In December of 2017, I enthusiastically wrote an article on the promise of blockchain in solving complex issues, like that of tracking conflict minerals, as well as supply disruption due to geopolitical issues.
“Calling all grad students,” I shouted, laying down the gauntlet to the world’s best and brightest to “boil the ocean.”
Somehow I knew that even with all of the hype, initiatives and attention, it was still an endeavor beyond journeying to the bottom of the deepest part of the ocean or traveling to Mars. Blockchain is far more difficult to achieve than those things.
Yes. Far, far more difficult to achieve.
In order for blockchain technology to work, it requires a standard of data and system architecture that every single participant must agree to and adhere by. Blockchain also requires that everyone has a copy of the truth (or copy of the data) to ensure it hasn’t been tampered with. That means that everyone who has a copy must also be willing to pay for hosting that data, managing the systems and the like.
Everybody who wants to participate in a block chain (I am purposely separating the words block and chain here) has to agree to that standard.
I will repeat, for the writer’s effect, what I just said.
Everybody has to agree to that standard who wants to participate in a block chain.
Let me tell you a story.
Challenges in the Adoption of Single Standard Systems
I can remember a time in the United States when muscle cars were discussed with great love and passion, and it covered my formative years in the 1980s. During those years, the muscle car discussion was more of a nod to the fantastic cars of the 1960s and the first couple of years of the 1970s. Those cars were big, beautiful, loud, and nobody made them like we did. Period.
If you wanted to go straight – and really, really fast – then Detroit muscle was what you needed.
Everyone wanted that 350 cubic inch engine in their car, or “350” as they were simply known back then without the cubic inches or cu. at the end. The Ford 302. The Chrysler 426 Hemi. Just the mention of a number with nothing else would cause some to swoon and others to scoff, because it didn’t represent their favorite motor.
These were the famous displacements: the 409, the 383, the 400, 454, 318, 289, 455, 396, 440 and many more. Back in the day, the only word that meant anything after those numbers was something that made them cooler, more powerful, and/or told us what plant it was from.
Was it a 351 Cleveland or a 351 Windsor? Was it a 383 Magnum? Was it a 426 Hemi? Was it a 440 Six Pack?
People in the U.S. would have never, ever, even thought to refer to an engine as a “5.7 liter” or “7.4 liter” or call their Ford coupe a “Mustang 5.0.” In Europe or Asia, it would have been perfectly fine to describe a car as a 2.2 liter turbodiesel, or a 1.8L, or a 2.0 Liter. That “dog wouldn’t hunt” in the US – not for anyone that had a Mopar logo, or a Bowtie, or a Blue Oval on their shirt.
We dabbled with it, flirted with it, and dipped our toe in it. “It” being the Metric system.
While we are citizens of the world, in the United States we still measure with the Imperial System. We weigh stuff in pounds, drive for miles, make pizza with flour measured in cups, and buy car batteries according to volts. And this has a lot to do with the reason that blockchain may never take off: It’s hard to get everybody to accept a single standard. IFRS (International Financial Reporting Standards), anyone?
Electrical outlet standardization? I am sitting here looking at my travel adapter, which sadly has lain dormant on my desk for the two months that I have been in COVID-19 shelter-in-place. When will I return to Japan? When will I head to Germany or to England? Will I get back to see FC Bayern at Allianz Arena? If I want to stay in Munich and see the Star of the South, I better have my travel adapter, because electrical things don’t work the same in Germany as they do in the US.
EDI (Electronic Data Interchange) standards? Is your global company still supporting ASC X12, EDIFACT and VDA EDI standards? Yes, indeed.
What about English as a world language? Maybe once, but I just read an article that an ever-increasing number of advanced academic research papers are now written in Mandarin, rather than English, and that bilingual Chinese researchers will have an advantage as they can read both English academic papers and Mandarin in the original language.
Can We Rise Above Challenges like those Associated with Blockchain?
Certainly, we can overcome this challenge to blockchain in this day and age, right? Sure, just like when Facebook announced they were going to create a currency. If I was Mark Zuckerberg, this could only seem logical. They have over a billion users that ostensibly agree to their construct and messaging, so why not be the deliverer of the currency?
And then a rising cacophony of reservation, protest and downright disgust rose from governments and companies alike, as they all slung arrows at Facebook to stop their currency.
What about Amazon or Walmart? What about IBM and Hyperledger? Certainly efforts led by those behemoths would have legs, right? What about one of the Automotive OEMs dictating to their suppliers and the suppliers of their suppliers that they must be on that OEM’s blockchain?
For example, what if Ford, with a market cap of $19.21B, or Daimler with a cap of $34.7B, (at the time of this writing) dictated to Bosch ($292B) or Siemens ($37.52B) that they MUST use their blockchain? That wouldn’t sound too realistic. I have no idea if Bosch or Siemens are actually suppliers of those two companies, but it is an educated guess.
What happens if BMW, Ford, Toyota, and GM each utilize different blockchains, and dictate to their suppliers, which may also supply many of the other OEMs, that they must comply with their unique blockchain? I used to work at a company that provided products to all of those companies. Would that supplier need to then build each of those separate standards into their systems and maintain separate blockchains?
OEMs also have relationships with tech companies to provide services, so will Accenture want to be forced to use the standard that IBM came up with? Will Larsen and Toubro use the standard that Infosys made? Will CapGemini have to adopt eight different blockchain standards because they might deal with three OEMs that mandate those different standards, and also service five major non-automotive clients that have their own blockchain protocols?
Too many chefs are in the kitchen. And actually, the problem is probably more likely that there are too many kitchens.
Are We Really Ready for Blockchain?
The only people that seem to really agree on the use of blockchain are the criminals. They seem to love blockchain. They love the anonymity it provides and how it can facilitate illicit transactions.
So, what if everyone sits down together to come up with a standard? It’s not likely, as far I’m concerned, but think about the governments, and universities, and multi-billion and now even trillion-dollar companies that would be involved. I mentioned Hyperledger – could that be the one? What about the MOBI initiative? It could make it. We don’t know which one might make it, but I am hoping one of them emerges because I think there is massive potential.
However, I know that we are staring straight up at the summit in the sky. It is a difficult journey, and the odds are fearful. And sometimes, governments, which would more than likely have to approve the scenario, don’t always work together and don’t always work quickly.
So the issue is not whether blockchain works. Of course it works. The issue is, well, us.