One man’s quest to bring back the small phone

In 2017, we noted that smartphone screen sizes had settled into a sweet spot between five and six inches. In hindsight, that may well have been wishful thinking. A brief respite aside, it seems that phones have only continued to embiggen, driven by a continued spec war and panel manufacturers like Samsung.

Heck, even Steve Jobs famously missed the boat when he declared the 3.5-inch a platonic ideal a dozen years ago. “You can’t get your hand around it,” he noted about the four- to five-inch being manufactured by Samsung, “no one’s going to buy that.”

Now, the comparison isn’t entirely Apples to apples, as it were. For one thing, hardware makers have gotten much better at shrinking the phone around the screen in the intervening decade. That is to say that a five-inch phone in 2010 is a very different beast than a 2022 version. Even so, big phones are big. They’re so big, in fact, that folding the screen in half seems like the only reasonable exit ramp.

Where, Eric Migicovsky wonders, did all the small phones go? The man behind Pebble and Beeper (who also serves as a Y Combinator partner), is talking things into his own (self-described large) hands. Or, perhaps more accurately, he’s nudging it in someone’s direction in hopes that he doesn’t have to do the famously hard work of launching yet another hardware startup.

Noting that the dream of a premium, sub-six-inch Android handset is dying or dead, Migicovsky launched Small Android Phone. “My hope is that we can gather support from the community and convince Google (ideally) or another Android manufacturer to build this phone,” he writes on the site. Google may well have been the tipping point here, as the company notably abandoned smaller phones with hardware restructuring that gave us the Pixel 6.

He noted in an email to TechCrunch that he’s already had conversations with hardware companies and launched the site/petition in hopes of getting them to see things his way. “I am busy and happy running Beeper. My goal is to encourage someone else [to] make one.”

The petition cites the following bullets as driving factors in returning to a simpler, smaller, safer time:

  • Fits nicely in pocket
  • Are much lighter
  • Are easy to use one-handed without dropping
  • Won’t fall out of my pocket while bicycling

Currently around 20,000, Migicovsky believes 50,000 is the sweet spot for convincing a manufacture to go all in on small. “Just back-of-the-napkin math, but it feels right,” he says. “Probably ~$10 million [non-recurring engineering], means 50K units makes a decent profit at [an] $800 selling price.”

One wonders, ultimately, why the proliferation of the smartphone and increased competition have seemingly resulted in homogeneity. Certainly it’s not for lack of trying. When I mention the Palm Phone, he retorts, “I love that they tried! Also the Light Phone 2 is really interesting, but not great as primary phones.” He adds that — at the very least — he needs a good camera. That certainly doesn’t seem like too much to ask for these days.

Launching a new phone company isn’t an impossibility. We’ve got a close eye on Nothing and OSOM’s efforts. But one certainly questions the soundness of doing so in 2022, based entirely on a potentially niche corner of the market. On his site, Migicovsky makes it clear that he’d rather someone else do it.

“If no one else makes one I guess I will be forced to make it myself,” he writes, “but I really, really don’t want it to come to that.”

WhatsApp ramps up revenue with global launch of Cloud API and soon, a paid tier for its Business App

WhatsApp is continuing its push into the business market with today’s news it’s launching the WhatsApp Cloud API to all businesses worldwide. Introduced into beta testing last November, the new developer tool is a cloud-based version of the WhatsApp Business API — WhatsApp’s first revenue-generating enterprise product — but hosted on parent company Meta’s infrastructure.

The company had been building out its Business API platform over the past several years as one of the key ways the otherwise free messaging app would make money. Businesses pay WhatsApp on a per-message basis, with rates that vary based on the region and number of messages sent. As of late last year, tens of thousands of businesses were set up on the non-cloud-based version of the Business API including brands like Vodafone, Coppel, Sears Mexico, BMW, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Iberia Airlines, Itau Brazil, iFood, and Bank Mandiri, and others. This on-premise version of the API is free to use.

The cloud-based version, however, aims to attract a market of smaller businesses, and reduces the integration time from weeks to only minutes, the company had said. It is also free.

Businesses integrate the API with their backend systems, where WhatsApp communication is usually just one part of their messaging and communication strategy. They may also want to direct their communications to SMS, other messaging apps, emails, and more. Typically, businesses would work with a solutions provider like Zendeks or Twilio to help facilitate these integrations. Providers during the cloud API beta tests had included Zendesk in the U.S., Take in Brazil, and MessageBird in the E.U.

During Meta’s messaging-focused “Conversations” live event today, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the global, public availability of the cloud-based platform, now called the WhatsApp Cloud API.

