Category Archives: Crypto Currency

Why Bitcoin is Stupid – Pete Adeney. 

Well, shit. I’ve been watching this situation for a few years, and assuming it would just blow over so we wouldn’t have to talk about it here in this place where we are supposed to be busy improving our lives.

But a collective insanity has sprouted around the new field of ‘cryptocurrencies’, causing a totally irrational worldwide gold rush. It has reached the point that a big percentage of stories in the financial news and questions in Mr. Money Mustache’s email inbox are about whether or not we should all ‘invest’ in BitCoin.

We’ll start with the answer: No, you should not invest in Bitcoin. The reason is that it’s not an investment. Just like gold, tulip bulbs, Beanie Babies, 1999 dotcoms without any hope of a product plan, “pre-construction pricing” Toronto condominiums you have no intent to occupy or rent out, and rare baseball cards are not investments.

These are all things that people have bought in the past, and driven to completely irrational prices, not because they did anything useful or produced any money and value to society, but solely because they thought they would be able to sell them to someone else for more in the future.

When you make this kind of purchase, which you should never do, you are speculating, which is not a useful activity. You’re playing a psychological, win-lose battle against other humans with money as the only objective. Even if you win some money through dumb luck, you have lost some time and life energy, which means you have lost.

Investing means buying an asset that actually creates products and services and cashflow for an extended period of time. Like a piece of a profitable business or a rentable piece of real estate. An investment is something that has intrinsic value – that is, it would be worth owning from a financial perspective, even if you could never sell it.

Now, with that moral sermon out of the way, we might as well talk about why Bitcoin has become such a big thing, so we can separate the usefulness of the underlying technology called “Blockchain”, from the mania about how people have turned Bitcoin it into a big dumb lottery.

This separation is important because the usefulness of Blockchain is the primary justification people use for the big dumb Bitcoin lottery.

Once you make this separation in your mind, you can see that Blockchain is a simply a nifty new software invention (which is open-source and free for anyone to use), whereas Bitcoin is just one well-known way to use it.

Blockchain is just a computer protocol, which allows two people (or machines) to do transactions even if they don’t trust each other or the network between them. It can have applications in the monetary system, contracts, and even as a component in higher level protocols like sharing files. But it’s not some spectacular Instant Trillionaire piece of magic.

As a real world comparison, I quote this nifty piece from a reader named The Unassuming Banker:

… imagine that someone had found a cure for cancer and posted the step-by-step instructions on how to make it on-line, freely available for anyone to use.

Now imagine that the same person also created a product called Cancer-Pill using their own instructions, trade marked it, and started selling it to the highest bidders.

I think we can all agree a cure for cancer is immensely valuable to society (blockchain may or may not be, we still have to see), however, how much is a Cancer-Pill worth?

Our Banker friend goes on to explain that the first Cancer-Pill might initially see some great sales. Prices would rise, especially if the supply of these pills was limited (just as an artificial supply limit is built right into the Bitcoin algorithm.)

But since the formula is open and free, other companies would quickly come out with their own cancer pills. Cancer-Away, CancerBgone, CancEthereum, and any other number of competitors would spring up. Anybody can make a pill, and it costs only a few cents per dose.

And yet imagine everybody started bidding up Cancer-Pills, to the point that they cost $17,000 each and fluctuate widely in price, seemingly for no reason. Because of this, newspapers start reporting on prices daily, triggering so many tales of instant riches that you notice even your barber and your massage therapist are offering tips on how to invest in this new “asset class”.

But instead of seeing how ridiculous this is, even more people start piling in and bidding up every new variety of pills (cryptocurrency), over and over and on and on, until they are some of the most “valuable” things on the planet.

NO, right?

And yet this is exactly what’s happening with Bitcoin. And if you haven’t been digging into the cryptocurrency world much, it gets way weirder than this. Take a look at this shot from the website coinmarketcap.com, and observe the preposterous herd behavior in real life:

“Holy Shit!” is the only reasonable reaction. You’ve got Bitcoin with a market value of $234 Billion Dollars, then Ripple at $92 billion with Ethereum right behind at $85,792,800,592.
These are preposterous numbers. The imaginary value of these valueless bits of computer data represents enough money to change the course of the entire human race, for example eliminating all poverty or replacing the entire world’s 800 gigawatts of coal power plants with solar generation. Why? WHY???

An Aside: Why should we listen to you, Mustache?

I’m only a mediocre computer scientist. But coincidentally, after I got my computer engineering degree I ended up specializing in security and encryption technologies for most of my career. So I did learn a bit about locking and unlocking information, hacking, and ensuring that independent brains (whether they are two adjacent CPUs on a circuit board or two companies negotiating across the Pacific) can trust each other and coordinate their actions in lockstep. I even read about these things for fun, with Simon Singh’s The Code Book and the Neil Stephenson novel Cryptonomicon being particularly fun shortcuts to pick up some of the workings and the context of cryptography.

But that’s just the software side (Blockchain). Bitcoin (aka CancerPills) has become an investment bubble, with the complementary forces of Human herd behavior, greed, fear of missing out, and a lack of understanding of past financial bubbles amplifying it.

Mustachianism – the mental training that gets you to very early financial freedom – requires you to evaluate inefficiencies in our culture and call bullshit upon them. Even if you are the only one in the room willing to do it.

In the field of personal wealth, this means walking your children past the idling lineup of your neighbors’ Mercedes SUVs, over the snowy grass and up to the door of the school – and being confident that you are doing the right thing. Even if you’re the only one doing it.

When evaluating investment bubbles, it means looking at where everyone is throwing their money – no matter how many billions – and being willing to say “Bull. Shit. Guys. Not going to do this with you.”

So I also read a lot about investment bubbles and fundamentals and how to tell those apart. One book that I found very useful in understanding the greed-fear cycle (and Central Banking and the Federal Reserve system to boot) is the 2001 classic Towards Rational Exuberance by Mark Smith. For a shortcut to understanding good investing, you can also simply look up Warren Buffet’s thinking on almost any topic – he’s careful enough about offering opinions that by the time he makes a statement on something, you can be pretty sure it will be among the best answers out there.

And of course, the purpose of this whole aside is that I want to establish credibility with you, so you will give this article some consideration. I believe the current Cryptocurrency “investment” mania is a huge waste of human energy, and our rate of waste has been growing exponentially.

The sooner we debunk the myth and come to our senses, the richer our world will be. So we need more credible people to speak out against it. If you’re one of these credible people, please do so in the comments or in a blog post on Medium that we can all read.

Why was Bitcoin Even Invented?

