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Google releases Android 10

Posted by | Android, computing, Gadgets, Google, Google Play, Google Play Store, Mobile, mobile operating system, oled, operating system, operating systems, PIXEL, smartphones | No Comments

Android 10 is now available, assuming you have a phone that already supports Google’s latest version of its mobile operating system. For now, that’s mostly Google’s own Pixel phones, though chances are that most of the phones that were supported during the beta phase will get updated to the release version pretty soon, too.

Since the development of Android pretty much happens in the open these days, the release itself doesn’t feature any surprises. Just like with the last few releases, chances are you’ll have to look twice after the update to see whether your phone actually runs the latest version. There are plenty of tweaks in Android 10, but some of the most interesting new features are a bit hidden and (at least in the betas) off by default.

The one feature everybody has been waiting for is a dark mode and here, Android 10 doesn’t disappoint. The new dark theme is now ready for your night-time viewing, with the promise of improved battery life for your OLED phone and support from a number of apps like Photos and Calendar. Over time, more apps will automatically switch to a dark theme as well, but right now, the number seems rather limited and a bit random, with Fit offering a dark mode while Gmail doesn’t.

The other major tweak is the updated gesture navigation. This remains optional — you can still use the same old three-button navigation Android has long offered. It’s essentially a tweak of the navigation system that launched with Android Pie. For the most part, the new navigation gestures work just fine and feel more efficient than those in Pie, especially when you try to switch between apps. Swiping left and right from the screen replaces the back button, which isn’t immediately obvious, and a slightly longer press on the side of the screen occasionally opens a navigation drawer. I say “occasionally,” because I think this is the most frustrating part of the experience. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The trick to opening the drawer, it seems, is to swipe at an angle that’s well above 45 degrees.

Also new is an updated Smart Reply feature that now suggests actions from your notifications. If a notification includes a link, for example, Smart Reply will suggest opening it in Chrome. Same for addresses, where the notification can take you right to Google Maps, or YouTube videos that you can play in — you guessed it — YouTube. This should work across all popular messaging apps.

There are also a couple of privacy and security features here, including the ability to only share location data with apps while you use them and a new Privacy section in Settings that gives you access to controls for managing your web and app history, as well as your ad settings in a slightly more prominent place.

With the new Google Play system updates, the company can now also push important security and privacy fixes right to the phone from the Google Play store, which allows it to patch issues without having to go through the system update process. Given the slow Android OS upgrade cycles, that’s an important new feature, though it, too, is an evolution of Google’s overall strategy to decouple these updates and core features from the OS updates.

Two other interesting new features are still in beta or won’t be available until later this year, but Google prominently highlights Focus Mode, which allows you to silence specific apps for a while and which is now in beta, and Live Caption, which will launch in the fall on Pixel phones and which can automatically caption videos and audio across all apps. I’ve been beta testing Focus Mode for a bit and I’m not sure it has really made a difference in my digital well-being, but the ability to mute notifications from YouTube during the workday, for example, has probably made me a tiny bit more productive.

Oh, and there’s also native support for foldable phones, but for the time being, there are no foldable phones on the market.

Like with most recent releases, those are just some of the highlights. There are plenty of small tweaks, too, and chances are you’ll notice a few new fonts and visual tweaks here and there. For the most part, though, you can continue to use Android like you always have. Even major changes like the updated gesture controls are optional. It’s very much an evolutionary update, but that’s pretty much the case for any mobile OS these days.

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Downloads needed to rank No. 1 on App Store is down 30+% since 2016 for apps, up 47% for games

Posted by | android apps, app-store, Apple, apple-app-store, Apps, developers, Google Play, iOS, iOS apps, iPhone, Mobile, mobile applications, mobile software, online marketplaces, rankings, sensor tower, TC | No Comments

With the App Store’s big makeover in fall 2017, Apple attempted to shift consumers’ attention away from the Top Charts and more toward editorial content. But app developers still want to make it to the No. 1 position. According to new research from app store intelligence firm Sensor Tower, it’s become easier for non-game apps over the past few years to achieve the top ranking.

Specifically, the firm found that the median number of daily downloads required for non-game applications on the U.S. iPhone App Store to reach No. 1 decreased around 34%, from 136,000 to 90,000 in 2018, then increased a little more than 4% to 94,000 this year.

At the same time, the number of non-game installs on the U.S. App Store had increased by 33% between Q1 2016 and Q1 2019.

These findings, Sensor Tower suggests, indicate that the U.S. market for the top social and messaging apps has become saturated, with downloads for top apps like Facebook and Messenger decreasing over time. In addition, no other apps have found the same level of success that Snapchat and Bitmoji did back in 2016 and 2017, the report adds.

median downloads no 1 ios

For example, Messenger saw 5 million U.S. App Store installs in November 2016 while Bitmoji and Snapchat passed 5 million installs in August 2016 and March 2017, respectively. And no other non-game app has topped 3.5 million installs in a single month since March 2017.

Meanwhile, the decline in downloads needed to reach the No. 1 spot on Google Play was even more significant.

The median daily downloads for the top non-game app decreased by 65%, from 209,000 in 2016 to 74,000 so far in 2019.

Similarly, the store saw a decrease in installs among top apps, including Messenger, Facebook, Snapchat, Pandora and Instagram. Messenger, for example, saw its yearly installs fall by 68% from nearly 80 million in 2016 to 26 million in 2018.

