Black Friday’s boost, security news and the year’s biggest apps – TechCrunch

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. What are developers talking about? What do app publishers and marketers need to know? How are politics impacting the App Store and app businesses? And which apps are everyone using?

This week we look at how the Black Friday weekend played out on mobile (including which non-shopping category that saw a boost in revenue!), as well as a few security-related stories, TikTok’s latest bad press, plus Apple and Google’s best and most downloaded apps of 2019, and more.

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80% of Android apps are encrypting traffic by default

Google gave an update on Android security this week, noting that 80% of Android applications were encrypting traffic by default, and that percentage was higher for apps targeting Android 9 or higher, with 90% of them encrypting traffic by default. Android protects the traffic entering or leaving the devices with TLS (Transport Layer Security). Its new statistics are related to Android 7’s introduction of the Network Security Configuration in 2016, which allows app developers to configure the network security policy for their app through a declarative configuration file. Apps targeting Android 9 (API level 28) or higher automatically have a policy set by default that prevents unencrypted traffic for every domain. And since Nov. 1, 2019, all apps (including app updates) must target at least Android 9, Google says. That means the percentages will improve as more apps roll out their next updates.

Black Friday boosted mobile game revenue to a record $70M

U.S. sales holiday Black Friday wasn’t just good for online shoppers, who spent a record $7.4 billion in sales, $2.9 billion from smartphones. It also boosted iOS and Android mobile game revenue to a single-day record of $69.7 million in the U.S., according to Sensor Tower. This was the most revenue ever generated in a single day for the category, and it represents a 25% increase over 2018. Marvel Contest of Champions from Kabam led the day with approximately $2.7 million in player spending. Two titles from Playrix — Gardenscapes and Homescapes — also won big, with $1 million and $969,000 in revenue, respectively.

These increases indicate that consumers are looking for all kinds of deals on Black Friday, not just those related to holiday gift-giving. They’re also happy to spend on themselves in games. Mobile publishers caught on to this trend and offered special in-game deals on Black Friday which really paid off.

Did Walmart beat Amazon’s app on Black Friday?

Sensor Tower and Apptopia said it did. App Annie also said it did, but then later took it back (see update). In any event, it must have been a close race. According to Sensor Tower, Walmart’s app reached No.1 on the U.S. App Store on Black Friday with 113,000 new downloads, a year-over-year increase of 23%. Amazon had 102,000 downloads, making it No. 2.

Arguably, many Amazon shoppers already have the app installed, so this is more about Walmart’s e-commerce growth more so than some ding on Amazon.

In fact, Apptopia said that Amazon still had 162% more mobile sessions over the full holiday weekend — meaning Amazon was more shopped than Walmart.

More broadly, mobile shopping is still huge on Black Friday. The top 10 shopping apps grew their new installs by 11% over last year on Black Friday, to reach a combined 527,000 installs.

Report: Android Advanced Protection Program could prevent sideloading

Google’s Advanced Protection Program protects the accounts of those at risks of targeted attacks — like journalists, activists, business leaders, and political campaign teams. This week, 9to5Google found the program may get a new protection feature with the ability to block sideloading of apps, according to an APK breakdown. What’s not yet clear is if program members will have the option to disable the protection, but there are some indications that may be the case. Another feature the report uncovered appears to show that Play Protect will automatically scan all apps, including those from outside the Play Store. This won’t affect the majority of Android users, of course, but it is an indication of where Google believes security risks may be found: sideloaded apps.

Bug hunter suggests Security.plist standard for apps

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Google’s AI-powered voice recorder and transcription app comes to older Pixel phones – TechCrunch

Google’s AI-powered voice recorder app introduced at Google’s October hardware event was one of the company’s more impressive demos. The new app taps into advances in AI, speech processing and speech recognition in order to automatically transcribe a voice recording with few mistakes, in real time as the person is speaking. Unfortunately, Google’s Recorder app was locked to Pixel 4 devices at launch. That has now changed.

As first spotted by Android Police, the Recorder app is available to Android users with older Pixel devices, including Pixel 2, Pixel 3 and Pixel 3a. The updated support was added to the app today, Sensor Tower also confirmed. But the lack of publicity around the launch has led it to see fewer than 1,000 downloads so far.

voice recorder

Google had previously announced its intention to make the app more widely available. In a recent Reddit thread, a company representative said the app would become available to more Pixel users in the future via a software update. They didn’t say when that update would arrive, though.

