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The danger of “I already pay for Apple News+”

Apple doesn’t care about news, it cares about recurring revenue. That’s why publishers are crazy to jump into bed with Apple News+. They’re rendering their own subscription options unnecessary in exchange for a sliver of what Apple pays out from the mere $10 per month it charges for unlimited reading.

The unfathomable platform risk here makes Facebook’s exploitative Instant Articles program seem toothless in comparison. On Facebook, publishers became generic providers of dumb content for the social network’s smart pipe that stole the customer relationship from content creators. But at least publishers were only giving away their free content.

Apple News+ threatens to open a massive hole in news site paywalls, allowing their best premium articles to escape. Publishers hope they’ll get exposure to new audiences. But any potential new or existing direct subscriber to a publisher will no longer be willing to pay a healthy monthly fee to occasionally access that top content while supporting the rest of the newsroom. They’ll just cherry pick what they want via News+, and Apple will shave off a few cents for the publisher while owning all the data, customer relationship, and power.

“Why subscribe to that publisher? I already pay for Apple News+” should be the question haunting journalists’ nightmares. For readers, $10 per month all-you-can-eat from 300-plus publishers sounds like a great deal today. But it could accelerate the demise of some of those outlets, leaving society with fewer watchdogs and storytellers. If publishers agree to the shake hands with the devil, the dark lord will just garner more followers, making its ruinous offer more tempting.

There are so many horrifying aspects of Apple News+ for publishers, it’s best just to list each and break them down.

No Relationship With The Reader

To succeed, publishers need attention, data, and revenue, and Apple News+ gets in the way of all three. Readers visit Apple’s app, not the outlet’s site that gives it free rein to promote conference tickets, merchandise, research reports, and other money-makers. Publishers don’t get their Apple News+ readers’ email addresses for follow-up marketing, cookies for ad targeting and content personalization, or their credit card info to speed up future purchases.

At the bottom of articles, Apple News+ recommends posts by an outlet’s competitors. Readers end up without a publisher’s bookmark in their browser toolbar, app on their phone, or even easy access to them from News+’s default tab. They won’t see the outlet’s curation that highlights its most important content, or develop a connection with its home screen layout. They’ll miss call outs to follow individual reporters and chances to interact with innovative new interactive formats.

Perhaps worst of all, publishers will be thrown right back into the coliseum of attention. They’ll need to debase their voice and amp up the sensationalism of their headlines or risk their users straying an inch over to someone else. But they’ll have no control of how they’re surfaced…

At The Mercy Of The Algorithm

Which outlets earn money on Apple News+ will be largely determined by what Apple decides to show in those first few curatorial slots on screen. At any time, Apple could decide it wants more visual photo-based content or less serious world news because it placates users even if they’re less informed. It could suddenly preference shorter takes because they keep people from bouncing out of the app, or more generic shallow-dives that won’t scare off casual readers who don’t even care about that outlet. What if Apple signs up a publisher’s biggest competitor and sends them all the attention, decimating the first outlet’s discovery while still exposing its top paywalled content for cheap access?

Remember when Facebook wanted to build the world’s personalized newspaper and delivered tons of referral traffic, then abruptly decided to favor “friends and family content” while leaving publishers to starve? Now outlets are giving Apple News+ the same iron grip on their businesses. They might hire a ton of talent to give Apple what it wants, only for the strategy to change. The Wall Street Journal says it’s hiring 50 staffers to make content specifically for Apple News+. Those sound like some of the most precarious jobs in the business right now.

Remember when Facebook got the WSJ, Guardian, and more to build “social reader apps” and then one day just shut off the virality and then shut down the whole platform? News+ revenue will be a drop in bucket of iPhone sales, and Apple could at any time decide it’s not thirsty any more and let News+ rot. That and the eventual realization of platform risk and loss of relationship with the reader led the majority of Facebook’s Instant Articles launch partners like the New York Times, Washington Post, and Vox to drop the format. Publishers would be wise to come to that same conclusion now before they drive any more eyeballs to News+.

News+ Isn’t Built For News

Apple acquired the magazine industry’s self-distribution app Texture a year ago. Now it’s trying to cram in traditional text-based news with minimal work to adapt the product. That means National Geographic and Sports Illustrated get featured billing with animated magazine covers and ways to browse the latest ‘issue’. News outlets get demoted far below, with no intuitive or productive way to skim between articles beyond swiping through a chronological stack.

