Beyond this first paragraph, I won’t mention Mike Hearn—despite invoking his name in the title. Enough has been written about the disillusioned core developer who, in January 2016, publicly declared Bitcoin a failed experiment, even as it continues to garnish adoption and increasing VC investment. Mr. Hearn points to a lack of leadership among the p2p community, dwindling incentives, and a seemingly intractable architecture disagreement among the miners who validate distributed transactions. Mr. Hearn is a terrific engineer, but I suspect that he is not a sociologist or market visionary.
As I began researching the potential for collapse or success, I collected my notes about Bitcoin’s future under the working title: “Market Traction: Clinching an emergent sector” . But this seems rather obtuse and sleep inducing. A good subtitle for this post would be “Random Thoughts About Bitcoin Growth Pains”.
As such, I won’t bother illustrating it with cute or pithy graphics. It’s just a justification and clarification of my continued confidence in a ‘failed experiment’.
A Bitcoin skeptic has asked me to justify my optimistic view of Bitcoin. After all, there is trouble in Dodge City: Dwindling financial incentives, a transaction volume that is straining the architecture and infighting amongst miners about forking and block size.
You might think that being first to a new market—or first with a radically new method—increases the chance of success. Alas, it isn’t so. Even if it were a maxim, Bitcoin is not the first digital currency.
Yet, Bitcoin is virtually assured of success. Not because it’s first, but because it is better/cheaper/faster, it has a two-sided market, and it can be extended by the features and benefits of its rivals.
Bitcoin isn’t the first digital currency. Numerous instruments have moved cash across the Internet and in the 150 year mail-order era that preceded the Internet. In addition to credit and debit cards, there was Western Union, DigiCash, E-Gold, Flooz, beenz, Cybercash, Cybermoola, PacketPass, PayPal, and more. There are also institutional and B2B mechanisms for payment or settlement, like wire transfers, letters of credit, SWIFT, EFT and ACH (also known as ‘paperless checks’).
A lot has been said about Bitcoin and what sets it apart from everything that came before. Is Bitcoin truly revolutionary? Heck, yes! It has many unique qualities. It differs from antecedents in three important ways:
- Pure, Capitalist Dynamics
Bitcoin is not backed by a government, organization or the promise of redemption for fiat currency. Instead, value is derived from supply and demand. Since the supply is well understood and capped with mathematical certainty, its long term value will be closely tied to growth in recognition, circulation and adoption.
- Decentralized & Permissionless
Bitcoin trade and settlement has no nexus or central authority. Transactions are completely decentralized and peer-to-peer. In the past, a decentralized coin had to be made of something valuable or it had to be backed by a stable government and difficult to counterfeit. Bitcoin is a new breed of currency—a decentralized, permissionless, peer-to-peer currency built on the blockchain.
- Not so Anonymous—but traded and stored with impunity
Unlike cash, its use is not truly anonymous—at least not if you intend to ever convert it to cash or pay for something in the real world. But it is easier to hide then cash and so it can be stored and spent with impunity. That is, no government can force you to turn over your wallet without your cooperation. And the only way you can be prevented from spending or receiving Bitcoin is to be locked in solitary confinement with no visitors, no phone, no mail and no Internet. Since Bitcoin is just a string of numbers, a payment channel can be opened via carrier pigeon or by simply blinking a flashlight with Morse code.
Bitcoin is the first of a new breed of crypto currencies—decentralized, permissionless, peer-to-peer instruments built on the blockchain. That’s because Bitcoin is the original demonstration platform of the blockchain. The blockchain and the payment instrument were described together by the mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto in 1998.
Does creating the table and getting the first seat guaranty success? Of course not! Just ask Sony. The Betamax was beaten by VHS. And there were others before it, like the Sony U-Matic and Quasar Time Machine. But Bitcoin has two things under its wings that Betamax didn’t have…
- Adoption of a ‘networked’ service by both buyers & sellers faces a significant entry barrier. The value of any payment network is in its recognition and ubiquity. Yet, even with popular adoption at less than 2%, Bitcoin has achieved a robust two-sided market. Nothing else comes close. A two-sided market results in utility that buids from the ground up. With each passing week, the market clout of adoption shuts out new competitors. (Just ask anyone that has tried to compete with Mastercard–Visa–Amex).* As of this publication date, an altcoin would need to bring a whopping advantage.
- But what if something better comes along? Something clever, faster, more robust or with improved privacy. What then?
No problem. Bitcoin can freely add any improvement proposed or demonstrated by others. Why? Because unlike payment networks of the past, cryptocurrencies are open-source projects. There are no IP protections or licensing requirements. If an altcoin were closed, proprietary or protected by copyright or patent, no one would trust it. After all, no one could verify who has the coins, how many were pre-mined, what is the monetary cap, and who controls code evolution. Those are each deal-stoppers.Overcoming these obstacles was as much the genius of Satoshi as overcoming the double-spend problem. Bitcoin is free to evolve . It can add improvements or solve its own problems. That’s what is happening right now, as it is forced to address its own growing pains.
One coin, Ethereum, may be an exception. It might achieve the same entrenched and ubiquitous status as Bitcoin. But Ethereum represents another major step in Blockchain evolution. It is not just a coin, it is a contract consensus and enforcement mechanism. As such, it is not just a currency.
Bitcoin has a similar feature (called “Smart Contracts”), but Ethereum is like Smart Contract on steroids … and it has been crafted in a way that makes it easy for anyone to jump on board and create their own contracts. Like Bitcoin, Ethereum has a compelling backstory and a very young, visionary inventor.
* Discover Card is the only entrant into consumer POS credit instruments in the past three decades—and it had a rocky road to recognition and acceptance, passing through multiple owners. During this same time, Carte Blanche and Air Travel Card disappeared.