There’s more: Google is also said to be developing a censored news app for China

Can Google’s week get any worse? Less than a day after the revelation that it is planning a censored search engine for China, so comes another: the U.S. firm is said to be developing a government-friendly news app for the country, where its search engine and other services remain blocked.

That’s according to The Information which reports that Google is essentially cloning Toutiao, the hugely popular app from new media startup ByteDance, in a bid to get back into the country and the minds of its 700 million mobile internet users. Like Toutiao, the app would apparently use AI and algorithms to serve stories to readers — as opposed to real-life human editors — while it too would be designed to work within the bounds of Chinese internet censorship.

That last part is interesting because ByteDance and other news apps have gotten into trouble from the government for failing to adequately police the content shared on their platforms. That’s resulted in some app store suspensions, but the saga itself is a rite of passage for any internet service that has gained mainstream option, so there’s a silver lining in there. But the point for Google is that policing this content is not as easy as it may seem.

The Information said the news app is slated for release before the search app, the existence of which was revealed yesterday, but sources told the publication that the ongoing U.S.-China trade war has made things complicated. Specifically, Google executives have “struggled to further engage” China’s internet censor, a key component for the release of an app in China from an overseas company.

There’s plenty of context to this, as I wrote yesterday:

The Intercept’s report comes less than a week after Facebook briefly received approval to operate a subsidiary on Chinese soil. Its license was, however, revoked as news of the approval broke. The company said it had planned to open an innovation center, but it isn’t clear whether that will be possible now.

Facebook previously built a censorship-friendly tool that could be deployed in China.

While its U.S. peer has struggled to get a read on China, Google has been noticeably increasing its presence in the country over the past year or so.

The company has opened an AI lab in Beijing, been part of investment rounds for Chinese companies, including a $550 million deal with JD.com, and inked a partnership with Tencent. It has also launched products, with a file management service for Android distributed via third-party app stores and, most recently, its first mini program for Tencent’s popular WeChat messaging app.

As for Google, the company pointed us to the same statement it issued yesterday:

We provide a number of mobile apps in China, such as Google Translate and Files Go, help Chinese developers, and have made significant investments in Chinese companies like JD.com. But we don’t comment on speculation about future plans.

Despite two-for-one value on that PR message, this is a disaster. Plotting to collude with governments to censor the internet never goes down well, especially in double helpings.

Apple’s App Store revenue nearly double that of Google Play in first half of 2018

Apple’s App Store continues to outpace Google Play on revenue. In the first half of the year, the App Store generated nearly double the revenue of Google Play on half the downloads, according to a new report from Sensor Tower out today. In terms of dollars and cents, that’s $22.6 billion in worldwide gross app revenue on the App Store versus $11.8 billion for Google Play – or, 1.9 times more spent on the App Store compared with what was spent on Google Play.

This trend is not new. Apple’s iOS store has consistently generated more revenue than its Android counterpart for years due to a number of factors – including the fact that Android users historically have spent less on apps than iOS users, as well as the fact that there are other Android app stores consumer can shop – like the Amazon Appstore or Samsung Store, for example. In addition, Google Play is not available in China, but Apple’s App Store is.

Last year, consumer spending on the App Store reached $38.5 billion, again nearly double that of Google Play’s $20.1 billion.

As the new figures for the first half of 2018 indicate, consumer spending is up this year.

Sensor Tower estimates it has increased by 26.8 percent on iOS compared with the same period in 2017, and it’s up by 29.7 percent on Google Play.

The growth in spending can be partly attributed to subscription apps like Netflix, Tencent Video, and even Tinder, as has been previously reported.

Subscription-based apps are big businesses these days, having helped to boost app revenue in 2017 by 77 percent to reach $781 million, according to an earlier study. Netflix was also 2017’s top non-game app by revenue, and recently became ranked as the top (non-game) app of all-time by worldwide consumer spend, according to App Annie’s App Store retrospective.

Many of the other all-time top apps following Netflix were also subscription-based, including Spotify (#2), Pandora (#3), Tencent Video (#4), Tinder (#5), and HBO NOW (#8), for example.

And Netflix is again the top non-game app by consumer spending in the first half of 2018, notes Sensor Tower.

Game spending, however, continues to account for a huge chunk of revenue.

Consumer spending on games grew 19.1 percent in the first half of 2018 to $26.6 billion across both stores, representing roughly 78 percent of the total spent ($16.3 billion on the App Store and $10.3 billion on Google Play). Honor of Kings from Tencent, Monster Strike from Mixi, and Fate/Grand Order from Sony Aniplex were the top grossing games across both stores.

App downloads were also up in the first half of the year, if by a smaller percentage.

Worldwide first-time app installs grew to 51 billion in 1H18, or up 11.3 percent compared with the same time last year, when downloads were then 45.8 billion across the two app stores.

Facebook led the way on this front with WhatsApp, Messenger, Facebook and Instagram as the top four apps across both the App Store and Google Play combined. The most downloaded games were PUBG Mobile from Tencent, Helix Jump from Voodoo, and Subway Surfers from Kiloo.

Google Play app downloads were up a bit more (13.1 percent vs iOS’s 10.6 percent) year-over-year due to Android’s reach in developing markets, reaching 36 billion. That’s around 2.4 times the App Store’s 15 billion.

