Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.
The app industry continues to grow, with a record number of downloads and consumer spending across both the iOS and Google Play stores combined in 2021, according to the latest year-end reports. App Annie says global spending across iOS, Google Play and third-party Android app stores in China grew 19% in 2021 to reach $170 billion. Downloads of apps also grew by 5%, reaching 230 billion in 2021, and mobile ad spend grew 23% year-over-year to reach $295 billion.
In addition, consumers are spending more time in apps than ever before — even topping the time they spend watching TV, in some cases. The average American watches 3.1 hours of TV per day, for example, but in 2021, they spent 4.1 hours on their mobile device. And they’re not even the world’s heaviest mobile users. In markets like Brazil, Indonesia and South Korea, users surpassed five hours per day in mobile apps in 2021.
Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours, either. They can grow to become huge businesses. In 2021, 233 apps and games generated over $100 million in consumer spend, and 13 topped $1 billion in revenue, App Annie noted. This was up 20% from 2020, when 193 apps and games topped $100 million in annual consumer spend, and just eight apps topped $1 billion.
This Week in Apps offers a way to keep up with this fast-moving industry in one place with the latest from the world of apps, including news, updates, startup fundings, mergers and acquisitions, and suggestions about new apps and games to try, too.
Do you want This Week in Apps in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters
Image Credits: PUBG Mobile
Krafton, the developer behind PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds,” and the maker of PUBG Mobile, last year’s No. 6 top-grossing mobile game on a global basis, is suing the app stores and a rival game maker, Garena, over copyright infringement involving Garena Online’s Free Fire games. The lawsuit alleges Garena’s games copy numerous aspects of its own, including its opening, its game structure and play, the combination and selection of weapons, armor and unique objects, locations and the overall color schemes, materials and textures. Google’s YouTube is also named in the lawsuit for hosting videos of the infringing material.
Garena has responded to the lawsuit saying, “Krafton’s claims are groundless.”
The suit aims to prove that Garena’s games — Free Fire and Free Fire MAX — aren’t just another variation on the battle royale format, but are legally infringing on Krafton’s copyright. This could get complicated as PUBG Battlegrounds itself was built using a combination of in-house work and third-party store-bought assets, the company has said in the past.
Krafton has often defended its gaming empire, having more recently won a lawsuit against cheaters. PUBG also previously settled copyright claims with NetEase, also over PUBG clones, but had dropped a similar suit with Epic Games over Fortnite in 2018.
The interesting thing about this case is that Krafton is looking to hold the app stores accountable for their roles, too. This comes at a time when Apple and Google’s power over their platforms is weakening under threat of regulation and, in some cases, new laws. There’s a very real question in the air right now about how the tech giants get to choose which apps appear on their stores, how those apps operate and how much money they deserve for hosting the apps. Krafton’s suit aims to make the app stores responsible for decisions that cut into its bottom line — like hosting rip-offs. But the company has to first prove that its popular game has, in fact, been cloned. And that’s for the court to decide.
A big loss for Apple…or is it? A decision by the Korea Communications Commission (KCC) will require Apple to support third-party payment options in iOS apps for the first time in any market. But the change won’t necessarily mean developers get to keep all their in-app purchase revenue for themselves. When Google outlined its plans to comply with the new law in November, it said it would reduce the developer’s service fee by 4% if they were using an outside payment system. For example, a developer paying a 15% commission would now pay 11%. That’s better than it was before, but not what developers may want. The KCC said it will talk with Apple about its own compliance plans and iron out the details, including fee structures and when the plan will go into effect.
The law is an example of how well-intended legislation can go wrong as the platform makers can still argue they deserve a sizable commission for hosting the apps on their marketplaces, not just processing their payments.
A better way to open up to third-party payments is by getting a legislative body, regulator or court to rule that iOS apps can link to their own websites where users can pay for subscriptions, purchases and other services outside the App Store. This is effectively what Epic Games won the right to do in its lawsuit with Apple, but Apple appealed the decision and the required changes were put on hold.
Image Credits: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg / Getty Images
Epic Games has been engaged in a legal battle with Apple over its removal of Fortnite from the App Store and Epic’s allegations of Apple’s anti-competitive behavior. As a result of the ongoing litigation, Apple hasn’t allowed Fortnite to return to iOS — even if the company promised to “behave” and play by the current App Store rules. But now, it seems, Fortnite may have found a workaround. If the workaround actually works!
