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Exclusive: This Week in Apps: Android 13 arrives, apps plan for midterms, Amazon copies TikTok – TalkOfNews.com

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This Week in Apps: Android 13 arrives, apps plan for midterms, Amazon copies TikTok

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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.

Global app spending reached $65 billion in the first half of 2022, up only slightly from the $64.4 billion during the same period in 2021, as hypergrowth fueled by the pandemic has slowed. But overall, the app economy is continuing to grow, having produced a record number of downloads and consumer spending across both the iOS and Google Play stores combined in 2021, according to the latest year-end reports. Global spending across iOS and Google Play last year was $133 billion, and consumers downloaded 143.6 billion apps.

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.

Do you want This Week in Apps in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters

Android 13 arrives

Image Credits: Google

Big news for Android users this week as Google rolled out the new version of its mobile operating system, Android 13, initially to all Pixel devices, following the beta launch a month ago. The OS will reach other non-Pixel Android devices sometime later this year, including Samsung Galaxy, Asus, HMD (Nokia phones), iQOO, Motorola, OnePlus, Oppo, Realme, Sharp, Sony, Tecno, vivo, Xiaomi and others.

As mobile platforms have standardized, the latest efforts from both Google and Apple have been focused on personalization elements. In iOS 16, this now includes a customizable Lock Screen with widgets, while Android is doubling down on its Material You UI. With the prior version of Android, users could theme their device to match their background. With the latest update, they can now also match their non-Google apps to their chosen theme and color schemes. This is a much simpler and more elegant solution than the icon customization on iOS today, where apps like Brass, Themify, Aesthetic, Color Widgets and many others have to leverage a combination of configuration profiles and shortcuts to do the same.

In another personalization move, Android 13 allows users to set the languages used for different apps — useful for those who speak multiple languages.

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Other improvements include the ability to copy content (e.g. URLs, photos, videos, text) between Android devices, better multitasking features on tablets, an expanded bedtime mode with dimmed wallpaper and a dark theme, HDR video support on third-party camera apps, BLE Audio, Spatial Audio on supported headphones, an upgraded media player widget that showcases album artwork and includes a dancing playback bar and more. On the privacy side, there are changes to permissions that allow users to more narrowly select images and videos to be shared with third-party apps and the OS now prevents unwanted access to your clipboard.

Another big benefit of the upgraded mobile OS for end users is that they can more easily block apps from annoying them with notifications. Now, apps users download will need explicit permission to send notifications, rather than being allowed to send notifications by default. This change sees Android finally catching up with iOS, which has offered this type of setting for years. (Many, many years.)

The Android source has also been pushed to the Android Open Source Project (AOSP).

This week TechCrunch’s Frederic Lardinois also sat down with James Ward, Google’s product manager for Kotlin, to talk about the language’s role in the Android ecosystem and its future plans. You can read that here.

TechCrunch’s new spyware lookup tool

This week, TechCrunch launched a new product in service to its readers who are concerned about security risks related to mobile spyware.

The spyware lookup tool can check to see if an Android device is one of the hundreds of thousands that’s been hacked by one of several spyware apps, including TheTruthSpy — the subject of a months-long investigation into consumer-grade spyware apps. The apps are installed by someone with physical access to your mobile device and are designed to stay hidden from home screens. They give the attacker the ability to see the victim’s phone data in real time, including calls, messages, contacts, location data, photos and more.

The new lookup tool will check against the leaked list of unique device identifiers, like IMEI numbers and advertising IDs, and is available free of charge to anyone who wants to ensure their phone has not been compromised.

TikTok caught keylogging?

A new privacy analysis warns that TikTok’s in-app browser may be engaged in keylogging. Research by developer Felix Krause found that the TikTok iOS app was injecting code that would allow it to monitor all keyboard inputs and taps that took place on third-party websites that were rendered inside the app. Concerningly, this information could include users’ passwords or payment card information when they’re buying something promoted on TikTok. The researcher couldn’t prove that TikTok was actually doing anything malicious with the access — that is, he couldn’t confirm the data was collected, transferred or determine how it may be used. Users should be aware, however, and opt to open links outside of the TikTok app to be safe.