Despite this, Apple’s platform still earned more than double the revenue with fewer than half the downloads, which is remarkable. And it can’t all be chalked up to China. (The country contributed about 31.7 percent of the App Store revenue last quarter, or $7.1 billion, to give you an idea.)

Sensor Tower tells TechCrunch that even if China was removed from the picture, the App Store would have generated $15.4 billion gross revenue for first half of 2018, which is still about 30 percent higher than Google Play’s $11.8 billion.

InVision mobile app updates include studio features and desktop to mobile mirroring

InVision, the software a service challenger to Adobe’s design dominance, has just released a new version of its mobile app for iOS and is beta-testing new features for Android users as it tries to bring additional functionality to designers on-the-go.

The new app tools feature “studio mirroring” for reviews of new designs directly on mobile devices, so that designers can see design changes to applications made on the desktop display on mobile in real time.

The mirroring feature works by scanning a QR code on a mobile device which lets users view design changes and test user experiences immediately.

The company is also bringing its Freehand support — which allows for collaborative commenting on design prototypes to tablets so teams can comment on the fly, the company said.

The tools will give InVision another arrow in its quiver as it tries to take on other design platforms (notably the 100 pound gorilla known as Adobe) and are a useful addition to a service that’s trying to woo the notoriously fickle design community with an entire toolkit.

As we wrote in May when the company launched its app store:

While collaboration is the bread and butter of InVision’s business, and the only revenue stream for the company, CEO and founder Clark Valberg feels that it isn’t enough to be complementary to the current design tool ecosystem. Which is why InVision launched Studio in late 2017, hoping to take on Adobe and Sketch head-on with its own design tool.

Studio differentiates itself by focusing on the designer’s real-life workflow, which often involves mocking up designs in one app, pulling assets from another, working on animations and transitions in another, and then stitching the whole thing together to share for collaboration across InVision Cloud. Studio aims to bring all those various services into a single product, and a critical piece of that mission is building out an app store and asset store with the services too sticky for InVision to rebuild from Scratch, such as Slack or Atlassian .

Apple’s Shortcuts will flip the switch on Siri’s potential

At WWDC, Apple pitched Shortcuts as a way to ”take advantage of the power of apps” and ”expose quick actions to Siri.” These will be suggested by the OS, can be given unique voice commands, and will even be customizable with a dedicated Shortcuts app.

But since this new feature won’t let Siri interpret everything, many have been lamenting that Siri didn’t get much better — and is still lacking compared to Google Assistant or Amazon Echo.

But to ignore Shortcuts would be missing out on the bigger picture. Apple’s strengths have always been the device ecosystem and the apps that run on them.

With Shortcuts, both play a major role in how Siri will prove to be a truly useful assistant and not just a digital voice to talk to.

Your Apple devices just got better

For many, voice assistants are a nice-to-have, but not a need-to-have.

It’s undeniably convenient to get facts by speaking to the air, turning on the lights without lifting a finger, or triggering a timer or text message – but so far, studies have shown people don’t use much more than these on a regular basis.

People don’t often do more than that because the assistants aren’t really ready for complex tasks yet, and when your assistant is limited to tasks inside your home or commands spoken inton your phone, the drawbacks prevent you from going deep.

If you prefer Alexa, you get more devices, better reliability, and a breadth of skills, but there’s not a great phone or tablet experience you can use alongside your Echo. If you prefer to have Google’s Assistant everywhere, you must be all in on the Android and Home ecosystem to get the full experience too.

Plus, with either option, there are privacy concerns baked into how both work on a fundamental level – over the web.

In Apple’s ecosystem, you have Siri on iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, AirPods, HomePod, CarPlay, and any Mac. Add in Shortcuts on each of those devices (except Mac, but they still have Automator) and suddenly you have a plethora of places to execute these all your commands entirely by voice.

Each accessory that Apple users own will get upgraded, giving Siri new ways to fulfill the 10 billion and counting requests people make each month (according to Craig Federighi’s statement on-stage at WWDC).

But even more important than all the places where you can use your assistant is how – with Shortcuts, Siri gets even better with each new app that people download. There’s the other key difference: the App Store.

Actions are the most important part of your apps

iOS has always had a vibrant community of developers who create powerful, top-notch applications that push the system to its limits and take advantage of the ever-increasing power these mobile devices have.

Shortcuts opens up those capabilities to Siri – every action you take in an app can be shared out with Siri, letting people interact right there inline or using only their voice, with the app running everything smoothly in the background.

Plus, the functional approach that Apple is taking with Siri creates new opportunities for developers provide utility to people instead of requiring their attention. The suggestions feature of Shortcuts rewards “acceleration”, showing the apps that provide the most time savings and use for the user more often.

This opens the door to more specialized types of apps that don’t necessarily have to grow a huge audience and serve them ads – if you can make something that helps people, Shortcuts can help them use your app more than ever before (and without as much effort). Developers can make a great experience for when people visit the app, but also focus on actually doing something useful too.

This isn’t a virtual assistant that lives in the cloud, but a digital helper that can pair up with the apps uniquely taking advantage of Apple’s hardware and software capabilities to truly improve your use of the device.

