5 Big Questions for Bitcoin in 2016
Ryan Selkis is Director of Growth at Digital Currency Group and creator of the Two-Bit Idiot blog. He is currently working full-time with the CoinDesk and Consensus 2016 teams on operating activities and scaling initiatives.
There have already been dozens of 2016 prediction lists emanating from the broader bitcoin and blockchain community over the past several weeks, so I'll avoid contributing to the cacophony. After the abysmal results with my personal predictions for 2014–2015, I've finally learned to ask more questions and offer fewer forecasts, anyway.
Instead of prognosticating, I'll offer 10 simple questions for the bitcoin and blockchain industry going into this year.
Next week, I'll address the broader blockchain ecosystem. This week, I've got five questions for bitcoin in 2016:
1. How will scalability be solved?
The growth in bitcoin transaction volumes shows no sign of abating, and yet the 1MB block data limit is no closer to being raised than it was six months ago. Whether and how it is raised (via hard fork or changes to Bitcoin Core) will have lasting repercussions, and changing one of bitcoin's fundamental rules will have unintended, unpredicted and perhaps negative consequences.
One of bitcoin's earliest contributors has now written off bitcoin as a failed experiment.
So it helps to remember that the important question this year is not necessarily how bitcoin is scaled, but whether it is allowed to scale without a dogfight.
There are currently only four ways to scale bitcoin today: via lightning networks, via sidechains, via off-blockchain transactions batched by third parties (eg: Coinbase), or by increasing the block-size.
Lightning networks and sidechains aren't yet ready for prime time, and most technologists would agree that increasing the clout of third-party transaction processors goes against bitcoin's intended design. No offense to the segregated witness enthusiasts, but that doesn’t sound like a true scaling solution either – more like an optimization.
This means that by mid-2016, we'll either see a stop-gap resolution to increase the block-size, a hard fork, or a spike in bitcoin transaction fees for smaller transactions. All have their associated risks.
So here’s my question: will the Bitcoin Core block-size limit increase or remain at 1MB?
2. Will reward halving affect price?
Assuming that cooler heads prevail with the block-size debate, and a consensus on scalability is reached before the technology and its network fractures (a big assumption, to be sure), it will be fun to watch what happens to the bitcoin price and mining incentives over the next several months.
For the second time since bitcoin was released into the wild, the bitcoin mining reward subsidy is scheduled to halve – around July 2016, from 25 BTC to 12.5 BTC per block. Other things equal, this should result in some combination of smaller miners dropping out of the market, a rally in the bitcoin price, the curbing of mining difficulty increases, and greater interest from miners in allowing bitcoin transaction fees to rise.
Economics aside, the broader community would benefit the most from a rally in the bitcoin price, as the higher market cap would lead to additional liquidity, tighter trading spreads and lower volatility.
But has the halving been priced in during this three-month, 80% price rally?
3. Will bitcoin platforms attract developers?
Every tech company is building a "platform" when they are speaking with investors, but there simply aren't many true platforms in bitcoin. I'd argue that there are currently only two nascent bitcoin platforms worth watching in 2016: Coinbase and 21 Inc.
(Both happen to be the industry's investor darlings, so maybe there's something to this whole platform thing.)
Of the two, 21 probably has the edge given the company is 'fiat-free' and won't risk jeopardizing its business if a third-party app developer misuses the product.
21 needn't worry about what its users do with the virgin coins they mine on their devices: 21 isn't even transacting in bitcoin, they're merely selling the hardware to create new bitcoins. Brilliant for keeping regulatory costs – both tangible (legal fees) and intangible (employee headache) – down to near zero.
The Coinbase compliance team, on the other hand, is on the hook if apps built using Coinbase's 'wallet-as-a-service' promote money laundering or illegal money transmission.
That said, 21 may have to worry about the economics of its mining chips.
By CEO Balaji Srinivasan's own admission: "Crucial to [the success of bitcoin as a fundamental system resource] is the idea that bitcoin generated by embedded mining is more convenient — and hence more valuable — than bitcoin bought at market price and manually moved over to the site of utility."
Early returns on these chips suggest that users would have to consider the marginal convenience of acquiring bitcoin via on-device mining worthy of a ~10x (or greater) premium versus simply creating and funding a wallet.
Building on Coinbase might be risky and expensive from a compliance perspective. Building on 21 might be just downright expensive.
4. Will we see a killer app?
Let's go one step beyond questioning whether there are any viable bitcoin platforms and ask simply whether there are any interesting applications.
The industry's worst kept secret is that bitcoin remains a terrible currency for those with access to only basic financial services.
Credit cards offer better consumer protections, rewards, and user experience than bitcoin for nearly all purchases except for those in outright illicit or gray market industries like gambling and marijuana.
For nearly all other developed economy use cases other than speculation, superior non-bitcoin applications exist: Venmo for peer-to-peer payments, TransferWise for (some) international currency exchange, etc.
Unless an application leverages functionality unique to bitcoin (multi-sig for escrow, nLockTime for metered payments), I'm skeptical it will ever prove to be an interesting bitcoin application.
If the killer consumer application has so far proven elusive, will 2016 be any different?
5. Will we see autonomous transactions?
The viability of micropayments as a killer bitcoin app has proven to be questionable at best over the past seven years.
There's the issue of "mental accounting barriers" which were highlighted by cryptographer Nick Szabo as far back as 1996 – do we have the mental capacity to truly pay attention to the difference between $0.05 and $0.10 in a single payment?
There's the chicken-and-egg issue of whether it is even worthwhile for content platforms to spend time and energy accepting and supporting bitcoin payments when the community of active wallet-holders is still somewhere in the mere hundred thousands globally. (Remember how little even the most savvy promoters made from their bitcoin paywalls?)
And then, of course, there's the block-size issue, which, unresolved, would render micro-payments uneconomical for consumers anyway.
Yet some of these critical issues seem to fade away when it comes to smart device transactions.
For one thing, mental accounting isn't very difficult for computers. And using a digital currency like bitcoin for micropayments as a method for verifying the identity of a connected device or for metering machine-to-machine transactions is more natural.
Embedding chips into sensors, phones, and other everyday smart devices at scale could also obviate the need for consumers to explicitly opt-in to using bitcoin, while simultaneously resolve the demand issue: with the right supplier relationships, it costs less to on-board a new device 'customer' than a new human customer.
Think you have the answers? Email [email protected] with feedback!
Question image via Shutterstock
Disclosure: CoinDesk is a subsidiary of Digital Currency Group.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, CoinDesk.
The Dangers of a Blockchain Monoculture
Russian Investigator Latest to Support Proposed Bitcoin Ban