Bitcoin, Blockchain – to most people these terms are as cryptic as ‘worldwide web’ and ‘email’ were back in the early nineties.
I remember those days just too well. I had graduated from being an Internet (newsgroups/usenet) and online services marketer to becoming one of the first Internet web hosting and ecommerce pioneers, as the founder of @GEN – The Global Entrepreneurs Network.
The questions and challenge were quite similar:
What’s the use of this world wide web thing? There is really nothing you can do with it yet. There was only weird (and illegal) stuff on the net (I remember one of the first ‘picture’ websites was “Dan’s Gallery of the Grotesque”.
And even if it has some real life usability, no-one is using it, so why should a business be on there? Businesses and entrepreneurs were hesitant to make a move before they saw a need.
Finally, the government and regulators were concerned about the anonymity, and the fact that the Internet was completely unregulated, that no-one owned it and controlled it (sounds familiar?).
The powers that be preferred that the “Internet” would remain more of a closed system, like AOL – and for a long time, for most ‘normal’ people AOL, CompuServe and Prodigy were “the Internet”.
Getting online – really connecting to the Internet – was difficult and cumbersome. You had to use a Winsock dialer application to connect to an ISP (Internet Service Provider), and then use separate applications for access to email, usenet, IRC chat, browser, etc. You were using a dial-up modem at 56KBPS speed. A dedicated connection (T3/T1 or fractional T1) was incredibly expensive. In 1997 we paid $4,500/month for a T1 (1.5 MBPS). For the most part it was initially only the ‘geeks’ and very tech-savvy people who embraced on this new frontier.
Of course, these were all good questions and concerns, and my role at the time was that of an evangelist, to future-pace people – getting them to see where this Internet thing would lead: A world where everyone has an email address, where email would become as ubiquitous as fax or telephone at the time, and how the world wide web – this clumsy and mostly text based system – would become the foundation on which all business and commerce would transact at some point in the not too distant future.
To be quite honest, even the most optimistic of us would not have envisioned that less than 20 years later it would have become part of the fabric of everyday life where you’d have T1-speed access on your mobile phone, and all of the other things we take for granted today…. you get the point.
Today, I see (and I am as excited about it) Bitcoin, crypto currency and the blockchain to be very much at the same threshold and I don’t think that it will take 10 or 20 years to mature. Try 2 to 5 years.
There is a lot of misinformation about Bitcoin and most media reporting portrays it as an ‘underground currency’ used for illegal activities such as buying drugs on Silk Road.
For the most part, it is still very difficult to get, access and manage bitcoins, although we are beginning to see services such as Coinbase and Coin Jar make the process a little simpler. But we are still in the very early stages. I would compare today’s providers such as Coinbase to the Prodigy and AOL of the 1990’s.
I think the implications and opportunities of Bitcoin and the blockchain protocol are and will be far-reaching and tremendous. Not only from ‘the’ Bitcoin crypto currency point of view, which in itself is very exciting: A solid and secure means of exchange, which cannot be exploited or controlled by any one government or entity, and which – while it is not backed by ‘gold’ or a ‘government’ – has a very sophisticated mechanism built in that ensures that in the long term the value of a bitcoin will increase.
But also from the underlying ‘mechanics’ or ‘protocol’ based point of view: This technology may well usher in a completely new trust-based paradigm to business processes. Imagine using a blockchain based voting mechanism, where – while each individual’s identity is secret and linked to a unique hash (or address) – the fact that said party voted and how they voted would be posted to a public ledger that is free from interference, misinterpretation or fraud and that could allow such individual to easily verify that his or her vote was recorded as it was cast.
Etherium is one organization (startup) that is exploring how the blockchain foundation could be used to facilitate almost any kind of transaction or exchange.
From a purely crypto currency point of view, I envision that Bitcoin ultimately may work as an invisible transport layer of sort that powers the facilitation of transactions, and exchanges and transfer of monies and value, in a much more efficient, and cost-efficient manner.
