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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.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion downloads in 2019 and $ 120 billion in consumer spending in 2019, according to App Annie’s recently released “State of Mobile” annual report. People are now spending 3 hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $ 544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

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

This week we look at the sad, strange death of HQ Trivia, spying app ToTok getting booted from Google Play (again!), Android 11, an enticing Apple rumor about opening up iOS further to third-party apps, Google Stadia updates, the App Store book Apple wants banned, apps abusing subscriptions and much more.

Headlines

HQ Trivia burns to the ground

hq trivia app 1

Once-hot HQ Trivia believed it had invented a new kind of online gaming — live trivia played through your phone. Investors threw $ 15 million into the company hoping that was true. But the novelty wore off, cheaters came in, prize money dwindled and copycats emerged. Then co-founder Colin Kroll passed away and things at HQ Trivia got worse, including a failed internal mutiny, firings and layoffs. This week, HQ Trivia announced its demise. It then hosted one last, insane night of gaming featuring drunken and cursing hosts who sprayed champagne, called out trolls and begged for new jobs. (Sure, because they exited this one so professionally.)


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.

The app industry is as hot as ever with a record 203 billion downloads in 2019 and $ 119 billion in consumer spending, according to preliminary year-end data by App Annie. 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.

This week, we’re back to look at the latest headlines from the app world, including Apple’s record holiday 2019 on the App Store, a look at the staying power of AR hit, Pokémon Go, how the app stores handled a UAE spying tool, stalled Instagram growth in the U.S., and more.


TechCrunch

TypingDNA, a four-year-old startup that was founded in Bucharest, Romania and more recently moved its headquarters to Brooklyn, New York, looks to be raising $ 7 million in funding for something interesting: AI-driven technology that it says can recognize people based on the way they type, both on their laptops and mobile devices.

A new SEC filing that says the company — which graduated from Techstars NYC in late 2018 and early last year closed on €1.3 million in seed funding — has so far raised $ 5.25 million toward that goal.

Typing biometrics — the detailed timing information that describes exactly when each key is pressed and released as way to identify the unique person at the keyboard — is apparently not brand new. A two-year-old, PCWorld article says research in the field dates back 20 years. It also says that inaccuracies have kept the technology from being used as a widespread way to authenticate individuals. TypingDNA meanwhile asserts that the typing pattern recognition technology it has developed has an accuracy rate of between 99% and upwards of 99.9%.

The company’s previous backers include GapMinder Venture Partners, a venture outfit based in Amsterdam. We’ve reached out to cofounder and CEO Raul Popa to learn more, but judging by the filing, the fund backing this new round is Gradient Ventures, which is Google’s nearly three-year-old, AI-focused venture group.

When TypingDNA raised its seed round roughly 11 months ago, it said it planned to use the money to improve its tech and expand its presence in both the financial and enterprise sectors, where it’s been trying to strike partnerships with more companies that are focused on identity and fraud prevention.

According to the startup’s site, it has also been working with educational organizations to help ensure they’re giving the right students credit for the work they receive.


TechCrunch

3D printing has proven itself useful in so many industries that it’s no longer necessary to show off, but some people just can’t help themselves. Case in point: this millimeter-tall rendition of Michelangelo’s famous “David” printed with copper using a newly developed technique.

The aptly named “Tiny David” was created by Exaddon, a spin-off company from another spin-off company, Cytosurge, spun off from Swiss research university ETH Zurich. It’s only a fraction of a millimeter wide and weighs two micrograms.

It was created using Exaddon’s “CERES” 3D printer, which lays down a stream of ionized liquid copper at a rate of as little as femtoliters per second, forming a rigid structure with features as small as a micrometer across. The Tiny David took about 12 hours to print, though something a little simpler in structure could probably be done much quicker.

As it is, the level of detail is pretty amazing. Although obviously you can’t get recreate every nuance of Michaelangelo’s masterpiece, even small textures like the hair and muscle tone are reproduced quite well. No finishing buff or support struts required.

Of course we can create much smaller structures at the nanometer level with advanced lithography techniques, but that’s a complex, sensitive process that must be engineered carefully by experts. This printer can take an arbitrary 3D model and spit it out in a few hours, and at room temperature.

The CERES printer.

But the researchers do point out that there is some work involved.

“It is more than just a copy and downsized model of Michelangelo’s David,” said Exaddon’s Giorgio Ercolano in a company blog post. “Our deep understanding of the printing process has led to a new way of processing the 3D computer model of the statue and then converting it into machine code. This object has been sliced from an open-source CAD file and afterwards was sent directly to the printer. This slicing method enables an entirely new way to print designs with the CERES additive micromanufacturing system.”

Much smaller than that doesn’t work, though — Micro-David starts looking like he’s made of Play-Doh snakes. That’s fine, they’ll get there eventually.

