Facebook Messenger can now translate between Spanish and English

Facebook Messenger can now automatically translate messages between Spanish and English as part of a new M Translation feature that was first announced at F8 earlier this year, via Engadget.

M Translations join the existing M Suggestions features that are already built into Messenger for things like quick replies, polls, and sharing your location. The translation feature, which should be available now for users in the US and Mexico, will recognize when a user gets a message in a language that isn’t set as their default. Then, Messenger’s M bot will pop up and offer to immediately translate it. The feature had previously been available for users in Marketplace transactions, but it’s rolling out now to all standard Messenger conversations, too.

For now, translations only supports Spanish / English, but Facebook is apparently already working on adding other languages.

Huawei MateBook X Pro review: China's MacBook Pro

The MateBook X Pro certainly looks a lot like Apple’s own MacBook Pro. But I’m sure that’s not on purpose…

Huawei might not be the first name that comes to mind when you think of laptops. In fact, most of you probably can’t even pronounce it correctly. It’s “hwah-way,” by the way.

But it turns out this Chinese smartphone maker is more than capable of producing a laptop to rival the best on the market, even if it does look like Huawei lifted its design from Apple’s (AAPL) MacBook.

Dubbed the MateBook X Pro, this machine is so powerful and, at $1,199 compared to $1,499 for a similarly-equipped MacBook Pro, so relatively inexpensive that it feels like it shouldn’t exist at all. It’s got some problems, namely a goofy webcam hidden below the keyboard that’s difficult to use. Oh, and Huawei’s new reputation as a national security threat is sure to turn off some shoppers. But for the money, this laptop is one of the best you can buy.

An aluminum beauty

The MateBook X Pro is a stunning machine. Built using an aluminum chassis that prevents it from flexing or creaking, the X Pro is available in both silver and space grey. For my money, the latter is the one to go with.

The MateBook X Pro is certainly a well-built laptop.

Sporting a slim design, the X Pro packs a 13.9-inch display, which puts it in between Apple’s MacBook Pro 13-inch and MacBook Pro 15-inch. Still, Huawei’s X Pro is as wide and a hair thinner than the MacBook Pro 13-inch. And while it feels a bit heavy, the X Pro is actually lighter than the Pro 13-inch.

The X Pro looks just about as close to a MacBook as possible. Two details give away the fact that this isn’t a Mac: the Huawei logo on the laptop’s lid and the ridiculously thin display bezel. This thing is virtually all glass.

That screen, though

The MateBook’s screen is more than just its thin bezel, though. The touch screen panel, yes it’s touch and still thin, offers a resolution of 3,000 x 2,000 pixels. That’s sharper than the MacBook Pro 13-inch’s and 15-inch’s screens. Dell’s incredible XPS 13, however, offers a sharper 13-inch panel with a resolution of 3,840 x 2,160, though you need to pay $400 to upgrade to that display.

Colors on the MateBook X Pro look spectacular. Even the Windows 10 screensavers looked fantastic. I spent several hours poring over trailers from E3 2018, which I swear was definitely for research, and not just because I wanted to watch game video game trailers while at work, and they looked brilliant.

The camera is where?

We all know someone who covers their webcam with either a small Post-it note or piece of tape out of fear that someone will hack their computer and watch them read their emails and eat their sad packed lunch hunched over their desks. No? Just me?

Anyway, Huawei has decided that slapping a Post-it on your sleek new laptop is probably the last thing you want to do. It also didn’t have any space for a webcam on the MateBook X Pro’s super-thin bezels.

Hiding the MateBook X Pro’s camera helps with privacy, but makes for a terrible video chatting experience.

Rather than putting the camera directly below the display like Dell does on its XPS 13, Huawei has hidden it under a special button in the keyboard’s F6 and F7 keys. Pressing down on the button flips it up so you can begin chatting.

It’s a novel idea that certainly eliminates any need for a Post-it to cover the camera, but it also means that whoever you’re chatting with will get a good look up your nose much like the XPS 13. And God help you if you have to type something while using the webcam, because your friend will just get a close-up look at your fingernails. I sincerely hope you get a manicure before using this webcam.

