Ajit Tripathi is a director of FinTech and digital at PwC, a startup mentor at Startupbootcamp and an avid blockchain enthusiast.
In this CoinDesk 2016 in Review special feature, Tripathi issues his predictions for the blockchain industry in the year ahead.
The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author at the time of publication and not of their employer. While these opinions may require significant computing power to change, they are certainly not immutable.
2016 might have been a good year for technology – but it was a difficult year for much else.
The UK took a step back on free trade and immigration by voting to leave the EU (causing a fragile EU to teeter toward dissolution); the US elected a president whose transition saw daring squabbles with a country that owns over a trillion in its debt; each of the BRICs shot themselves in the foot (Brazil with corruption, India with demonetization, Russia with Crimea and China with non-performing loans); and the Middle East continued to burn like an oil well on fire.
None of these disasters show signs of letting up in 2017.
As the major currencies of the world start to tumble in 2017, the flight to quality will lead most investors back into the safety of gold. Some return-hungry ones will seek to exploit market inefficiencies and digital assets like bitcoin will draw a large enough segment of these investors, pushing bitcoin to double its current market cap.
When we do the math, $15bn is the kind of money that the Chinese or Saudi sovereign wealth can punt in their sleep… and I am pretty sure some will...
If you are an asset manager, yes, I am talking about flight to quality, clientele effect and search for yield, all rolled in one.
Now, who’d have thought one day the term 'flight to quality' will be used in the context of the same asset that people associated with drug dealing on the dark web a year ago? But then, the times, they are a changin’, and changin’ faster then ever.
It seems safe to say a bitcoin price of $2,000 or more is likely.
But in this uncertain world, it's hard to say what will happen in 2017. Here's my take on the blockchain scenarios we're likely to see.
1. Private blockchains will converge
Paying for plumbing is an out-of-body experience where I live in London, and you’re blessed if the plumbing gets done at all.
What does this have to do with blockchain?
It turns out Brian Behlendorf is bang on the mark when he says that most blockchain startups have had to spend too much time and money on plumbing and would prefer to get on with building business solutions instead.
This is exactly the path at least one reputed startup called Everledger has taken: use Hyperledger Fabric and spend their time tracking diamonds, bottles of wine and the like.
This trickle of common sense is soon to become a flood.
Lots and lots of other blockchain firms will start this migration from their own custom chain to everyone's plumbing chains. Around the end of Q1 2017, I expect Hyperledger Fabric 1.0 will finally arrive and private blockchains will start a rapid march toward enterprise readiness.
Then, around September 2017, R3's Corda will be production ready and give the Fabric stiff competition in the financial sector.
Soon afterwards, variants of ethereum like Quorum and Monax will start to mature and provide a highly resilient alternatives to Fabric and Corda.
In the meantime, hard-boiled crypto companies like Blockstream and Blockchain will launch their enterprise-friendly platforms built on top of the bitcoin blockchain knowledge base and the Grand Ascot race of blockchains will begin.
Other private permissioned blockchains will either be built for very specialized problems, such as Sawtooth Lake for IoT, or start to merge with one of the four major (bitcoin, ethereum, Hyperledger, Corda) ecosystems.
Remember, we've have seen this before with Linux and Apache Web server coming to quietly dominate the Web without much fanfare.
2. At least one supply chain blockchain will go live
It hasn't taken savvy technologists long to recognize that the first killer apps for private blockchains are to be found in making supply chains more efficient.
Let's face it, a technology upgrade of securities settlements or OTC clearing comes with $1tn dollar prize, but the guys who spend the money may not necessarily be the guys who take the spoils. Further, the volume of regulatory change required to enable settlements and clearing on a decentralized ledger architecture makes this a prospect only for the brave and the really well-funded.
Similarly, we have learned from the travails of Ripple that being the company that gets paid an altcoin for each cross-border payment would be awesome*, but you need to convince banks or cash-rich platform businesses to let yours be that company.
May the force be with Ripple.
Elsewhere, insurers have tens of billions to gain from blockchain-led efficiencies in the London insurance market alone, but it's not an industry that has ever been in a rush to drive such efficiencies, mainly because of a relatively profitable industry structure and significant coordination costs, at least until now.
