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Why Bitcoin might still be a big deal

Welcome to 2015!

To start off the year, I thought I would talk about something pretty geeky, but very forward looking: Bitcoin.

I wrote about Bitcoin just over a year ago when I was first starting to wrap my head around it, but a lot has happened since then. Many of you might know that 2014 was a terrible year for Bitcoin and that its price has declined significantly (chart from Coinbase):

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But does that mean Bitcoin is a flop, or that the hype has just died down a bit?

If you follow what’s being discussed within the tech community, you’ll know that there are still lots of people who are bullish on Bitcoin. But more precisely, they are bullish on the underlying architecture behind Bitcoin and something that is called the Blockchain.

I’m not going to get too technical in this post (if you want that, go here), but I do want to talk about three things (that I’ve mostly learned from the folks over at Union Square Ventures): the Blockchain, why it matters, and what it could mean for specific industries such as transportation and real estate. I promise to make it relevant at the end.

The way to think about all of this is in layers.

The Blockchain is the foundation or base of Bitcoin. It’s essentially a decentralized public ledger that keeps track of all the Bitcoin transactions. Decentralized means that not one single person or company owns the database. It’s free for anyone and everyone to see. This structure is important because it enables peer-to-peer transactions across the internet, as opposed to going through a bank or other intermediary.

But the key takeaway is that Bitcoin is simply one example of a “protocol” built on top of the Blockchain. And there are many others in the works, including a protocol for realtime ride sharing (Lazooz) and a protocol for a decentralized peer-to-peer marketplace (OpenBazaar). And so the real innovation is the Blockchain, not Bitcoin itself.

Why does this matter?

It matters because these protocols are, again, not owned by a single entity, which is remarkably different than the way most things work today. Take for example the residential real estate industry. In the Greater Toronto Area, the data that emerges from home listings and sales is owned by the Toronto Real Estate Board.

And since this data is privately owned, a lot of it remains only accessible to “members” or real estate agents. The Competition Bureau has been fighting for more openness, but the Toronto Real Estate Board obviously wants to keep as much of this data as it can to itself. Who can blame them.

But what if somebody came along and created a new protocol for a decentralized peer-to-peer home marketplace? In that case no one would own the data, which means everyone would have access to it. And that would completely change the landscape. I’m fuzzy on what this protocol would even look like, but it seems entirely possible given what else is in the works.

And if this Bitcoin Blockchain revolution does actually take place, it wouldn’t be restricted to only non-tech legacy industries. Joel Monegro of Union Square Ventures believes that “decentralized protocols” such as Lazooz and OpenBazaar (mentioned above) could even have a big impact on companies such as Uber and eBay, respectively.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around all of this, but I want to understand it and I thought you all might as well. Because even though it seems very tech right now, the implications would also be very non-tech if it turns out to be true.

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