How House of Cards helped one phone app jump up the charts

Spoiler alert: In episode 5 of the Netflix original series House of Cards, the U.S. President plays the mobile game Monument Valley. I’m sorry to have ruined the series for you with that big news, but truth be told, it is big news — and big business — for the developers behind the game.

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Why is that? Because viewers of episode 5 hit both the iTunes App Store and Google Play Store like a gale force wind late to a storm and downloaded Monument Valley. And we know that thanks to appFigures; a mobile app reporting company that took a smart look at how the product placement would impact game sales.

On its blog, appFigures explains that it watched both app store charts and saw Monument Valley enjoy a steep rise on both mobile platforms five hours after the new House of Cards season debuted. What’s the significance of five hours? The game appeared in episode 5, so the House of Cards faithful who tuned in as soon Season 3 debuted saw it five hours after they started their binge watching.

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To be honest, Monument Valley was already successful, having quickly become a top game on phones and tablets not long after it debuted last year. I broke out my wallet and spent $3.99 for the unique 3-D maze-like puzzler with a compelling storyline, for example.

Monument Valley

But clearly, not everyone has heard about Monument Valley and you can’t dispute the impact House of Cards has had, moving the game back up the charts for top paid and top grossing games.

FTC shuts down skin cancer app scam

If you’re worried about melanoma, head to the doctor — not the app store. On Monday, the Federal Trade Commission announced it has cracked down on two companies that charged customers up to $4.99 for apps that claimed to help them detect early signs of melanoma.

The scheme is so far-fetched that the best way to explain it is through these pictures from the FTC, which show how the apps — named MelApp and Mole Detective — claimed to use smartphone cameras to assess skin conditions:

Skin cancer app

skin cancer app

One of the apps even included a quiz to assist with diagnosis:

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You get the idea. According to the FTC, the app makers had no evidence to provide support for their apps’ claims that they could assist consumers detect melanoma, which is a form of skin cancer.

The Mole Detective app first appeared in 2012 and was marketed by a U.S. company while MelApp appeared in 2011 from a U.K. firm. The apps sold from $1.99 to $4.99 in the Apple and Google app stores.

A search of Apple’s app store shows both apps have now disappeared, and a search for “melanoma” turned up no results.

Neither of the app makers will face a fine, though the U.S. company will have to return $3,930 that it collected from its Mole Detective app.

Current FTC rules prevent it from imposing financial penalties on first-time offenders, though this could soon change in light of a recent proposal by the White House to give the agency more teeth.

To hear more about what the FTC plans do to about app scammers, and other online bad guys, come join us at Structure Data in New York City on March 18-19, where one of our guests is FTC Commissioner Julie Brill.

Kik CEO: “Hey internet are you listening? Messaging has peaked”

It has certainly been an interesting month for messaging apps in the U.S.

Around the same time the New York Times penned its zeitgeist proclamation that messaging apps like Snapchat will become hubs of content and commerce like China’s WeChat, we learned from Comscore that these apps have plateaued in the U.S. in terms of growth. The companies are still attracting new users, but the rate of adoption is slowing in the 18+ crowd.

Right on schedule, Snapchat launched its Discover media feature this week, showcasing content from companies like CNN and Vice in a big departure from its former chatting focused strategy. Was Snapchat leaving messaging behind?

Kik CEO Ted Livingston, one of Snapchat’s biggest messaging competitors in the U.S., has been wondering the same thing. Although the apps is ranked sixth in U.S. social networking apps by iOS download, and 26th in apps overall, Kik is also struggling from a slowdown in growth.

I caught up with Livingston to get his take on what’s happening in the U.S. messaging app world, what he thinks of Snapchat’s Discover tool, and whether a “WeChat of the West” is still possible. What follows has been edited for length, order, and clarity.

Kik just hit 200 million registered users, but the Comscore data showed Kik –and all the other messaging apps — have flatlined in terms of growth. What did you think of that?

I can tell you from Kik’s perspective, we’re not growing as fast in the U.S. as we were in the past. I can tell you it’s not bullshit. We were very relieved to see [the Comscore data]. We were thinking maybe there’s something wrong with just us, but it’s everyone. Hey internet are you listening? Messaging has peaked!

What do you think is happening? Is messaging not actually the future of social media?

App adoption in general is plateauing in the U.S. On top of that smart phone adoption has plateaued in the U.S.

Chat in the West is a commodity. When a 15-year-old kid says, ‘Can we chat on Kik mom?’ Mom is like, ‘No, why would I?’

For us that’s where the [WeChat-like] platform play starts making sense. One you have critical density among youth and you have these non-commodity services on top of chat, teens will bring in everyone else they know. They’ll bring in parents because they need to buy something for them, or a friend because they need them to plan events. The platform may become a ticket to the rest of the demographic.

