands support for China

Apple launched a dedicated mobile app for its developer community in November, with the arrival of the Apple Developer app, which was an upgraded and rebranded version of Apple’s existing WWDC app. The app lets developers access resources like technical and design articles, as well as read news, watch developer videos, and enroll in the Apple Developer program. Now that the program is open to China through the app, Apple announced this week.

From the app, developers in China can start and complete their Apple Developer membership and pay with a local payment method on their iPhone or iPad. They can also renew their membership, to keep their account active. Apple has been heavily investing in growing its international developer community by launching developer academies and accelerators in key regions, among other initiatives. Over the past year, Apple grew its developer community in China by 17%, the company earlier said.

So much for nostalgia, Rewound gets yanked from the App Store

We hope you downloaded this fun app when we told you to in last week’s column! Because now it’s gone.

Rewound, briefly, was a clever music player app that turns your iPhone into a 2000’s era iPod, complete with click wheel nav. The developer was able to sneak the app into the App Store by not including the actual iPod UI, which infringes on Apple’s own product design. Instead, the UI pieces were hosted off-site — on Twitter accounts, for example. Users could find them and download them after they installed the app. Technically, that means the App Store app itself wasn’t infringing, but Apple still kicked it out. The developer also charged a fee to access the Apple Music features, which may have been another reason for its removal.

It’s no surprise Apple took this step, but the developer seems confused as to how the app could be approved then pulled later on, even though it hadn’t changed. That’s actually par for the course for Apple’s subjective, editorial decisions over its App Store, however. Now Rewound, which has 170K+ users after only a few days, will focus on a web app and Android version.

Facebook is building its own OS so it can ditch Android


Android – TechCrunch

Facebook is building an operating system so it can ditch Android

Facebook doesn’t want its hardware like Oculus and Portal to be at the mercy of Google because they rely on its Android operating system. That’s why Facebook has tasked a co-author of Microsoft’s Windows NT named Mark Lucovsky with building the social network an operating system from scratch, according the The Information’s Alex Heath.

“We really want to make sure the next generation has space for us” says Facebook’s VP of hardware Andrew ‘Boz’ Bosworth. “We don’t think we can trust the marketplace or competitors to ensure that’s the case. And so we’re gonna do it ourselves.”

By moving to its own OS, Facebook could have more freedom to bake social interaction — and hopefully privacy — deeper into its devices. It could also prevent a disagreement between Google and Facebook from derailing the roadmaps of Oculus, Portal, or future gadgets. We’ve asked Facebook for more details on its homegrown operating system.

One added bonus of moving to a Facebook-owned operating system? It could make it tougher to force Facebook to spin out some of its acquisitions, especially if Facebook goes with Instagram branding for its future augmented reality glasses.

Facebook Portal Lineup

Facebook has always been sore about not owning an operating system and having to depend on the courtesy of some of its biggest rivals. Those include Apple, who’s CEO Tim Cook has repeatedly thrown jabs at Facebook and its chief Mark Zuckerberg over privacy and data collection. In a previous hedge against the power of the mobile operating systems, Facebook worked on a secret project codenamed Oxygen circa 2013 that would help it distribute Android apps from outside the Google Play store if necessary, Vox’s Kurt Wagner reported.

That said, its last attempt to wrestle more control of mobile away from the OS giants in 2013 went down in flames. The Facebook phone, built with HTC hardware, ran a forked version of Android and the Facebook Home user interface. But drowning the experience in friends’ photos and Messenger chat bubbles proved wildly unpopular and both the HTC First and Facebook Home were shelved.

Now Facebook is hoping to learn from past mistakes as it ramps up its hardware efforts with a new office for the team in Burlingame, 15 miles north of the company’s headquarters. The 70,000-square-foot space is designed to house roughly 4,000 employees.

Interested in potentially controlling more of the hardware stack, Facebook held acquisition talks with $ 4.5 billion market cap semiconductor company Cirrus Logic, which makes audio chips for Apple and more, The Information reports. That deal never happened, and it’s unclear how far the talks went given tech giants constantly keep their M&A teams open to discussions. But it shows how serious Facebook is taking hardware, even if Portal and Oculus sales have been slow to date.

That could start to change next year, though, as flagship virtual reality experiences hit the market. I got a press preview of the upcoming Medal Of Honor first-person shooter that will launch on the Oculus Quest in 2020. An hour of playing the World War 2 game flew by, and it was one of the first VR games that felt like you could enjoy it week after week rather than being just a tech demo. Medal Of Honor could prove to be the killer app that convinces gamers they have to get a Quest.

Facebook has also been working on hardware experiences for the enterprise. Facebook Workplace video calls can now run on Portal, with its smart camera auto-zooming to keep everyone in the board room in frame or focus on the action. The Information reports Facebook is also prototyping a VR videoconferencing system that Boz has been testing with his team.

