Bitcoin is a cyber-currency of growing interest to speculators, the media and — most recently — the U.S. government. Many stories about Bitcoin, which is mined by computers and circulates without a central bank, contain sinister or science-fiction elements that make it hard to tell if the currency is for real or just an overblown gimmick.
On Thursday evening, GigaOM hosted a meetup in San Jose where six Bitcoin authorities, including investors and engineers, shared their views on how the currency is evolving and who is using it. Here are three of the larger ideas to emerge from the discussion (if you want to catch up on the basics of Bitcoin, see “Yes, you should care about Bitcoin and here’s why“):
Bitcoin can help ordinary people
Wences Casares, a venture capitalist and CEO of Lemon Wallet, grew up in Argentina, where he experienced first hand what happens when a government mismanages its currency: inflation, capital controls and the destruction of family savings. Today, the same thing is happening all over again as desperate Argentines try to convert their pesos into a store of value that the government can’t seize or destroy.
One option is Bitcoin. Casares explained how some people in his country are using “old Android phones” to acquire and exchange Bitcoins at a time when the government is clamping down on the trade in U.S. dollars. More remarkably, Casares noted, is that many of the people using Bitcoin don’t know much about technology — but they do know, through hard experience, about currencies and can recognize alternate sources of money.
In the larger picture, Bitcoin could be just one part of an impending revolution in the world’s money transfer networks. Specifically, new currencies and transfer platforms may provide a way for people, including those who rely on remittances, to escape the high transfer fees imposed by credit card and wire companies — and simply exchange money directly with one another around the world at almost no cost.
Bitcoin is complicated — and is going to stay that way for a while
Mike Hearn is a young engineer from Google who uses his 20 percent time to work on developing Bitcoin software. At the meetup, he chatted about infrastructure and security with Bennett Hoffman, a former Microsoft employee who is building a new Bitcoin exchange called Buttercoin.
The two engineers agreed that the system that creates Bitcoins is secure and stable, even if parts of the surrounding ecosystem (exchanges, wallets and so on) are not. Hearn said Bitcoin is not ready for “your grandma” just yet — and that is, in part, a choice by those who are building and fine-tuning the Bitcoin open source code bequeathed by the currency’s pseudonymous creator, Satoshi Nakaomot.
Hearn’s point is that he and others are focused now on improving the processing and ledger system that facilitates Bitcoin transactions; they are ensuring that it can scale in the same way that the Visa payment network is able to handle sales spikes. This focus on “the guts” of Bitcoin means that, for now, the software will remain complicated and will be a challenge to those who aspire to build consumer-facing interfaces on top of it.
This won’t, however, prevent Bitcoin from gaining traction in the real world. David Barrett, CEO of Expensify, explained earlier in the evening that his firm now allows companies to reimburse their employees’ expense reports in Bitcoin. According to Barrett, the Bitcoin option is not a gimmick but rather a cheap and practical solution for companies to pay employees across borders.
Bitcoin will be regulated — and that’s a good thing
Bitcoin watchers gasped this weekend when the Department of Homeland Security executed a seizure warrant against the owner of Mt. Gox, the Japanese exchange where many people trade the currency. The law enforcement action, which comes after U.S. securities regulators said they are looking at Bitcoin, posed a new liquidity threat to the currency and also reinforced its outlaw reputation.
Surprisingly, the Bitcoin backers at the event appeared to welcome the government’s growing involvement. According to Micky Malka of Ribbit Capital, which is investing in Bitcoin ventures, regulation is not just inevitable — but desirable.
“I’m already regulated by eight central banks,” said Malka, explaining that regulation is simply part of any mature financial system and that, in the case of Bitcoin, it is likely to introduce a new level of stability. Malka and others, including the Bitcoin Foundation, said they are less interested in libertarian fantasies than they are in establishing a rational and informed regulatory structure around the currency. Malka added that his biggest fear for Bitcoin is not the U.S. government but shenanigans by speculators.
The bottom line
The San Jose event felt at times like a cross between an investor seminar and a church revival, with the packed room sometimes applauding wildly at the blue skies of Bitcoin. But that doesn’t mean there’s not something very real going on here — a lot of very smart and credible people are putting a lot of time and money on the line in an effort to redefine the world’s financial infrastructure.
According to Wences Caseres, the moment feels like 1992, when the world was on the cusp of discovering the world wide web but hadn’t yet found the right user interface. He might be right.