This Week in Apps: Twitter kills third-party apps, Instagram adds Quiet Mode, Google’s antitrust trial gets a date – TechCrunch
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 economy in 2023 hit a few snags, as consumer spending last year dropped for the first time by 2% to $167 billion, according to the latest “State of Mobile” report by data.ai (previously App Annie). However, downloads are continuing to grow, up 11% year-over-year in 2022 to reach 255 billion. Consumers are also spending more time using mobile apps than ever before. On Android devices alone, hours spent in 2022 grew 9%, reaching 4.1 trillion.
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 much more.
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It’s incredible how third-party Twitter clients had been able to survive Twitter’s ups and downs over the years, including its various API changes and constantly fluctuating business objectives and policies, only to be unceremoniously killed in 2023 by the whims of a billionaire. This week, in what has been one of the more depressing moments in tech history, longtime Twitter apps like IconFactory’s Twitterific, Tapbot’s Tweetbot and others like Birdie, Fenix, Echofon and many more were unceremoniously cut off from being able to access Twitter’s API and serve their customer base.
Instead of warning developers that Twitter’s policies were changing and giving them time to wind down their operations and communicate with their longtime users and subscribers, Twitter quietly, callously and deliberately revoked their API access. They “fixed the glitch,” so to speak.
Users and developers found out about the change as the apps stopped working, but not because of any official communication from Twitter itself. As backlash and outrage grew, Twitter then made matters worse by trying to gaslight its community about the situation. The company tweeted it was only enforcing its “long-standing” rules, then rushed to update its documentation to reflect what those rules actually were.
Twitter officially bans third-party clients after cutting off prominent devs
Of course, there was a time when Twitter tried to shut down the Twitter app ecosystem: you know, 12 years ago. Following its acquisition of Tweetie, which became Twitter’s own native app, the company in 2011 told developers they should stop trying to compete with Twitter on clients and instead focus on other API use cases, like data and verticals. It was the sort of classic, misguided move Twitter always seemed to make. The company never quite got a grip on the power Twitter had as a platform, and how an ecosystem of tools and apps that worked with Twitter was a better investment of its resources than spending eons trying to do things like tweak the structure of a thread or adding other bells and whistles that users didn’t really care about.
At the time of the proposed shutdown over a decade ago, those Twitter apps had been responsible for 42% of tweets on the platform. While slightly down from the 55% of tweets made in 2009 (or as high as 60% in 2010, another analysis found), the apps still served a large audience of power users that Twitter wanted to simply cut off and walk away from.
As entrepreneur Nova Spivack warned Twitter back then, its failure to incorporate its API into its future plans could ultimately hamper its potential as a company:
I think Twitter’s current strategy may take them in a direction where they end up missing out on their biggest potential win. If Twitter continues to go down the media company path, without incorporating their API into the plan, that could not only force a large part of their ecosystem to go elsewhere, but it could deprive them of a much larger potential infrastructure revenue opportunity, and could even end up costing them the company. After all, Silicon Valley is littered with the burned out wreckage of once-great media companies that failed create and keep third-party app ecosystems: AOL, Friendster, MySpace, Yahoo – to name a few. It’s very hard to maintain leadership as an online media company without an ecosystem of outside apps increasing reach, innovation, and stickiness.
He was right. Twitter over the years struggled to grow its daily active user base, even making up its own metrics, and trying to convince Wall Street that its business should be evaluated by something besides user growth. It didn’t work.
Twitter historically often ignored the innovation emerging from its ecosystem of apps, even as those apps contributed meaningfully to what Twitter would become. Twitterific coined the word “tweet,” was the first to use the bird icon and delivered the first native Mac and iOS apps, among other things. Tweetie introduced the pull-to-refresh gesture. Brizzly made it possible to tweet photos, long before Twitter did. And all, arguably, demonstrated the market for premium apps (Tweetbot for Mac was $20 in 2012!) and app subscriptions, despite arriving at a time when Twitter’s focus was on cramming ads into its timeline — something that was once dubbed its #dickbar feature.
The company could have found an altogether different trajectory if it had embraced the innovation taking place in the broader app ecosystem, instead of constantly trying to squash it. Twitter users for years had no choice but to sit back and watch as their favorite third-party apps were slowly pruned. Long before TikTok, an app that began as a “video Twitter,” Seesmic, had to exit back in 2012. Favstar, a popular app for tracking top tweets, closed up shop in 2018. Twitter acquired TweetDeck, then abandoned it, despite surveys that indicated users would be willing to pay for premium features and subscriptions. Twitter almost seemed to revel in destroying various parts of its ecosystem. It bought Vine (a TikTok precursor) and Periscope (an early livestreamer), and killed them. (And when Twitter managed to come up with creative ideas of its own — like a music discovery app called #Music — it would give up on them, too. Now music discovery takes place on TikTok.)
Despite its fumbling, third-party Twitter clients managed to survive and even thrive, thanks to dedicated user bases, all while the company kept tweaking its API to make them less useful. In 2018, for example, the app makers told their customers they would have to disable or degrade certain features. And yet, the apps’ customers remained.
