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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.

Headlines

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


TechCrunch

Facebook added a correction notice to a post by a fringe news site that Singapore’s government said contained false information. It’s the first time the government has tried to enforce a new law against ‘fake news’ outside its borders.

The post by fringe news site States Times Review (STR), contained “scurrilous accusations” according to the Singapore government.

The States Times Review post contained accusations about the arrest of an alleged whistleblower and election-rigging.

Singapore authorities had previously ordered STR editor Alex Tan to correct the post but the Australian citizen said he would “not comply with any order from a foreign government”.

Mr Tan, who was born in Singapore, said he was an Australian citizen living in Australia and was not subject to the law. In a follow-up post, he said he would “defy and resist every unjust law”. He also posted the article on Twitter, LinkedIn and Google Docs and challenged the government to order corrections there as well.

On the note Facebook said it “is legally required to tell you that the Singapore government says this post has false information”. They then embedded the note at the bottom of the original post, which was not altered. Only social media users in Singapore could see the note.

In a statement, Facebook said it had applied the label as required under the “fake news” law. The law, known as the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation bill, came into effect in October.

According to Facebook’s “transparency report” it often blocks content that governments allege violate local laws, with nearly 18,000 cases globally in the year to June.

Facebook — which has its Asia headquarters in Singapore — said it hoped assurances that the law would not impact on free expression “will lead to a measured and transparent approach to implementation”.

Anyone who breaks the law could be fined heavily and face a prison sentence of up to five years. The law also bans the use of fake accounts or bots to spread fake news, with penalties of up to S$ 1m (£563,000, $ 733,700) and a jail term of up to 10 years.

Critics say the law’s reach could jeopardize freedom of expression both in the city-state and outside its borders.


TechCrunch

Are we really doing this again? After the pivot to video. After Instant Articles. After news was deleted from the News Feed. Once more, Facebook dangles extra traffic, and journalism outlets leap through its hoop and into its cage.

Tomorrow, Facebook will unveil its News tab. About 200 publishers are already aboard including the Wall Street Journal and BuzzFeed News, and some will be paid. None seem to have learned the lesson of platform risk.

facebook newspaper dollars

When you build on someone else’s land, don’t be surprised when you’re bulldozed. And really, given Facebook’s flawless track record of pulling the rug out from under publishers, no one should be surprised.

I could just re-run my 2015 piece on how “Facebook is turning publishers into ghost writers,” merely dumb content in its smart pipe. Or my 2018 piece on “how Facebook stole the news business” by retraining readers to abandon publishers’ sites and rely on its algorithmic feed.

Chronicling Facebook’s abuse of publishers

Let’s take a stroll back through time and check out Facebook’s past flip-flops on news that hurt everyone else:

-In 2007 before Facebook even got into news, it launches a developer platform with tons of free virality, leading to the build-up of companies like Zynga. Once that spam started drowning the News Feed, Facebook cut it and Zynga off, then largely abandoned gaming for half a decade as the company went mobile. Zynga never fully recovered.

-In 2011, Facebook launches the open graph platform with Social Reader apps that auto-share to friends what news articles you’re reading. Publishers like The Guardian and Washington Post race to build these apps and score viral traffic. But in 2012, Facebook changes the feed post design and prominence of social reader apps, they lost most of their users, those and other outlets shut down their apps, and Facebook largely abandons the platform

guardian social reader dau done done done 1

-In 2015, Facebook launches Instant Articles, hosting news content inside its app to make it load faster. But heavy-handed rules restricting advertising, subscription signup boxes, and recirculation modules lead publishers to get little out of Instant Articles. By late 2017, many publishers had largely abandoned the feature.

Facebook Instant Articles Usage

Decline of Instant Article use, via Columbia Journalism Review

-Also in 2015, Facebook started discussing “the shift to video,” citing 1 billion video views per day. As the News Feed algorithm prioritized video and daily views climbed to 8 billion within the year, newsrooms shifted headcount and resources from text to video. But a lawsuit later revealed Facebook already knew it was inflating view metrics by 150% to 900%. By the end of 2017 it had downranked viral videos, eliminated 50 million hours per day of viewing (over 2 minutes per user), and later pulled back on paying publishers for Live video as it largely abandoned publisher videos in favor of friend content.

