Four categories of Bitcoin-related projects

New Bitcoin-related software projects are launching every day. From what I can tell these projects fall into four main categories:

Bitcoin apps and services: These try to make Bitcoin more accessible, stable, secure, and useful. Examples: wallets, merchant services, fiat-to-crypto exchanges, crypto-to-crypto exchanges, Bitcoin derivatives exchanges, tipping services, and merchant microtransaction services.

Bitcoin protocol extensions: These are applications that use the Bitcoin blockchain as a global, secure, single-instance database and generally ignore Bitcoin-as-a-currency. Examples: Mastercoin, Colored Coins, and a Princeton project that is building a predictive market.

Altcoins: These are basically Bitcoin variants with branding and technical modifications (and their own blockchain). Like Bitcoin, the primary purpose is to allow the store and transfer of value. Examples: LitecoinDogecoin.

Appcoins: These are new projects that are inspired by Bitcoin’s architecture but are intended to do things besides storing/transferring value (they also use their own blockchain). Examples: Namecoin, Ethereum.

To me, the first two categories are probably the most interesting. If there is one thing we’ve learned from the development of Internet protocols like HTTP and SMTP, it’s that network adoption is key. There will always be better protocols, but the combination of broad adoption and open extensibility generally wins. (Although Naval and Balaji make a compelling case for Appcoins here).

Why I’m interested in Bitcoin

Some people assume that all Bitcoin advocates are motivated by a libertarian political agenda. That is certainly not my agenda. I’m a lifelong Democrat who supported Obama in the last two elections. I think the Federal Reserve plays an important function, and I don’t agree with people who think inflation should be our nation’s primary economic concern.

It is true that many early Bitcoin proponents were libertarians. But it is also true that almost every significant computing movement had early proponents who were ideologically motivated. The developers of the first personal computers were closely aligned with the 60s counterculture movement. Open source software was originally created by people who believed that all software should be available for free. Early advocates of blogging and collaborative systems like Wikipedia were trying to democratize the production and dissemination of information. This isn’t coincidental: broad-based technology movements have depended on non-economic participants early on since it often took years for commercial participants to get involved.

If not for political reasons, why am I interested in Bitcoin? Like a lot of people, I was disturbed by the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. I thought the government did what it had to do at the peak of the crisis but missed an important opportunity afterwards to reform the financial system. It seemed to me that there were two ways to improve the system: from above through regulation (which I support), or from below through competition.

I wrote a blog post about this issue about four years ago. My argument was that if the technology industry wants to change the financial services industry, it can’t just build new services on top of existing financial services companies. That would be like trying to disrupt Google or Apple by building services on top of their platforms. To actually have an impact (and create large businesses) you need to create services that completely bypass incumbent financial companies. I gave a series of examples including payments:

Charging 20% interest rates (banks) and skimming pennies off every transaction (Visa and Mastercard) is a very profitable business. Starting a new payment company that doesn’t depend on the existing banks and credit card companies could be disruptive.

Since then I made a number of financial services technology investments, all of which were consistent with this thesis.

I started getting interested in Bitcoin about two years ago. Like a lot of people I initially dismissed Bitcoin as a speculative bubble (“Internet tulip bulbs”) or a place to stash money for people worried about inflation (“Internet gold”). At some point, I had an “aha!” moment and realized that Bitcoin was best understood as a new software protocol through which you could rebuild the payments industry in ways that are better and cheaper.

The payment industry is a $500 billion industry (or larger, depending on how you measure it). That means banks and payment companies charge $500B per year in fees to provide a service that mostly involves moving bits around the Internet. There are other services they provide like credit, security, and dispute resolution, but in any reasonable analysis these services should cost dramatically less than they currently do. The payment industry should be at least an order of magnitude smaller than it is today.

Another thing that informed my view was seeing what a huge headache payments were for startups I was involved with. Let’s say you sell electronics online. Profit margins in those businesses are usually under 5%, which means the 2.5% payment fees consume half the margin. That’s money that could be reinvested in the business, passed back to consumers, or taxed by the government. Of all of those choices, handing 2.5% to banks to move bits around the Internet is the worst possible choice. The other main challenge startups have with payments is accepting international payments. If you are wondering why your favorite technology service isn’t available in your country, the answer is often payments.

But the most exciting aspect of Bitcoin (and this is admittedly more speculative) are all the interesting new business and technology models that “programmable money” could enable. For example, I am very bullish on micropayments (this is a longer topic which I plan to write about separately). The world recently ran its first large-scale micropayments experiment – so called in-app payments on iOS and Android – and despite some serious design flaws (centralized control, 30% fees), it was a smashing success. I think Bitcoin could enable a micropayment system for the open web, and thereby provide a business model beyond banner ads for many important services such as journalism.