While there are many voice recorder apps on today’s market, there are few that offer real-time transcriptions. And of those that do — like Otter.ai, for example — the resulting text is often half-garbled. While these services can still be useful as a way to quickly find a section of a recording to then play back and manually transcribe, the lack of accuracy can limit adoption.

Google’s Recorder app was demonstrated at Google’s fall event as capable of taking a far more accurate transcription. Of course, the app was being not put to real-world use at the time — with different types of voices, accents  and background noise, it may not be as accurate. In addition, the app lacks the ability to identify and label different speakers, which could make it more difficult to use in situations like meetings or interviews.

That being said, the app held up well in initial tests in a review by The Wall St. Journal’s Joanna Stern, though it stumbled with accents. Other reviewers found the app to be fairly powerful, too, if a little basic in its overall design. TechCrunch’s review said the transcription was pretty good, but noted also it lacked some features other apps have.

pixel voice recorder

However, Recorder does have an advantage over some of its rivals: it doesn’t require an internet connection to work. Instead, all the recording and transcription capabilities take place directly on the device. That means you could even use the app while in airplane mode.

In addition, a built-in advanced search feature lets you search for sounds, words and phrases and then see a visual depiction of where the search term was spoken in the playback bar so you can go to the recording you need.

Google has put its real-time speech transcription technology to work in a number of ways, besides Recorder. It also introduced live caption technology for Android devices, for example, which brings transcriptions to things like video or audio saved on your device, or video playback outside of YouTube.

The Recorder app is a free download on Google Play.

We’ve reached out to Google for any update on its plans to make Recorder more broadly available across Android . The company hasn’t responded to our questions at this time.

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Android’s ‘Focus Mode’ exits beta, adds new scheduling features – TechCrunch

Google is expanding its suite of “Digital Wellbeing” tools for Android devices with a new feature, Focus Mode, launching today. This feature allows users to turn off distractions — like social media updates or email notifications — for a period of time, so you can get things done without interruption. Focus Mode was first announced at Google’s I/O developer conference this May, and has been in beta testing until now, Google says.

Unlike Do Not Disturb, which can mute sounds, stop vibrations and block visual disturbances, Focus Mode is only about silencing specific apps.

Within the Digital Wellbeing settings, users select which apps they find most distracting — like Facebook, YouTube, Gmail, games or anything else that tends to steal their attention. These apps can be paused temporarily, which stops those apps’ notifications. Plus, if you try to open the app, Focus Mode reminds you they’re paused.

During beta testing, Google said tester feedback led to the creation of a new enhancement for Focus Mode: the ability to set a schedule for your app breaks. This allows you to continually block app notifications for the days and times you choose — like your 9 AM to 5 PM working hours, for example.

There’s also a new option to take a break from Focus Mode, which allows you to use the blocked apps for a time, then return to Focus Mode without entirely disabling it to do so. In addition, if you finish your work or other tasks early one day, you can now turn off Focus Mode for that day without breaking its ongoing weekly schedule.

The Focus Mode feature is one of now many investments Google has made into its comprehensive Digital Wellbeing feature set, which was originally introduced at Google I/O 2018 but initially only on Pixel devices. Since then, Google has expanded access to Digital Wellbeing features and further integrated its features — including parent control app Family Link — into the Android OS.

It has also developed digital well-being apps outside of its core Digital Wellbeing product, with October’s launch of a handful of well-being experiments. This set of apps included a notification mailbox, unlock clock and even an easy way to print important information from your phone so you don’t have to keep checking your device throughout the day, among other things.

Elsewhere across Google’s product line it has developed settings and controls devoted to well-being, like YouTube’s reminders to “take a break,” automations for Gmail, downtime settings for Google Home and more.

Google says the new version of Focus Mode exits beta testing today and is rolling out to all devices that support Digital Wellbeing and parental controls, including Android 9 and 10 phones.

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Finally, an official Craigslist app – TechCrunch

Fancy websites and services come and go, but Craigslist endures. And now one of its main shortcomings is fixed: there’s an official app. Currently available for iOS and in beta for Android, the app provides a true-to-form Craigslist experience: useful, unfussy and anonymous.

There isn’t much to say about the app beyond that it faithfully replicates the website, down to the color scheme. All categories of posts are available to browse or search; you can favorite things, save searches and change the way results look. Different categories have their pertinent settings, so when you look for a car you’ll get odometer, model year and so on the way you do on the site.

