We need to talk about something, fellow fintech folks: the word ‘blockchain’ has left the ground and started going completely out of control recently. It takes only a quick look at Twitter’s #blockchain page to get that.
I started suspecting when well intentioned marketing people of a large bank used it non stop in a fintech event in Hong Kong. Banks seem to be all over the blockchain right now. I doubt that this technology can solve any acute problems for HSBC or Citibank, but I get them. “Blockchain” sounds cool and they’re too rich and too threatened by Bitcoin (the asset) to ignore the technology behind it.
On another event I heard the following question from an investor: ‘I got pitched by several blockchain startups. Would you advise me to invest in them?’. Yesterday TechCrunch joined the bandwagon and announced that the blockchain might be the next disruptive technology. For serious media that wants to look deep into the future, it’s a fair title and it can invite a serious discussion (which the Bitcoin community doesn’t lack). But the content mostly glorified ‘blockchain’ as a buzzword, and that’s wrong.
Let’s get something straight: the Bitcoin blockchain is just a fancy database. Even worse: it’s a database with a thin (no, anorectic) schema- by design. Yes, it solved an age-old coordination vs. control problem. And it’s accessible to all. And it’s maintained by a global network with no central nodes. And it’s harnessing the greed of individuals to sustain itself (AKA mining). Which makes it the beautiful, neutral and elegant database that Bitcoin deserves to sit on (as ‘the people’s currency’). But it’s only a database.
If things keep heading in their current direction:
- 99% of the disruptive innovation around Bitcoin will come from the applications that people build on top of this database: exchanges, wallets, lending, insurance and who knows what else.
- 99% of the average Joe’s day-to-day usage of Bitcoin will be done through a private application: Coinbase or Colu or smart contract facilitator such as CryptoLaw.
And that means that the database is not the point (even if developers find decentralization cool). The applications are. When we judge any startup (from TransferWise to AirBnb) we don’t care if it’s using SQL Server, MongoDB, the blockchain or a combination of them, right? So it’s time that founders, investors and media leave the ‘blockchain’ buzzword aside and start talking about the business case for startups: human problem, solution, business model. Develop on the blockchain, by all means. But don’t make it the goal.
As a sidenote, if you think about it, the big-famous-blockchain behind Bitcoin isn’t the only way to build something that belongs ‘to the people’. Wikipedia also ‘belongs to the people’. And it’s hosted on private servers which are sponsored by donations. Community-owned service (in a weaker way), no blockchain involved. Voila!
Maybe the blockchain mania is coming from the ‘decentralize all’ obsession of the Bitcoin makers. Decentralizing on the technical level guarantees future freedom from “power centers”. Like many Bitcoin geeks I believe that decentralization is a beautiful concept, but I also believe that it’s taken to the extreme sometimes. This opinion might deserve its own post. For now, I’ll close with a single thought: Bitcoin needs a healthier amount of centralization (around some killers apps) to go mainstream. Companies such as Coinbase might centralize the crap out of the bitcoin world, and some people don’t like it, but the truth is that they spend tons of investor dollars to educate consumers and regulators. Also- and no offense intended- they proved that they can innovate and get traction about five times faster than the entire ‘proudly decentralized’ bitcoin community. That’s a good enough reason to put your Bitcoins on the applications- and talk a little less about the database.