In the past year, the price of bitcoin has increased a remarkable 1,200%, from roughly $732 to more than $9,500, according to data from cryptocurrency data service CoinDesk.
Bitcoin and other increasingly valuable cryptocurrencies like Ethereum have brought huge rewards to investors and to companies that have launched initial coin offerings, selling their own digital currencies to fund a wide variety of startups and projects–often to the tune of millions of dollars. And businesses in the crypto market say the rising prices have attracted millions of new users–San Francisco cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase reports having more than 10 million users today, compared to 5.5 million reported in January.
“At a high level, I think we’re seeing a massive increase in the number of people who are buying their first digital currency,” says Dan Romero, vice president of operations at Coinbase. “We’re finding a lot of new people coming into the ecosystem.”
But while bitcoin was envisioned by its pseudonymous creator Satoshi Nakamoto as a payment system–a kind of “electronic cash” usable without the need for third parties like credit card companies–cryptocurrencies still seem to be primarily seen as investments. They’re mostly alternatives to investing in stocks or gold, not to paying with MasterCard or Visa.
“In some regard, it’s a digital store of value–people around the world view it as a place to store some of their wealth and know that other people are going to find bitcoin valuable,” Romero says. “That in itself is a good use case.”
Luxembourg startup Blockchain, which powers about 18 million wallets where users store the digital currency, reports that about 65% of its users “invest in bitcoin,” while only 39% use the currency to “purchase goods and services.”
Part of the reason is likely that, at least for most American consumers buying legal goods, it’s simply easier to pay with an existing credit or debit card than to go through all the steps needed to exchange dollars for bitcoin, find a merchant who accepts it, and figure out how to transfer it to make a purchase.
“What’s been slowing down mainstream adoption of cryptocurrency, basically, is how difficult it is,” says Justin Tabb, founder and CEO of Substratum Network, which is developing a PayPal-style cryptocurrency payment system called CryptoPay. “It caters at least currently to people who are at least a little bit technically savvy and want to make money off it.”
Amélie Arras, director of marketing at the U.K. financial tech marketing firm Adastra, traveled from Toronto to Las Vegas earlier this year, spending only bitcoin throughout the seven-day journey. Arras was part of a “payments race” leading up to the Monday 20/20 USA fintech conference, competing against rivals limited to other payment methods including gold, single dollar bills, and contactless payments. Arras won the competition, racking up the most points completing various challenges along the way, like taking a selfie at the Grand Canyon and acquiring a souvenir from Ohio’s Jack Nicklaus Museum–but found few brick-and-mortar stores that would actually take bitcoin. Even some businesses that had advertised they took the currency no longer did so when she arrived, she says.
“Most merchants did not actually accept bitcoin because they haven’t heard of it or they haven’t looked into it,” she says.
Arras had better luck working with cryptoenthusiasts or even ordinary strangers she met during her travels, who’d be willing to make a purchase on her behalf in exchange for bitcoin–and, at times, a quick primer on the currency.
“Because of all the press that has been done around bitcoin, people are interested in it and want to try it,” she says. “They were saying yes, just get me into bitcoin.”
But for ordinary consumers, finding a friendly intermediary to trade bitcoin with is unlikely to be a practical way to make everyday in-person purchases. Online, of course, it’s easier to search for merchants that accept cryptocurrency, and some stores have attracted followings of digital cash enthusiasts. Overstock.com, whose founder Patrick Byrne has long been a proponent of the shared ledger technology behind cryptocurrencies, accepts multiple such payment methods. The company saw its cryptocurrency revenue rise from about $100,000 in November 2016 to about $400,000 this October, says Jonathan Johnson, president of Overstock’s blockchain investment division Medici Ventures, though that’s still a tiny fraction of the company’s total revenue–$424 million in the most recent quarter alone.
“For us, we love it, because we’re in the business of making it easier for people to spend money on our site,” says Johnson, who is also a member of the online retailer’s board.
With cryptocurrencies, there also less fraud risk to the merchant, since cryptocurrency is more like cash than credit cards and their fraud-related chargebacks. With a tender like bitcoin, privacy-conscious customers don’t have to provide as much data to Overstock as they would with a credit card, Johnson says.
“There’s no billing address,” he says. “There’s just a shipping address.”
That helps make bitcoin more appealing for paying at more obscure merchants, where customers might be less willing to use their credit cards, says Coinbase’s Romero.
But before cryptocurrency becomes truly mainstream, it’s likely there will be need to be more layers of digital plumbing and user-friendly interfaces between users and the blockchains (or shared ledgers) that record who owns how much of each currency. Those layers might facilitate easier payments, or use features like Ethereum’s smart contracts for some other purpose entirely, Romero says.
In fact, it’s possible that the first blockchain projects to see widespread consumer use won’t involve cryptocurrencies at all. Jerry Cuomo, IBM’s vice president of blockchain technologies, said it’s likely 2018 will be the first year consumers will see benefits from noncurrency, blockchain-based systems, though consumers likely won’t be working directly with the digital ledgers. He declined to comment on cryptocurrencies.
“Blockchain is an indirect innovation,” he says. “It helps businesses provide better services by working more collaboratively with fewer obstacles with more trust so that they can deliver better services to the consumer.”
Companies might use blockchain-powered technology to better control their own personal information, like using tools that could grant a doctor’s office limited access to medical records for a specific period of time. Or they might benefit from companies using the technology to share supply chain data and improve food safety, he says.
Big banks and other financial companies are also exploring how blockchain can make their own record-keeping and trading operations more efficient—an area that Overstock.com and its Medici subsidiary are also exploring.
“We’re very bullish on cryptocurrency, and we’re more bullish on the overall blockchain technology,” Johnson says.
But can consumers live solely via their crypto wallets? Not yet, despite bitcoin’s soaring price.