Performance to spare

What makes the MateBook X Pro such a standout machine is the incredible amount of power it’s packing at such a low price. The base model comes with an Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, 256GB of storage and integrated Intel graphics for $1,199. It also features two USB C ports, one of which supports Thunderbolt 3 so you can use it to connect an external full-size graphics card.

Don’t expect to be able to play AAA PC games on the MateBook at high settings, though. Even “Overwatch,” which is pretty forgiving when it comes to performance requirements, is sluggish when set to its max settings.

My attempt to take an artistic photo of the MateBook.

Apple’s MacBook Pro 13-inch starts at $1,299 and has a 128GB drive.

The top-of-the-line X Pro comes with a Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM, an Nvidia GeForce MX150 and 512GB of storage. That’s a pretty beefy machine. A similarly outfitted MacBook Pro 13-inch without Touch Bar, which doesn’t have an Nvidia chip, comes in at $2,199.

Even Microsoft’s 13.5-inch Surface Book 2, which offers similar specs to the MateBook, comes in at $1,349.

Importantly, the MateBook X Pro offers plenty of battery life. I used the notebook throughout my workday while browsing the web and typing this very review and didn’t have to plug it in until the end of the day.

Wait, is it that Huawei?

Finally, it’s worth addressing the elephant in the room that is Huawei’s current reputation in the U.S. Yes, the company’s smartphones and telecommunications equipment are currently being treated as a security threat by the U.S. Government. The fear is that because Huawei is a Chinese company, the Chinese government could order it to create a backdoor program that would allow it to spy on U.S. citizens, more specifically U.S. government and military personnel.

Nothing has come of those allegations as of yet, but it’s been enough to spook major U.S. carriers into not carrying the company’s devices. To address that, Huawei has loaded the MateBook X Pro with Microsoft’s (MSFT) Windows 10 Signature Edition.

The MateBook’s power button doubles as a fingerprint reader.

In a statement a Huawei spokesperson said Signature restricts us from loading any software or apps. “This is an additional cost to the company but it demonstrates our commitment to privacy and security,” the company said in a statement.

What’s more, the laptop’s fingerprint reader, which is located on the power button, stores fingerprint data locally, rather than in the cloud.

If that’s not enough to make you feel safe in using the MateBook X Pro, then it’s not for you.

Should you get it?

The Huawei MateBook X Pro is an exceptional laptop at a price that easily outclasses its competitors. It offers excellent performance, a long-lasting battery and a vibrant display  — making the MateBook one of the best notebooks on the market. Its one downfall is its ridiculous webcam placement. But if you’re able to look past that, and the company’s own PR issues, the MateBook is the machine for you.

More from Dan:

Email Daniel Howley at dhowley@oath.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowleyFollow Yahoo Finance on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn

Get two Fire HD 7 and Fire HD 8 tablets for kids from Amazon and save $50

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Save on the Fire HD 7 and Fire HD 8 tablets for kids.
Save on the Fire HD 7 and Fire HD 8 tablets for kids.

Image: Amazon

Amazon has a deal going on today that saves you $50 when you buy either two Fire HD 7 tablets or two Fire HD 8 tablets for kids. 

For starters, either of the Fire HDs are an awesome choice as far as kids’ tablets go. Both models come with a year of FreeTime included, which gets your kid access to more than 15,000 books, movies, TV shows, educational apps, and games. (Once your year of free access is up, the monthly fee is a *very* reasonable $2.99.) The available titles are great for any kid between the ages of 3-12 (think PBS, Nickelodeon, Disney.) 

The Fire’s age filters make it super easy for parents to adjust the available programs based on the child’s age. This way, your 12-year-old doesn’t have to surf through pages of toddler shows and you don’t have to worry about your toddler seeing something meant for older kids. As a big plus, you can also add content to your child’s tablet, in case you’ve given the OK for that Netflix show they want to watch. 

You can also set screen-time controls, limit certain content, and even set bedtime curfews to ensure your kids don’t stay up all night staring at their screens. 

