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What's Holding Back the Blockchain??

· startups,Blockchain

In short: everything and nothing.

To back things up for a minute, for those who don’t know what the blockchain is: it’s a "data structure that makes it possible to create a digital ledger of transactions and share it among a distributed network of computers" (via the Wall Street Journal).

Many people have already heard of the blockchain through a product that utilizes the technology on the back-end: Bitcoin (yes, Bitcoin is the currency of choice for the “dark web,” but it’s used for a lot of other purposes now too) – but the blockchain has an opportunity to encourage disruptive innovation in so many more industries, both for consumers as well as on the enterprise side. A few industries that could be impacted by the blockchain, just off the top of my head: Wall Street, auto buying (goodbye, CarFax!), home purchasing (so long, title insurance firms!), notarization of documents, music, the supply chain, and insurance. Of course, there are plenty more that I’ve missed. Want some more? Check out this....

It’s for these reasons above that even in my limited understanding, I have little doubt that the Blockchain could be one of the most impactful pieces of technology developed in the last 50 years. Beyond the internet of things. Beyond artificial intelligence. Even beyond PokemonGo. Hell, even Hillary Clinton was talking about the blockchain, and famed VC Fred Wilson went as far to predict that we could use the technology for voting in future elections [editor’s note: too soon to mention the election?].

But here’s the thing about the blockchain: At the end of the day, it’s a tough value proposition to explain to consumers specifically, beyond a possible reduction in cost of the product they are considering (which they likely won’t tie back to the blockchain, though it’s likely the impetus for change) and the added level of security – the latter being somewhat of a moot point until people like my dad know what “fully encrypted” means. At this point, it’s just “malarkey,” as Joe Biden would say. And considering it took my dad (and most baby boomers, I’d argue) about 20 years to start using an ATM as opposed to walking into a bank to speak directly with the teller…not to mention the fact that millennials (and yours truly) are now depositing checks into their bank accounts via their cell phone apps…there is a tough road ahead for the blockchain to show its worth. That said, I’d venture to say that we’re still in the “Early Adopters” stage of the Tech Adoption Life Cycle (source: Gartner). So it’s still pretty early in the game.

Technology Adoption Life Cycle   Source: Gartner

For example: the Internet of Things (IoT for those “in the know”) is much easier to explain to consumers – they can see the physical value of it. If I’m too hot in my house, I can tell Amazon Alexa to turn on the air conditioning via my Nest thermostat while still sitting on my couch, and boom – done. It makes my life easier, and it could save money on my energy bill based on my own actions. Blockchain technology, however, works on the back-end, silently powering your activities with no aspirations for public admiration.

So where will the blockchain take off first: as a customer-facing tool, or on the enterprise side? If I were a betting man, I’d focus on the latter. Consumers are more fickle, for lack of a better word. You never understand them until you finally hit that tipping point to understand them…and most either never do, or they catch a huge wave on their first run, and then either sit around wading in the shallow water for the next wave to rip, or break their board in half. If you can sell an enterprise on using blockchain technology, there should be a good set of waves to ride [pardon the terrible surfing analogy].

I can easily see parallels to this in my own work. Currently I’ve been working on launching an artificially-intelligent “virtual office assistant” for Staples (shameless plug for our new Easy Button!) which harnesses IBM’s Watson technology. Easiest comparison: think “Amazon Echo for businesses.” Although I have high hopes for this product to be an on-demand solution for office assistants and startups everywhere, we’re even more bullish on using IBM Watson’s machine learning solution internally for multiple purposes. If all things work as planned, Watson could become the “operating system” for our entire e-commerce platform: imagine Watson adding value to make our customer service representatives more efficient (chat bots for the easy questions that don't require human-to-human interaction), creating a personalized landing page on the fly for a customer based on past preferences and activities, and even powering our internal search. I see this same vision for blockchain technology in the long term.

So we’re on the home stretch here. What uses can you see for blockchain technology in your own company? Do you agree with me that it has a greater likelihood of success on the enterprise side for internal operations, or can you see some sort of argument for consumers embracing it more quickly (and understanding the benefits of it)? I’ve pushed all my chips into the center of the table on the blockchain, and I hope it’s not too soon; guilty as charged about being an “early adopter.” That said, I wish I was further towards the left on the Gartner chart - an "innovator." I’m tempted to take a field trip down to IBM’s Bluemix Garage in NYC to see what they can help me create with blockchain…but I’m not a developer, so I’d likely walk through the door and give a lengthy “deer in the headlights” look. Enter "call-to-action" (I’m a marketing guy at the end of the day) – any developers out there up for a road trip to Manhattan? Beers are on me, and I think the student loan market could use some help…

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