Games

With mobile games, however, it’s a different story across both app stores.

On the Apple App Store, it has taken 174,000 downloads for a game to reach the top of the rankings on any given day in 2019 — 85% more the 94,000 installs required for non-game app to reach the top of the charts.

This figure also represents an increase of 47% compared to the 118,000 median daily downloads required to top the charts back in 2016, Sensor Tower said.

median downloads no 1 google play

In part, this trend is due to the rise of hyper-casual gaming. So far in 2019, 28 games have reached the No. 1 position on the U.S. App Store, with hyper-casual games making up all but four of those. And of those four, only Harry Potter: Wizards Unite spent more than one day at the top of the charts. Meanwhile, hyper-casual games like aquapark.io and Colorbump 3D have spent 25 and 30 days at No. 1, respectively.

On Google Play, the median daily installs to reach the No. 1 position increased from 70,000 in 2017 to 116,000 so far in 2019, or 66% growth. Overall game downloads, however, decreased 16% from 646 million in Q1 2017 to 544 million in Q1 2019.

Similarly, 21 out of the 23 games that reached the top spot this year have been hyper-casual titles, like Words Story or Traffic Run.

Breaking the top 10

While topping the charts has gotten easier for non-game apps over the years, breaking into the top 10 has gotten more difficult. Median U.S. daily installs for the No. 10 free non-game app increased 11%, from 44,000 in 2016 to 49,000 in 2019.

median downloads top 10 ios

On Google Play, median daily installs for non-game apps fell nearly 50%, from 55,000 median daily installs in 2016 to 31,000 in 2019.

For games, the No. 10 game’s spot on the App Store increased from 25,000 median daily installs in 2016 to 43,000 so far in 2019, and Google Play saw 26% growth, from 27,000 to 34,000 during the same period.

median downloads top 10 google play

Categories making the Top 10

In terms of breaking into the top 10 by category, Photo & Video apps on the App Store present the most challenge. The category where YouTube, Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat reside saw a median daily amount of more than 16,000 downloads for the No. 10 app.

This was followed by Shopping (15,300 daily downloads for the No. 10 app), Social Networking (14,500), Entertainment (12,600) and Productivity (12,400).

On Google Play, Entertainment apps — like Hulu, Netflix and Bitmoji — need around 17,100 U.S. installs in a day to reach the top 10. This is followed by Shopping (10,800), Social (9,100), Music (8,200) and Finance (8,000).

Beyond the U.S.

Outside the U.S., a non-game app needs approximately 91,000 downloads to reach the top 10 on the App Store in China — higher than the 49,000 installs needed in the U.S. For games, the U.S. is the most difficult to crack the top 10, with a median of 43,000 daily downloads for the No. 10 game.

median downloads top 10 by country ios

On Google Play, India required the most downloads to reach the top 10, with apps needing 256,000 downloads in a day and games needing 117,000 downloads.

median downloads top 10 by country google play

Of course, the App Store’s ranking algorithms — nor Google Play’s algorithms — don’t rely on downloads alone to determine an app’s ranking. Apple takes into consideration downloads and velocity, among other undocumented factors. Google Play does something similar.

But these days, developers are more concerned with showing up highly ranked in app store searches than they are on top charts, where they’ll need to consider numerous other factors beyond downloads — like keywords, description, user engagement and even app quality, among other things.

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Google denies reports of unannounced changes to Android app review process

Posted by | android apps, app review, Apps, developers, Google, Google Play, Mobile, play store | No Comments

Multiple reports this week claimed Google had quietly rolled out a more in-depth app review process to all developers — changes designed to keep the Play Store safer from spam, malware and copycat apps. Those reports are inaccurate, Google tells TechCrunch. Instead, the company is giving itself more time to review apps from new, unestablished developers on the Play Store, as previously announced, but this hasn’t been extended to all developers.

Concerns about these so-called “unannounced changes” stemmed from a blog post by Choice of Games, which wrote that “all new apps” would be getting an additional review, slowing down app approvals. It claimed new apps would require at least three days for review, and this now included existing developers.

The post cited a conversation with Google Support as the source for its claims.

This led to a ton of confusion, as the development shop behind the post was well-established, having been on the Play Store since 2010 and would have been exempt from Google’s policy of increased reviews for new developers.

As it turns out, it appears there was miscommunication between Google Play Store developer support and the developer, according to the chat transcript that was published. The support person, “Liz,” was alerting the developer to the new policy Google announced in April, which detailed increased review times for Play Store newcomers. She didn’t appear to understand that she was speaking with a developer who had published on Google Play for nearly a decade.

Android Police also picked up the news, writing that Google had “quietly instigated a more involved review process that impacts every app and update.”

Reddit and Hacker News also weighed in. In addition to the reported changes, developers were concerned there was now no way to schedule new app releases through the Timed Publishing feature. (That’s also not true — developers can publish to a closed testing track, then use Timed Publishing to go live to the public.)

A Google Developer Relations team member stepped in to clear things up on Reddit, and we’ve confirmed with Google that his responses were accurate.

Google’s updated app review process, first announced in April, hasn’t changed.

At the time, Google said:

“We will soon be taking more time (days, not weeks) to review apps by developers that don’t yet have a track record with us. This will allow us to do more thorough checks before approving apps to go live in the store and will help us make even fewer inaccurate decisions on developer accounts.”

