The Atlantic's Matthew O'Brien is one of the Internet's smartest commentators on economic policy. But like a lot of economics writers, he's been slow to appreciate the disruptive potential of Bitcoin, the Internet's first completely open payment network.
O'Brien says that Bitcoin is the new Segway: a technological marvel that dazzles nerds but will fail to catch on with ordinary consumers. Bitcoin is comically impractical, he suggests: "The people who have bitcoins have no reason to spend them, and the people who don't have no reason to get them. They don't want a currency whose value you can't predict from one hour to the next. They don't want to buy things anonymously. And they don't want transactions to be irreversible."
And he's right! Bitcoin is nowhere close to being ready for use by ordinary consumers. But the big difference between Bitcoin and a Segway is that Segway is a finished consumer product, while Bitcoin is a technology platform. The Segway was basically as good as it was going to get the day it was released. Bitcoin has the potential to become steadily better over time.
In this sense, Bitcoin is more like the PC or the Internet than a Segway. What's important isn't the technology itself, but the ways the technology can enable third parties to build on it.
People forget that early PCs seemed as comically pointless as a Segway and Bitcoin do today. In 1979, the PC was about four years old — about the same age as Bitcoin is today. Disk drives were expensive, so many people had to load software using cassette tapes, a slow and laborious process. There was very little software available, and hardly any of it allowed people to do useful work more efficiently than conventional pre-digital technologies. To a first approximation, the only people who bought PCs were nerds and parents who thought they'd be good educational tools for their kids.
The Internet was even worse. The Internet's predecessor, the ARPANET, was still intimidatingly complex and impractical a full decade after it was first created. True, the Internet of 1979 had e-mail, but it could only be accessed through a clumsy text-based interface, and you could only use it to e-mail a few thousand other people at research universities. And there were some other applications with names like Telnet and FTP, but they would have been completely impenetrable to ordinary users.
Someone with a limited imagination in 1979 could easily have mocked predictions of an Internet-connected PC in every home. Who wants to go through all that hassle just so they can write BASIC computer programs, play primitive computer games, and send e-mails to other nerds?
What happened next was not that ordinary users became more tech-savvy or more tolerant of clunky technology. Rather, a growing community of entrepreneurs and hackers used these open technological platforms to build more user-friendly and powerful applications on top of the PC and Internet platforms. Dan Bricklin invented the first spreadsheet in 1979, creating a compelling case for buying PCs for the office. Apple released the Macintosh in 1984, dramatically reducing the complexity of learning to use a PC. Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1990, bringing graphics and hyperlinks to the Internet. A wide variety of companies — Yahoo, Google, eBay, YouTube, Facebook, and so forth — developed user-friendly Web applications that allowed users to do a variety of useful things online.
Under the hood, today's PC and Internet have a lot in common with their ancestors from the dawn of the computer age. But from the user's perspective, the technology looks totally different. The average iMac user would have no idea what to do with an Apple II+, to say nothing of a PDP-11 connected to the ARPANET.
Something similar could happen with Bitcoin. We're never going to reach a point where normal people run the clunky Bitcoin-Qt clients on their deskop computers. But entrepreneurs and hackers may gradually figure out how to take the powerful technical capabilities of the Bitcoin network and present it to users in a way that's familiar and compelling. Users of the advanced bitcoin apps of the future may not even realize they're using bitcoin, just as you don't have to know anything about TCP/IP to use an iPad. But Bitcoin's unique capabilities could give bitcoin apps features that today's financial network lacks, like lower fees, better security, or the ability to easily make payments across national borders.
Indeed, we're already seeing that start to happen on the merchant side of the network. Bitpay, for example, is a company that accepts bitcoin on behalf of merchants. But to use it, merchants don't have to think about bitcoins at all. Merchants can price their wares in dollars, and payments are automatically converted to dollars and deposited in merchants' conventional bank accounts. From the merchant's perspective, bitcoin is just another payment network that happens to have low fees and no worries about payment disputes.
I've long predicted that Bitcoin's first "killer app" is likely to be in the international payments business, where high fees and a poor customer experience make it right for disruption. Customers in that market are already used to interest rates fluctuating, so bitcoin's volatility is less of a disadvantage.
But open technology platforms have a way of surprising us. Some clever entrepreneur may figure out how to build a bitcoin-based payment app that consumers find more compelling than paying with a credit card, giving Bitcoin a significant share of the market now dominated by Visa and Mastercard. Bitcoin could become the foundation of a practical scheme for online micropayments.
Nothing like that is going to happen to the Segway. The Segway corporation might make incremental improvements to its product over time, but there isn't an army of third-party hackers looking to build killer apps for the Segway platform. Either consumers like Segways or they don't.
So the question to ask about Bitcoin is not "is this a practical technology for ordinary users today?" Obviously, it isn't, but neither were the early PC or Internet. Rather, the question is whether someone will figure out how to use the Bitcoin platform to build compelling products or services in the future. No one knows for sure, but given our experience with disruptive technology platforms, it's foolish to dismiss the possibility.