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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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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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A cryptocurrency stealing app found on Google Play was downloaded over a thousand times

Posted by | app-store, apple wallet, Apps, computing, cryptocurrency, e-commerce, Google Play, iPhone, Mobile, mobile app, online marketplaces, operating systems, Security | No Comments

Researchers have found two apps masquerading as cryptocurrency apps on Android’s app store, Google Play.

One of them was largely a dud. The second was designed to steal cryptocurrency, the researchers said.

Security firm ESET said one of the two fake Android apps impersonated Trezor, a hardware cryptocurrency wallet. The good news is that the app couldn’t be used to steal cryptocurrency stored by Trezor. But the researchers found the app was connected to a second Android app that could have been used to scam funds out of unsuspecting victims.

Lukas Stefanko, a security researcher at ESET — who has a long history of finding dodgy Android apps — said the fake Trezor app “appeared trustworthy at first glance” but was using a fake developer name to impersonate the company.

The fake app was designed to trick users into turning over a victim’s login credentials. Uploaded to Google Play on May 1, the app quickly ranked as the second-most popular search result when searching for “Trezor” behind the legitimate app, said Stefanko. Users on Reddit also found the fake app and reported it as recently as two weeks ago.

According to Stefanko, the server where user credentials were sent was linked to a website linked to another fake wallet, purportedly to store cryptocurrency, and also listed on Google Play since February 25.

“The app claims it lets its users create wallets for various cryptocurrencies,” said Stefanko. “However, its actual purpose is to trick users into transferring cryptocurrency into the attackers’ wallets – a classic case of what we’ve named wallet address scams in our previous research into cryptocurrency-targeting malware.”

Both apps were collectively downloaded more than a thousand times. After ESET contacted Google, the apps were pulled offline the next day.

Read more:

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The EU will reportedly investigate Apple following anti-competition complaint from Spotify

Posted by | Android, app-store, Apple, apple inc, apple music, belgium, Brussels, ceo, computing, daniel ek, EC, Europe, european commission, european union, Facebook, Google, Google Play Store, iPhone, lawsuit, Margrethe Vestager, Media, online marketplaces, Online Music Stores, operating systems, Search, smartphones, social network, Software, Spotify, United States | No Comments

The spat between Spotify and Apple is going to be the focus on a new investigation from the EU, according to a report from the FT.

The paper reported today that the European Commission (EC), the EU’s regulatory body, plans to launch a competition inquiry around Spotify’s claim that the iPhone-maker uses its position as the gatekeeper of the App Store to “deliberately disadvantage other app developers.”

In a complaint filed to the EC in March, Spotify said Apple has “tilted the playing field” by operating iOS, the platform, and the App Store for distribution, as well as its own Spotify rival, Apple Music.

In particular, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek has said that Apple “locks” developers and their platform, which includes a 30 percent cut of in-app spending. Ek also claimed Apple Music has unfair advantages over rivals like Spotify, while he expressed concern that Apple controls communication between users and app publishers, “including placing unfair restrictions on marketing and promotions that benefit consumers.”

Spotify’s announcement was unprecedented — Ek claimed many other developers feel the same way, but do not want to upset Apple by speaking up. The EU is sure to tap into that silent base if the investigation does indeed go ahead as the FT claims.

Apple bit back at Spotify’s claims, but its response was more a rebuttal — or alternative angle — on those complaints. Apple did not directly address any of the demands that Spotify put forward, and those include alternative payment options (as offered in the Google Play store) and equal treatment for Apple apps and those from third-parties like Spotify.

The EU is gaining a reputation as a tough opponent that’s reining in U.S. tech giants.

Aside from its GDPR initiative, it has a history of taking action on apparent monopolies in tech.

Google fined €1.49 billion ($1.67 billion) in March of this year over antitrust violations in search ad brokering, for example. Google was fined a record $5 billion last year over Android abuses and there have been calls to look into breaking the search company up. Inevitably, Facebook has come under the spotlight for a series of privacy concerns, particularly around elections.

Pressure from the EU has already led to the social network introduce clear terms and conditions around its use of data for advertising, while it may also change its rules limiting overseas ad spending around EU elections following concern from Brussels.

Despite what some in the U.S. may think, the EU’s competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, has said publicly that she is against breaking companies up. Instead, Vestager has pledged to regulate data access.