I’m not claiming that Bitcoin (or any new technology) can save the economy or the world. The technology industry is in the business of creating products and services that either enable new activities or make existing activities less expensive. Venture capitalists are in the business of funding entrepreneurs who run experiments to try to create these new products and services. I believe the only way the technology industry can offer meaningfully improved financial services is by building new services that don’t depend on incumbent companies. Bitcoin is a serious proposal for dramatically improving the payments industry. There are plenty of open questions but I think it’s an experiment worth running.

Some thoughts on mobile

– People tend to lump smartphones and tablets together as “mobile”. This can be misleading. Ask people who run internet companies and they’ll tell you that user behavior on tablets is far more similar to user behavior on desktops/laptops than it is to user behavior on smartphones. That said, the software on smartphones and tablets is similar, as are the discovery mechanisms (mostly app stores) and monetization techniques.

– Microsoft is running ads making fun of the iPad for being a “consumption” device. Here’s what Steve Jobs had to say back in 2010 about creation (“productivity”) on the iPad:

We are just scratching the surface on the kinds of apps for the iPad…I think there are lots of kinds of content that can be created on the iPad. When I am going to write that 35-page analyst report, I am going to want my Bluetooth keyboard. That’s 1 percent of the time. The software will get more powerful. I think your vision would have to be pretty short to think these can’t grow into machines that can do more things, like editing video, graphic arts, productivity. You can imagine all of these content creation possibilities on these kind of things. Time takes care of lots of these things.

If you go back and look at the history of productivity apps you’ll see that each major user interface shift led to new classes of productivity apps. Back in the 70s and 80s, when computers had text-based interfaces, word processor applications like Wordperfect and spreadsheet applications like Lotus 1-2-3 were invented. In the 80s and 90s, when graphical interfaces became popular, presentation apps like Powerpoint and photo editing apps like Photoshop were invented. If the historical pattern repeats, productivity apps that are “native” to the tablet will be invented.

– App stores have had a few important effects: 1) They take 30% of revenue, which scares away most big companies (e.g. Microsoft) and also startups/venture capitalists. Not many businesses can survive an immediate 30% haircut. 2) They’ve led consumers to expect very low prices for software. It’s hard to imagine charging $30 let alone hundreds of dollars for software through app stores (although some mega-hit games do get near these levels with in-app purchases). This is why many big software vendors are scared. 3) The discovery mechanisms (e.g. top download charts) tend to have a rich-get-richer effect, making it very hard for software to grow from niches, as they often did in the past. Just as in the movie industry, the trend is toward creating blockbusters that appeal to everyone. The emergence of new app discovery mechanisms (e.g. FB & Twitter) might alleviate this problem.

– The best entrepreneurs understand these dynamics and have been exploring “attach” business models, which basically means charging for something outside of the app store, like offline products/services (e.g. Square, Uber), online services (e.g. Spotify, Dropbox), and sometimes even hardware. Most of the companies that have succeeded (= generate real revenues/profits) on mobile were either desktop incumbents (e.g. eBay, Amazon, Facebook) or have attach business models.

– Fans of Apple and Google have been arguing lately about which company is winning mobile. Apple has more profits, but Android has more users. But what really matters is when and if developers switch over to developing for Android first, or even Android only. For now, iOS users tend to monetize much better than Android users, more than making up for the smaller user base. The switch to Android first hasn’t happened yet, but at least based on conversations I’ve had with entrepreneurs, it seems likely to happen in the next year or two.

– Mobile has had a big effect on b2b software. People want to use their personal iOS/Android devices at work, and many people now have computers with them all the time who didn’t before. This has created opportunities for 1) traditional b2b software that is mobile friendly, 2) companies that support mobile devices for businesses (e.g. mobile security, compliance etc), 3) brand new categories of software for users who previously used pencil and paper for various business tasks.

Technology predictions

For those of us in the prediction business, it’s sometimes useful to go back and read past predictions to try to discern patterns in what they got right and wrong.

Back in the early 90s, a lot of people thought the Internet was overhyped. Here’s one example from Newsweek:

Do our computer pundits lack all common sense? The truth in no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works…. What the Internet hucksters won’t tell you is tht the Internet is one big ocean of unedited data, without any pretense of completeness. Lacking editors, reviewers or critics, the Internet has become a wasteland of unfiltered data.

Today, it’s easy to find people expressing similar skepticism about emerging technologies like the Internet of things, robotics, 3D printing, Bitcoin, etc.

What the skeptics overlook is that platforms that are open to third-party developers have the following characteristic: it’s hard to think of important use cases before they are built, and hard to find examples where important use cases weren’t developed after they were built.

Just look at the founding years of top websites. Google: 1998. Wikipedia: 2001. YouTube: 2005. Twitter: 2006. No wonder it was so hard to imagine these services early on. It took years to imagine them even after the Internet had gone mainstream.