Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.
The app economy in 2023 hit a few snags, as consumer spending last year dropped for the first time by 2% to $167 billion, according to data.ai’s “State of Mobile” report. However, downloads are continuing to grow, up 11% year-over-year in 2022 to reach 255 billion. Consumers are also spending more time in mobile apps than ever before. On Android devices alone, hours spent in 2022 grew 9%, reaching 4.1 trillion.
This Week in Apps offers a way to keep up with this fast-moving industry in one place with the latest from the world of apps, including news, updates, startup fundings, mergers and acquisitions, and much more.
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AI’s impact on apps
More AI apps are on the way. It was a big week for AI news as both Microsoft and Google took the stage at competing events to intro their AI developments to the public. Microsoft fared a little better with its news that OpenAI’s ChatGPT-like tech was coming to Bing, pushing its companion mobile app up into the App Store’s top ranks. Meanwhile, Google flubbed a bit with its rival AI, Bard, which, in a published demonstration of the technology, shared an incorrect answer to a question about the James Webb Space Telescope (it was NOT the first to take a picture of an exoplanet, NASA says).
While both AI models will frequently and confidently get things wrong at times, Google’s failure to fact-check the answers it was showing off seemed to indicate the company was rushing out the tech in reaction to Microsoft’s move into its territory…which it was.
Google should have been far ahead in this AI race, having invested in and developed AI technology for years with help from some of the top experts in the field. But it’s been caught off guard — and not only by OpenAI.
Before this current AI race, Amazon’s Alexa became the household name for AI-powered voice assistants. Google, on the other hand, got burned when it showed off some of its more impressive consumer applications of AI. It faced backlash over its consideration of AI ethics when it showed off Duplex’s ability to call restaurants to book reservations while pretending to sound human. Google also often builds neat AI tools — like an AI that can generate music from text descriptions — but won’t release them.
The company has seemed to be slow to move on AI — likely hesitant to upset its search and advertising cash cow that relies on ads sold atop a list of links. Microsoft doesn’t care about that, though, noting that every 1% of search ad share gain it makes is a $2 billion revenue opp.
That’s why what we’ve gotten from Google around AI has been a sort of steady stream of smaller AI-powered feature drops over time, not some big and expensive overhaul of search that could have killed its margins.
Instead, we get things like multisearch, which expands web search to include text and images combined. Google this week announced it was going global and the nearby option, multisearch near me, was also rolling out more broadly.
The company also rolled out other AI-powered improvements to things like translation and Google Maps. For example, Google at this week’s event spoke about its new “immersive view” maps offering more true-to-life scenes, which are created by leveraging an AI technique called neural radiance fields (NeRF). But these maps are only available in a handful of cities. And as cool as they are, they feel more like an iteration on Street View rather than a major AI leap.
Meanwhile, Google used its event to show off a range of other features that weren’t AI search demos or ChatGPT rivals. It introduced Maps’ AR-powered Live View, which Google said is hitting a few more cities. (This requires users to hold up their phones and scan the area — not really a subtle gesture if you’re trying to hide the fact that you’re a tourist or even possibly lost!) And it talked about new EV Maps.
Microsoft, on the other hand, used its press event to fully focus on AI as the next evolution of search. It demoed its ChatGPT-like AI in Bing which is also integrated with its Edge web browser. And it talked in detail about the next-gen OpenAI large language model it’s using, calling it “more powerful than ChatGPT,” which certainly excited consumers.
The company also cleverly introduced a waitlist for the AI-powered Bing that required people to set Microsoft defaults on their PC and download the Bing app. As a result, the Bing app is now ranked in the top 10 on the U.S. App Store and is the No. 2 Productivity app behind Gmail. To put this in perspective, the Bing app ahead of the AI news had been ranked No. 160 on the U.S. App Store’s Productivity apps chart — in other words, practically invisible.
Google, meanwhile, lost $100 billion in market value as Alphabet’s stock fell after the ad with the AI’s mistake aired ahead of the company’s event.
While the big race in AI apps is still between Google and Microsoft (via OpenAI), AI will soon find its way into a number of mobile apps through integrations. Already, we’ve seen the fake ChatGPT apps arrive and belatedly get the boot from the app stores. Today, a search for the term “ChatGPT” still returns numerous apps that imply they’re associated with OpenAI or simply presume users won’t care, as long as they offer a ChatGPT-like experience. And we’ve seen the AI image generators go viral. Quora this week also introduced an AI playground called Poe, which features a handful of AI chatbots from OpenAI and Anthropic. (See “Downloads” section below.)
Consumers are clearly hungry to see AI put to use in apps. The developments also enliven what’s become a stale App Store over the years, as Apple blocked other new tech, like NFTs, blockchain transactions and Web3 technologies from being fully functional on its App Store, forcing startups to build their own.
An end to Apple’s ban on non-WebKit browsers?
Some browser makers believe they’ll be able to release their own, non-WebKit-powered browser apps in the future, thanks to expected regulations that would force Apple to open up its App Store to more competition.
Google, however, downplayed the news, claiming it was only a prototype meant to help it learn about iOS performance.
In a statement, a spokesperson told us, “This is an experimental prototype that we are developing as part of an open-source project with the goal to understand certain aspects of performance on iOS. It will not be available to users and we’ll continue to abide by Apple’s policies.”
Google isn’t the only one dabbling in this area. When reached for comment, Mozilla was far more transparent about its plans when it was spotted working on a Gecko-based version of Firefox for iOS, clearly indicating that its work is in anticipation of a more competitive landscape.
“We abide by Apple’s iOS app store policies, and are simply doing some exploratory work to understand the technical challenges for Gecko-based browsers on iOS if those policies were to change,” a Mozilla spokesperson told us. “We hope the day will come when people can freely decide to use the browser of their choice, including the opportunity to select the engine that underpins it.”
Of course, even if Apple were to open up to non-WebKit browsers, it could theoretically impose other limits on competing apps to dictate how they’re allowed to use system resources. That would be another reason for the companies to experiment now so they’ll be ready to meet any such requirement if and when the App Store opens up.
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