Companies have an interest in virtual currencies for many reasons. It develops a store of value inside of an ecosystem; it ensures that goods will be purchased inside of their own worlds. Generally speaking, it keeps more value inside their own fiefdom once a virtual currency has been exchanged for cash money. In the end, it appears to be a major value proposition. This is especially true for technology companies that do most of their business in the digital realm.
With that being said, the recent history of corporate-backed virtual currencies is spotty at best. Let’s take a look at some recent efforts. Then, an analysis of the future of corporate digicurrencies.
Credits are used on Facebook’s platform to buy items within games and other applications. It sounds like a good idea in concept, but Facebook has decided to shutter their Credits platform.
Some have speculated that Credits would be a boost to Facebook as a payment system. Payments on Facebook may still come to fruition, but it won’t end up being denominated in the Credits virtual currency at this point. And for people who don’t quite understand how Facebook plans on making money from users long-term, it’s hard to fathom at all.
Facebook has experienced serious criticisms ever since the company went public amid concerns that it might not be able to match lofty revenue expectations. It’s also been in a back-and-forth battle with Zynga, which has been a developer of popular games on the social network. It would seem logical that something like Facebook Credits could work. But the reality is that adoption of Credits only reached as far as the people who played games on Facebook. This likely resulted in a fight with Zynga, which has to become less dependent on Facebook over the long-run and is now struggling to survive.
Lost in the hype during the month of April, when bitcoins hit an all-time high of $266, Amazon slipped in an announcement of their own virtual currency called Amazon Coins. This after they really first released it in February 2013.
There’s no debate about it: Amazon Coins has one goal. Its existence is to boost the amount of spending within Amazon itself. That’s the problem with Coins: it almost has no value outside of whatever Amazon is selling to customers. Sure, that can amount to a huge array of items, from books to on-demand movies to groceries. But what’s the end result for the consumer?
If you buy one of Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablets, you’ll get 500 Amazon Coins. According to Amazon, that’s $5. And when you spend your money in Coins, you’ll get 10% off apps and games for the Kindle platform. It’s like a thank you for buying their hardware, a device built for delivering to its users more Amazon products and services. One emerging technology analyst, Jeffery Green, has said that he doesn’t understand the purpose from a user standpoint for Coins. “They’re too complex for the purpose they’re addressing,” he said.
Perhaps one of the most underrated yet successful virtual currencies, Linden Dollars are a unit of exchange within the virtual world Second Life. An element of legitimacy has been preset for Linden Dollars. This can be attributed to the fact that there is a very real economy of virtual goods sold within Second Life. Linden Lab used to even evaluate the macro perspective of its economy on its blog, but has not reported on it since 2011.
VirWox, a virtual currency exchange, is probably the best known for actually providing an outside market for the Linden Dollar. But the $L is not a speculative currency like bitcoin has been. Could that be attributed to the fact that it is derived from a corporate entity? That might be the case. The reality is that only people who would be engaged in exchanging fiat money into Linden Dollars would be Second Life users.
As CoinDesk’s Alice Truong recently reported, Microsoft will be moving away from its points system for the Xbox platform. In its place will be a system using a user’s local currency, or possibly Microsoft gift cards. Both options have been presented to the public
From the Microsoft Points website, it almost sounds as if this system was initially implemented as a way for people without a credit card to pay for things in the Xbox ecosystem. And using a point-based system as a replacement for credit cards does seem like a good idea in light of that fact. The demographics of people using video game systems skew heavily towards the younger set that cannot get a credit card. This might be because they have no credit, or might not even be old enough to obtain a card.
Numerous misshapen situations might have resulted if Microsoft had any plans on Points being used for their larger business – enterprise would be an example. That didn’t happen – an interesting note given their focus on profits in their business division. Yet the company is overly concerned about the consumer portion of their business – but the sunsetting of Points gives credence to their understanding that they do not want to overly confuse their relatively large customer base.
Corporations are going to continue to announce and then tout their own currencies. This will happen even though not all of them are going to survive. The consistently prevalent stream of news related to the term “digital currency” means that it gives companies, especially those that operate mainly in the technology sector, the ability to promote themselves with their own currency.
Is there a benefit to these systems? There might be. Loyalty programs akin to the points system with credit card companies are a prime example of how these digital currencies can translate to a new environment. People in this system can accrue value and then pay in something other than fiat money.
But a healthy dose of skepticism should be part of the adoption of this relatively new idea. Corporations are in the business of making money, especially public ones that are beholden to shareholders. Ultimately, what happens to these corporate-backed digital currencies will be dictated by revenue and profit metrics. It’s no wonder then, that Bitcoins have a good amount of market capitalization: not one person or corporation can control its fate. Perhaps that, in the end, is what fundamentally makes it valuable.