When Bitreserve's CEO Halsey Minor made a blog post comparing Bitcoin to Netscape, it made a lot of people upset. Why, many thought, would the CEO of a Bitcoin company compare Bitcoin to the long defunct web browser? Does he not believe in Bitcoin? If that is the case, what is he doing in the industry?
Predictably, Bitreserve backed off from the comments and edited the post in an attempt to squash the rising outrage by clarifying what Minor meant. But editing posts can only go so far. There is an invisible line where clarifying becomes changing, and changing things while a public debate is going on can seem dishonest, or even cowardly.
But, they never did feel like the true essence of what Minor was trying to say was properly conveyed. I reached out to Bitreserve in hopes of speaking to Halsey Minor again and getting a chance to better understand what he meant when he compared Bitcoin and Netscape.
Instead, I was offered an interview with the head of their product division, Byrne Reese. He has been with the company for a year and whose resume includes the likes of Livejournal, Typepad and Snap.com. He certainly has the qualifications to speak on Bitreserve's behalf, but I was disappointed that I didn't get to speak to the man that wrote the post himself.
That being said, the conversation with Byrne was illuminating and helped clarify the controversial comparison.
Byrne told me that TCP/IP would have been a more apt comparison than Netscape. The primary intention of the post wasn't that Bitcoin would go away, but that the term “Bitcoin” would fade into the background, like TCP/IP and HTTP and HTML did as the internet grew. Both TCP/IP and Bitcoin are protocols. Everyone who uses the internet uses TCP/IP, but the vast majority of internet users have no idea what that means, and that may have fueled Halsey's decision to use Netscape as an example instead. The average user might not know about the protocols that run the internet, but Netscape was very visible and like bitcoin the currency is now with Bitcoin the protocol, was almost synonymous with the Internet for a time.
That is one of the primary differences between the Netscape comparison and the TCP/IP one. Early adopters of the internet, even those without technical knowledge, remember Netscape. They also remember the impact that a user-friendly browser like Netscape had. That could have something to do with his decision to choose it over TCP/IP. The average internet user doesn't remember TCP/IP, but if cryptocurrencies take over the world, they will remember Bitcoin. The term, in Bitreserve's version of the future, might be used less over time, but people will remember it, just like they remember Netscape.
Like many Bitcoin enthusiasts, Bitreserve sees more in Bitcoin the protocol's future than simply transferring monetary value. They see a future where copyright, DNS ownership and things of that nature are held and transferred on the blockchain.
Bitreserve does believe Bitcoin needs to hold significant monetary value in order to succeed. Byrne said it would be difficult “to assert the opposite” but thinks that applications beyond money need to be brought to the blockchain before we will see more adoption. If the blockchain is the protocol's circulatory system, then Bitcoin is its “blood” he says.
There is, as Byrne aptly points out, a big difference between Bitcoin (capital B) and bitcoin (lowercase b). It is the difference between talking about bitcoin as a currency and Bitcoin as a protocol, and that difference can completely change the meaning of a sentence.
If, in ten years, everyone is sending “dollars” through the “Bitcoin” network and our grandmas don't even know that bitcoin is a currency unto itself as well, does that make Halsey's Netscape comparison more apt? Netscape does live on as Firefox after all, but most users of Firefox don't think about that every time they browse the web. As Byrne argues “Netscape didn't disappear. It evolved.”
If the only people that worry about the price of bitcoin are a few hardcore enthusiasts and speculative investors, but everyone from banks to your grandmother are using it with a few layers of software on top and they use that to do everything from circumvent ACH fees to trade stocks to record website ownership, does the idea that many of them may have never heard of Bitcoin make the change any less significant?
Bitreserve does believe Bitcoin will be the primary cryptocurrency in the foreseeable future. But, Byrne stressed that he feels that smart investors are best served by taking off “the blinders” and not sticking to any sort of “strict dogma.” Meaning, they are open to altcoins in the future if the landscape changes, but they don't expect any of them to become the Internet Explorer to Bitcoin's Netscape anytime soon.
