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Inside 21's Plans to Bring Bitcoin to the Masses

(@pete_rizzo_) | Published on May 12, 2015 at 23:40 GMT
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21 Inc

Secretive bitcoin startup 21 Inc has performed tests illustrating how its technology could enable machine-to-machine bitcoin transactions as part of a company overview created during the fundraising of its $75m Series C.

In its pitch, 21 Inc, then still operating under original moniker 21e6, showcased both slides and video that demonstrate how bitcoin could be used to facilitate real-time marketplaces for Internet bandwidth. Using three proxy users, a Vimeo demonstration (now removed) outlines how a service can parcel out its download capacity through the use of bitcoin payments.

Connected to an account set up in the name of 21 chairman Balaji Srinivasan, the demo illustrates an example whereby three clients participate in such an auction, with their bandwidth speeds changing in real time as bids are placed.

A narrator explains:

"Tomorrow, perhaps it would be possible for clients to send bitcoin to get bandwidth. That is to say, different clients could send bitcoin to the server to indicate their need for that resource."

An analysis of the blockchain confirms the transactions for clients 1, 2 and 3 were received by bitcoin’s public ledger on 16th October, while an example of the display can be found on a URL registered as cooperative-algorithms.com.

Also included in the overview is an email exchange allegedly taking place between Comcast West Coast strategic development managing director Francisco Varela and 21 CEO Matt Pauker in which the cable giant exec evaluates how its customers could benefit from participating in 21’s bitcoin mining operations.

A representative from Comcast confirmed such talks took place, but suggested they were "exploratory" in nature and that the company has no plans to work with 21 at this time. Comcast, which boasts 21.7 million customers in 21 states, generated $67bn in revenue in 2014.

Overall, the 80-page overview suggests 21 was, at the time of its apparent fall 2014 preparation, seeking to become one of the bitcoin network’s largest transaction processors, a microtransactions protocol layer for the Internet and a mining pool branded as a social networking platform.

The cornerstone of the strategy as presented would have been the release of consumer products that would turn power from wall sockets into bitcoin through the widespread dissemination of bitcoin mining chips.

When reached for comment, representatives from 21 suggested that information presented was "outdated" and did not paint an accurate picture of how the company would ultimately seek to go to market.

"Much of the information is inaccurate, and that which is not grossly inaccurate is long obsolete (especially the numerical figures)," a 21 spokesperson said, declining to elaborate further.

Bitcoin is power

The slides lay out a plan hinging on embedding 21's custom-made 'BitSplit' mining chips into everyday tech products such as USB chargers, PCs, routers, game consoles, phone chargers and direct chipsets at no cost to the hardware producers. The document suggests 21 had a working demo of its BitSplit chip at the time it was prepared.

According to the overview, the BitSplit chip's key innovation was intended to be a hardcoded bitcoin wallet address that would give the user 25% of mining proceeds, with the remaining 75% going to 21.

Each device would be built with target applications in mind that would then allow consumers to, in theory, spend any bitcoin earned for online content or digital services.

For example, PCs, mobile phone chargers and USB hubs would seek to encourage micropayments in applications, while routers and game consoles would allow users to spend bitcoin for added bandwidth or on in-app purchases.

Given that users would constitute a small portion of the network individually, 21 detailed how it could potentially increase the average payouts for both itself and the owners of consumer products with its technology.

The document suggests 21 had sought to build 20,000-server, 26-megawatt datacenters to serve as the center of a mining pool that could ensure block rewards.

As an example of the potential power of its pool, 21's mining operations generated approximately 5,700 BTC in 2013 and 69,000 BTC the following year, according to the document.

By the time its chips were to be embedded into Internet of Things (IoT) devices, 21 projected its cost to produce 1 BTC could be as low as $7.45.

Going social

The documents suggest 21 had been considering a multi-pronged strategy to build out a competitive mining network that also sought to reimagine the transaction confirmation process as a way to onboard consumers.

Without a strong core of industrial bitcoin mining facilities, the document contended, consumer mining with the chips would have been too unprofitable to attract interest.

