Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are dominating headlines, but it’s their underlying technology that should be toying with our fascination.
The global market for blockchain — a transparent, secure, and tamper-proof distributed database for recording transactions — is expected to swell in size to US$ 7.6 billion by 2022, representing a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 79.6%.
“If the popularity of blockchain investments continues, governments and regulatory bodies will have to keep up with the quick evolution of this nascent technology. Global response to blockchain has clearly been mixed. How much control do we need to permit for protecting consumers? Can there ever be a decentralised system that is self-regulating with limited to no human intervention?”, Lewis Harland, Business Manager at Tilney Investment Management.
The figure represents increased demand for distributed ledger technology, simplified business processes, faster transactions, and transparency.
According to Dr. David Galindo, a senior professor at the University of Birmingham, “Blockchain has the potential to replace mediators […] in multiple industries to provide transparency and accountability, such as banks for financial transactions, universities for verifying academic certificates or music companies to reward music creators.”
At the moment, the pace of change in the blockchain world is unbelievably quick. That makes it difficult to predict the eventual course it’ll take, but the hype isn’t without rhyme or reason.
Read the rest of this article to understand the blockchain opportunity, some of its finer points, and how you can use it to build your own app business.
The Blockchain Opportunity
Dissenting voices pour scorn on blockchain and cryptocurrencies by declaring them as massive fraud that won’t do much to help society. Bitcoin’s price volatility hasn’t helped either, with no one able to determine what its true value is or where it might go in the future.
Right now it’s all speculation.
But you can’t argue with the facts. Venture capital funds poured in almost a billion dollars in startups working on blockchain tech in 2017. Figures from 2018 already indicate that the sum will exceed last year’s heights.
Some governments, like Dubai’s, are convinced that blockchain technology is here to stay and will become a vital part of our future. That’s why they’re aiming to shift most public services (think license renewals, visa applications, and so on) to the blockchain.
Even large-scale financial institutions that have traditionally only dealt with fiat currencies are establishing cryptocurrency trading desks. Such developments offer a precursor of what lies ahead as blockchain tech does away with many of the large, unwieldy institutions we take for granted today.
“People say we’re in the early days. I’d say that’s overly optimistic. We need a few years of technology innovation before we even get to the early days.”, Jason Bloomberg, president at Intellyx.
Which industries will blockchain impact?
The blockchain wasn’t built with any specific industry or sector in mind. But it’s held in high regard because of the potential it has to completely change the way humans trade, store money, guard their data, interact with one another, and pay for purchases.
Experts believe that the financial industry will be one of the first to be heavily impacted by blockchain. An example of this can be seen in developing countries, where many citizens are unbanked with mainstream financial institutions perhaps not interested in servicing them. OmiseGo is building an Ethereum-based solution to provide banking services to anyone with a smartphone and internet connection. It hopes to appeal to users currently out of the banking net.
If you’ve ever rented a house or an apartment, you understand how incredibly frustrating the entire process can be. Scouring listings, visiting properties, and settling on a place is the easy part. After that you might have to contend with shady property agents, demanding landlords, and obscure rental agreements. In some cases, you might not even get your deposit back.
Rentberry is testing a blockchain-powered renting platform that uses smart contracts to ensure all participants behave ethically and fairly. It’s a win-win for all parties: agents get their commision, the landlord is guaranteed their monthly rental, and renters are assured of fair treatment.
Such examples exemplify the fact that blockchain tech is applicable across a range of sectors. It’s a matter of which industry embraces changes first.
What is blockchain technology?
The blockchain is wholly transparent, secure, and tamper-proof distributed database for recording transactions built on a public network of computers. It’s a completely decentralized mode of storing and validating transactions and does away with the need for third parties or intermediary bodies.
Think credit card swipes without Visa or Mastercard. Cash transfers without PayPal. It’s all possible in the utopian application of blockchain technology.
Blockchain technology is pretty hard to hack. Every transaction on a blockchain network results in an additional ‘block’ of data added to the chain. Think of it as a giant spreadsheet recording each transaction; except that no single individual or machine has the power to tamper with these records.
But it’s not so simple to add records to a blockchain either. A transaction on a blockchain ledger will only be confirmed and added to the system after its authenticity is confirmed by miners who solve complex mathematical equations in exchange for rewards.
“Blockchain will help connect us seamlessly from our homes and offices to cities and vehicles.”, Renzo Costarella, Business Development at Due.
Blockchain Terms You Should Know
Cryptocurrency = Blockchain?