“The best business experiences meet people where they are. Already more than 1 billion users connect with a business account across our messaging services every week. They’re reaching out for help, to find products and services, and to buy anything from big-ticket items to everyday goods. And today, I am excited to announce that we’re opening WhatsApp to any business of any size around the world with WhatsApp Cloud API,” he said.

He said the company believes the new API will help businesses, both big and small, be able to connect with more people.

In addition to helping businesses and developers get set up faster than with the on-premise version, Meta says the Cloud API will help partners to eliminate costly server expenses and help them provide customers with quick access to new features as they arrive.

Some businesses may choose to forgo the API and use the dedicated WhatsApp Business app instead. Launched in 2018, the WhatsApp Business App is aimed at smaller businesses that want to establish an official presence on WhatsApp’s service and connect with customers. It provides a set of features that wouldn’t be available to users of the free WhatsApp messaging app, like support automated quick replies, greeting messages, FAQs, away messaging, statistics, and more.

Today, Meta is also introducing new power features for its WhatsApp Business app that will be offered for a fee — like the ability to manage chats across up to 10 devices. The company will also provide new customizable WhatsApp click-to-chat links that help businesses attract customers across their online presence, including of course, Meta’s other applications like Facebook and Instagram.

These will be a part of a forthcoming Premium service for WhatsApp Business app users. Further details, including pricing, will be announced at a later date.

 

Apple nabs half of North American smartphone shipments in Q1

A little bright spot in a market that was already struggling with declining sales well before a global pandemic, supply chain crisis and inflation concerns struck. The North American market saw a small – but hopeful – 4% increase in shipments over the same time last year, per new numbers from Canalys.

The primary driver – once again – is Apple. Sales of the iPhone 13 propelled the company to 51% of the total market, with 19.9 million units shipped. That’s up 45% from Q1 2021. The firm cites a renewed focus on the company’s home market, as demand uncertainty grows abroad. The new iPhone SE also helped the company capture more of the mid-range market.

Samsung saw an increase of one percentage point to 28% of the total market. What’s happening lower down in the top five, however, may be the most interesting story of the North American smartphones sales right now. That includes Motorola’s continued surprise comeback and a reinvigorated Google cracking the top five.

Image Credits: Canalys

LG and HTC’s exits from the market (both planned and unplanned) have transformed the market below the top two spots. It’s not quite a profound a change as China has undergone throughout Huawei’s struggles to regain relevance, but it’s always nice to see new names in the mix for a category that’s long been dominated by the same handful of companies.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Motorola (listed as parent company Lenovo here) maintains the number three spot, on the strength of solid phones at budget prices, coupled with a fair bit of legacy name recognition. The company jumped 56% from the same time last year. It’s quite a success story from a brand that’s been in the rearview for all but a few select markets. Its ranking is bolstered by a big 21% drop by fellow Chinese manufacturing giant, TCL.

Google’s newfound focus on consumer hardware, meanwhile, seems to be paying off. The Pixel 6 helped propel the company into the top five, with a (proportionally) massive 380% growth. The company shipped 1.2 million phones for the quarter, versus TCL’s 1.4 million. The recently announced Pixel 6A and upcoming Pixel 7 could give the company a decent hot at taking fourth place before the year is up.

YouTube teases expansion of livestream shopping with new features arriving later this year

In recent years, YouTube has been working to transform its platform into more of a shopping destination with product launches like shoppable ads or more recently, the ability to shop directly from livestreams hosted by creators. Now, it’s furthering that investment with new features for live shopping experiences. At yesterday’s YouTube Brandcast event, where the company pitched itself to advertisers as a better place for their TV ad dollars, YouTube teased upcoming features that it claimed would make it easier for viewers to discover and buy from brands.

The company touted its forthcoming tools as offering advertisers a better way to engage viewers and make connections with their audience.

One new feature, explained YouTube, will allow two creators to go live at the same time to cohost a single live shopping stream. This could effectively double the draw for the event, as each creator would bring their own fanbase to the stream.

This feature arrives shortly after YouTube in March announced a pilot program called “Go Live Together,” a new mobile collaborative streaming feature that would enable creators to invite guests to their livestream with a link before going live together. This trial suggested YouTube had its eye on developing tools to better power joint livestreams — just as it’s now planning to introduce with its upcoming two-person live shopping streams. The addition could also make YouTube more competitive with Instagram which launched the ability for creators to go live with up to three people last year.

In addition to leveraging creators to build an audience for a live shopping event, YouTube’s shopping livestreams platform also offers other tools specifically designed to drive sales. The brand-integrated shopping experience actually allows viewers to shop the products shown in the video by tapping on a built-in “view products” button which then brings up a list of items featured by the creators.

