In as little as 12 months, Bitcoin has gone from a little known alternative form of e-money to the next “must have asset”. However, some prominent investors are now saying it was a fad whose bubble has burst before it even got going. In my opinion, the reality could not be more different, with cryptocurrency and more importantly mass adoption of part of its underlying technology (blockchain), set to change countless global industries.
It has been said that at its inception, the internet principally disrupted one industry – the publishing sector. By way of contrast, as many as 160 services/sectors have potential use cases (and disruption) as a result of the impending rise of blockchain technology.
So where did this all begin?
At the time when many of the world’s biggest financial institutions were on the brink of collapse, a paper was published on the concept of a “peer-to-peer electronic cash system” (that crucially, would not require the services provided by a traditional bank). This was shortly followed by the release of the Bitcoin network in January 2009 which initially experienced a slow and then stratospheric rise in its value ($100 of bitcoin purchased in January 2011 would be worth around $2,164,000 at the time of writing). However, many are unaware of the sheer number of other cryptocurrencies that are currently available on the open market.
In addition to bitcoin, the top 10 “coins” in terms of market capitalisation (value) include, ethereum, ripple, litecoin and steller, with even the lowest coin in the top 10 (TRON), having a total value of over $2.5 billion.
New Financing – Initial Coin Offerings (ICO’s)
Now Initial Coin Offerings (or ICOs – a form of financing similar to crowd funding utilised by cryptocurrency and blockchain businesses) are happening at a rate of six per week with an average raise of $24 million.
Bitcoin is now just one of over 1,600 cryptocurrencies and whilst their aggregate value has recently sharply fallen to $280 billion (down from nearly $800 billion in early January 2018), this is an increase from around $30 billion at the start of 2017 (which itself was an increase from around $20 billion in 2016). A common misconception is that all of these cryptocurrencies are attempting to position themselves as additional alternatives to traditional currency. In reality most of these are targeting entirely different markets. However, the vast majority of all current cryptocurrencies have one common characteristic – they are all based on the same underlying technology, namely the use of a ledger system known as “blockchain” (in combination with decentralisation and cryptography).
So, what is blockchain and why is it regularly referred to a technology that has the potential to be “bigger than the invention of the internet”?
In its simplest form, a decentralised blockchain is a form of database technology, where records in that database are not stored or maintained by a single intermediary or administrator, like a bank or an online payment system (note that this example would not apply for a centralised blockchain). Another way of viewing it is a method for recording a transaction which is verified by potentially thousands of independent sources.
For example, if the holder of bitcoin (person A) wants to transfer 2 bitcoins to a recipient (person B), persons A and B can complete the transaction directly between themselves with the record of that transaction being maintained on what is essentially a public database. The equivalent would be like having the ability to transfer money from your bank account to another bank account but without relying on the transferring bank and recipient bank to process the transaction.
The public database does not show information such as an individual’s name or even their IP address. Rather it records the transfer from person A’s digital wallet address to person B’s digital wallet address, as well as the date and time of the transfer. A permanent record of the transaction is stored on the Bitcoin blockchain which, crucially, is close to tamper proof (the reason for this is that the record is not maintained in a single location but in potentially thousands of locations around the world).
For records (or blocks) to be added to that database (and transfers to take place, as in the example set out above), the approval and verification of a peer-to-peer network of computers (known as “nodes”) is required. Once verified by those nodes, a new block recording the transaction is created and added to the existing database (being the blockchain ledger).
Blockchain – The Future
The potential use cases for blockchain are extensive and go far beyond currency, with any industry or organisation that deals with some sort of transaction or maintenance of any mass record keeping, conceivably being capable of disruption. Some of these industries include:
- Banking/finance – streamlining of global transactions; speeding up payments; removing restrictions posed by currency borders;
- Automotive – tracking vehicle history for both new and used cars; supply chain of parts;
- Travel – passenger identification and passport digitised and verified;
- Property – property title registers; digitisation of property transactions;
- Medical – drug supply chain management; patient databases on blockchain;
- Media – evidence of ownership rights; anti-piracy / copyright infringement;
- Legal – “smart contracts” with defined rules and accessibility;
- Voting – reduce voter fraud; minimise government fraud; increase accountability and compliance for government officials; and
- Donations/Charity – provide auditable trail for donations; ensure intended recipient for donations are received.
Whilst cryptocurrency has many critics that question its longevity and feasibility of mass adoption, given the sheer number of use cases, blockchain is most definitely here to stay.
Note that investment in any cryptocurrency is, currently, a very high risk investment and should only be undertaken by sophisticated investors.