Is blockchain finally about to break through to the mainstream?

16 May 2018

Image: Peter Milto/Shutterstock

As Zuckerberg plots bringing blockchain to Facebook and HTC announces plans for a ‘blockchain phone’, this business is getting very real, writes John Kennedy.

When will blockchain reach its breakthrough moment?

Those thoughts swirled in my head when I recently met with Lory Kehoe, head of the new ConsenSys studio in Dublin, where 60 new jobs will be created at an innovation studio/development lab. There, teams will focus on projects for corporates or individual projects called ‘spokes’, which will in effect be spin-outs or whole new ventures, many of which will be fuelled by initial coin offers (ICOs) based on Ethereum, a decentralised cryptocurrency platform.

For a long time, I felt that the promise of blockchain was often blighted by the cryptocurrency craze or gold rush. You know, like how fluctuating fervour for bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies would ultimately lead to the demise of the global economy in a 1929 or 2008-style reckoning. Well, it hasn’t happened (at least not yet) and the more that I think about it, there is a symbiotic relationship between serious blockchain endeavours and the utilisation of cryptocurrencies.

Without blockchain, there obviously would be no bitcoin, Ethereum or whatever digital currency has been created in the last two years amid a myriad of ICOs.

The promises of blockchain are manifold, with the decentralised ledger technology potentially paving the way for how doctors and patients can monitor drug dosages; how consumers can track the origins of the steak they are cooking for dinner tonight, from farm to fork; how farmers in the EU can follow and process farm levies and payments; how students can submit exam papers and projects; and heck, even how CIOs can one day run their IT networks.

But it is striking how ConsenSys was founded by none other than Joseph Lubin, a Canadian entrepreneur who has founded and co-founded several companies, including the Swiss-based Ethereum.

And, indeed, it is Ethereum on which go-teams of entrepreneurs and full-stack developers will build and deliver Ethereum-based blockchain platforms and products from a studio in Dublin. Just as compelling, to prove their concepts, they will be free to crowdfund them via ICOs. There is something quite sincere about that.

An easy button for blockchain?

It emerged this week that tech giant Amazon’s cloud computing arm Amazon Web Services (AWS) is partnering with a start-up called Kaleido to make it easier for customers to put their services on blockchain. Kaleido was indeed born out of one of the ConsenSys labs and Lubin has described it as a “heavy-duty” move by the tech giant to get into blockchain.

Through Kaleido, AWS is aiming to give customers an ‘easy button’ to get into blockchain and it will be the first blockchain software-as-a-solution (SaaS) available on AWS Marketplace.

Just like with cloud, people will talk about blockchain in futuristic terms before they realise that it is already there in their lives. It is possibly already behind the scenes, running their social networks, bank accounts and potentially more.

Facebook to switch on blockchain

Even Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg is fascinated by the potential of blockchain. He is reportedly deploying one of his top lieutenants at the social network, David Marcus, who currently heads up Messenger, to take over a new internal team that will be dedicated to blockchain technology.

This is quite a serious step when you consider the calibre of people joining Marcus, including Instagram engineering chief James Everingham and Instagram product chief Kevin Weil.

Is Facebook about to launch its own cryptocurrency or is it more about the internal plumbing and data efficiency of the social media giant? Does Zuckerberg intend to entirely decentralise Facebook?

Perhaps it extends to the very crux of privacy following the Cambridge Analytica affair. Maybe blockchain could provide an indelible record for developers and users around what’s been going on with apps or in their digital lives.

Global trade on blockchain

Earlier this week, it also emerged that HSBC claimed to have completed the world’s first trade finance interbank transaction using blockchain technology with Dutch bank ING in a push to boost efficiency in the multitrillion-dollar funding of international trade.

HSBC and ING completed the deal for Cargill last week when a shipment of soybeans was transported from Argentina to Malaysia via the global commodities trader’s Geneva and Singapore subsidiaries, HSBC revealed.

HTC reveals blockchain-powered phone

It doesn’t stop there. Taiwanese smartphone maker HTC is understood to be developing a new Android phone called Exodus that will be powered entirely by blockchain technology. Exodus will feature a universal wallet and a built-in secure hardware enclave to support cryptocurrencies and decentralised applications.

The phone supports protocols including bitcoin, Lightning Network, Ethereum, Dfinity and more. HTC is also understood to be considering only accepting cryptocurrency as a form of payment for the phone.

Another blockchain-powered smartphone from Sirin Labs is also slated to be released later this year.

While cryptocurrency has attracted much of the hype and glamour, true advocates of blockchain have long argued that the underlying technology has many powerful use cases that have yet to be explored.

With advocates such as Zuckerberg, HSBC and now HTC, it finally seems like blockchain is about to come out of the fringes and into the mainstream.

And what’s to stop us? A mere thing called imagination.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years