No account is required at all to browse listings or contact sellers, and conveniently all their contact info pops up easily, letting you email, text or call as desired.

Obviously the web app is still perfectly serviceable, and some may even prefer it. But it’s nice to have a native app, if only to deter the imitation Craigslist apps that piggyback on the popularity of the original no-frills listings.

The app was released yesterday and is already climbing the charts. Grab it today and start looking for free furniture!

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Xiaomi launches app to offer credit to millennials in India – TechCrunch

Xiaomi, the top smartphone vendor in India, today joined a growing wave of fintech startups in the nation that are offering credit to aspirational young professionals and millennials.

The Chinese electronics giant said today it is launching Mi Credit, its curated marketplace for digital lending, that offers users credit between Rs 5,000 ($70) and Rs 100,000 ($1,400).

Xiaomi said it has partnered with a number of startups such as Bangalore-based ZestMoney, CreditVidya, Money View, Aditya Birla Finance Limited, and EarlySalary to determine who should get a credit and then finance it.

Users are required to let Mi Credit app access their texts and call logs to look for transactional information and some other details to assess whether they are credit worthy. This whole process takes just a few minutes and eligible users can walk out with some credit, said Manu Jain, Vice President of Xiaomi, at a conference in New Delhi.

He added that having multiple partners for the crediting platform ensures that the likeliness of a user securing a loan is high. Once a user has secured a credit from the app, they can avail more credit in the future with a single click, the company said.

For startups that have partnered with Xiaomi, the big draw is access to a large user base, an executive with one of the partner startups told TechCrunch.

Xiaomi, which has been the top smartphone vendor in India for nine consecutive quarters, has an install base in tens of millions in the country. The company has shipped more than 100 million smartphones in the country, it recently revealed.

Xiaomi said the Mi Credit app will be preinstalled on all Xiaomi smartphones running Android -based MIUI operating system. The app is also available for non-Xiaomi Android smartphone users from the Google Play Store. (It’s not available for iPhone users.)

A wave of fintech firms have emerged in recent years in India to help millions of users secure credit and other financial services for the first time in their lives. The penetration of credit card remains very low in the country (roughly three in 100 people in India have a credit card.) This has meant that very few people in the nation have a traditional credit score.

This void has created an immense opportunity for startups to explore a range of other data points to determine who should get a loan. In emerging markets such as India, where the laws are lax, nobody appears to be alarmed with the idea of a company gleaning a lot of personal details.

As of today, Mi Credit is available to users in 1,500 zip codes, or 10 states in India. The company said it plans to extend the credit service to all of India by March next year.

Partner startups involved declined to comment on the financial arrangement they have with Xiaomi. The aforementioned unnamed executive said the agreement would vary with partners and the kind of product they are bringing to the table.

Xiaomi said it has deeply integrated its partners’ offerings into the app. As a result, users are able to see details such as disbursement of loans, lower interest, and credit score in real time.

The company began testing the app with some users in India last month. During the trial, it disbursed loans of over 280 million Indian rupees ($3.9 million).

For Xiaomi, the new offering would help it make its services ecosystem more engaging to consumers. The company, which recently posted one of its slowest growing quarterly reports, has been attempting to cut its reliance on hardware products and make more money off its internet services and through ads.

In March this year, Xiaomi launched Mi Pay, a UPI-powered payments app, in India. The company said the app has already amassed over 20 million registered users in the country.

Hong Feng, co-founder and senior vice president of Xiaomi, said the company understands the consumption behaviour of its 300 million users. “It is one of the strengths we aim to leverage to build a stronger Mi Finance business globally. We see a huge opportunity for consumer lending in India with estimations reaching up to $1 trillion dollars in digital lending by 2023, as per a report from BCG. This makes us believe that our Mi Finance business, based on solutions such as Mi Pay and Mi Credit can truly revolutionise the Indian FinTech industry.”

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Perlego raises $9M Series A for its textbook subscription service – TechCrunch

Perlego, the textbook subscription service, has raised $9 million in Series A funding.

Backing the round is Charlie Songhurst, Dedicated VC, and Thomas Leysen (Chairman of Mediahuis and Umicore). Perlego’s existing investors including ADV, Simon Franks and Alex Chesterman also reinvested on a pro-rata basis.

London-based Perlego says the additional funding will be used to develop the next generation of Perlego’s “smarter learning platform,” including adding new features that simplify and enhance the learning experience, as well as content libraries in non-English languages to enable further expansion to “strategic” European markets beyond its U.K. roots.

