Buoyed by Bitcoin’s latest price and a steady supply of Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs), the blockchain ecosystem in 2018 resembles the Web ecosystem of 1995 – an ecosystem that eventually disrupted advertising and marketing models by having companies such as Amazon, Google and Facebook outplace traditional retail sales and marketing companies. This time around, however, the financial levers presently held by banks and related financial services firms will be retooled – as well as the present centralized server model so very important to the same companies who previously benefited from the Web ecosystem, namely Amazon, Google and Facebook.
Speculation vs. Utilization
in September 2017, Bitcoin was famously derided by the financial titan Jamie Dimon as “a fraud”. The JPMorgan CEO went so far as to say he would fire anyone on his trading team who bought Bitcoin. His gratuitous digs at Bitcoin did not temper the rise of Bitcoin and became noteworthy – and a likely source of friction with his traders, because the Bitcoin cryptocurrency went on to increase in value over three-fold a mere 1Q after Dimon’s public derision. As of December 31, 2017, Bitcoin sits at a price of near $14,000 whereas when Mr. Dimon’s bold pronouncements were made Bitcoin “only” had a price of $4,115.
Similarly, another banker – Vitor Constancio, the vice president of the European Central Bank, said in July 2017 that Bitcoin “is not a currency but a mere instrument of speculation” – comparing it to tulip bulbs during the 17th century trading bubble in the Netherlands.
In the same way that the World Wide Web was never defined solely by Pets.com, the benefits of blockchain technology should never be defined solely by the latest price of Bitcoin. Even Mr. Dimon acknowledges as much given during his tirade against the speculative nature of Bitcoin he also said “he supported blockchain technology for tracking payments.”
By way of background, a blockchain is nothing more than an expandable list of records, called blocks, which are linked and secured using cryptography, namely cryptographic hashes that point to each prior block and result in an unbreakable “chain” of hashes surrounding the blocks. More accurately referred to as a distributed ledger of accounts, a blockchain ecosystem will disrupt more than one industry beginning in 2018.
The inevitable changes that will occur in 2018 spring from several unique attributes of the blockchain ecosystem. First, because a blockchain ledger is distributed it takes advantage of the vast amount of compute power available in most every computer device. Similar to how the Mirai botnet distributed denial of service (DDos) attack became the largest DDoS attack by simply using unsecured IoT access, blockchain technology harnesses secure unused compute power in powerful and productive new ways. Our new IoT ecosystem – which itself is an outgrowth of the Web ecosystem, will only feed into that result.
Secondly, blockchain ledger transactions are the closest thing to an immutable form of transaction accounting we have given the transactions have been verified and cannot be changed once written to the blockchain without evidence of obvious tampering – which was always the reason Bitcoin derived any actual intrinsic value. In other words, the promise of blockchain coupled with pure speculation has solely driven Bitcoin pricing. By buying Bitcoin and other cybercurrencies, it is almost as if people were given a chance to turn back the clock and bet on the Web ecosystem in 1995. Without usage for its intended purpose, namely being a trusted and immutable listing of Bitcoin transactions, Bitcoin would most certainly go to the zero valuation postulated by Morgan Stanley. The logic is pretty straight forward – without an actual intrinsic store of value, there is no actual intrinsic store of value. And, without some sort of intrinsic store of value there is no reason to consider Bitcoin an asset. Accordingly, unless utilized by choice or forced to be used by a government, speculation will never be a sustainable impetus for the pricing of Bitcoin – or any other cryptocurrency for that matter. Without utilization, tokens/app coins/cryptocurrencies will all die on the vine given external utilization will always be needed to create a store of value.
Utilization under the Ethereum protocol
Disregarding the unlikely scenario of governmental adoption, the future of any blockchain/cryptocurrency ecosystem necessarily ties directly to utilization. Even though there are several protocols with smart contracts amendable to utilization, there is only one founded by a visionary who understands the issue of scalability and why scalability is the sine qua non of a successful blockchain ecosystem – in the same way a non-scalable Web ecosystem was always a non-starter. An early December 2017 presentation given by that visionary – Vitalik Buterin, talks to scalability as being the most important new initiative of Ethereum going forward in 2018. Mr. Buterin – who will likely take the blockchain ecosystem where Gates took the PC ecosystem and Bezos took the Web ecosystem, suggests that “sharding” using a Validator Manager Contract – a construct that maintains an internal proof of stake claim using random validators, will eventually solve the problem of scalability. Simply put, not all blocks/shards will need to be placed under the main chain. This is a natural evolutionary progression given as it stands now everyone seeking an Ethereum wallet needs to download Ethereum’s entire trove of over four million blocks – hardly a scalable solution for the many app tokens or coins running the Ethereum protocol. Moreover, each Ethereum block currently also takes about 14.70 seconds to promulgate. In 2014, Buterin anticipated the feasibility of a 12 second block time so has certainly been moving in the right direction. Given security and propagation issues, work on this remains in the infancy stage with a great deal of work necessary in 2018. Nevertheless, in 2018 and beyond, smart contracts such as those available under Ethereum will allow for the utilization necessary for the blockchain ecosystem to thrive.
Adoption by financial markets and the Ripple Effect
Ripple/XRP surged at the very end of 2017 and quickly became a rumored stealth initiative by the regulated banking industry to combat unregulated cryptocurrencies. Ripple promises “end-to-end tracking and certainty” for those banks using its RippleNet closed-loop network. More than anything, this initiative demonstrates that unregulated ICOs and unregulated “currencies” may have spooked the world’s financial markets sufficiently to justify taking sides by investing in a Ripple contender – a “blockchain-like” service seeking to displace existing cryptocurrency mindshare. Indeed, Ripple just replaced ETH/Ethereum as the second largest market cap cryptocurrency. Even though only two financial institutions are listed as investors, that does not mean other financial institutions would not want to prop up this “currency” on the open market – the list of “advisory board members” is telling in that regard. This bank-sponsored version of Bitcoin certainly looks like it has more legs than Bitcoin given there exists budding utilization – banks are currently already using the RippleNet network, coupled with massive speculation given its ballooning market cap.
In 2018, acceptance of blockchain technology by the financial industry will be indelible proof those mistakes of 1995 made by retail sales and marketing companies will not be repeated by the financial industry or even the server sector represented by the likes of Google – who has invested in Ripple. More than likely, upcoming technology developments under the Ethereum protocol will beget future tokens with smarter utilization and even greater potential upside than either Bitcoin or Ripple. In other words, the blockchain ecosystem in 2018 will be no different than the Web ecosystem as it existed in 1995.