Any disruptive technology has to face its fair share of challenges in its nascent stage of growth. It could be electric cars, it could be 3D printing, or it could be the most successful cryptocurrency in the world. They are all still used by a rather small percentage of the world population, although we know that they are the future. Bitcoin is making people take notice of cryptocurrencies and has taken the world of financial services by storm. The symptoms evident in the financial services sector today are similar to what the mass media showed in the nineties. So, is bitcoin on the path to becoming the next internet? Let’s try to understand the comparison.
Both are not owned by anyone
Bitcoin is a revolutionary concept. There is no one authority that controls the bitcoin. Governments or any private players do not control the value of this currency, unlike the national currencies of the world. In effect, it is shielded from any changes in the monetary and fiscal policies of a country. Bitcoin works as a peer-to-peer network. Users and transactions are added to a shared public ledger. This is called a blockchain. If there was a voluntary project, where people publicly updated all their Master Card transactions, then that would look very much similar to a blockchain.
The decentralized nature of the cryptocurrency is very similar to the internet. No one organization or government owns the internet. This is the very reason why the internet has become synonymous with freedom. In the 1990s, media houses coughed at experts who claimed that news will be read online in the future. With all the major media houses moving online today, they are not coughing so much now.
Both offer easy access to everything in their domain
The internet was initially built as a mode of connecting universities and other research institutions for sharing knowledge and working in a collaborative mode. As the internet grew, it offered a lot of information freely to the users. This information was locked away in books, which were locked away in libraries inside the universities. You had to be either a student or a professor at the university to have access to that information. The internet got rid of these restrictions.
The same kind of free access is what is making Bitcoin popular as well.When people pay via regular payment networks, they have to jump through a lot of hoops. Imagine applying for a credit card. You need a good credit score to be eligible and get a high credit limit on the credit card, comply with a lot of regulations, and then you have to pay a fee to keep using the card. On the other hand, Bitcoin is like an open field. Absolutely anyone can use it. There is no regulation or limitation on how bitcoin-based services can use it. Since there are no rules, everybody is eligible to use it, and there is no fee.
Both offered fertile ground for experimentation
The internet in the eighties was not as friendly as you see it today. It took a patient and determined user to work through the minutes it took to open a website. It would take anyone hours to get anything useful out of the network. But, these challenges and the complete freedom to tackle them gave us the most innovative companies like Google, Amazon, and what not.
This is true for bitcoin as well. The freedom to innovate is tremendous in this space. It can make international money transfers faster; it can make transactions dramatically more secure; it can even create services that do not even exist today. The blockchain technology that powers bitcoins has the potential to make the financial service sector stand on its head. Does this sound familiar?
It is not radical anymore to think that an unregulated currency like bitcoin will become a mainstream currency today. But, like the internet, the currency is gaining ground. Financial institutions are also dabbling with blockchain technology using Enterprise Ethereum, Hyperledger, or even by creating their own standalone platforms. It is possible that all players in the financial world will have to upgrade themselves to this new development as media houses were once forced to do so, after the advent of the internet.
Bitcoin, the world’s most successful cryptocurrency, has already provided ample evidence that the technology underpinning it, Blockchain, is a robust platform for financial transactions. It now appears that banks from all over the world were taking notes all this time. Morgan Stanley, HSBC, Societe Generale, Commerzbank, Barclays, Credit Suisse, UBS, Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, and many other international banks are in various stages of adopting Blockchain for a wide range of banking applications.
It appears that financial institutions are taking a complete U-turn from calling Blockchain a risky, if not illegal, technology to a powerful alternative to the current technology solutions that are presently supporting the financial industry. What is driving their change of hearts?
Well, the banks have known for some time that the Blockchain technology can transform the way financial transactions are conducted at the moment. For instance, transactions made over Blockchain are instantaneous. They happen in real time. This is in complete contrast to the present international financial system, wherein the transactions often take days, if not weeks, to be executed. First the request for the execution of a transaction is submitted. Then the identity of the initiator and the identity of the account holder are verified. Finally, the transactions are formalized only after the verification. But, the identities of the account holders and initiators are not always available to the bank that is executing the transaction. So, getting in touch with the bank who have their identities can add more time to the transactions.
Blockchain maintains a distributed ledger. Thanks to this, identities can be verified and transactions formalized even without revealing the identities of the account holders. This is a huge milestone in the direction of preventing identity theft and hacking. So, Blockchain increases the transparency of transactions as well as provides a higher degree of security to the entire financial system.
The benefits of implementing Blockchain in the banking industry are plenty and growing. One estimate puts the cost savings accrued by banks in international payments at $15 to $20 billion. Consumers too, who have to rely on relatively expensive means of international money transfer mechanisms, such as Western Union, MoneyGram, and PayPal, will be able to transfer money at a fraction of the costs charged by these institutions.
Ultimately Blockchain is gearing up to challenge the established worldwide payment enablers like Visa and MasterCard. But, for that to happen, Blockchain should first show that it can grow networks that are big enough to substitute Visa and MasterCard, and that is not easy. Governments’ and central banks’ concerns around anonymity can keep major markets out of the Blockchain’s networks. Yet, there is a lot of hope that Blockchain is the future of banking, and that hope is not without basis.