Understanding the motivation is a big part of understanding Bitcoin. As the legend goes, an anonymous developer published this whitepaper in 2008 under the fake name Satoshi Nakamoto. It’s well written and pretty obviously by a real software and math person. But it also has some ideology built in – the assumption that giving national governments the ability to monitor flows of money in the financial system and use it as a form of law enforcement is wrong.

This financial libertarian streak is at the core of Bitcoin, and you’ll hear echoes of that sentiment in all the pro-crypto blogs and podcasts. The sensible-sounding ones will say, “Sure the G20 nations all have stable financial systems, but Bitcoin is a lifesaver in places like Venezuela where the government can vaporize your wealth when you sleep.”

The harder-core pundits say “Even the US Federal Reserve is a bunch ‘a’ CROOKS, stealing your money via INFLATION, and that nasty Fiat Currency they issue is nothing but TOILET PAPER!!”

It’s all the same stuff that people say about Gold, which is also a totally irrational waste of human investment energy.

Government-issued currencies have value because they represent human trust and cooperation. There is no wealth and no trade without these two things, so you might as well go all-in and trust people. There are no financial instruments that will protect you from a world where we no longer trust each other.

So, Bitcoin is a protocol invented to solve a money problem that simply does not exist in the rich countries, which is where most of the money is. Sure, an anonymous way to exchange money and escape the eyes of a corrupt government is a good thing for human rights. But at least 98% of MMM readers do not live in countries where this is an issue.

So just relax, lean into it, and grow rich with me.

OK, But What if Bitcoin Becomes the World Currency?

The other argument for Bitcoin’s “value” is that there will only ever be 21 million of them, and they will eventually replace all other world currencies, or at least become the “new gold”, so the fundamental value is either the entire world’s GDP or at least the total value of all gold, divided by 21 million.

People then go on to say, “If there’s even a ONE PERCENT CHANCE that this happens, Bitcoins are severely undervalued and they should really be worth, like, at least a quadrillion dollars each!!”

This is not going to happen. After all, you could make the same argument about Mr. Money Mustache’s fingernail clippings: they may have no intrinsic value, but at least they are in limited supply so let’s use them as the new world currency!

Why not somebody else’s fingernail clippings? Why not one of the other 1500 cryptocurrencies? Shut up, just send me $100 via PayPal and I’ll send you a bag of my fingernail clippings.

Let’s get this straight: in order for Bitcoin to be a real currency, it needs several things:

– easy and frictionless trading between people

– to be widely accepted as legal tender for all debts, public and private

– a stable value that does not fluctuate (otherwise it’s impossible to set prices)

Bitcoin has none of these things, and even safely storing it is difficult (see Mt. Gox, Bitfinex, and the various wallets and exchanges that have been hacked)

The second point is also critical: Bitcoin is only valuable if it truly becomes a critical world currency. In other words, if you truly need it to buy stuff, and thus you need to buy coins from some other person in order to conduct important bits of world commerce that you can’t do any other way. Right now, the only people driving up the price are other speculators. The bitcoin price isn’t rising because people are buying the coins to conduct real business. It’s rising because people are buying it up, hoping someone else will buy it at an even higher price later. It’s only valuable when you cash it out to a real currency again, like the US dollar, and use it to buy something useful like a nice house or a business. When the supply of foolish speculators dries up, the value evaporates – often very quickly.

Also, a currency should not be artificially sparse. It needs to expand with the supply of goods and services in the world, otherwise we end up with deflation and hoarding. It also helps to have wise, centralized humans (the Federal Reserve system and other central banks) guiding the system. In a world of human trust, putting the wisest and most respected people in a position of Adult Supervision is a useful tactic.

Finally, nothing becomes a good investment just because “it’s been going up in price lately.”

If you disagree with me on that point, the price of my fingernails has just increased by 70,000% and they are now $70,000 per bag. Quick, get me that money on PayPal before you miss out on any more of this incredible “performance!”

The world’s governments are not going to let everyone start trading money anonymously and evading taxes using Bitcoin. If cryptocurrency does take off, it will be in a government-backed form, like a new “Fedcoin” or “G20coin.” Full anonymity and government evasion will not be one of its features.

And you don’t want it for this purpose anyway – after all, do you currently hide your money in offshore tax havens and transact your business on black markets? Do you practice illegal tax evasion as your primary wealth strategy? Probably not, because life is better and wealthier when you aren’t living a life of crime.

The Cryptocurrency bubble is really a replay of the past: A good percentage of Humans are prone to mass delusions which lead to irrational behavior. This is a known bug in our operating system, and we have designed some parts of our society to protect us against it.

These days, stocks are regulated by the SEC, precisely because in the olden days, there were many, many stocks issued that were much like Bitcoin. Marketed to unsophisticated investors as a get-rich-quick scheme. The very definition of an unsophisticated investor is “Being more willing to buy something, the more its price goes up.”

Don’t be one of these fools.

Mr Money Mustache 

The Guardian view on cryptocurrencies: a greater fool’s gold

The apparently endless rise in the prices of cryptocurrencies is a monument to greed and gullibility.

Last month a plague of kittens brought down one of the most fashionable cryptocurrencies on the internet. This might not have been news, except that the cryptocurrency, Ethereum, bills itself as “the world computer” – a distributed program that can replace large parts of both the legitimate banking system and the legal system itself, since contracts can be written into computer code. 

Unless, that is, Ethereum becomes the plaything of an imaginary kitten. Like all other cryptocurrencies that have appeared in the wake of bitcoin, and like bitcoin itself, Ethereum is useless as a medium of exchange because the price fluctuates violently and unpredictably. 

But it turns out to be an excellent medium for the propagation of imaginary kittens and when a small Canadian company introduced a game that let players buy and breed cartoon cats, the resulting popularity brought the whole network briefly to its knees. Had Ethereum been a real currency, this would have been as if the Beanie Baby craze of the last century had crashed the world’s credit card system. 

But of course Ethereum is not a real currency, and neither is bitcoin; nor are Ripple, Monero, Litecoin, Dogecoin, or any of the other thousands of cryptocurrencies that are the focus of intense speculation today.

They are the latest manifestation of the eternal dream that we could, by magic, become really rich really quickly. Why, if only you had bought bitcoin a year ago, they would now be worth 16 or 17 times as much, or, last week, only 13 times as much. What could possibly go wrong?

Nonetheless the bubble must one day pop and the fool’s gold vanish, leaving only fools.

The central paradox of all these currencies is that we’re told they have eliminated the need for trust between humans and replaced it by mathematical guarantees; but all their tradeable value depends on blind faith and ignorance of computer code. 

Only last week a Google researcher discovered a hole in some software widely used to store bitcoins which would leak all their contents to any suitably malicious webpage that the owner visited. This had in fact been pointed out to the developers months ago, but they had not bothered to fix it. 