The company says its new two-person live shopping feature will roll out sometime later this year.

Another upcoming option announced at Brandcast is something YouTube calls “live redirects.”

In this case, creators will be able to start a shopping livestream on their channel, then redirect their audience over to a brand’s channel for fans to keep watching. This allows brands to tap into the power of the creator’s platform and reach their fanbase, but then gives the brands themselves access to that audience — and the key metrics and analytics associated with their live event — directly on their own YouTube channel. This will also roll out sometime this year, says YouTube, but didn’t provide a timeframe.

YouTube’s announcements follow the broader growth of the live e-commerce market in the U.S. — a trend inspired by the livestream shopping activity surging in China, where streamers can pull in billions of dollars in a matter of hours. Today, a number of startups have also entered this space, including TalkShopLive, PopShop Live, NTWRK, Whatnot, ShopShops, Supergreat, and others. Klarna even added virtual shopping capabilities to connect its buy-now, pay-later customers with live product demos from retail partners.

Retailers, too, are getting in on the action. Nordstrom launched a live events platform, while Forever 21 and Macy’s are among those that added live shopping to their apps.

Meanwhile, big tech platforms are wooing brands by touting their wider reach.

Over the past year or so, we’ve seen Walmart pilot testing TikTok’s first livestreamed shopping experience; Facebook’s live shopping boosting sales for brands like Petco, Benefit, Samsung, Anne Klein, and others; and Instagram hosting live shopping events to cater to holiday crowds. Twitter even began to test livestream shopping, also with Walmart’s help on its pilot run — but it’s unclear where such initiatives will land if the Elon Musk buyout comes to pass.

While YouTube is certainly one of the largest creator platforms for video, there is some indication that it needs to catch up to its big tech rivals in livestream shopping, however. An eMarketer study from Jan. 2022 found that only 14.4% of survey respondents said YouTube’s platform drove them to purchase during a livestream event compared with 15.8% for TikTok, 45.8% for Instagram, and 57.8% for Facebook.

Image Credits: eMarketer/Insider Intelligence

YouTube’s new livestream features — and particularly the one that pushes a creator’s fanbase to a brand’s channel — could make its solution more compelling.

“People come to YouTube every day to make decisions about what to buy, and 87% of viewers say that when they’re shopping or browsing on YouTube, they feel like they can make a faster decision about what to purchase because of all the information that we have in videos,” said YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, speaking to the audience at the Brandcast live event last night. “We have so much shopping activity that is already happening on YouTube, so we are making it even easier for viewers to discover and to buy,” she said.

Social maps app Zenly rolls out its own maps

Zenly, the popular social app with 35 million monthly active users, released a complete redesign just last month. But it turns out that this was just the first part of a bigger change at the company owned by Snap. Zenly is going to compete with the likes of Google Maps and Apple Maps as it has begun rolling out its own mapping data and engine.

This massive project began more than three years ago. And the result is a beautiful, living and breathing mapping experience. There are a ton of animations, thoughtful details and delightful easter eggs. For this reason, comparing Zenly’s maps with Google Maps or Apple Maps isn’t exactly fair.

“When I started at Zenly we were working with MapKit and Google Maps SDK. We were frustrated about not being able to express the ideas that we had,” Charly Delaroche, the software engineering manager that has led the map effort at Zenly, told me. “Knowing that the core of Zenly is a map, it was really frustrating — not being able to control it.”

This is how Zenly’s mapping project started under the codename ‘Wonka’. While Zenly started as a way to see what your friends are up to, the company wanted to control and own the canvas to expand beyond this location sharing feature. For instance, the new Zenly lets you search for places — not just people.

And starting a new maps app from scratch in 2019 presents many advantages. You don’t have to carry over the legacy of an old codebase that can run on old iPhones and Android devices. Knowing that it would be a multi-year project, the team targeted newer phones, which are not so new today.

For instance, on iOS, Zenly requires iOS 12. All devices that run iOS 12 support the new Zenly map. “What we called newer phones then is really current phones right now,” Delaroche said. “We wanted to do something that was more 3D and used video game technology to use the maximum performance of the device,” he added.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

A personal map

Apple Maps and Google Maps keep getting better and better. A quick look at Justin O’Beirne’s website will show you how detailed these two products have become.

But there’s one issue with these existing apps. They are a bit static and focused on giving you as much information as possible.

“The map that you’re using every day, they weren’t made for you. Everyone is seeing the same map,” Delaroche said.