Pitched as akin to a “Spotify for textbooks,” Perlego enables students, and also professionals, who now make up 30% of users, to access textbooks on a subscription basis.

It houses over 300,000 eBooks, from over 2,300 publishers, and the service is cross-device — via the web and iOS and Android apps — and available in multiple languages. Along with U.K. publishers, Perlego now also includes content from key publishers in Germany, the Nordics and Italy.

For the students, the draw is obvious: text books are increasingly expensive to purchase, and public libraries are under resourced. In the U.K., Perlego gives readers access to its entire digital library for £12 per month. As long as the needed text books are available on the service, that is infinitely more affordable.

For publishers, Perlego claims to offer a distribution method that stems revenue losses caused by piracy and the buoyant used text book market — hence the comparison to Spotify’s positioning.

Publishers such as Pearson, Wiley and Sage are already on board, Perlego says it is seeing a 116% increase in new subscribers month-on-month, though it isn’t breaking out subscriber numbers.

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Amazon makes its music streaming service free with ads – TechCrunch

Amazon is making its music streaming service free. The company previously offered free, ad-supported streaming only to customers who owned an Amazon Echo device. Now it’s rolling out free streaming to anyone using the Amazon Music app on iOS, Android, Fire TV and Amazon Music on the web in the U.S., U.K., and Germany.

The company has been steadily making its music streaming service more accessible by reducing prices. Earlier this year, for example, Amazon said it would no longer charge the $3.99 per month for streaming from Amazon Music Unlimited to Echo devices or require customers to pay for Amazon Prime in order to gain access to Prime Music’s smaller, 2+ million song catalog. Instead, it rolled out an ad-supported version of Amazon Music for free to Echo owners.

This is basically the same 2 million song catalog that comes with Prime Music, it just includes advertising and doesn’t require Prime membership.

Now, it’s making Amazon Music free for anyone — Echo owner or not — across a range of devices. This will allow users to play thousands of stations based on any song, artist, era, or genre, similar to Pandora . They’ll also gain access to top playlists, like “All Hits” featuring the world’s top songs, or the “Holiday Favorites” station, among others.

The move doesn’t really threaten paid subscription services like Spotify or Pandora’s premium tier or Apple Music, as Amazon’s free service has a much smaller catalog. It’s also not nearly as advanced in terms of its personalization technology, which powers things like Spotify’s Discover Weekly and other custom playlists. These are a big draw for music fans, and a reason they opt for one streaming service over another.

Instead, Amazon’s free music service serves more as a way to upsell consumers by encouraging them to join Amazon Prime in order to remove the ads from their music. (Prime Music’s 2 million songs are an added perk of a Prime subscription.) This is Amazon’s true motive: lock in more customers to Amazon Prime, ensure they realize the value of the free shipping and other benefits, then get them to renew every year. Once a Prime member, people will shop more often from Amazon, which is where the retailer’s profits lie.

The free music service also serves as an entry point into Amazon’s wider music ecosystem. If customers decide they want a larger, ad-free catalog, they can up to join Amazon Music Unlimited instead, which offers 50 million songs at $7.99 per month for Prime members, or $9.99 per month for others. And true audiophiles can upgrade to Amazon Music HD for $12.99 per month for Prime members, or $14.99 per month for non-members.

For the time being, Amazon is offering 4 months of Amazon Music Unlimited for $0.99.

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Xiaomi’s Q3 earnings report shows slowing growth – TechCrunch

Xiaomi, the world’s fourth largest smartphone vendor, on Wednesday shared its earnings figures for the quarter that ended in September. While the results fell largely in line with analysts’ expectations, a drastic drop in the company’s growth underscores some of the struggles that handset makers are facing as they shift to services to make up for dwindling smartphone purchases globally.

The Chinese electronics firm posted Q3 revenue of 53.7 billion yuan, or $7.65 billion, up 3.3% from 51.95 billion yuan ($7.39 billion) revenue it reported in Q2 and 5.5% rise since Q3 2018.

This is largely in line with analysts’ estimated revenue of 53.74 billion yuan, per Refinitiv figures, but growth is slowing. As a point of comparison, in Q2, Xiaomi reported QoQ growth of 18.7% and YoY of 14.8%.

Xiaomi said its adjusted profit in the aforementioned quarter was 3.5 billion yuan ($500 million), up from about 2.5 billion yuan a year ago. Gross profit during the period was 8.2 billion yuan ($1.17 billion), up 25.2% year-over-year.