Already, merchants can accept bitcoin at zero currency risk for payment, and receive the exact amount of the sale instantly credited to their account, at a cost that is a tiny fraction of the cost to accept and process credit cards.
Expedia, Zappos and many other well known merchants have begun to accept bitcoin and more and more smaller merchants are jumping on the bitcoin wagon. Of course the chicken and egg problem remains. Until there are many users using bitcoin and having bitcoins to spend, few merchants will setup the ability, and until there are many merchants where a consumer can spend his or her bitcoins, few consumers will bother getting setup with bitcoins.
But the writing is on the wall, and particularly Australia and some European countries are pointing the way. With the implementation of bitcoin wallets linked to bank cards, and the ability to use bitcoin powered transfer services, more and more consumers are enticed to use bitcoin, even if many times they may not fully realize that they are.
To give an example of how two completely different payment platforms exist side by side, take a look at credit card processing vs. check / debit card acceptance (which is utilizing ACH for cleaning payments) here in the United States.
Most people today in the US carry dual purpose cards: Credit cards that also double as debit and ATM cards, and Debit/ATM cards that also double as a credit card.
When you use the card at a merchant, almost automatically the merchant will run the charge as a debit transaction (and prompt you to enter your PIN number), since processing the charge as a debit card transaction is so much less expensive than as a credit card transaction ($0.10 to $0.25/transaction for debit card vs 2-3% plus $0.25 or more per transaction as credit card). Still the consumer can decide to use their card this way or that way. She has access to two payment mechanisms in one.
With Apple Pay and Google Wallet, of course you have those services linked to a bank account / and or credit card, making them just a go-between so you don’t have to pull out your physical card.
You can see now how easy it would be to include a third processing system platform or payment system – i.e. bitcoin – where a transaction could be processed and on the consumer side instantly funds are removed from their bank account and converted into bitcoin, and on the merchant side the merchant is transferred those bitcoins which are then instantly converted back into the merchant’s currency of choice.
Very few consumers will probably hold any bitcoin balances in their wallets, just as very few consumers today ‘preload’ their Google Wallet account with cash. Of course for those without a bank account the option will exist (just as there are pre-paid debit/credit cards that can be re-loaded).
Plus, the certainty that comes with the irrevocability of a transaction also goes a long way. Today, only physical cash transactions or actual bank wire transfers offers this level of certainty. Bank wires are expensive and time consuming. Imagine the ability to in essence use bank wire transfer type payments, for both small and large amounts, at practically zero cost (or at least a tiny fraction of the cost of a wire), and completed in an instant.
Today bitcoin experiences still a lot of value fluctuation since the overall transaction volume is still very low, but this problem will become rather minute once large numbers of transactions are processed on an ongoing basis. Plus by having real time buy/sell transactions on each end of the transaction chain, you would also reach a good balance between ‘supply and demand’, another factor that will contribute to a bitcoin price stability.
As I stated in the beginning of this post, the entrepreneur in me is extremely excited about the possibilities and opportunities that lie ahead. I have not decided yet in which direction I will move and in what capacity I will act upon these opportunities, but one thing’s for sure: That I will.
I am currently experiencing what I have not had happen to me in the past 20 years since the early days of the Internet: I awaking in the middle of the night and kick around ideas and concepts in my mind for hours.
Just as in the early days of the Internet and world wide web we could have not imagined all of the different opportunities and business models that this technology will give birth to, likewise with bitcoin and the blockchain technology we are just beginning to dream up possibilities.
Usually innovation happens in two areas (or phases for a lack of better term)… Peter Thiel would describe them as 0 to 1 vs 1 to n. Most attention is centered around how to improve current business models and technologies (such as merchant payments) using this new technology. Clearly that is 1 to n thinking. But the real breakthroughs lie ahead in the 0 to 1 spectrum.
This is the area where the Internet gave birth to Facebook and social networking. Where IP Telephony put CLECS out of business, and where you can take Wharton Business School MBA courses for free over the Internet.
I wonder what new applications lie ahead for bitcoin, blockchain and cryptocurrency in general – within the 0 to 1 space. That’s what I am excited about.
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