The brilliance of Bitcoin is also its curse. The cryptocurrency system devised by Satoshi Nakamoto intricately interweaves so many artful innovations that it has muddied the very active discussion of how blockchain technologies can be applied to other areas.
Far too often I hear people arguing that any use of blockchain technology must, like Bitcoin, be decentralized, anonymous, peer-to-peer, untethered to central bank currencies, unfettered by government regulation, and designed to undercut the business, technological, and political establishments.
That limited mindset is prevalent even amid this year’s frenzy to apply blockchains and cryptocurrencies, along with newer developments like smart contracts and tokens, to nearly every computing and business problem imaginable.
I certainly see the revolutionary potential of these technologies to empower individuals and small businesses in new ways. But it is a mistake to see blockchain as an all or nothing proposition. The legacy of Bitcoin, rather, is a range of options that can transform many applications, both centralized and decentralized, by many organizations, both insurgent and incumbent.
Here is a menu of some of the most significant choices available to anyone exploring cryptocurrency technology:
Centralized vs. decentralized. Bitcoin introduced the blockchain as a brilliant way to maintain a reliable database spread across many computers with no central authority. Ethereum extended this idea to enable cloud computing applications to be deployed in a similarly decentralized way. These are exciting ideas, but don’t fall in love with the ingenuity. Traditional cloud computing servers are very efficient and effective at many tasks. Meanwhile, many of the current crop of blockchain-based cryptocurrencies have had trouble keeping up with high transaction volumes.
Smart companies will blend decentralized and centralized processing depending on the application. Consider, for example, the application pioneered by Bitcoin — digital cash. Blockchain allows peer-to-peer transactions anywhere without an intermediary. But digital coins can be stolen or lost. You could imagine a hybrid payment system that uses a blockchain ledger to validate small transactions (essentially digital cash in your wallet that you might lose) but verifies large amounts with a central database (like money in the bank).
Anonymous vs. identified. The fact that transactions are anonymous and untraceable is one of the most powerful and polarizing facets of Bitcoin. It is an understatement to say that opinions vary about the legitimate role of government in supervising the exchange of money. Many other applications could benefit from blockchain technology while also identifying participants and recording transactions.
Consider an airline that creates a cryptocurrency version of frequent flier miles. The advantage of using a blockchain system would be added flexibility in earning and spending miles and the ability to exchange them freely with other people. Still, airlines would not want to give up the information that loyalty programs give them about their customers, so they might design a token that “phones home” to report on how it is used. Customers, presumably, would be notified about this invasion of their privacy and compensated through customized offers and other incentives. To be sure, another airline might create a fully anonymous crypto rewards program. The technology allows both ways, and the marketplace will decide.
Fixed vs. floating value. A lot of the new applications being built with Ethereum involve a specialized coin or token, whose value is meant to fluctuate with demand for the underlying service for which the coin can be exchanged. This approach has some appeal, especially for companies that want to raise money by selling coins to speculators that believe their services will eventually be highly sought after.
Other companies, however, may want more direct control over their prices, choosing whether to sell at a premium or discount relative to their competitors and offering more predictable expenses to their customers. Many powerful applications for blockchain and cryptocurrency technology work very well if the underlying payments are set in a national fiat currency. There are also hybrid approaches that allow some fluctuations within limited bands.
Freely exchangeable vs. restricted. Cryptocurrency technology has the potential to make all the closed systems we use to store value — from loyalty reward points to prepaid coffee cards — more useful by making them interchangeable and exchangeable into whatever currency we like to hold. But even in applications that intend to have freely exchangeable currencies, there is also a place for some coins to carry restrictions.
A music application, for example, may be looking for a way to jump-start a token. Ultimately, users will earn some coins for writing reviews; they will buy coins for cash; and they will spend coins to reward artists they like and buy music. At first, however, the developer may give a sum of restricted tokens to all its users that can be used to buy music but not converted into cash.
What’s important here is to understand that the revolution Bitcoin has spawned is far bigger than a single product — digital cash. It is bigger even than a single ideology of how to do business — anonymous, decentralized computing. The transformative idea is that companies are not simply selling products to customers, they are sponsoring rich economies in which participants contribute and consume in multiple ways.
Just as government-sponsored economies vary in their approaches to monetary policy, regulation, and central control, the new private token-based economies will also have a range of rules and features, drawing from, but not limited to, the brilliant inventions of Satoshi Nakamoto.
Jason Goldberg is founder and CEO of Simple Token. He previously founded consumer Internet companies Pepo, Hem.com, Fab.com, Social Median, and Jobster and led strategy and product teams for T-Mobile and AOL. Before his career in business, his first startup was Bill Clinton’s campaign for President of the U.S.A. in 1992, which carried Jason to a six-year stint in the White House. He currently splits his time between Berlin, Germany; Pune, India; and Hong Kong.