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Apple’s new developer guidelines signal that scammy subscription apps’ time is up – TechCrunch

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Apple is sending out a message to app developers: stop tricking users into subscriptions. The company updated its guidelines for mobile developers to more clearly spell out what is and what is not allowed, according to 9to5Mac, which spotted the recent changes. The improved documentation comes at a time when subscriptions are becoming something of a plague on consumers.

Their rapid proliferation is turning everything into a subscription service, which could ultimately see consumers dropping favorite apps because they can’t afford dozens of ongoing payments. But more urgently, Apple’s lax enforcement of its rules around subscriptions had allowed shady app developers to financially benefit.

Subscriptions are a big business on the app stores, as the industry has begun to shift to a recurring revenue model instead of one-time purchases within free apps or paid downloads. For developers who continue to improve apps and roll out new features, subscriptions give them the financial means of continuing that work, instead of constantly hunting for new users.

However, not all developers have been playing fair.

As TechCrunch reported last fall, a number of scammers had begun to take advantage of the subscription model in order to trick consumers into recurring payments, in addition to constantly pestering their free users to upgrade.

We found apps that constantly popped up upgrade prompts or hid the “x” to close the prompt’s window, as well as apps that promised free trials that actually converted after a very short period — like three days, for example. Others had intentionally confusing designs where subscription opt-in buttons would say things like “Start” or “Continue” in big text, while the text that explains you’re actually agreeing to a paid subscription is tiny, grayed out, difficult to read or hidden in some other way.

Apple’s developer guidelines had clearly prohibited fraudulent behavior related to subscriptions, but Apple has now spelled out the details in black and white.

As 9to5Mac spotted, updates in Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines and App Store documentation now explicitly state that the monthly subscription price has to be clearly displayed, while information about how much people can save if they opt for longer periods of time, like a year, has to be less prominent.

Messages about free trials have to say how long trials last and what will be charged when the trial ends.

The new documentation has also been clearly organized, and includes screenshots of what a proper subscription sign-up flow should look like, as well as sample text developers can modify for use in their own apps. It even suggests that developers allow customers to manage their subscriptions within their app, rather than requiring them to find the subscriptions section in the App Store.

Today, many customers don’t know how to stop their subscriptions once activated — it takes several steps from the iPhone’s Settings to get into subscriptions, and still a few from within the App Store. (It’s also not that obvious. You tap on your profile icon on the top right of the Home page, then your Apple ID, then scroll down to the bottom of the page. By comparison, you can reveal the “Subscriptions” section with just one tap on Google Play’s left-side hamburger menu.)

While the existence of clear documentation that better spells out the dos and don’ts is certainly welcome, the real question now is how well will Apple enforce its rules?

After all, Apple was supposedly not okay with subscription fraud and tricks before, yet its App Store was home to a good handful of bad actors — particularly in the utilities section.

Of course, Apple doesn’t want to develop a reputation for allowing misleading or scammy apps to thrive in its App Store, but it simultaneously benefits when they do.

Although games still account for the majority of App Store spending, non-gaming apps across app stores now account for just over a quarter (26 percent) of total spend, according to App Annie’s “State of Mobile 2019” report. And that number has increased 18 percent since 2016, mainly because of in-app subscriptions.

Getting a handle on the proper way to market subscriptions is key. But there’s also the larger question as to whether subscriptions will be a sustainable model in the long run for the developers. There’s a bit too much of a gold rush mentality around subscriptions in today’s App Store, and it’s hard to resist the near-term benefit of money that rolls in monthly.

But as more developers adopt subscriptions, consumers will ultimately have to decide which have value for them. People are already paying for so many subscriptions — both inside and outside the app stores. Streaming video like Netflix, streaming music like Spotify, streaming TV like YouTube TV, subscription boxes like Ipsy, Prime memberships, grocery delivery like Instacart, smart home subscriptions like Ring or Nest, newspapers and magazines and newsletters, and so on. What’s really going to be left for a selfie editor, to-do list or weather app, in the end?

Many consumers are already starting to hit the point where they don’t have much more to spend, and will have to turn some subscriptions off in order to turn others on. Subscription app user bases could then contract, with only core customers remaining paying subscribers, as casual users return to free products — like Apple’s own built-in apps, for example, or free services offered by well-heeled tech giants, like Google.

Apple would do well to advise developers when subscriptions make sense for an app, not just how to implement and design them. Subscriptions should offer a real benefit, not just continued ability to use an app. And there could be cases where a one-time purchase to retain a customer who continually declines to subscribe makes sense, too.

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TikTok introduces a strike system for violations, tests a feature to “refresh” the For You feed • TechCrunch

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TikTok today is announcing several changes to its service, including what it claims will be increased enforcement against bad actors as well as tests of new user-facing tools that will force a refresh of the app’s main algorithmic feed, known as the For You feed. The company said the changes are focused on keeping the platform both safe and entertaining for its users and creators alike.