The tablets wouldn’t be very kid-friendly if they weren’t also kid-proof, so each tablet comes with a blue, yellow, or red case, which is designed to withstand drops, bumps and “typical mayhem caused by kids at play.” Parents, ya’ll know how important that is.

On top of that, they also offer a 2-year worry-free guarantee, so if anything — and we mean anything — happens, don’t sweat it. They’ll replace it with no questions asked. Did we just hear a sigh of relief?

The main differences between the Fire HD 7 and the Fire HD 8 are as follows:

                                      For the Fire HD 7:                                           For the Fire HD 8:

Image: amazon

The best part of this deal though? No fighting over devices. Life’s a whole lot easier when the kids don’t have to share. Get the Fire HD 7 bundle here and get the Fire HD 8 bundle here.

This Nintendo Switch accessory lets you play classic arcade games vertically

There have been a handful of excellent, classic arcade games released on the Nintendo Switch that are best played vertically, as was originally intended. Titles like Ikaruga, Pac-Man, and most recently the first proper port of Donkey Kong’s arcade iteration. There’s only one problem: playing vertical games on the Switch is a nightmare, since the tablet’s kickstand and controller slots don’t support the format. But a new crowdfunded accessory could solve that problem.

It’s called the Flip Grip, and it’s essentially a grip that holds the Switch vertically, while the Joy-Con controllers slot in on the side. It’s made of a single piece of ABS plastic and features rails on either side designed to work the same as the rails on the Switch tablet. The accessory will sell for $15 if it ships, which will happen if the Kickstarter campaign is fully funded. Currently the creators are looking to raise a fairly modest $42,500 for the project.

Flip Grip
A Flip Grip prototype.
Photo: Jeremy Parish.

The Flip Grip is billed as a collaboration between longtime classic games journalist Jeremy Parish, industrial designer and engineer Mike Choi, and gaming shop Fangamer. Parish came up with the idea, Fangamer connected him with Choi, and now the three are partnering to make it a reality. “There’s no risk here — the Flip Grip is prototyped, tested, and has been approved by manufacturers,” Parish writes. “We just need to round up the money to have them strike the molds and start injecting plastics. As soon as the campaign closes (assuming it’s successful), these go into production.”

If it does get funded, the Flip Grip is expected to start shipping in November.

What the GDPR Means for Small US Etailers

Large corporations are not the only businesses governed by the European General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, which became effective last month.

Small and mid-sized businesses also are subject to its provisions.

The regulation applies to the processing of personal data of individuals in the EU by an individual, a company or an organization engaged in professional or commercial activities.

“The common misconception is that if you don’t have an office in the EU, then the GDPR doesn’t apply to you,” said Cindy Zhou, principal analyst at Constellation Research.

However, shipping products to the European Economic Area (EEA) or sourcing them from the region are activities governed by the GDPR, she told the E-Commerce Times.

“The online marketplace has no borders,” noted Wesley Young, VP for public affairs at the Local Search Association.

That may be changing, however.

“We have seen many small businesses … exclude EU subjects from their clientele to avoid exposure to GDPR risks,” observed Andrew Frank, distinguished analyst at Gartner.

“This could impact assumptions about the frictionless global nature of e-business,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

GDPR Pitfalls for Unwary SMBs

The GDPR’s definition of personal data is “very broad,” LSA’s Young told the E-Commerce Times. “That would include IP addresses, location information, demographic information, and other general data used for targeting ads.”

The term “process” also is broadly defined, “and includes collecting and storing data, even if it isn’t further used,” he observed.

“The breadth of the GDPR’s application lends itself to be easily but unintentionally violated,” Young noted. For example, not following through on policy changes — failing to abide by new privacy policies, or not training staff to adhere to them — might be a violation.

Using data beyond the reason for which it was collected might be a violation, suggested Young, as consent has to be given for specific purposes.

The Ins and Outs of Consent

The GDPR “allows six different legal bases for collecting or processing personal data, of which consent is but one,” said Robert Cattanach, partner at Dorsey & Whitney.