Flaws in the code of Ethereum led to the theft of $30m in the summer of 2016 and the disappearance of $170m last autumn, though all these sums are entirely notional. Even software built by gigantic, legitimate companies can turn out to have catastrophic bugs in it, as we learned last week from the publication of the Meltdown and Spectre flaws, which between them affect almost all modern computer chips.

There is even less reason to trust software developed by small teams of programmers who hope both to become insanely rich and to circumvent all efforts by governments to control them – and that is how all cryptocurrencies have been built. 
But there is not much use in sober realism here. So long as ordinary people can expect to make their fortunes overnight, they will step up to the gaming table and play – at least while the cryptokittens are away.

The Bank of England is planning a bitcoin-style virtual currency, but could it really replace cash? –  Bill Buchanan. * What is cryptocurrency: 21st-century unicorn, or the money of the future? – BlockGeeks. 

Governments are extremely worried about cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin. These virtual currencies mean you can make payments without involving the banks that most economies and government financial models are built on. People can transfer large amounts of money without the authorities knowing, potentially making it easier to evade tax or launder money.

So several countries’ central banks, including the Bank of England and the Bank of Israel, are reportedly planning to launch their own digital currencies. This could help lure people back into using an official system that combines some of the benefits of both traditional and crypto- currencies. But the risks involved may be too great for many typical cash users to bear.

One of the major drawbacks of existing cryptocurrencies is that their value tends to swing widely and it is often difficult to pinpoint how much they are really worth. National cryptocurrencies would be tied to the value of the country’s official currency, making them less volatile and easier to actually use as a way of spending.

National cryptocurrencies would also make payments much faster because transactions would be recorded instantly and wouldn’t have to be cleared by a bank (although some implementations require around eight minutes to be verified). The existing systems for electronic payments and transfers can often involve several banks and companies sending each other data and running security checks that add time and expense to transactions. Cryptocurrencies are able to bypass this clearing process altogether because they don’t actually involve transfers from one entity to another.

Cryptocurrencies don’t actually involve transfers from one entity to another.

Instead they use a technology known as a blockchain, which keeps a public but encrypted record of all transactions. Basically, as illustrated in the figure below, the payer (in this case, Bob) signs a transaction to agree to pay someone (Alice) a given amount. The transaction is then validated using Bob’s personal encryption code known as his “private key”. If the transaction is valid, it is added onto the blockchain, recording how much money Alice and Bob now have.

Outline of traditional transactions and blockchain based ones. 

Because all transactions would be recorded in this way, the government would have much greater oversight of who is paying whom and how much, helping to crack down on financial crime. Unfortunately, because transactions on blockchain ledger are typically kept as a public record, it might also be possible for other people to access this information and see how much you or anyone else is spending and what you’re buying.

Your money might also be at greater risk if it’s stored as a cryptocurrency. Currently banks guard your wealth and will always release it if you can prove your identity, while credit card companies insure you against fraud. If your bank account is hacked, there is a good chance you will get your money back. But cryptocurrencies store money in independent digital wallets that can be lost or broken into. If that happens there is no one who can help you.

Currency needs trust

For a typical shopper, there would be little difference between using a national cryptocurrency and something like Apple Pay, which makes payments at the click of a trusted application on a mobile device. I love using Apple Pay on my iPhone to purchase my coffee in the morning, as well as my bus tickets and even my parking. I now have little use of cash and only carry around my credit cards in a wallet as a backup in case my battery fails.

Having found out over Christmas that most supermarkets now do not have a limit on Apple Pay, I see it as one of the most trusted methods of payment, especially as I trust the fingerprint scanner on my phone. I also know that my bank is involved in the transaction. So I believe the days of paper money – and even carrying around cards – are rapidly fading. Our mobile phone and our trust in our apps provide us with more trusted ways of making transactions.

But Apple Pay is still backed up by trusted financial institutions. The step to cryptocurrency may be one step too far for most people. Few people would actually understand the risks of storing the cryptocurrency in a digital wallet and could leave themselves open to losing all their money.

I believe that most countries will deal with cryptocurrencies by regulating them and monitoring their use rather than co-opting them. But it will be interesting to see whether regulation or competition will win in the battle of crytocurrencies. While the encryption of crytocurrencies can create strong digital trust in the technology, human trust in the transactions themselves will likely be the key factor that determines whether citizens adopt government-backed cryptocurrencies.

The Conversation 

*

What is cryptocurrency: 21st-century unicorn, or the money of the future?

This introduction explains the most important thing about cryptocurrencies. After you‘ve read it, you‘ll know more about it than most other humans.

Today cryptocurrencies have become a global phenomenon known to most people. While still somehow geeky and not understood by most people, banks, governments and many companies are aware of its importance.

In 2016, you‘ll have a hard time finding a major bank, a big accounting firm, a prominent software company or a government that did not research cryptocurrencies, publish a paper about it or start a so-called blockchain-project.

But beyond the noise and the press releases the overwhelming majority of people – even bankers, consultants, scientists, and developers – have a very limited knowledge about cryptocurrencies. They often fail to even understand the basic concepts.

So let‘s walk through the whole story. What are cryptocurrencies?

  • Where did cryptocurrency originate?
  • Why should you learn about cryptocurrency?
  • And what do you need to know about cryptocurrency?

What is cryptocurrency and how cryptocurrencies emerged as a side product of digital cash

Few people know, but cryptocurrencies emerged as a side product of another invention. Satoshi Nakamoto, the unknown inventor of Bitcoin, the first and still most important cryptocurrency, never intended to invent a currency.

In his announcement of Bitcoin in late 2008, Satoshi said he developed “A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System.“

His goal was to invent something; many people failed to create before, digital cash.

Announcing the first release of Bitcoin, a new electronic cash system that uses a peer-to-peer network to prevent double-spending. It’s completely decentralized with no server or central authority.  – Satoshi Nakamoto, 09 January 2009, announcing Bitcoin on SourceForge.

The single most important part of Satoshi‘s invention was that he found a way to build a decentralized digital cash system. In the nineties, there have been many attempts to create digital money, but they all failed.

… after more than a decade of failed Trusted Third Party based systems (Digicash, etc), they see it as a lost cause. I hope they can make the distinction, that this is the first time I know of that we’re trying a non-trust based system. – Satoshi Nakamoto in an E-Mail to Dustin Trammell

After seeing all the centralized attempts fail, Satoshi tried to build a digital cash system without a central entity. Like a Peer-to-peer network for file sharing.

This decision became the birth of cryptocurrency. They are the missing piece Satoshi found to realize digital cash. The reason why is a bit technical and complex, but if you get it, you‘ll know more about cryptocurrencies than most people do. So, let‘s try to make it as easy as possible:

To realize digital cash you need a payment network with accounts, balances, and transaction. That‘s easy to understand. One major problem every payment network has to solve is to prevent the so-called double spending: to prevent that one entity spends the same amount twice. Usually, this is done by a central server who keeps record about the balances.

