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It's 1994 In Cryptocurrency

Updated: Dec 13, 2017

by Ari Paul , CONTRIBUTORCIO of BlockTower Capital


For 15 years, email was mostly a toy for engineering hobbyists and a small number of scientific researchers.  It wasn’t until the late 1980s that email began to enjoy meaningful commercial use, and not until the mid 1990s for widespread retail use.  To make the jump from hobbyists to commercial and then average retail users required three factors.  First, the technology itself had to be developed to a point that it was standardized, stable, and had features valuable to users.  Second, user interfaces had to be developed to make email approachable to non-engineers.  And third, the user base had to grow over time; the more people that use email the more valuable it is to each user, and this virtuous cycle of adoption takes time to play out.

Similarly, Bitcoin was mostly a curiosity for engineering hobbyists from 2009 to 2016.  In 2013 we saw the first hint of broader adoption as companies like Coinbase made Bitcoin more accessible to non-technical users, but in 2013 Bitcoin still faced technological problems (like an unintentional hard fork), few user-friendly interfaces, and a minimal network effects.  By 2017, Bitcoin had a proven stable protocol, a plethora of user friendly interfaces (including ATMs in most big cities and Exchange Traded Notes (ETNs) that allowed Bitcoin investment via an IRA or 401k), and a user base that had reached critical mass such that Bitcoin could be purchased, traded, and spent throughout most of the world.  Precise estimates of adoption are impossible, but we can produce a rough guesstimate.  Combining data from Coinbase with work by researchers Garrick Hileman and Michel Rauchs (2 - Crypto Adoption Study) we estimate that the total number of bitcoin users and holders is around 45 million people today, representing about 1/2 of 1% of the global population.  This places us at the very early days of non-technical adoption.

Like email in 1994, Bitcoin provides value today.  It can consistently and securely transmit monetary value across the planet and also provides a censorship and judgement-resistant store of value.  Like email in 1994, Bitcoin is a robust technology ready for widespread use, but very early in its adoption curve.  And like email in 1994, the small network of users means that there are few people to whom you can send Bitcoin, and this leads many to question its usefulness.  What about other cryptocurrencies and other use cases?



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