Google began notifying developers directly in the Play Console in June that new apps by developers without a track record will take a couple of days longer to review. Google says that, since this change, it’s already seen a meaningful increase in the number of harmful apps blocked by Play even before they are published.

It’s not clear why the developer relations support person miscommunicated this information to the developer in question, but it points to a training issue on Google’s part.

It’s also unclear why the established developer’s app was held up in app review, beyond it just being a mistake on Google’s part.

Unfortunately for Google, Play Store developers have come to expect a speedy review process, so any delays feel like unnecessary friction.

Unlike Apple, which employs a large team to carefully review app submissions and make hard calls on controversial apps, Google has more heavily relied on automation over the years. The company disclosed in the past how it uses software to pre-analyze apps for viruses, malware and other content and copyright violations.

That process doesn’t always work, though. Only days ago, dozens of Android apps disguised as harmless photo editors and games were discovered to actually be adware. This follows similar news from January, when 85 apps were found to contain adware… and in May, when adware was discovered in some 200 apps totaling 150+ million installs… and, news from last November, when malware was found across more than a dozen apps with half a million installs… and so on.

While it would make sense for Google to increase its review of all apps, given its inability to address this problem, that was not the case here.

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App revenue tops $39 billion in first half of 2019, up 15% from first half of last year

Posted by | analyst, android apps, app revenues, app stores, app-store, Apple, Apps, China, Google Play, instagram, iOS App Store, iOS apps, Mobile, mobile applications, mobile apps, mobile games, Netflix, online marketplaces, sensor tower, smartphones, streaming services, Tencent, tiktok, Tinder | No Comments

App store spending is continuing to grow, although not as quickly as in years past. According to a new report from Sensor Tower, the iOS App Store and Google Play combined brought in $39.7 billion in worldwide app revenue in the first half of 2019 — that’s up 15.4% over the $34.4 billion seen during the first half of last year. However, at that time, the $34.4 billion was a 27.8% increase from 2017’s numbers, then a combined $26.9 billion across both stores.

Apple’s App Store continues to massively outpace Google Play on consumer spending, the report also found.

In the first half of 2019, global consumers spent $25.5 billion on the iOS App Store, up 13.2% year-over-year from the $22.6 billion spent in the first half of 2018. Last year, the growth in consumer spending was 26.8%, for comparison’s sake.

Still, Apple’s estimated $25.5 billion in the first half of 2019 is 80% higher than Google Play’s estimated gross revenue of $14.2 billion — the latter a 19.6% increase from the first half of 2018.

The major factor in the slowing growth is iOS in China, which contributed to the slowdown in total growth. However, Sensor Tower expects to see China returning to positive growth over the next 12 months, we’re told.

To a smaller extent, the downturn could be attributed to changes with one of the top-earning apps across both app stores: Netflix.

Last year, Netflix dropped in-app subscription sign-ups for Android users. Then, at the end of December 2018, it did so for iOS users, too. That doesn’t immediately drop its revenue to zero, of course — it will continue to generate revenue from existing subscribers. But the number will decline, especially as Netflix expands globally without an in-app purchase option, and as lapsed subscribers return to renew online with Netflix directly.

In the first half of 2019, Netflix was the second highest earning non-game app with consumer spending of $339 million, Sensor Tower estimates, down from $459 million in the first half of 2018. (We should point out the firm bases its estimates on a 70/30 split between Netflix and Apple’s App Store that drops to 85/15 after the first year. To account for the mix of old and new subscribers, Sensor Tower factors in a 25% cut. But Daring Fireball’s John Gruber claims Netflix had a special relationship with Apple where it had an 85/15 cut from year one.)

In any event, Netflix’s contribution to the app stores’ revenue is on the decline.

In the first half of last year, Netflix had been the No. 1 non-game app for revenue. This year, that spot went to Tinder, which pulled in an estimated $497 million across the iOS App Store and Google Play, combined. That’s up 32% over the first half of 2018.

1h 2019 app revenue worldwide

But Tinder’s dominance could be a trend that doesn’t last.

According to recent data from eMarketer, dating app audiences have been growing slower than expected, causing the analyst firm to revise its user estimates downward. It now expects that 25.1 million U.S. adults will use a dating app monthly this year, down from its previous forecast of 25.4 million. It also expects that only 21% of U.S. single adults will use a dating app at all in 2019, and that will only grow to 23% by 2023.

That means Tinder’s time at the top could be overrun by newcomers in later months, especially as new streaming services get off the ground (assuming they offer in-app subscriptions); if TikTok starts taking monetization seriously; or if any other large apps from China find global audiences outside of China’s third-party app stores.

For example, Tencent Video grossed $278 million globally in the first half of 2019, outside of the third-party Chinese Android app stores. That made it the third-largest non-game app by revenue. And Chinese video platform iQIYI and YouTube were the No. 4 and No. 5 top-grossing apps, respectively.

Meanwhile, iOS app installs actually declined in the first half of the year, following the first quarter that saw a decline in downloads, Q1 2019, attributed to the downturn in China.

The App Store in the first half of 2019 accounted for 14.8 billion of the total 56.7 billion app installs.

Google Play installs in the first half of the year grew 16.4% to 41.9 billion, or about 2.8 times greater than the iOS volume.