The hardware initiatives meanwhile feed back into Facebook’s core ad business. It’s now using some data about what people do on their Oculus or Portal to target them with ads. From playing certain games to accessing kid-focused experiences to virtually teleporting to vacation destinations, there’s plenty of lucrative data for Facebook to potentially mine.

Facebook even wants to know what’s on our mind before we act on it. The Information reports that Facebook’s brain-computer interface hardware for controlling interfaces by employing sensors to recognize a word a user is thinking has been shrunk down. It’s gone from the size of a refridgerator to something hand-held but still far from ready for integration into a phone.

Selling Oculus headsets, Portal screens, and mind-readers might never generate the billions in profits Facebook earns from its efficient ads business. But they could ensure the social network isn’t locked out of the next waves of computing. Whether those are fully immersive like virtual reality, convenient complements to our phones like smart displays, or minimally-invasive sensors, Facebook wants them to be social. If it can bring your friends along to your new gadgets, Facebook will find some way to squeeze out revenue while keeing these devices from making us more isolated and less human.


Android – TechCrunch

Facebook is building an operating system so it can ditch Android

Facebook doesn’t want its hardware like Oculus and Portal to be at the mercy of Google because they rely on its Android operating system. That’s why Facebook has tasked a co-author of Microsoft’s Windows NT named Mark Lucovsky with building the social network an operating system from scratch, according the The Information’s Alex Heath.

“We really want to make sure the next generation has space for us” says Facebook’s VP of hardware Andrew ‘Boz’ Bosworth. “We don’t think we can trust the marketplace or competitors to ensure that’s the case. And so we’re gonna do it ourselves.”

By moving to its own OS, Facebook could have more freedom to bake social interaction — and hopefully privacy — deeper into its devices. It could also prevent a disagreement between Google and Facebook from derailing the roadmaps of Oculus, Portal, or future gadgets. We’ve asked Facebook for more details on its homegrown operating system.

One added bonus of moving to a Facebook-owned operating system? It could make it tougher to force Facebook to spin out some of its acquisitions, especially if Facebook goes with Instagram branding for its future augmented reality glasses.

Facebook Portal Lineup

Facebook has always been sore about not owning an operating system and having to depend on the courtesy of some of its biggest rivals. Those include Apple, who’s CEO Tim Cook has repeatedly thrown jabs at Facebook and its chief Mark Zuckerberg over privacy and data collection. In a previous hedge against the power of the mobile operating systems, Facebook worked on a secret project codenamed Oxygen circa 2013 that would help it distribute Android apps from outside the Google Play store if necessary, Vox’s Kurt Wagner reported.

Now Facebook is ramping up its hardware efforts with a new office for the team in Burlingame, 15 miles north of the company’s headquarters. The 70,000-square-foot space is designed to house roughly 4,000 employees.

Interested in potentially controlling more of the hardware stack, Facebook held acquisition talks with $ 4.5 billion market cap semiconductor company Cirrus Logic, which makes audio chips for Apple and more, The Information reports. That deal never happened, and it’s unclear how far the talks went given tech giants constantly keep their M&A teams open to discussions. But it shows how serious Facebook is taking hardware, even if Portal and Oculus sales have been slow to date.

That could start to change next year, though, as flagship virtual reality experiences hit the market. I got a press preview of the upcoming Medal Of Honor first-person shooter that will launch on the Oculus Quest in 2020. An hour of playing the World War 2 game flew by, and it was one of the first VR games that felt like you could enjoy it week after week rather than being just a tech demo. Medal Of Honor could prove to be the killer app that convinces gamers they have to get a Quest.

Facebook has also been working on hardware experiences for the enterprise. Facebook Workplace video calls can now run on Portal, with its smart camera auto-zooming to keep everyone in the board room in frame or focus on the action. The Information reports Facebook is also prototyping a VR videoconferencing system that Boz has been testing with his team.

The hardware initiatives meanwhile feed back into Facebook’s core ad business. It’s now using some data about what people do on their Oculus or Portal to target them with ads. From playing certain games to accessing kid-focused experiences to virtually teleporting to vacation destinations, there’s plenty of lucrative data for Facebook to potentially mine.

Facebook even wants to know what’s on our mind before we act on it. The Information reports that Facebook’s brain-computer interface hardware for controlling interfaces by employing sensors to recognize a word a user is thinking has been shrunk down. It’s gone from the size of a refridgerator to something hand-held but still far from ready for integration into a phone.

Selling Oculus headsets, Portal screens, and mind-readers might never generate the billions in profits Facebook earns from its efficient ads business. But they could ensure the social network isn’t locked out of the next waves of computing. Whether those are fully immersive like virtual reality, convenient complements to our phones like smart displays, or minimally-invasive sensors, Facebook wants them to be social. If it can bring your friends along to your new gadgets, Facebook will find some way to squeeze out revenue while keeing these devices from making us more isolated and less human.