In a decentralized network, you don‘t have this server. So you need every single entity of the network to do this job. Every peer in the network needs to have a list with all transactions to check if future transactions are valid or an attempt to double spend.

But how can these entities keep a consensus about this records?

If the peers of the network disagree about only one single, minor balance, everything is broken. They need an absolute consensus. Usually, you take, again, a central authority to declare the correct state of balances. But how can you achieve consensus without a central authority?

Nobody did know until Satoshi emerged out of nowhere. In fact, nobody believed it was even possible.

Satoshi proved it was. His major innovation was to achieve consensus without a central authority. Cryptocurrencies are a part of this solution – the part that made the solution thrilling, fascinating and helped it to roll over the world.

What are cryptocurrencies really?

If you take away all the noise around cryptocurrencies and reduce it to a simple definition, you find it to be just limited entries in a database no one can change without fulfilling specific conditions. This may seem ordinary, but, believe it or not: this is exactly how you can define a currency.

Take the money on your bank account: What is it more than entries in a database that can only be changed under specific conditions? You can even take physical coins and notes: What are they else than limited entries in a public physical database that can only be changed if you match the condition that you physically own the coins and notes? Money is all about a verified entry in some kind of database of accounts, balances, and transactions.

How miners create coins and confirm transactions

Let‘s have a look at the mechanism ruling the databases of cryptocurrencies. A cryptocurrency like Bitcoin consists of a network of peers. Every peer has a record of the complete history of all transactions and thus of the balance of every account.

A transaction is a file that says, “Bob gives X Bitcoin to Alice“ and is signed by Bob‘s private key. It‘s basic public key cryptography, nothing special at all. After it’s signed, a transaction is broadcast in the network, sent from one peer to every other peer. This is basic p2p-technology. Nothing special at all, again.

The transaction is known almost immediately by the whole network. But only after a specific amount of time it gets confirmed.

Confirmation is a critical concept in cryptocurrencies. You could say that cryptocurrencies are all about confirmation.

As long as a transaction is unconfirmed, it is pending and can be forged. When a transaction is confirmed, it is set in stone. It is no longer forgeable, it can‘t be reversed, it is part of an immutable record of historical transactions: of the so-called blockchain.

Only miners can confirm transactions. This is their job in a cryptocurrency-network. They take transactions, stamp them as legit and spread them in the network. After a transaction is confirmed by a miner, every node has to add it to its database. It has become part of the blockchain.

For this job, the miners get rewarded with a token of the cryptocurrency, for example with Bitcoins. Since the miner‘s activity is the single most important part of cryptocurrency-system we should stay for a moment and take a deeper look on it.

What are miners doing?

Principally everybody can be a miner. Since a decentralized network has no authority to delegate this task, a cryptocurrency needs some kind of mechanism to prevent one ruling party from abusing it. Imagine someone creates thousands of peers and spreads forged transactions. The system would break immediately.

So, Satoshi set the rule that the miners need to invest some work of their computers to qualify for this task. In fact, they have to find a hash – a product of a cryptographic function – that connects the new block with its predecessor. This is called the Proof-of-Work. In Bitcoin, it is based on the SHA 256 Hash algorithm.

You don‘t need to understand details about SHA 256. It‘s only important you know that it can be the basis of a cryptologic puzzle the miners compete to solve. After finding a solution, a miner can build a block and add it to the blockchain. As an incentive, he has the right to add a so-called coinbase transaction that gives him a specific number of Bitcoins. This is the only way to create valid Bitcoins.

Bitcoins can only be created if miners solve a cryptographic puzzle. Since the difficulty of this puzzle increases the amount of computer power the whole miner’s invest, there is only a specific amount of cryptocurrency token that can be created in a given amount of time. This is part of the consensus no peer in the network can break.

Revolutionary properties

If you really think about it, Bitcoin, as a decentralized network of peers which keep a consensus about accounts and balances, is more a currency than the numbers you see in your bank account. What are these numbers more than entries in a database – a database which can be changed by people you don‘t see and by rules you don‘t know?

Basically, cryptocurrencies are entries about token in decentralized consensus-databases. They are called CRYPTOcurrencies because the consensus-keeping process is secured by strong cryptography. Cryptocurrencies are built on cryptography. They are not secured by people or by trust, but by math. It is more probable that an asteroid falls on your house than that a bitcoin address is compromised.

Describing the properties of cryptocurrencies we need to separate between transactional and monetary properties. While most cryptocurrencies share a common set of properties, they are not carved in stone.

Transactional properties:

1.) Irreversible: After confirmation, a transaction can‘t be reversed. By nobody. And nobody means nobody. Not you, not your bank, not the president of the United States, not Satoshi, not your miner. Nobody. If you send money, you send it. Period. No one can help you, if you sent your funds to a scammer or if a hacker stole them from your computer. There is no safety net.

2.) Pseudonymous: Neither transactions nor accounts are connected to real-world identities. You receive Bitcoins on so-called addresses, which are randomly seeming chains of around 30 characters. While it is usually possible to analyze the transaction flow, it is not necessarily possible to connect the real world identity of users with those addresses.

3.) Fast and global: Transaction are propagated nearly instantly in the network and are confirmed in a couple of minutes. Since they happen in a global network of computers they are completely indifferent of your physical location. It doesn‘t matter if I send Bitcoin to my neighbour or to someone on the other side of the world.

4.) Secure: Cryptocurrency funds are locked in a public key cryptography system. Only the owner of the private key can send cryptocurrency. Strong cryptography and the magic of big numbers makes it impossible to break this scheme. A Bitcoin address is more secure than Fort Knox.

5.) Permissionless: You don‘t have to ask anybody to use cryptocurrency. It‘s just a software that everybody can download for free. After you installed it, you can receive and send Bitcoins or other cryptocurrencies. No one can prevent you. There is no gatekeeper.

Monetary properties:

1.) Controlled supply: Most cryptocurrencies limit the supply of the tokens. In Bitcoin, the supply decreases in time and will reach its final number somewhere in around 2140. All cryptocurrencies control the supply of the token by a schedule written in the code. This means the monetary supply of a cryptocurrency in every given moment in the future can roughly be calculated today. There is no surprise.

2.) No debt but bearer: The Fiat-money on your bank account is created by debt, and the numbers, you see on your ledger represent nothing but debts. It‘s a system of IOU. Cryptocurrencies don‘t represent debts. They just represent themselves. They are money as hard as coins of gold.