“To break up a company, to break up private property would be very far-reaching and you would need to have a very strong case that it would produce better results for consumers in the marketplace than what you could do with more mainstream tools. We’re dealing with private property. Businesses that are built and invested in and become successful because of their innovation,” she said in an interview at SXSW earlier this year.

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Alibaba will let you find restaurants and order food with voice in a car

Posted by | alibaba, alibaba group, alipay, Android, Asia, automotive, AutoNavi, Baidu, Beijing, China, Emerging-Technologies, in-car apps, online marketplaces, operating system, operating systems, order food, shanghai, taobao, Tencent, Transportation | No Comments

Competition in the Chinese internet has for years been about who controls your mobile apps. These days, giants are increasingly turning to offline scenarios, including what’s going on behind the dashboard in your car.

On Tuesday, Alibaba announced at the annual Shanghai Auto Show that it’s developing apps for connected cars that will let drivers find restaurants, queue up and make reservations at restaurants, order food and eventually complete a plethora of other tasks using voice, motion or touch control. Third-party developers are invited to make their in-car apps, which will run on Alibaba’s operating system AliOS.

Rather than working as standalone apps, these in-car services come in the form of “mini apps,” which are smaller than regular ones in exchange for faster access and smaller file sizes, in Alibaba’s all-in-one digital wallet Alipay . Alibaba has other so-called “super apps” in its ecosystem, such as marketplace Taobao and navigation service AutoNavi, but the payments solution clearly makes more economic sense if Alibaba wants people to spend more while sitting in a four-wheeler.

There’s no timeline for when Alibaba will officially roll out in-car mini apps, but it’s already planning for a launch, a company spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Making lite apps has been a popular strategy for China’s internet giants operating super apps that host outside apps, or “mini-apps”; that way users rarely need to leave their ecosystems. These lite apps are known to be easier and cheaper to build than a native app, although developers have to make concessions, like giving their hosts a certain level of access to user data and obeying rules as they would with Apple’s App Store. For in-car services, Alibaba says there will be “specific review criteria for safety and control” tailored to the auto industry.

alios cars alibaba

Photo source: Alibaba

Alibaba’s move is indicative of a heightened competition to control the operating system in next-gen connected cars. For those who wonder whether the e-commerce behemoth will make its own cars given it has aggressively infiltrated the physical space, like opening its own supermarket chain Hema, the company’s solution to vehicles appears to be on the software front, at least for now.

In 2017, Alibaba rebranded its operating system with a deep focus to put AliOS into car partners. To achieve this goal, Alibaba also set up a joint venture called Banma Network with state-owned automaker SAIC Motor and Dongfeng Peugeot Citroen, which is the French car company’s China venture, that would hawk and integrate AliOS-powered solutions with car clients. As of last August, 700,000 AliOS-powered SAIC vehicles had been sold.

Alibaba competitors Tencent and Baidu have also driven into the auto field, although through slightly different routes. Baidu began by betting on autonomous driving and built an Android-like developer platform for car manufacturers. While the futuristic plan is far from bearing significant commercial fruit, it has gained a strong foothold in self-driving with the most mileage driven in Beijing, a pivotal hub to test autonomous cars. Tencent’s car initiatives seem more nebulous. Like Baidu, it’s testing self-driving and like Alibaba, it’s partnered with industry veterans to make cars, but it’s unclear where the advantage lies for the social media and gaming giant in the auto space.

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A powerful spyware app now targets iPhone owners

Posted by | Android, app maker, app-store, computing, data security, Facebook, iOS, iPhone, iTunes, Lookout, mobile app, online marketplaces, privacy, Security, spy | No Comments

Security researchers have discovered a powerful surveillance app first designed for Android devices can now target victims with iPhones.

The spy app, found by researchers at mobile security firm Lookout, said its developer abused their Apple-issued enterprise certificates to bypass the tech giant’s app store to infect unsuspecting victims.

The disguised carrier assistance app once installed can silently grab a victim’s contacts, audio recordings, photos, videos and other device information — including their real-time location data. It can be remotely triggered to listen in on people’s conversations, the researchers found. Although there was no data to show who might have been targeted, the researchers noted that the malicious app was served from fake sites purporting to be cell carriers in Italy and Turkmenistan.

Researchers linked the app to the makers of a previously discovered Android app, developed by the same Italian surveillance app maker Connexxa, known to be in use by the Italian authorities.

