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Why Bitcoin Matters, by Marc Andreessen - NY Times

Stashed in: Marc Andreessen, Teh Internets, Network Effects, Money!, Awesome, Feedback, @a16z, Rap Genius, Bitcoin, Bitcoin

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I can't believe he just used "QR code" in the context of PoS.  Urgh.

But you don't mind him comparing Bitcoin 2014 to Internet 1993 and Personal Computers 1975?

Good answer to the question, "What is Bitcoin?"

Bitcoin is an Internet-wide distributed ledger. You buy into the ledger by purchasing one of a fixed number of slots, either with cash or by selling a product and service for Bitcoin. You sell out of the ledger by trading your Bitcoin to someone else who wants to buy into the ledger. Anyone in the world can buy into or sell out of the ledger any time they want – with no approval needed, and with no or very low fees. The Bitcoin “coins” themselves are simply slots in the ledger, analogous in some ways to seats on a stock exchange, except much more broadly applicable to real world transactions.

The Bitcoin ledger is a new kind of payment system. Anyone in the world can pay anyone else in the world any amount of value of Bitcoin by simply transferring ownership of the corresponding slot in the ledger. Put value in, transfer it, the recipient gets value out, no authorization required, and in many cases, no fees.

That last part is enormously important. Bitcoin is the first Internetwide payment system where transactions either happen with no fees or very low fees (down to fractions of pennies). Existing payment systems charge fees of about 2 to 3 percent – and that’s in the developed world. In lots of other places, there either are no modern payment systems or the rates are significantly higher. We’ll come back to that.

Bitcoin is a digital bearer instrument. It is a way to exchange money or assets between parties with no pre-existing trust: A string of numbers is sent over email or text message in the simplest case. The sender doesn’t need to know or trust the receiver or vice versa. Related, there are no chargebacks – this is the part that is literally like cash – if you have the money or the asset, you can pay with it; if you don’t, you can’t. This is brand new. This has never existed in digital form before.

Bitcoin is a digital currency, whose value is based directly on two things: use of the payment system today – volume and velocity of payments running through the ledger – and speculation on future use of the payment system. This is one part that is confusing people. It’s not as much that the Bitcoin currency has some arbitrary value and then people are trading with it; it’s more that people can trade with Bitcoin (anywhere, everywhere, with no fraud and no or very low fees) and as a result it has value.

Bitcoin is a classic network effect, a positive feedback loop:

The more people who use Bitcoin, the more valuable Bitcoin is for everyone who uses it, and the higher the incentive for the next user to start using the technology. Bitcoin shares this network effect property with the telephone system, the web, and popular Internet services like eBay and Facebook.

In fact, Bitcoin is a four-sided network effect. There are four constituencies that participate in expanding the value of Bitcoin as a consequence of their own self-interested participation. Those constituencies are (1) consumers who pay with Bitcoin, (2) merchants who accept Bitcoin, (3) “miners” who run the computers that process and validate all the transactions and enable the distributed trust network to exist, and (4) developers and entrepreneurs who are building new products and services with and on top of Bitcoin.

All four sides of the network effect are playing a valuable part in expanding the value of the overall system, but the fourth is particularly important.

Although I agree with this in theory, the free, instantaneous conversion between Bitcoins and dollars does not exist today:

Critics of Bitcoin point to limited usage by ordinary consumers and merchants, but that same criticism was leveled against PCs and the Internet at the same stage. Every day, more and more consumers and merchants are buying, using and selling Bitcoin, all around the world. The overall numbers are still small, but they are growing quickly. And ease of use for all participants is rapidly increasing as Bitcoin tools and technologies are improved. Remember, it used to be technically challenging to even get on the Internet. Now it’s not.

The criticism that merchants will not accept Bitcoin because of its volatility is also incorrect. Bitcoin can be used entirely as a payment system; merchants do not need to hold any Bitcoin currency or be exposed to Bitcoin volatility at any time. Any consumer or merchant can trade in and out of Bitcoin and other currencies any time they want.

Why would any merchant – online or in the real world – want to accept Bitcoin as payment, given the currently small number of consumers who want to pay with it? My partner Chris Dixon recently gave this example:

“Let’s say you sell electronics online. Profit margins in those businesses are usually under 5 percent, which means conventional 2.5 percent payment fees consume half the margin. That’s money that could be reinvested in the business, passed back to consumers or taxed by the government. Of all of those choices, handing 2.5 percent to banks to move bits around the Internet is the worst possible choice. Another challenge merchants have with payments is accepting international payments. If you are wondering why your favorite product or service isn’t available in your country, the answer is often payments.”

In addition, merchants are highly attracted to Bitcoin because it eliminates the risk of credit card fraud. This is the form of fraud that motivates so many criminals to put so much work into stealing personal customer information and credit card numbers.