To understand the revolutionary impact of cryptocurrencies you need to consider both properties. Bitcoin as a permissionless, irreversible and pseudonymous means of payment is an attack on the control of banks and governments over the monetary transactions of their citizens. You can‘t hinder someone to use Bitcoin, you can‘t prohibit someone to accept a payment, you can‘t undo a transaction.

As money with a limited, controlled supply that is not changeable by a government, a bank or any other central institution, cryptocurrencies attack the scope of the monetary policy. They take away the control central banks take on inflation or deflation by manipulating the monetary supply.

Cryptocurrencies: Dawn of a new economy

Mostly due to its revolutionary properties cryptocurrencies have become a success their inventor, Satoshi Nakamoto, didn‘t dare to dream of it. While every other attempt to create a digital cash system didn‘t attract a critical mass of users, Bitcoin had something that provoked enthusiasm and fascination. Sometimes it feels more like religion than technology.

Cryptocurrencies are digital gold. Sound money that is secure from political influence. Money that promises to preserve and increase its value over time. Cryptocurrencies are also a fast and comfortable means of payment with a worldwide scope, and they are private and anonymous enough to serve as a means of payment for black markets and any other outlawed economic activity.

But while cryptocurrencies are more used for payment, its use as a means of speculation and a store of value dwarfs the payment aspects. Cryptocurrencies gave birth to an incredibly dynamic, fast-growing market for investors and speculators. Exchanges like Okcoin, poloniex or shapeshift enables the trade of hundreds of cryptocurrencies. Their daily trade volume exceeds that of major European stock exchanges.

At the same time, the praxis of Initial Coin Distribution (ICO), mostly facilitated by Ethereum‘s smart contracts, gave live to incredibly successful crowdfunding projects, in which often an idea is enough to collect millions of dollars. In the case of “The DAO” it has been more than 150 million dollars.

In this rich ecosystem of coins and tokens, you experience extreme volatility. It‘s common that a coin gains 10 percent a day – sometimes 100 percent – just to lose the same the next day. If you are lucky, your coin‘s value grows up to 1000 percent in one or two weeks.

While Bitcoin remains by far the most famous cryptocurrency and most other cryptocurrencies have zero non-speculative impact, investors and users should keep an eye on several cryptocurrencies. Here we present the most popular cryptocurrencies of today.

Bitcoin

The one and only, the first and most famous cryptocurrency. Bitcoin serves as a digital gold standard in the whole cryptocurrency-industry, is used as a global means of payment and is the de-facto currency of cyber-crime like darknet markets or ransomware. After seven years in existence, Bitcoin‘s price has increased from zero to more than 650 Dollars, and its transaction volume reached more than 200.000 daily transactions.

There is not much more to say: Bitcoin is here to stay.

Ethereum

The brainchild of young crypto-genius Vitalik Buterin has ascended to the second place in the hierarchy of cryptocurrencies. Different to Bitcoin, it’s blockchain does not only validate a set of accounts and balances but also of so-called states. This means that Ethereum can not only process transactions but complex contracts and programs.

This flexibility makes Ethereum the perfect instrument for blockchain application. But it comes at a cost. After the Hack of the DAO – an Ethereum based smart contract – the developers decided to do a hard fork without consensus, which resulted in the emergence  of Ethereal Classic. Besides this, there are several clones of Ethereum, and Ethereal itself is a host of several Tokens like DigixDAO and Augur. This makes Ethereum more a family of cryptocurrencies than a single currency.

Ripple

Maybe the least popular – or most hated – project in the cryptocurrency community is Ripple. While Ripple has a native cryptocurrency – XRP – it is more about a network to process IOUs than the cryptocurrency itself. XRP, the currency, doesn‘t serve as a medium to store and exchange value, but more as a token to protect the network against spam.

Ripple Labs created every XRP-token, the company running the Ripple network, and is distributed by them at will. For this reason, Ripple is often called pre-mined in the community and dissed as no real cryptocurrency, and XRP is not considered a good store of value.

Banks, however, seem to like Ripple. At least they are adopt the system with increasing pace.

Litecoin

Litecoin was one of the first cryptocurrencies after Bitcoin and tagged as the silver to the digital gold bitcoin. Faster than bitcoin, with a larger amount of tokens and a new mining algorithms, Litecoin was a real innovation, perfectly tailored to be the smaller brother of bitcoin. “It facilitated the emergence of several other cryptocurrencies which used its codebase but made it, even lighter“. Examples are Dogecoin or Feathercoin.

While Litecoin failed to find a real use and lost its second place after bitcoin, it is still actively developed and traded and is hoarded as a backup if Bitcoin fails.

Monero

Monero is the most prominent example of the cryptonite algorithm. This algorithm was invented to add the privacy features Bitcoin is missing. If you use Bitcoin, every transaction is documented in the blockchain and the trail of transactions can be followed. With the introduction of a concept called ring-signatures, the cryptonite algorithm was able to cut through that trail.

The first implementation of cryptonite, Bytecoin, was heavily premined and thus rejected by the community. Monero was the first non-premined clone of bytecoin and raised a lot of awareness. There are several other incarnations of cryptonote with their own little improvements, but none ever achieved the same popularity as Monero.

Monero’s popularity peaked in summer 2016 when some darkness markets decided to accept it as a currency. This resulted in a steady increase in the price, while the actual usage of Monero seems to remain disappointingly small.

Besides those, there are hundreds of other cryptocurrencies of several families. Most of them are nothing more than attempts to reach investors and quickly make money, but a lot of them promise playgrounds to test innovations in cryptocurrency-technology.

What is the future of Cryptocurrency?

The market of cryptocurrencies is fast and wild. Nearly every day new cryptocurrencies emerge, old die, early adopters get wealthy and investors lose money. Every cryptocurrency comes with a promise, mostly a big story to turn the world around. Few survive the first months, and most are pumped and dumped by speculators and live on as zombie coins until the last bagholder loses hope ever to see a return on his investment.

Markets are dirty. But this doesn‘t change the fact that cryptocurrencies are here to stay – and here to change the world. This is already happening. People all over the world buy Bitcoin to protect themselves against the devaluation of their national currency. Mostly in Asia, a vivid market for Bitcoin remittance has emerged, and the Bitcoin using darknets of cybercrime are flourishing. More and more companies are discovering the power of Smart Contracts or tokens on Ethereum, the first real-world application of blockchain technologies to emerge.

The revolution is already happening. Institutional investors are starting to buy cryptocurrencies. Banks and governments are realizing that this invention has the potential to draw their control away. 

Cryptocurrencies change the world. Step by step. You can either stand aside and observe – or you can become part of history in the making.

Block Geeks

The Truth About Block Chain – Marco Iansiti and Karim R. Lakhani. 

