A technology that is disruptive is one that “creates a new market by applying a different set of values, which ultimately (and unexpectedly) overtakes an existing market.” We’ve all seen examples of this in history and in our own time. Take for example email, which reduced the time to send a message to a matter of milliseconds compared to the disrupted market of the postal service. Consider the personal computer as a replacement of mainframes, or more recently smartphones, which are becoming seen as the “new PC.”
The Internet has arguably been one of the most disruptive technologies of all time, dramatically impacting how information is gathered, shared, distributed, and in turn impacting all levels of technology, commerce, economics, education . . and the list goes on. If you look back over the last 20 years, it’s quite astounding to see where we’ve come from.
But imagine what the world will look like in another 5, 10, or 20 years, and consider what kind of technologies will support the new applications of the future. It’s an interesting brain exercise, but if you think back to the 1995 and the Yahoo and AltaVista era and consider that dial up was still the common way to access the internet, then you get the idea. Google came on the scene 3 years later with ranked searches and the dream to organize the world’s information, and society has never been the same.
There is strong evidence to suggest that we’re currently in the middle of another one of those generational epic shifts in technological innovation. The disruptor this time is called Bitcoin, which has received huge amounts of media attention over the past six months. So chances are good that you’ve heard of it. Governments, investors, banks, and regulators have all seemingly had to weigh in on this new technology. So the natural question is . . . what makes Bitcoin so intriguing as a disruptive innovation?
In a nutshell, Bitcoin is a peer to peer payment system based upon open source code that operates as a form of digital currency. The way it works is complex but essentially Bitcoin transactions are mathematically generated and then recorded in a large digital ledger known as the blockchain. The transfer of Bitcoins from one address to another requires the user to input a private key that corresponds with a public key. Each transaction is placed into a block and each completed block is placed into an ever growing chain of transactions.
What makes Bitcoin so unique then is that it’s not regulated by any central authority and transactions can be made quickly, securely, and at little or no cost. Essentially, someone can transfer $100M dollars (in Bitcoin) to another country in 10 minutes, a transaction that would be unthinkable using conventional means.
While Bitcoin is very volatile as a speculative investment, and subject to considerable price fluctuations, the market has received no letup of interest and fascination. Increasing numbers of merchants are now accepting the upstart currency. Advanced as the “Internet of money,” Bitcoin continues to attract large amounts of venture capital from startups seeking to innovate and develop the protocol and prepare it for mainstream adoption.
The financial and commercial implications of Bitcoin are no doubt wide-ranging. But the real value of Bitcoin may well extend beyond the domain of monetary transactions. Bitcoin gains buy-in especially as a consensus-based, trustless environment that negates the role of 3rd party intermediaries. The ability to transact fully private, secure transactions with a digital datestamp has huge, potentially disruptive implications across all markets and industries.
Firms like Ethereum have sprung up that offer a window into what the future of decentralized, distributed consensus applications may look like. Ethereum is a platform and a programming language currently underway that will make it possible for any developer to build and publish next-generation distributed applications using Bitcoin-like protocols. According to its website, this innovative platform will allow developers to “codify, decentralize, secure and trade just about anything: voting, domain names, financial exchanges, crowdfunding, company governance, contracts and agreements of most kinds, intellectual property, and even smart property thanks to hardware integration.”
Imagine the possibilities and impacts of a world of decentralized digital applications that would allow digital transactions to be undertaken seamlessly and without the need for functionaries (e.g., accounting, auditing) and institutions (e.g., data warehouse).
The world of technology is changing more rapidly and dramatically than ever before. What we’re currently seeing happen in the Bitcoin market is evidence of yet another potentially revolutionary transformation – similar to the Internet – that will forever change the way private information is transmitted and stored in the digital age.