A common fallacy is to assume that Bitcoin and blockchain are equal. We’ve mentioned earlier in the piece how blockchain tech powers cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.
An easy way to understand this is to remember that all cryptocurrencies are blockchains, but not all blockchains are cryptocurrencies.
The most well-known cryptocurrency to date is Bitcoin. It’s certainly been around the longest and was also the first public application of the blockchain ledger.
But that doesn’t mean it’s the only one out there or the only one worth looking into. Cryptocurrencies like Ether, Ripple, and Litecoin have also surged in value.
Here’s an updated price chart if you’d like to monitor individual fluctuations.
What’s a ‘hyperledger’?
The Hyperledger developed by the Linux Foundation has recently risen to prominence and is a common talking point in blockchain conferences and events across the world.
It’s a bit more complicated to explain, but the first thing to understand is that it’s not a cryptocurrency and neither is it a blockchain on its own.
The Hyperledger website states:
“Hyperledger is an open source collaborative effort created to advance cross-industry blockchain technologies. It is a global collaboration, hosted by The Linux Foundation, including leaders in finance, banking, IoT, supply chain, manufacturing, and technology.”
It’s best understood as an effort to cultivate a community around blockchain spanning different industries including aviation, cars, technology manufacturing, finance, IoT, and more.
“I believe rather than focusing too much on media hype, it’s better to diversify the portfolio, be prepared for the worst in terms of growth, but hope for the best. Basically, as it goes with traditional investing, invest as much as you can afford to lose, but not beyond that.”, Dinkar Kamat, Content Consultant and Strategist.
Because blockchain is decentralized, it can be argued that the Hyperledger is a vital initiative that can ensure future permutations of blockchain development benefit industry as a whole and not just one or two sectors.
Its inspiration comes from the open source movement that looks to unshackle source code so that developers across the world can take advantage.
Key to this ethos of cross-sectional benefit was the decision by the Hyperledger executive committee to refrain from issuing its own coin, or cryptocurrency.
In an interview, Brian Behlendorf, executive director of the Hyperledger project said:
“You’ll never see a Hyperledger coin. By not pushing a currency, we avoid so many political challenges of having to maintain a globally consistent currency.”
What are smart contracts?
If you think about it, a traditional contract is simply a piece of paper. But what makes both signatories execute the terms of it fairly and transparently? It’s the threat of punitive action, fines, or lawsuits by a third-party guarantor (think lawyer, banker, accountant, and so on).
But these guarantors, or middlemen, are expensive to hire. Their fees are usually embedded into the contract resulting in higher costs for each party and even more cash outflow if the terms are violated.
No one likes to engage with an expensive lawyer, but sometimes there’s just no other fallback option.
A smart contract is built on decentralized ledgers like blockchain and does away with the need to hire an agent or a lawyer to act as a guarantor. An initial coin offering (ICO) is a good example to elucidate how a contract works.
In a traditional crowdfunding platform, let’s say Kickstarter, each investment is solicited and handled by the go-between entity (Kickstarter in this case). But ICOs evoke the use of smart contracts, where they’re converted into code, stored on the blockchain, and follow a set of predefined principles.
For example, if you invested 1 ether into a new ICO and were guaranteed a certain number of coins in return, then the smart contract would only transfer the ether to the company at the time that they issued the coins to you. Proof of the transaction would be immutable and stored on the blockchain. And the transaction would be validated by miners using advanced cryptography techniques making it impossible to hack or replicate.
There’s no need for mediation or lawsuits because the terms of the contract simply won’t be executed by either party if there’s something amiss.
Ledgers have been around ever since mankind started engaging in barter and trade with one another — they serve as a way of recording the deal so that there’s evidentiary proof if needed.
Early renditions of ledgers were simply records written on clay tablets, moving to paper-based double entry accounting systems when rules were slightly more formalized.
A distributed ledger does away with manual systems entirely — it’s a large database stored independently by participants (or nodes) in a wide network of computers. It can only be updated when the majority of participants agrees that a particular transaction was made — again, this is done using advanced cryptography techniques.
Optimal use of distributed ledgers does away with the cost of engaging people like compliance officers, notaries, and banks.
Wallets for Cryptocurrency
Storing traditional fiat currencies (such as the American Dollar, Singapore Dollar, or Thai Baht) is easy enough — stick a wad of cash in your wallet, and use it to pay for things.
Need to exchange one for another? Visit a moneychanger, and they’ll do the rest.