I only see WSJ’s content below My Magazines, a massive At Home feature from Architectural Digest, a random Gadgets & Gear section of magazine articles, another huge call out for the new issue of The Cut plus four pieces inside of it, and one more giant look at Bloomberg’s profile of Dow Chemical. That means those magazines are likely to absorb a ton of taps and engagement time before users even make it to the WSJ, which will then only score few cents per reader.

Magazines often publish big standalone features that don’t need a ton of context. News articles are part of a continuum of information that can be laid out on a publisher’s own site where they have control but not on Apple News+. And to make articles more visually appealing, Apple strips out some of the cross-promotional recirculation, sign-up forms, and commerce opportunities depend on.

Shattered Subscriptions

The whole situation feels like the music industry stumbling into the disastrous iTunes download era. Musicians earned solid revenue when someone bought their whole physical album for $16 to listen to the single, then fell in love with the other songs and ended up buying merchandise or concert tickets. Then suddenly, fans could just buy the digital single for $0.99 from iTunes, form a bond with Apple instead of the artist, and the whole music business fell into a depression.

Apple News+’s onerous revenue sharing deal puts publishers in the same pickle. That occasional flagship article that’s a breakout success no longer serves as a tentpole for the rest of the subscription.

Formerly, people would need to pay $30 per month for a WSJ subscription to read that article, with the price covering the research, reporting, and production of the whole newspaper. Readers felt justified paying the price since the got access to the other content, and the WSJ got to keep all the money even if people didn’t read much else or declined to even visit during the month. Now someone can pop in, read the WSJ’s best or most resource-intensive article, and the publisher effectively gets paid a la carte like with an iTunes single. Publishers will be scrounging for a cut of readers’ $10 per month, which will reportedly be divided in half by Apple’s oppressive 50 percent cut, then split between all the publishers someone reads — which will be heavily skewed towards the magazines that get the spotlight.

I’ve already had friends ask why they should keep paying if most of the WSJ is in Apple News along with tons of other publishers for a third of the price. Hardcore business news addicts that want unlimited access to the finance content that’s only available for three days in Apple News+ might keep their WSJ subscription. But anyone just in it for the highlights is likely to stop paying WSJ directly or never start.

I’m personally concerned because TechCrunch has agreed to put its new Extra Crunch $15 per month subscription content inside Apple News+ despite all the warning signs. We’re saving some perks like access to conference calls just for direct Extra Crunch subscribers, and perhaps a taste of EC’s written content might convince people they want the bonus features. But even more likely seems the possibility that readers would balk at paying again for just some extra perks when they already get the rest from Apple News, and many newsrooms aren’t set up to do anything but write articles.

It’s the “good enough” strategy we see across tech products playing out in news. When Instagram first launched Stories, it lacked a ton of Snapchat’s features, but it was good enough and conveniently located where people already spent their time and had their social graph. Snapchat didn’t suddenly lose all its users, but there was little reason for new users to sign up and growth plummetted.

Apple News is pre-loaded on your device, where you already have a credit card set up, and it’s bundled with lots of content, at a cheaper price that most individual news outlets. Even if it doesn’t offer unlimited, permanent access to every WSJ Pro story, Apple News+ will be good enough. And it gets better with each outlet that allies with this Borg.

But this time, good enough won’t just determine which tech giant wins. Apple News+ could decimate the revenue of a fundamental pillar of society we rely on to hold the powerful accountable. Yet to the journalists that surrender their content, Apple will have no accountability.

The updated Apple News app keeps crashing for some users

While you’ll have to wait for a not-yet-announced date to pay a not-yet-announced price for many of the subscription services that Apple announced yesterday, Apple News+ actually launched pretty quickly … and then started crashing.

At least, that was my experience this morning after I updated my iPad to iOS 12.2, then reinstalled and opened the News app. The app started loading, then kicked me out a few seconds later. Then it did it again, and again, and again.

It’s not clear how widespread the issue is, but my colleague Matt Burns had a similar experience on his iPhone 8, and a number of other users seem to be tweeting about their own crashes on iPads, iPhones and Macs.

There are, however, reports that you can circumvent the issue by immediately selecting the News+ tab and letting load.

In fact, I managed to do that myself, so that I could sign-up for the new $9.99 subscription (which includes TechCrunch’s own Extra Crunch). I appear to have subscribed successfully — only to have the app start crashing on me again. Not the most auspicious start for a paid product, and one that’s already spurring debate about whether or not it can help the news industry.