While all major social media companies have content guidelines, their enforcement varies. As is often the case, people who violate the rules and are subject to takedowns of their content or bans, don’t always learn from their mistakes — they just become repeat violators. Today, TikTok’s enforcement system includes a variety of penalties, like temporary bans on posting or commenting, designed to reduce harmful content on the platform.

However, admits TikTok’s Global Head of Product Policy, Julie de Bailliencourt, in an announcement, creators complain that the current system can be confusing to navigate — especially if they don’t typically break TikTok’s rules or have unknowingly violated policy, and aren’t sure why they’ve been penalized. What’s more, this system is not efficient at deterring repeat violators, the exec explained

“Repeat violators tend to follow a pattern – our analysis has found that almost 90% violate using the same feature consistently, and over 75% violate the same policy category repeatedly,” de Bailliencourt wrote.

As a result, TikTok will move instead to a strike system, similar to YouTube. In all but the most severe cases, creators will accrue strikes as their content is removed. If they then reach a threshold of strikes within either a product feature (like comments or TikTok LIVE), or policy (like bullying or harassment), they will be permanently banned. The company said the threshold will vary depending on the violation and its potential to harm community members. It said, for instance, there may be a lower threshold for violating hateful content policies than there would be for posting low-harm spam.

TikTok will still issue permanent bans for severe violations, like videos that are “promoting or threatening violence, showing or facilitating child sexual abuse material (CSAM), or showing real-world violence or torture,” the post said.

The accumulated strikes will expire from an account’s record after 90 days, but accounts that “accrue a high number of cumulative strikes across policies and features” will be permanently banned. TikTok did not detail what a “high number” would be, nor did it share more information about what the thresholds are in the various areas. That could potentially cause more confusion among creators as they try to reverse engineer the system based on which accounts received strikes and why.

Creators will soon be able to track their own strikes and their account’s standing in the app, TikTok said, through an update to the Safety Center for creators. Here, they can view their own status and the status of the reports they’ve made on other videos or accounts. They’ll also be able to appeal strikes from this Safety Center if they feel they were given out in error. If the creator is close to a permanent ban, TikTok will notify them.

Related to this, the company said it will also begin to test a new feature in select markets that will inform creators which videos of theirs have been marked as ineligible for recommendation to users’ For You feeds, and why.

For end users, however, another new test may be more interesting.

Soon, TikTok will allow some users to tap a new “Refresh” button to receive an updated set of For You feed recommendations. Though TikTok’s feed is highly personalized and fairly addictive, many complain the content becomes stale as it doesn’t add enough variety after some time. With the new refresh button, which will be available in account settings, users will be able to force the app to bring “new, diversified content not based on previous activity or interactions” to their For You feed.

After hitting the button, users will then begin to see content that’s based on their new interactions, a TikTok spokesperson told TechCrunch. In addition to providing a refreshed feed, the company noted that the feature could serve as a way to support potentially vulnerable users who want to distance themselves from their current content experience.

The changes to TikTok’s policies and product come on the heels of increased concern over the app’s ties to China and the risks it poses. Across the U.S., TikTok has been banned on government devices after executive orders from governors prohibited the app. Several universities have banned the app on their Wi-Fi networks as well. And the Biden administration banned TikTok from government devices in a bill signed at the end of December. In response, TikTok has been taking meetings with officials, think tanks, and public interest groups in Washington, The New York Times reported, and this week invited media to tour its Transparency and Accountability Center in L.A.

Amid the increasing calls for a nationwide ban in the U.S., TikTok has been working to convince the public of its platform safety and rolling out new transparency tools that inform users why videos were recommended or allow them to filter out specific content. However, with every new announcement, there comes a bit of bad press, too. For instance, it was revealed last month the company had a secret heating button to make videos go viral, and just before that, Forbes reported TikTok had spied on its journalists. These reveals have tarnished the company’s image further at a time when it’s trying to increase trust.

TikTok says the refresh button will roll out in the “coming days” while the policy update is currently rolling out globally and users will be notified as it’s available to them.

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Roblox to host a free virtual Super Bowl concert featuring Saweetie • TechCrunch

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Hip-hop artist Saweetie is performing exclusively in Roblox for the NFL’s Super Bowl LVII pregame on February 10, the National Football League announced today.

The virtual concert will take place at 7:00 pm ET in Warner Music Group’s Rhythm City, a new destination on Roblox that was announced earlier this week. Rhythm City is set to launch on February 4 and offers mini-games and social roleplaying experiences like becoming a musician and owning a house and car.

The NFL claims that Saweetie will give a “family-friendly,” fully motion-captured performance and sing her hit songs like “Tap-In.” The concert will re-air every hour until Sunday, February 12.

Fans that virtually attend the Saweetie Super Bowl Concert can also get digital items on the Roblox marketplace or win items by finishing challenges. The digital collection includes wearable hairstyles, hats, boots, headphones, and sweatsuits, which are based on Saweetie’s merchandise and her album looks.

“I’m really excited to bring this iconic moment to the metaverse and share my music with a whole new audience in such a unique way! As an artist, innovator, and football fan, to be able to perform during Super Bowl LVII weekend in this new world – Rhythm City on Roblox – is something I never imagined that I would be involved in. I am very grateful and happy about this opportunity,” Saweetie said in a statement.