The documents projected that, should the BitSplit chips seek to process transactions alone, a user would need 34,722 days, or about 93 years, to discover a block. By pooling its resources, however, 21 projected it could reduce the average block time to 200 minutes, or roughly three hours, paying users 0.72 mBTC or about 17 cents per day.

As part of this effort, 21 would also seek to make the activity of mining more user-friendly by auto-enrolling users into its own social network. Named BlockParty, the project was introduced via a visual mock-up of how the social network might look running as a mobile application.

According to the image text, users could keep track of BTC earned daily and view the purchasing habits of friends. In the example, one user is able to use his BTC to skip 15 minutes of commercials on online video service Hulu.

Other updates show friends activating and deactivating devices.

Ties to Intel

Comcast was not the only major company named in the documents.

For example, 21 indicated it had been processing bitcoin transactions with what it called the "only chip" built at computing giant Intel’s foundry, touting close relationship with US computing giant Intel.

Intel factories, the documents suggested, were responsible for at least two generations of 21 bitcoin mining chips, a 0.57 w/GH 22nm FinFET chip (codenamed CyrusOne) and a 0.22 w/GH 22nm chip (codenamed Brownfield).

Though Intel has so far kept its relationship with 21 quiet, the bitcoin startup took the opposite approach in its company overview, which included a screenshot of an email allegedly from Intel CEO Brian Krzanich. Dated 5th September, the email finds Krzanich informing Pauker and investor Marc Andreessen of his opinion on a proposal to distribute bitcoin mining chips in consumer electronic devices.

Krzanich indicated he would be instructing Intel VP and GM Doug L Davis to evaluate the potential addition of mining chips to Intel products, including desktop PCs, writing:

"I am copying Doug on this note to make an introduction … but trust me I will stay 100% engaged in this and be the godfather of it at Intel."

Intel’s apparent vote of confidence in the company was detailed in another entry.

"We are taking your suggestion very seriously and if Intel was to ubiquitously apply mining to the majority of our chips, it is a significant event and will impact the landscape," general manager of the New Business Group at Intel Corporation Jerry R Bautista remarked in an email with Pauker.

Both 21 and Andreesseen Horowitz declined to comment on the nature of any talks with Intel. Intel did not offer a response when contacted.

Additional emails included infer the company had reached out to technology companies such as Advanced Micro Devices and Qualcomm to assess their interest in increasing their revenue through the addition of BitSplit-enabled products.

Emails included from Qualcomm's Andy Oberst indicate that the firm had just approved an investment in 21 at the time of the document's preparation. AMD declined to comment for this report.

Internet of Value

Once consumers and businesses are set up to receive bitcoin via everyday devices, the documents provide evidence 21 had built technology that intends to serve as the template for how such earnings could be used in microtransactions on the Internet.

In particular, 21 had been working on a process that would allow developers to block users from accessing websites unless funds are sent to a bitcoin address. Notably, the process used the 402 Payment Required error code originally intended for web-based micropayments at the outset of the World Wide Web.

Under this scenario, a client would ask a server to open a connection, and rather than seeing an error when denied, the user would receive a price quote in BTC.

Paid APIs, paid Wi-Fi, priority email and ad-free web browsing, 21 had suggested, were all additional use cases that could be enabled once consumers are able to generate small amounts of bitcoin through its mining products.

First quarter rollout

To move its market strategy forward, 21 indicated that it was developing a first-party device that would serve as the idea’s market introduction.

Projected for launch in Q1 2015 was a 21-produced USB charging hub, the introduction of which would be followed by the integration of chips into net-enabled devices before ending up in chipsets.

Though no dimensions were given for the product, illustrations produced by Mountain View-based Bould Design showcase a white, router-sized USB charger that would come complete with two USB charging portals.

21 went on to describe the combined effect of its work in lofty terms that evoked the early Internet, suggesting the launch would mark the beginning of a more widespread uptick in consumer bitcoin adoption.

"The AOL CD of bitcoin," the document called the strategy. "Give every user a free trial of bitcoin at near-zero marginal cost. A proven model to onboard millions."

Stan Higgins and Joon Ian Wong contributed reporting.

Featured images courtesy of Plug and Play accelerator, game console image via Stefano Tinti / Shutterstock, Comcast image via Mr Tin.DC / Flickr.

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