The company said its smartphone business revenue during Q3 stood at 32.3 billion yuan ($4.6 billion), down 7.8% year-over-year. The company, which shipped 32.1 million smartphone units during the period, blamed “downturn” in China’s smartphone market for the decline.

Marketing research firm Canalys reported this month that China’s smartphone market shrank by 3% during Q3. Despite the slowdown, Xiaomi said its gross profit margin of smartphones segment had reached 9% — up from 8.1% and 3.3% in the previous quarters.

Other than Huawei, which leads the handsets market in China, every other smartphone vendor has suffered a drop in their shipment volumes in the country, according to research firm Counterpoint.

But for Xiaomi, this should technically not be a problem. Long before the company listed publicly last year, it has been boasting about its business model: how it makes little money from hardware and more and more from delivering ads and selling internet services.

That internet services business is not growing fast enough, however, to be an engine for the overall company. It grew by 12.3% year-on-year to 5.3 billion yuan ($750 million) and 15% since last quarter. Either way, it accounts for only a fraction of smartphone business’ contribution to the bottomline.

Furthermore, parts of that business are facing some other challenges: Advertisement revenue has been falling for more than two consecutive quarters, the company says.

Xiaomi said two years ago that it will only ever make 5% profit from its hardware, something its executives told TechCrunch has been engraved in the company’s “constitution.” But the slow shift to making money off of internet services, while making less money from selling hardware, is one of the chief reasons why the company had an underwhelming IPO.

Meanwhile, the user base of Xiaomi’s Android -based MIUI software is growing. It had 292 million monthly active users as of September this year, up from 278.7 in June.

In more promising signs, Xiaomi said its smart TV and Mi Box platforms had more than 3.2 million paid subscribers and revenue from its fintech business, a territory it entered only in recent quarters, had already reached 1 billion yuan ($140 million).

But it’s hardware that continues to make up the biggest proportion of its revenues. The company, which is increasingly moving its gadgets and services beyond Chinese shores, said revenue from its international business grew 17.2 year-over-year to 26.1 billion yuan ($3.7 billion) in the third quarter — accounting for 48.7% of total revenue.

Much of Xiaomi’s international success could be attributed to its dominance in India, the world’s second largest smartphone market. For last nine consecutive quarters, Xiaomi has been the top smartphone vendor in India, one of the rare markets where the appetite for handsets continues to grow. Of the 32 million smartphone units the company shipped in Q3, more than 12 million of those arrived in India, according to Counterpoint.

In a statement, Xiaomi founder and chairman Lei Jun said the company is hopeful that it will be able to further grow its revenues when 5G devices start to get traction. The company has plans to launch at least 10 5G-enabled smartphone models next year, he said. No word from him on what the company intends to do about its services ecosystem.

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Facebook Viewpoints pays users for well-being surveys & tasks – TechCrunch

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.

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Android’s Ambient Mode will soon come to ‘select devices’ – TechCrunch

You’ve probably heard murmurs about Google’s forthcoming Ambient Mode for Android . The company first announced this feature, which essentially turns an Android device into a smart display while it’s charging, in September. Now, in a Twitter post, Google confirmed that it will launch soon, starting with a number of select devices that run Android 8.0 or later.

At the time, Google said Ambient Mode was coming to the Lenovo Smart Tab M8 HD and Smart Tab tablets, as well as the Nokia 7.2 and 6.2 phones. According to the Verge, it’ll also come to Sony, Nokia, Transsion and Xiaomi phones, though Google’s own Pixels aren’t on the company’s list yet.

“The ultimate goal for proactive Assistant is to help you get things done faster, anticipate your needs and accomplish your tasks as quickly and as easily as possible,” said Google Assistant product manager Arvind Chandrababu in the announcement. “It’s fundamentally about moving from an app-based way of doing things to an intent-based way of doing things. Right now, users can do most things with their smartphones, but it requires quite a bit of mental bandwidth to figure out, hey, I need to accomplish this task, so let me backtrack and figure out all the steps that I need to do in order to get there.”

Those are pretty lofty goals. In practice, what this means, for now, is that you will be able to set an alarm with just a few taps from the ambient screen, see your upcoming appointments, turn off your connected lights and see a slideshow of your images in the background. I don’t think that any of those tasks really consumed a lot of mental bandwidth in the first place, but Google says it has more proactive experiences planned for the future.

 

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