Unlike within-industry consortia like R3 (that need to solve for the dynamics of 'coopetition'), supply chains are made of existing participants that have a natural incentive to collaborate and make the entire chain more efficient.
Many supply chains also have one dominant player such as Disney, Walmart or Toyota that can force network effects and reap the bulk of the gains from their investment.
These existing 'ecosystems' will start to adopt decentralized ledgers as a 'cross-enterprise-ERP' architecture first. Indeed, SAP and Oracle have a lot to gain... or lose, as IBM and Microsoft push the agenda on DLT.
Editor's note: A Ripple representative contested this perception of its business model, stating:
"Ripple generates revenue by selling software and services to banks to help them dramatically improve their cross-border payment offerings and lower the costs of settlement."
3. Privacy will be 'solved'
The big fuss in 2015 was scalability.
Almost every client I spoke to would say: "But I heard bitcoin only does seven transactions per second" and I'd say: "But you are not building a decentralized currency for the public Internet, and by the way, have you heard about Tendermint?"
A year later, with lots of proofs-of-concept (PoCs) delivered, I don't get much trouble about scalability. Now, the ‘going concern’ is privacy.
With the general data protection regulation (GDPR) on the horizon and the wariness of banks about sharing anything, privacy is such a big deal that both Hyperledger Fabric and Corda have spent barrels of intellectual fuel either solving, or working around the problem.
In my opinion, privacy is a much harder problem to solve than scalability, but several approaches exist today that are appropriate depending on the business problem one is trying to solve.
Alex Batlin of BNY Mellon has done a terrific job of outlining these on his blog, and the situation will go from hot air to product by the force of demand and ingenuity in 2017.
4. Ethereum will get its act together
Watching ethereum creator Vitalik Buterin and the crew in 2016 was like watching The Charge of the Light Brigade.
We started the year with the rallying cry of 'Code is Law' and ended the year with the whimper of 'Legally Enforceable Smart Contracts', thanks to a $100m experiment called The DAO that broke the faith of the millions of true believers that worshipped the immutable public blockchain.
A leading systems integrator immediately followed with chameleon hashes and editable blockchains, to which the response of the blockchain developer community was at best mixed.
Then followed a series of hard forks and the mutiny of ethereum classic, leading many nurturing parent types to launch backyard barbecues to provide governance and many critical parent types to launch into moralizing speeches about the need for discipline amongst children.
As a business advisor, I am platform neutral, but as a developer, I am closing my year with tremendous respect and optimism for ethereum.
Unlike bitcoin (which takes pride in its value, but has taken two years to see SegWit in production), and unlike the emerging field of half-baked blockchains, the people in charge of ethereum are not afraid to make bold fixes and evolve the platform quickly, even at their financial peril.
At this stage of maturity, this willingness to change and fix is the sign of a community that puts the dream before the money, and honestly, that's exactly how we got to the transistors, the mobile phone, the Internet and just about anything that has made our world a better place.
It’s always the dream, not the dollars.
I suspect that in 2017, ethereum will go live with its own version of proof-of-stake, fix several of the known bugs in EVM, probably clean up the mushroom forest of tools and implementations and make something that can be useful in the computer world rather than only on a world computer.
5. Blockchain tech will become boring
I hate to confess that I am an unexcitable 40-year-old survivor of the dotcom boom and the financial crisis.
All this while, I have seen people get really poor from booms and really rich from busts. It also works in the reverse. Not many thought leaders feel particularly excited about putting their head down and testing production code, and not many people working on real money spinners like to talk.
To an outsider, this hype curve phenomenon appears as the endless bipolar psychology of the nerds. "I have seen this before… yawn", is the refrain. My Zen eyes have seen the same too, just the other way round.
To an insider, boring is money. When people stopped talking about e-commerce, Amazon started growing like a rocket. When people stopped talking about search, online advertising became a multi-billion industry.
Now, big data is so yesterday and data lakes are starting to go live. After years of disappointment, AI has become Siri, Alexa, recommendation engines and maps.
For blockchain, 2017 is the year when dull ex-coders like me get to do real work, and the charming thought leaders move on to the next interesting thing. Those who are in the depth of blockchain today need to hang in with their teeth and let the excitement and the hot money wither away.
