Why Bitcoin’s demise could be good for Silicon Valley

It’s the end of Bitcoin as we know it, and I feel fine.

My apparent giddiness over this news is not about Bitcoin per se — although my RoseRyan colleagues had tracked its progress and discouraged CFOs from taking on the risk — I wouldn’t wish such big losses on anyone.

But it has created buzz in more ways than one. I don’t think I have had more e-mails and comments from my friends and colleagues in the last few years than I have over the past several weeks regarding the cryptocurrency. The heat was turned up with the recent announcement that Tokyo-based Mt. Gox, one of the largest Bitcoin exchanges, rapidly closed up shop amidst a potential loss of $473 million of its users’ money.

Now the buzz will shift toward the complete revolution happening in the payments business and its effect on Silicon Valley, and this is a change I’m excited about. PayPal, Square, Google, Apple and others are transforming the world of payments, by inserting themselves into a process that has been owned by the banks (full disclosure: I actively use PayPal). Gartner estimates that mobile payments alone will top $720 billion by the year 2017, up from $235 billion last year. The expansion of payment options will mean everyday Americans will hopefully no longer get so nickel-and-dimed on financial transactions.

In regard to the next “big thing” mantra of Silicon Valley, the payments business is already in full frenzy. It is your classic innovators dilemma: Venture capitalists are funding young, innovative startups; midsize players are adopting the changes; and banks — typically slow moving elephants — are running scared. Why? Those teeny-weeny payments add up. There were $15 trillion worth of retail transactions last year. The upside is huge not only because of transaction fees but also the ability to harvest large troves of consumer data. Security concerns will be an issue as players position themselves for the gold rush. This fast-moving train is a tough one for bureaucrats, who try to promote innovation but who must also put in place adequate consumer protections.

With Bitcoin, things did move too fast. The Bitcoin issue reminds me of Napster. Initially, Napster was a site to share music files and was frequented mostly by teenagers who were not willing (or couldn’t afford) to pay for digital music files. Napster caught a lot of heat for allowing a forum of users to access illegally obtained music, and it was subsequently shut down. A result of the Napster shutdown was that Apple came into the same space and built an incredible music delivery engine — iTunes on the iPod, then the iPhone and now the iPad — off the back of 25 billion–plus songs that have been downloaded since 2003.

How does the disruption to the music industry relate to Bitcoin? Stay with me here. Bitcoin’s ubiquitous network has allowed people throughout the world to anonymously transact commerce. It was envisioned to have tremendous ease of use, to be something as simple as email.  Although there are many differences with the PayPal network (and other networks), a key differentiator is that Bitcoin does not take a toll every time a payment is made. Once you have created a digital wallet, it is very simple for you to exchange money pretty much the same way that you would purchase something with cash.

So where is this leading? I expect there to be many issues that will continue to impact Bitcoin (lack of a governing owner, security concerns, and exchanges going out of business are among its many challenges). And I do expect innovative firms to emerge in this digital cryptocurrency space — and perhaps there will be multiple winners. Bitcoin “could, in the long run, give rise to one or several very robust currencies,” writes George Selgin, an economics professor at the University of Georgia in a paper on Bitcoin’s properties. “That’s how competition works generally, with winners and losers but with quality generally improving as the struggle goes on.”

And in an MIT Technology Review article, Tom Simonite notes that “even if interest in Bitcoin fades, it could still have a lasting legacy as an inspiration to better-designed forms of digital money.” It took Apple 10 years to get to 25 billion downloads — perhaps the next cryptocurrency will have 25 billion transactions in 5 years!

Chris Vane is a director at RoseRyan, where he leads the development of the finance and accounting firm’s cleantech and high tech practices. He can be reached at cvane@roseryan.com or call him at 510.456.3056 x169.

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