TikTok refuted the claims saying the JavaScript code is only used for debugging, troubleshooting and performance monitoring — like checking to see how quickly a page loaded or if it crashed. The company also pointed to several other reasons as to why the report’s claims were overblown. The researcher also accused Meta of modifying third-party sites loaded in their in-app browsers, which has since led Ireland’s Data Protection Commission, the lead data protection regulator for Meta and TikTok under the GDPR in Europe, to request a meeting with the tech giant to discuss.

Amazon gets TikTok-ified

It’s official, the TikTok vertical video feed format is now the mobile app user interface to knock off if you’re building a new social experience. How do we know? Because this week, Amazon of all places, was found to be testing its own TikTok clone. The feed, called “Inspire,” appears in the bottom nav bar of the Amazon app.

Image Credits: Watchful via The Wall Street Journal

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Amazon, of course, has no interest in competing as a new social or entertainment experience with other big tech companies. But it does copycat the latest, hottest formats when it builds out new shopping features. In years past, that’s seen the company cloning other social apps like Pinterest or Instagram or steaming live shopping videos. Now that TikTok’s feed is the go-to, Amazon has adopted it as well.

For now, the Inspire feed is being tested and is not publicly available to all users.

Apple Updates

  • Apple’s next iPhone event will reportedly be held on September 7, per a Bloomberg report. The company is expected to unveil its iPhone 14 line featuring camera upgrades and a faster chip. Apple has not made a formal announcement of the event at this time.
  • Apple’s iOS 16 beta 5 added a nifty feature to again show the battery percentage in the status bar on iPhone after being removed for notched models when the iPhone X debuted.
  • Apple noted prices of apps and IAPs will increase in Ghana and Turkey. 

Augmented Reality

Snap and HBO partnership for House of the Dragon

Image Credits: Snap

  • Snap and HBO Max partnered on a new AR experience for HBO’s “House of the Dragon” premiere, which includes a new selfie and worldview Lens in Snapchat’s app, as well as new Landmarker Lenses. Users can immerse themselves in the fantasy world by turning themselves into dragons or watching them fly around you, among other things.
  • Universal Studios launched the Dinotracker AR app (iOS/Android) built by Trigger XR and Niantic Labs to promote the new movie, “Jurassic World Dominion.” Users have to try to find dinosaurs around them. The app is using Niantic’s new Lightship ARDK to place 10 dinosaurs in the user’s environment. The technology features include semantic understanding, environmental awareness, walkable planes, occlusion and hand-tracking, among others. Other partners include LG Uplus, Qualcomm and KOCCA in Korea.

Image Credits: NBCUniversal Media

Social Networking

  • ⭐️ Twitter, Meta and TikTok all outlined their policies related to their plans on handling the 2022 U.S. midterm elections. Twitter said it’s rolling out redesigned tweet labels and “prebunks” on misleading content. TikTok is offering state-by-state information in an Elections Center and will label and fact-check videos. Facebook said it will disable new political ads a week before the midterms.
  • Oracle is now monitoring TikTok’s algorithms and moderation system — for whatever that’s worth. TikTok confirmed its new cloud host for U.S. data has been tasked with the monitoring, but offered no specifics as to how it will be done or who gets to see the results.
  • A new Pew Research study found that 67% of U.S. teens use TikTok, with 16% of all teens saying they use it almost constantly. The number of teens using Facebook plummeted from 71% in the 2014-2015 study to now 32% today.
  • Snapchat has been busy. It recently rolled out parental controls and expanded its premium offering, Snapchat+, to India. The Snapchat+ service has grown to over 1 million subscribers and added new features, including priority Story replies to top creators and celebs.
  • TikTok rolled out its own text-to-image AI generator that lets users enter their own prompts to create images to use as video backgrounds. It also tested a new search feature that highlighted matching keywords in comments that link to the search term as well as a way to share TikTok Stories to Facebook and Instagram. 
  • BeReal’s No. 1 app now has 7.9 million DAUs, up from 2 million in January and 10,000 in March 2021. The company raised a $600 million Series B led by DST this past spring, The Information reported.
  • Timbaland and Swizz Beatz sued TikTok rival Triller saying they’re owed $28 million+. The suit follows Triller’s acquisition of the live music series Verzuz.
  • YouTube Shorts, the video app’s TikTok rival, added watermarks to downloads to discourage users from cross-posting their videos.
  • Celeb connections app Cameo added a new feature, Cameo Live, that allows a user and nine friends to engage in a 10-minute call with a celebrity.