For most e-commerce situations, the transaction arguably constitutes a contract, and “additional consent may not be required” to collect personal data necessary to conclude the transaction, he told the E-Commerce Times. However, the question of consent will arise when a merchant engages third-party vendors to track or monitor customer behavior on its website.

Monitoring or aggregating customer behavior on a merchant’s website to learn when a customer decides to place an order or abandon the search by using cookies is one option, Cattanach noted.

“The UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office has opined that implied consent may be sufficient for such site tracking,” he pointed out. Therefore, a pop-up banner stating continued use of the site means consent to the use of cookies might suffice — although some of the German data protection authorities might not agree.

For the collection of personal data, a pop-up requiring the customer to independently agree to it would be necessary.

Two major issues remain unresolved, according to Cattanach:

  • What constitutes informed consent is still “a matter of ongoing dispute”; and
  • Responses to data subject access requests — such as the right to discover what data has been collected, correct errors, and request to be forgotten — “are legally less problematic on their face but, as a practical matter, may be more difficult to execute.”

Requests to be forgotten require merchants to establish process flows for the intake of such requests; set policies for when such requests will be granted or denied; and implement pocedures for responding within 30 days.

That is “no small undertaking,” Cattanach remarked, “which is why many SMBs have just decided to avoid triggering GDPR by expunging all existing data of EU residents and blocking EU IP addresses from accessing their websites going forward.”

Records of processing were expected to be the most challenging of the data subject rights requirements by 48.5 percent of more than 1,300 U.S. business users and consumers who participated in an online survey CompliancePoint conducted this spring.

Only 29 percent of respondents to the CompliancePoint survey were fully aware of the GDPR; 44 percent were somewhat aware and 26 percent were unaware.

Other data subject rights problems they anticipated:

  • Accountability – 41 percent;
  • Consent and data portability – 39.7 percent each; and
  • Right to be forgotten – 35.3 percent.

GDPR Readiness

Twenty-four percent of business respondents to the CompliancePoint survey said their organizations were fully prepared for the GDPR, while 31 percent said they were somewhat prepared and 36 percent said their organizations were not prepared.

Following are some of the factors that kept the organizations of CompliancePoint respondents from being GDPR compliant:

  • Waiting to see what enforcement would be applied – 45.6 percent
  • Lack of understanding of the regulations – 39.7 percent;
  • No budget for compliance – 36.8 percent;
  • Low brand visibility – 33.8 percent; and
  • Unconcerned – 27.9 percent.

“SMBs are not immune to the risk of GDPR,” said Greg Sparrow, general manager at CompliancePoint.

“The risk of fines and regulatory action are the same for businesses large and small,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

The financial penalties — 4 percent of annual revenue or 20 million euros — are large, noted Constellation’s Zhou.

However “the indirect costs in terms of impact on customer trust and brand reputation may be even greater,” said Gartner’s Frank.

CRM Software to the Rescue

CRM systems that make it relatively easy to execute functions like erasure and consent modification “can help considerably,” Frank suggested.

“SugarCRM recently released a data privacy module that automates much of the processes for managing the required data governance,” remarked Rebecca Wettemann, VP of research at Nucleus Research.

Zoho, Hubspot, Salesforce and other CRM vendors “are touting GDPR compliance,” Zhou noted.

“SMBs running cloud CRM applications will likely find the easiest path to compliance, because data privacy capabilities have been or are being built into these applications,” Wettemann told the E-Commerce Times.

That said, CRM companies are data processors by definition, Zhou pointed out, and under the guidance of the company that collected the customer data.

“Privacy policies, cookie notices and age consent forms all need to be managed by the SMBs themselves,” she said, “and are often placed on a website or on the e-commerce site which isn’t related to the CRM solution.”


Richard Adhikari has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2008. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, mobile technologies, CRM, databases, software development, mainframe and mid-range computing, and application development. He has written and edited for numerous publications, including Information Week and Computerworld. He is the author of two books on client/server technology.
Email Richard.