-In 2018, Facebook announced it would decrease the presence of news in the News Feed from 5% to 4% while prioritizing friends and family content. Referral shrank sharply, with Google overtaking it as the top referrer, while some outlets were hit hard like Slate which lost 87% of traffic from Facebook. You’d understand if some publishers felt…largely abandoned.

Slate Facebook Referral Traffic

Facebook referral traffic to slate plummeted 87% after a strategy change prioritized friends and family content over news

Are you sensing a trend? 📉

Facebook typically defends the whiplash caused by its strategic about-faces by claiming it does what’s best for users, follows data on what they want, and tries to protect them. What it leaves out is how the rest of the stakeholders are prioritized.

Aggregated to death

I used to think of Facebook as being in a bizarre love quadrangle with its users, developers and advertisers. But increasingly it feels like the company is in an abusive love/hate relationship with users, catering to their attention while exploiting their privacy. Meanwhile, it dominates the advertisers thanks to its duopoly with Google that lets it survive metrics errors, and the developers as it alters their access and reach depending on if it needs their users or is backpedaling after a data fiasco.

Only recently after severe backlash does society seem to be getting any of Facebook’s affection. And perhaps even lower in the hierarchy would be news publishers. They’re not a huge chunk of Facebook’s content or, therefore, its revenue, they’re not part of the friends and family graph at the foundation of the social network, and given how hard the press goes on Facebook relative to Apple and Google, it’s hard to see that relationship getting much worse than it already is.

how news feed works copy 2

That’s not to say Facebook doesn’t philosophically care about news. It invests in its Journalism Project hand-outs, literacy and its local news feature Today In. Facebook has worked diligently in the wake of Instant Article backlash to help publishers build out paywalls. Given how centrally it’s featured, Facebook’s team surely reads plenty of it. And supporting the sector could win it some kudos between scandals.

But what’s not central to Facebook’s survival will never be central to its strategy. News is not going to pay the bills, and it probably won’t cause a major change in its hallowed growth rate. Remember that Twitter, which hinges much more on news, is 1/23rd of Facebook’s market cap.

So hopefully at this point we’ve established that Facebook is not an ally of news publishers.

At best it’s a fickle fair-weather friend. And even paying out millions of dollars, which can sound like a lot in journalism land, is a tiny fraction of the $ 22 billion in profit it earned in 2018.

Whatever Facebook offers publishers is conditional. It’s unlikely to pay subsidies forever if the News tab doesn’t become sustainable. For newsrooms, changing game plans or reallocating resources means putting faith in Facebook it hasn’t earned.

What should publishers do? Constantly double-down on the concept of owned audience.

They should court direct traffic to their sites where they have the flexibility to point users to subscriptions or newsletters or podcasts or original reporting that’s satisfying even if it’s not as sexy in a feed.

Meet users where they are, but pull them back to where you live. Build an app users download or get them to bookmark the publisher across their devices. Develop alternative revenue sources to traffic-focused ads, such as subscriptions, events, merchandise, data and research. Pay to retain and recruit top talent with differentiated voices.

What scoops, opinions, analysis, and media can’t be ripped off or reblogged? Make that. What will stand out when stories from every outlet are stacked atop each other? Because apparently that’s the future. Don’t become generic dumb content fed through someone else’s smart pipe.

Ben Thompson Stratechery Aggregation Theory

As Ben Thompson of Stratechery has proselytized, Facebook is the aggregator to which the spoils of attention and advertisers accrue as they’re sucked out of the aggregated content suppliers. To the aggregator, the suppliers are interchangeable and disposable. Publishers are essentially ghostwriters for the Facebook News destination. Becoming dependent upon the aggregator means forfeiting control of your destiny.

Surely, experimenting to become the breakout star of the News tab could pay dividends. Publishers can take what it offers if that doesn’t require uprooting their process. But with everything subject to Facebook’s shifting attitudes, it will be like publishers trying to play bocce during an earthquake.

[Featured Image: Russell Werges]


TechCrunch

A pair of digital news companies are teaming up, with PressReader acquiring News360.

PressReader was founded back in 1999 as Newspaper Direct. It now operates a platform that converts newspapers and magazines into digital formats, while offering a $ 29.99 monthly subscription that provides unlimited access to more than 7,000 of those titles.