1h 2019 app downloads worldwide

The most downloaded apps in the first half of 2019 were the same as before: WhatsApp, Messenger and Facebook led the top charts. But TikTok inched ahead of Instagram for the No. 4 spot, and it saw its installs grow around 28% to nearly 344 million worldwide.

In terms of mobile gaming specifically, spending was up 11.3% year-over-year in the first half of 2019, reaching $29.6 billion across the iOS App Store and Google Play. Thanks to the fallout of the game licensing freeze in China, App Store revenue growth for games was at $17.6 billion, or 7.8% year-over-year growth. Google Play game spending grew by 16.8% to $12 billion.

The top-grossing games, in order, were Tencent’s Honor of Kings, Fate/Grand Order, Monster Strike, Candy Crush Saga and PUBG Mobile.

1h 2019 game revenue worldwide

Meanwhile, the most downloaded games were Color Bump 3D, Garena Free Fire and PUBG Mobile.

Image credits: Sensor Tower

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File-storage app 4shared caught serving invisible ads and making purchases without consent

Posted by | 4shared, Advertising Tech, Android, app-store, computing, file-sharing, Google Play, instagram, malaysia, mobile software, privacy, Security | No Comments

With more than 100 million installs, file-sharing service 4shared is one of the most popular apps in the Android app store.

But security researchers say the app is secretly displaying invisible ads and subscribes users to paid services, racking up charges without the user’s knowledge — or their permission — collectively costing millions of dollars.

“It all happens in the background… nothing appears on the screen,” said Guy Krief, chief executive of London-based Upstream, which shared its research exclusively with TechCrunch.

The researchers say the app contains suspicious third-party code that allowed the app to automate clicks and make fraudulent purchases. They said the component, built by Hong Kong-based Elephant Data, downloads code which is “directly responsible” for generating the automated clicks without the user’s knowledge. The code also sets a cookie to determine if a device has previously been used to make a purchase, likely as a way to hide the activity.

Upstream also said the code deliberately obfuscates the web addresses it accesses and uses redirection chains to hide the suspicious activity.

Over the past few weeks Upstream said it’s blocked more than 114 million suspicious transactions originating from two million unique devices, according to data from its proprietary security platform, which the company said would cost consumers if they are not blocked. Upstream only has visibility in certain parts of the world — Brazil, Indonesia and Malaysia to name a few — suggesting the number of observed suspicious transactions was likely a fraction of the total number.

Then in mid-April, 4shared’s app suddenly disappeared from Google Play and was replaced with a near-identical app with the suspicious components removed.

At the time of writing, 4shared’s new app has more than 10 million users.

Irin Len, a spokesperson for 4shared, told TechCrunch that the company was “unaware” of the fraudulent ad activity in its app until we reached out, but confirmed the company no longer works with Elephant Data.

Len said the old app was removed by Google “without reason,” but its suspicions quickly fell on the third-party components, which the company removed and resubmitted the app for approval. But because their old app was pulled from Android’s app store, 4shared said it wasn’t allowed to push an update to existing users to remove the suspicious components from their devices.

Google did not respond to TechCrunch’s request for comment.

We sent Elephant Data several questions and follow-up emails prior to publication but we did not hear back.

4shared, owned by New IT Solutions based in the British Virgin Islands, makes a brief reference to Elephant Data in its privacy policy but doesn’t explicitly say what the service does. 4shared said since it’s unable to control or disable Elephant Data’s components in its old app, “we’re bound to keep the detailed overview of which data may be processed and how it may be shared” in its privacy policy.

Little else is known about Elephant Data, except that it bills itself as a “market intelligence” solution designed to “maximize ad revenue.”

The ad firm has drawn criticism in several threads on Reddit, one of which accused the company of operating a “scam” and another called the offering “dodgy.” One developer said he removed the components from his app after it began to suffer from battery-life issues, but Elephant Data was “still collecting data” from users who hadn’t updated their apps.

The developer said Google also banned his app, forcing him to resubmit an entirely new version of his app to the store.

It’s the latest app in recent months to be accused of using invisible ads to generate fraudulent revenue. In May, BuzzFeed News reported similar suspicious behavior and fraudulent purchases in Chinese video app VidMate.

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Mobile games now account for 33% of installs, 10% of time and 74% of consumer spend

Posted by | Android, android apps, App Annie, app stores, app-store, Apps, games, Gaming, Google Play, iOS, iOS apps, Mobile | No Comments

Mobile gaming continues to hold its own, accounting for 10% of the time users spend in apps — a percentage that has remained steady over the years, even though our time in apps overall has grown by 50% over the past two years. In addition, games are continuing to grow their share of consumer spend, notes App Annie in a new research report out this week, timed with E3.

Thanks to growth in hyper-casual and cross-platform gaming in particular, mobile games are on track to reach 60% market share in consumer spend in 2019.

The new report looks at how much time users spend gaming versus using other apps, monetization and regional highlights within the gaming market, among other things.

Despite accounting for a sizable portion of users’ time, games don’t lead the other categories, App Annie says.

Instead, social and communications apps account for half (50%) of the time users spent globally in apps in 2018, followed by video players and editors at 15%, then games at 10%.

In the U.S., users generally have eight games installed per device; globally, we play an average of two to five games per month.