In the most groan-inducing way possible, “there’s an app for that” is back and more important than ever. Not only are apps the centerpiece of the Siri experience, but it’s their capabilities that extend Siri’s – the better the apps you have, the better Siri can be.

Control is at your fingertips

Importantly, Siri gets all of this Shortcuts power while keeping the control in each person’s hands.

All of the information provided to the system is securely passed along by individual apps – if something doesn’t look right, you can just delete the corresponding app and the information is gone.

Siri will make recommendations based on activities deemed relevant by the apps themselves as well, so over-active suggestions shouldn’t be common (unless you’re way too active in some apps, in which case they added Screen Time for you too).

Each of the voice commands is custom per user as well, so people can ignore their apps suggestions and set up the phrases to their own liking. This means nothing is already “taken” because somebody signed up for the skill first (unless you’ve already used it yourself, of course).

Also, Shortcuts don’t require the web to work – the voice triggers might not work, but the suggestions and Shortcuts app give you a place to use your assistant voicelessly. And importantly, Shortcuts can use the full power of the web when they need to.

This user-centric approach paired with the technical aspects of how Shortcuts works gives Apple’s assistant a leg up for any consumers who find privacy important. Essentially, Apple devices are only listening for “Hey Siri”, then the available Siri domains + your own custom trigger phrases.

Without exposing your information to the world or teaching a robot to understand everything, Apple gave Siri a slew of capabilities that in many ways can’t be matched. With Shortcuts, it’s the apps, the operating system, and the variety of hardware that will make Siri uniquely qualified come this fall.

Plus, the Shortcuts app will provide a deeper experience for those who want to chain together actions and customize their own shortcuts.

There’s lots more under the hood to experiment with, but this will allow anyone to tweak & prod their Siri commands until they have a small army of custom assistant tasks at the ready.

Hey Siri, let’s get started

Siri doesn’t know all, Can’t perform any task you bestow upon it, and won’t make somewhat uncanny phone calls on your behalf.

But instead of spending time conversing with a somewhat faked “artificial intelligence”, Shortcuts will help people use Siri as an actual digital assistant – a computer to help them get things done better than they might’ve otherwise.

With Siri’s new skills extendeding to each of your Apple products (except for Apple TV and the Mac, but maybe one day?), every new device you get and every new app you download can reveal another way to take advantage of what this technology can offer.

This broadening of Siri may take some time to get used to – it will be about finding the right place for it in your life.

As you go about your apps, you’ll start seeing and using suggestions. You’ll set up a few voice commands, then you’ll do something like kick off a truly useful shortcut from your Apple Watch without your phone connected and you’ll realize the potential.

This is a real digital assistant, your apps know how to work with it, and it’s already on many of your Apple devices. Now, it’s time to actually make use of it.

iOS App Store has seen over 170B downloads, over $130B in revenue since July 2010

The App Store has seen over 170 billion downloads over the past decade, totaling over $130 billion in consumer spend. This data was shared this morning by app intelligence firm App Annie, which is marking the App Store’s 10th Anniversary with a look back on the store’s growth and the larger trends it’s seen. These figures aren’t the full picture, however – the App Store launched on July 10, 2008 with just 500 applications, but App Annie arrived in 2010. The historical data for this report, therefore, goes from July 2010 through December 2017.

That means the true numbers are even higher that what App Annie can confirm.

The report paints a picture of the continued growth of the App Store over the years, noting that iOS App Store revenue growth outpaces downloads, and that nearly doubled between 2015 to 2017.

iOS device owners apparently love to spend on apps, too.

The iOS App Store only has a 30 percent share of worldwide downloads, but accounts for 66 percent of consumer spend, the report says.

But this isn’t a complete picture of the iOS vs. Android battle, as Google Play isn’t available in China. App Annie’s data is incomplete on this front as it’s not accounting for the third-party Android app stores in China.

China today plays an outsized role, as App Annie has repeatedly reported, in terms of App Store revenue, even without Google Play. In fact, the APAC region accounts for nearly 60 percent of consumer spend – a trend that began in earnest with the October 2014 release of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus in China.

But when you look back at the App Store trends to date (or, as of July 2010 – which is as far back as App Annie’s data goes), it’s the U.S. that leads by a slim margin. China has quickly caught up but the U.S. is still the top country for all-time downloads, with 40.1 billion to China’s 39.9 billion; and it has generated $36 billion in consumer spend to China’s $27.7 billion.

iPhone users are heavy app users, too, the report notes.

In several markets, users have 100 or more apps installed, including Australia, India, China, Germany, Brazil, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, and France. The U.S., U.K., and Mexico come close, with 96, 90, and 89 average monthly apps installed in 2017, respectively.

Of course the numbers of apps used monthly are much smaller, but still range in the high 30’s to low 40’s, App Annie claims.

The report additionally examines the impact of games, which accounted for only 31 percent of downloads in 2017, but generated 75 percent of the revenue. The APAC regions plays a large role here as well, with 3.4 billion game downloads last year, and $19.3 billion in consumer spend.

Subscriptions, meanwhile, are a newer trend, but one that’s already boosting App Store revenues considerably, accounting for $10.6 billion in consumer spend in 2017. This is driven mainly by media streaming apps like Netflix, Pandora, and Tencent Video, for example, but Tinder makes a notable showing as one of the top five worldwide apps by revenue.