News360, meanwhile, is relatively youthful, having been founded in 2010. It’s also created a news aggregation app, but the announcement makes it sound like PressReader was particularly interested in the company’s NativeAI technology for analytics and personalization.

In a statement, PressReader CEO Alex Kroogman suggested that News360’s technology will be used to improve PressReader’s consumer experience and publisher tools:

In a world where news fatigue is a real and growing problem, and media literacy a global concern, it’s more important than ever for people to have access to the trusted content they need in an engaging environment. By understanding each person’s interests, and building advanced data science systems around content analytics, we will be able to give our millions of readers the trusted media they want, how they want it, when they want it, and where they want it, while building more audience intelligence into the data that drives our publisher and brand partnerships.

The News360 team will be joining PressReader and working out of the acquiring company’s Vancouver headquarters.

News360 CEO Roman Karachinsky told me via email that the combined company will continue to support the News360 app and “develop it alongside the PressReader apps,” but he added, “In the short-term[,] the team will be focused on adding News360 tech into PressReader, so I wouldn’t expect big changes to the News360 app until we’re done with this.”

The financial terms of the acquisition were not disclosed. According to Crunchbase, News360 has raised a total of $ 7.5 million from investors including Ordell Capital.


TechCrunch

A $ 28 million financing has made SmartNews, an AI-powered news aggregation app, a unicorn.

Japan Post Capital has led the Series E round, which brings the company’s total investment to $ 116 million and pushes its valuation to $ 1.1 billion. Existing investors in SmartNews include Development Bank of Japan, SMBC Venture Capital and Japan Co-Invest L.P.

The company, founded in Tokyo in 2012, boasts 20 million monthly active users in the U.S. and Japan. Growing at a rate of 500% per year, its audience checks into the app for a mix of political, sports, global and entertainment news curated for each individual reader. To make money, the company sells inline advertising, video ads and deals with publishers to sell ads against “SmartViews,” its equivalent of Google’s AMP or Facebook’s Instant Articles

SmartNews has nearly 400 U.S. publishing partners including The Associated Press and Bloomberg. It competes with the likes of Apple, which unveiled Apple News + earlier this year, a subscription news product that offers access to more than 300 magazines and newspapers for $ 9.99 per month.

SmartNews says it will use the infusion of capital to expand its global footprint.

“We are very pleased with our strong progress in the United States,” SmartNews co-founder and chief executive officer Ken Suzuki said in a statement. “We will continue to share our vision of informed, balanced media consumption with our current and future users in the U.S. and all over the world.”


TechCrunch

The Google News tab is getting a makeover. Google announced this week, by way of a tweet, a significant redesign of the Google.com News tab on the desktop, which will organize articles in a card-style layout, while also better emphasizing publisher names. The end result makes Google News more aesthetically pleasing, but it comes at the expense of information density.

To be clear, the changes here are focused on the News tab of Google.com — not the dedicated Google News product at news.google.com. You land on the News tab when you search for a term on Google.com, and then click over to “News” to see the latest coverage instead of Google’s list of search results.

As the preview of the redesign shows, news articles are currently organized in a compact list of links, allowing you to see several headlines around a single topic with just a glance. This design, admittedly, is a bit old-school — but it works.

Within the stack of links, the headline is blue, the publisher is green, and the articles are labeled as “In-depth” or “Opinion,” when relevant. There are small photo thumbnails by the lead story, with other publishers’ links underneath appearing as only text.

Screen Shot 2019 07 12 at 11.16.03 AM

 

The updated design is more readable as articles are spaced out and placed in cards, similar to the main Google News product. There’s more white space and longer previews of each story, as well.

But the change means you’re seeing far fewer results on the screen before you have to scroll down.

 

The updated News tab makes it more obvious where the news is coming from, because publishers’ names are given more prominence. They also get their logo next to the headline, so it’s easier to identify your favorite news outlets with a glance. This is reminiscent of the recent mobile redesign for Google Search, which also put increased attention on the publishers by featuring them at the top of a link alongside their logo.

In addition to providing you with a set of News search results, the redesigned tab includes a new carousel labeled “People also searched for” that points you to other relevant news based on your search query.

Not everyone is thrilled about the update, given it makes it more difficult to quickly scan a number of headlines at once. And because there are fewer publishers’ articles on the first screen, traffic to those “below the fold” will likely drop.

Google says the changes will roll out over the next couple of weeks.


TechCrunch

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