The company has launched its game on Nvidia’s game streaming service GeForce Now, which will allow mobile users on both iOS and Android to play a touch-control version via the web browser. The game, which is only in beta testing, for the time being, is different from the version that streams through GeForce Now to Android users. That one is a streamed copy of the desktop game, while the iOS version is optimized for mobile devices. Fortnite is accepting beta sign-ups with plans to open up to select members in January. If the company gets the game functional on iOS, it could make an interesting twist to Epic’s antitrust claims, as it would prove the App Store isn’t the only path for game makers to serve iOS users.
Image Credits: Apple
Image Credits: Apple
Image Credits: Venmo
Image Credits: Sensor Tower
Image Credits: Sensor Tower
Moxie Marlinspike is leaving Signal
Image Credits: Amazon
🤝 Huge news this week sees mobile gaming giant Zynga snatched up by Grand Theft Auto’s maker, Take-Two Interactive in a $12.7 billion deal. The deal values Zynga at $9.86 per share — $3.50 in cash and the remaining $6.36 in shares of Take-Two common stock. Take-Two says the merger will make it one of the largest gaming companies overall, as it will result in $6.1 billion in 12-month Pro-forma net bookings. The deal isn’t just notable for its record size, but because it will give Take-Two a solid footing within the mobile gaming market, which is where today’s growth in gaming resides.
💰 Indian startup Turnip raised $12.5 million in Series A funding for its mobile-first gaming community app. Greenoaks and Elevation Capital co-led the round for the app where gamers can livestream gameplay from their mobile devices, engage with fans and monetize.
🤝 Headspace Health (the entity formed by the merger of meditation app Headspace and on-demand mental health service Ginger) has now acquired the mental health and wellness company Sayana. The YC-backed startup helped users track their moods and offered self-care advice. Deal terms weren’t disclosed.
💰 Jakarta-based investment app Pluang raised $55 million in a follow-on to its Series B round. The new investment was led by Accel and brings the total round to $110 million. The funds will be used to make the app, which now has 3.5 million registered users, available in more South Asian markets.
💰 Miami-based SMB banking app Novo raised $90 million in Series B funding at a $700 million valuation. VC firm Stripes led the round, which included existing investors from its Series A. The funds will help Novo build out its infrastructure and add new products to serve its 150,000 customers.
💰 Spanish-language fantasy sports app Draftea raised $13.2 million in funding led by Kaszek, which also sees Sequoia making its first investment in a company headquartered in Mexico. The app, currently in private beta, charges sports fans a fee to draft a lineup of players and win daily cash prizes.
💰 Business banking startup Qonto, whose app targets SMBs and freelancers, raised $552 million in Series D funding at a $5 billion valuation. The round for the company, which now has 220,000 clients, was led by Tiger Global and TCV.
💰 Estonia-based super app Bolt, which offers transportation and food delivery, raised $709 million at an $8.4 billion valuation to expand its services to new markets, including its newer business lines, like 15-minute grocery delivery, which will grow through the use of “dark stores” in more cities.
💰 Masters, an app for training with celeb athletes, closed on $2.7 million in seed funding led by Sweet Capital, the King.com founders fund. The company has signed up famous athletes include Shaun White, Emma Coburn, Kai Lenny, Ada Hegerberg, Petra Kvitova and others.
Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch
A widget-maker called Locket went viral for its clever app that lets you share photos to your friends’ homescreens. The app popped up to the top of the App Store charts in recent days, as users delighted in how it turned Apple’s widget system — typically used to showcase information like news, weather, inspirational quotes or photos from your own iPhone’s gallery — into a private social networking platform of sorts. Founder Matt Moss, a former WWDC student scholarship winner and recent UC Santa Barbara grad, said the idea for the app began as a side project he built for his girlfriend. But after friends said they also wanted in, he decided to publish it to the App Store.
The app launched on New Year’s Day and has now seen more than 2 million users sign up, according to Moss. On Sunday, Locket became the No. 1 app overall on the U.S. App Store, per Apptopia’s app store data, and had become the No. 1 Social Networking app the day prior. Apptopia reports only seeing around 1 million global installs so far, however, with about 31% from the U.S., as of earlier this week.