This Week in Apps: Instagram’s founders’ new app, another Twitter rival, Biden admin criticizes app stores – TechCrunch
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 the latest “State of Mobile” report by data.ai (previously App Annie). 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.
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Image Credits: Artifact(opens in a new window)
Surprising news this week saw Instagram’s co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger return to the mobile app market with the launch of a news reading app called Artifact. The app is part of a new venture aimed at exploring social apps, a report in The Verge noted.
Artifact itself is not yet publicly available but offers a waitlist where interested users can sign up. As described, it sounds like a modern-day twist on Google Reader, a long-ago RSS newsreader app that Google shut down back in 2013. Except in this case, Artifact is described as a newsreader that uses machine learning to personalize the experience for the end user, while also adding social elements that allow users to discuss articles they come across with friends. (To be fair, Google Reader had a similar feature, but the app itself had to be programmed by the user who would add RSS feeds directly.)
Instagram’s co-founders introduce a new social app…for news reading
The app presents a curated selection of news stories, which become more attuned to the user’s interests over time. According to a demo version of the app, you’ll need to read at last 25 articles for the app to personalize your feed. (You can track your progress in the app.)
During onboarding, you’ll tap on news interests you want to track to initially customize the experience. Users can also add their own paid news subscriptions for top publishers, like The New York Times and Bloomberg, if they choose. This will then prioritize those outlets in the app’s interface but links open in a web view. There’s no publisher integration or exclusive deals here, it seems.
Future app features will include comment controls, separate feeds for articles posted by people you follow alongside their commentary, and a direct message inbox for discussing posts more privately. But for now, you can thumbs down articles or hide the publisher, save articles to read later, share articles through iOS or Android’s built-in sharing features, report content, view your reading history and read articles in a cleaned-up reader mode.
There are some odd design choices, like the slightly too-small font for a text-heavy app and the italicized font styling on the sign-up page, but the latter isn’t present in the app itself. The app had two news reading tabs, which is strange, as one is a scrollable list of headlines, similar to an RSS reader like Feedly, while the other is a browsable page, similar to Apple News’ Today tab, but with categories at the top.
The app doesn’t immediately feel original, as it overlaps with other news readers and read-it-later apps, like Flipboard, SmartNews, Newsbreak, Pocket and Matter, plus other RSS readers and the default news apps from Apple and Google. It seems as if the company is hoping to reproduce the success of something like ByteDance’s Toutiao, but in the U.S. that’s difficult to do. The new market is more competitive here, where consumers also rely heavily on getting news from Google Search and Facebook — a platform not available in China. Plus, as TechCrunch’s Catherine Shu previously reported, many people in the country skipped the PC and first went online with their phones, paving the way for a mobile news app to eat up market share.
It will be interesting to track how well Artifact fares in this environment.
Is there room for a US equivalent to China’s No. 1 news app?
Capitol building. Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch
The Biden administration called out Apple and Google’s app stores for stifling competition. A new report, issued on Wednesday by the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), said it had investigated the competitive conditions in the mobile app ecosystem and found that it’s “not a level playing field, which is harmful to developers and consumers.”
The report also made several policy suggestions that could improve the ecosystem and open up competition. These included pushes for more transparent app review process; limits on pre-installed apps and self-preferencing; bans on rules that restrict other means of installing apps, like sideloading; support for third-party payments; support for links to developers’ websites from apps; and more.
The recommendations, however, are just that — ideas, not policy. The report only helps to solidify and clarify the Biden administration’s position on app store competition. As the report points out, “Congress should enact laws” and “relevant agencies should consider measures” to limit anticompetitive conduct.
The Biden administration, so far, has seen mixed success in actually holding tech giants accountable. On the one hand, the Department of Justice is now suing Google over its digital ad monopoly, while on the other, Meta is winning against the FTC to move forward with its latest acquisition. The DoJ has yet to sue Apple, though it has been building a case and weighing in on Epic Games’ antitrust lawsuit. In the meantime, record lobbying spending from tech giants, including Apple and Google, has helped to block bipartisan bills that would curb anti-competitive behavior from advancing in Congress.
Image Credits: Damus
Twitter has another competitor, with this week’s arrival of Damus, a decentralized social networking application that’s powered by an open and decentralized social networking protocol known as Nostr, which is based on cryptographic key pairs.
Last year, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey donated around $245,000 in bitcoin (then roughly 14 BTC) to fund the development of Nostr even though he’s already investing in a different decentralized protocol with his Bluesky project.
Though there are some venture-backed Twitter rivals coming onto the scene, like Spill, T2 and Post, Damus is not one of them. It’s an experiment in decentralized social networking. The app’s promise is a social network without a central authority that makes decisions about the network’s content or who’s allowed to participate, as Facebook or Twitter do. Explains the app’s homepage, “you are in control…there is no platform that can ban or censor you. You are in control of your data,” it reads.
There’s no requirement to sign up with a phone number, email or name because of how the Nostr works. That’s a big point of differentiation with the federated platform, Mastodon, where a user’s account is attached to a particular server and admins have some control over their server’s registered users. That means issues with the Mastodon server you’re using — like an outage — could impact your ability to use the network. And you could risk losing data if that shutdown was sudden or permanent.
The new app also includes end-to-end encrypted messaging — something Twitter does not have, and which has concerned users in the wake of the Musk takeover. Messages are distributed through decentralized relays — in fact, the name Nostr is an acronym for “Notes and Other Stuff Transmitted by Relays.” And users can tip one another thanks to Bitcoin Lightning Network integrations.
Damus, another decentralized social networking app, arrives to take on Twitter
The decentralization and promise of anonymity brought a flood of Chinese users to the app at launch, as typical social networks in China have censorship tools to eliminate content that’s illegal or banned in the country. Plus, anonymity is not allowed. Not surprisingly, China’s government soon took action on Damus and the iOS app was pulled from the App Store in China just two days after its launch.
Image Credits: Emmanuel Dunand / AFP / Getty Images
Spotify’s third-party billing option has now reached over 140 global markets
Image Credits: Waverly Labs
TechCrunch’s Ivan Mehta took a look at Forum, a new app from Waverly Labs, the company behind wearables focused on translation. With Forum, users can translate and transcribe audio in real time across 20 languages and 42 dialects, including Arabic, Dutch, English, Hindi, German, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese and Spanish. Users can switch to a new language in the middle of a session to get both a text and audio translation. The app also works with video calling apps like Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Meet.
Image Credits: Rewind
A new app called Rewind wants to make it easier for music fans to explore the top songs of decades past. Hoping to cater to consumer demand for nostalgic music experiences, Rewind allows users to “time travel” through the music charts from 1960 through 2010 to learn about how older songs have influenced today’s hits. Users can explore the music from a given year by top albums and top music videos, in addition to growing the top Billboard charts. It also delves into relevant trends from a given time period — like 1991’s selection of “grunge-defining records.”
Other sections present tracks that saw major radio airtime that year, highly anticipated releases and newly formed bands that emerged that year, and so on. A TikTok-like feed lets you swipe through the year’s top songs quickly.
There’s also a “news” section that includes major events and moments from the year, and “ads” that give the app a retro feel. For example, in 1965, listeners will see ads for the first distortion guitar pedal while users browsing the 1980s might see ads for new synth instruments that helped shape 80s sounds. The app, a side project from a TIDAL developer, integrates only with TIDAL for now. Everyone else can hear 30-second song clips.