For instance, Zenly displays a ‘fog of war’ on the map view. If you’ve played real-time strategy games, you’re already familiar with this feature. It displays a fog on top of the map if you’ve never been to a location so that you know where you should head next to explore new areas.

Right now, Zenly adds this layer on top of the map. They are two distinct elements. With Zenly’s own maps, the fog of war is seamlessly integrated in the map, which means that it looks better and is more customizable.

Similarly, when Zenly wants to show you your best friends, it doesn’t have to figure out whether your friend’s name appears on top of a city name. Zenly’s own map engine can prioritize your friend’s name over the city name when it makes sense.

Image Credits: Zenly

Reconstructing a global map with a team of 10

Zenly has built a global map. And yet, there are currently only 10 people working on the mapping project. The basis of Zenly’s map is accurate data and algorithmic transformation.

The company leveraged open-source data from OpenStreetMap and it acquired proprietary data sets from third-party partners. After that, the company created a ton of rules to understand what’s on the map and recreate it in Zenly’s style.

“We added many rules to transform it from something flat to something interesting,” Charly Delaroche said.

For instance, Zenly has classified different areas depending on their intrinsic nature. When there’s a river, Zenly knows that it’s water and users can tap on it to get a splashing effect. When there’s a forest, Zenly adds 3D trees to approximate the real-life version.

As for roads, Zenly automatically adds tiny cars and trucks that move up and down the street — yes, it looks really cute. There are also boats, ducks, golf carts and sea creatures.

Everything is automatically generated from various data sets and Zenly’s algorithmic rules. The company doesn’t manually edit maps to make them more accurate.

And then, there are landmarks — the only thing that is 100% handmade. The company has built its own art editor and created 3D models for popular landmarks. It works with studios for those assets, such as Ocellus Studio (based in Lyon) and Nieko Play (based in Lithuania).

I spent a lot of time looking at landmarks in Paris, from the Eiffel Tower to the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe and more. There are still some missing landmarks, such as the statues on the Place de la République or Place de la Nation.

But the existing landmarks are beautiful. In that case, Zenly isn’t trying to recreate these landmarks. These are playful representations of iconic places.

Landmarks also have a purpose. People who live in big cities tend to identify where they are based on surrounding landmarks. With the new Zenly map, you can instantly identify where your friends are hanging out without reading any street name.

A new engine

In addition to data, Zenly had to create a 3D engine from scratch. Everything is custom made. It’s a fully cross-platform engine in low-level C and C++ code. It supports physically based rendering, deferred rendering and temporal shadow maps.

Of course, it doesn’t look as good as a 3D mobile game. But it’s fast. You can move around the map without any major performance hit. More importantly, there is no loading screen when you launch the app. It still feels like a social app — not a video game.

In addition to basic animations for cars and boats, the water is also animated and reflects light. At any point in time, the sun is accurately positioned so that shadows are more realistic as well.

Moving around Zenly becomes a different experience. You don’t swipe and pan to zoom like in other maps apps. You move the 3D camera to look around.

A progressive rollout

Because landmarks are an important feature, Zenly’s new maps are only available in a handful of cities at first —Taipei, Tokyo, Paris, Los Angeles, New York and Seoul.

The rollout started earlier this week, but it’s going to be a progressive rollout. Right now, only 5% of new Zenly users will see the new maps. And users can always change back to the default map style in the settings. But the goal is to roll it out to everyone this year and add a new city every two weeks or so.

Zenly is well aware that it can’t compete with Apple Maps and Google Maps when it comes to data accuracy. But what’s more exciting is that this new mapping engine unlocks a ton of possibilities. The company can integrate social data with mapping data in one seamless view.

“Do we really need to compete and be pixel perfect in every place of the world?” Delaroche said. Clearly, Zenly doesn’t want to be better, it wants to be different. And Zenly’s new map platform is a great starting point for some different features.

IROKO co-founder Bastian Gotter raises $3.2M seed for new venture, Bamba

In 2010, Bastian Gotter invested up to $200,000 into IROKOtv, an African video-on-demand company Jason Njoku, his friend and co-founder, launched in Lagos, Nigeria.

For the next couple of years, Gotter, as CFO, was instrumental in turning IROKO — after raising over $30 million from VCs, including Tiger Global — into a household name in Nigeria’s entertainment and tech scenes.

Gotter left the media company in 2017, an exit that afforded him the chance to take up angel investing full-time and pursue new projects. Gotter has cut checks in Paystack, Flutterwave and betPawa and co-runs Spark, an investment vehicle he launched with Njoku.

