By Chris DeRose
Art by: Jing Jin
The Bitcoin bowl was an explosion of hype, confidence, and unbridled optimism. It was a wonderful success for Bitcoin, and an amazing moment in our movement. Many articles have already been written in the short time since the Bitcoin bowl has ended, which discuss the amazing and outstanding event that has just occurred. I myself have even published a fun video of my time at the Bitcoin Bowl. Exponential relationships and swinging extremes are common in the world of Bitcoin, and the opening act of the event which featured the Cassacius coin being dropped by a military troop on descent from the ceiling of the Tropicana field was one of these extremes. While the masses of football fans were merely perplexed by the novelty of a new technological trinket, veteran Bitcoiners were teary eyed while their coin was being revered in such an ostentatious display. If rolicking frivolty is the general theme of college sporting events, then Bitcoin certainly stands to make friends fast in this circle. However, like much in the world of Bitcoin, the contrasts between our history and the cultural norms we find ourselves surrounded by are explicitly at odds. While the Bitcoin community, and certainly myself, are not inherently anti-American; they are typified by a libertarian and anarchist theme. And as the expansion of our audience has not brought with it an expansion in the socio economic dialogue, we come to a paradox that has typified Bitcoin in the year 2014.
What I saw
Bitcoin in the year 2014 would be well-characterized as a year where ideologically-defined Bitcoin companies began to find their place in the status quo. And what better a way to reach average-Joe then by way of an American pastime. In this context, it would be appropriate to find at the apex of this year, our very first Bitcoin Bowl. And in keeping with the context of this year's football theme, let's explore the state of the Bitcoin economy in football terms. On the left side of the metaphorical field is our Home team, the Bitcoiners: Rabid, passionate and teaming for mass disruption to the existing financial system. On the right, we have the unwashed masses, cheering, celebrating, and thoroughly uninterested with the future of payment technology or decentralization. Representing our team on the field are players like: Changetip, Bitpay, and of course, liberty. On our opposing team, we find: Amex, Visa, and … well, apathy.
While walking through the halls and street around the Bitcoin bowl, it was very apparent that very few fans at the game really knew what problems Bitcoin solved. And the truth, in the current state of Bitcoin, is probably "Not many". It was very obvious at the Bitcoin bowl that Bitpay is at a crossroads as it seeks to discover just where it fits in our anarchist meets armchair-quarterback future. As I explored the Bitcoin bowl, I talked to a very, very small number of Bitcoin enthusiasts, witnessed a huge number of football fans, and throughout the event I couldn't help but to see the gap between these people as a symbolic representation of the surrounding economy. While the veteran Bitcoiners are very passionate online and contribute an inordinate amount of content, discussion, and passion to debates surrounding the society and culture we live in, the vast and resounding majority of the attendees at the Bitcoin bowl saw little in the technology that offered them convenience or utility.
Bitpay is clearly a leader in the Bitcoin industry. The company is well-funded, well-staffed, and in an obvious place to capture the money that will inevitably flow out of this movement. But too, it is exceedingly clear that Bitpay will have a lot of changes to make, to cater to the audiences at football games. While passionate Bitcoiners are very apt to: take the time to convert their fiat to Bitcoin, take the risk on volatility, and go out of their way to spend their Bitcoin on merchants with whom they're philosophically aligned; convincing the masses that this behavior is in their interest is unlikely to be a fruitful endeavor. While Bitpay has been very successful in pitching their wonderful solutions to merchants, in the land of the consumer space, Bitpay merely has an empty field of chirping crickets. Estimates of the number of people who paid in Bitcoin at Bowl and its surrounding events are unavailable. But anecdotally, it would appear that this number is lower than the amount change-tipped during the same time on twitter. Certainly Bitpay is aware of this disparity. Possibly there is a plan to remedy this gaff. Certainly the time to address this is now.
As programmers are quick to suggest: you optimize where there are bottlenecks. Yet, for reasons that have remained elusive, Bitpay has adamantly maintained that consumers are not its business. However, with no-one stepping up to fill the gaps in this space, the onus to do so will inevitably fall on Bitpay no matter how reluctant management is to do so. Fortunately for Bitpay (and as American Express, and Visa are well-aware) the profits to be had in the consumer space are enormous. Enter Apple.