Fujitsu, a Japanese Blockchain technology enabler, has already signed up banks that are part of the Japanese Bankers Association (JBA) to test its cloud-service platform that is built on Blockchain. Japanese banks are using the Fujitsu Blockchain platform to develop applications for making instantaneous, safe and secure transactions and are testing them. In Europe, UBS is leading the effort by employing the services of Clearmatics. Not to be left behind, IBM is pushing through a similar platform in Europe.
There are now clear indications that the first of the Blockchain powered financial systems could well be in place for public use in a matter of a few years.
Blockchain is the technology behind Bitcoin, a type of encrypted digital currency. But unlike Bitcoin, Blockchain is not a strictly financial tool. Although it is designed as a general ledger, in its simplest sense, it’s a way to move and store blocks of cryptographically validated data that users can’t corrupt. In other words, it creates a transparent paper trail that anyone can access, but no one can alter. That makes Blockchain far more than a financial tool—it makes it the latest way of sharing, validating, or otherwise endorsing almost any kind of value point. Now we will look at some interesting places Blockchain may revolutionize the future and a couple of places it is making a difference today.
Impact on Audit Practices
Like most forms of technology, blockchain in accounting and audit greatly reduces the potential for errors when reconciling complex and disparate information from multiple sources. Further, accounting records are not alterable once committed under blockchain, even by the owners of the accounting system. “In the future, virtually every function in the world of Financial Services will be displaced, disintermediated and decentralized,” said Ron Quaranta, Chairman of the Wall Street Blockchain Alliance. Because every transaction is recorded and verified, the integrity of financial records is guaranteed. While impressive, this technology has the potential to greatly reduce or even eliminate the need for auditing resources—potentially disrupting the accounting profession as a whole. “Our technology has finally caught up with our desire to transact, without the need to trust the other party, and without the need for an intermediary,” said Quaranta.
Smart Contracts in the Legal Profession
There is a digital revolution going on in the legal industry and blockchain is the technology leading this transformation. The law is being digitized. If you have ever had to close a mortgage or been part of any legal dispute you know that lawyers are good at creating tons of paperwork.
If we can digitize the process of keeping track of the paper trail, then it will reduce the cost and potential for human error. It could be a game changer. Firms can focus on recording everything on a shared ledger that becomes irrefutable digital proof that this legal event happened between two parties. This could be anything from a marriage to a divorce proceeding; a house sale to a land reclamation; and anything else that involves digital proof. Cutting costs out of the legal system from administration to time would be a game changer for the legal profession.
Impact on Contract Ordering and Signing
Think of all those components being bought and sold in the supply chains of the world, and then think about all those components being recorded in near real-time on a shared ledger. They have been talking about having real time transactions around bills of lading and letters of credit but the challenge has been recording of the bill and then documenting the movement of the assets.
If we digitize the bills and letters of credit, then you have a more real-time view of the world and supply chain. It is a smarter system because you can record more than just a product’s serial number and value like the current systems allow.
You can record virtually any other information you want like destination, who is shipping it, when it reaches port, tax, and government clearance. That is why it’s a smarter tracking system. The banks that invests and adopts this sort of system will have a competitive advantage in the future.
Transparent Digital Voting Process
Think about it for a minute. A secure voting record that requires authentication of a voter’s identity and has a trusted tally. Blockchains can serve as the medium for casting, tracking, and counting votes so that there is never a question of voter-fraud, lost records, or fowl-play. By casting votes as transactions within the blockchain, voters can agree on the final count because they can count the votes themselves, and because of the blockchain audit trail, they can verify that no votes were changed or removed, and no illegitimate votes were added.
Impact on Sales and Funds Transfer
Blockchain technology enables assets to be transferred directly from user to user, removing any middleman – one of its many advantages. These assets could be anything from cryptocurrencies to data such as invoices, insurance documents, or shipping receipts.
To take the simplest example, a person can directly transfer a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin to family members, without the backing of a financial institution or by owning a banking account. Both parties can trust that the transfer is secure and forever recorded in the cryptocurrency’s blockchain.
Healthcare institutions suffer from an inability to securely share data across platforms. Better data collaboration between providers means higher probability of accurate diagnoses, higher likelihood of effective treatments, and the increased ability of healthcare systems to deliver cost-effective care.
Blockchain can allow hospitals, payers, and other parties in the healthcare value-chain to share access to their networks without compromising data security and integrity. To give you a simple example, a hospital has up to 20 different ways to enter a patient’s date of birth and no ways to standardize it. Blockchain would allow the hospital to tie a patient to their data rather than tie them to their identity.
As mentioned above, most of these applications are still underdeveloped. The future potential of the Blockchain applications is still unraveling. The next couple of years will be all about experimenting and applying to all aspects of society. Regardless of which application comes first on a global scale, the bottom line is, Blockchain is here to stay and is transforming how our society functions.