Cryptocurrency wallets are different. There’s no cash to contend with, and you certainly can’t exchange Bitcoin for Ripple at the local currency exchange outlet.
A cryptocurrency wallet exists as a software program that stores records of your transactions on the blockchain. When you send or receive Bitcoin or other currencies, each user’s crypto wallet checks the keys that the currency is assigned to. If they match, the balance in the digital wallet is updated and recorded on the blockchain.
There’s no physical exchange of coins in, let’s say, a vault.
Tokens (virtual coins)
The best way to understand tokens is to picture them as virtual coins built on top of existing blockchain networks like Ethereum.
A token is created and distributed to the public via ICOs, and they’re not too difficult to bring to life because developers can leverage existing public blockchains for this effect.
Cryptocurrencies, also referred to as altcoins, have their own separate blockchain which cannot be replicated to create more tokens. It was the development of the Ethereum blockchain that truly democratized the creation of tokens as no other blockchain before it incorporated this functionality.
Peer-to-peer (P2P) systems have existed during the early days of Limewire and BitTorrent. In their most basic form, they allow users on different PCs to send files to one another.
In the early days of the internet, this was used to transfer things like pirated music and films (a practice that continues to this day, albeit in limited form).
In the crypto world, however, P2P systems exist to validate and store information on both public and private blockchains. Also known as nodes, they’re vital components in confirming authenticity and immutability of transactions.
Future Applications of Blockchain
So far we’ve had limited applications, but important in their own way: Crowdfunding via initial coin offerings is outstripping traditional investment, blockchain tech is being used by donor agencies like the UN to assist refugees, and overseas workers are circumventing expensive bank transfer fees to send money back home via Bitcoin.
These are exciting times, and an indication of what lies ahead. Let’s look at future applications of blockchain in specific areas.
At the moment, it’s not possible for us to use cryptocurrencies to ring up purchases at most grocery stores or cafes. But that doesn’t mean businesses aren’t sizing up use cases for blockchain to cut down on costs and lower the time for processing transactions.
“I think that us fortunate to live in fairly stable economies might not realize how valuable a disruptive financial system might be in this exact moment in time. When I first heard about and invested in Bitcoin 4 years ago, I was literally packing up groceries to ship to family friends in Venezuela who were almost starving due to a collapsing financial system and hyper inflation. A single apple cost the equivalent of $7! I saw right then how Bitcoin (blockchain) could curb problems like what they are experiencing in Venezuela all over the world. One of these family friends was actually able to use bitcoin to purchase a plane ticket out of Venezuela to Spain where he had a great job waiting for him, he would have never had access to those funds without the blockchain. Even in the U.S. we have found the blockchain to provide ease and safety in some transactions. My husband is a cattle rancher and he recently sold about $30,000.00 worth of farm equipment, they did the whole deal in crypto currency. It was quite the site to see two cowboys on their smartphones making a deal. Some would ask “why not just use FIAT currency?” First answer, is belief and support in the concept but also added convenience by being able to remove the middle man of the bank.”, Laurel Bloomfield, VP/CFO at Pocket Innerwear.
We’ve mentioned how remittance companies are promising speedier transactions with cryptocurrencies. But that’s just one possible application of blockchain tech — eliminating inefficiencies in cross-border trade is regularly cited as an area where blockchain can help.
Current methods of warehousing, logistics, and customs clearance processes are paper-intensive and also culpable to manipulation via shady practices like under-invoicing and false declarations.
This entails lost revenue for the exchequer as well as fudgy trade data. Systems built and validated on the blockchain eliminate this possibility and have the dual advantage of significantly reducing human error.
Some examples are Provenance, a company that uses blockchain to ensure that the food supply chain is ethical, organic, and trustworthy. Another is Hijro, which is trying to solve the inefficiencies in global B2B commerce and supply chains. Skuchain is also working on something similar by assisting companies in inventory procurement from across the world.
The financial services sector is largely built on providing intermediary products. Harvard Business Review says blockchain will fundamentally transform the finance industry, much like what the internet did to media and advertising.
That’s because current methods of settling global financial transactions are intensive in terms of the clearing entities involved and the plethora of steps each step of the way. Every middleman represents additional fees; with blockchain, this requirement is culled and transactions can be processed much faster.
We’re already seeing this rolled out in the US, where DTCC is collaborating with IBM to shift credit default swaps on to the blockchain, bypassing traditional clearing agencies.
