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Google I/O hits and misses, Snap goes shopping, Parler returns to App Store – TechCrunch

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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.

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. (opens in a new window)

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 for 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

  • 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
  • Wearables: Google and Samsung team up on a unified wearable platform to take on Apple’s watchOS. The goal will combine the best of both worlds, Android Wear OS and Samsung’s Tizen, allowing apps to start faster and battery life to last longer, while users will gain more apps and watch faces. Meanwhile, the best of Fitbit — like tracking health progress and on-wrist goal celebrations — will come to Android Wear. Other updates include a Tiles API, a watch face designer from Samsung, a new consumer experience focused on speed and customization, and redesigned Maps, Assistant, and Pay.
  • Auto: Google is working with BMW and others to allow Android smartphones to unlock and start vehicles by leveraging support for Ultra-Wideband technology (UWB). It’s also making it easier for developers to bring Android apps to the car as they can now create an app that supports both Android OS and Android Auto.
  • AR: Google says there are now 850 million ARCore-compatible devices on the market. It also added Raw Depth & Recording/Playback APIs to ARCore to help make more immersive experiences possible.
  • Flutter: Google’s cross-platform UI toolkit for building mobile and desktop apps now powers 200K Play Store apps, including WeChat, ByteDance, BMW, Grab, and Didi. The new version, Flutter 2.2, adds reliability, performance improvements, a payment plugin for IAPs, and a more streamlined process for bringing Flutter apps to Windows, macOS, and Linux.
  • Android Studio: Google announced the next version of its Android Studio IDE, Arctic Fox, which focuses on bringing more tooling around building apps directly into the IDE. The marquee feature of the update is Jetpack Compose, the toolkit for building modern UIs for Android.

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