The Android app, dubbed Exodus, ensnared hundreds of victims — either by installing it or having it installed. Exodus had a larger feature set and expanded spying capabilities by downloading an additional exploit designed to gain root access to the device, giving the app near complete access to a device’s data, including emails, cellular data, Wi-Fi passwords and more, according to Security Without Borders.

Screenshots of the ordinary-looking iPhone app, which was silently uploading a victim’s private data and real-time location to the spyware company’s servers (Image: supplied)

Both of the apps use the same backend infrastructure, while the iOS app used several techniques — like certificate pinning — to make it difficult to analyze the network traffic, Adam Bauer, Lookout’s senior staff security intelligence engineer, told TechCrunch.

“This is one of the indicators that a professional group was responsible for the software,” he said.

Although the Android version was downloadable directly from Google’s app store, the iOS version was not widely distributed. Instead, Connexxa signed the app with an enterprise certificate issued to the developer by Apple, said Bauer, allowing the surveillance app maker to bypass Apple’s strict app store checks.

Apple says that’s a violation of its rules, which prohibits these certificates designed to be used strictly for internal apps to be pushed to consumers.

It follows a similar pattern to several app makers, as discovered by TechCrunch earlier this year, which abused their enterprise certificates to develop mobile apps that evaded the scrutiny of Apple’s app store. Every app served through an app store has to be certified by Apple or they won’t run. But several companies, like Facebook and Google, used their enterprise-only certificates to sign apps given to consumers. Apple said this violated its rules and banned the apps by revoking enterprise certificates used by Facebook and Google, knocking both of their illicit apps offline, but also every other internal app signed with the same certificate.

Facebook was unable to operate at full capacity for an entire working day until Apple issued a new certificate.

The certificate Apple issued to Connexxa (Image: supplied)

But Facebook and Google weren’t the only companies abusing their enterprise certificates. TechCrunch found dozens of porn and gambling apps — not permitted on Apple’s app store — signed with an enterprise certificate, circumventing the tech giant’s rules.

After researchers disclosed their findings, Apple revoked the app maker’s enterprise certificate, knocking every installed app offline and unable to run.

The researchers said they did not know how many Apple users were affected.

Connexxa did not respond to a request for comment. Apple did not comment.

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Europe agrees platform rules to tackle unfair business practices

Posted by | Amazon, Android, antitrust, competition, e-commerce, eBay, EC, eCommerce, Europe, european commission, european parliament, european union, General Data Protection Regulation, Google, google search, Google Shopping, Margrethe Vestager, microsoft store, online marketplaces, online platforms, search engine, search engines, search results | No Comments

The European Union’s political institutions have reached agreement over new rules designed to boost transparency around online platform businesses and curb unfair practices to support traders and other businesses that rely on digital intermediaries for discovery and sales.

The European Commission proposed a regulation for fairness and transparency in online platform trading last April. And late yesterday the European Parliament, Council of the EU and Commission reached a political deal on regulating the business environment of platforms, announcing the accord in a press release today.

The political agreement paves the way for adoption and publication of the regulation, likely later this year. The rules will apply 12 months after that point.

Online platform intermediaries such as ecommerce marketplaces and search engines are covered by the new rules if they provide services to businesses established in the EU and which offer goods or services to consumers located in the EU.

The Commission estimates there are some 7,000 such platforms and marketplaces which will be covered by the regulation, noting this includes “world giants as well as very small start-ups”.

Under the new rules, sudden and unexpected account suspensions will be banned — with the Commission saying platforms will have to provide “clear reasons” for any termination and also possibilities for appeal.

Terms and conditions must also be “easily available and provided in plain and intelligible language”.

There must also be advance notice of changes — of at least 15 days, with longer notice periods applying for more complex changes.

For search engines the focus is on ranking transparency. And on that front dominant search engine Google has attracted more than its fair share of criticism in Europe from a range of rivals (not all of whom are European).

In 2017, the search giant was also slapped with a $2.7BN antitrust fine related to its price comparison service, Google Shopping. The EC found Google had systematically given prominent placement to its own search comparison service while also demoting rival services in search results. (Google rejects the findings and is appealing.)

Given the history of criticism of Google’s platform business practices, and the multi-year regulatory tug of war over anti-competitive impacts, the new transparency provisions look intended to make it harder for a dominant search player to use its market power against rivals.