The team published the details of their newly refined technique (it was pioneered a few years ago but is much better now) in the journal Micromachines.


TechCrunch

I’m not a venture capitalist. I don’t play one on TV, either (though I might if anyone asked!). Still, after many years of covering startups, including as an editor with TechCrunch, in a daily newsletter I publish called StrictlyVC, and at numerous media outlets before that (anyone remember the early years of Red Herring magazine?), there have always been startups that stand out a little more than others.

This is not to say that what I find intriguing will be a predictor of success. A lot of great ideas never find a broad or lucrative base customer base. Some perish owing to mismanagement or misadventure(!) or good-old competition. Note, too, that what I’m about to feature is a small sampling of a much broader pool of companies I’d include if I had all the time in the world and you did, too.

I’m also keeping the focus on fairly young companies — they’re mostly only seed-funded at this point — that represent a wide variety of industries and markets and that (with one exception) disclosed their funding in the last couple of months, as did many hundreds of other startups.

What is interesting, and not intentional, is how few of these picks are based in the Bay Area — an amazing region in many ways but also one that’s lost its earlier stranglehold on talent and great ideas.

Herewith, 10 recent standouts, at least to this particular brain.


Xilis. This Durham, North Carolina company just yesterday announced a $ 3 million seed round to continue working on its microfluidic organoid technology. What’s that mean? In this case, the company says its tech creates 10,000 micro tumors from a single cancer biopsy, then tests which cancer treatments will or won’t work for a patient — presumably expediting the time it takes to find the most effective treatment for that person. Can it cure cancer? Who knows, but the company was founded by Duke professors who are medical oncologists. They say that they’re also finding success already in clinical trials. My colleague Jon wrote about the company here.


Terradepth. It’s a 16-month-old, Austin, Tex.-based company that was founded by two ex-Navy SEALs and aims to use autonomous submersible vehicles to provide access to deep-ocean information on a data-as-a-service basis, which I’d guess plenty of industries could use. The company just raised $ 8 million in funding led by Seagate Technology, the hardware company, and it has number of competitors, but I like this idea directionally. Let’s face it —  oceans do cover roughly 70 percent of the Earth’s surface. Darrell wrote about this one earlier this week.


Apostrophe, an eight-year-old, Oakland, Ca.-based dermatology telemedicine startup that makes it easier to receive medications and treatments over the phone, announced $ 6 million in seed funding earlier this month led by SignalFire, with participation from FJ Labs. There are at least half a dozen other telemedicine companies focused on dermatology. I don’t pretend to know which is best. But given that skin is the largest organ we humans have, combined with fact that ultraviolet radiation reaching Earth’s surface has steadily increased in recent decades owing to decreasing levels of stratospheric ozone, enabling people to get examined as quickly and conveniently as possible just makes sense. (By the way, if you’re wondering how Apostrophe specifically makes money, it also has a mail-order pharmacy.) Jordan wrote about Apostrophe here.


Conservation Labs. This one is a 3.5-year-old, Pittsburgh, Pa.-based startup whose tech takes measurements from a building’s pipes, then translates those signals to assess water flow estimates and detect leaks. The company has raised $ 1.7 million in seed funding, including from the Amazon Alexa Fund, and I like that it’s good for the world, good for building owners, and tackling a very big industry. As the company itself is quick to note, there are more than three trillion gallons of water wasted each year in the U.S alone, costing the country $ 70 billion.


Aircam. People are both vain and impatient, two reasons why on a very superficial level, I like this roughly two-year-old, Santa Monica, Ca.-based startup that allows anyone to get instant access to pictures taken by professional photographers at weddings, parties and other events. That its founders are brothers who sold their last company to Apple inspires some confidence, too. So far, the company has raised $ 6.5 million in seed funding led by Upfront Ventures, with participation from Comcast Ventures, and Anthony wrote about it last month.


BuildOps. This is a 1.5-year-old, Santa Monica, Ca.-based maker of a field service and business process software platform for small and mid-size subcontractors working in commercial real estate that has raised $ 5.8 million across two tranches of seed funding, including a round that closed this fall. BuildOps is one of an astonishing number of startups trying to take a bite out of the commercial construction industry, on which hundreds of billions of dollars are spent each year in the U.S. alone. It’s also targeting a segment of the market where there is no go-to player yet. While lots of architects, property owners, and large general contractors are already reliant on different software packages, the small and medium-size contractors and subcontractors who work on buildings typically still operate in distinct silos, and they — along with building owners — could benefit greatly from software that brings together the overall picture so unnecessary missteps, miscommunications, and expenses can be avoided. Jon had covered this one, too.