Since Bitcoin is a digital bearer instrument, the receiver of a payment does not get any information from the sender that can be used to steal money from the sender in the future, either by that merchant or by a criminal who steals that information from the merchant./p>

Credit card fraud is such a big deal for merchants, credit card processors and banks that online fraud detection systems are hair-trigger wired to stop transactions that look even slightly suspicious, whether or not they are actually fraudulent. As a result, many online merchants are forced to turn away 5 to 10 percent of incoming orders that they could take without fear if the customers were paying with Bitcoin, where such fraud would not be possible. Since these are orders that were coming in already, they are inherently the highest margin orders a merchant can get, and so being able to take them will drastically increase many merchants’ profit margins.

Bitcoin’s antifraud properties even extend into the physical world of retail stores and shoppers.

For example, with Bitcoin, the huge hack that recently stole 70 million consumers’ credit card information from the Target department store chain would not have been possible. Here’s how that would work:

You fill your cart and go to the checkout station like you do now. But instead of handing over your credit card to pay, you pull out your smartphone and take a snapshot of a QR code displayed by the cash register. The QR code contains all the information required for you to send Bitcoin to Target, including the amount. You click “Confirm” on your phone and the transaction is done (including converting dollars from your account into Bitcoin, if you did not own any Bitcoin).

Target is happy because it has the money in the form of Bitcoin, which it can immediately turn into dollars if it wants, and it paid no or very low payment processing fees; you are happy because there is no way for hackers to steal any of your personal information; and organized crime is unhappy. (Well, maybe criminals are still happy: They can try to steal money directly from poorly-secured merchant computer systems. But even if they succeed, consumers bear no risk of loss, fraud or identity theft.)

Marc admits that there will be some growing pains in the coming years for Bitcoin, but ultimately he is very bullish on the potential:

The coming years will be a period of great drama and excitement revolving around this new technology.

For example, some prominent economists are deeply skeptical of Bitcoin, even though Ben S. Bernanke, formerly Federal Reserve chairman, recently wrote that digital currencies like Bitcoin “may hold long-term promise, particularly if they promote a faster, more secure and more efficient payment system.” And in 1999, the legendary economist Milton Friedman said: “One thing that’s missing but will soon be developed is a reliable e-cash, a method whereby on the Internet you can transfer funds from A to B without A knowing B or B knowing A – the way I can take a $20 bill and hand it over to you, and you may get that without knowing who I am.”

Economists who attack Bitcoin today might be correct, but I’m with Ben and Milton.

Further, there is no shortage of regulatory topics and issues that will have to be addressed, since almost no country’s regulatory framework for banking and payments anticipated a technology like Bitcoin.

But I hope that I have given you a sense of the enormous promise of Bitcoin. Far from a mere libertarian fairy tale or a simple Silicon Valley exercise in hype, Bitcoin offers a sweeping vista of opportunity to reimagine how the financial system can and should work in the Internet era, and a catalyst to reshape that system in ways that are more powerful for individuals and businesses alike.

I'm personally excited by the idea of removing the 3% transaction cost on all items. It will be exciting to see what this enables. 

I'm still not sure why a new currency needed to be invented to remove the transaction cost.

Perhaps the Rap Genius annotated paper explains why:

Quoting that article:

To the uninitiated, Rap Genius is a user-generated content annotation platform that allows anyone to submit interpretations and explanations for music lyrics, documents, poetry, and other forms of text. It’s also an Andreessen Horowitz portfolio company. The Satoshi paper is a reference to the original whitepaper outlining the idea for the bitcoin protocol. It was written by the pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto and sent to his cryptology mailing list in 2008.

The paper is dense with cryptography and mathematics, making it difficult to parse for the laymen reader and also making it a natural candidate for elucidation through Rap Genius. The paper also contains critical details about what makes bitcoin such a revolutionary concept, including its novel solution to the trusted third-party problem and the double spending problem, both of which have plagued previous attempts at creating decentralized digital currencies.

The Satoshi paper is 3,388 words long and, as of this writing, less than 24 hours after the initial request via Twitter, 1,070 words have been annotated (nearly 32 percent). That includes 39 separate annotations, 14 of which have been verified as written by expert users. Much of the heavy lifting was done by an account belonging to Andreessen Horowitz portfolio company and cloud-based bitcoin wallet platform CoinBase. The Rap Genius page has already been viewed more than 5,300 times.

As I started out saying, the Internet is a remarkable place. Yesterday, a billionaire titan of industry who was largely responsible for birthing the modern Internet not only published an article about one of the more thought-provoking technologies of our time, but then spent the bulk of his day engaging with total strangers on the subject. Then, thanks to an off the cuff remark in one of those discussions, a new resource was born to help explain bitcoin to the masses.

Interesting Adam! Thanks for sharing. I enjoyed reading the Pando Daily article, and will dive into the Rapgenius Satoshi paper.

Cool, I'm curious to know what you think about the Rap Genius Satoshi paper.

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