Changing the online marketplace

The importance of legislating for platform fairness was flagged by the Commission’s antitrust chief, Margrethe Vestager, last summer — when she handed Google another very large fine ($5BN) for anti-competitive behavior related to its mobile platform Android.

Vestager said then she wasn’t sure breaking Google up would be an effective competition fix, preferring to push for remedies to support “more players to have a real go”, as her Android decision attempts to do. But she also stressed the importance of “legislation that will ensure that you have transparency and fairness in the business to platform relationship”.

If businesses have legal means to find out why, for example, their traffic has stopped and what they can do to get it back that will “change the marketplace, and it will change the way we are protected as consumers but also as businesses”, she argued.

Just such a change is now in sight thanks to EU political accord on the issue.

The regulation represents the first such rules for online platforms in Europe and — commissioners’ contend — anywhere in the world.

“Our target is to outlaw some of the most unfair practices and create a benchmark for transparency, at the same time safeguarding the great advantages of online platforms both for consumers and for businesses,” said Andrus Ansip, VP for the EU’s Digital Single Market initiative in a statement.

Elżbieta Bieńkowska, commissioner for internal market, industry, entrepreneurship, and SMEs, added that the rules are “especially designed with the millions of SMEs in mind”.

“Many of them do not have the bargaining muscle to enter into a dispute with a big platform, but with these new rules they have a new safety net and will no longer worry about being randomly kicked off a platform, or intransparent ranking in search results,” she said in another supporting statement.

In a factsheet about the new rules, the Commission specifies they cover third-party ecommerce market places (e.g. Amazon Marketplace, eBay, Fnac Marketplace, etc.); app stores (e.g. Google Play, Apple App Store, Microsoft Store etc.); social media for business (e.g. Facebook pages, Instagram used by makers/artists etc.); and price comparison tools (e.g. Skyscanner, Google Shopping etc.).

The regulation does not target every online platform. For example, it does not cover online advertising (or b2b ad exchanges), payment services, SEO services or services that do not intermediate direct transactions between businesses and consumers.

The Commission also notes that online retailers that sell their own brand products and/or don’t rely on third party sellers on their own platform are also excluded from the regulation, such as retailers of brands or supermarkets.

Where transparency is concerned, the rules require that regulated marketplaces and search engines disclose the main parameters they use to rank goods and services on their site “to help sellers understand how to optimise their presence” — with the Commission saying the aim is to support sellers without allowing gaming of the ranking system.

Some platform business practices will also require mandatory disclosure — such as for platforms that not only provide a marketplace for sellers but sell on their platform themselves, as does Amazon for example.

The ecommerce giant’s use of merchant data remains under scrutiny in the EU. Vestager revealed a preliminary antitrust probe of Amazon last fall — when she said her department was gathering information to “try to get a full picture”. She said her concern is dual platforms could gain an unfair advantage as a consequence of access to merchants’ data.

And, again, the incoming transparency rules look intended to shrink that risk — requiring what the Commission couches as exhaustive disclosure of “any advantage” a platform may give to their own products over others.

“They must also disclose what data they collect, and how they use it — and in particular how such data is shared with other business partners they have,” it continues, noting also that: “Where personal data is concerned, the rules of the GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] apply.”

(GDPR of course places further transparency requirements on platforms by, for example, empowering individuals to request any personal data held on them, as well as the reasons why their information is being processed.)

The platform regulation also includes new avenues for dispute resolution by requiring platforms set up an internal complaint-handling system to assist business users.

“Only the smallest platforms in terms of head count or turnover will be exempt from this obligation,” the Commission notes. (The exemption limit is set at fewer than 50 staff and less than €10M revenue.)

It also says: “Platforms will have to provide businesses with more options to resolve a potential problem through mediators. This will help resolve more issues out of court, saving businesses time and money.”

But, at the same time, the new rules allow business associations to take platforms to court to stop any non-compliance — mirroring a provision in the GDPR which also allows for collective enforcement and redress of individual privacy rights (where Member States adopt it).

“This will help overcome fear of retaliation, and lower the cost of court cases for individual businesses, when the new rules are not followed,” the Commission argues.

“In addition, Member States can appoint public authorities with enforcement powers, if they wish, and businesses can turn to those authorities.”

One component of the regulation that appears to be being left up to EU Member States to tackle is penalties for non-compliance — with no clear regime of fines set out (as there is in GDPR). So it’s not clear whether the platform regulation might not have rather more bark than bite, at least initially.