Photos

  • Pixelmator Photo, a photo-editing app from the company behind graphic design app Pixelmator Pro, is bringing its iOS app to the Mac. The company also said it’s moving to a subscription pricing model to better sustain its business.
  • Snapchat’s selfie-recording drone Pixy is already being killed off after just launching in April. The drone project is a causality of re-prioritization of resources at Snap amid economic concerns.
3 teens with a drone

Image Credits: Snap

Messaging

  • Messenger began testing end-to-end encryption for individual Messenger chats. The news was announced after it was revealed Meta turned over private messages to aid in the prosecution of a Nebraska teen’s abortion.
  • Telegram’s founder slammed Apple for delaying a major update to the messaging app, saying it had been stuck in review for two weeks with no explanations.
  • WhatsApp now allows users to delete a private or group chat message up to two and half days after sending it. Before, the limit was 1 hour, 8 mins, and 16 seconds. The app also introduced a new privacy option that allows people to use the app without being visible online except to selected contacts they choose. It’s additionally testing screenshot blocking and will soon allow users to leave groups privately without sending out a notification.
  • WhatsApp also launched its native Windows app out of beta. The app now works without requiring users to link a phone. A similar Mac app is underway.
  • Facebook and Instagram added a new “Add Yours” sticker to Reels that lets people start trends others can add to with their own content; the trend will have its own landing page in the app.
  • Google kicked off a public campaign, “Get the Message,” designed to pressure Apple to adopt messaging standard RCS in its own Messages app. The communication protocol would support a better messaging experience between Android and iOS users, but would also make iMessage a less compelling alternative than it is today.
Google RCS campaign

Image Credits: Google

Streaming & Entertainment

  • HBO Max rolled out new mobile (and desktop) apps, promising an improved user experience with features like SharePlay support, a shuffle button for mobile, a dedicated home for downloads, tablet support in portrait and landscape modes, a better screen reader, split screens where supported, improved navigation and overall better performance.
  • Apple signed a first-look deal with Pulitizer Prize-winning Futuro Studios to bring more original podcast content to its Podcasts app, and possibly, allow it to turn those shows into Apple TV+ programs further down the road.
  • Spotify began selling live concert tickets directly to fans in a new Tickets website. The company previously only worked with partners like Ticketmaster and Eventbrite. Spotify’s home screen also gained new discovery feeds for music and podcasts. The separate feeds will direct users to the type of content they’re looking for at the time. It’s also been testing the ability to record reactions to podcasts.
  • An analysis of Spotify usage by Sensor Tower showed how engaging the app is compared with its competition; 10% of its mobile app users engage with the app daily, more than the 4% who engage with YouTube Music or 1% who engage with Pandora. (Apple Music was not included.)

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

  • Google Meet introduced a new feature that allows users to watch YouTube or stream Spotify together.
  • Apple-owned Shazam celebrated its 20th anniversary with a curated playlist of the most Shazamed songs of every year. The app now has 225 million global monthly users, Apple also noted, and has surpassed 70 billion song recognitions as of this week.
  • Netflix’s upcoming ad-supported tier may not offer offline viewing, according to findings in the app’s code.
  • Plex introduced a new social experience in its streaming apps called Discover Together, which includes the ability to add friends and see what they’re watching, bookmarking and how they’re rating shows and movies.

