What’s Blockchain Actually Good for, Anyway? For Now, Not Much
Not long ago, blockchain technology was touted as a way to track tuna, bypass banks, and preserve property records. Reality has proved a much tougher challenge.
In early 2018, Amos Meiri got the kind of windfall many startup founders only dream of. Meiri’s company, Colu, develops digital currencies for cities—coupons, essentially, that encourage people to spend their money locally. The company was having some success with pilot projects in the UK and Israel, but Meiri had an idea for something bigger. He envisioned a global network of city currencies, linked together using blockchain technology. So he turned to a then-popular way to fund his idea: the initial coin offering, or ICO. Colu raised nearly $20 million selling a digital token it called CLN.
Now, Meiri is doing something unusual: Giving the money back. After a year of regulatory and technical headaches, he stopped trying to fit blockchain into his business plan. He thinks other blockchain projects will follow suit.
It’s not unusual for startup efforts to fail or pivot when the product doesn’t work or the funding runs out. But blockchain has offered a wilder ride than most new technologies. Two years ago, ICOs like Meiri’s lured billions of dollars into blockchain companies and spawned a cottage industry of pilot projects. For a while, a blockchain seemed a salve for just about any problem: Fraudulent tuna. Unreliable health records. Homelessness. Remember WhopperCoin? Burger King’s crypto-for-burgers scheme, along with thousands of other projects, has long lost its sizzle. Many were scams from the start. But even among the more legitimate enterprises, there are relatively few winners. Enter, as a recent report from Gartner put it, “blockchain fatigue.”
“What you’re seeing right now is lethargy,” says Emin Gun Sirer, a professor of computer science at Cornell and founder of Ava Labs. “The current technologies fall really short.”
Bitcoin appears to be here to stay, even if the price has recently slumped. An entire industry has been built around holding and trading digital assets like it. But attempts to build more complex applications using blockchain are hobbled by the underlying technology. Blockchains offer an immutable ledger of data without relying on a central authority—that’s core to the hype behind the technology. But the cryptographic machinery behind blockchains is notoriously slow. Early platforms, like Ethereum, which gave rise to the ICO frenzy, are far too sluggish to handle most commercial applications. For that reason, “decentralized” projects represent a tiny portion of corporate blockchain efforts, perhaps 3 percent, says Apolline Blandin, a researcher at the Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance.
The rest take shortcuts. So-called permissioned blockchains borrow ideas and terms from Bitcoin, but cut corners in the name of speed and simplicity. They retain central entities that control the data, doing away with the central innovation of blockchains. Blandin has a name for those projects: “blockchain memes.” Hype and lavish funding fueled many such projects. But often, the same applications could be built with less-splashy technology. As the buzzwords wear off, some have begun asking, what’s the point?
When Donna Kinville, the city clerk in South Burlington, Vermont, was approached by a startup that wanted to put the city’s land records on a blockchain, she was willing to listen. “We had the reputation of being ahead of things,” she says. The company, called Propy, had raised $15 million through an ICO in 2017 and forged Vermont connections, including lobbying for blockchain-friendly state legislation.
Propy pitched blockchain as a more secure way to handle land records. “It didn’t take long for them to say that they were overzealous,” Kinville says. She worked with Propy for about a year as it designed its platform and recorded the city’s historical data on the Ethereum blockchain. Propy also recorded one sale for the city, for a parcel of empty land whose owners weren’t in much of a rush.
Last month, Propy pitched Kinville a nearly finished product. She was uninspired. The system lacked practical features she uses all the time, like a simple way to link documents. She liked the software she uses now. It was built by an established company that was just a call away, in case anything fritzed.
“I’m having a hard time understanding how blockchain is going to really positively affect my citizens,” Kinville says. “Is it the speed of the blockchain? The security? Between faxes and emails, things get done just as quickly.” The city’s data is backed up on three servers; Kinville keeps a print copy, just in case. “We Vermonters are cautious. We like paper; you can always go back to it.” She sent Propy notes on how to improve its product, but doesn’t expect to buy it.
Natalia Karayaneva, Propy’s founder, says the land records platform is being tested in another Vermont town that didn’t have a computer system. But she acknowledges that privacy issues, as well as local rules and legacy computer systems, mean blockchain isn’t always a good fit for government. Propy is now focusing on an automated platform for realtors. It also uses blockchain, but the company doesn’t always trumpet it.
“In 2017, it was enough to have blockchain technology and everyone reaches out to you,” says Karayaneva. “But now working with traditional investors, we actually avoid the word blockchain in many of our materials.”
For a while, blockchain was seen as a panacea, says Andrew Stevens, a Gartner analyst who coauthored the “blockchain fatigue” study. Stevens’ team focused on projects that touted blockchain as a way to identify fraudulent and tainted goods in supply chains. They predicted 90 percent of those projects would eventually stall. Blockchain evangelizers were finding that supply chains more complex than expected, and that blockchain offered no ready-made solutions. When it comes to mission-critical blockchain projects, “there are no deployments across any supply chains,” he says.