Do you suffer from blockchain anxiety? This recently diagnosed condition describes the stress that people feel as they watch other folks get rich by stampeding into an area most of us know nothing about.
The malady hit a feverish new peak this week thanks to Eastman Kodak Co., a company that for decades has produced only misery for its shareholders. The fading giant reignited investors' enthusiasm by announcing that, hey, it too was now a cool blockchain kid. Its stock price more than doubled on the news.
Kodak is just the latest of a growing number of companies, from iced-tea makers to tiny startups on the Toronto Venture Exchange, that have discovered the wondrous effects of aligning themselves with the trendiest fad in technology. Whatever else blockchain might be, it's a tonic for ailing share prices.
So should you bet on this phenomenon? Maybe so. But you can improve your odds of success by realizing where the real money is most likely to be made.
By and large, it's not going to be in the blockchain itself. For all the hype about the technology, it's difficult to see it as a transformational development.
For one thing, it's not new. The idea is a decade old. At a similar age, other recent technologies – think personal computers, smartphones or the internet – were already delivering palpable, easily understood benefits.
The blockchain isn't. Anyone who's thinking of pouring money into the area should ponder how difficult it is to find examples of companies that have already used blockchain to vastly expand their sales or profits.
Could this change? Maybe. But one obstacle is the fact no one owns the blockchain idea. Blockchain is a concept, a mash-up of well-known cryptographic techniques and data structures that can be employed by anyone with a good technical team. That makes it different than computers or smartphones, where the big early rewards went to companies that owned key patents or were able to establish their proprietary product as the industry standard.
The blockchain is, at best, an interesting idea – such as, say, "databases" or "online commerce." The key is how it actually gets implemented. A company that declares it's going to use the blockchain to build its business is saying nothing that's very meaningful. It's simply gesturing toward a trendy area.
The trendiness arises because blockchain is one of those big ideas that seem to drip with potential. At its core is the notion of building a public ledger of information that is difficult to tamper with.
A blockchain that builds such a ledger promises to allow parties who may not trust one another to work together. Each party knows it can make transactions on the blockchain, but once a transaction has been verified for internal consistency, it cannot be changed retroactively and remains open to inspection until the end of time. In theory, this deters fraud and increases trust.
In practice, though, it's not clear that a blockchain offers any big payoff. Most industries already have ways to build trust and work together. The current methods depend on time-honoured techniques – contracts, clearing houses and standard-setting organizations – and aren't generally considered a huge impediment to commerce.
In fact, it's not clear that a blockchain offers much in the way of additional benefits. Consider Kodak's breathless announcement this week. The company said it intends to issue its own cryptocurrency – KODAKCoin, of course – to allow photographers to maintain control of how their digital images are used. While the specifics are vague, the idea appears to be that the new tokens can be used by people who want to license a given image. They'll pay the photographer in KODAKCoins, and the transaction will be duly noted on a blockchain.
This sounds impressive, but as Matt Levine of Bloomberg noted, all of this could be done just as easily using U.S. dollars or any other currency. Photographers who accept KODAKCoins still face the issue of converting the tokens into something they can spend at the grocery store.
There are other problems, too. While the blockchain may note who owns an image, it doesn't guarantee someone can't copy it and use it illegally. If a photographer wants payment and the user won't pay, they still have to go to court to seek compensation. So what's the advantage of a blockchain again?
For now, let's leave that question aside. The one thing that seems certain is that other companies in search of a stock-price boost will follow Kodak's lead. And that is good news for technology consultants, who now have a great new market for their expertise.
If you're looking for a smart way to bet on blockchain, it's those consultants – firms such as IBM Corp. in the United States or CGI Group Inc. in Canada – that are likely to benefit most from the current craze. Bet on them rather than on Kodak.