The most high-profile example of blockchain’s use case in improving public services and state-society interaction comes from Dubai, where the local government has set an ambitious target of shifting visa applications, bill payments, and license renewals entirely on to the blockchain by 2020.
The Smart Dubai initiative takes this a step further with a stated goal of eliminating all paper transactions by shifting them to digital platforms. We already see examples of this with the Dubai Land Department — the government department responsible for regulating real estate transactions — moving to a blockchain-powered system.
This strategy is projected to save 25 million man-hours and result in cost savings of up to US$1.5 billion per year. If the project is successful, there’s no reason why more governments around the world won’t try to replicate the model. It’ll lead to a smarter, more efficient government apparatus while freeing up time for local citizens to spend with their families.
Other possible use cases of blockchain in government are in the use of elections and voting processes. Many developing nations are plagued by corruption, illegal voter lists, and inconsistencies in tabulating results.
These problems could theoretically be solved by using blockchain systems as it simply won’t be possible for a single human or entity to fudge the numbers.
Cybersecurity professionals understand the power of blockchain and its immutable, tamper-proof status. Data stored on the blockchain is spread across several nodes in the system with a self-regulating status preventing theft or pilferage.
Additionally, there’s no single ‘entry’ point for an intrusive entity to overpower the system via DDoS or brute force attacks.
Every transaction added to a private or public blockchain comes with timestamps and identifiable addresses. Attempts to tamper with a new block will simply be flushed out by the system who will recognize it as false and decline to add it as part of the record.
Examples of the strength of blockchain networks can be gleaned from the fact that Bitcoin — which is powered by blockchain — has been immune to cyber attacks since inception. Cryptocurrency exchanges and wallets have been successfully targeted, but blockchains themselves remain impervious to threats.
Lockheed Martin, one of the world’s biggest defense contractors, is exploring ways to leverage blockchain for better cybersecurity. Startups like Guardtime and Remme are using blockchain to quell cyberattacks and render passwords obsolete, respectively.
3 Significant Developments in Blockchain — and What it Means For You
The blockchain space is evolving at a pace which makes it impossible to predict key developments just a few months down the road.
Archaic and outdated regulations mean most lawmakers are clueless about how best to approach this technology. The result is that some countries are convinced of its benefits, while others believe it’s an existential threat to their authority.
Blockchain developers should keep themselves updated about ever-evolving regulatory and compliance requirements while maintaining a close eye on which firms are embracing blockchain tech. This helps firm up job prospects.
The Marshall Islands is Issuing Its Own Cryptocurrency
The tiny island nation plans to issue its own cryptocurrency called the ‘Sovereign’ (SOV) in partnership with Neema, an Israeli fintech company. The current legal tender of the Marshall Islands is the US dollar — it won’t be withdrawn from circulation, but it’s unclear what the parity between the two currencies will be.
It’s actually an interesting experiment because the Marshall Islands has no central financial regulator and cryptocurrencies by their very nature can’t be controlled by a similar body. This is by no means a timid step — actually a bold foray into user adoption of crypto payments.
What it means:
If there’s visible adoption then it’s possible that other countries might look to replicate this plan. This means a host of new jobs for bitcoin developers and strategists in the field. Watch this space.
The US Launches Probe in Bitcoin Price Manipulation
The US justice department will open an investigation into possible criminal manipulation of Bitcoin prices. The move is likely to be seen as a welcome step for the quest to bring Bitcoin at par with mainstream fiat currencies.
Accusations have long plagued the darling of the crypto world that it’s used to facilitate money laundering, pay for drug deals, and other lurid acts. Recently, Korea’s biggest crypto exchange banned users across 11 countries from opening and operating accounts to clamp down on the possibility of illegal activity stemming from said places.
What it means:
If the US justice department is able to give Bitcoin the all-clear, it’s possible that the move will create a ripple effect extending to the Securities and Exchange Commission. US regulators have to be convinced that Bitcoin can never be used to fund and facilitate terrorist attacks against the country — similar to how existing banking channels operate.
Bitcoin cannot be regulated to that degree since there’s no central authority you can fine or exclude from the system. So far, crypto exchanges are doing their best to adhere with global financial standards and a stamp of approval from the US would be construed as a major boost.
Could we see crypto-powered payments being rolled out in the US within the next 5 years? Don’t bet against it. Of course, the surge of interest in accompanying apps and products to serve this demand is likely to be a boon for blockchain developers.