In 2018, he started a pre-school chain based in the U.K. and South Africa. Two years later, he became part of the founding team of Kenyan-based fintech PawaPay, whose API connects up to 25 telecom operators’ mobile money systems and allows merchants from 10 countries to receive and send payments between mobile money accounts.

Gotter is an investor and board member in PawaPay, roles that can be active and passive depending on who’s involved. For Gotter, it was more of the latter, and so this January, he began to explore other opportunities in the mobile money payments space, specifically relating to small businesses. This led him to start Bamba, a mobile-based enterprise software for African micro-merchants, that has raised $3.2 million.

After spending some time in Kenya (where he was now used to paying via mobile money and rarely cash), he noticed that businesses relied heavily on manual bookkeeping and didn’t have software to record their cash and mobile money transactions.

“They also recorded stock components and had some form of customer relationship management on WhatsApp. It wasn’t a coherent picture and was just a big mess,” he said on a call to TechCrunch. “And that’s where we ultimately saw an opportunity to launch Bamba.”

Micro, small and medium-sized businesses make up 90% of all businesses in sub-Saharan Africa. And there are new upstarts that provide digital bookkeeping services for a minute number of them in West Africa, such as Sabi Cash, Bumpa, Kippa and OZÉ. Bamba is a matching solution for Kenya and surrounding East African markets, where these merchants accepted over $200 billion in mobile money payments last year.

The platform comprises an enterprise management software and an Android application that provides tools for micro-merchants to run their businesses. Its features include managing customers, recording stock levels and receiving and making payments.

“Merchants can record what cash and mobile money transactions they collect and their cash and mobile money payouts. And through that initial record keeping, we have an entry point into the business,” said Gotter, who also mentioned that Bamba wants to improve cash collection for merchants primarily done via USSD and M-Pesa pay bill numbers at point-of-sale. 

“We have the inventory management components that tie in with how many and which goods are sold. Then the payments bit ultimately resulting in a point of sale type devices like Square or Yoco that lets you get a clearer picture of your business and your activities.”

Lack of credit is a thorn in merchants’ flesh globally; this holds more true in sub-Sahara Africa, where the credit gap for small businesses stands at over $300 billion. This is one prominent area bookkeeping digitization proves its utmost importance for merchants. And despite launching with various entry points into the market, startups in this space converge at that singular point. For Bamba, its solution, intersecting inventory, CRM and payments will allow it to provide merchants with cash advances against their future cash flow.

“These are businesses that have previously not been lent to as their credit score was insufficient to get the appropriate loans. But since we have a pretty accurate picture of our customers in terms of its cash and mobile money receivables, we can make accurate lending decisions to them in a way not done before,” the CEO stated.

Bamba is currently in stealth mode and is yet to launch. Gotter said the five-month-old startup is testing its platform with 30 merchants. Its revenue will come from two streams: a small payment fee paid by merchants and interests from its lending/cash advance product.

“We’re very deep in the research phase and quick iteration cycle to figure out the initial product we want to launch at a greater scale in 12 markets,” said the CEO who founded Bamba with Martin Schramm in January.

This seed funding is integral to speeding up this process of acquiring more users and scaling the engineering team behind the product. Berlin and San Francisco-based 468 Capital led the round, while Presight Ventures and Jigsaw VC participated alongside angel investors such as Laurin Hainy of FairMoney and Leonard Stiegeler of Pulse.

Ludwig Ensthaler, a partner at 468 Capital, in a statement, highlighted why his firm backed the Kenyan-based startup. He said the investment opportunities in enterprise software focused on African small businesses are largely untapped, and Bamba “is well placed with a great product and a solid founder to build a category-defining company.”

Apple reportedly testing E Ink outer display for upcoming foldable

Ming-Chi Kuo is one of a handful of Apple analysts whose reports always warrant a second look, regardless of how strange they might seem at first blush. We’ve heard plenty of reports that the company is testing its own version of a foldable device, in its customary style of being fashionably late to the party, while also being the best dressed there.

It stands to reason that the company is experimenting with all sorts of takes on the form factor. While companies like Samsung and Huawei have made great strides since the first generation of foldable devices, one can certainly make the argument that no one has perfectly cracked the code just yet. The screen technology has improved a good bit in recent years — and so, too, has E Ink technology.

“Apple is testing E Ink’s Electronic Paper Display (EPD) for future foldable device’s cover screen & tablet-like applications,” Kuo reported on Twitter earlier today. “The color EPD has the potential to become a mainstream solution for foldable devices’ must-have cover/second screen thanks to its excellent power-saving.”