Gadgets – TechCrunch

Facebook Viewpoints pays users for well-being surveys & tasks

Facebook is launching a new market research, task, and product testing program that lets users earn money. Starting today, people in the US who are over 18 can download Viewpoints and participate in a well-being survey so Facebook can learn to “limit the negative impacts of social media and enhance the benefits.” Other opportunities include completing online chores on behalf of Facebook, or trying out new apps or devices ahead of launch so Facebook can refine them.

The well-being survey will take about 15 minutes score users 1000 points, which translates into a $ 5 reward that’s paid over PayPal . People interested in signing up can join Viewpoints here. The company claims it will only use the data collected internally and won’t sell it. Facebook Viewpoints is available on iOS and Android, and the company plans to open the app to more countries next year.

The question is whether users will be comfortable giving up even more data Facebook. Many are already creeped out by Facebook, but the monetary incentive might override their morals.

Meanwhile, Facebook will have to work to prevent the app from beinh abused. Most importantly, it needs to figure out how to make sure underage minors aren’t slipping into the app. They might be more vulnerable to coercion by cash, and less aware of the consequences of sharing their data.

I tried using Viewpoints but wasn’t invited to the well-being study or any other opportunities, so I couldn’t earn any money or try it out further as som studies are open only to people in certain locations or demographics. For now you have to log in with a Facebook account but it showed greyed out options for Google, phone, and email login that Facebook says are coming soon. Payments can take up to 10 days to process and your points expire after 5 years. Facebook won’t post or publicly share any info you provide through the app.

The launch of Viewpoints comes after Facebook shut down its paid market surveillance program Research and its free VPN that collected users’ data Onavo in the wake of a TechCrunch investigation that found the company was paying teenagers for their data while breaking Apple’s rules about distributing employee-only apps outside of a company.

The social network relaunched its market research efforts under the name Study From Facebook in June with a commitment to not allowing kids access. But in the meantime, leaked court documents have shown that Facebook purposefully used market research collected from Onavo to find potential rivals to cut off from its data. Facebook is now under anti-trust investigations surrounding concerns that disadvantaging its competitors hurt consumer choice in social apps.


Android – TechCrunch

Facebook buys startup building neural monitoring armband

Facebook is buying CTRL-labs, a NY-based startup building an armband that translates movement and the wearer’s neural impulses into digital input signals, a company spokesperson tells TechCrunch.

CTRL-labs raised $ 67 million according to Crunchbase. The startup’s investors include GV, Lux Capital, Amazon’s Alexa Fund, Spark Capital and Founders Fund, among others. Facebook didn’t disclose how much they paid for the startup, but we’re digging around.

The acquisition, which has not yet closed, will bring the startup into the company’s Facebook Reality Labs division. CTRL-labs’ CEO and co-founder Thomas Reardon, a veteran technologist whose accolades include founding the team at Microsoft that built Internet Explorer, will be joining Facebook, while CTRL-labs’ employees will have the option to do the same, we are told.

Facebook has talked a lot about working on a non-invasive brain input device that can make things like text entry possible just by thinking. So far, most of the company’s progress on that project appears to be taking the form of university research that they’ve funded. With this acquisition, the company appears to be working more closely with technology that could one day be productized.

“We know there are more natural, intuitive ways to interact with devices and technology. And we want to build them,” Facebook AR/VR VP Andrew Bosworth wrote in a post announcing the deal. “It’s why we’ve agreed to acquire CTRL-labs. They will be joining our Facebook Reality Labs team where we hope to build this kind of technology, at scale, and get it into consumer products faster.”

CTRL-labs’ technology isn’t focused on text-entry as much as it is muscle movement, and hand movements specifically. The startup’s progress was most recently distilled in a developer kit that paired multiple types of sensors together to accurately determine the wearer’s hand position. The wrist-worn device offered developers an alternative to camera-based or glove-based hand-tracking solutions. The company has previously talked about AR and VR input as a clear use case for the kit. Facebook did not give details on what this acquisition means for developers currently using CTRL-labs’ kit.

This acquisition also brings to Facebook the armband patents of North (formerly Thalmic Labs). CTRL-labs purchased the patents related to the startup’s defunct Myo armband earlier this year for an undisclosed sum.

CTRL-labs’ acquisition brings more IP and talent under Facebook’s wings as competitors like Microsoft and Apple continue to build out augmented reality products. There is plenty of overlap between many of the technologies that Oculus is building for Facebook’s virtual reality products, like the Quest and Rift S, but CTRL-Labs’ tech can help the company build input devices that are less bulky, less conspicuous and more robust.

“There are some fundamental advantages that we have over really any camera-based technology — including Leap Motion or Kinect — because we’re directly on the body sensing the signal that’s going from the brain to the hand.” CTRL-labs’ head of R&D, Adam Berenzweig, told TechCrunch in an interview late last year. “There are no issues with collusion or field-of-view problems — it doesn’t matter where your hands are, whether they’re in a glove or a spacesuit.”

Facebook is holding its Oculus Connect 6 developer conference later this week, where the company will be delivering updates on its AR/VR efforts.

Gadgets – TechCrunch