When Adrian Patten, co-founder of FX blockchain project Cobalt, pitches to banks these days, he chooses his words carefully.
In a move that may do much to validate Gartner’s finding this week that blockchain hype cycle is entering the so-called “trough of disillusionment,” Patten admitted he rarely brings up the technology, choosing instead to focus on the cost savings Cobalt can bring without the benefit of some of the most popular buzzwords of the last few years.
“We try not to mention blockchain or DLT too much in case it complicates matters,” he said.
In Patten’s view, many financial firms have taken a “me too” approach with blockchain, exemplified by things like the herd of banks joining the R3 consortium. In addition, most are probably invested in too many proofs-of-concept, he said.
“They tend to think, if everybody else is in it, they ought to be in it, just in case a board member asks them what they are doing in blockchain,” he continued.
The result is that people have rushed into DLT looking to use the technology rather than considering its process requirements, message requirements and whether it actually works, added Patten. But Cobalt, which created custom distributed ledger tech for its particular post-trade use case, is not alone.
There are other companies out there with live systems that are actually doing stuff, such as Baton Systems, also in the FX space with DLT, but who are using it less publicly, or at least not letting the technology dominate their messaging.
Seeing successful firms without blockchain front and center could be viewed as refreshing, or perhaps a source of misgiving. Forrester Research projects there will be a pruning, with 90 percent of blockchain projects with a flabby business focus ultimately shutting down in the coming years.
As such, Martha Bennett, principal analyst at Forrester, went so far as to say that those who persevere will likely come to understand that succeeding “isn’t really about technology, but about business.”
After the gold rush
Ready to embrace the disillusionment, some firms don’t mind even admitting they used the term “blockchain” when in fact they were using some of its key elements, without the hype mantle, for quite some time.
Back before the bitcoin white paper was released, Guardtime was developing its Keyless Signatures Infrastructure (KSI) which uses concepts like linked time-stamping (integral to bitcoin) to eliminate the need for trusted third parties or cryptographic keys to verify data.
As the blockchain gold rush gathered pace around him, Guardtime CEO Mike Gault said he got caught up with the perceived benefits of aligning his company with the blockchain movement.
“We called ourselves a blockchain company unashamedly. We were sitting in conferences listening to all this blockchain mania starting to happen and we looked at each other and said, ‘Wait a minute, isn’t this what we do?'”
Guardtime, which boasts a broad range of users from shipping giant Maersk to the U.K.’s NHS (National Health Service), is very different from ethereum, noted Gault, but the end result is the same: a single source of truth and immutability.
Gault also derided “crypto zealots who think everything has to be decentralized,” a view which he says is “totally irrelevant for enterprise.” “We will have no problem doing a quick marketing switch when ‘blockchain’ becomes a negative, in order to return focus to our own category of KSI technology,” Gault continued.
“There will be a turning point, especially in enterprise where there are zero production use cases. People are going to see the emperor has no clothes,” he said.
Cobalt’s Patten also thinks the space is being driven in a wrong-headed fashion by “evangelists and fundamentalists.”
“The idea that every message and every part of a life cycle is going to be encrypted and decrypted when it already exists in hundreds of databases in clear text format is somewhat naive,” he said.
Taking a hard-headed business approach, he called Cobalt a product rather than a project and said, “Unless we are cutting costs by 80 percent, people are not going to move away from incumbents. We have to be much cheaper and better.”
A bank’s perspective
So how does the idea of side-stepping the blockchain evangelists resonate with a bank’s blockchain department? Turns out, the sentiment appears to be trending.
“That is exactly what we would like to see,” said Ville Sointu, head of emerging technologies at Nordea Bank. “It should be business first. We have now moved to a phase where indeed we should see more companies coming up with a clear business case and having the fact that it’s a blockchain or a DLT network in the background.”
Sointu is perhaps not a typical blockchain evangelist, however.
After being brought in at Nordea midway through last year, he gathered the blockchain team under one roof and shut down almost all the prototyping. Nordea has narrowed its efforts down to We.Trade, plus a real estate pilot with the Finnish government, and a corporate identity blockchain, which has now passed the proof-of-concept stage.
“I don’t think we need another proof-of-concept for something like KYC,” said Sointu. “We don’t need another international payments PoC; we don’t need another FX PoC. These things have been proven.”
Asked if he has started to see a trend where fintech vendors mention the business case first and blockchain second, Sointu said, “Maybe this is a call to action. But right now we don’t see too many of those.”
“Ninety-nine percent of the companies that come to talk to us say, ‘We have the world’s most scalable blockchain network and here are 100 use cases that we can use the technology for,'” he said, concluding:
“Those are not helpful at all for us.”
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