Samsung Galaxy Fold

Image Credits: Brian Heater (Samsung’s Galaxy Fold)

The last part is undeniable. One of E Ink’s biggest selling points is power saving. It’s a key part of the reason your Kindle’s battery life is rated in weeks, instead of hours. But the technology has traditionally had numerous drawbacks that have hampered mainstream adoption outside of a few select categories like e-readers.

Recent generations of E Ink’s electronic paper have added color and sped up the notoriously slow refresh rate and responsiveness. One imagines that there’s still a ways to go before Apple adopts such technology, even for a secondary, external display. Though, with the first of the company’s foldables rumored for a 2025 release (at earliest), perhaps that leaves enough time for the electronic paper technology to get up to speed.

As ever, one must take all of the above with a few grains of salt. It’s a long timeline, and even if the reports prove out, there’s a big gulf between testing and releasing. It’s also worth noting that these sorts of rumors have existed for nearly as long as the iPhone has. So, short term, maybe it’s best to focus on more attainable rumors like a USB-C iPhone.

Snapchat’s stricter policies for anonymous apps and friend finders aren’t yet fully enforced

A small handful of Snap Kit platform developers have not yet complied with the new guidelines around anonymous messaging and friend-finding apps announced in March. The Snapchat maker revamped its developer platform policies on March 17, 2022, to ban anonymous apps and require developers to build friend-finding apps to limit access to users 18 or older. The policy changes were effective immediately and existing developers were given 30 days to come into compliance — a date that would have passed last month.

It is now mid-May and some developers of the newly banned and restricted apps are not yet meeting Snap’s new requirements, we’ve found.

Snap says only a small number of developers asked for and were granted additional time to bring apps into compliance, as they worked in good faith to make the necessary changes. But it may be difficult for consumers to tell which apps are compliant, which are skirting the new rules, and which are marketing Snap Kit integrations that they actually don’t have.

For example, one of the apps offered an extension is Sendit, the anonymous Q&A app that surged to the top of the App Store last year after Snap suspended other top anonymous Q&A apps, YOLO and LMK. Those latter two apps had been banned from Snap’s platform after the company was sued by a mother of a teen who died by suicide after being bullied via those tools. This year, Snap was named in a second lawsuit, alongside Meta, related to an alleged lack of safeguards across social media platforms which a mother says contributed to her 11-year-old’s suicide.

Snap has since conducted a review of its platform policies with a focus on potential child safety issues related to third-party apps that integrate with Snapchat’s features and functionality.

This culminated in the new policies that were introduced in March which impact apps that build using the Snap Kit platform. This suite of developer tools allows third-party apps to offer sign-in with Snapchat for user verification, or utilize Snapchat features like Snap’s Camera, Bitmoji, Stories, and more.

At the time Snap announced its new policies, it said the changes would impact a small subset of its over 1,500 developers in its wider community. Around 2% would be impacted by the ban on anonymous messaging apps, Snap said, and another 3% would be impacted by the new requirement to age-gate friend-finding apps.

Sendit appeared to be non-compliant as it was not utilizing a required feature, as specified by Snap’s own developer documentation.

Here, Snap offered an example of how something called “Identity Web View” could be adopted by third-party developers who today use Snap Kit to build anonymous Q&A apps. The feature would allow anonymous Q&A apps to come into compliance with the new policies as it will require apps to present a new modal to users that they must click to send their Bitmoji avatar URL and abbreviated Display Name to the third-party application. Then, they can use the third-party app to post their question — but no longer anonymously. Essentially, it allows Q&A apps to continue to function in much of the same way as before, but without the potential dangers of anonymous bullying — the user is identified.

Sendit, however, doesn’t currently use this modal even though it’s the example shown in the developer documentation screenshot. But Snap says the developer asked for more time to make these changes, which was granted. Snap believes the app, currently No. 8 in the Lifestyle section on the App Store, will soon come into compliance.

Image Credits: Snap, via Snapchat Developer documentation

Other third-party apps also appear to be still operating as usual and, at first glance, seem to not be in compliance with Snap’s new policies.

Apps skirting the rules — or operating outside them?

But this is where things get more tricky — some apps have been granted an extension, some are routing around Snap’s rules, and others are marketing themselves as Snapchat-connected apps when they’re not actually using the SDK.

For instance, the app LMK — to be clear, a different LMK than the original LMK app that was banned last year — is still offering its “anonymous polls” app which integrates with Snapchat’s features. The app is rated 12+ on the App Store and is functioning as usual. But LMK was among that requested and was granted an extension.

Anonymous messaging apps HMU, rated ages 9+ on the App Store, and Intext, rated ages 4+ are also still operating. Both advertise themselves as Snapchat-connected apps. But Intext has been banned from Snap’s platform — you’ll get an error if you try to authenticate with Snapchat using the app’s “Login with Snapchat” button.

