- Created on 02 January 2013
Congolese technology company VMK is attempting to break into the smart phone and tablet market by unveiling the first homegrown devices specifically geared towards Africans, The Grio reports.
VMK announced the launch of the new Way-C tablet and Elikia smart phone earlier this week. To market the devices as authentically African, the budding tech company chose the names Way-C, which means "the light of the stars" and Elikia, which translates to "hope" in the local Lingala language.
"Only Africans know what Africa needs," says Congolese entrepreneur and founder, Verone Mankou. "Apple is huge in the US, Samsung is huge in Asia, and we want VMK to be huge in Africa."
While the specs of the devices are not quite 'top of the line' compared to its competitors, its reasonable price tag is what Mankou believes is the biggest selling point for local African communities. The 27-year old entrepreneur says the aim is to get these products into the hands of African locals by making the products more affordable, according to his statement at the Tech4Africa conference in Johannesburg last month. Both devices use Google's Android operating system.
Although the company has high ambitions to compete with mobile juggernauts Apple and Samsung, there has been some negative speculation amid the tech community surrounding the authenticity of VMK's products because the devices are manufactured in China. This reaction is due to the tainted reputation that other African tech companies have garnered in the past for producing copies of other products.
For instance, Smartplanet reports that a Nigerian-based company a few years ago first claimed to have released Africa's homegrown tablet; however, it was soon discovered that the device was simply an OEM product sold throughout the world under different names.
While Africa's tech reputation has plummeted in recent years, VMK firmly states that the design and engineering of their products are authentically African-based, even though they are manufactured overseas.
"We are somewhat offended by the disregard of those who persist in denying the authentication of our products, despite evidence," according to statement from VMK's website. "Most of those critics are either Afro-pessimistic (who argue that 'nothing good' can come from Africa'), or just (future) competitors who have [an] OEM on the market or are planning to market and/or commercialize one."
He says that their reason to outsource the manufacturing process to China was due to lower costs and limited availability of factories in the Congo.To make it even more clear, Mankou decided to engrave "Designed in the Republic of Congo, assembled in China" on the devices, which mimics the engravings on Apple's iPhones and iPads that read "Designed by Apple in California."
The three-year-old tech company also says that unlike previous "African-based" smartphones and tablets, there are no products on the market matching VMK devices in other countries under different branding.
VMK plans to sell the devices at retailers across 10 West African countries in addition to releases in Belgium, France and India.
- Created on 31 December 2012
NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- In the age of free phone calls and Skype, one group of people is still paying exorbitant rates for talk time: prisoners. The bill for a typical 15 minute state-to-state call tops $16 in some areas.
That's because most prisons offer exclusive deals to phone service providers in exchange for astronomical commissions. The Federal Communications Commission labeled interstate inmate calling services (ICS) a government-sponsored "monopoly."
The FCC wants it broken up. On Friday, the agency opened for public comment its proposed rules to lower interstate prison phone call rates. Its plans include the establishment of an interstate rate benchmark, caps on rates and the end of exclusivity agreements.
The fees providers pay to prisons add 43% on average to the cost of a call, the FCC estimated. As a result, prisoners pay far less for interstate calls in the small handful of states that do not charge commissions. New York, for instance, has banned commissions, and its average per-minute rates are as low as 5 cents per minute -- the lowest of all states' rates. Colorado's ICS, which does charge commissions to its payphone vendors, is the nation's most expensive, at 89 cents per minute.
On top of per-minute rates, most ICS operators charge prisoners call-initiation fees, which vary from 50 cents to $3.95 per call.
Prison calling services differ from typical payphones in some crucial ways. They can block inmates from making calls to certain people, including judges or witnesses. They can't dial 800 or 900 numbers, and phone conversations can be monitored. If a prisoner is repeatedly making a call to the same number, for instance, corrections officers might listen in or record future calls. The systems also periodically notify the recipient that the call is being placed from a jail.
All those features -- and the personnel needed to manage the systems -- make prison systems more costly to operate than regular payphones. But the wide disparity in ICS rates suggests that some operators are going overboard.
Interstate calls make up only a small subset of phone calls from prisons, the FCC noted. They tend to be the most expensive, though, and any steps to reign in their costs would "be effective in helping lower the cost of contact between inmates and their families," the commission said in its report.
That could end up saving federal and state governments money over time. A recent study from the Government Accountability Office found that contact with family "aids an inmate's success when returning to the community" and lowers the chances that a prisoner will end up back in jail.
