Marshall Islands President Survives Crypto-Infused No-Confidence Vote

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This Pacific Island may get its national cryptocurrency after all. Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine has eked out a no-confidence vote that threatened not only to derail her presidency but also the fate of the Sovereign (SOV), a national cryptocurrency spearheaded by her administration. According to the Nikkei Asian Review, President Heine blamed a “referendum about our own politics.”

Members of the Marshall Islands Parliament have spoken, and the split result of 16/16 means that the vote of no confidence fails. Those who were opposing President Heine led by Senator Casten Nemra needed a majority vote to prevail. According to reports, Finance Minister Brenson Wase has indicated that the plans for the Sovereign, which is designed as a legal tender and is expected to be issued via an ICO, remain intact, with requirements to meet standards from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as well as the US and Europe notwithstanding.

Political Headwinds

President Heine was up against some stiff competition but never lost sight of the motivation behind the attempted ouster. For instance, the IMF recently balked at the idea of the small country possessing its own digital currency. It was this disapproval that fueled the opposition from the group of senators and their no-confidence vote with allegations the cryptocurrency was damaging to the reputation of the Marshallese government.

Not only did she overcome these headwinds, but also China reportedly was pressuring the Parliament, as they had a vested interest in seeing her ousted. China had its sights set on one of more than two dozen of the Marshall Islands atolls, which they had plans to “create a country within our own country,” according to The Guardian. The Heine administration was not on board amid “growing Chinese influence in the Pacific Islands,” according to Heine cited in The Guardian, at a time when the Marshalls is trying to maintain its independence.

In addition to the coral atolls, the Marshall Islands are comprised of 1,200-plus volcanic islands, and while they gained their independence from the U.S. in 1986, their currency remains the US dollar. Meanwhile, with only one commercial bank offering limited services and no currency of their own, the Marshalls have been plagued with issues that have resulted in limited access to funds for locals, a problem that a cryptocurrency could solve. The Marshall Islands are a sweet spot for a national crypto given its population of a little more than 53,000 where the adoption of the SOV could take off.

Featured Image from United Nations/YouTube

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GM is going to allow Ford vehicles and other competitors on its Maven car-sharing platform

GM’s car-sharing subsidiary Maven is undergoing another expansion. This time, it’s not just to a new city.

Maven plans to open up its new peer-to-peer car rental service to allow owners to rent out non-GM vehicles.

It is also setting its sights on bigger changes in the future, according to Julia Steyn, vice president of GM Urban Mobility and Maven, said Monday during a presentation at the UBS Global Technology Conference in San Francisco.

By mid-2019, Maven will allow non-GM branded vehicles on the platform, Steyn said. That means a Maven member with a Tesla Model S or a Ford F-150 will be able to rent their vehicle out via the peer-to-peer car-sharing platform.

Steyn said Maven plans to open up the platform to micro-fleet entrepreneurs and add more services and expand its geographic footprint, including in Canada and other international markets.

Maven, which launched in January 2016 and has undergone a number of changes in its two-and-a-half years of existence. The mobility division initially launched as a car-sharing service akin to Zipcar. The company owns a fleet of GM vehicles and developed an app that lets customers rent the cars when they want and for short periods of time. In 2017, the company launched Maven Reserve in Los Angeles and San Francisco to allow customers to rent its GM-branded vehicles for a month at a time. It also has a program called Maven Gig that rents out vehicles to rideshare and delivery drivers who use apps like Instacart, Uber, Lyft and UberEATS.

Earlier this year, Maven launched a peer-to-peer car rental service, which operates similarly to how Turo and Getaround work, in Chicago, Detroit and Ann Arbor, Mich. At the time of the launch, the program only allowed owners to rent out their personal Chevrolet, Buick, GMC or Cadillac cars or trucks. To qualify, the vehicles have to be a GM model year 2015 and newer.

Unlike competitors, Maven is maintaining this dual car-sharing approach. It will continue to offer its own fleet of GM-branded cars for rent on the platform and expand the peer-to-peer option to more cities. In short, Maven, which has 170,000 members, is using the peer-to-peer car-sharing option to diversify its supply and to expand its market reach.

“Cars is where our heritage is, but I’ll tell you where else it’s going to go, Steyn said, before noting that there are a lot of assets out their such as boats that are under-utilized and could be monetized on a platform like Maven.

“If, at some point, there’s a UFO that you want shared and you want to be on the platform and it’s going to do a job for somebody, we’ll be able to put it on the platform,” Steyn said, emphasizing the flexibility of the Maven.

These antique phones are precious, private Alexa vessels

Amazon’s Alexa may be in ten thousand different devices now, but they all have one other thing in common: they’re new. So for those of us that prefer old things but still want to be able to set timers and do metric-imperial conversions without pulling out our phones, Grain Design is retrofitting these fabulous old telephones to provide Alexa access with no other hints of modernity. There’s even a privacy angle!