The number of total hours spent on games continues to grow roughly 10% year-over-year, as well, thanks to existing gamers increasing their time in games and from a broadening user base, including a large number of mobile app newcomers from emerging markets.

This has also contributed to a widening age range for gamers.

Today, the majority of time spent in gaming is by those aged 25 and older. In many cases, these players may not even classify themselves as “gamers,” App Annie noted.

While games may not lead the categories in terms of time spent, they do account for a large number of mobile downloads and the majority of consumer spending on mobile.

One-third of all worldwide downloads are games across iOS, Google Play and third-party app stores.

Last year, 1.6+ million games launched on Google Play and 1.1+ million arrived on iOS.

On Android, 74 cents of every dollar is spent on games, with 95% of those purchases coming as in-app purchases, not paid downloads. App Annie didn’t have figures for iOS.

Google Play is known for having more downloads than iOS, but continues to trail on consumer spend. In 2018, Google Play grabbed a 72% share of worldwide downloads, compared with 28% on iOS. Meanwhile, Google Play only saw 36% of consumer spend versus 64% on iOS.

One particular type of gaming jumped out in the new report: racing games.

Consumer spend in this subcategory of gaming grew 7.9 times as fast as the overall mobile gaming market. Adventure games did well, too, growing roughly five times the rate of games in general. Music games and board games were also popular.

Of course, gaming expands beyond mobile. But it’s surprising to see how large a share of the broader market can be attributed to mobile gaming.

According to App Annie, mobile gaming is larger than all other channels, including home game consoles, handheld consoles and computers (Mac and PC). It’s also 20% larger than all these other categories combined — a shift from only a few years ago, attributed to the growth in the mobile consumer base, which allows mobile gaming to reach more people.

Cross-platform gaming is a key gaming trend today, thanks to titles like PUBG and Fortnite in particular, which were among the most downloaded games across several markets last year.

Meanwhile, hyper-casual games are appealing to those who don’t think of themselves as gamers, which has helped to broaden the market further.

App Annie is predicting the next big surge will come from AR gaming, with Harry Potter: Wizards Unite expected to bring Pokémon Go-like frenzy back to AR, bringing the new title $100 million in its first 30 days. The game is currently in beta testing in select markets, with plans for a 2019 release.

In terms of regions, China’s impact on gaming tends to be outsized, but its growth last year was limited due to the game license regulations. This forced publishers to look outside the country for growth — particularly in markets like North America and Japan, App Annie said.

Meanwhile, India, Brazil, Russia and Indonesia lead the emerging markets with regard to game
downloads, but established markets of the U.S. and China remain strong players in terms of sheer numbers.

With the continued steady growth in consumer spend and the stable time spent in games, App Annie states the monetization potential for games is growing. In 2018, there were 1,900 games that made more than $5 million, up from 1,200 in 2016. In addition, consumer spend in many key markets is still growing too — like the 105% growth in two years in China, for example, and the 45% growth in the U.S.

The full report delves into other regions as well as game publishers’ user acquisition strategies. It’s available for download here.

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Aptoide, a Play Store rival, cries antitrust foul over Google hiding its app

Posted by | Android, antitrust, app-store, Apps, aptoide, China, competition, Developer, Europe, european commission, european union, Google, Google Play, huawei, online marketplaces, operating systems, play store, Portugal, TC | No Comments

As US regulators gear up to launch another antitrust probe of Google’s business, an alternative Android app store is dialling up its long time complaint of anti-competitive behavior against the search and smartphone OS giant.

Portugal-based Aptoide is launching a campaign website to press its case and call for Google to “Play Fair” — accusing Mountain View of squeezing consumer choice by “preventing users from freely choosing their preferred app store”.

Aptoide filed its first EU antitrust complaint against Google all the way back in 2014, joining a bunch of other complainants crying foul over how Google was operating Android.

And while the European Commission did eventually step in, slapping Google with a $5BN penalty for antitrust abuses last summer after a multi-year investigation, rivals continue to complain the Android maker still isn’t playing fair.

In the case of Aptoide, the alternative Android app store says Google has damaged its ability to compete by unjustifiably flagging its app as insecure.

“Since Summer 2018, Google Play Protect flags Aptoide as a harmful app, hiding it in users’ Android devices and requesting them to uninstall it. This results in a potential decrease of unique Aptoide users of 20%. Google Play Protect is Google’s built-in malware protection for Android, but we believe the way it works damages users’ rights,” it writes on the site, where it highlights what it claims are Google’s anti-competitive behaviors, and asks users to report experiences of the app being flagged.

Aptoide says Google has engaged in multiple behaviors that make it harder for it to gain or keep users — thereby undermining its ability to compete with Google’s own Play Store.

“In 2018, we had 222 million yearly active users. Last month (May’19), we had 56 million unique MAU,” co-founder and CEO Paulo Trezentos tells TechCrunch. “We estimate that the Google Play removal and flagging had cause the loss of 15% to 20% of our user base since June’18.”

(The estimate of how many users Aptoide has lost was performed using Google SafetyNet API which he says allows it to query the classification of an app.)

“Fortunately we have been able to compensate that with new users and new partnerships but it is a barrier to a faster growth,” he adds.

“The googleplayfair.com site hopes to bring visibility to this situation and help other start ups that may be under the same circumstances.”

Among the anti-competitive behaviors Aptoide accuses Google of engaging in are flagging and suspending its app from users’ phones — without their permission and “without a valid reason”.

