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Blockchain is dead, long live the Blockchain

I’ve noticed a great deal of schadenfreude related to the R3 bump. Lots of people saying that blockchain is past its sell-by date, R3 are bust and distributed ledgers are dead. I think it’s related to the journalists who, having delighted in bigging up blockchain big time for the past two years are now relishing the idea of trashing it but come on guys, blockchain is far from dead. It’s just entered the trough of disillusionment.

I’ve noticed a great deal of schadenfreude related to the R3 bump. Lots of people saying that blockchain is past its sell-by date, R3 are bust and distributed ledgers are dead. I think it’s related to the journalists who, having delighted in bigging up blockchain big time for the past two years are now relishing the idea of trashing it but come on guys, blockchain is far from dead. It’s just entered the trough of disillusionment.

blockchain dead long live blockchain

For those unfamiliar with that term, it’s from the Crossing the Chasm book that defined the hype cycle of technologies.

Often a technology is perceived to be massive but, because we over estimate how fast it will take off, we get disillusioned with the fact that nothing much is happening and so we start to feel it’s not going to happen. Everything goes quiet and then, a few years later, we suddenly go wow, look at this shiny new thing that’s changed the world.

We saw this with the internet (a boom and bust and boom); mobile (it’s only for yuppies but now I can’t live without one); and the PC (who needs a computer in the home?). We’ll see this with blockchain and, like those previous technologies, it will fulfil the Bill Gates quote of over estimating the speed and underestimating the impact this technology will have.

R3 has gotten into bumpy waters because they’ve open sourced Corda, their distributed ledger system. Some of the original members hoped to get a good return on their investment and don’t believe they will get that from an open sourced system, so they’ve left. So what?  It doesn’t take away the value, intent or focus that Corda and R3 are bringing to financially distributed ledgers.

I liken it to bitcoin. So many people started with an argument over bitcoin itself – it’s bad, it’s for money launderers and paedophiles, it’ll destroy the world. I was and am one of those people and still believe that bitcoin is bad until it has a governance model. Now the bitcoin community is creating that model, and so maybe bitcoin is good.

Then we went through bitcoin is bad but blockchain is good for about a year. That’s also changing as we’ve gone from blockchain is good to blockchain is also bad. This is not just because of R3, but the DAO hack and Ethereum hard forks have not helped. These, combined with the general issues around bitcoin, have all led to a view that shared ledgers and digital currencies will fail. Wrong.

As I’ve said before a global network needs global finance, it also needs a global currency long term. And it needs global databases for identity management and value exchange. It is all happening and it is all transformational and hugely impactful when it does. It’s just going to take a lot longer to make it happen than the naïve media believed when they got all excited about blockchain in the first place.

I’m often asked how quickly the changes I outline will take place, and my answer is between 10 and 20 years. The building of the real-time, almost free financial network on the internet using blockchain and mobile will take about a decade at least before it becomes mainstream. Oh, some go. That’s a way off. Can we talk about something happening sooner?

That’s an interesting reaction, as sure we could talk about how Apple Watch Payment apps aren’t working or the big deal with Chase Pay, but c’mon. I’m not talking about incremental innovations here, but fundamental ones. The rebuilding of the whole financial markets using shared ledgers. The inclusion of 7 billion people in the financial network through mobile. Those are the big ticket items. Another user of Stripe is interesting, but it’s not the massive change we can see coming downstream.

So why is this fundamental change going to take ten years, at least?  Because that’s how long any major change takes to become mainstream due to The Waterfall Effect.

The Waterfall Effectis exactly that: the cascade of flowing change from idea to implementation to acceptance to mainstream; and you have to remember there are many players in play here. It starts with a new technology, such as the blockchain shared ledger protocol.

The technology then has to be built into something robust and new providers are created to innovate – Blockapps, Chain, Chainalysis, Choosecase, Circle, Coinbase, Consensys, Epihpyte, Erethreum, Eris, Ledger X, R3CEV, Ripple, Symbiont, Tradeblock and more – and to allow this technology to be adopted.

Then the large incumbent technology providers start their programs to join these new innovators and bring them into an architecture that works for their bank clients. Some say the incumbent technology companies move too slow. In fact, some believe that the real problem is not the banks’ legacy systems but their legacy providers, but hey, let’s not go there. Eventually, the providers get it, and adapt and adopt the technologies into their frameworks and architectures.

Eventually it’s ready for bank prime time.

Then it’s another story, as now the banks have to adapt and adopt the frameworks and architectures from their incumbent providers and innovative start-up partners. This takes time, and different banks move at different speeds dependent upon the use case and ability to change.

Let’s say this has taken about six years, and that’s how long it’s taken to get shared ledgers from Satoshi Nakamoto’s white paper to serious use cases being adopted by banks as proof of concept (POC). That’s still a way off from POC to implementation and mainstream use. The latter is still 3-5 years away in many cases. For the sake of argument, let’s say it takes a decade to get from the white paper to mainstream incorporation.

OK, so now we’re getting somewhere, but we’re still not there as the corporations and consumers haven’t been touched yet. Often a bank can innovate and sometimes even innovate fast, but then their customers have to change too. Corporates will adapt and adopt a technology that will reduce costs and improve straight through processing but, a bit like the banks and their incumbent technology providers, the corporates also have legacy systems and legacy providers who also have to adapt and change.

Give that another five years and then, finally, consumers can have the service. But do they want it?  According to many of my bank friends, every time they update their bank apps with new features and changed interfaces, their Net Promoter Score (NPS) goes down. This is because 80% of customers don’t like change. Shoot. So the consumer takes another year or two before they switch onto the new cheaper, faster service. And hey. We’ve got there.

But this waterfall effect – new technology, start-up developers, incumbent providers, main markets of usage, clients of main market users and, finally, customer of clients – means that nay major technology change takes at least a decade to maybe three decades before it gets mainstream. After all, the mobile telephone was invented in 1973 but took almost thirty years to become mainstream. We talk about how things are moving faster – apps go viral in seconds – but these are things that move once you’ve changed the underlying architecture, and that’s why ground-breaking change takes decades. Once you’ve made the change however, everything that sits on that underlying architecture can move at light speed.

This is why the blockchain will take another decade before it is mainstream, as it’s changing the foundations, the rails, the roads of finance. It’s not just a bit of froth on the foundation, like most of the apps out there.

Chris Skinner is Chair of the European networking forum: the Financial Services Club. He is best known as an independent commentator on Fintech through his blog, and as author of the best selling book Digital Bank and its new sequel ValueWeb.


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