Wait, this happened with bitcoin in 2016 – bitcoin became the honey badger of money.
6. A central bank will put cash on a blockchain
James Carlyle of R3 said this best at the Hyperledger meetup in London this month and I paraphrase: you need two assets to make decentralized ledgers truly useful, the first is cash and the second is identity.
Talking about identity is like talking about religion, so let's talk about the secular notion of cash for now.
To use decentralized ledger tech in securities markets, you need true delivery versus payment (DVP). In order to do DVP, the cash leg must settle (ie arrive in the recipient’s account) without credit or market risk, which means you need a cash token backed by the governing central bank in the market you are operating in.
No matter how many macroeconomic simulations have been attempted, I think general purpose cryptocurrency on a blockchain is a promising (but risky) economic experiment and no central bank should launch one without a clear roadmap starting with a very limited purpose.
The logical place to start is a cash token similar to the utility settlement coin (USC) that banks can use to settle transactions ranging from securities trades and OTC derivatives to commercial mortgages and trade finance.
My prediction is at least one OECD central bank will pilot the idea before end of year 2017.
7. Identity arguments will continue
Despite this, it's likely we will still be stuck in arguments about whether identity belongs on a blockchain.
As a utilitarian simpleton, my starting point for digital identity is a mere token shared by a retailer and a bank with open APIs for the mundane purpose of selling things that a user doesn't need but wants anyway.
I believe we need to solve this simple problem before we can address self-sovereign legal identity for over 7 billion people in the world.The benefit of global, macro, near-impossible visions is that these visions make us attack the really hard problems that boring capitalists are too boring to pursue.
The verifiable claims project probably best represented by Evernym's Sovrin solution is an example of what self-sovereign identity for a global, public Internet of value needs to look like. Boring capitalists like me who are looking to solve the identity puzzle for the shameless material consumption of the masses can learn a lot from the vision espoused by Evernym.Yet, unlike cash on blockchain (which excites almost no one from liberal arts), identity on the blockchain makes humanists and philosophers scream in a fit of rage. The only group that benefits either way is the lawyers, and since lots of lawyers of all feathers will be involved in any discussion of identity on the blockchain, progress will be glacial.Come December 2017, we will have much better technology to deliver solutions for shared identity on the blockchain but not much progress in the real world.
8. Blockchain startups will perish like lemmings
Again, we have seen this whole wave with bitcoin already.
Three years ago, driven by FOMO and FUD, VCs of all sorts rolled into lots of startups that promised to 'disrupt banking with bitcoin'. This year, even the rather well-funded Circle has abandoned bitcoin without really abandoning it.
For much of this year, bitcoin has been a bad word, and everyone, (including people building bog standard RDBMS), claim to be working on blockchain (definitely not bitcoin).
All the excitement created by the theory of distributed ledgers has led anyone who's sold a company before to at least think about launching a bitcoin company.
As a result, a lot of me-too companies without a half-decent business idea or technical capability are now working on blockchain.
As the blockchain gold rush starts to calm down and the hype condenses into products, most of these investors will cut and run into the next hype – probably AI or IoT.
9. Blockchain conferences will lose money
This is my favorite prediction – even at the risk of becoming persona non grata at all the cool blockchain socials.
Leaving aside the top 20 conferences such as Money2020, Ethereum's DevCon, CoinDesk's Consensus and Construct, Eurofinance and Sibos, it's not always been clear what value all the panels that I have myself been on have contributed to the society or the blockchain community.
Alright, not all of us can build product and every emerging technology deserves a thriving ecosystem of media coverage, podcasts, panels and presentations to accelerate its progress.
That said, I really don't think I have seen this kind of mass panel overdose since Hotmail went live in 1996 and people discovered free email on the Internet.
In 2017, most business leaders will stop asking 'What is blockchain?', stop listening to sentences starting with THE blockchain, filter out the keywords, 'revolutionize', 'disrupt' and 'transform' and start asking how they can make money from this technology.
That is when blockchain will start making money and blockchain conferences will start losing it.
Mystical book image via Shutterstock