Image Credits: Roblox/NFL

The NFL is also launching Super NFL Tycoon within Roblox. The metaverse experience allows users to pretend that they’re NFL team owners, draft a team, and build a stadium. Super NFL Tycoon will launch on February 4 to coincide with the virtual Super Bowl concert. Users can move between Super NFL Tycoon and Rhythm City through a designated portal.

Interestingly, the experience–which is presented by the global financial technology platform Intuit—is also an attempt to teach younger users “important financial concepts in a fun and engaging manner,” said Lara Balazs, Intuit’s Chief Marketing Officer and General Manager of Strategic Partner Group. So, while users fantasize about owning an NFL team, they can also learn how to manage cash flow, payroll, taxes, and customer acquisition (because that’s supposed to be fun somehow).

The concert, Super NFL Tycoon, and Rhythm City are also developed in partnership with Gamefam, a gaming company across metaverse platforms.

“Bringing a cultural moment like the Super Bowl to the metaverse with such innovative partners marks a shift in how brands are coming together to create the next generation of metaverse gaming experiences,” said Ricardo Briceno, Chief Business Officer of Gamefam.

This is the second year in a row that NFL and Roblox are offering the NFL Tycoon experience. For the 2022 Super Bowl, Roblox users could attend an interactive event called “Destruction House,” inspired by the Super Bowl LVI commercial. Also, in 2021, Roblox launched a virtual NFL storefront, giving users NFL-themed digital items to dress up their Roblox avatars.

The NFL’s foray into the metaverse points how the league tries to cater to a younger demographic.

“Working with Roblox has enabled us to create interactive shared experiences and with the virtual concert and Super NFL Tycoon, we will unlock deeper fan engagement,” said Ed Kiang, VP of Video Gaming at the NFL.

Roblox reported that its third quarter saw the fastest year-over-year growth in daily active users that range from 17 to 24 years old, which saw an increase of 41%. Roblox’s daily active users that are older than 13 years old grew by 34% year-over-year and accounted for 54% of all daily active users.

The streaming rights deal with Amazon has proven to attract a younger audience for the NFL. Amazon reported that Thursday Night Football (TNF) on Prime Video delivered an audience eight years younger than last year’s average TNF audience. The NFL also recently struck a deal with YouTube for the Sunday Ticket.

Super Bowl LVII will take place next Sunday, February 12, with the Kansas City Chiefs playing against the Philadelphia Eagles.

In September, Apple Music announced it is the official sponsor of the Super Bowl Halftime Show.

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Netflix to include more EVs in its TV shows and movies as part of new partnership with GM • TechCrunch

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Netflix and General Motors announced today that the streaming service will join the automaker’s “Everybody In” campaign that aims to accelerate mass adoption of electric vehicles. As part of the partnership, Netflix says it will increase the presence of EVs in Netflix-produced shows and films, where relevant over the course of the next year, while also taking steps to enable more sustainable productions.

To kick off the new alliance, the two companies will air a new commercial during the Super Bowl on February 12 that will see Will Ferrell enter the world of some of Netflix’s popular shows and films, including “Army of the Dead” andSquid Game,” in various GM EVs.  

The automaker’s EVs will be also seen in select Netflix shows and films, including “Love Is Blind,” “Queer Eye” and “Unstable,” which will feature the Chevrolet Bolt EUV, GMC HUMMER EV Pickup and Cadillac LYRIQ, respectively.

A spokesperson for GM told TechCrunch that the company is not paying Netflix for placement of its vehicles in the streaming service’s content. While GM is a partner on Netflix’s ad-supported tier, the company said that the strategic alliance between the two companies is separate from any advertising deal. The goal of the alliance is to expose people to EVs in a natural way.

GM says the two companies don’t have an end date in mind for the alliance, and that the automaker is looking forward to working with Netflix as it builds up its advertising business. As for the Super Bowl ad, GM says it’s unclear if the two will partner on another similar ad in the future.

The automaker says it will educate show runners about EVs so that they can find a way to integrate them naturally into storylines in a way that doesn’t make them feel out of place when they appear in TV shows and movies.

Netflix has been incorporating EVs into the TV shows and movies that it produces over the past year. The streaming service included EVs from Hyundai and Audi in its content, along with EVs from GM, as well. Now, Netflix will have access to even more EVs as part of its new alliance with GM.

“Entertainment has a huge impact on culture. We want to make EVs famous on streaming, small and silver screens to build an EV culture through storytelling that incorporates the experiences of driving and owning an EV,” said GM Global Chief Marketing Officer Deborah Wahl in a press release. “Netflix is a great partner because of the company’s compelling storytelling, commitment to sustainability and track record of sparking conversations that shape cultural trends. We are united in creating a better, more sustainable future for our world as we bring everybody in on EVs.”

Netflix says it’s also planning to become more sustainable behind the camera within its productions by optimizing energy use, then electrifying it, and decarbonizing the rest.

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