Landmark Supreme Court decision lets states force online stores to pay sales tax

forensic evidence flaws supreme court united states washington dc

The online marketplace now looks a lot more like its offline counterpart — at least, when it comes to taxes. A contentious case has reached a rather contentious ruling in the Supreme Court today, and in a 5-4 decision, the highest court in the United States ruled that states can indeed collect sales taxes from e-commerce retailers. The ruling overturns a 1992 precedent that previously prevented states from forcing businesses without a “physical presence” from collecting sales taxes. As a result of this new decision, states will be able to potentially collect billions of dollars worth of sales taxes from online retailers huge and tiny, from Amazon to Avenue.

The ruling comes down against online retailers Wayfair, Overstock.com, and Newegg. The companies have warned that, as a result of the decision, similar companies may have to face around 12,000 local tax jurisdictions, which could lead to some serious chaos. It also means that if you previously turned to the internet in order to get a lower, tax-free price for a product you initially saw in a brick and mortar store, you’ll no longer be able to save the same kind of money. In short: Party’s over.

Justice Anthony Kennedy authored the decision, with support from left- and right-leaning court members alike, including Justices Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch. “The Internet’s prevalence and power have changed the dynamics of the national economy,” Kennedy wrote. “This expansion has also increased the revenue shortfall faced by states seeking to collect their sales and use taxes.”

However, Chief Justice John Roberts, along with Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan, dissented, noting that this new tax structure could disadvantage smaller sellers.

“The burden will fall disproportionately on small businesses,” Roberts wrote in his dissent. “The court’s decision today will surely have the effect of dampening opportunities for commerce in a broad range of new markets.”

But don’t go panicking quite yet. As it stands, the ultimate effect of the ruling remains unclear, as online stores will have to gain more clarity on exactly what their own businesses and customers will have to do as a result. Online commerce, of course, is a booming industry, one that is expected to reach a whopping $4.5 trillion by 2021 globally. And as of 2017, 96 percent of Americans shopped online. Currently, the Supreme Court’s decision will only immediately affect South Dakota, who has been trying to collect taxes from e-commerce stores with more than $100,000 in annual sales of 200 transactions in the state.

Of course, we should point out that a majority of the most popular online sellers already collect taxes in almost all eligible U.S. states, as they have local showrooms or warehouses, or due to state laws. The 100 most popular e-commerce stores represent about 90 percent of taxes owed.

Editors’ Recommendations

Here’s everything we know about Apple’s AirPower wireless charging mat

Apple AirPower wireless charging mat
Apple

When Apple unveiled the iPhone X, the company finally dipped its toes into the world of wireless charging, announcing support for the wireless standard Qi. To complement the iPhone’s new capabilities, Apple also unveiled its own AirPower wireless charging mat. But since announcing it at its event in September of last year, the company has yet to discuss it again publicly.

Here’s everything we know so far about the AirPower wireless charging pad.

Pricing and availability

Back in February, Japanese blog MacOtakara claimed Apple’s wireless charging pad was almost ready for release. Other rumors claimed the device was supposed to ship in March. According to a recent report from Bloomberg, sources close to the matter now say AirPower will be released either before or in September. But an analyst at research firm Creative Strategies told the publication that he believes the AirPower product is a much bigger project that could take years to develop, not months or quarters.

While one source said that some Apple engineers have been using the charging pads at their desks over the last few months, the team is still apparently working to perfect them. Since the device includes a custom Apple chip that runs a more basic version of iOS, engineers are reportedly working to squash bugs in relation to the on-board firmware.

Proprietary specifications and special radio transmitters in an Apple-branded device? Expect it to cost more than existing chargers, which range from $40 to $60 or so, when it ships, possibly in March. VentureBeat speculated that the device could sell for as much as $199, citing a placeholder entry on a Polish website. We expect it to be more reasonable, but still higher than comparable devices from the competition.

Meanwhile, take a gander at Plux, which purports to be the first the world’s first Qi-compatible, multidevice wireless charging pad for your iPhone, Apple Watch, and AirPods.

AirPower wireless charging pad

AirPower’s wireless charging standard allows you to charge multiple devices at one time — meaning  a 2017 or newer iPhone, an Apple Watch, and even AirPods, thanks to a promised wireless charging case. Powering several devices at once seems like a simple matter, but it’s not. Different device requires different amounts of power, and the pad needs a method to detect which device is where — and then to supply the correct amount of power only to devices sitting in that specific location. According to MacOtakara, the AirPower will use a special radio signal to detect where each device sits.