“Member States shall need to take measures that are sufficiently dissuasive to ensure that the online intermediation platforms and search engines comply with the requirements in the Regulation,” the Commission writes in a section of its factsheet dealing with how to make sure platforms respect the new rules.

It also points again to the provision allowing business associations or organisations to take action in national courts on behalf of members — saying this offers a legal route to “stop or prohibit non-compliance with one or more of the requirements of the Regulation”. So, er, expect lawsuits.

The Commission says the rules will be subject to review within 18 months after they come into force — in a bid to ensure the regulation keeps pace with fast-paced tech developments.

A dedicated Online Platform Observatory has been established in the EU for the purpose of “monitoring the evolution of the market and the effective implementation of the rules”, it adds.

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First China, now Starbucks gets an ambitious VC-funded rival in Indonesia

Posted by | alibaba, alibaba group, Android, Apps, Asia, carsharing, China, East Ventures, funding, Fundings & Exits, go-jek, Google, grab, Indonesia, Insignia Ventures Partners, internet access, Jakarta, JD.com, managing partner, mcdonalds, online food ordering, online marketplaces, pizza hut, Singapore, Southeast Asia, starbucks, temasek, Tencent, United States, WeWork | No Comments

Asia’s venture capital-backed startups are gunning for Starbucks .

In China, the U.S. coffee giant is being pushed by Luckin Coffee, a $2.2 billion challenger surfing China’s on-demand wave, and on the real estate side, where WeWork China has just unveiled an on-demand product that could tempt people who go to Starbucks to work or kill time.

That trend is picking up in Indonesia, the world’s fourth largest country and Southeast Asia’s largest economy, where an on-demand challenger named Fore Coffee has fueled up for a fight after it raised $8.5 million.

Fore was started in August 2018 when associates at East Ventures, a prolific early-stage investor in Indonesia, decided to test how robust the country’s new digital infrastructure can be. That means it taps into unicorn companies like Grab, Go-Jek and Traveloka and their army of scooter-based delivery people to get a hot brew out to customers. Incidentally, the name “Fore” comes from “forest” — “we aim to grow fast, strong, tall and bring life to our surrounding” — rather than in front of… or a shout heard on the golf course.

The company has adopted a similar hybrid approach to Luckin, and Starbucks thanks to its alliance with Alibaba. Fore operates 15 outlets in Jakarta, which range from “grab and go” kiosks for workers in a hurry, to shops with space to sit and delivery-only locations, Fore co-founder Elisa Suteja told TechCrunch. On the digital side, it offers its own app (delivery is handled via Go-Jek’s Go-Send service) and is available via Go-Jek and Grab’s apps.

So far, Fore has jumped to 100,000 deliveries per month and its app is top of the F&B category for iOS and Android in Indonesia — ahead of Starbucks, McDonald’s and Pizza Hut .

It’s early times for the venture — which is not a touch on Starbuck’s $85 billion business; it does break out figures for Indonesia — but it is a sign of where consumption is moving to Indonesia, which has become a coveted beachhead for global companies, and especially Chinese, moving into Southeast Asia. Chinese trio Tencent, Alibaba and JD.com and Singapore’s Grab are among the outsiders who have each spent hundreds of millions to build or invest in services that tap growing internet access among Indonesia’s population of more than 260 million.

There’s a lot at stake. A recent Google-Temasek report forecast that Indonesia alone will account for over 40 percent of Southeast Asia’s digital economy by 2025, which is predicted to triple to reach $240 billion.

As one founder recently told TechCrunch anonymously: “There is no such thing as winning Southeast Asia but losing Indonesia. The number one priority for any Southeast Asian business must be to win Indonesia.”

Forecasts from a recent Google-Temasek report suggest that Indonesia is the key market in Southeast Asia

This new money comes from East Ventures — which incubated the project — SMDV, Pavilion Capital, Agaeti Venture Capital and Insignia Ventures Partners, with participation from undisclosed angel backers. The plan is to continue to invest in growing the business.

“Fore is our model for ‘super-SME’ — SME done right in leveraging technology and digital ecosystem,” Willson Cuaca, a managing partner at East Ventures, said in a statement.

There’s clearly a long way to go before Fore reaches the size of Luckin, which has said it lost 850 million yuan, or $124 million, inside the first nine months in 2018.