The FCC proposal comes more than a decade after a U.S. District Court dismissed a class action lawsuit initiated by Martha Wright of Washington, who claimed that she paid $1,000 a year to cover the costs of her grandson's phone calls from various state prisons. The judge in the case referred Wright to the FCC, which she contacted nine years ago.
One FCC commissioner acknowledged the horrendous turnaround time, saying in a written statement that Wright "could not have expected to wait longer for action on her petition than it took the prison system to release her grandson."
The public has 60 days to comment, and the commission has 90 days to respond.
- Created on 27 December 2012
(AP) — With a proposed payout of more than $1 billion, one major chapter of a nearly four-year legal saga that left Toyota Motor Corp. fighting hundreds of lawsuits and struggling with a tarnished image has ended, though another remains.
The settlement — unprecedented in its size according to a plaintiff's attorney — brings an end to claims from owners who said the value of their vehicles plunged after recalls over sudden and unintended acceleration.
Lawsuits claiming that the defects caused injury or death remain, with the first trial beginning in February unless another major deal comes first.
Steve Berman, a lawyer representing Toyota owners, said the settlement is the largest in U.S. history involving automobile defects.
"We kept fighting and fighting and we secured what we think was a good settlement given the risks of this litigation," Berman told The Associated Press.
The courtroom claims began with a highway tragedy. A California Highway Patrol officer and three of his family members were killed in suburban San Diego in 2009 after their car, a Toyota-built Lexus, reached speeds of more than 120 mph, hit an SUV, launched off an embankment, rolled several times and burst into flames.
Investigators determined that a wrong-size floor mat trapped the accelerator and caused the crash.
That discovery, and the accident's grisliness, spurred a series of recalls involving more than 14 million vehicles and a flood of lawsuits soon followed, with numerous complaints of accelerations in several models, and brake defects with the Prius hybrid.
The Japanese automaker has blamed driver error, faulty floor mats and stuck accelerator pedals for the problems.
The runaway Lexus case was settled separately for $10 million in 2010, before the cases were consolidated by U.S. District Judge James Selna.
Selna divided them into two categories: economic loss and wrongful death. He needs to approve Wednesday's settlement, which only applies to the first group of lawsuits. The deal was filed Wednesday and Selna is expected to review it on Friday.
Toyota said it will take a one-time, $1.1 billion pre-tax charge against earnings to cover the estimated costs of the settlement. Berman said the total value of the deal is between $1.2 billion and $1.4 billion.
As part of the economic loss settlement, Toyota will offer cash payments from a pool of about $250 million to eligible customers who sold vehicles or turned in leased vehicles between September 2009 and December 2010.
The company also will launch a $250 million program for 16 million current owners to provide supplemental warranty coverage for certain vehicle components, and it will retrofit about 3.2 million vehicles with a brake override system. An override system is designed to ensure a car will stop when the brakes are applied, even if the accelerator pedal is depressed.
The settlement would also establish additional driver education programs and fund new research into advanced safety technologies.
"In keeping with our core principles, we have structured this agreement in ways that work to put our customers first and demonstrate that they can count on Toyota to stand behind our vehicles," said Christopher Reynolds, Toyota vice president and general counsel.
Current and former Toyota owners are expected to receive more information about the settlement in the coming months.
Plaintiffs' attorneys have spent the past two years deposing Toyota employees, poring over thousands of documents and reviewing software code, but the company maintains those lawyers have been unable to prove that a design defect — namely Toyota's electronic throttle control system — was responsible for vehicles surging unexpectedly.
Both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and NASA were unable to find any defects in Toyota's source code that could cause problems.
The company has been dogged by fines for not reporting problems in a timely manner.
Earlier this month, NHTSA doled out a record $17.4 million fine to Toyota for failing to quickly report floor mat problems with some of its Lexus models. Toyota paid a total of $48.8 million in fines for three violations in 2010.
Toyota President Akio Toyoda appeared before Congress last year and pledged to strengthen quality control. Recent sales figures show the company appears to have rebounded following its safety issues.
- Created on 28 December 2012
As Americans await a fiscal-cliff solution that doesn't appear to be on the horizon before 2013, Colorlines' Imara Jones writes that in order to tackle the worst wealth inequity in decades, Americans must call out and defeat systemic white supremacy.
Our collective denial over the fundamental injustice at the heart of our economic system is a result of white supremacy. The words "white supremacy" are radioactive to be sure. It pains me to write them. However, as a trained economist I go where the facts lead me. Since I have written potentially inflammatory words, let me be clear about what I mean.