The phones themselves (spotted by a BoingBoing tipster) are genuine antiques, and not even the mass-produced Bell sets you see so often. I personally love the copper-plated model, though I certainly wouldn’t say no to the candlestick.

Dick Whitney, who runs the company, modifies the hardware to make room for an Echo Dot inside. Pick up the phone and speak, and Alexa answers, just like the operators of yore! Except you can ask Alexa anything and it won’t be irritated. Some of the Alexaphones, as he calls them, will include the original audio hardware so you can experience the cognitive dissonance of talking to a virtual assistant and having them answer using a century-old speaker. (I bet it sounds terrible and brilliant.)

I’m also delighted to say that the microphone physically disconnects when the phone is on the hook, though — so Amazon won’t be listening in to your conversations and emailing them to random people.

“The Echo microphones have their connections severed or are removed completely, and the microphone in the handset is connected via the original switches in the base, so it’s only in contact when the handset is picked up,” explained Whitney in an email.

The modifications to the phones don’t end there: in the rear of each will be a 1/8″ audio port so you can plug in a real speaker. No one wants to sit at their telephone table (remember those?) and listen to a few songs in mono through vintage hardware. Although having written that sentence I do have to say I’d try it once. Right now all the audio would have to go out that way, but Whitney says he may have a trick to switch it back and forth in the future (you can always just unplug the audio for privacy).

There’s also an LED hidden on the front so you have that basic feedback of whether the device is on, listening and such. The rotary dial isn’t used, unfortunately, though more because it’s hard to apply its principles to a voice-operated device.

“It’s funny,” he wrote when I asked about the latter, “I’d actually built an installation for Android at MWC [Mobile World Congress] a few years ago that used a rotary dialer, so I know how to do it and have the hardware around (it’s very simple), but both couldn’t figure out a function that seemed interesting enough (dial 1 to increase the volume? Certainly open to suggestions) and didn’t want to add more complexity inside the telephones. Maybe in the future!”

No soldering or weird old tech stuff required on your part — the device will run on USB power and set up just like any other Alexa gadget. Of course, these things also cost $1,500. Yeah, kind of out of my price range, too. Still, they’re lovely and a great subversion of the “smart home” idea.

Analysts weighing in on $8B SAP-Qualtrics deal dont see a game changer

SAP CEO Bill McDermott was jacked up today about his company’s $8 billion Qualtrics acquisition over the weekend. You would expect no less for such a big deal. McDermott believes the data Qualtrics provides could bridge the gap between his company’s operational data and customer, data wherever that resides.

The idea behind Qualtrics is to understand customer sentiment as it happens. McDermott sees this as a key piece to the company’s customer management puzzle, one that could propel it into being not only a big player in customer experience, but also drive the company’s underlying cloud business. That’s because it provides a means of constant feedback from the customer, one that is hard to ascertain otherwise.

In that context, he saw the deal as transformative. “By combining this experience data with operations, we can combine this through Qualtrics and SAP in a way that the world has never done before, and I fundamentally believe it will change this world as we know it today,” McDermott told TechCrunch on Monday.

Others who follow the industry closely were not so convinced. While they liked the deal and saw the potential of combining these types of data, it might not be the game changer that McDermott is hoping for after spending his company’s $8 billion.

Paul Greenberg, who is managing principal at The 56 Group and author of the seminal CRM book, CRM at the Speed of Light, says it’s definitely a big acquisition for the company, but he says it takes more than an acquisition or two to challenge the market leaders. “This will be a beneficial acquisition for SAP’s desire to continue to pivot the company to the customer-facing side, but it isn’t a decisive one by any means,” Greenberg told TechCrunch.

Customer experience is a broad term that involves understanding your customer at a granular level, anticipating what they want, understanding who they are, what they have bought and what they are looking for right now. These are harder problems to solve than you might imagine, especially since they involve gathering data across systems from a variety of vendors that deal with different pieces of the puzzle.

Companies like Adobe and Salesforce have made this their primary business focus. SAP is at its heart an ERP company, which gathers data by managing key internal operational systems like finance, procurement and HR.

Tony Byrne, founder and principal analyst at Real Story Group, says he likes what Qualtrics brings to SAP, but he is not sure it’s quite as big a deal as McDermott suggests. “Qualtrics enables you to do more sophisticated forms of research which marketers certainly want, but the double benefit is that — unlike SurveyMonkey and others — Qualtrics has experience on the digital workplace side, which could complement some of SAP’s HR tooling.” But he adds that it’s not really the central CEM piece, and that his company’s research has found that SAP still has holes, particularly when it comes to marketing tools and technologies (MarTech).

