Blockchain-fanciers have been told to stop the "sexy noises" about its use in fintech and get real – though others remain hopeful the tech can hitch its cart to the techlash bandwagon.
"The world we're talking to only sees the crypto hype, and at the moment they're also seeing the crypto demise," Lisa Short, founder of Changer Inc, told attendees at the London 2019 Blockchain Week.
The event, held on 11 and 12 February, had a markedly different tone to that of 2018's conference, where, thanks to rising Bitcoin prices, fevered bros bragged about the invincibility of their tech.
That's not to say initial coin offerings (ICOs), crypto exchanges and tokens weren't discussed – and the real cheerleaders remained bullish to the point of absurdity. "The blockchain is the foot soldier of decentralisation. The samurai who will slash everyone in front of it," said Alex Mashinsky, CEO of lending platform Celsius Network, with unwavering loyalty.
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"Big tech is now in a phase where it might be becoming bad tech," said Ian Dowson of fintech analysts William Garrity Associates. "They're on the backfoot with concerns over privacy, data, consent... the politicians are in there, and they want to legislate. For the blockchain community, this opens the door for you. Go for it."
However, beyond this, it seemed that recent months of declining cryptocurrency prices had prompted at least some introspection in the community as numerous panelists lamented the fact it is so tightly linked to finance.
Michelle Chivunga, chair of the British Blockchain Association, said the field needs to stop "all the sexy noises" around fintech solutions, move away from the hype and "get real".
This was echoed in a number of panels, with speakers emphasising that proponents needed to demonstrate blockchain isn't just a solution in search of a problem, and crucially that it has applications outside fintech.
This is hardly news to many people – but is perhaps an indication that the community is becoming more self-aware, when previously even the slightest criticism has been rounded on by the tech's staunchest defenders.
Why should enterprise care?
But there seemed to be a creeping realisation that if blockchain is to be taken seriously, it needs to appeal to enterprise customers. "We need to get some big businesses in, and have some real, honest conversations," said Short. The challenge, she said, is getting traction in markets where problem-solving is more important than cool tech.
A number of panelists said the community simply hadn't been good enough at explaining what blockchain is and isn't good at – whether that's to other companies, the public or politicians and regulators.
Lee Rowley, MP and chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on fintech, said very few of his colleagues would have a good handle on what blockchain was. "There's a conflation of crypto with blockchain – politicians can only hold a few things in their head at once, and they are hearing crypto."
He said the industry had to decide how it views itself, and use that to develop a better comms strategy. "It's almost like you need to decide if you're the pipes or the water," Rowley said. "If you're the pipes, then it's not important what you're called. If you're the water, then blockchain is the thing to highlight."
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But the communication issue goes beyond policymakers. Katie Mills, co-founder of StateZero Labs, said that big corporates "are pretty rubbish at understanding what the tech can and can't do".
Her session, given the welcome title "Blockchain Bullshit", whizzed through the ways in which the tech just isn't the panacea some people think it is.
"Blockchain won't save the world, but it can do some cool things," she said. However, until the industry starts talking about these other applications – those beyond crypto – then it is going to spend more of its time myth-busting.
In a bid to prove blockchain could be used to solve real business problems, Mills pointed to startups her firm supports, such as a data management system for the construction industry to track and be transparent about building materials to ensure sustainability and safety.
Another much-touted use is in freight shipping, but she focused on just the bill of lading – which is a list of ship's cargo the master gives to the person consigning the goods.
The StateZero Labs co-founder said IBM's efforts in container shipping had gone "too big too soon" by trying to revolutionise the whole chain. Indeed, Big Blue had to admit last year that it was struggling to gain traction with carriers other than its partner in the venture, Maersk.
But part of the problem for some of the more rampant proponents is that blockchain can't just be tacked on to existing systems – it requires the whole systems to be reworked.
"You can't inject a syringe of blockchain into a bank and make it a good bank," said Mashinsky. "You've got to reinvent everything – banks, healthcare, supply chains." The problem is, he said, that most companies are "sprinkling a bit of stuff on top".
There's no reason to know [it's using blockchain]. Why do you care? It should be that you use an application and it works.
Oracle: The tech should be 'hidden' from customers
And this is what Oracle has tried to latch on to in its latest blockchain sales pitch, saying the tech can "greatly streamline" processes – but that businesses have "struggled to implement blockchain networks within their existing ecosystems".
In a canned statement released this week, Big Red pushed new capabilities into its Oracle Blockchain Platform, with the aim of speeding up integration and deployment of blockchain applications.
However, outside of the marketing bluster, the firm's execs have said that the long-term goal is for blockchain to be built into products rather than the sales point.
In an interview with The Register at Oracle's London OpenWorld event last month, Amit Zavery, exec veep for cloud platform, said that ultimately, the tech should be "hidden" from customers.
"There's no reason to know [it's using blockchain]," he said. "Why do you care? It should be that you use an application and it works."
But as companies still want to stick the word "blockchain" into their names, and the crypto crowd's cultishness continues, it seems the idea that blockchain isn't a brand is still some way off. ®