Rumors of the Demise of the Blockchain Industry Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Dec 5, 2018 · 6 min read
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The sharp decline in the price of cryptocoins has spurred an outpouring of commentary from columnists and academics who — suspicious of the asset class all along — now feel vindicated. But their focus on falling prices this year is just as foolhardy as the evangelists focus on gains last year, and somewhat misses the point. The biggest blockchain headline of 2018 isn’t that prices have crashed, but that adoption has accelerated throughout the decline.

Among the entrepreneurs and developers building out the technology, there is a growing sense of satisfaction that an industry primarily known for its hypothetical promise is finally starting to deliver. If you can manage to look past sensational stories of “who lost how much in Bitcoin,” what you’ll find are far more interesting stories on adoption and implementation. Whereas 2017 was the year of whether, 2018 is going out as the year of when and how.

This is an important shift, despite ongoing challenges. Blockchain is a foundational technology, so adoption isn’t just about new systems, but a re-architecting of how business is done. That’s no small task, as we were reminded recently when the parent of the New York Stock Exchange announced a delay in the launch of its physical-backed Bitcoin futures. Tempting as it might be to interpret that news as yet another setback in the midst of a bear market, it’s a startling reminder of how far things have come. Not that long ago, the idea of one of the worlds biggest financial companies adopting Bitcoin felt like a pipe dream. Today, we lament a short delay.

Once rolled out, those futures will be an important bridge between legacy financial markets and natively digital ones. This sort of infrastructure is vital to making good on the industry’s loftier promises, and encouragingly, where progress seems to have accelerated, as told by the people who would know. Konstantin Richter, the CEO of Blockdaemon, a leading blockchain infrastructure company, recently told me: “We are seeing a strong increase in individual nodes getting deployed. Enterprise demand has increased also.” That simple statement says a lot, because nodes to a blockchain are like servers to a network. That people and companies are deploying them could only mean they plan on using the technology.

Progress is accelerating on the “re-architecting how business is done” front too. According to Christiana Cacciapuoti, the executive director of Adledger, a non-profit building new standards for blockchain-based online advertising, the consortium now counts all of the big four ad agencies as members, something that wouldn’t have happened if there was no there there.

The same could be said of names like Walmart and Fidelity, both of which announced major blockchain-based initiatives this past summer. Many more seem to be watching, as expressed by Mike Dudas, founder of The Block, a leading blockchain news and intelligence service. When I asked him whether interest had declined with price, he said “despite the decline, corporate interest is accelerating, and we’ve seen significant professional uptake in our coverage.”

Perhaps the strongest vote of confidence came from Clarissa Horowitz, VP of Marketing at Bitgo, a leading cryptocoin custody tech and service provider. Bitgo announced a new qualified custodian service aimed at institutions just a few months ago, just as the price decline accelerated. Custody being a service only needed by those who deal with the actual coins, I wondered if demand had been tepid. Her response? “Interest has been off the charts.”

From my own vantage point, demand for my education service and sales of my book are as strong as ever. The critics hear all of this, but still obsess over falling prices. To be fair, so do some industry insiders. But if there’s one lesson everyone watching crypto markets should heed from traditional ones, it’s that price seldom matters as much as most people think.

Just in the past two months, shares of graphic hardware maker Nvidia have lost half of their value. Tellingly, no one is interpreting this to mean the end of the industry. Semiconductor stocks have always been volatile, and a volatile asset making big moves is not that revealing. Naysayers have tried to pin the collapse on falling demand from crypto miners, but that doesn’t explain why the stock surged 50% earlier this as the price of Bitcoin got cut in half.

So why did the stock collapse? For a myriad of complicated reasons, including the broader correction in tech stocks. That correction, bye the way, has knocked a trillion dollars off the market cap of just five tech companies, more than the losses in all cryptocoins combined. But nobody is interpreting it to mean the end of smartphones or social media. Wild price swings are often more about marginal changes in sentiment than actual changes in output, a fact perhaps even more true for commodities.

The recent decline in oil prices for example, has little to do with supply and demand, as neither has changed much as prices have fallen. Drawing major conclusions from short-term price swings is tempting, but can be a trap. Ten years ago, a far bigger collapse in oil lead many to predict the end of the US shale boom. History proved them wrong, as American oil output today is triple what it was back then, with most of the gains having occurred in the teeth of the bear market. The decline in prices only drove drillers to become even more efficient at fracking. A decade later, that new way of drilling has really taken over, for the simple reason that it’s a better way of doing things.

Blockchain technology is also a better way of doing things. It’s core tenets of transparency, democracy and cooperation are universally considered desirable in almost any other context. So why do so many remain skeptical? One answer is jealousy from those who missed out on the boom, but there’s more to it.

The bigger issue — haunting enthusiasts and skeptics alike — is the truly transformative nature of this technology. If optimists such as myself are proven right, then we are about to undergo a major re-architecting of many aspects of society, toppling incumbent leaders and anointing new ones. Entrepreneurs worship the mighty god of disruption, but in its path lies the pain of the disrupted.

Just recently, the CEO of the celebrated startup Transferwise declared that his company saw no implementation of blockchain tech that made its online payment service faster or cheaper. His comments made the rounds given the backdrop of falling coin prices, but I took them to be rather bullish. If my overall thesis pans out, then the Transferwises of the world will never find a good use for blockchain, because the technology eliminates the need for them altogether. People can already exchange and send digital dollars all over the world using decentralized blockchain rails, for a fraction of even what Transferwise charges. The only drawback is that the front-end and user experience is not nearly as polished as those offered by a centralized payment service.

That problem will eventually be solved, because a shared global ledger is a better way of handling payments than the fragmented and siloed solutions of today, in the same way that a shared spreadsheet in the cloud is a better way of cooperating with colleagues than passing around a notebook. So to all those who continue to obsess about prices, I offer a simple reminder that what matters most are the opportunities that lie ahead, not the price declines that lay behind. This was true in the energy sector a decade ago, and even more true in the tech sector two decades ago.

Back then, during the aftermath of the dot com bust, the shares of a little online bookseller traded at a mere $6, having lost 95% of their value. Critics took the magnitude of that decline — even greater than the current crypto one — to mean that the promise of eommerce had been exaggerated. But Jeff Bezos and his team still believed that online shopping was a better way of doing things, so despite the raging bear market, they proceeded to significantly expand Amazon’s offering. History, and a subsequent 30,000% appreciation in the stock, proved them right. Sometimes, the biggest takeaway from a major price decline is the emergence of a great opportunity.

Disclosure: I am a small investor in Blockdaemon and a very large investor in better ways of doing things.

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