The Chinese coffee challenger recently declared that money is no object for its strategy to dethrone Starbucks. The U.S. firm is currently the largest player in China’s coffee market, with 3,300 stores as of last May and a goal of topping 6,000 outlets by 2022, but Luckin said it will more than double its locations to more than 4,500 by the end of this year.

By comparison, Indonesia’s coffee battle is only just getting started.

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Millions of Android users tricked into downloading 85 adware apps from Google Play

Posted by | Android, Apps, Google, Google Play, online marketplaces, privacy, Security, smartphones | No Comments

Another day, another batch of bad apps in Google Play.

Researchers at security firm Trend Micro have discovered dozens of apps, including popular utilities and games, to serve a ton of deceptively displayed ads — including full-screen ads, hidden ads and ads running in the background to squeeze as much money out of unsuspecting Android users.

In all, the researchers found 85 apps pushing adware, totaling at least 9 million affected users.

One app — a universal TV remote app for Android — had more than five million users alone, despite a rash of negative reviews and complaints that ads were “hidden in the background.” Other users said there were “so many ads, [they] can’t even use it.”

The researchers tested each app and found that most shared the same or similar code, and often the apps were similarly named. At every turn, tap or click, the app would display an ad, they found. In doing so, the app generates money for the app maker.

Some of the bad adware-ridden apps found by security researchers. (Image: Trend Micro)

Adware-fueled apps might not seem as bad as other apps packed with malware or hidden functionality, such as apps that pull malicious payloads from another server after the app is installed. At scale, that can amount to thousands of fraudulent ad dollars each week. Some ads also have a tendency to be malicious, containing hidden code that tries to trick users into installing malware on their phones or computers.

Some of the affected apps include: A/C Air Conditioner Remote, Police Chase Extreme City 3D Game, Easy Universal TV Remote, Garage Door Remote Control, Prado Parking City 3D Game and more. (You can find a full list of apps here.)

Google told TechCrunch that it had removed the apps, but a spokesperson did not comment further.

We tried reaching out to the universal TV remote app creator but the registered email on the since-removed Google Play store app points to a domain that no longer exists.

Despite Google’s best efforts in scanning apps before they’re accepted into Google Play, malicious apps are one of the biggest and most common threats to Android users. Google pulled more than 700,000 malicious apps from Google Play in the past year alone, and has tried to improve its back-end to prevent malicious apps from getting into the store in the first place.

Yet the search and mobile giant continues to battle rogue and malicious apps, pulling at least 13 malicious apps in a sweep in November alone.

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Apple defends decision not to remove InfoWars’ app

Posted by | Alex Jones, Android, app-store, Apple, apple inc, Apps, hate speech, Infowars, iOS, iTunes, online marketplaces, play store, Policy, Social | No Comments

Apple has commented on its decision to continue to allow conspiracy theorist profiteer InfoWars to live stream video podcasts via an app in its App Store, despite removing links to all but one of Alex Jones’ podcast content from its iTunes and podcast apps earlier this week.

At the time Apple said the podcasts had violated its community standards, emphasizing that it “does not tolerate hate speech”, and saying: “We believe in representing a wide range of views, so long as people are respectful to those with differing opinions.”

Yet the InfoWars app allows iOS users to live stream the same content Apple just pulled from iTunes.

In a statement given to BuzzFeed News Apple explains its decision not to pull InfoWars app’ — saying:

We strongly support all points of view being represented on the App Store, as long as the apps are respectful to users with differing opinions, and follow our clear guidelines, ensuring the App Store is a safe marketplace for all. We continue to monitor apps for violations of our guidelines and if we find content that violates our guidelines and is harmful to users we will remove those apps from the store as we have done previously.

Multiple tech platforms have moved to close to door or limit Jones’ reach on their platforms in recent weeks, including Google, which shuttered his YouTube channel, and Facebook, which removed a series of videos and banned Jones’ personal account for 30 days as well as issuing the InfoWars page with a warning strike. Spotify, Pinterest, LinkedIn, MailChimp and others have also taken action.

Although Twitter has not banned or otherwise censured Jones — despite InfoWars’ continued presence on its platform threatening CEO Jack Dorsey’s claimed push to want to improve conversational health on his platform. Snapchat is also merely monitoring Jones’ continued presence on its platform.