Image Credits: Plex

Gaming

  • Netflix’s games have seen 23.3 million downloads and average 1.7 million daily active users, per Apptopia data. This represents less than 1% of Netflix’s 221 million subscribers.
  • Google began testing a way to allow users to launch games from its cloud gaming service Stadia, as well as from Xbox Cloud Gaming and Amazon’s Luna directly from its Google Search results.
  • Fortnite maker Epic Games’ appeals case against Apple is set to be heard starting on October 21. The game maker wants to be able to sell games outside the App Store and use its own payment systems.
  • Roblox’s earnings report revealed shifting demographics for games. The fastest growing group was people ages 17-24. The company said male 17- to 24-year-olds would become the biggest tracked category in terms of users and engagement hours in the U.S. and Canada over the next couple of months.

Dating

  • Bumble reported Q2 2022 earnings with revenue up 18% YoY to $220.5 million, above estimates, but a higher net loss of $6.4 million versus $2.6 million estimated.
  • As part of the larger revamp of its “Bumble BFF” friend-finding feature, Bumble has also been developing a new “communities” offering it’s calling “Hive,” which may include support for features like group chat, polls and video calls.

Health & Fitness

  • Fitbit to end Mac and PC syncing on October 13, 2022 and will instead move file transfers to its smartphone app and local music and playlists over to Pandora and Deezer.
  • Meditation and wellness app Calm laid off 20% of staff, or 90 people out of around 400. The company had been valued at $2 billion in 2020.
  • A Mozilla study found that 18 out of 25 top reproductive apps and wearables, like Clue, Flo, Glow and Eve, didn’t have strong privacy protections. Most didn’t say if they would share data with law enforcement, either.

Travel & Transportation

  • Lyft Media is a new business unit designed to consolidate Lyft’s ad offerings, which will focus on showing more ads in cars, on the Lyft mobile app and at bike-sharing stations.
  • Uber sunset its free loyalty program Uber Rewards in favor of subscription membership, Uber One. The membership costs 9.99 per month or $99.99 per year, and offers perks like 5% off certain rides or delivery orders and unlimited $0 delivery fees on food orders of over $15 and grocery orders of more than $30.
  • Airbnb launched anti-party technology which includes an algorithm that looks at signals, like the history of positive reviews, how long the user has been on the platform, the length of the trip, the distance to the listing and weekday versus weekend booking. Potential rule-breakers will be prevented from booking an entire property, and will instead direct them to results where they can rent a room where hosts are physically present.

Utilities & Productivity

  • Meta launched the Duet Display app which allows Portal owners to turn their smart screen devices (Portal Plus Gen 2 and Meta Portal Go) into a second screen for their Mac and PC. The company said it would also launch the Meta Portal Companion app on Mac for Meta Portal touch-based devices (Meta Portal Go, Meta Portal Plus, Meta Portal and Meta Portal Mini) to allow for screen-sharing on video calls. Meta is said to be phasing out its consumer Portal devices.

Adtech

  • Bloomberg reported Apple is considering rolling out ads to more places across iOS, including Maps (which was explored internally) and possibly other apps like Books or Podcasts. Currently, Apple’s ad revenue is around $4 billion.
  • A new report by FT noted many small businesses reliant on personalized ads have cut back on marketing efforts, in part due to Apple’s ATT changes, as they now face rising customer acquisition costs.
  • The WSJ reported that before launching ATT, Apple and Meta had engaged in discussions about revenue-sharing agreements, including one that would see Apple taking a cut of “boosted posts” via IAP and an ad-free Facebook subscription.
  • TikTok rolled out new ad solutions as part of its commerce ad suite called “Shopping Ads.” The company is currently testing three formats of Shopping Ads, including Video Shopping Ads, Catalog Listing Ads and LIVE Shopping Ads.