Bitreserve believes Bitcoin's success is tied to adoption, and they believe the best way to do that is to add functions to the blockchain, just like functions were added to the Internet. Back in 1994, very few people imagined YouTube, Facebook, Twitter or everything else that makes the Internet of today more popular and useful than the Internet of yesteryear. Byrne explains:
“[Minor wasn't trying to] make a literal comparison between Netscape and Bitcoin. The allegory he was trying to create was with these early internet products [and bitcoin]. Bitcoin the currency is sort of the first use case and in many respects, the first product of Bitcoin the technology.”
When looking back over the (now edited) post and the comments, it seems the controversy was the result of readers taking a comparison too literally and the author not realizing what kind of knee-jerk reactions would come from invoking the Netscape name. The allegation that Minor doesn't believe in Bitcoin's long-term viability simply wouldn't make sense. Why would he invest time and money into something he is sure is set to fail? It is no secret that Bitreserve is Minor's attempt to rise from the financial ashes. If it fails, he will find it much more difficult to find investors willing to bet on him again.
Of course Bitreserve believes in Bitcoin. To suggest otherwise implies that Minor is intentionally sabotaging himself. It also means that people like Byrne, who have proven very capable in their own right, would be willing to go down with that ship, and for what? The post, despite the unfortunate Netscape comparison, was ultimately meant to be a positive one.
“I think what Halsey was trying to imply, was that these technologies are so fundamental, that like the founding technologies of the internet, they become invisible to the rest of the world, integral but invisible. Not obsolete, but not necessary for people to wrap their heads around.”
That of course, doesn't quite match up with the Netscape comparison. Netscape isn't integral anymore and furthermore, it utilized the integral parts of the internet so that end users wouldn't have to on an individual level. But not everything has to match up perfectly for a comparison to be apt. If you are thinking about bitcoin the currency as a product, then there are lots of parallels between Bitcoin and Netscape. Netscape was a lot of people's first experience with the internet, just as bitcoin the currency is most people's first experience with blockchain technologies today.
Part of the controversy, I believe, has to do with the “gotcha” culture of the internet. There are a few design decisions that make Bitreserve unpopular among some in the community. The primary complaint, the cardinal sin that is unforgivable for a certain segment of the community, is that it is centralized. Never mind that virtually every popular bitcoin service, from exchanges to forums to stores to casinos to lending/investing services are, for the most part, centralized. Never mind that the few decentralized services that do exist, other than the Dark Wallet and Bitcoin itself, are hardly used at all. And never mind that their “reserve ledger” gives them more transparency than most centralized companies – Bitcoin based or not. Bitreserve is centralized and so it must, in those critic's minds, be opposed to decentralization and everything that progresses that. So, when Bitreserve's CEO made a comment connecting Bitcoin to Netscape, it was an easy opportunity to attack the “centralized” Bitreserve.
Does anyone really think that Halsey Minor, the founder of the first non-pornographic internet content company to turn a profit, doesn't know the difference between a protocol and software? Yet there they were, in the comments, gleefully attacking him for not understanding something he clearly does. I suppose it was an opportunity to take a shot at a visible person; of course the internet will have someone ready to oblige.
But expecting every organization to be 100 % decentralized is an absurd standard to hold companies to. Without a doubt, everyone has a right to never put their bitcoins in anything centralized. The safest thing you can do is to depend on no one but yourself. One of great things about Bitcoin is that it allows us to accomplish that with our money for the first time. However, that doesn't mean there isn't value people can add to the bitcoin network in a centralized way. If you aren't interested in doing business with Bitreserve, that is your right, but let's not pretend that they are against decentralization simply because they are offering a product the way products have always been offered.
It has been said that everything that can be decentralized will be decentralized. Despite the self-assertion of the statement, it hasn't happened yet. I want those that advocate that to be correct, decentralization makes us all safer, but if it is going to happen, it will take time and there is no guarantee that it will happen at all. The Internet is decentralized, but Google and Facebook and YouTube and most of the products we use on it everyday aren't.
Maybe someday soon that will change. In the meantime, I am downloading a Netscape skin for Google Chrome from Google's centralized app store. It may just be a quick color change, but this post got me feeling nostalgic about Netscape's old blue and dark blue layout and I'm enjoying it. I don't really care that Google hosted it on its own servers rather than posting it to the blockchain or whatever decentralized solution could be made for that.
Things are evolving at a rapid pace. Let's all calm down and enjoy it. We can all get to where we are going on our own paths, but all crypto-enthusiasts are heading in the same direction and that is important not to forget.
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