Medinas is a two-year-old, Berkeley, Ca.-based marketplace for reusable medical equipment, which is right now largely sold directly by equipment companies that largely just list what they’re looking to sell in what seems like an awfully clunky approach. Medina instead works with dozens of medical centers to assess what they have, what they need, and what they need to ditch, then handles all aspects of the sale, from early inventory checks to shipment and reinstallation. It’s a surprisingly big market (almost $ 38 billion, according to one market research group), but I also like that it’s helping developing regions in need of equipment, as Crunchbase News noted when it wrote about the company in October. Think CT scanners sent off to Cambodia, ventilators shipped to India, and defibrillators packed off to Mexico. Medinas raised $ 5 million in seed funding a couple of months ago, led by NFX.


Mable. This year-old, Boston-based wholesale commerce platform is trying to help small food and grocery businesses stock their shelves with local and emerging brands, which sounds kind of quaint — even boring — but is actually a huge opportunity as envisioned by Arik Keller, whose last company was acquired by Facebook. Small to medium-size grocery stores, brands, and distributors are part of a $ 650 billion market that comprises roughly 150,000 independently owned grocery and convenience stores — and most of them apparently buy goods and restock their shelves through phone calls, emails and texts. Keller, a former PayPal product director who later bought a grocery store, realized that if he can persuade these business owners to use a mobile app that helps them manage their procurement, he can make their lives easier, as well as more defensible against companies like Amazon and Walmart. As for Mable’s revenue, some grocers pay a monthly fee for the service; in other cases, Mable is getting a cut from brands like new specialty food companies that it’s helping find their way into new locations. So far, the company has raised $ 3.1 million in seed funding.


Phylagen. It’s a 4.5-year-old, San Francisco-based data analytics startup that says it’s creating a microbial map of the world for everything from food to textiles to counterfeit goods to determine from where it came. It’s basically looking for an item’s ‘DNA footprint,’ meaning the unique combination of bacteria, fungi and pollen that adheres to a product wherever it’s made (and also to its packaging). It’s a big and growing opportunity that it’s targeting. According to Allied Market Research, the food traceability market alone is expected to become a $ 14 billion market by next year.  Worth noting, Phylagen is a little further along in its fundraising ‘journey.’ It closed on $ 14 million in Series A funding earlier this year, including from Cultivian Sandbox, Breakout Ventures and Working Capital.


Bunch is a 2.5-year-old, San Francisco-based app that, once downloaded, can connect friends via audio or video chat with friends who are playing mobile games. On its face, it might seems like a lightweight idea compared to, say, Tissium, a company that’s further along along the funding front and building a vascular sealant out of synthetic polymers (which is also pretty neat). But in a society where people are increasingly “apart together” — and study after study shows that social ties boost our longevity — the app has wide appeal from not just an entertainment but a wellness standpoint. The fact that this startup raised seed funding — $ 3.85 million in November — from top game makers, including Supercell, Tencent, Riot Games, Miniclip and Colopl Next, also means a lot. Specifically, it means (I think) that these companies would prefer to partner with Bunch than to ice it out. Jordan had covered this one, too.


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.

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

Exploring a distant moon usually means trundling around its uniquely inhospitable surface, but on icy ocean moons like Saturn’s Enceladus, it might be better to come at things from the bottom up. This rover soon to be tested in Antarctica could one day roll along the underside of a miles-thick ice crust in the ocean of a strange world.

It is thought that these oceanic moons may be the most likely on which to find signs of life past or present. But exploring them is no easy task.

Little is known about these moons, and the missions we have planned are very much for surveying the surface, not penetrating their deepest secrets. But if we’re ever to know what’s going on under the miles of ice (water or other) we’ll need something that can survive and move around down there.

The Buoyant Rover for Under-Ice Exploration, or BRUIE, is a robotic exploration platform under development at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. It looks a bit like an industrial-strength hoverboard (remember those?), and as you might guess from its name, it cruises around the ice upside-down by making itself sufficiently buoyant to give its wheels traction.

“We’ve found that life often lives at interfaces, both the sea bottom and the ice-water interface at the top. Most submersibles have a challenging time investigating this area, as ocean currents might cause them to crash, or they would waste too much power maintaining position,” explained BRUIE’s lead engineer, Andy Klesh, in a JPL blog post.

Unlike ordinary submersibles, though, this one would be able to stay in one place and even temporarily shut down while maintaining its position, waking only to take measurements. That could immensely extend its operational duration.

While the San Fernando Valley is a great analog for many dusty, sun-scorched extraterrestrial environments, it doesn’t really have anything like an ice-encrusted ocean to test in. So the team went to Antarctica.

The project has been in development since 2012, and has been tested in Alaska (pictured up top) and the Arctic. But the Antarctic is the ideal place to test extended deployment — ultimately for up to months at a time. Try that where the sea ice retreats to within a few miles of the pole.

Testing of the rover’s potential scientific instruments is also in order, since in a situation where we’re looking for signs of life, accuracy and precision are paramount.

JPL’s techs will be supported by the Australian Antarctic Program, which maintains Casey station, from which the mission will be based.


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