Government & Policy

  • South Korean regulators have begun to investigate Apple and Google over possible violations of the country’s in-app payment rules. The Korea Communications Commission (KCC) is also investigating SK Group’s homegrown app store called ONE Store. If the KCC discovers the companies have violated the law, it will issue fines which can be up to 2% of the company’s annual revenue.
  • The EU is set to make a final decision related to a privacy complaint regarding Instagram’s handling of children’s data in the region. The decision is expected at the end of August, with a hard deadline of the first week of September.
  • Google was fined A$60 million (around $42.7 million USD) in Australia over Android settings it had applied around five years ago which were found to have misled consumers about its location data collection.
  • China’s internet regulator published a list of 30 algorithms used in popular apps including WeChat, Taobao, Meituan and Douyin, which includes a brief description of their usage.

Security & Privacy

📉 Unity rejected a takeover offer from AppLovin that would have valued the company at $58.85 per share, an 18% premium over Unity’s stock price at the time. The deal would have been valued at $17.54 billion. Unity said it would proceed with its own deal to acquire ironSource for $4.4 billion in stock. Its shares dropped 7% after the board rejected the acquisition.

🤝 Unity announced a deal to create a JV, Unity China, in partnership with Alibaba, China Mobile, Oppo, and Douyin Group. The deal valued at $1 billion will allow Unity to expand into the world’s largest games market.

💰 European encrypted messaging app Wire, focused on enterprise use, raised €24 million in Series C funding led by growth equity firm Cipio Partners and Iconical.

💰 She Matters, a health app for Black women, raised $1.5 million in pre-seed funding. The app recently expanded its resources and support for postpartum healthcare.

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🤝 DNSFilter acquired the iOS firewall app Guardian for an unknown sum in order to expand its web-based threat detection capabilities. Guardian was founded in 2013 by Will Strafach, a security researcher and former iPhone jailbreaker. Its iPhone app blocks apps from sharing users’ personal information with third parties, such as IP addresses and location data, by using a VPN.

💰 FullStory raised $25 million in new funding from Permira to help companies spot issues in their websites and apps. FullStory says it analyzed more than 15 billion user sessions in 2021, including nearly 1 trillion clicks, text highlights and scrolls.

💰 Infrastructure-as-a-service platform maker Mobot raised $12.5 million in Series A funding to expand its suite of robots that bug-test mobile apps. The robots can run through custom-designed testing flows to tap, swipe and rotate mobile devices, and more. The system integrates with standard dev tools like Jira and provides clients with results and reports.

💰 Meme-based dating app Schmooze recently raised $3.2 million in seed funding led by Inventus Capital and Silicon Valley Quad. The app lets users swipe left or right on people they like and up to love memes presented to them. The latter will help to inform match selections.

💰 Meta invested in Take App, a Singaporean startup founded by former Facebook engineering manager Youmin Ki. The app offers an easy way for users to set up simple websites for online orders, with a shopping cart, payments and a direct connection to WhatsApp for managing and tracking orders. The investment size was undisclosed but came in via the company’s NPE Team, which had previously developed social apps and more recently shifted to investments.

💰 New York-based family journaling app Qeepsake has raised $2 million in seed funding led by LaunchCapital. The company, which has 700,000 registered users, plans to invest in its marketing and engineering teams.

💰 Indian fintech app Jar raised $22.6 million in Series B funding led by Tiger Global. The app helps millions of Indians save small amounts to invest in digital gold and is planning to expand into insurance, mutual funds and lending.

💰 Sofy, the maker of a testing platform for mobile apps, closed on $7.75 million in seed funding led by Voyager Capital. The startup has raised a total of $9.5 million to date.

🤝 Just Eat sold its 33% stake in the Latin American joint venture iFood to Prosus for $1.8 billion. Prosus will now fully own the Brazilian food delivery company and app maker as a result.

