How We Should Think About Blockchain Today

I recently stumbled across the following tweet by Ryan Walsh: 

"The best blockchain company is the company that blows customer’s minds and never needs to tell them it’s blockchain."

Recognizing that the Blockchain is merely an enabler to create customer value and does not create any value in itself encapsulates the essence of the current state of the Blockchain technology. When we think about a possible future widespread adoption, many critics still hint at Blockchain's complexities. Referring to the article "The Truth about Blockchain" in the Harvard Business Review, technologies with a high degree of novelty and complexity usually have the longest periods of adoption - but will eventually bring sweeping transformations to our economic, social and political systems. Blockchain is certainly in this cateogry. Even though novelty and complexity make Blockchain hard to grasp and hinders its contagiousness, it should not make us less optimistic about the technology's future potential. Why? 

In a Playboy Interview from 1985, Steve Jobs, who had just launched the Apple Macintosh a couple of months ago, vividly describes the mechanics of technology adoption. Take a look:

Playboy: What will change?

Jobs: The most compelling reason for most people to buy a computer for the home will be to link it into a nationwide communications network. We're just in the beginning stages of what will be a truly remarkable breakthrough for most people-as remarkable as the telephone.

Playboy: Specifically, what kind of breakthrough are you talking about?

Jobs: I can only begin to speculate. We see that a lot in our industry: You don't know exactly what's going to result, but you know it's something very big and very good.

Playboy: Then for now, aren't you asking home-computer buyers to invest $3000 in what is essentially an act of faith?

Jobs: In the future, it won't be an act of faith. The hard part of what we're up against now is that people ask you about specifics and you can't tell them. A hundred years ago, if somebody had asked Alexander Graham Bell, "What are you going to be able to do with a telephone?" he wouldn't have been able to tell him the ways the telephone would affect the world. He didn't know that people would use the telephone to call up and find out what movies were playing that night or to order some groceries or call a relative on the other side of the globe. But remember that first the public telegraph was inaugurated, in 1844. It was an amazing breakthrough in communications. You could actually send messages from New York to San Francisco in an afternoon. People talked about putting a telegraph on every desk in America to improve productivity. But it wouldn't have worked. It required that people learn this whole sequence of strange incantations, Morse code, dots and dashes, to use the telegraph. It took about 40 hours to learn. The majority of people would never learn how to use it. So, fortunately, in the 1870s, Bell filed the patents for the telephone. It performed basically the same function as the telegraph, but people already knew how to use it. Also, the neatest thing about it was that besides allowing you to communicate with just words, it allowed you to sing.

 Steve Jobs during his interview with Playboy in 1985  (Source:  Longform )

Steve Jobs during his interview with Playboy in 1985  (Source: Longform)

There are two things to take away here: First, the expectations about the future possibilities of the Internet were similarly vague as they are today with Blockchain. Second, a large part of today's internet users (and probably even more people in the 1990s, when the Internet started and was celebrated in the realm of technologists) still cannot explain how the Internet works - or are aware of the difference between the World Wide Web and the Internet. 

Key layers of the Internet (Source: Wikipedia). 

But here's the thing: They don't have to! In the course of the last two and a half decades, many companies created amazing new products and services with impressive user experiences that all create enormous amounts of value – for customers and businesses alike (we all know them, so I'm not going to repeat them here). New technologies and ecosystems arose on top of the Internet, such as the cloud, internet of things, the connected home, smart manufacturing, AI, et cetera (for an overview I would recommend Klaus Schwab's book "The fourth Industrial Revolution"). Thereby, the Internet was an enabler. 

Meanwhile, the Internet itself became second nature. I remember that by the end of the 1990s, "surfing" would still be an act in itself. My father would walk into a separate "computer room", wait for 10 minutes for a connection, bear some painstakingly peeping sounds (listen to it here for some nostalgia!), until he would be able to connect to the World Wide Web and search something on "Google" or "Yahoo! Search". While yesterday the technology was in the foreground, today, the word "google" is part of the Oxford Dictionary and our culture. Oh and by the way, it runs on the World Wide Web. And the experience is amazing.

Thus, as we go along, I believe that the Blockchain technology itself will become second nature and move into the background (at the moment, it is still in the 1st phase of Garnter's Hype Cycle).

 The Gartner's Hype Cycle of 2016 (Source:  Gartner ). 

The Gartner's Hype Cycle of 2016 (Source: Gartner). 

And while many people don't seem to understand the specifics of the technology yet – they may never have to, as it will eventually sneak into our lives and change everything. Companies will create products and services with ground-breaking customer experiences that are based on Blockchain technology – as they did with the Internet. 

For business students and future business leaders or entrepreneurs, who once might create products and services powered by Blockchain, this realization will be especially relevant. It is also critical when trying to assess the technology's current and future potential from a business perspective. Remember what Steve Jobs said? "[...] technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.” 

Let's combine Blockchain with liberal arts.


This article is part of a two-part series. While this article covered how we should think about Blockchain today, the second article will focus on how to think about Blockchain in the future and answer the question: How can we develop a successful narrative for a future with Blockchain?