We’ve reached out to Apple and will update if we hear back (or if the company makes a public statement elsewhere).

Apple TV+ makes Facebook Watch look like a joke

Apple flexed its wallet today in a way Facebook has scared to do. Tech giants make money by the billions, not the millions, which should give them an easy way to break into premium video distribution: buy some must-see content. That’s the strategy I’ve been advocating for Facebook but that Apple actually took to heart. Tim Cook wrote lines of zeros on some checks, and suddenly Steven Spielberg, JJ Abrams, Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston, and Oprah became the well-known faces of Apple TV+.

Facebook Watch has…MTV’s The Real World? The other Olsen sister? Re-runs of Buffy The Vampire Slayer? Actually, Facebook Watch is dominated by the kind of low-quality viral video memes the social network announced it would kick out of its News Feed for wasting people’s time.

And so while Apple TV+ at least has a solid base camp from which to make the uphill climb to compete with Netflix, Facebook Watch feels like it’s tripping over its own feet.

Today, Apple gave a preview of its new video subscription service that will launch in fall offering unlimited access to old favorites and new exclusives for a monthly fee. Yet even without any screenshots or pricing info, Apple still got people excited by dangling its big-name content.

Spielberg is making short films out of the Amazing Stories anthology that inspired him as a child. Abrams is spinning a tale of a musician’s rise called Little Voice Witherspoon and Aniston star in The Morning Show about anchoring a news program. And Oprah is bringing documentaries about workplace harassment and mental health.

This tentpole tactic will see Apple try to draw users into a free trial of Apple TV+ with this must-see content and then convince them to stay. And a compelling, exclusive reason to watch is exactly what’s been missing from…Facebook Watch. Instead, it chose to fund a wide array of often unscripted reality and documentary shorts that never felt special or any better than what else was openly available on the Internet, let alone what you could get from a subscription. It now claims to have 75 million people Watching at least one minute per day, but it’s failed to spawn a zeitgeist moment. Even as Facebook has scrambled to add syndicated TV cult favorites like Firefly or soccer matches to free, ad-supported video service, it’s failed to sign on anything truly newsworthy.

That’s just not going to fly anymore. Tech has evolved past the days when media products could win just based on their design, theoretical virality, or the massive audiences they’re cross-promoted to. We’re anything but starved for things to watch or listen to. And if you want us to frequent one more app or sign up for one more subscription, you’ll need A-List talent that makes us take notice. Netflix has Stranger Things. HBO has Game Of Thrones. Amazon has the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Disney+ has…Marvel, Star Wars, and the princesses. And now Apple has the world’s top directors and actresses.

Video has become a battle of the rich. Apple didn’t pull any punches. Facebook will need to buy some new fighters if Watch is ever going to deserve a place in the ring.

Android users’ security and privacy at risk from shadowy ecosystem of pre-installed software, study warns

A large-scale independent study of pre-installed Android apps has cast a critical spotlight on the privacy and security risks that preloaded software poses to users of the Google developed mobile platform.

The researchers behind the paper, which has been published in preliminary form ahead of a future presentation at the IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy, unearthed a complex ecosystem of players with a primary focus on advertising and “data-driven services” — which they argue the average Android user is unlikely to be unaware of (while also likely lacking the ability to uninstall/evade the baked in software’s privileged access to data and resources themselves).

The study, which was carried out by researchers at the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M) and the IMDEA Networks Institute, in collaboration with the International Computer Science Institute (ICSI) at Berkeley (USA) and Stony Brook University of New York (US), encompassed more than 82,000 pre-installed Android apps across more than 1,700 devices manufactured by 214 brands, according to the IMDEA institute.

“The study shows, on the one hand, that the permission model on the Android operating system and its apps allow a large number of actors to track and obtain personal user information,” it writes. “At the same time, it reveals that the end user is not aware of these actors in the Android terminals or of the implications that this practice could have on their privacy.  Furthermore, the presence of this privileged software in the system makes it difficult to eliminate it if one is not an expert user.”

An example of a well-known app that can come pre-installed on certain Android devices is Facebook .

Earlier this year the social network giant was revealed to have inked an unknown number of agreements with device makers to preload its app. And while the company has claimed these pre-installs are just placeholders — unless or until a user chooses to actively engage with and download the Facebook app, Android users essentially have to take those claims on trust with no ability to verify the company’s claims (short of finding a friendly security researcher to conduct a traffic analysis) nor remove the app from their device themselves. Facebook pre-loads can only be disabled, not deleted entirely.