Harvard Business Review, January 2017

Contracts, transactions, and the records of them are among the defining structures in our economic, legal, and political systems. They protect assets and set organizational boundaries. They establish and verify identities and chronicle events. They govern interactions among nations, organizations, communities, and individuals. They guide managerial and social action. And yet these critical tools and the bureaucracies formed to manage them have not kept up with the economy’s digital transformation. They’re like a rush-hour gridlock trapping a Formula 1 race car. In a digital world, the way we regulate and maintain administrative control has to change.

Blockchain promises to solve this problem. The technology at the heart of bitcoin and other virtual currencies, blockchain is an open, distributed ledger that can record transactions between two parties efficiently and in a verifiable and permanent way. The ledger itself can also be programmed to trigger transactions automatically. 

How Blockchain Works

Here are five basic principles underlying the technology.

1. Distributed Database

Each party on a blockchain has access to the entire database and its complete history. No single party controls the data or the information. Every party can verify the records of its transaction partners directly, without an intermediary.

2. Peer-to-Peer Transmission

Communication occurs directly between peers instead of through a central node. Each node stores and forwards information to all other nodes.

3. Transparency with Pseudonymity

Every transaction and its associated value are visible to anyone with access to the system. Each node, or user, on a blockchain has a unique 30-plus-character alphanumeric address that identifies it. Users can choose to remain anonymous or provide proof of their identity to others. Transactions occur between blockchain addresses.

4. Irreversibility of Records

Once a transaction is entered in the database and the accounts are updated, the records cannot be altered, because they’re linked to every transaction record that came before them (hence the term “chain”). Various computational algorithms and approaches are deployed to ensure that the recording on the database is permanent, chronologically ordered, and available to all others on the network.

5. Computational Logic

The digital nature of the ledger means that blockchain transactions can be tied to computational logic and in essence programmed. So users can set up algorithms and rules that automatically trigger transactions between nodes.

With blockchain, we can imagine a world in which contracts are embedded in digital code and stored in transparent, shared databases, where they are protected from deletion, tampering, and revision. In this world every agreement, every process, every task, and every payment would have a digital record and signature that could be identified, validated, stored, and shared. Intermediaries like lawyers, brokers, and bankers might no longer be necessary. Individuals, organizations, machines, and algorithms would freely transact and interact with one another with little friction. This is the immense potential of blockchain.

Indeed, virtually everyone has heard the claim that blockchain will revolutionize business and redefine companies and economies. Although we share the enthusiasm for its potential, we worry about the hype. It’s not just security issues (such as the 2014 collapse of one bitcoin exchange and the more recent hacks of others) that concern us. Our experience studying technological innovation tells us that if there’s to be a blockchain revolution, many barriers—technological, governance, organizational, and even societal—will have to fall. It would be a mistake to rush headlong into blockchain innovation without understanding how it is likely to take hold.

True blockchain-led transformation of business and government, we believe, is still many years away. That’s because blockchain is not a “disruptive” technology, which can attack a traditional business model with a lower-cost solution and overtake incumbent firms quickly. Blockchain is a foundational technology: It has the potential to create new foundations for our economic and social systems. But while the impact will be enormous, it will take decades for blockchain to seep into our economic and social infrastructure. The process of adoption will be gradual and steady, not sudden, as waves of technological and institutional change gain momentum. That insight and its strategic implications are what we’ll explore in this article.

Patterns of Technology Adoption

Before jumping into blockchain strategy and investment, let’s reflect on what we know about technology adoption and, in particular, the transformation process typical of other foundational technologies. One of the most relevant examples is distributed computer networking technology, seen in the adoption of TCP/IP (transmission control protocol/internet protocol), which laid the groundwork for the development of the internet.

Introduced in 1972, TCP/IP first gained traction in a single-use case: as the basis for e-mail among the researchers on ARPAnet, the U.S. Department of Defense precursor to the commercial internet. Before TCP/IP, telecommunications architecture was based on “circuit switching,” in which connections between two parties or machines had to be preestablished and sustained throughout an exchange. To ensure that any two nodes could communicate, telecom service providers and equipment manufacturers had invested billions in building dedicated lines.

TCP/IP turned that model on its head. The new protocol transmitted information by digitizing it and breaking it up into very small packets, each including address information. Once released into the network, the packets could take any route to the recipient. Smart sending and receiving nodes at the network’s edges could disassemble and reassemble the packets and interpret the encoded data. There was no need for dedicated private lines or massive infrastructure. TCP/IP created an open, shared public network without any central authority or party responsible for its maintenance and improvement.

Traditional telecommunications and computing sectors looked on TCP/IP with skepticism. Few imagined that robust data, messaging, voice, and video connections could be established on the new architecture or that the associated system could be secure and scale up. But during the late 1980s and 1990s, a growing number of firms, such as Sun, NeXT, Hewlett-Packard, and Silicon Graphics, used TCP/IP, in part to create localized private networks within organizations. To do so, they developed building blocks and tools that broadened its use beyond e-mail, gradually replacing more-traditional local network technologies and standards. As organizations adopted these building blocks and tools, they saw dramatic gains in productivity.

TCP/IP burst into broad public use with the advent of the World Wide Web in the mid-1990s. New technology companies quickly emerged to provide the “plumbing”—the hardware, software, and services needed to connect to the now-public network and exchange information. Netscape commercialized browsers, web servers, and other tools and components that aided the development and adoption of internet services and applications. Sun drove the development of Java, the application-programming language. As information on the web grew exponentially, Infoseek, Excite, AltaVista, and Yahoo were born to guide users around it.

Once this basic infrastructure gained critical mass, a new generation of companies took advantage of low-cost connectivity by creating internet services that were compelling substitutes for existing businesses. CNET moved news online. Amazon offered more books for sale than any bookshop. Priceline and Expedia made it easier to buy airline tickets and brought unprecedented transparency to the process. The ability of these newcomers to get extensive reach at relatively low cost put significant pressure on traditional businesses like newspapers and brick-and-mortar retailers.

Relying on broad internet connectivity, the next wave of companies created novel, transformative applications that fundamentally changed the way businesses created and captured value. These companies were built on a new peer-to-peer architecture and generated value by coordinating distributed networks of users. Think of how eBay changed online retail through auctions, Napster changed the music industry, Skype changed telecommunications, and Google, which exploited user-generated links to provide more relevant results, changed web search.

Companies are already using blockchain to track items through complex supply chains.

Ultimately, it took more than 30 years for TCP/IP to move through all the phases—single use, localized use, substitution, and transformation—and reshape the economy. Today more than half the world’s most valuable public companies have internet-driven, platform-based business models. The very foundations of our economy have changed. Physical scale and unique intellectual property no longer confer unbeatable advantages; increasingly, the economic leaders are enterprises that act as “keystones,” proactively organizing, influencing, and coordinating widespread networks of communities, users, and organizations.