Thanks to subscriptions and other trends, App Annie predicts the worldwide iOS App Store revenue will grow 80 percent from 2017 to $75.7 billion by 2022.

And while the App Store today has over 2 million apps, it has seen over 4.5 million apps released on its store to date. Many of these have been removed by Apple or the developers, which is why the number of live apps is so much lower.

The full report with the charts included is here.

Apple will add government App Store takedown requests to transparency reports

Apple’s set to up the ante with its transparency report. The same day it dropped the latest version of the twice-yearly document, the company committed to including in future updates government takedown requests for the App Store. The report covering July 1 through December 31 of this year, which is due out in 2019, should be the first to detail that information.

The information should prove a valuable insight into both Apple’s activities and the asks of governments around the world. Future reports will detail the specific government that issued the request, along with whether or not the company ultimately complied.

No word yet on whether the company will detail the specific apps. That would certainly prove even more informative, as far as the motivation behind said request. In the Government and Private Party Requests portion of this most recent document, Apple briefly notes that it, “will report on Government requests to take down Apps from the App Store in instances related to alleged violations of legal and/or policy provisions.”

For this report, the company notes broader government requests, saying it received in excess of 16,000 national security requests, marking a 20 percent increase during the same time frame a year prior. As Reuters notes, the company is hardly alone on this one — both Facebook and Google have been hit with a substantial increase in requests.

As governments around the world take increasing interest in the tech world, that number seems likely to increase further.

For Apple, this year’s Global Accessibility Awareness Day is all about education

Following Apple’s education event in Chicago in March, I wrote about what the company’s announcements might mean for accessibility. After sitting in the audience covering the event, the big takeaway I had was Apple could “make serious inroads in furthering special education as well.” As I wrote, despite how well-designed the Classroom and Schoolwork apps seemingly are, Apple should do more to tailor their new tools to better serve students and educators in special education settings. After all, accessibility and special education are inextricably tied.

It turns out, Apple has, unsurprisingly, considered this.

“In many ways, education and accessibility beautifully overlap,” Sarah Herrlinger, Apple’s Senior Director of Global Accessibility Policy and Initiatives, said to me. “For us, the concept of differentiated learning and how the accessibility tools that we build in [to the products] help make that [learning] possible is really important to us.”

Apple’s philosophy toward accessibility and education isn’t about purposely targeting esoteric use cases such as IEP prep or specialized teaching methodologies.

In fact, Apple says there are many apps on the iOS App Store which do just that. The company instead believes special education students and teachers themselves should take the tools as they are and discover creative uses for them. Apple encourages those in schools to take the all-new, low-cost iPad and the new software and make them into the tools they need to teach and learn. It’s a sentiment that hearkens back how Steve Jobs pitched the original iPad: It’s a slab of metal and glass that can be whatever you wish it to be.

In other words, it’s Apple’s customers who put the ‘I’ in iPad.

In hindsight, Apple’s viewpoint for how they support special education makes total sense if you understand their ethos. Tim Cook often talks about building products that enrich people’s lives — in an education and accessibility context, this sentiment often becomes a literal truism. For many disabled people, iOS and the iPad is the conduit through which they access the world.

Apple ultimately owns the iPad and the message around it, but in actuality it’s the users who really transform it and give it its identity. This is ultimately what makes the tablet exceptional for learning. The device’s design is so inherently accessible that anyone, regardless of ability, can pick it up and go wild.

(Photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images)

Apple’s education team is special

At the March event, one of the onstage presenters was Kathleen Richardson, who works at Apple on their ConnectedED program. She is one of many who work on the company’s education team, whose group is tasked with working with schools and districts in evangelizing and integrating Apple products into their curricula.

I spoke with Meg Wilson, a former special education teacher who now works on education efforts inside Apple. A former Apple Distinguished Educator, Wilson is the resident “special education guru” who provides insight into how special education programs generally run. With that knowledge, she provides guidance on how Apple products can augment the process of individualizing and differentiating educational plans for special ed students.

A focus of our discussion was the Schoolwork app and how it could be used to suit the needs of teachers and support staff. One example Wilson cited was that of a speech therapy session, where a speech pathologist could use Schoolwork not necessarily for handouts, but for monitoring students’ progress toward IEP goals. Instead of the app showing a worksheet for the student to complete, it could show a data-tracking document for the therapist, who is recording info during lessons. “What we need in special ed is data — we need data,” Wilson said. She added Schoolwork can be used to “actually see the progress” students are making right from an iPad without mountains of paper. A key element to this, according to Wilson, is Schoolwork’s ability to modernize and streamline sharing. It makes conferring with other members of the IEP team a more continuous, dynamic endeavor. Rather than everyone convening once a year for an annual review of students’ progress, Wilson said, Schoolwork allows for “an amazing opportunity for collaboration amongst service providers.”

Wilson also emphasized the overarching theme of personalizing the iPad to suit the needs of teacher and student. “When you are creative with technology, you change people’s lives,” she said.