Along

Image Credits: Along

A new video creation app called Along has launched into beta testing to offer a way to create “infinite-length” collaboration videos with multiple creators. The app introduces a concept called “tapes” which begins with one creator’s video that others can then add their own clips to, which the original creator approves. The idea is similar to the “Add This” feature that Meta recently rolled out to its short-form video offering, Reels. Except in Along’s case, users are collaborating on a video “tape,” curated by the original poster, not simply contributing to a trend page.

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The app is currently in private, invite-only testing but TechCrunch readers can access the app early here: along.video/invite/techcrunch. (This is not an ad — just an invite!)

You can read more about the app here on TechCrunch.


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Exclusive: Pelican Protector Sticker Mount Case for AirTag review – TalkOfNews.com

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Exclusive: A profile of Duolingo, which has almost 15M DAUs, up 51% YoY, and 3.7M paying subscribers, as it expects its 2022 revenue to surpass $365M, up 45% from 2021 (Bill Gifford/Bloomberg) – TalkOfNews.com

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A profile of Duolingo, which has almost 15M DAUs, up 51% YoY, and 3.7M paying subscribers, as it expects its 2022 revenue to surpass $365M, up 45% from 2021 (Bill Gifford/Bloomberg)

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A profile of Duolingo, which has almost 15M DAUs, up 51% YoY, and 3.7M paying subscribers, as it expects its 2022 revenue to surpass $365M, up 45% from 2021  —  After dinner on Aug. 23—a date he will never forget—Tobi Fondse pulled out his phone to do his daily Duolingo.


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Exclusive: Conferences want to cure the work-from-home blues – TalkOfNews.com

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Web Summit convened in Lisbon, Portugal, in early November, looking much like it had before the pandemic. The tech conference was held, as it usually is, on numerous stages in and around a giant arena. It took me a solid 20 minutes to walk from one end of the conference to the other, trying to wade through myriad company booths and demonstrations. Some 70,000 people milled throughout the space, wearing wristbands and badges, but few masks.

Many of the attendees spend the majority of their time working from home, and they use events like conferences as a way to get the professional interactions they’re missing. For them, work is for home, where people can concentrate. Conferences are for networking, socializing with colleagues or peers in your field, and getting experiences you can’t get working remotely. They see conferences as supplementing their ability to work from home: Hanging out with colleagues and clients in person a few times a year can be enough to carry them through months on end of video calls.

I’m also a remote worker, and I went to Lisbon to moderate a couple of panels and to try to figure out why people like me are leaving the comfort of their homes to travel across the ocean to an in-person conference when there’s still a pandemic going on. (Web Summit paid for my plane ticket and hotel, while Vox was on the hook for incidentals.) A number of people I spoke to at the event told me they were using conferences like this, as well as offsites and regular travel, as occasions to convene teams and even whole companies, since they don’t see each other as often while working from home.

“We took all of the money we saved on offices and we poured it into travel,” said Martin Mao, CEO and founder of software intelligence company Chronosphere, who uses those funds to get its 250 global employees together for conferences and quarterly reviews, as well as socializing. “We try to jam pack that into a few days, then everybody goes and does their work.”

The last time I’d been at Web Summit was in 2019, when it didn’t feel alarming to be around 70,000 other humans in real life. Aside from a smattering of masks, it didn’t look that visibly different.

What had changed was the emphasis. While the speakers (and moderators!) were still important, the summit leaned in to the more social and experiential aspects of the conference. There were updated versions of the familiar Food Summit (essentially a giant food court but held outside with 85 food trucks) and Night Summit (after-hours drinking and networking events held at trendy nightlife spots around the city). This wasn’t the first time they’d had these events, but this year these events were bigger and more prominent.

