Having declared bitcoins in particular and cryptocurrencies in general to be a load of rubbish only to see bitcoins triple in value since I posted, I suppose I should be feeling quite silly by now. All I had to do was throw my life savings into bitcoin and I’d be sitting pretty. The expression “get with the program” comes to mind.
I remain cynical about cryptocurrencies, but blockchains are here to stay and smart contracts seem to be the problem they solve. So, in the past few months, I’ve been getting up to speed on them, and am now sufficiently accomplished that I delivered a workshop on them and have been asked back for another.
What makes me think that smart contracts have a future in a way that cryptocurrencies don’t? Certainly, the amount of computer power needed to do simple things remains ludicrous, and, for many applications, it’s difficult to see what a decentralised ledger brings that a single, centralised database doesn’t already deliver. There are plenty of sites out there doing smart-contracty things, but which work without the added complexity and overhead of blockchains – gambling sites such as betfair spring to mind.
It is also difficult to work out how to make money out of smart contracts, per se. Sure, there’s mining But rather than contribute any actual innovation, all miners do is buy a whole bunch of hardware and get a fast and juicy RoI. That RoI only happens, however, if smart contracts are doing something.
The main thrust appears to be tokens. Get some digital content together and sell it for tokens rather than real money. Other than being cool, I’m again not sure what this adds to an existing digital content business. If your tokens are tradeable only for your own products, then all you’re doing is pre-selling your product (and maybe skim a transaction fee if a secondary market comes into being). If your tokens are tradeable on like-minded sites – i.e., your competitors – then you’re putting yourself under a lot of new pressure.
So what’s left? Keeping track of who owns which item of digital content is a huge area, waiting to happen. Another is sharing data between parties who have an interest in sharing data, but who don’t trust each other because they’re competitors.
To me, this last area is the one that holds most potential. As an example, take consumer credit bureaux. The idea is that the banks and credit card companies pool data to create a score for each customer. That score is part of potential lenders’ decision making processes: people who don’t have a history, or who do have a history, but it’s a bad one, end up paying more interest.
Today, these systems are implemented as single, centralised databases. That presents a single point of attack for a hacker. Moreoever, there’s an incentive to steal data: the dataset on offer is very valuable. Anyone hacking into a consumer credit bureau could steal a whole bunch of identities, and manipulate records to gain credit at rates to which she’s not entitled – and then run with the money.
The decentralised, cryptograhic nature of blockchains goes a long way to protecting from this kind of theft and manipulation. I suspect there are very many similar applications out there. It may not be sexy, but as a B2B application, this type of sharing will run and run.