To her, the iPad and, especially, the new software scale for different learners and different environments really well. For special educators, for instance, Wilson said it’s easy to add one’s entire caseload to Schoolwork and have progress reports at the ready anytime. Likewise, the ability in Classroom to “lock” an entire class (or a single student) into an activity on an iPad, which takes its cues from iOS’s Guided Access feature, helps teachers ensure students stay engaged and on task during class. And for students, the intuitive nature of the iPad makes it so that students can instantly share their work with teachers.

But it isn’t only Apple who is changing education. Wilson made the case repeatedly that third-party developers are also making Apple’s solutions for education more compelling. She stressed there are many apps on the App Store that can help in special education settings (IEP prep, communication boards, etc.), and that Apple hears from developers who want to learn about accessibility and, crucially, how to make their apps accessible to all by supporting the discrete Accessibility features. Wilson shared an anecdote of an eye-opening experience for one developer, who expressed the idea of supporting accessibility “didn’t even occur to him,” but doing so made his app better.

One “big idea” that struck me from meeting with Wilson was how diverse Apple’s workforce truly is. Wilson is a former special education teacher. Apple’s health and fitness team reportedly is made up of such medical professionals as doctors and nurses. Apple’s education team is no different, as my conversation with Wilson attested. It’s notable how Apple brings together so many, from all walks of life, to help inform as they build these products. It really does intersect liberal arts with technology.

Apple makes learning code accessible to all

In early March, Lori Hawkins at the Austin American-Statesman reported on how Apple has made its Everyone Can Code program accessible to all. Hawkins wrote that representatives from Apple visited Austin’s Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired to teach students to fly drones with code written in the Swift Playgrounds app. As you’d expect, Swift Playgrounds is fully compatible with VoiceOver and even Switch Control. “When we said everyone should be able to code, we really meant everyone,” Herrlinger told the Statesman. “Hopefully these kids will leave this session and continue coding for a long time. Maybe it can inspire where their careers can go.” Herrlinger also appeared on a panel at the SXSW festival, where she and others discussed coding and accessibility pertaining to Everyone Can Code.

For Global Accessibility Awareness Day this year, Apple has announced that a slew of special education schools are adopting Everyone Can Code into their curricula. In a press release, the company says they “collaborated with engineers, educators, and programmers from various accessibility communities to make Everyone Can Code as accessible as possible.” They also note there are “additional tools and resources” which should aid non-visual learners to better understand coding environments.

In addition to the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Austin, Apple says there are seven other institutions across the country that are implementing the Everyone Can Code curriculum. Among them are two Bay Area schools: the Northern California campuses of the California School for the Blind and the California School for the Deaf, both located in Fremont.

At a special kick-off event at CSD, students were visited by Apple employees — which included CEO Tim Cook — who came to the school to officially announce CSB and CSD’s participation in the Everyone Can Code program.

Students arrived at the school’s media lab for what they believed to be simply another day of coding. In reality, they were in for a  surprise as Tim Cook made his appearance. Members of Apple’s Accessibility team walked students through controlling drones and robots in Swift Playgrounds on an iPad. Cook — along with deaf activist and actor Nyle DiMarco — toured the room to visit with students and have them show off their work.

In an address to students, Cook said, “We are so happy to be here to kick off the Everyone Can Code curriculum with you. We believe accessibility is a fundamental human right and coding is part of that.”

In an interview Cook told me, “Accessibility has been a priority at Apple for a long time.” He continued: “We believe in focusing on ability rather than disability. We believe coding is a language — a language that should be accessible to everyone.” When I asked about any accessibility features he personally uses, Cook said due to hearing issues he likes to use closed-captioning whenever possible. And because he wears glasses, he likes to enlarge text on all of his devices, particularly the iPhone.

Accessibility-related Apple retail events

As in prior years, Apple is spending the month of May promoting accessibility and Global Accessibility Awareness Day by hosting numerous accessibility-centric events at its retail stores across the globe. (These are done throughout the year too.) These include workshops on the accessibility features across all Apple’s platforms, as well as talks and more. Apple says they have held “over 10,000 accessibility sessions” since 2017.

Today, on Global Accessibility Awareness Day 2018, Apple is holding accessibility-related events at several campuses worldwide, including its corporate headquarters in Cupertino, as well as at its satellite campuses in Austin, Cork and London.

App Store shrank for first time in 2017 thanks to crackdowns on spam, clones and more

The App Store shrank for the first time in 2017, according to a new report from Appfigures. The report found the App Store lost 5 percent of its total apps over the course of the year, dropping from 2.2 million iOS apps in the beginning of the year, to 2.1 million by year-end.

Google Play, meanwhile, grew in 2017 – it was up 30% to more than 3.6 million apps.

Appfigures speculated the changes had to do with a combination of factors, including stricter enforcement of Apple’s review guidelines, along with a technical change requiring app developers to update their apps to the 64-bit architecture.

Apple had also promised back in 2016 that it would clean up its iOS App Store by removing outdated, abandoned apps, including those that no longer met current guidelines or didn’t function as intended. That cleanup may have well stretched into 2017, as app store intelligence firms only started seeing the effects in late 2016. For example, there was a spike in app removals back in October 2016.