The company’s preloads also sometimes include a handful of other Facebook-branded system apps which are even less visible on the device and whose function is even more opaque.

Facebook previously confirmed to TechCrunch there’s no ability for Android users to delete any of its preloaded Facebook system apps either.

Facebook uses Android system apps to ensure people have the best possible user experience including reliably receiving notifications and having the latest version of our apps. These system apps only support the Facebook family of apps and products, are designed to be off by default until a person starts using a Facebook app, and can always be disabled,” a Facebook spokesperson told us earlier this month.

But the social network is just one of scores of companies involved in a sprawling, opaque and seemingly interlinked data gathering and trading ecosystem that Android supports and which the researchers set out to shine a light into.

In all 1,200 developers were identified behind the pre-installed software they found in the data-set they examined, as well as more than 11,000 third party libraries (SDKs). Many of the preloaded apps were found to display what the researchers dub potentially dangerous or undesired behavior.

The data-set underpinning their analysis was collected via crowd-sourcing methods — using a purpose-built app (called Firmware Scanner), and pulling data from the Lumen Privacy Monitor app. The latter provided the researchers with visibility on mobile traffic flow — via anonymized network flow metadata obtained from its users. 

They also crawled the Google Play Store to compare their findings on pre-installed apps with publicly available apps — and found that just 9% of the package names in their dataset were publicly indexed on Play. 

Another concerning finding relates to permissions. In addition to standard permissions defined in Android (i.e. which can be controlled by the user) the researchers say they identified more than 4,845 owner or “personalized” permissions by different actors in the manufacture and distribution of devices.

So that means they found systematic user permissions workarounds being enabled by scores of commercial deals cut in a non-transparency data-driven background Android software ecosystem.

“This type of permission allows the apps advertised on Google Play to evade Android’s permission model to access user data without requiring their consent upon installation of a new app,” writes the IMDEA.

The top-line conclusion of the study is that the supply chain around Android’s open source model is characterized by a lack of transparency — which in turn has enabled an ecosystem to grow unchecked and get established that’s rife with potentially harmful behaviors and even backdoored access to sensitive data, all without most Android users’ consent or awareness. (On the latter front the researchers carried out a small-scale survey of consent forms of some Android phones to examine user awareness.)

tl;dr the phrase ‘if it’s free you’re the product’ is a too trite cherry atop a staggeringly large yet entirely submerged data-gobbling iceberg. (Not least because Android smartphones don’t tend to be entirely free.)

“Potential partnerships and deals — made behind closed doors between stakeholders — may have made user data a commodity before users purchase their devices or decide to install software of their own,” the researchers warn. “Unfortunately, due to a lack of central authority or trust system to allow verification and attribution of the self-signed certificates that are used to sign apps, and due to a lack of any mechanism to identify the purpose and legitimacy of many of these apps and custom permissions, it is difficult to attribute unwanted and harmful app behaviors to the party or parties responsible. This has broader negative implications for accountability and liability in this ecosystem as a whole.”

The researchers go on to make a series of recommendations intended to address the lack of transparency and accountability in the Android ecosystem — including suggesting the introduction and use of certificates signed by globally-trusted certificate authorities, or a certificate transparency repository “dedicated to providing details and attribution for certificates used to sign various Android apps, including pre-installed apps, even if self-signed”.

They also suggest Android devices should be required to document all pre-installed apps, plus their purpose, and name the entity responsible for each piece of software — and do so in a manner that is “accessible and understandable to users”.

“[Android] users are not clearly informed about third-party software that is installed on their devices, including third-party tracking and advertising services embedded in many pre-installed apps, the types of data they collect from them, the capabilities and the amount of control they have on their devices, and the partnerships that allow information to be shared and control to be given to various other companies through custom permissions, backdoors, and side-channels. This necessitates a new form of privacy policy suitable for preinstalled apps to be defined and enforced to ensure that private information is at least communicated to the user in a clear and accessible way, accompanied by mechanisms to enable users to make informed decisions about how or whether to use such devices without having to root their devices,” they argue, calling for overhaul of what’s long been a moribund T&Cs system, from a consumer rights point of view.

In conclusion they couch the study as merely scratching the surface of “a much larger problem”, saying their hope for the work is to bring more attention to the pre-installed Android software ecosystem and encourage more critical examination of its impact on users’ privacy and security.

