Forbes technology and privacy writer Kashmir Hill has become one of the more well-known reporters in the bitcoin community due in part to her viral ‘Living on Bitcoin’ experiments, extensive series that have chronicled her trials and tribulations using nothing but the digital currency for everyday purchases.
Hill originally conducted the experiment in May 2013 and more recently completed “Living on Bitcoin: Part Deux” by popular request, ultimately finding that it has become far easier to conduct purchases without leaving the bitcoin ecosystem.
In her concluding entry in the series, Hill detailed 21 things she learned over the seven-day span, and summed up the vast differences between her experiences in 2013 and 2014, writing:
“Last year, I had to bike or walk anywhere I wanted to go, lost five pounds, moved out of my home and constantly felt like a crazy person for asking people if they would accept payment in a made-up currency they’d never heard of.
This year, I ate a 17-course dinner, went on a wine tour in Santa Cruz, and was able to use a ride-sharing service for all my trips.”
Still, while Hill’s experience led her to conclude that the digital currency ecosystem has come a long way in the past year, she told CoinDesk there is more that the bitcoin industry needs to do to ensure the technology is ready for mainstream use, adding:
“I still think that there are too many hoops. […] I don’t think I would recommend someone to use bitcoin if they have a credit card, because there are not enough benefits there. […] I don’t think I would tell my dad to open a bitcoin account.”
With this in mind, CoinDesk spoke with Hill at length about her experiences as a bitcoin-only consumer to determine where she believes the industry needs to progress to reach what many believe to be its full, revolutionary potential.
Reducing point-of-sale friction
Hill told CoinDesk that despite bitcoin’s promise as an online payments vehicle, it still struggles to compete with more traditional options at the physical point of sale, saying:
“In terms of using it to pay for a bag of chips, there are so many other options. I still think of it as more useful for online payments than real world ones.”
For example, she cited her experience purchasing lunch at Buyer’s Best Friend, where she ultimately had to wait more than one hour for the bitcoin network to confirm her transaction. Rather than opting to try and send the transaction again (and risk paying twice) — she was left to abandon her food, finally placing an order via Foodler’s website.
That’s not to say all her experiences were full of friction.
Hill noted that one coffee shop in Palo Alto made the experience easy by using a POS system that displayed the USD and BTC prices side-by-side for easy comparison.
However, Hill believes that even these newer solutions require upgrades that balance convenience with the full benefits of bitcoin, adding:
“[The POS system didn’t have] the best privacy, because [it used] the same QR code, so I could theoretically go and look at their past sales.”
Interestingly, she also related how merchants have reported losing time at the point of sale with bitcoin, simply due to conversations with the digital currency’s avid users.
Fixing the web wallet problem
Another area where Hill believes the bitcoin ecosystem could improve in the design of its consumer wallets, in particular web-based versions, though she acknowledges that the industry faces an uphill battle against Apple.
Hill explained that, in her experience, even web wallets offered by major players like Blockchain and Coinbase have been difficult to use. She reported that with Coinbase, for instance, it was challenging to figure out how to accept payment, while the way the Blockchain browser interfaces with cell phone cameras could have been improved.
As a Blockchain and Coinbase app user, Hill didn’t need to rely on these services, but this was only because of her status as a relative early adopter, having downloaded the apps before they were blocked from Apple’s store.
“If i didn’t have those essentially bootleg, banned apps, I would need to have an Android, because sending it from the webpage version of those wallets is not easy to do and is not very well designed right now.”
“I think bitcoin’s adoption right now is being hampered somewhat by Apple’s dislike of bitcoin transmissions,” she added.
Bitcoin banking is key to new markets
One of the more interesting conclusions from Hill’s report was her statement that “bitcoin is an incredibly easy way to instantly open a bank account”.
However, in the interview, she noted that this finding only applies to certain users at present.
She explained that bitcoin is still more advantageous for those who can’t access traditional bank accounts, such as the 16-year-old bitcoin fan who commented on her blog and companies like marijuana businesses that have tenuous relationships with big financial providers.
Hill continued, suggesting possible areas where bitcoin entrepreneurs should focus their efforts in order to become a more viable banking service, saying:
“There’s not enough of a bitcoin ecosystem to make it simple. But, I do believe a lot of these use cases – this idea of a worker in the US who wants to send funds back to another place, or an undocumented worker that wants to send money back to their family – being able to do that in bitcoin might be a good way to do that if they can’t open a bank account.”
Bitcoin is best in the background
One of Hill’s more notable conclusions was her assertion that bitcoin is growing up. She said that, in the process, it has become less ideologically driven in the year since her first ‘Living on Bitcoin’ piece, explaining:
“There’s been a transition from the quirky weird bitcoin to bitcoin in a suit, and I like all of those kind of idealistic people who like the science-fiction quality of bitcoin. Right now, I think that bitcoin’s going through more of its infrastructure growth pains.”
When talking about the future of bitcoin’s development, Hill noted that she is intrigued to see how the battle between competing digital currency ideologies will play out, saying that it remains to be seen whether bitcoin will become an independent financial network, provide for easier, more cost-effective payments or both.
While expressing a longing for the earlier, more interesting days of bitcoin, Hill seemed to assert that the digital currency will have the most long-term potential if it falls into the background.
Hill cited Circle and BitReserve as two companies that were a sign of bitcoin’s success, even if they downplay their use of the technology, as they are looking to optimize an area that she feels is in need of innovation.
“Bitcoin should make it really easy, the process – especially if you have an app on your phone – is so much better than swiping a credit card or if you buy online handing over your name, your address, your telephone number, your CV code, that is all so painful and bitcoin is so much better than that.”
As for whether there will be a ‘Living on Bitcoin: Part Three’, Hill is still unsure.
However, she is currently thinking of ways to alter the format, recognizing that should bitcoin become even more mainstream, living on bitcoin may simply be the norm for many come 2015.
Image via Forbes