“It hides Aptoide. User cannot see Aptoide icon and cannot launch. Even if they go to ‘settings’ and say they trust Aptoide, Aptoide installations are blocked,” he says. “If it looks violent, it’s because it’s a really aggressive move and impactful.”

Here’s the notification Aptoide users are shown when trying to override Google’s suspension of Aptoide at the package manager level:

Even if an Aptoide user overrides the warning — by clicking ‘keep app (unsafe)’ — Trezentos says the app still won’t work because Google blocks Aptoide from installing apps.

“The user has to go to Play Protect settings (discover it it’s not easy) and turn off Play protect for all apps.”

He argues there is no justification for Aptoide’s alternative app store being treated in this way.

“Aptoide is considered safe both by security researchers [citing a paper by Japanese security researchers] and by Virus Total (a company owned by Google),” says Trezentos, adding: “Google is removing Aptoide from users phone only due to anticompetitive practices. Doesn’t want anyone else as distribution channel in Android.”

On the website Aptoide has launched to raise awareness and inform users and other startups about how Google treats its app, it makes the claim that its store is “proven… 100% secure” — writing:

We would like to be treated in a fair way: Play Protect should not flag Aptoide as a harmful app and should not ask users to uninstall it since it’s proven that it’s 100% secure. Restricting options for users goes against the nature of the Android open source project [ref10]. Moreover, Google’s ongoing abusive behaviour due to it’s dominant position results in the lack of freedom of choice for users and developers.We would like to keep allowing users and developers to discover and distribute apps in the store of their choice. A healthy competitive market and a variety of options are what we all need to keep providing the best products.

Trezentos stands by the “100% secure” claim when we query it.

“We think that we have a safer approach. We call it  ‘security by design’: We don’t consider all apps secure in the same way. Each app has a badge depending on the reputation of the developer: Trusted, Unknown, Warning, Critical,” he says.

“We are almost 100% sure that apps with a trusted badge are safe. But new apps from new developers, [carry] more risk in spite of all the technology we have developed to detect it. They keep the badge ‘unknown‘ until the community vote it as trusted. This can take some weeks, it can take some months.”

“Of course, if our anti-malware systems detect problems, we classify it as ‘critical’ and the users don’t see it at all,” he adds.

Almost 100% secure then. But if Google’s counter claim to justify choking off access to Aptoide is that the app “can download potentially harmful apps” the same can very well be said of its Play Store. And Google certainly isn’t encouraging Android users to pause that.

On the competition front, Aptoide presents a clear challenge to Google’s Android revenues because it offers developers a more attractive revenue split — taking just 19%, rather than the 30% cut Google takes off of Play Store wares. (Aptoide couches the latter as “Google’s abusive conditions”.)

So if Android users can be persuaded to switch from Play to Aptoide, developers stand to gain — and arguably users too, as app costs would be lower.

While, on the flip side, Google faces its 30% cut being circumvented. Or else it could be forced to reduce how much it takes from developers to give them a greater incentive to stock its shelves with great apps.

As with any app store business, Aptoide’s store of course requires scale to function. And it’s exactly that scale which Google’s behavior has negatively impacted since it began flagging the app as insecure a year ago, in June 2018, squeezing the rival’s user-base by up to a fifth, as Aptoide tells it.

Trezentos says Google’s flagging of its app store affects all markets and “continues to this day” — despite a legal ruling in its favor last fall, when a court in Portugal ordered Google to stop removing Aptoide without users’ permission.

“Google is ignoring the injunction result and is disregarding the national court. No company, independently of the size, should be above court decisions. But it seems that is the case with Google,” he says.

“Our legal team believe that the decision applies to 82 countries but we are pursuing first the total compliance with the decision in Portugal. From there, we will seek the extension to other jurisdictions.”

“We tried to contact Google several times, via Google Play Protect feedback form and directly through LinkedIn, and we’ve not had any feedback from Google. No reasons were presented. No explanation, although we are talking about hiding Aptoide in millions of users’ phones,” he adds.

“Our point in court it’s simple: Google is using the control at operating system level to block competitors at the services level (app store, in this case). As Google has a dominant position, that’s not legal. Court [in Portugal] confirmed and order Google to stop. Google didn’t obey.”

Aptoide has not filed an antitrust complaint against Google in the US — focusing its legal efforts on that front on local submissions to the European Commission.

But Trezentos says it’s “willing to cooperate with US authorities and provide factual data that shows that Google has acted with anti-competitive behaviour” (although he says no one has come knocking to request such collaboration yet.)

In Europe, the Commission’s 2018 antitrust decision was focused on Android licensing terms — which led to Google tweaking the terms it offers Android OEMs selling in Europe last fall.

Despite some changes rivals continue to complain that its changes do not go far enough to create a level playing field for competition.

There has also not been any relief for Aptoide from the record breaking antitrust enforcement. On the contrary Google appears to have dug in against this competitive threat.

“The remedies are positive but the scope is very limited to OEM partnerships,” says Trezentos of the EC’s 2018 Android antitrust decision. “We proposed additionally that Google would be obliged to give the same access privileges over the operating system to credible competitors.”

We’ve reached out to the Commission for comment on Aptoide’s complaint.

