Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest mobile OS news, mobile applications, and the overall app economy.
The app industry continues to grow, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spending in 2020. Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.
Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.
This week we’re reviewing Google’s I/O developer event, rounding up the latest from Snap’s partner summit, and taking a look at how Parler got back on the App Store, among other things.
Google I/O was kinda boring this year.
Sorry, sorry. But it’s true. Without any new hardware announcements, the software-only event just didn’t feel as big and buzzy as it has in the past — which is kind of a bummer since I/O was canceled entirely last year due to COVID-19. There was no announcement of an affordable Pixel 5a or 6 smartphones, no rumored Pixel Watch, no news on Pixel chips, no new smart home devices, no update on Google Stadia, and not even the Pixel Buds A-Series, which Google accidentally tweeted about ahead of schedule. What gives? Instead, Google I/O was filled with many product news that could have been announced as blog posts — like Google Workspace improvements or neat Google Maps and Photos features. I mean, sure, a life-size 3D video calling booth is fantastic, but it’s not exactly going to be in your living room next year.
That’s not to downplay Google’s technical advancements. Still, if you’re sitting through a long live-ish (??) event, you don’t only want to hear about more conversational AI or less racist cameras (much less from the company that just fired multiple AI ethics researchers). You want to get excited about Google’s next new…thing. When all was said and done, what stood out was Android 12.
The updated version of Google’s mobile OS with its new personalization features targets customization’s current iPhone weakness.
While iOS finally added support for widgets with iOS 14 and an App Library to clean up home screen clutter, Apple seemed almost caught off guard by the personalization madness that ensued after devices went live. It had to quickly fix how app shortcuts worked — a workaround people had been using to tediously customize their home screen icons to match their wallpaper and widgets.
Android 12 addresses this demand for its own users and takes things a step further. When Android 12 users set a new wallpaper, the system can automatically create a custom palette of colors as the Android theme, including dominant and complementary colors. This is applied across the OS, including in the Quick Settings under the Notification Shade, in buttons on the lock screen, widgets, and more. Google calls this “Material You,” which is a bit silly but gets the point across. The phone can really start to feel like yours.
Material You also introduce refreshed widgets with interactive controls and more accessible personalization options, smoother transitions, more animations, and a privacy dashboard, where you can check in on which apps are accessing your location, mic, and camera, instance. But what sells it is how all those parts come together to present a new version of Android that actually feels fresh.
ICYMI: An I/O Round-up
- Stats: Android now powers 3 billion devices globally, up from 2.5 billion in May 2019. The figure includes 250 million active tablets as of last year.
- Foldables: Google announced a series of Android 12 updates that add support for foldable screens. (Is a foldable Pixel coming?)
- Design: “Material You” is Android’s new, adaptive design language which fully embraces the home screen personalization trend, allowing users to set themes that apply across the operating system. One of its more clever tricks is that it’s able to build the color palette for the article based on the wallpaper you choose