A similar thing has been happening at other conferences as well — at other giant tech conferences like SXSW, at smaller thought-leader events like Aspen Ideas Festival, and at sales conferences like Outreach Unleash and Seismic Shift. In addition to world-class speakers, conferences are touting their tropical climates, water sports, and wine tastings. They’re also being careful to orchestrate intimate in-person interactions they don’t feel can be replicated online. According to Kitty Boone, vice president of the Aspen Institute’s Public Programs and executive director of its Aspen Ideas Festival, the goal is to make it “something that they don’t feel they can miss.”

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Eventgoers at Aspen Ideas Festival in June head to a nearby river to measure microplastics and view them under a microscope.
Leigh Vogel for Aspen Institute Public Programs

Like many things, the trend of turning conferences into immersive, interactive social events — rather than just ones where people passively receive information — existed before the pandemic. But the pandemic accelerated it, and as companies let workers choose where they work, those qualities are becoming more sought after.

“The main driver to come here was to connect with people and know what was happening in my world,” Jorge Dias, a mobile content manager at telecom Altice, told me while eating a food truck lunch outside at Web Summit.

This is all good news for the trillion-dollar business events industry and for business travel in general, which, unlike restaurants, concerts, and leisure travel, has far from recovered from the pandemic. Global conference attendance is at just half what it was in 2019, according to data provided by demand intelligence company PredictHQ. Business group travel spending, which includes spending on meetings and events like conferences, is at 68 percent of 2019’s level domestically and 50 percent internationally, according to data from the US Travel Association.

“Companies need tentpole moments to gather together in the real world,” its founder Paddy Cosgrave, who also works remotely, told me in Lisbon. Along those lines, Web Summit’s biggest sales growth has been in group bookings — teams or whole companies, rather than individuals, buying tickets.

Conferences, company offsites, and other team travel are helping to fill a void left by the office and meeting people’s need for in-person collaboration and relationship building — all without having to go to the office.

“I actually think that conferences can be a solution to work from home,” Melanie Brucks, business marketing professor at Columbia Business School, told Recode.

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With just under half of Americans expected to continue working from home at least some of the time (that rate is higher for people with bachelor’s degrees), their need for connection could provide the business travel industry some succor and suggest that better days are coming, even if things don’t go back to how they used to be.

As an economic downturn has companies cutting spending, the conference and travel industry faces even more challenges — as well as a chance to make conferences better. And the conferences that have already come back in person are showing the way.

The return of in-person conferences

The return to in-person conferences this year is highlighting some of the shortcomings of virtual ones — and of virtual work in general.

About a quarter of the conferences that Encore, an international event production company, worked on in 2022 were in person, according to Anthony Vade, event experience strategy director. That’s up from very few the past two years. Next year, he says, it looks like more than 80 percent will be in person.

While plenty of events were held virtually over the past couple of years, many felt they just weren’t the same. It was tempting to try and multitask and do something else when sitting in front of a computer. And even when conferences broke people into smaller groups online, it was difficult to create the intimacy and candor of talking with people you bump into at conferences. Also, after being on video calls all day, people craved a change of pace.

Guests and filmmakers mingle at Breakfast Bites and Beats at the WarnerMedia House during SXSW in Austin, Texas, on March 12.
Mat Hayward/Getty Images for WarnerMedia

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The rapid shift back is in some ways a pretty obvious indicator of human nature, says Hugh Forrest, co-president and chief programming officer of SXSW.

“So much of our event celebrates technology, celebrates new advancements or innovations in social media, and yet we always find that the most impactful connection is the same connection we’ve had for thousands of years: It’s the face-to-face connection,” Forrest explained.

The thirst for in-person events also demonstrates that people are missing something when they work from home.

“What we find is that people are less creative and generative when they’re interacting virtually,” Brucks, the Columbia professor, said, noting that simple instruction and, frankly, most day-to-day office tasks work just fine online.

Meanwhile, however, people aren’t growing their professional networks as much when working remotely. That means fewer weak ties — the relationships you have with acquaintances outside of your work or social group that have proved incredibly important for things like finding a new job or even just new ideas.