Now, at a perilous time in Twitter’s history — when analysts are predicting it will lose some 32 million users by 2024 — Twitter is removing access to some of its most beloved entry points to its ecosystem. And while these clients may not be the powerhouses of a decade ago, they deserved the opportunity to close up shop in a dignified manner that reflected the impact they had on Twitter’s own history and community.
What’s ironic here is that Twitter in more recent years almost seemed as if it was trying to right the ship. It was revamping its API and bringing back its developer conference. Its head of product for the developer platform, Amir Shevat, understood the potential. The company was beginning to spin up in-Twitter apps users could interact with and was even toying with ideas around a Twitter app store. But his team was cut from 100 people to two amid the Twitter layoffs, signaling the end of Twitter’s platform ambitions. And, we should have realized then, the end of the Twitter ecosystem of apps, too.
As Shevat warned in December: “Let this be my personal notice to Twitter developers: The team is gone; the investment has been undone. Love does not live here anymore.”
Twitterrific and other clients begin offloading their apps after Twitter shuts them out
A date has been set for a trial by jury in a significant antitrust case against Google involving its alleged abuses of power in the Android app market. Fortnite maker Epic Games and dating app giant Match Group, joined by more than three dozen state attorneys general, have accused Google of unfairly leveraging its market dominance and harming competition through its Google Play Store terms and practices. In particular, the plaintiffs take issue with the commissions Google requires on app sales and in-app purchases as well as the control Google has over Android app distribution in general. The case will now proceed to a jury trial on November 6, 2023, a judge in the Northern District of California has ruled.
Epic and Match filed to amend their complaint in October by adding new antitrust counts to their case. Google in October asked the court to disallow these requests, saying, among other things, the claims were filed too late. (The court granted the motion to amend the complaint in November.)
The Android ecosystem antitrust case is a bit different from the Epic-Apple battle because Google allows Android apps to be sideloaded. The app makers will instead aim to prove other ways the company leveraged its market power — like paying developers to not leave the Play Store, for instance.
In a more recent hearing related to this case, a California federal judge criticized Google for not preserving evidence from employee chats, after learning internal communications were taking place in Google Chat, where messages were automatically deleted after 24 hours. Though employees can change the auto-delete setting, Google apparently did not enforce this setting to be turned on. The U.S. District Judge James Donato asked the parties how many of the 260 Google employees who received a litigation hold notice had chosen not to preserve their chats, according to a report from Law360.
The judge also threatened Google with a “substantial, trial-related penalty” if the court found evidence related to the trial was destroyed. This should be an interesting trial to watch, it seems.
Epic and Match’s antitrust case against Google heads to jury trial on November 6
Instagram announced this week it’s expanding its selection of time management tools with the launch of a new feature called “Quiet Mode.” The feature aims to reduce users’ anxiety about taking time off from the app by silencing incoming notifications, auto-replying to DMs and setting your status to “In Quiet Mode” to inform friends that you’re not active on the app at present. The company said it will prompt teen users to enable the feature if they’re using the app late at night.
With the new Quiet Mode feature, the app is aiming to address the real-world impacts that accompany trying to step away for a bit from an app that you regularly use — and one where others expect you to be available.
The launches come as Instagram works to make its app less of a target for regulators and lawmakers who have been concerned with social media’s potential harms, particularly for teenage users. To date, Instagram has added several teen safety features, including those to protect teens’ privacy and reduce unwanted adult contact, limit ad targeting, restrict teens’ access to mature content and others to help parents monitor and manage their teens’ Instagram use through parental controls.
The update is one of several changes that rolled out, which also included tweaking its parental control tools and adding other tools to manage recommendations. For example, you’ll now be able to remove things from your Explore page and block terms from influencing your recommended content, too.
Instagram’s new ‘Quiet Mode’ helps you take a break from the app
Image Credits: Smores
This week, TechCrunch’s Ivan Mehta took a look at a new iOS app, Smores, that allows users to discover new music through a TikTok-like feed. The app lets you listen to a short clip of a song, recommended based on your own listening history. You can then swipe through the vertical feed to skip to the next song clip, or like the current song with the heart button, which saves the like to your Spotify account. The liked tracks will appear in a new playlist called “Smores Discovery,” or you can add the track to another pre-existing playlist if you choose. The team says they may later bring the app to Apple Music or Android users.
Image Credits: Ice Cubes
This new Mastodon client for iPad, iPhone and Mac was oddly rejected from the App Store numerous times on its path to launching, as Daring Fireball highlighted, but the SwiftUI app from developer Thomas Ricouard looks like a solid addition to the Mastodon app ecosystem, which includes several new apps built by former Twitter app makers, including apps like Ivory from Tapbots and Mammoth from Aviary’s app developer. (Both are still in TestFlight.)
Ice Cubes, however, promises to bring a fast and reliable Mastodon experience to the desktop, allowing users to browse their timelines, interact with posts (“toots”) and even quote toot — a feature Twitter expats have been missing. You can also access more advanced functions like lists, filters, an explore tab and more.