HMU appears to have skirted the ban, however. Its app still works.

Meanwhile, a number of friend-finding apps, like Hoop, Wink, Swipr, Purp, and Dope — all of which are now supposed to be only available to adult users  — are still published on the App Store with an age rating of 12+, as of the time of writing. If Snap had vetted and approved them, then they would have the highest age rating on the App Store, which is 17+. (Apple should change this to 18+!)

Confusingly, these apps’ lower age ratings don’t necessarily mean all the apps are breaking Snap’s policies. As it turns out, some of these apps are simply positioning themselves as being Snapchat-connected in their marketing materials — like their App Store screenshots. But in reality, they’re working around their lack of access to Snap’s SDK in other ways.

For instance, Hoop’s App Store page says it’s for making friends on Snapchat, and yet it’s downloadable to anyone aged 12 or up. If it was a Snap Kit platform app, then it would be in violation. But Hoop is not in violation because it’s no longer using the SDK. (But who could tell?!)

Image credit: Hoop

Instead, Hoop has users enter their Snapchat username during onboarding and provides an in-app Snapchat button to “request” someone share their username with you. It’s a workaround that allows the app to still function as a tool for finding friends on Snapchat, but allows the app to operate without relying on developer access to the SDK. But this sort of deviousness on developers’ parts could cause complications for Snap in the future, as it faces potential litigation and regulations related to platform safety.

Requests for comment to the third-party app makers themselves were not returned.

For parents, this lack of consistency across the Snapchat app ecosystem also means they can’t rely on using Apple or Google’s built-parental controls to block the Snapchat friend-finding apps from being downloaded to their child or younger teen’s device. And, once in the hands of younger users, bypassing the age-gate is as simple as using a fake birthdate.

Snap tells us that since it announced the new policies, it has removed the vast majority of apps that were out of compliance with its policies.

But given the extent to which apps are skirting the rules, it could be more useful if the app stores themselves would integrate these same guidelines into their own app review processes. Or perhaps this is all a sign that regulation, in fact, is needed to protect children and teens from accessing experiences that are either potentially harmful or designed for adults.

After all, Snapchat shares the top charts with other apps that cater to a younger, often teenaged, user base — and the rules that apply to it, should apply to anyone.

For instance, one app eating into the Gen Z market is the newer app called BeReal, which prompts users for spontaneous photos. BeReal has now surpassed 10 million cumulative downloads to date, according to estimates from app intelligence firm data.ai (formerly App Annie). 3.3 million downloads took place in Q1 alone, and the majority of users in key markets are Gen Z, the firm said.

Another app, LiveIn, caters to Gen Z as well by allowing users to post photos to each others’ Home Screens via a widget — a feature BeReal also adopted. It’s now No. 2 on the U.S. App Store’s Top Apps chart, while its rival Locket Widget, is No. 24.

These apps are offering experiences that not only cater to Snapchat’s core demographic, but also features that overlap in some ways with what Snapchat is used for — fun, off-the-cuff photos that aren’t meant to stick around. While Snapchat is still growing, its rivals could expand their own platforms to adopt more Snapchat-like features over time, at which point they could also become a cause for concern if they ventured into similar anonymous Q&A or friend-finding spaces.

For now, however, these apps present a different type of threat: one that could see Snapchat losing its users’ time and engagement as they try out new ways to connect with friends.

Apple adds live captions to iPhone and Mac, plus more accessibility upgrades to come

Apple has released a bevy of new accessibility features for iPhone, Apple Watch, and Mac, including a universal live captioning tool, improved visual and auditory detection modes, and iOS access to WatchOS apps. The new capabilities will arrive “later this year” as updates roll out to various platforms.

The most widely applicable tool is probably live captioning, already very popular with tools like Ava, which raised $10 million the other day to expand its repertoire.

Apple’s tool will perform a similar function to Ava’s, essentially allowing any spoken content a user encounters to be captioned in real time, from videos and podcasts to FaceTime and other calls. FaceTime in particular will get a special interface with a speaker-specific scrolling transcript above the video windows.

The captions can be activated via the usual accessibility settings, and quickly turned on and off or the pane in which they appear expanded or contracted. And it all occurs using the device’s built-in ML acceleration hardware, so it works when you have spotty or zero connectivity and there’s no privacy question.

This feature may very well clip the wings of independent providers of similar services, as often happens when companies implement first-party versions of traditionally third-party tools, but it may also increase quality and competition. Having a choice between several providers isn’t a bad thing, and users can easily switch between them if, as seems likely to be the case, Apple’s solution is best for FaceTime while another, like Ava, might excel it in other situations. For instance, Ava lets you save transcripts of calls for review later — not an option for the Apple captions, but definitely useful in work situations.