So that’s where the future growth will come from?

Yes.

How does the plateau impact your plans in the present?

In a world where we are the only one plateauing, then we have the worst strategy. We’ve got to figure out how to keep up with everyone else.

When everyone is plateauing the question is what do we do now?

On that note, what do you think of Snapchat’s Discover? Is this the beginning of its big WeChat play?

Now it’s less about connecting with your friends as following brands. I’m like, ‘Oh shit, they’re just becoming a media company?’

Some have argued that media is just their first step in becoming a portal to other experiences, like gaming or personal budgeting apps.

I would say it’s definitely a step to becoming a platform…a broadcast platform (as opposed to a messaging platform). Snapchat started somewhere in between Kik and Instagram: private broadcast. But with the Stories feature they have gone more and more towards broadcast. So they are now a broadcast tool.

What is the best content to go from a broadcast tool to broadcast platform? To me it’s media. Makes complete sense.

Did you see that coming?

I did not, that’s not what I would’ve done. To me it’s very relieving because it takes some pressure off us. A messenger by itself is extremely difficult to monetize and it always has been in history. On the other side it’s brutally simple to figure out how to monetize a broadcast network like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and now Snapchat.

Maybe [Snapchat] has a great answer [with Discover] but it takes them further away from being the operating system that WeChat has been.

Apple raises minimum app prices in Europe, UK, and Canada

As Apple promised earlier this week, minimum prices in the iOS app store have increased in Canada, the U.K. and European countries that use the euro.

The minimum app price is now €0.99 in the EU, £0.79 in the U.K, and $1.19 in Canada.

According to an email sent by [company]Apple[/company] to developers and obtained by Apple Insider, these changes were caused by “adjustments in value-added tax (VAT) and foreign exchange rates.” Sure, a change in EU tax policy that went on effect on January 1st requires companies to change how they collect VAT tax on digital goods (although the new rules were agreed to in 2008). But I suspect a bigger driving force behind this price bump is that the dollar is at a nine-year high against the euro.

Apple doesn’t set prices on the App Store, but instead allows its developers to pick from a range of pricing tiers.

The email from Apple mentioned that app prices will “decrease in Iceland and change in Russia.” Apple simply suspended its Russian online store — which sells hardware, not apps — in December as the ruble plunged against the dollar. It later came back online with significantly raised prices.

Yesterday, Apple bragged that it had paid out over $10 billion to developers in 2014. But in Apple’s most recent quarterly earnings call, CFO Luca Maestri warned that the strong dollar could affect Apple’s performance over the coming quarters as its products effectively become more expensive in non-U.S. markets.

“The U.S. dollar has strengthened quite significantly against most currencies in recent weeks,” Maestri said on October 20. “It is becoming a significant headwind in Q1.”

Apple: App Store developers in 2014 earned $10B, up 50% from last year

After what appears to have been a very successful fourth quarter driven by the iPhone 6, Apple’s taking a moment to brag. On Thursday, the company announced that, to date, the iOS App Store has paid out $25 billion to developers.

$10 billion of that total was billed in 2014, a 50 percent increase from the year before. For comparison, at the annual Google I/O conference this past June, Google announced that it paid $5 billion since the previous I/O conference, and that was a 250 percent increase over the year before.

Apple says that New Years Day, or January 1st, was the “single biggest day ever” in App Store sales history. It’s frequently reported that Christmas Day is the biggest day for downloads, but perhaps people the world over like to download apps on their iPhone while they’re hungover. Apple also repeated 90 percent of all transactions by purchase volume in the U.S. work with Apple Pay.

[company]Apple[/company] also updated a page on its website touting its effect on the U.S. economy. The figures provided are high-level, but they indicate Apple has 30,000 retail employees, 66,000 total employees, and 8000 U.S. suppliers. If you count “jobs attributable to the iOS ecosystem,” Apple claims it created or supports over 1 million jobs in the U.S.

Apple will shed more light on its financial performance — as well as how many iPhones and iPads it sold this holiday season — at its upcoming earnings announcement on January 27.

Tutanota releases iOS encrypted email app after notifying NSA

The German encrypted email service Tutanota has released its iOS app, weeks after its Android app came out. The delay in the release of the iOS app was apparently due to the need for those publishing open-source apps of this kind to first notify the NSA and the U.S. Commerce Department of their existence — it seems Apple is more strict about making sure this measure has been taken.

Tutanota, already available as a free webmail service and paid-for Outlook plugin, uses encryption based on open-source implementations of algorithms using 128-bit AES and 2048-bit RSA, though PGP compatibility should also be introduced somewhere down the line.