Then in 2017, Apple went after clones and spam apps on the App Store. Combined with those apps that weren’t 64-compatible and those that hadn’t been downloaded in years, the removals reached into the hundreds of thousands over a twelve month period. Apple later went after template-based apps, too, before dialing back its policies over concerns it was impacting small businesses ability to compete on the App Store.

To see the App Store shrink, given these clear-outs, isn’t necessarily surprising. However, Appfigures found that removals of existing apps weren’t the only cause. iOS developers weren’t releasing as many apps as they had during the growth years, it also claims.

Android developers launched 17 percent more apps in 2017 to reach 1.5 million total new releases. But iOS developers launched just 755,00 new apps – a 29 percent drop and the largest drop since 2008.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean developers weren’t creating as many iOS app – it could mean that Apple’s review team has gotten tougher about how many apps it allows in. Thanks to the spam and clone app crackdown, fewer apps of questionable quality are being approved these days.

In addition, some portion of the new Android app releases during the year were iOS apps being ported to the Google Play platform. More than twice as many apps came to Android on 2017, than Android apps coming to iOS, the report said.

The full report also developed into the numbers of cross-platform apps (450K are on both stores), the most popular non-native tools (Cordova and Unity), the rise in native development, the countries shipping the most apps (U.S. followed by China), and the Play Store’s growth.

It can be viewed here.

 

What Apple’s education announcements mean for accessibility

From an accessibility news standpoint, this week’s Apple event in Chicago was antithetical to the October 2016 event. At the latter event, Apple began the presentation with a bang — showing the actual video being edited using Switch Control in Final Cut. Tim Cook came out afterwards to talk some about Apple’s commitment to serving the disabled community before unveiling the then-new accessibility page on the company’s website.

By contrast, the education-themed event in Chicago this week went by with barely a mention of accessibility. The only specific call-out came during Greg Joswiak’s time on stage talking about iPad, when he said “accessibility features make iPad a learning tool for everyone.”

That doesn’t mean, however, accessibility has no relevance to what was announced.

I was in the audience at Lane Tech College Prep on Tuesday covering the event. As a former special educator –and special education student — I watched with keen interest as Apple told their story around education. While Apple is targeting the mainstream, I came away with strong impressions on how Apple can make serious inroads in furthering special education as well.

It’s Called ‘Special’ for a Reason

Apple is obviously—rightfully—building their educational strategy towards mainstream students in mainstream classes. It’s a classic top-down approach: Teachers assign students work via handouts, for such activities as writing essays or completing science projects. This is the entire reason for Apple’s Classroom and Schoolwork apps. However well-designed, they lack an element.

Where they lack is there is nothing afforded, at least in specific terms, to teachers and students in special education settings. Apple’s strategy here is defined, again, by the classic teacher-student relationship, without any regard for other models. I’m not levying a criticism on the company; this is the reality.

At many levels, special education classrooms do not function in a way that’s conducive to Apple’s vision for learning at this time. In the moderate-to-severe early childhood (Pre-K) classrooms I worked in for close to a decade, the structure was such that most, if not all, activities were augmented by a heavy dose of adult support. Furthermore, most of our students were pulled out of class at certain times for additional services such as speech services and physical/occupational therapy sessions.

In short, there were no lectures or essay prompts anywhere.

This is where accessibility comes in. There is enormous potential for Apple to dig deeper and expand the toolset they offer to educators and students. To accommodate for special education is, in my view, akin to accommodating disabled users by offering accessibility features on each of Apple’s software platforms.

Special education is special for a reason. It involves ways of teaching and learning that are unique, and the people who work and learn in these environments deserve the same consideration.

Accessibility is Apple’s Secret Weapon

Leading up to the event, there was much talk in the Apple community of writers and podcasters that Google is eating Apple’s lunch in the schools market because Chromebooks are dirt cheap for districts and most everyone relies on Google Docs.

I’m not interested in the particulars of this argument. What I am interested in, however, is simply pointing out that despite the perception Apple products are too expensive and less capable, they are better in one meaningful sense: accessibility.

Consider Chromebook versus iPad. In many levels of special education, an iPad is far superior to a Chromebook. The tablet’s multi-touch user interface is far more intuitive, and more importantly, iOS is built with accessibility in mind. From VoiceOver to Dynamic Type to Switch Control and more, an iPad (or an iPod Touch, for that matter) can provide a far more accessible and enriching learning experience for many students with disabilities than a Chromebook. And lest we forget the App Store effect; there are many outstanding apps geared for special ed.

This is a crucial point that many technology pundits who lament Apple’s position in the education market always seem to miss.

Making Special Educators More Special

One area where Apple can greatly improve the lives of teachers is by broadening the Schoolwork app such that it makes IEP prep easier and, playing to Apple’s core strength, more modern. Historically, even today, IEPs are planned and written using stacks of paperwork. Goals, assessments, and consent forms are handwritten (sometimes typed) and stapled together. And being a binding legal document, teachers must ensure there are the proper signatures on every page, or else be dinged for being out of compliance with protocols. In sum: the IEP is the bane of every special educator’s existence because they take so much time.

