The State of the Blockchain in 2015

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During 2014, nearly 1.6m bitcoins were mined and more than 25m Bitcoin transactions were written to the Blockchain, which doubled in size, ending the year at 26.4GB. The ongoing growth in transaction volumes has led to a renewed focus on Bitcoin’s scalability issues.

BTCUSD-2014

During the same period, the price of Bitcoin dropped by more than 50%, causing the growth of the network’s hashrate to slow towards the end of last year, which triggered the first drop in difficulty since early 2013. Last month (coincidentally as the trial of Ross “Dread Pirate Roberts” Ulbricht got underway) the Bitcoin price dipped below $200 for the first time since November 2013, prompting some sizeable mining pools to suspend operations. The implication is that the mining hardware arms race has squeezed profit margins to the point where some miners are unprofitable when the price drops below $200 (i.e. value of the bitcoins generated by the mining hardware is less than the cost of electricity required to power it). The fact that some miners are suspending operations instead of continuing to mine and simply hanging on to the bitcoins mined until the price rises again suggests that they may lack the (fiat currency) funds to keep paying for electricity or that they’re fearful that the price won’t recover and they’ll end up permanently in the red.

For now, the question is moot, as the price has recovered to ~$225 (giving the ~14m bitcoins in circulation a total value of ~$3.15bn), but it will be interesting to see what happens if the price drops again.

In March, Newsweek relaunched their print edition in March with a cover story claiming that that they had unmasked Dorian Nakamoto as the creator of Bitcoin. The man in question denied having anything to do with Bitcoin and the real Satoshi Nakamoto surfaced online to declare: “I am not Dorian Nakamoto.

The first really big Bitcoin bankruptcy took place in February when MtGox shut down and filed for bankruptcy, claiming that hackers had stolen 850,000 bitcoins (worth around $460m at the time) and that $28m was “missing” from its bank accounts. It later emerged that 200,000 bitcoins were found in a “forgotten” wallet and, nearly a year later, the saga has yet to be fully resolved.

Of course, MtGox wasn’t the only Bitcoin bankruptcy: Flexcoin and Bitcoin Trader shuttered after being hacked, Neo & Bee collapsed amid suspicions of fraud, and London-based MintPay and Moolah closed down after CEO “Alex Green” (subsequently revealed as an alias of Ryan Kennedy) absconded with over $1.4m worth of bitcoins.

Unfazed, VCs invested more than $300m in Bitcoin startups during 2014 and if Coinbase’s $75m round in January is anything to go by, that trend seems set to continue in 2015. It’s clear that some VCs believe that Bitcoin and the Blockchain represent a “New World”-style opportunity (similar in nature to the Internet itself back in the ’90s), and their backing of companies like Coinbase (who have announced the launch of “the first regulated bitcoin exchange based in the U.S.“) is part of a strategy to put in place the infrastructure and services necessary to support mass adoption.

Some believe that even if Bitcoin does not go mainstream, the Blockchain, secured by the Bitcoin mining network, will become the foundation for a multitude of applications and services like Blockstream, CounterpartyFactomOneName and OpenBazaar.  Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne has ambitions to build a distributed stock market on top of the Blockchain. This could result in a self-sustaining “cryptoconomy”, in which users buy bitcoins from miners, to spend on transaction fees (which go to the miners) required to write transactions to the Blockchain. The prospect of receiving those transaction fees would entice enough miners to maintain the security of the Blockchain. In other words, the intrinsic value of a bitcoin would be the ability to write to the Blockchain.

However, I think such a scenario, while possible, is unlikely. As I’ve said in the past, I doubt Bitcoin’s first-mover advantage will translate into long-term success. Webvan pioneered grocery delivery during the dot-com bubble but ultimately went bankrupt. Today, most supermarkets do deliveries, while companies like OcadoAmazon and Instacart are resurrecting Webvan’s business model. I suspect that something similar will happen to Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies.

But it’s not happening just yet. Ripple, one of the early Bitcoin alternatives, suffered mixed fortunes in 2014. The circumstances surrounding the departure of co-founder Jed McCaleb (who had previously founded MtGox) to found Stellar, resulted in the resignation of Ripple Labs board member Jesse Powell, who highlighted the fact that Ripple’s founders hold significant amounts of the pre-mined currency. On the plus side, Ripple signed up three banks, including Fidor Bank in Germany and CBW in the US.

Other competing alternatives continue to emerge. Ethereum is intended to be a platform for smart contracts. MaidSafe is a platform for distributed storage, designed to support various applications. Storj is another distributed storage service that will compete with cloud storage services like Dropbox.

For me, the most important developments during 2014 were in the regulatory space. In the US, having warned Bitcoin exchange operators last year that they must comply with money-transmission laws, authorities began cracking down on “unlicensed money transmitters” (including BitInstant CEO Charlie Shrem and Robert “BTCKing” Faiella), as well as Bitcoin ponzi schemes and unregistered securities offerings.

In April, the IRS issued a notice indicating that virtual currencies are treated as property (as opposed to currency) for federal tax purposes and, hence, are subject to the rules pertaining to capital gains (and losses). This makes things rather complicated.

In June, New York’s Department of Financial Services (DFS) published a draft of its proposed “BitLicense” regime for regulating virtual currency companies, which attracted thousands of comments. A revised draft is expected imminently. Meanwhile, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) chairman declared that derivatives based on virtual currencies fall within the CFTC’s jurisdiction, and Circle (which launched its hosted Bitcoin wallet in September) was invited to join the Treasury Department’s Bank Secrecy Act Advisory Group.

On this side of the Pond, the UK’s tax authority issued guidance on the tax treatment of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, and the financial regulator issued a Call for Information on Digital Currencies. Offshore, the Isle of Man government announced that it’s planning to create a regulatory regime that covers virtual currencies as part of a strategy to attract Bitcoin companies to the island.

Needless to say, the prospect of increased (or, rather, any) regulation of Bitcoin is not universally welcomed but it’s actually a critical step in laying the foundations for wider adoption of cryptocurrencies and related technologies. For example, there are doubts over Bitstamp’s solvency and security after it was hacked at the beginning of the year. If Bitcoin exchanges become regulated by something like the New York BitLicense (or, in Europe, in a manner similar to payments institutions, with appropriate measures for audit, security and segregation of client funds), it would go a long way to assuaging such concerns (not to mention make it easier for companies dealing in Bitcoin to get access to banking services).

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if 2015 is the year that being regulated becomes a competitive advantage for companies operating in the cryptocurrency space.

Written by jackgavigan

February 6, 2015 at 5:31 pm

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