Taking place over eight hours at Miami Beach’s famed Fillmore Theater on Saturday, The North American Bitcoin Conference (TNABC) covered a range of topics dominating industry discussion, from security and commerce to development and regulation – notably rare in the discussion, however, was bitcoin’s turbulent price.
The topic was absent in most of the event's panel sessions, despite its prominent status in the most recent news cycle. In contrast to last year’s TNABC Miami, which was held when the price was over $800, bitcoin was trading at sub-$200 levels at press time, having fallen from near-$300 at the start of 2015.
Instead, speakers at this edition of TNABC appeared undeterred by this development and more focused on the work ahead. Less distracted by the initial rush of discovery on display in past conferences, most seemed more intent on solving specific pain points that could form stepping stones to the technology’s wider adoption.
This emphasis on pressing forward in the face of obstacles with a more pragmatic optimism was perhaps best summed up by Eric Larchevêque, CEO of bitcoin hardware wallet developer Ledger, who told CoinDesk:
“The price is not really an issue. We’re relying on the technology, the blockchain. Startups are going to continue to develop and bitcoin will go more mass market.”
The sentiment was echoed by AltMarket co-founder Bryce Weiner, who explained that he feels the event showcased how the industry is closer to consolidating its efforts.
“The direction that we’re headed in is a refinement of the message. We’ll see a significant investment in that narrative, in that message, and the unification of that message [in 2015],” Weiner said, emphasizing the role the media will play may not always be positive, and that this message might not always be inclusive to new ideas.
Lawrence Nahum, CEO of multisig startup GreenAddress, was more direct in his characterization of the visibly tempered enthusiasm of attendees.
“At [Bitcoin 2014], people were like ‘to the moon!’,” he said. “Here not so much.”
Still, a number of talks showcased that, despite a seemingly ever-increasing diversity of ideas, the bitcoin community is demonstrating that it can direct a concerted effort toward attacking problems.
Coinsetter fights credit card misconceptions
One of the day’s more passionate speakers, Coinsetter CEO Jaron Lukasiewicz portrayed a confidence and focus onstage while seeking to debunk the common industry mantra that bitcoin can compete against credit cards today.
“Credit cards pay people at 1.5%. Bitcoin costs the consumer 1.5%,” Lukasiewicz said. “That's the competition, and as an industry we need to be looking at where bitcoin competes.”
The topic may be an unexpected one for Lukasiewicz to address given that his exchange business largely aims to encourage market makers into the bitcoin ecosystem.
Rather than addressing Coinsetter, however, Lukasiewicz’s talk was geared broadly toward discussing what it takes to run a bitcoin company. He stressed that understanding the competition was key to this goal.
“We have the tendency to communicate that bitcoin is a cheaper solution [as a payment method], but you have to check into the consumer standpoint,” he cautioned.
Instead, he positioned cross-border payment processing as a use case with a stronger value proposition, a subject that came up frequently during the day’s proceedings.
Factom’s future taking shape
One of the more vibrant presentations of the day was by Factom creator and founder Paul Snow, whose often humorous talk focused on his project’s blockchain-based record-keeping network first proposed in a November white paper.
Snow’s talk focused on the big picture of Factom, one of the more ambitious crypto 2.0 projects launched so far in the space.
“Instead of looking at the blockchain as a form that has certain fields that can produce a certain type of transaction, I wanted to produce blank paper. Factom provides you the ability to get a blank paper, write on that paper and turn the page,” Snow explained.
The speech also saw notable announcements, including the release of the Factom consensus paper, the confirmation its crowdsale will be held on decentralized application marketplace Koinify and the presentation of an impressive example of the strength of its technology, storing the entire Project Gutenberg library on the bitcoin blockhain with two hashes.
The announcements suggest that even the more experimental ideas in the bitcoin space may be newly focused on delivering results.
— Nicola Minichiello (@colortwits) January 17, 2015
Star Xu’s US debut
The conference also saw the first US appearance of leading CNY/BTC exchange OKCoin’s CEO Star Xu, a talk that was aimed at dispelling myths about the Chinese market while also showcasing that the company is thinking big about the ways it can help push bitcoin forward in its market.