White supremacy is a low-level assumption about characteristics that white people allegedly have which transforms inequality between them and everyone else into something natural. It often masks itself as fairness and goes unquestioned as a result. Using this definition, our current tax code is a work of white supremacy.
The fact that we've arrived at this point on the watch of the country's first black president is an irony too large to ignore. Mostly victim, partly complicit, Obama is not fully to blame. Yet, economically speaking, the stubborn fact remains that the country is at a moment of racial injustice not seen in more than a generation. In the last four years, that injustice has only expanded and calcified.
White wealth is double what it was 30 years ago. Black and Latino wealth is at its lowest point ever recorded. These inequitable consequences flow directly from political choices embedded in our tax code. But since 1980 when these choices began to be implemented, we've talked ourselves out of race and into a mess when it comes to taxes. In fact the frame for our current fiscal debate has clear white supremacist roots.
Read Imara Jones' entire piece at Colorlines.
- Created on 26 December 2012
(AP) — U.S. shoppers spent cautiously this holiday season, a disappointment for retailers who slashed prices to lure people into stores and now must hope for a post-Christmas burst of spending.
Sales of electronics, clothing, jewelry and home goods in the two months before Christmas increased 0.7 percent compared with last year, according to the MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse report.
That was below the healthy 3 to 4 percent growth that analysts had expected — and it was the worst year-over-year performance since 2008, when spending shrank sharply during the Great Recession. In 2011, retail sales climbed 4 to 5 percent during November and December, according to ShopperTrak.
This year's shopping season was marred by bad weather and rising uncertainty about the economy in the face of possible tax hikes and spending cuts early next year. Some analysts say the massacre of schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., earlier this month may also have chipped away at shoppers' enthusiasm.
Retailers still have time to make up lost ground. The final week of December accounts for about 15 percent of the month's sales, said Michael McNamara, vice president for research and analysis at MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse.
Still, this season's weak sales could have repercussions for 2013, McNamara said. Retailers will make fewer orders to restock their shelves, and discounts will hurt their profitability. Wholesalers will buy fewer goods and orders to factories will likely drop in the coming months.
Steep discounts weren't enough to get people into stores, said Marshal Cohen, chief analyst at the market research firm NPD Inc.
"A lot of the Christmas spirit was left behind way back in Black Friday weekend," Cohen said, referring to the traditional retail rush the day after Thanksgiving. "We had one reason after another for consumers to say, 'I'm going to stick to my list and not go beyond it.'"
Holiday sales are a crucial indicator of the economy's strength. November and December account for up to 40 percent of annual sales for many retailers. If those sales don't materialize, stores are forced to offer steeper discounts. That's a boon for shoppers, but it cuts into stores' profits.
Spending by consumers accounts for 70 percent of overall economic activity, so the eight-week period encompassed by the SpendingPulse data is seen as a critical time not just for retailers but for manufacturers, wholesalers and companies at every other point along the supply chain.
The SpendingPulse data released Tuesday, which captures sales from Oct. 28 through Dec. 24 across all payment methods, is the first major snapshot of holiday retail sales. A clearer picture will emerge next week as retailers like Macy's and Target report revenue from stores open for at least a year. That sales measure is widely watched in the retail industry because it excludes revenue from stores that recently opened or closed, which can be volatile.
In the run-up to Christmas, analysts blamed bad weather for putting a damper on shopping. In late October, Superstorm Sandy battered the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states, which account for 24 percent of U.S. retail sales.
Shopping picked up in the second half of November, but then the threat of the country falling off a "fiscal cliff" gained strength, throwing consumers off track once again.
Lawmakers have yet to reach a deal that would prevent tax increases and government spending cuts set to take effect at the beginning of 2013. If the cuts and tax hikes kick in and stay in place for months, the Congressional Budget Office says the nation could fall back into recession.
Shopping over the past two months was weakest in areas affected by Sandy and a more recent winter storm in the Midwest. Sales declined by 3.9 percent in the mid-Atlantic and 1.4 percent in the Northeast compared with last year. They rose 0.9 percent in the north central part of the country.
The West and South posted gains of between 2 percent and 3 percent, still weaker than the 3 percent to 4 percent increases expected by many retail analysts.
Online sales, typically a bright spot, grew only 8.4 percent from Oct. 28 through Saturday, according to SpendingPulse. That's a dramatic slowdown from the online sales growth of 15 to 17 percent seen in the prior 18-month period, according to the data service.
Online sales did enjoy a modest boost after the recent snowstorm that hit the Midwest, McNamara said. Online sales make up about 10 percent of total holiday business.