Is cryptocurrency the payment of the future? Or is it another fad that will fizzle out before it really gains traction? Crypto advocates may be frothing at the mouth to promote mass adoption, but without a serious rethinking, crypto is destined to remain a barter tool for only the truest believers. To become a viable alternative to your wallet, cryptocurrencies must offer significant enhancements to the current payment system. That’s no small task, but it’s not impossible.
When it really started to come into the public view about 10 years ago, blockchain seemed to promise an alternative currency, one that offered secure, online transactions with no need for a centralized third party. However, crypto’s reality is a far cry from its promise. Merchant adoption is low, consumer demand is minimal, and security concerns dominate the headlines. The future of payment is looking increasingly like apps and portals. To play a role, cryptocurrencies need to examine where they’re winning, where they’re falling short, and what it will take to go from novelty bartering communities to usable everyday currency.
The good, the bad, and the barriers
While it’s true that crypto — bitcoin in particular — had a terrible 2018, with falling prices dominating the news, the outlook for 2019 is less grim. While crypto won’t wipe out the current fiat system in the next few years, a number of retailers — mostly online — are beginning to accept bitcoin as payment for goods and services. That’s good news if you want to be able to spend your crypto coins.
Even with these developments, the logistics of spending crypto remain complicated. The first hurdle is the IRS, which has classified cryptocurrencies as assets — as opposed to currencies — which makes spending crypto a taxable event. That means you’ll have to figure in a capital gains tax when you’re buying groceries. And while you’re flexing your math muscles, remember to tack on fluctuating transaction fees to the cost of your sandwich. They’re low right now, but bitcoin transaction fees were north of $50 as recently as one year ago.
The real reason cryptocurrencies haven’t figured out payment is that they’re too narrowly focused. It’s partly because the people behind crypto only know what they know, but most crypto projects solve only one or two currency challenges. There’s no one cryptocurrency token that’s putting it all together to earn mass appeal.
What’s holding cryptocurrency back
Any cryptocurrency token you can think of has its own niche and its own fans. What one coin solves, others ignore. Take transaction times as an example. Cryptocurrencies’ transactions are slow because they don’t have networks supporting large-scale use. Bitcoin can process seven transactions per second. Ethereum can handle 15. Ripple, one of the fastest major cryptocurrencies, processes 1,500 transactions per second. But when you compare that to the 24,000 transactions Visa processes per second, you get a sense of the snail’s pace even Ripple moves at.
On the flip side, Nano’s differentiator is its ability to process transactions instantaneously with no real capacity limits per second. But “instant” applies to everything. That means that even if you’re buying a house, the payment will go through instantly. In contrast, Ethereum focuses on smart contracts that enable restrictions on how money is released, including escrow accounts and partial payments. Essentially, Ethereum works if you want to buy a house, but can you imagine navigating that kind of platform just to buy a pack of gum?
So is it possible for a cryptocurrency to solve the challenges and emerge as a viable payment option? The answer is a qualified yes, but don’t rush to trade in your cash. Instead, watch for a crypto coin that is able to expand its focus and overcome a few key barriers.
Crypto worth adding to your wallet
The single biggest puzzle that cryptocurrencies need to solve is how to persuade merchants to take the leap. So far, there’s not much upside for retailers. In fact, crypto adds complications for businesses, including the headache of exchanging crypto for fiat currency in order to pay their employees or bills. Volatility is another major concern, because selling something for $10 and then discovering the exchange rate is $5 is an unacceptable loss for merchants. As a result, today’s cryptocurrency market is a nonstarter for many retailers.
To get merchants on board, we’ll need to see a viable intermediary model that eases the transition by taking the gamble out of the exchange process: a network that handles and guarantees the exchange price whenever you pay in crypto. In that case, more and more stores will be able to accept crypto, which would in turn stabilize the currency itself.
One of the best reasons to hitch your wagon to cryptocurrency is its ability to curtail, if not eliminate, identity theft. Crypto is protected by a private key that should be known only to the owner. If you never share the key, it theoretically should never be stolen. However, the anonymity that makes crypto secure and reduces payment fraud is the same thing that makes ownership hard to prove if a key is stolen. In effect, whoever has the key owns the crypto.
As crypto usage grows, so will targeted hacking and phishing scams like the April 2018 attack on MyEtherWallet that resulted in users losing more than $150,000 worth of Ethereum. In preparation, entities like Bank of America are investing in patents for enhanced security for cryptocurrency keys. If banks and developers focus on securing keys while maintaining blockchain’s transparency and anonymity going forward, then crypto will be widely usable sooner rather than later.
Ten tumultuous years later, the vision of a universally accepted cryptocurrency remains just that: a vision. Along with the enthusiasts who focus on the potential, listen to the pragmatic voices pushing for cryptocurrencies to address their flaws. When you see a cryptocurrency token that steps up to broaden its focus and fill in the gaps, that’s the one you want in your wallet.