While it’s at least technically possible for an OEM to offer an Android device in Europe which includes key Google services (like search and maps) but preloads an alternative app store, rather than Google Play, it would be a brave device maker indeed to go against the consumer grain and not give smartphone buyers the mainstream store they expect.

So, as yet, there’s little high level regulatory relief to help Aptoide. And it may take a higher court than a Portuguese national court to force Google to listen.

But with US authorities fast dialling up their scrutiny of Mountain View, Aptoide may find a new audience for its complaint.

“The increased awareness to Google practices is reaching the regulators,” Trezentos agrees, adding: “Those practices harm competition and in the end are bad for developers and mobile users.”

We reached out to Google with questions about its treatment of Aptoide’s rival app store — but at the time of writing the company had not responded with any comment. 

There have also been some recent rumors that Aptoide is in talks to supply its alternative app store for Huawei devices — in light of the US/China trade uncertainties, and the executive order barring US companies from doing business with the Chinese tech giant, which have led to reports that Google intends to withdraw key Android services like Play from the company.

But Trezentos pours cold water on these rumors, suggesting there has been no change of cadence in its discussions with Huawei.

“We work with three of top six mobile OEMs in the world. Huawei is not one of them yet,” he tells us. “Our Shengzhen office had been in conversations for some months and they are testing our APIs. This process has not been accelerated or delayed by the recent news.”

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Apple restricts ads and third-party trackers in iPhone apps for kids

Posted by | Android, app-store, Apple, Apps, computing, Google Play, iOS, iPhone, iTunes, privacy, smartphones, WWDC 2019 | No Comments

Apple has told developers to stop including third-party trackers in apps designed for kids — or they face having their apps pulled from the app store.

The tech giant quietly updated its guidelines for apps that are submitted to the app store’s kids category following the keynote address at its annual developer conference on Monday.

“Apps in the kids category may not include third-party advertising or analytics,” the new guidelines say. Previously, the guidelines only restricted behavioral advertising tracking.

Apple also currently prohibits apps in the kids category from including links that point outside the app or contain in-app purchasing.

Apple has come under fire for its recent marketing campaign claiming “what happens on your iPhone stays on your iPhone,”  which critics say is misleading. All too often apps include ads or tracking code that allows app makers to collect information about the device, including its location and other data, and send it back to base so companies can better target its users with ads, learn more about how you use the app, and more.

Just last week, the Washington Post found over 5,400 app trackers were uploading data from an iPhone over a single week — even at night when the phone owner was asleep.

As a TechCrunch investigation earlier this year found, some apps use so-called session replay technology, a kind of analytics software that records the screen when an app is open. Apps built by Expedia, Hollister and Hotels.com were found in violation of Apple’s rules and developers were told to remove the code.

Apple follows in the footsteps of Google, which last week set out new policies around kids’ apps available for Android through Google Play. The move came following a complaint by the Federal Trade Commission filed by close to two-dozen consumer advocacy groups, which accused the mobile giant of not ensuring app compliance with federal children’s privacy laws.

Now with Apple’s new restrictions, at least kids have a fighting chance of keeping their iPhone data private.

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Google Play cracks down on marijuana apps, loot boxes and more

Posted by | Apps, developers, Google, Google Play, kids apps, loot boxes, marijuana, Mobile, play store, policies, regulation | No Comments

On Wednesday, Google rolled out new policies around kids’ apps on Google Play following an FTC complaint claiming a lack of attention to apps’ compliance with children’s privacy laws, and other rules around content. However, kids’ apps weren’t the only area being addressed this week. As it turns out, Google also cracked down on loot boxes and marijuana apps, while also expanding sections detailing prohibitions around hate speech, sexual content and counterfeit goods, among other things.

The two more notable changes include a crackdown on “loot boxes” and a ban on apps that offer marijuana delivery — while the service providers’ apps can remain, the actual ordering process has to take place outside of the app itself, Google said.

Specifically, Google will no longer allow apps offering the ability to order marijuana through an in-app shopping cart, those that assist users in the delivery or pickup of marijuana or those that facilitate the sale of THC products.

This isn’t a huge surprise — Apple already bans apps that allow for the sale of marijuana, tobacco or other controlled substances in a similar fashion. On iOS, apps like Eaze and Weedmaps are allowed, but they don’t offer an ordering function. That’s the same policy Google is now applying on Google Play.

This is a complex subject for Google, Apple and other app marketplace providers to tackle. Though some states have legalized the sale of marijuana, the laws vary. And it’s still illegal according to the federal government. Opting out of playing middleman here is probably the right step for app marketplace platforms.

That said, we understand Google has no intention of outright banning marijuana ordering and delivery apps.

The company knows they’re popular and wants them to stay. It’s even giving them a grace period of 30 days to make changes, and is working with the affected app developers to ensure they’ll remain accessible.

“These apps simply need to move the shopping cart flow outside of the app itself to be compliant with this new policy,” a spokesperson explained. “We’ve been in contact with many of the developers and are working with them to answer any technical questions and help them implement the changes without customer disruption.”

Another big change impacts loot boxes — a form of gambling popular among gamers. Essentially, people pay a fee to receive a random selection of in-game items, some of which may be rare or valuable. Loot boxes have been heavily criticized for a variety of reasons, including their negative effect on gameplay and how they’re often marketed to children.

Last week, a new Senate bill was introduced with bipartisan support that would prohibit the sale of loot boxes to children, and fine those in violation.