The New Architecture

Blockchain—a peer-to-peer network that sits on top of the internet—was introduced in October 2008 as part of a proposal for bitcoin, a virtual currency system that eschewed a central authority for issuing currency, transferring ownership, and confirming transactions. Bitcoin is the first application of blockchain technology.

The parallels between blockchain and TCP/IP are clear. Just as e-mail enabled bilateral messaging, bitcoin enables bilateral financial transactions. The development and maintenance of blockchain is open, distributed, and shared—just like TCP/IP’s. A team of volunteers around the world maintains the core software. And just like e-mail, bitcoin first caught on with an enthusiastic but relatively small community.

TCP/IP unlocked new economic value by dramatically lowering the cost of connections. Similarly, blockchain could dramatically reduce the cost of transactions. It has the potential to become the system of record for all transactions. If that happens, the economy will once again undergo a radical shift, as new, blockchain-based sources of influence and control emerge.

Consider how business works now. Keeping ongoing records of transactions is a core function of any business. Those records track past actions and performance and guide planning for the future. They provide a view not only of how the organization works internally but also of the organization’s outside relationships. Every organization keeps its own records, and they’re private. Many organizations have no master ledger of all their activities; instead records are distributed across internal units and functions. The problem is, reconciling transactions across individual and private ledgers takes a lot of time and is prone to error.

For example, a typical stock transaction can be executed within microseconds, often without human intervention. However, the settlement—the ownership transfer of the stock—can take as long as a week. That’s because the parties have no access to each other’s ledgers and can’t automatically verify that the assets are in fact owned and can be transferred. Instead a series of intermediaries act as guarantors of assets as the record of the transaction traverses organizations and the ledgers are individually updated.

In a blockchain system, the ledger is replicated in a large number of identical databases, each hosted and maintained by an interested party. When changes are entered in one copy, all the other copies are simultaneously updated. So as transactions occur, records of the value and assets exchanged are permanently entered in all ledgers. There is no need for third-party intermediaries to verify or transfer ownership. If a stock transaction took place on a blockchain-based system, it would be settled within seconds, securely and verifiably. (The infamous hacks that have hit bitcoin exchanges exposed weaknesses not in the blockchain itself but in separate systems linked to parties using the blockchain.)

A Framework for Blockchain Adoption

If bitcoin is like early e-mail, is blockchain decades from reaching its full potential? In our view the answer is a qualified yes. We can’t predict exactly how many years the transformation will take, but we can guess which kinds of applications will gain traction first and how blockchain’s broad acceptance will eventually come about.

How Foundational Technologies Take Hold

The adoption of foundational technologies typically happens in four phases. Each phase is defined by the novelty of the applications and the complexity of the coordination efforts needed to make them workable. Applications low in novelty and complexity gain acceptance first. Applications high in novelty and complexity take decades to evolve but can transform the economy. TCP/IP technology, introduced on ARPAnet in 1972, has already reached the transformation phase, but blockchain applications (in red) are in their early days.


In our analysis, history suggests that two dimensions affect how a foundational technology and its business use cases evolve. The first is novelty—the degree to which an application is new to the world. The more novel it is, the more effort will be required to ensure that users understand what problems it solves. The second dimension is complexity, represented by the level of ecosystem coordination involved—the number and diversity of parties that need to work together to produce value with the technology. For example, a social network with just one member is of little use; a social network is worthwhile only when many of your own connections have signed on to it. Other users of the application must be brought on board to generate value for all participants. The same will be true for many blockchain applications. And, as the scale and impact of those applications increase, their adoption will require significant institutional change.

We’ve developed a framework that maps innovations against these two contextual dimensions, dividing them into quadrants. (See the exhibit “How Foundational Technologies Take Hold.”) Each quadrant represents a stage of technology development. Identifying which one a blockchain innovation falls into will help executives understand the types of challenges it presents, the level of collaboration and consensus it needs, and the legislative and regulatory efforts it will require. The map will also suggest what kind of processes and infrastructure must be established to facilitate the innovation’s adoption. Managers can use it to assess the state of blockchain development in any industry, as well as to evaluate strategic investments in their own blockchain capabilities.

Single use.

In the first quadrant are low-novelty and low-coordination applications that create better, less costly, highly focused solutions. E-mail, a cheap alternative to phone calls, faxes, and snail mail, was a single-use application for TCP/IP (even though its value rose with the number of users). Bitcoin, too, falls into this quadrant. Even in its early days, bitcoin offered immediate value to the few people who used it simply as an alternative payment method. (You can think of it as a complex e-mail that transfers not just information but also actual value.) At the end of 2016 the value of bitcoin transactions was expected to hit $92 billion. That’s still a rounding error compared with the $411 trillion in total global payments, but bitcoin is growing fast and increasingly important in contexts such as instant payments and foreign currency and asset trading, where the present financial system has limitations.

Localization.

The second quadrant comprises innovations that are relatively high in novelty but need only a limited number of users to create immediate value, so it’s still relatively easy to promote their adoption. If blockchain follows the path network technologies took in business, we can expect blockchain innovations to build on single-use applications to create local private networks on which multiple organizations are connected through a distributed ledger.

Much of the initial private blockchain-based development is taking place in the financial services sector, often within small networks of firms, so the coordination requirements are relatively modest. Nasdaq is working with Chain.com, one of many blockchain infrastructure providers, to offer technology for processing and validating financial transactions. Bank of America, JPMorgan, the New York Stock Exchange, Fidelity Investments, and Standard Chartered are testing blockchain technology as a replacement for paper-based and manual transaction processing in such areas as trade finance, foreign exchange, cross-border settlement, and securities settlement. The Bank of Canada is testing a digital currency called CAD-coin for interbank transfers. We anticipate a proliferation of private blockchains that serve specific purposes for various industries.

Substitution.

The third quadrant contains applications that are relatively low in novelty because they build on existing single-use and localized applications, but are high in coordination needs because they involve broader and increasingly public uses. These innovations aim to replace entire ways of doing business. They face high barriers to adoption, however; not only do they require more coordination but the processes they hope to replace may be full-blown and deeply embedded within organizations and institutions. Examples of substitutes include cryptocurrencies—new, fully formed currency systems that have grown out of the simple bitcoin payment technology. The critical difference is that a cryptocurrency requires every party that does monetary transactions to adopt it, challenging governments and institutions that have long handled and overseen such transactions. Consumers also have to change their behavior and understand how to implement the new functional capability of the cryptocurrency.

A recent experiment at MIT highlights the challenges ahead for digital currency systems. In 2014 the MIT Bitcoin Club provided each of MIT’s 4,494 undergraduates with $100 in bitcoin. Interestingly, 30% of the students did not even sign up for the free money, and 20% of the sign-ups converted the bitcoin to cash within a few weeks. Even the technically savvy had a tough time understanding how or where to use bitcoin.