Reuters Says 20% of Global Financial Institutions Will Offer Cryptocurrency Trading by 2019
A handful of stodgy, yet ubiquitous financial institutions like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan are nervously dabbling in cryptocurrency trading.
This decision is likely not due to savvy, entrepreneurial, and forward-thinking skills displayed by top management. Such highly-compensated executives are well-aware that the technology actually represents a serious existentialist threat to their own business models, but are clever enough to understand that such a scenario will take years, perhaps even decades, to come to fruition.
In the meanwhile, the billionaires who pay for their salaries are definitely interested in adding to their individual piles of wealth. It’s apparent that all the headlines about Bitcoin’s roaring value has caught their eye. The bankers need to heed client requests; that’s what years of business in the field has taught them.
And they’re obliging. Developers working on cryptocurrency futures and stock trading vehicles should stand up and take note as they could very well benefit from a bidding war in the near future.
Blockchain Apps You Should Know About
We’ve mentioned earlier in this article how international remittances are one of the early use cases of cryptocurrencies in general and Bitcoin specifically.
Bitspark hopes to capture this growing market by building a remittance platform for global money transfer operators. There are over 100,000 cash-out locations globally and all transactions are processed via blockchain.
Each successful transaction also allows parties to earn ‘Sparks’, its own token.
All this talk about cryptocurrency — so where do I sign up?
If you’re looking to trade then you could do a lot worse than Binance which is one of the world’s largest cryptoexchanges.
Its CEO, known as CZ, enjoys legendary status in the crypto world and his views are worth checking out.
Freelancing life is tough. Payments don’t always arrive in time and clients can leave frustrated after forcing to accept shoddy work.
CanYa wants to solve this problem by building a decentralized marketplace for services.
The product is still under development, but if done right has the potential to be a world-beater.
Building Blockchain Apps
It’s impossible to quantify the likely size of the overall blockchain industry within the next few years, but it’s clear that demand for developers is far outstripping supply.
The number of apps on the Google Play and iOS stores has exhibited quantum leaps as user growth fueled demand and lead to mass-scale adoption. As blockchain-powered apps and solutions continue to trickle out in public, it’ll eventually result in users signing up in droves.
That’s why blockchain is frequently referred to as the upcoming Web 3.0, and likened to a gold rush — there are riches on the horizon for early players.
We’ve stressed time and again how blockchain is inherently an emerging technology with its final shape or form impossible to predict. Developers looking to acquaint themselves with the task of building apps for the blockchain need to be well-armed — most will have to rely on individual ingenuity as formalized training methods simply don’t exist.
In the beginning, it’s probably a prudent move to learn cryptography and advanced data analytics. If you’re not comfortable with Object Oriented Programming, now’s a good time to get with the program.
Online courses like this one on Udemy can also be a useful starting point. The inherent challenge will be the incessant need to learn and unlearn quickly. Developers who can master that will remain a cut above the rest.
A New Career Path for Developers
The feverish nature of advancement in blockchain is welcome news for developers specializing in smart contracts and distributed ledgers.
In 2017, global freelancing portal Upwork reported that blockchain was second in its list of fastest-growing skills for the year. The average salary of a blockchain developer in the US was cited to be $130,000 per year as compared to software developers whose median earnings were considerably less at about $105,000 per year.
It doesn’t seem like this will slow down anytime soon, especially when we consider how companies are sidestepping traditional venture capital funds and preferring to raise money via initial coin offerings (ICOs). They’re flush with cash and eager to spend on attracting the right talent.
What Makes a Good Blockchain Developer
With 14 job openings for every available blockchain developer, it’s definitely a great industry to be in if you’re an employee.
The top three most wanted skills for blockchain developers are:
- Hyperledger fabric
- Ripple development
- Solidity smart contracts
We’ve mentioned before how salaries for talented blockchain developers are far ahead of their peers. The trend is likely to continue.
At the moment there’s a severe dearth of training resources and certification programs that standardize blockchain training. Most of what you learn will be on the job, but to get started, you’ll need proficiency in a range of disciplines. Read this guide for a comprehensive overview from one of the experts in the field.
Conclusion: Embrace Opportunity
Blockchain is not going anywhere. As we’ve demonstrated, it’s rapidly permeating into various components of everyday life — starting with finance, and now into the minutiae of government.
Are there uncertainties around how, exactly, it will be deployed?
Are there skeptics?
But we all see where this is going, and you as an entrepreneur have a choice: take advantage as an early mover and embrace the uncertainty, or look back and wonder what if?