Devices supporting Apple products have existed since the September release of the iPhone X; we tested three popular models from Mophie, Belkin, and RavPower in late October (spoiler alert: the RavPower Alpha Series Fast Charger blew away the competition). But Apple’s AirPower promises unique features unavailable in other products, thanks to a proprietary specification built around the Wireless Power Consortium’s (WPC) Qi specification. (Curious about how wireless charging works? Here’s everything you need to know.)

Oh, and those AirPods? We assume a special case will enable any existing AirPods to charge, but that remains to be seen. According to a footnote on Apple’s iPhone X page, it may not be the case: “AirPods with wireless charging capabilities coming in 2018.” Does that mean wireless capabilities are coming, or new AirPods are coming? We’ll see.

Updated on June 21: Apple reportedly aiming for September launch of the AirPower Wireless Charger

Editors’ Recommendations

Control is a ritual-obsessed, supernatural action game from the creator of Quantum Break

For the past few years, Remedy Entertainment has toyed with different ways to tell its stories. Its thriller game Alan Wake played out through episodic installments, not unlike a TV show. Sci-fi action-adventure game Quantum Break took the idea of television more literally, with a live-action series grafted on to a game. If players expect the developer’s latest game, Control, to follow in these more experimental footsteps, however, they’re in for a surprise. “With Control, we’re focusing on other ways of telling stories,” says game designer Sergey Mohov. Rather than toying with the conventions of television, it will be a game focused on environmental storytelling, and the missions that players embark on will be more than just linear fetch quests.

Control is a supernatural action-adventure game set in a reality-bending version of New York. Its lead, a woman named Jesse Faden, becomes entangled in a struggle between mysterious invaders known as the Hiss, and a secret government agency called the Federal Bureau of Control. After the Hiss invades the Bureau and murders its director, Jesse is chosen to take on that mantle through “a strange and ritualistic process,” says Mohov.

Rituals appear to be a huge part of Control. In a demo for the game I watched at E3 last week, Jesse could be heard quietly repeating incantations or mantras to herself. As she explored the Bureau’s building, also known as the Oldest House, what she encountered defied explanations. Bodies floated above silent office spaces and walls shifted and spiraled from their architecture. Jesse is gifted with abilities that allow her to levitate or launch items into the air. She wields a special gun that splits like a Rubik’s cube when used.

The Oldest House is a sprawling, deceptively large building that can change at a moment’s notice. In Metroidvania style, players will gain additional access to its secrets as they learn more abilities. A previously unreachable door, for example, becomes easily accessible once Jesse can levitate.

[embedded content]

The game is still early in development, Mohov says, though it’s slated to launch next year on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. For now, its strange, occult-filled world looks promising.

Amazon has Garmin GPS devices on sale for $30 off

Just to let you know, if you buy something featured here, Mashable might earn an affiliate commission.
Don't worry about getting lost while driving again.
Don’t worry about getting lost while driving again.

Image: Amazon

Real talk: It’s still very easy to get lost while driving. Whether its the gridded streets of New York City or the hills of California, one wrong turn can take you 30 minutes away from your destination. Invest in a Garmin GPS, like this one Amazon has on sale, and avoid those issues again.

The Garmin Drive 51 USA LMT-S GPS is currently available on sale at Amazon for $119.99, down from $149.99. The Garmin Drive comes with lifetime maps for free, that way you’re never left out in the cold when it comes to any route changes. It also includes traffic updates, so long as you have a smartphone with the free link app. And to ensure safety, the GPS will provide alerts should any delays or crossings come up.

For $119.99, this is definitely a good deal to always know where you’re going. You won’t need to rely on physical maps or chew through your data plan anymore. And Garmin has been able to establish itself as, arguably, the best brand in the space. So if you don’t want to worry about getting lost again, head to Amazon and grab this GPS.