One of the most ambitious substitute blockchain applications is Stellar, a nonprofit that aims to bring affordable financial services, including banking, micropayments, and remittances, to people who’ve never had access to them. Stellar offers its own virtual currency, lumens, and also allows users to retain on its system a range of assets, including other currencies, telephone minutes, and data credits. Stellar initially focused on Africa, particularly Nigeria, the largest economy there. It has seen significant adoption among its target population and proved its cost-effectiveness. But its future is by no means certain, because the ecosystem coordination challenges are high. Although grassroots adoption has demonstrated the viability of Stellar, to become a banking standard, it will need to influence government policy and persuade central banks and large organizations to use it. That could take years of concerted effort.

Transformation.

Into the last quadrant fall completely novel applications that, if successful, could change the very nature of economic, social, and political systems. They involve coordinating the activity of many actors and gaining institutional agreement on standards and processes. Their adoption will require major social, legal, and political change.

“Smart contracts” may be the most transformative blockchain application at the moment. These automate payments and the transfer of currency or other assets as negotiated conditions are met. For example, a smart contract might send a payment to a supplier as soon as a shipment is delivered. A firm could signal via blockchain that a particular good has been received—or the product could have GPS functionality, which would automatically log a location update that, in turn, triggered a payment. We’ve already seen a few early experiments with such self-executing contracts in the areas of venture funding, banking, and digital rights management.

The implications are fascinating. Firms are built on contracts, from incorporation to buyer-supplier relationships to employee relations. If contracts are automated, then what will happen to traditional firm structures, processes, and intermediaries like lawyers and accountants? And what about managers? Their roles would all radically change. Before we get too excited here, though, let’s remember that we are decades away from the widespread adoption of smart contracts. They cannot be effective, for instance, without institutional buy-in. A tremendous degree of coordination and clarity on how smart contracts are designed, verified, implemented, and enforced will be required. We believe the institutions responsible for those daunting tasks will take a long time to evolve. And the technology challenges—especially security—are daunting.

Guiding Your Approach to Blockchain Investment

How should executives think about blockchain for their own organizations? Our framework can help companies identify the right opportunities.

For most, the easiest place to start is single-use applications, which minimize risk because they aren’t new and involve little coordination with third parties. One strategy is to add bitcoin as a payment mechanism. The infrastructure and market for bitcoin are already well developed, and adopting the virtual currency will force a variety of functions, including IT, finance, accounting, sales, and marketing, to build blockchain capabilities. Another low-risk approach is to use blockchain internally as a database for applications like managing physical and digital assets, recording internal transactions, and verifying identities. This may be an especially useful solution for companies struggling to reconcile multiple internal databases. Testing out single-use applications will help organizations develop the skills they need for more-advanced applications. And thanks to the emergence of cloud-based blockchain services from both start-ups and large platforms like Amazon and Microsoft, experimentation is getting easier all the time.

Localized applications are a natural next step for companies. We’re seeing a lot of investment in private blockchain networks right now, and the projects involved seem poised for real short-term impact. Financial services companies, for example, are finding that the private blockchain networks they’ve set up with a limited number of trusted counterparties can significantly reduce transaction costs.

Organizations can also tackle specific problems in transactions across boundaries with localized applications. Companies are already using blockchain to track items through complex supply chains, for instance. This is happening in the diamond industry, where gems are being traced from mines to consumers. The technology for such experiments is now available off-the-shelf.

Developing substitute applications requires careful planning, since existing solutions may be difficult to dislodge. One way to go may be to focus on replacements that won’t require end users to change their behavior much but present alternatives to expensive or unattractive solutions. To get traction, substitutes must deliver functionality as good as a traditional solution’s and must be easy for the ecosystem to absorb and adopt. First Data’s foray into blockchain-based gift cards is a good example of a well-considered substitute. Retailers that offer them to consumers can dramatically lower costs per transaction and enhance security by using blockchain to track the flows of currency within accounts—without relying on external payment processors. These new gift cards even allow transfers of balances and transaction capability between merchants via the common ledger.

Blockchain could slash the cost of transactions and reshape the economy.

Transformative applications are still far away. But it makes sense to evaluate their possibilities now and invest in developing technology that can enable them. They will be most powerful when tied to a new business model in which the logic of value creation and capture departs from existing approaches. Such business models are hard to adopt but can unlock future growth for companies.

Consider how law firms will have to change to make smart contracts viable. They’ll need to develop new expertise in software and blockchain programming. They’ll probably also have to rethink their hourly payment model and entertain the idea of charging transaction or hosting fees for contracts, to name just two possible approaches. Whatever tack they take, executives must be sure they understand and have tested the business model implications before making any switch.

Transformative scenarios will take off last, but they will also deliver enormous value. Two areas where they could have a profound impact: large-scale public identity systems for such functions as passport control, and algorithm-driven decision making in the prevention of money laundering and in complex financial transactions that involve many parties. We expect these applications won’t reach broad adoption and critical mass for at least another decade and probably more.

Transformative applications will also give rise to new platform-level players that will coordinate and govern the new ecosystems. These will be the Googles and Facebooks of the next generation. It will require patience to realize such opportunities. Though it may be premature to start making significant investments in them now, developing the required foundations for them—tools and standards—is still worthwhile.

CONCLUSION

In addition to providing a good template for blockchain’s adoption, TCP/IP has most likely smoothed the way for it. TCP/IP has become ubiquitous, and blockchain applications are being built on top of the digital data, communication, and computation infrastructure, which lowers the cost of experimentation and will allow new use cases to emerge rapidly.

With our framework, executives can figure out where to start building their organizational capabilities for blockchain today. They need to ensure that their staffs learn about blockchain, to develop company-specific applications across the quadrants we’ve identified, and to invest in blockchain infrastructure.

But given the time horizons, barriers to adoption, and sheer complexity involved in getting to TCP/IP levels of acceptance, executives should think carefully about the risks involved in experimenting with blockchain. Clearly, starting small is a good way to develop the know-how to think bigger. But the level of investment should depend on the context of the company and the industry. Financial services companies are already well down the road to blockchain adoption. Manufacturing is not.

No matter what the context, there’s a strong possibility that blockchain will affect your business. The very big question is when.

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Marco Iansiti is the David Sarnoff Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, where he heads the Technology and Operations Management Unit and the Digital Initiative.

Karim R. Lakhani is the Charles Edward Wilson Professor of Business Administration and the Dorothy and Michael Hintze Fellow at Harvard Business School. He is also the founding director of the Harvard Innovation Science Laboratory.

Harvard Business Review