In typical Apple capacity, the company has brought its own entrant to the payments market that is: reliable, easy, and expensive. Apple Pay hits on all of the needs of the mass consumer space, and requires no knowledge of ideology, technical nuances, or political ideology. Apple presents to its customers a simple tool that saves time, and incurs minimal encumbrances to use. Apple customers are very happy to use what's convenient, and are even happy to pay a fee for this convenience. With merchants chomping at the bit to accept Bitcoin, consumer solutions need only to make a few simple changes in order to quickly exceed the efficiency and convenience being offered by Apple and which will quickly work on all phones, not just iPhone 6.
A Bitpay mobile payment app, done right, would quickly gather fans amongst the armchair-quarterback sector of our economy. Principally, this app would function as a point-of-sale debt leveraging instrument (aka "A Credit Card" without the card). To do this right would require that consumers are only to be shown, and accounted via, fiat denominations at all times. At the time of sale, a price should be displayed in fiat, at the POS terminal and/or website. Thereafter, a consumer would proceed to scan a QR code, or receive an NFC message, that a bill is due. The consumer should see the invoice presented on their phone in fiat, and they would click 'accept' to pay. At the time the acceptance is made, the payment would then be sent to the merchant via Bitcoin (unbeknownst to the user) and the user's fiat-denominated credit account would be debited the fiat-amount presented. Payment reconciliation between the consumer and Bitpay would work identical to existing credit card services, and would be presented to the consumer for payment every thirty days. The revenue models for Bitpay to pursue from here are endless, but off the bat, interest fees on loans is an easy way to monetize the service.
Consumers and businesses in this proposed model will bear no risk due to a stable unit-of-account, and will experience all the conveniences of a modern payment mechanism, with none of the trust requirements, compatibilty encumberances, or expenses relating to the Apple Pay implementation. As Bitcoin continues to grow, other merchants and even banks will adopt this "Bitcoin as a payment mechanism" approach and systematically displace traditional credit card companies. Meanwhile, Bitpay would be in a position to service its fellow credit providers with Bitcoin volatility insurance, much like it does on the merchant side. In this way, Bitpay will deliver on most or all of it's promise, albeit, with the consumer being oblivious to the mechanism that is Bitcoin which is used behind the scenes. This adoption model will closely resemble the success of TCP, HTTP, and SMTP; all of which have millions of users that have no idea they're using these protocols every day.
The real winner at the 2104 Bitcoin Bowl, and perhaps even the biggest win of the Bitcoin year, would likely be Changetip. Prior to Changetip's arrival, micropayments were an unchartered and inaccessible endeavor. Content creators and content consumers had few means of attaching monetary value to their exchanges, and it was difficult for contributors to be compensated in a meaningful way. With Changetip, easy-to-use, frictionless graphical interfaces to the process of tipping were introduced to the greater Internet space in a way that was difficult to ignore, if not outright impossible to opt out of. During the Bitcoin bowl, changetips were prominently flung between commenters on twitter with an exposure to Bitcoin was far more meaningful than anything presented via their televisions. By showing users what problems that have, that can now be solved, Changetip was likely responsible for introducing more people to Bitcoin, during the Bitcoin bowl, than any other company on the sponsor roster. It will be solutions like Changetip, that will drive successes in our Bitcoin economy, by catering principally to consumer needs, above all other reasonable considerations.
When Bitcoin's price surged in December of 2013, it was due to many forces in the surrounding market: pent-up pressure from underserved interests in the payment space, Asian interests entering the market, halving day, and the discovery of Bitcoin by the mainstream US media. To date, the stagnant price seems to fairly represent the current state of a market that's yet to actually expand outside the relatively small audience that is the ideologically passionate Bitcoiner. Bitcoin is by no means in bad shape, and can coast by just fine for the foreseeable future given the existing state of affairs. However, with no-one stepping up to the armchair-quarterback consumer plate, it does beg questions as to how long the patience of Bitpay's merchants will last. Representatives at Bitpay are tight-lipped on their consumer strategies, and limit much of this topic to their support of a third-party network of BTM providers. But BTMs are a solution in search of a problem that the fans of the Bitcoin Bowl simply don't have. The Bitcoin bowl was an emphatic Huzzah to the success of our movement, and what we've accomplished. But the Bitcoin bowl was also a metaphor for our problems. Bitcoin will be successful. Bitcoin will change the world. But Bitcoin will do it slowly. The big question to be asked at the end of the Bitcoin bowl is : Who learned more about Bitcoin at this year's game: Football fans, or BitPay?
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