Elon Musk wants cobalt out of his batteries — here’s why that’s a challenge

As electric vehicles become less niche, the batteries powering them need to keep up. Last week, Elon Musk tweeted that batteries for the Tesla Model 3 use less than 3 percent of an expensive chemical called cobalt, and the next generation battery “will use none” of the material that some have called the “blood diamond of batteries.” How soon can that claim come true?

Cobalt is a key component of batteries. It’s also the most expensive material in the battery and mined under conditions that often violate human rights. As a result, scientists and startups are rushing to create a cobalt-free battery.

Musk’s “next-gen” claim is a vague phrase that doesn’t set out a definite timeline, so it’s impossible to know when he’ll deliver — but don’t expect it to be in the next couple of years.

The Verge spoke to Caspar Rawles, an analyst at Benchmark Mineral Intelligence who focuses on the cobalt market and cathodes, about why it’s so challenging to create a cobalt-free battery.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

What exactly is cobalt and where is it mined? Is it extremely rare?

When we’re talking about mined cobalt, the raw material supply largely comes from the [Democratic Republic of] Congo. Last year, 66 percent of the world’s cobalt came from the Congo. Congo really has a big stranglehold.

It’s not necessarily as rare as a mineral, though it’s rarer than lithium or graphite or some others. It’s typically produced as a product, meaning it comes out as another material from nickel or copper mining. So, people are concerned because the supply of cobalt is ultimately at the mercy of the larger copper and nickel markets. If those markets are suffering from low prices, and so demand, it becomes harder to invest in cobalt production.

A lot of companies, including Tesla, are interested in making the zero-cobalt battery. When do you think that will happen?

Tesla uses a formulation called NCA (nickel, cobalt, aluminum) that is already very low-cobalt. Over the last six years, Tesla and Panasonic [which supplies batteries to Tesla] have reduced cobalt dependency by about 60 percent already. That’s already very low. We think it’s going to be difficult for them to go much lower because you run into engineering problems.

What are some of those problems?

Cobalt is the safe element in the cathode. As you reduce it, you reduce the life cycle of the cell. The current market standard for electric vehicles is an eight-year warranty to retain 80 percent of the original capacity of the battery. You need to be sure your battery can do that, otherwise, you’ll have to replace it under warranty, which is way more expensive than the theoretical savings you gain from less cobalt.

And there’s a safety issue as well. As you decrease the amount of cobalt, you increase the amount of nickel. The cells can overheat and it can no longer effectively cool itself, which can lead to combustion. That’s a relatively low risk but it’s not a risk that can be taken and you need special technology to avoid that. Plus, the low-cobalt formulations need to produce in special dry environments, and so there’s a cost to making them, too.

I think it’s very challenging from an engineering standpoint to solve these problems, so I think the current NCA technology is going to be the dominant technology for the next 10 years.

Some people pointed out that Panasonic announced that it was going to develop a cobalt-free battery and then ordered three times as much cobalt. Can you put that in context for me?

The cobalt-free battery is something Panasonic is working on, but I don’t think it’s around the corner. Panasonic is probably ordering more cobalt simply because they need to make more batteries. Tesla is ramping up production and they have a deal with Toyota.

What do you see as the future of the cobalt market? Is it going to become more and more expensive?

That’s the multibillion-dollar question. Electric vehicles are creating a true demand for cobalt now and that’s going to be around for a long time. Demand for cobalt used to be mostly for superalloys used in jet engines and hardware. Now, over 50 percent of demand is coming from the battery sector, which is going to completely change the industry.

At the same time, there are a number of new projects to mine cobalt in DRC. I think we’ll have stable prices until about 2022, when demand is going to exceed what new supplies can come, and then prices are likely to increase.

What do you think is the future of the battery? What could “next-gen” be?

There are things like advanced lithium-ion batteries, which use little cobalt and could be here in a couple of years. But we’re really getting toward the physiochemical limit of what those materials can do. To me, the next generation is something like solid-state batteries with the solid anode, but they’re a long way off. Other things, like sodium-ion batteries, are still on the lab scale and you need to get from lab to research to pilot testing, to cathode testing to battery testing. We’re looking at least 10 more years for that.