Cryptocurrencies of all types make use of distributed ledger technology known as blockchain. Blockchains act as decentralized systems for recording and documenting transactions that take place involving a particular digital currency. Put simply, blockchain is a transaction ledger that maintains identical copies across each member computer within a network.
Any party is able to both review previous entries and record new ones, although most blockchain networks have complex rules for the addition of new groups of records, "blocks," to the chain of previous records. The blocks and the contents within them are protected by powerful cryptography, which insures that previous transactions within the network cannot be either forged or destroyed. In this way, blockchain technology allows a digital currency to maintain a trusted transaction network without relying on a central authority. It is for this reason that digital currencies are thought of as "decentralized." (See also: How Does Blockchain Work?)
While blockchain is most famous for its role in facilitating the rise of digital currencies over the past several years, there are also many other non-cryptocurrency uses for this technology. Indeed, some blockchain proponents believe that the technology could far outpace cryptocurrencies themselves in terms of its overall impact, and that the real potential of blockchain is only just now being discovered. As such, it's likely that financial advisors and many others in the investing world will encounter blockchain technology much more in the years to come, whether it is linked with a specific cryptocurrency or if it's being utilized in any number of other applications. Below, we'll explore some of the most exciting and popular use cases likely to bring blockchain further into the world of mainstream business and finance.
Traditionally, the transfer of value has been both expensive and slow, according to a report by Deloitte, and especially for payments taking place across international borders. One reason for this is that, when multiple currencies are involved, the transfer process typically requires multiple banks in multiple locations before the intended recipient can actually collect his or her money. There are existing services to help facilitate this process in a faster way, but these tend to by quite expensive.
Blockchain technology has the potential to provide a much faster and cheaper alternative to traditional cross-border payments methods. Indeed, while typical money remittance costs might be as high as 20% of the transfer amount, blockchain may allow for costs as low as 2%, as well as guaranteed and real-time transaction processing speeds. There are hurdles to be passed, including regulation of cryptocurrencies in different parts of the world and security concerns. Nonetheless, this is one of the most promising and talked about areas of blockchain technology application. (For more, see: Bitcoin's Most Profitable Use: the $600 Billion Overseas Remittance Business?)
Smart contracts are often seen as a highly powerful application of blockchain technology. These contracts are actually computer programs that can oversee all aspects of an agreement, from facilitation to execution. When conditions are met, smart contracts can be entirely self-executing and self-enforcing. For proponents of smart contracts, these tools provide a more secure, more automated alternative to traditional contract law, as well as an application that is faster and cheaper than traditional methods.
The potential applications of smart contract technology are essentially limitless and could extend to almost any field of business in which contract law would normally apply. Of course, while highly touted, smart contracts are not a magical substitute for old-fashioned diligence. In fact, the case of the Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO) is a cautionary tale and a warning to investors to not assume that smart contracts are any better than the information and organization that a user puts into them. Nonetheless, smart contracts remain one of the most exciting ways that blockchain technology has already extended beyond the cryptocurrency space and into the broader business world. (See also: Understanding Smart Contracts.)
One of the most problematic results of the internet age has been identity security. As diligent as many individuals and organizations are in maintaining their online identities and securing private information, there are always nefarious actors looking to steal and profit off of these digital items. Blockchain technology has already demonstrated the potential for transforming the way that online identity management takes place.
Blockchain offers a tremendous level of security, thanks to independent verification processes that take place throughout member computers on a blockchain network. In digital currency cases, this verification is used to approve transactions before they are added to the chain. This mechanism could just as easily be applied to other types of verification procedures, including identity verification and many other applications as well.
At this point, blockchain is a technology with an exceptionally broad set of potential uses. Although blockchain is most famous for its connections to the blossoming cryptocurrency world, several other applications have already been explored. Perhaps even more exciting, though, is that new ways of utilizing blockchain emerge every day. As such, whether you are directly involved in the digital currency space or not, it's essential to develop an understanding of blockchain and how it may be used to transform the business and investment worlds. (For additional reading, check out: All About Amazon's New Blockchain Service.)