Xu put forth a clear message that OKCoin is seeking not just to appeal to traders, but to developers and mainstream consumers.
He explained how the target audience for its planned debit card product would be very specific – Chinese families whose children are studying abroad.
Overall, Xu focused on what he called “real acceptance”, a development he defined as one that would occur when bitcoin became a vehicle for more than just speculation.
“Let’s really use bitcoin, not just use bitcoin when we sell in an exchange. When more merchants support bitcoin, and the price becomes more stable, people are going to hold and use bitcoin,” Xu said.
However, Xu also faced questions from an audience that was mainly focused on the exchange’s role in global trading, tackling tough queries about his exchange’s support for margin trading and its potential impact on global bitcoin prices.
“I think margin helped bitcoin liquidity get to another level,” Xu countered. “Shorts and long make the market very stable.”
Chain highlights developer challenges
Of course, inspiring more mainstream adoption is easier said than done, and blockchain API developer Chain CTO Ryan Smith talked about the hurdles that are prohibiting developers from entering the space and engaging on platforms like OKCoin’s.
Smith noted that while bitcoin can be used in a variety of use cases today, from micropayments to remittances, the practical tools that developers will need to attack these goals are lacking.
“With Apple, there’s a library for everything I want to do, but when I come to bitcoin, those things aren’t there,” Smith said, illustrating one way that bitcoin lags behind when encouraging innovation on its platform.
He went to frame these building blocks as necessary in slides that emphasized how blockbuster Internet products such as Netflix, Lyft and Urban Dictionary rely on underlying tech support that allows them to focus on acquiring consumers.
“Only one person runs Urban Dictionary,” Smith said. “He doesn’t have to spend his time doing anything but picking the word of the day.”
The talk comes amid an uptick in interest from investors in bitcoin's underlying technology, with API maker BlockCypher most recently raising $3m from an impressive list of investors.
Startups vie for investor attention
Many of these familiar themes arose during the day’s Startup Stage, judged by angel investor Brock Pierce, SilkRoad Equity's Matthew Roszak, Pantera Capital's Steve Waterhouse and bitcoin developer Peter Todd.
Competing were a field of startups each trying to build the bitcoin ecosystem in new ways, including Latin America-focused exchange MexBT, white-label bitcoin processor CoinSimple, multi-currency wallet provider Casheer, crypto 2.0 platform Counterparty and bitcoin wallet security startup Rivetz.
While Counterparty and Casheer both put forth strong presentations and were cited by the judges in post-event remarks, it was perhaps Rivetz that commanded the most attention for its efforts to focus solely on secure online transactions through hardware device identity.
“Rivetz is a big idea that will change the game,” Roszak said after the presentations. Pierce, too, commended the project as one that could help advance bitcoin security at a time when the industry is still visibly struggling against this challenge.
The startup stage is set to continue in day two of TNABC, with Bitreserve, Virtual Bank, Airbitz, Augur, Ribbit and StorJ presenting.
Ending the day were two segments on regulation that merged into one when Australian senator Sam Dastyari joined the previously planned regulation panel moderated by Perkins Coie’s Jacob Farber and featuring Chamber of Digital Commerce president Perianne Boring.
That event also illustrated how the bitcoin industry is moving forward to more concrete goals, featuring a discussion about which jurisdictions might enable bitcoin growth, while providing evidence that the struggles of the bitcoin industry may be far from over.
In particular, the panel discussed how bitcoin startups should continue to be mindful of how they fit under the law and in how they present their products to consumers.
Most notable, however, was the declaration by Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP's Marco Santori that 2015 will see the passage of the first statute relating to digital currency in the US, though he refused to divulge further details.
“Can we run down a list of states in alphabetical order?” Farber joked, in a sign that while industry growth moves forward, much about the bitcoin industry’s trajectory remains unknown.
Images via Pete Rizzo for CoinDesk; Featured image via TNABC
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Bryce Weiner was a developer at AltMarket. He is now attributed as co-founder.