To this end, Apple could do special education teachers a grand service by adding a module of sorts to its Schoolwork app that would allow them to more easily create and track a student’s IEP. There could be charts for tracking goal progress, as well as ways to collate and distribute documents amongst the IEP team (SLPs, OT/PT, etc) and of course parents. Teachers could even send an email to parents with any consent forms attached and encourage them to sign with Apple Pencil on their iPad, if they have one.

At the very least, it would make IEP prep infinitely more efficient, and perhaps alleviate some of the stress at the actual meetings. Digitizing the process would be game-changing, I think.

Bottom Line

The ideas I’ve outlined here are well within Apple’s wheelhouse. They would likely need to collaborate with special educators and districts on things like IEP forms and policies, but it is certainly within them to do so. They can do this if they want.

To reiterate an earlier point, special education deserves just as much thoughtful consideration and innovation as the education industry at large. Given Apple’s unwavering support of accessibility, this is an area in which they can surely improve.

Mobile gaming is having a moment, and Apple has the reins

It’s moved beyond tradition and into the realm of meme that Apple manages to dominate the news cycle around major industry events, all while not actually participating in said events. CES rolls around and every story is about HomeKit or its competitors; another tech giant has a conference and the news is that Apple updated some random subsystem of its ever-larger ecosystem of devices and software .

This is, undoubtedly, planned by Apple in many instances. And why not? Why shouldn’t it own the cycle when it can — it’s only strategically sound.

This week, the 2018 Game Developers Conference is going on and there’s a bunch of news coverage about various aspects of the show. There are all of the pre-written embargo bits about big titles and high-profile indies, there are the trend pieces and, of course, there’s the traditional ennui-laden “who is this event even for” post that accompanies any industry event that achieves critical mass.

But the absolute biggest story of the event wasn’t even at the event. It was the launch of Fortnite and, shortly thereafter, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds on mobile devices. Specifically, both were launched on iOS, and PUBG hit Android simultaneously.

The launch of Fortnite, especially, resonates across the larger gaming spectrum in several unique ways. It’s the full and complete game as present on consoles, it’s iOS-first and it supports cross-platform play with console and PC players.

This has, essentially, never happened before. There have been stabs at one or more of those conditions on experimental levels, but it really marks a watershed in the games industry that could serve to change the psychology around the platform discussion in major ways. 

For one, though the shape of GDC has changed over the years as it relates to mobile gaming, it’s only recently that the conference has become dominated by indie titles that are mobile centric. The big players and triple-A console titles still take up a lot of air, but the long tail is very long and mobile is not synonymous with “casual gamers” as it once was.

I remember the GDC before we launched Monument Valley,” says Dan Gray of Monument Valley 2 studio ustwo. “We were fortunate enough that Unity offered us a place on their stand. Nobody had heard of us or our game and we were begging journalists to come say hello, it’s crazy how things have changed in four years. We’ve now got three speakers at the conference this year, people stop you in the street (within a two-block radius) and we’re asked to be part of interviews like this about the future of mobile.”

Zach Gage, the creator of SpellTower, and my wife’s favorite game of all time, Flipflop Solitaire, says that things feel like they have calmed down a bit. “It seems like that might be boring, but actually I think it’s quite exciting, because a consequence of it is that playing games has become just a normal thing that everyone does… which frankly, is wild. Games have never had the cultural reach that they do now, and it’s largely because of the App Store and these magical devices that are in everyone’s pockets.”

Alto’s Odyssey is the followup to Snowman’s 2015 endless boarder Alto’s Adventure. If you look at these two titles, three years apart, you can see the encapsulation of the growth and maturity of gaming on iOS. The original game was fun, but the newer title is beyond fun and into a realm where you can see the form being elevated into art. And it’s happening blazingly fast.

“There’s a real and continually growing sense that mobile is a platform to launch compelling, artful experiences,” says Snowman’s Ryan Cash. “This has always been the sentiment among the really amazing community of developers we’ve been lucky enough to meet. What’s most exciting to me, now, though, is hearing this acknowledged by representatives of major console platforms. Having conversations with people about their favorite games from the past year, and seeing that many of them are titles tailor-made for mobile platforms, is really gratifying. I definitely don’t want to paint the picture that mobile gaming has ever been some sort of pariah, but there’s a definite sense that more people are realizing how unique an experience it is to play games on these deeply personal devices.”

Mobile gaming as a whole has fought since the beginning against the depiction that it was for wasting time only, not making “true art,” which was reserved for consoles or dedicated gaming platforms. Aside from the “casual” versus “hardcore” debate, which is more about mechanics, there was a general stigma that mobile gaming was a sidecar bet to the main functions of these devices, and that their depth would always reflect that. But the narratives and themes being tackled on the platform beyond just clever mechanics are really incredible.

Playing Monument Valley 2 together with my daughter really just blew my doors off, and I think it changed a lot of people’s minds in this regard. The interplay between the characters and environment and a surprisingly emotional undercurrent for a puzzle game made it a breakout that was also a breakthrough of sorts.

“There’s so many things about games that are so awesome that the average person on the street doesn’t even know about,” says Gray. “As small developers right now we have the chance to make somebody feel a range of emotions about a video game for the first time, it’s not often you’re in the right place at the right time for this and to do it with the most personal device that sits in your pocket is the perfect opportunity.”