Brent Leary, who is founder at CRM Essentials, agrees that SAP got a nice company, especially when combined with the $2.4 billion CallidusCloud purchase from earlier this year, but it has a ways to go to catch up with Salesforce and Adobe. “Qualtrics does provide a more broad perspective of customers because of operational data from back and front office systems. The Callidus acquisition helps to turn insights into certain B2B-focused customer experiences. But I think more pieces may be needed in terms of B2C experience creation tools that companies like Adobe and Salesforce are focusing on with the marketing/experience clouds,” he explained.

Whether this is an actual game changer as McDermott suggested remains to be seen, but the industry experts we spoke to believe it will be more of an incremental piece that helps move the company’s customer experience initiative forward. If they’re right, McDermott might not be finished shopping just yet.

Tinder to roll out expanded set of gender options in India

Tinder is preparing to roll out more gender options in its app in India. The company will announce shortly that users will be able to edit their profiles in order to choose a different option for their gender identity, instead of just “Man” or “Woman,” as well as toggle a setting that will display their gender on their profile in the app.

These same options have been live in the U.S. since November 2016, when the dating app added options for transgender and gender non-conforming people.

The news was published earlier today to Tinder’s blog ahead of a planned announcement, a spokesperson said. It plans to share more information later tonight, they noted. (We’ll update if that’s the case).

In the post Tinder published, the company admits it hasn’t always “had the right tools” to serve its community in the past, and is now trying to learn to be a better ally to transgender and gender non-conforming people using its app. On this front, Tinder says it’s expanding its support team and educating its staff about the issues that these communities face in India. 

Additionally, the company is opening up its support channels and inviting back users who were banned after being unfairly reported by others due to their gender. Tinder users will be able to email the company with a link to their Facebook profile in order to have their request reviewed by Tinder’s team, in order to be let back in. To what extent banned users will want to return, of course, is less clear at this point.

Tinder has not fared well with the trans community in particular, as some users in the past have been banned from the app even when using the identifiers for trans people and displaying this on their profile.

For the U.S. launch of the expanded gender options, Tinder had worked with organizations like GLAAD, activists and others.

In India, it worked with users and consultants, including an LGBTQ organization working for the health and human rights of the LGBTQ community since 1994, The Humsafar Trust, as well as LGBTQ author and inclusion advocate, Parmesh Shahani.

The post also pointed users to Umang, a Mumbai-based support group run by The Humsafar Trust, which offers mental health counseling, legal support, community support and events. And it linked to the clinical and counseling unit of The Humsafar Trust.

The group also runs a helpline Monday through Friday, 10 AM to 8:30 PM at +91 9930095856, and is available on WhatsApp.

“Every new person in your life expands your horizons in some way. Inclusion and acceptance drive this expansion, and we want Tinder to reflect the world that surrounds us every day. No one will ever be banned from Tinder because of their gender,” said Tinder.

The move is notable not just because of the arrival of these important and inclusive features, but because of how critical the Indian market is for dating apps. So far, it seems straight Indian men have been flocking to Tinder and other apps in large numbers, but they’ve had trouble diversifying their user base. To address this problem, Tinder and others have focused efforts on recruiting the millions of young, educated India-based users who have left home to go live and work in cities.

Tinder – like all major tech companies – sees India as a key market, because of the rapid smartphone adoption and the population size. It even launched its Bumble-inspired “My Move” feature there first, back in September.

Bumble, meanwhile, has its sights on India as well, having said it plans to be in the market in full force by year-end.

YouTube VR finally lands on the Oculus Go

Today, Google’s YouTube VR app arrives on the $199 Oculus Go, bringing the largest library of VR content on the web to Facebook’s entry-level VR device.

YouTube brings plenty of content in conventional and more immersive video types. It’s undoubtedly the biggest single hub of 360 content and native formats like VR180, though offering access to the library at large is probably far more important to the Oculus platform.

One of the interesting things about Oculus’s strategy with the Go headset is that gaming turned out to be the minority use case following media consumption. If you find it hard to believe that so many people are out there binging on 360 videos it’s because they probably aren’t. Users have kind of co-opted the device’s capabilities to make it a conventional movie and TV viewing device, there are apps from Netflix and Hulu while Facebook has also built Oculus TV, a feature that’s still in its infancy but basically offers an Apple TV-like environment for watching a lot of 2D content in a social environment.

At the company’s Oculus Connect conference this past year CTO John Carmack remarked how about 70 percent of time spent by users on the Go has been watching videos with about 30 percent of user time has gone to gaming. Oculus has positioned itself as a gaming company in a lot of ways via its investments so it will be interesting to see how it grows its mobile platform to make the video aspect of its VR business more attractive.

With YouTube, the company has pretty easy access to effortlessly bringing a bunch of content onboard, this would have been a great partner for Oculus TV, but a dedicated app brings a lot to users. It wasn’t super clear whether Google was going to play hardball with the YouTube app and keep standalone access confined to its Daydream platform, as the company’s homegrown VR ambitions seem to have grown more subdued, it looks like they’ve had some time to focus on external platforms.

You can download the YouTube VR app here.