In an unsurprising twist, the additional exposure Jones/InfoWars has gained as a result of news coverage of the various platform bans appears to have given his apps some passing uplift…

Well, the bans were great for Infowars app downloads. It’s the No. 4 news app in Apple’s App Store today, ranking above all mainstream news organizations.

(And yes, Apple and Google deleted some Infowars content but kept their apps available.) pic.twitter.com/NrJf0IIbnd

— Jack Nicas (@jacknicas) August 7, 2018

So Apple’s decision to remove links to Jones’ podcasts yet allow the InfoWars app looks contradictory.

The company is certainly treading a fine line here. But there’s a technical distinction between a link to a podcast in a directory, where podcast makers can freely list their stuff (with the content hosted elsewhere), vs an app in Apple’s App Store which has gone through Apple’s review process and the content is being hosted by Apple.

What percentage of people who discussed Infowars today understood the distinction between a podcast directory, actual file hosting, and whether software would allow manually adding a feed or listening to content?

— Ricky Mondello (@rmondello) August 7, 2018

When it removed Jones’ podcasts Apple was, in effect, just removing a pointer to the content, not the content itself. The podcasts also represented discrete content — meaning each episode which was being pointed to could be judged against Apple’s community standards. (And one podcast link was not removed, for example, though five were.)

Whereas Jones (mostly) uses the InfoWars app to live stream podcast shows. Meaning the content in the InfoWars app is more ephemeral — making it more difficult for Apple to cross-check against its community standards. The streamer has to be caught in the act, as it were.

Google has also not pulled the InfoWars app from its Play Store despite shuttering Jones’ YouTube channel, and a spokesperson told BuzzFeed: “We carefully review content on our platforms and products for violations of our terms and conditions, or our content policies. If an app or user violates these, we take action.”

That said, both the iOS and Android versions of the app also include ‘articles’ that can be saved by users, so some of the content appears to be less ephemeral.

The iOS listing further claims the app lets users “stay up to date with articles as they’re published from Infowars.com” — which at least suggests some of the content is identical to what’s being spouted on Jones’ own website (where he’s only subject to his own T&Cs).

But in order to avoid failing foul of Apple and Google’s app store guidelines, Jones is likely carefully choosing which articles are funneled into the apps — to avoid breaching app store T&Cs against abuse and hateful conduct, and (most likely also) to hook more eyeballs with more soft-ball conspiracy nonsense before, once people are pulled into his orbit, blasting them with his full bore BS shotgun on his own platform.

Sample articles depicted in screenshots in the App Store listing for the app include one claiming that George Soros is “literally behind Starbucks’ sensitivity training” and another, from the ‘science’ section, pushing some junk claims about vision correction — so all garbage but not at the same level of anti-truth toxicity that Jones has become notorious for for what he says on his shows; while the Play Store listing flags a different selection of sample articles with a slightly more international flavor — including several on European far right politics, in addition to U.S. focused political stories about Trump and some outrage about domestic ‘political correctness gone mad’. So the static sample content at least isn’t enough to violate any T&Cs.

Still, the live stream component of the apps presents an ongoing problem for Apple and Google — given both have stated that his content elsewhere violates their standards. And it’s not clear how sustainable it will be for them to continue to allow Jones a platform to live stream hate from inside the walls of their commercial app stores.

Beyond that, narrowly judging Jones — a purveyor of weaponized anti-truth (most egregiously his claim that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a hoax) — by the content he uploads directly to their servers also ignores the wider context (and toxic baggage) around him.

And while no tech companies want their brands to be perceived as toxic to conservative points of view, InfoWars does not represent conservative politics. Jones peddles far right conspiracy theories, whips up hate and spreads junk science in order to generate fear and make money selling supplements. It’s cynical manipulation not conservatism.

Both should revisit their decision. Hateful anti-truth merely damages the marketplace of ideas they claim to want to champion, and chills free speech through violent bullying of minorities and the people it makes into targets and thus victimizes.

Earlier this week 9to5Mac reported that CNN’s Dylan Byers had said the decision to remove links to InfoWars’ podcasts had been made at the top of Apple — after a meeting between CEO Tim Cook and SVP Eddy Cue. Byers’ reported it was also the execs’ decision not to remove the InfoWars app.

We’ve reached out to Apple to ask whether it will be monitoring InfoWars’ live streams directly for any violations of its community standards and will update this story with any response.

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