They also write that they intend to continue to work on improving the tools used to gather the data-set, as well as saying their plan is to “gradually” make the data-set itself available to the research community and regulators to encourage others to dive in.  

TikTok quietly picked up assets from GeoGif, which created animated, location-specific overlays for video

Video-sharing app TikTok passed 1 billion downloads last month, and its parent company ByteDance is ramping up its efforts to monetize those users with ads, while also continuing to add more features to the app to keep people engaged. In a move that could help both of those efforts, ByteDance has made a small acquisition, picking up assets from a defunct startup called GeoGif, which developed location-specific, animated stickers and overlays for videos, suggested to users when they capture video or images in specific places.

It seems that the location-based, animated elements of what GeoGif built is the key part of what might be coming soon to TikTok, as the app already has a range of visual and audio filters and stickers to alter appearances and your voice, or just to embellish and further personalize your video. Some of the tech that the company built included location-based back-end technology, merging functionality and a library of animated filters and stickers based on real-time news, locations, activities and more.

Here’s the general gist of what GeoGif can do for a video if you are, for example, in Miami for Spring Break. (Note: This is not the greatest example given the naff and objectifying subject matter, but it’s the only example the startup has provided.)

[embedded content]

The terms of the acquisition have not been disclosed, although we are asking both Dean Glas, one of GeoGif’s co-founders, as well as ByteDance, and we will update if we learn more. In any case, the deal appears to include only the assets of the startup, which ceased operating more than two years ago, judging by activity on its social media accounts and LinkedIn profiles. CEO Dean Glas and his co-founder Mendy Raskin are now both working on new startups.

“We are excited for GeoGif to have a new home at TikTok,” said GeoGif’s CEO Dean Glas, “and we believe our features will be enjoyed by millions of users. We will work closely to make sure it’s a smooth transition that provides a long-term positive impact for the TikTok community.”

A TikTok spokesperson also confirmed that the features that were built for GeoGif will get rolled into the main TikTok app: “GeoGif and TikTok share a common goal which is enabling people to connect, consume, and create great content. We’re impressed with what the team at GeoGif has built and with TikTok’s resources, we believe that we will deliver an even better user experience for our millions of users who love using TikTok to express their creativity through short videos.”

With TikTok, China’s ByteDance has created one of the world’s biggest video apps — and subsequently become one of the world’s most valuable startups — and it has used acquisition as a key lever for adding both users and features.

To help break into the U.S., the main app itself merged with Musical.ly last year after being acquired for between $800 million and $1 billion by Toutiao (a ByteDance sub-brand) in 2017. Other acquisitions have included Flipagram — another music-video app and startup — in 2017 for an undisclosed sum; the AR selfie camera FaceU in 2018, reportedly for $300 million; payments startup UIPay, also in 2018; and — just last week — it appears ByteDance acquired a gaming startup, Mokun Technology, from previous owner 37 Interactive, also for an undisclosed sum.

It’s likely that the GeoGif acquisition was for a smaller sum than these, although from what we understand there were others also interested in acquiring it. GeoGif was originally spun out of parent company Bivid — which is also now defunct but had been a hyperlocal social network akin to YikYak, Highlight and Zenly, suggesting friends and others who were near you for chit-chat and simply to know their whereabouts. Bivid had around 2 million downloads in total over two years, having raised a seed round of about $500,000.

TikTok already runs ads and has other paid features in China, but in Western markets like the U.S., the company has largely only been doing limited runs and tests of different formats, such as this native video ad test we spotted in February.

In January, a leaked ad deck from the company in Europe also mentioned several advertising and marketing units it was running and planning to run, including brand takeovers; in-feed native video; hashtag challenges; Snapchat-style 2D lens filters for photos; and 3D and AR lenses. It’s the latter of these where GeoGif’s efforts could be rolled in.

Also in January, Bloomberg reported that in 2018, ByteDance, for the first time, had failed to beat its own revenue forecasts: It had told investors when it was fundraising a monster $3 billion round that it expected to make between $7.4 billion and $8.1 billion in revenues for the year, and sources said it would be coming in at the lower end of that range.

These are, relatively speaking, huge numbers when you consider that ByteDance’s currency is social media apps, which often spend years making no money at all. But in the context of missing growth expectations, this slower expansion could be a lever for the company launching more ad formats in more places and launching more products, such as the Slack competitor it is also reportedly building.