What is blockchain?
Blockchain is beginning to get a lot of attention, so I thought it might be time to figure out what it is and what it means.
Basically, a blockchain is a permissionless, distributed database that maintains a growing list of records (transactions) in a linear, chronological (and time-stamped) ledger.
At a high level, this is how it works. Each computer connected to the network gets a copy of the entire blockchain and performs the task of validating and relaying transactions for the whole chain. The batches of valid transactions added to the record are called “blocks.” A block is the “current” part of a blockchain that records some or all of the recent transactions and once completed goes into the blockchain as a permanent database. Each time a block gets completed, a new block is created, with every block containing a hash of the previous block. There are countless numbers of blocks in the blockchain.
To use a conventional banking analogy, the blocks would be a full history of every banking transaction for every person, and the blockchain would be a complete banking history. The entire blockchain is sent to everyone who has access, and every user validates the information in the block. It’s like if Tom, Bob and Harry were standing on the street corner and saw a cyclist hit by a car. Individually, all three men will be asked if the cyclist was struck by the car, and all three will respond “yes.” The cyclist being hit by the car becomes part of the blockchain, and that fact cannot be altered.
Blockchain generally is used in the context of bitcoin, where similar uses of the structure are called altchains. Why should I care or, at the very least, pay attention to this movement? Because the idea of it is inching toward the tipping point of mainstream. I recently read an article that identified some blockchain trends that could shape the industry in coming months. The ones I found most interesting were:
- Blockchain apps will be released
- Interest in use cases outside payments will pick up
- Consortia will prove to be important
- Venture capital money will flow to blockchain start-ups
While it’s true that much of the hype around blockchain is coming from people with a vested interest, it is beginning to generate more generalized market buzz as its proponents emphasize how it can reduce risk, improve efficiency and ultimately provide better customer service. Let’s face it, the ability to maintain secure, fast and accurate calculations could revolutionize the banking and investment industries, as well as ecommerce. In fact, 11 major banks recently completed a private blockchain test, exchanging multiple tokens among offices in North America, Europe and Asia over five days. (You can read The Wall Street Journal article here.)
As more transactions and data are stored in blockchain or altchain, greater possibilities open up. It’s these possibilities that have several tech companies, like IBM, as well as financial institutions creating what has become known as an open ledger initiative to use the blockchain model in the development of new technologies that will enable a wider array of services. There is no doubt that the concept is intriguing — so much so that even the SEC has approved a plan to issue stock via blockchain. (You can read the Wired article here.) The potential is enough to make many folks giddy. The idea that risk could become a thing of the past because of the blockchain’s immutable historical record — wow.
It’s good to be aware and keep an eye on the open ledger initiative, but let’s not forget history, which has taught us that (in the wise words of Craig Newmark), “Crooks are early adopters.” Since blockchain’s original and primary usage has been with bitcoin, I don’t think it is unfair to say that there will be some perceptions to overcome — like the association of bitcoin to activities on the Dark Web such as money laundering, drug-related transactions and funding illegal activities. Until we start to see the application across mainstream use cases, we won’t know how secure blockchain is or how open business and consumers will be to embracing it. In the meantime, remind me again, how long has it taken to get to a point of practical application and more widespread use of biometrics?
To learn more, click here to read the original article.