The fact that so many of the highest-profile titles are launching on iOS first is a constant source of consternation for Android users, but it’s largely a function of addressable audience.

I spoke to Apple VP Greg Joswiak about Apple’s place in the industry. “Gaming has always been one of the most popular categories on the App Store,” he says. A recent relaunch of the App Store put gaming into its own section and introduced a Today tab that tells stories about the games and about their developers.

That redesign, he says, has been effective. “Traffic to the App Store is up significantly, and with higher traffic, of course, comes higher sales.”

“One thing I think smaller developers appreciate from this is the ability to show the people behind the games,” says ustwo’s Gray about the new gaming and Today sections in the App Store. “Previously customers would just see an icon and assume a corporation of 200 made the game, but now it’s great we can show this really is a labor of love for a small group of people who’re trying to make something special. Hopefully this leads to players seeing the value in paying up front for games in the future once they can see the craft that goes into something.”

Snowman’s Cash agrees. “It’s often hard to communicate the why behind the games you’re making — not just what your game is and does, but how much went into making it, and what it could mean to your players. The stories that now sit on the Today tab are a really exciting way to do this; as an example, when Alto’s Odyssey released for pre-order, we saw a really positive player response to the discussion of the game’s development. I think the variety that the new App Store encourages as well, through rotational stories and regularly refreshed sections, infuses a sense of variety that’s great for both players and developers. There’s a real sense I’m hearing that this setup is equipped to help apps and games surface, and stayed surfaced, in a longer term and more sustainable way.”

In addition, there are some technical advantages that keep Apple ahead of Android in this arena. Plenty of Android devices are very performant and capable in individual ways, but Apple has a deep holistic grasp of its hardware that allows it to push platform advantages in introducing new frameworks like ARKit. Google’s efforts in the area with ARCore are just getting started with the first batch of 1.0 apps coming online now, but Google will always be hamstrung by the platform fragmentation that forces developers to target a huge array of possible software and hardware limitations that their apps and games will run up against.

This makes shipping technically ambitious projects like Fortnite on Android as well as iOS a daunting task. “There’s a very wide range of Android devices that we want to support,” Epic Games’ Nick Chester told Forbes. “We want to make sure Android players have a great experience, so we’re taking more time to get it right.“

That wide range of devices includes an insane differential in GPU capability, processing power, Android version and update status.

“We bring a very homogenous customer base to developers where 90 percent of [devices] are on the current versions of iOS,” says Joswiak. Apple’s customers embrace those changes and updates quickly, he says, and this allows developers to target new features and the full capabilities of the devices more quickly.

Ryan Cash sees these launches on iOS of “full games” as they exist elsewhere as a touchstone of sorts that could legitimize the idea of mobile as a parity platform.

“We have a few die-hard Fortnite players on the team, and the mobile version has them extremely excited,” says Cash. “I think more than the completeness of these games (which is in and of itself a technical feat worth celebrating!), things like Epic’s dedication to cross-platform play are massive. Creating these linked ecosystems where players who prefer gaming on their iPhones can enjoy huge cultural touchstone titles like Fortnite alongside console players is massive. That brings us one step closer to an industry attitude which focuses more on accessibility, and less on siloing off experiences and separating them into tiers of perceived quality.”

“I think what is happening is people are starting to recognize that iOS devices are everywhere, and they are the primary computers of many people,” says Zach Gage. “When people watch a game on Twitch, they take their iPhone out of their pocket and download it. Not because they want to know if there’s a mobile version, but because they just want the game. It’s natural to assume that these games available for a computer or a PlayStation, and it’s now natural to assume that it would be available for your phone.”

Ustwo’s Gray says that it’s great that the big games are transitioning, but also cautions that there needs to be a sustainable environment for mid-priced games on iOS that specifically use the new capabilities of these devices.

“It’s great that such huge games are transitioning this way, but for me I’d really like to see more $30+ titles designed and developed specifically for iPhone and iPad as new IP, really taking advantage of how these devices are used,” he says. “It’s definitely going to benefit the App Store as a whole, but It does need to be acknowledged, however, that the way players interact with console/PC platforms and mobile are inherently different and should be designed accordingly. Session lengths and the interaction vocabulary of players are two of the main things to consider, but if a game manages to somehow satisfy the benefits of all those platforms then great, but I think it’s hard.”

Apple may not be an official sponsor of GDC, but it is hosting two sessions at the show, including an introduction to Metal 2, its rendering pipeline, and ARKit, its hope for the future of gaming on mobile. This presence is exciting for a number of reasons, as it shows a greater willingness by Apple to engage the community that has grown around its platforms, but also that the industry is becoming truly integrated, with mobile taking its rightful place alongside console and portable gaming as a viable target for the industry’s most capable and interesting talent.

“They’re bringing the current generation of console games to iOS,” Joswiak says, of launches like Fortnite and PUBG, and notes that he believes we’re at a tipping point when it comes to mobile gaming, because mobile platforms like the iPhone and iOS offer completely unique combinations of hardware and software features that are iterated on quickly.

“Every year we are able to amp up the tech that we bring to developers,” he says, comparing it to the 4-5 year cycle in console gaming hardware. “Before the industry knew it, we were blowing people away [with the tech]. The full gameplay of these titles has woken a lot of people up.”