Conferences that encourage people to come up with new ideas, collaborate, and socialize could be effective ways to address remote work’s shortcomings without having people go to the office regularly. And a little goes a long way, according to Brucks, who said things like conferences and “innovation weeks” could scratch some of remote work’s itches.

“This is about really leveraging the things we need to do in person,” she added. “That allows us to not be in person for a lot of the rest of the time because we’re getting these tasks done in these really efficient one-week opportunities.”

Still, people treat their time as more precious than they did pre-pandemic, so conferences and companies will have to go the extra mile to get them out of the house. It’s one of the reasons you’re seeing so much push-back from rank-and-file employees on returning to the office: Bosses haven’t really figured out a good reason for people to be there. Workers are returning to offices only to find themselves spending their whole day at their computers, only now with the added drawback of a commute.

So if conferences are going to recover, they’re going to have to make their events something you can’t get online.

How conferences are trying to be more than conferences

The basic premise of most conferences, it seems, has remained the same: People sit in seats and listen to speakers talk onstage. But now conference organizers are leaning into aspects of the event that aren’t as easily broadcast online. Namely, they’re focusing on socialization and experiences.

The Aspen Institute’s flagship Ideas Festival is focusing on more breakout sessions, workshops, and hands-on field trips where people can connect over shared experiences. Last summer, they brought eventgoers to take samples of microplastics in a nearby river and to see regeneration happening after wildfires, as part of the conference’s larger discussion about climate. The idea was to show them how even a pristine-seeming environment wasn’t immune to pollution and climate change.

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People at the Aspen Institute’s Ideas Festival take a field trip to see wildfire burn scars and regeneration.
Leigh Vogel/Aspen Institue Public Programs

Seismic Shift, a small conference held in San Diego for users of its sales software, divided conferencegoers’ time between speakers and activities, like standup paddleboarding, yoga, and hanging out at a bar serving green juice. Lawn games and picnic tables were set up outside the conference as a way to get people to mingle over meals.

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Attendees of the Seismic Shift conference participate in an outdoor yoga class in San Diego, California, in October.
Seismic

Outreach, a sales platform, has been holding smaller community-oriented conferences while its big user conference, Unleash, was on hold (it’s scheduled to return next fall). At these, the company has been experimenting with ways to keep the audience engaged and connecting with each other so that conferencegoers internalize the content in their “mind and body,” Outreach CMO Melton Littlepage said. The company kicked off a women-in-sales event in a wine cave that “was echoey and boomy so everybody had to get really close together at tables,” he said. The wine helped the conversation, too. At another mini-event, they used QR codes so that conferencegoers could vote on a survey while the emcee discussed the live results onstage. Seating at small round tables was intended to get people talking to their neighbors.

“We’re planning these moments when something happens and gives you something to talk about with the next person,” Littlepage said.

Members of the Outreach Revenue Innovators Women in Sales Summit enjoy an event in a wine cave in Napa, California, in September.
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Conferences are also capitalizing on an unfortunately named trend called “bleisure,” in which people are tacking vacations onto work trips. That’s why many conferences are locating themselves in so-called destination cities, if they hadn’t already. It helps if those places are warm and sunny. So it’s very possible that Web Summit’s continued massive attendance has to do with it being held in Lisbon, which is known for great cuisine and T-shirt weather while the rest of Europe and North America don puffy jackets.

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SXSW’s Forrest says that Austin’s warm weather in March is one of the reasons the event has thrived.

“If you’re coming from upstate New York or Chicago or whatever, and you’re still in the throes of winter, and you come and it’s 80 degrees, that’s a huge part of the experience,” he said. “That’s one more asset of why people want to go.”

Columbia’s Brucks, who had just returned from a conference in Denver, said the attendees were abuzz about the next conference, by the Society for Consumer Psychology, which is being held in Puerto Rico this spring.

“You’re more likely to remember the experience if it’s something that was fun,” she said.

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