Screenshots showing Apple watch apps on an iPhone and a multi-person video call transcription.

Image Credits: Apple

Apple Watch apps will get improved accessibility on two fronts. First there are some added hand gestures for people, for instance amputees, who have trouble with the finer interactions on the tiny screen. A pile of new actions available via gestures like a “double pinch,” letting you pause a workout, take a photo, answer a phone call, and so on.

Second, WatchOS apps can now be mirrored to the screens of iPhones, where other accessibility tools can be used. This will also be helpful for anyone who likes the smartwatch-specific use cases of the Apple Watch but has difficulty interacting with the device on its own terms.

Existing assistive tools Magnifier and Sound Recognition also get some new features. Magnifier’s “detection mode” normally lets the user know if either a person or something readable or describable is right in front of them: “person, 5 feet ahead.” Now it has a special “door detection” mode that gives details of those all-important features in a building.

Image of a phone showing information about a door it sees: "Muffin to write home about bakery"

Image Credits: Apple

Door mode, which like the others can be turned on automatically or deactivated at will, lets the user know if the phone’s camera can see a door ahead, how far away it is, whether it’s open or closed, and any pertinent information posted on it, like a room number or address, whether the shop is closed, or if the entrance is accessible.

Sound recognition is a useful option for people with hearing impairments who want to be alerted when, say, the doorbell rings or the oven beeps. While the feature previously had a library of sound types it worked with, users can now train the model locally to pick up on noises peculiar to their household. Given the variety of alarms, buzzers, and other noises we all encounter regularly this should be quite helpful.

Lastly is a thoughtful feature for gaming called Buddy Controller. This lets two controllers act as one so that one person can play a game with the aid of a second, should it be difficult or stressful to do it all themselves. Given the complexity of some games even on mobile, this could be quite helpful. Sometimes I wish I had a gaming partner with a dedicated controller just so I don’t have to deal with some game’s wonky camera.

There are a number of other, smaller updates, such as adjusting the time Siri waits before answering a question (great for people who speak slowly) and extra text customization option sin Apple Books. And VoiceOver is coming to 20 new languages and locations soon as well. We’ll know more about exact timing and availability when Apple makes more specific announcements down the line.

Apple said to be testing a switch to USB-C for future iPhones

It’s neither surprising, nor necessarily new scuttlebutt, but one of the most reliable Apple news scoopers of all time has chimed in to say that Apple is indeed at least serious enough about a potential switch from Lightning to USB-C on future iPhones that it’s doing testing with models equipped with the latter connector.

Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman said that Apple has been testing iPhone prototypes with USB-C ports in recent months, and that it’s also working on an adapter that would allow iPhones equipped with the more ubiquitous connector to still work with accessories designed with Lightning in mind.

Don’t chuck those Lightning cables in the trash just yet: Gurman’s report says that the earliest this could possibly happen is 2023, as the design for the current new iPhones likely arriving fall 2022 are set with Lightning on board like their predecessors.

As Bloomberg notes, a big driver for considering this change could be the EU ruling from April that approved a requirement that consumer electronics companies adopt USB-C as a common wired connection standard. Apple could theoretically work around the requirement in other ways, but standardizing USB-C as the connector of choice across all their devices would probably also be a win for them in the consumer satisfaction department, especially after moving to using it in other mobile devices like the most recent iPad and iPad Pro tablets.

Dropping Lightning would be a headache in other ways, for both Apple and consumers: It would mean Apple loses out on licensing fees and parts supply revenue for third parties looking to get official “MFI” status for iPhone accessories, and it would mean iPhone users have to either replace existing Lightning accessories or go with the rumored adapter. Plus, AirPods also still rely on Lightning for the time being, so you still can’t shift to a fully USB-C lifestyle.

USB-C is also one of the most confusing connector technologies out there in terms of the different types of cables it terminates. An older USB-C cable might provide exclusively power transfer, for instance, and very low wattage to boot. The situation has gotten a bit easier to parse with more recent cables and devices, though, so at least the possibility would exist for people to streamline their charger and cable mix.

Selfishly, I want Apple to do this because I obsess over the arithmetic of how many cables and chargers I need to pack on trips to keep all my kit charged with a necessary, but minimal, amount of redundancy. As with any reports detailing work at this stage of development, however, there’s always the chance Apple could abandon this development direction and go with Lightning again in 2023 and beyond, however, dooming us to a more complicated cable nest for the foreseeable future.