It automatically encrypts and decrypts the emails that users send to other Tutanota users. If a Tutanota user sends an email to someone not using the system, it can also be sent encrypted (the email is encrypted in the sender’s client and she has the only key) but the password will need to be shared with the recipient via phone, in person or using some other method. Unencrypted emails sent to a Tutanota user are also encrypted with the recipient’s public key once they reach the company’s German servers.

Currently, the downside is that users have to use a “tutanota.de” email address, which isn’t necessarily an attractive option for everyone, but company founder Matthias Pfau told me the firm will soon add other domain options. Those wanting to use their own domains will also get to do so at some point, but that will be a paid-for premium feature.

Pfau said the iOS and Android apps had been submitted to their respective app stores at the same time, but [company]Apple[/company] requires suppliers of open-source security software using cryptographic functions with asymmetric algorithms to — as U.S. export regulations dictate — notify the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) and the NSA’s ENC Encryption Request Coordinator of what they’re putting out there. This seems to be about notification only, rather than seeking approval from these agencies as such.

I wasn’t previously aware of this requirement, but here’s what the rules say (PDF) about “publicly available encryption source code”:

You must notify BIS and the ENC Encryption Request Coordinator via e-mail of the Internet location (e.g., URL or Internet address) of the publicly available encryption source code or provide each of them a copy of the publicly available encryption source code. If you update or modify the source code, you must also provide additional copies to each of them each time the cryptographic functionality of the source code is updated or modified. In addition, if you posted the source code on the Internet, you must notify BIS and the ENC Encryption Request Coordinator each time the Internet location is changed, but you are not required to notify them of updates or modifications made to the encryption source code at the previously notified location.

Anyhow, should you use Tutanota? Well, the fact that you need a special email address is in itself a limiting factor: chances are people know your existing email address and will default to using that. There are several encryption systems out there that rely on pre-shared passwords (such as OX Guard) and, while they do avoid the difficulties of dealing with the PGP key system, unless you can exchange passwords in person you’re arguably less secure than if you were using PGP – it really depends on whether you’re under heavy targeted surveillance.

In theory, you don’t need to trust Tutanota to use its system, as you would hold your key (and the company wouldn’t be able to remind you of it if you lose it). The company has had a security scare in the past, with a researcher finding a cross-site scripting vulnerability, but that flaw was patched up and Tutanota subsequently went open-source and published its code. That means it can be freely audited, though it doesn’t necessarily mean that it has been thoroughly audited. Pfau told me a couple bugs had been flagged this way, but they had nothing to do with the service’s security.

Europeans have two weeks to return iTunes purchases for a refund

Apple has quietly introduced a 14-day return policy for iTunes, App Store, and iBooks purchases in several countries in Europe, according to 9to5Mac. The new policy is apparently in response to a European Commission recommendation. Previously, to receive a refund, you would have to contact Apple support and provide a reason. That’s still the way it works in the United States. But for Europeans, there’s now an automated refund process through Apple’s “Report a Problem” feature. Google recently extended the Google Play app refund window to two hours, even in the United States.

Blackphone to get privacy app store and self-contained ‘spaces’

The anti-surveillance Blackphone handset is about to get what its makers are billing as the world’s first privacy-focused app store, along with the ability to run separate virtualized spaces for private and not-as-private accounts and applications.

The Blackphone, which started shipping in June, runs an Android fork called PrivatOS and comes bundled with a bunch of privacy-focused apps, such as the encrypted storage service SpiderOak and the anti-tracking service Disconnect. On Tuesday, the Swiss-based firm announced a new version of PrivatOS that will ship early next year.

The Blackphone app store will roll out in January, carrying apps that are curated by the Blackphone team. Meanwhile, the new version of PrivatOS will also come with a feature called “Spaces,” which allows users to create separate self-contained spaces for different levels of privacy and security.

Users can create separate virtualized spaces for parent-friendly and kid-friendly applications, or for work and personal use, or any other self-contained group of apps, accounts and data. The feature is an adaptation of Graphite Software’s Secure Spaces technology, and the preloaded default space will be the privacy-centric “Silent Space,” featuring encrypted communications tools and so on.

“The addition of Spaces and the Blackphone app store is the most significant update to PrivatOS since its inception,” Blackphone CEO Toby Weir-Jones said in a statement. “We are delighted to have developed the Silent Space, alongside Graphite Software, who share our core values of privacy and security.”

Google appears poised to open an app store in China

There are tens of millions of smartphones running Android in China, but very few use Google Play services and almost none of them have access to Google’s app store. It looks like Google wants to change that.