Google Play hasn’t gone so far as to ban loot boxes entirely, but instead says games have to now disclose the odds of getting each item.

In addition to these changes, Google rolled out a handful of more minor updates, detailed on its Developer Policy Center website. 

Here, Google says it has expanded the definition of what it considers sexual content to include a variety of new examples, like illustrations of sexual poses, content depicting sexual aids and fetishes and depictions of nudity that wouldn’t be appropriate in a public context. It also added “content that is lewd or profane,” according to Android Police, which compared the old and new versions of the policy.

Definitions that are somewhat “open to interpretation” is something that Apple commonly uses to gain better editorial control over its own App Store. By adding a ban of “lewd or profane” content, Google can opt to reject apps that aren’t covered by other examples.

Google also expanded its list of examples around hate speech to include: “compilations of assertions intended to prove that a protected group is inhuman, inferior or worthy of being hated;” “apps that contain theories about a protected group possessing negative characteristics (e.g. malicious, corrupt, evil, etc.), or explicitly or implicitly claims the group is a threat;” and “content or speech trying to encourage others to believe that people should be hated or discriminated against because they are a member of a protected group.”

Additional changes include an update to the Intellectual Property policy that more clearly prohibits the sale or promotion for sale of counterfeit goods within an app; a clarification of the User Generated Content policy to explicitly prohibit monetization features that encourage objectionable behavior by users; and an update to the Gambling policy, with more examples.

A Google spokesperson says the company regularly updates its Play Store developer policies in accordance with best practices and legal regulations around the world. However, the most recent set of changes err on the side of getting ahead of increased regulation — not only in terms of kids’ apps and data privacy, but also other areas now under legal scrutiny, like loot boxes and marijuana sales.

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Following FTC complaint, Google rolls out new policies around kids’ apps on Google Play

Posted by | Android, android apps, Apps, children, families, FTC, Google, Google Play, kids, Mobile | No Comments

Google announced this morning a new set of developer policies aimed at providing additional protections for children and families seeking kid-friendly apps on Google Play. The new policies require that developers ensure their apps are meeting all the necessary policy and regulatory requirements for apps that target children in terms of their content, ads and how they handle personally identifiable information.

For starters, developers are being asked to consider whether children are a part of their target audience — and, if they’re not, developers must ensure their app doesn’t unintentionally appeal to them. Google says it will now also double-check an app’s marketing to confirm this is the case and ask for changes, as needed.

Apps that do target children have to meet the policy requirements concerning content and handling of personally identifiable information. This shouldn’t be news to developers playing by the rules, as Google has had policies around “kid-safe” apps for years as part of its “Designed for Families” program, and countries have their own regulations to follow when it comes to collecting children’s data.

In addition, developers whose apps are targeting children must only serve ads from an ads network that has certified compliance with Google’s families policies.

To enforce these policies at scale, Google is now requiring all developers to complete the new target audience and content section of the Google Play Console. Here, they will have to specify more details about their app. If they say that children are targeted, they’ll be directed to the appropriate policies.

Google will use this information, alongside its review of the app’s marketing materials, in order to categorize apps and apply policies across three target groups: children, children and older users, and older users. (And because the definition of “children” may vary by country, developers will need to determine what age-based restrictions apply in the countries where their app is listed.)

Developers must comply with the process of filling out the information on Google Play and come into compliance with the updated policies by September 1, 2019.

The company says it’s committed to providing “a safe, positive environment” for kids and families, which is why it’s announcing these changes.

However, the changes are more likely inspired by an FTC complaint filed in December, in which a coalition of 22 consumer and public health advocacy groups, led by Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) and Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), asked for an investigation of kids’ apps on Google Play.

The organizations claimed that Google was not verifying apps and games featured in the Family section of Google Play for compliance with U.S. children’s privacy law COPPA.

They also said many so-called “kids” apps exhibited bad behaviors — like showing ads that are difficult to exit or showing those that require viewing in order to continue the current game. Some apps pressured kids into making in-app purchases, and others were found serving ads for alcohol and gambling. And others, still, were found to model harmful behavior or contain graphic, sexualized images, the groups warned regulators.

The time when violations like these can slip through the cracks is long past, thanks to increased regulatory oversight across the online industry by way of laws like the EU’s GDPR, which focuses on data protection and privacy. The FTC is also more keen to act, as needed — it even recently doled out a record fine for TikTok for violating COPPA. 

The target audience and content section are live today in the Google Play Console, along with documentation on the new policies, a developer guide and online training. In addition, Google says it has increased its staffing and improved its communications for the Google Play app review and appeals processes in order to help developers get timely decisions and understand any changes they’re directed to make.

Update, 5/29/19, 4:30 PM ET:

Following Google’s announcement, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), which led the FTC complaint, issued a statement in response.

“It’s great that our coalition’s advocacy has awoken to Google to the massive issues with kids apps in the Play Store,” said CCFC Director Josh Golin. “Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of substance to these changes and it’s concerning that Google remains intent on outsourcing responsibility for compliance to developers rather than taking real steps to enforce its own policies.”

“Furthermore, if Google is serious about cracking down on developers that elide their legal responsibilities by pretending their apps aren’t child-directed, they should start by looking in the mirror. YouTube violates COPPA at a massive scale every day and Google’s laughable defense is that the site is only intended for 13 and up,” he added.

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