Confusing Bitcoin with Blockchain

Bitcoin is but one of many Blockchain Implementations

I just finished reading the European Parliament report How blockchain technology could change our lives. All in all it is a most excellent summary and highly recommended. Nevertheless there are several points I wish to dispute, and they all confuse Bitcoin with Blockchain.

Blockchain as a concept primarily requires immutability of records and consensus across the distributed shared ledgers. Bitcoin is a specific implementation of Blockchain that addresses these in a manner judged most suited to the currency use case. Other use cases may not be well served and might even be hindered by the same approach.

Notably, Bitcoin utilizes PoW (Proof of Work) as the consensus mechanism to insure all participants in the ledger agree on the value of a record. PoW imposes a cost to participants and encourages wide-spread participation by providing a reward for running a node on the Bitcoin network. This is generally referred to as ‘Mining’, and the assumption that mining and extra cost are inherent in Blockchain underlies much of the report.

Blockchain does not require a specific form of consensus and therefor allows agreement mechanisms to potentially be better matched to each use case. If Company A and Company B set up a Blockchain network to trade just with each other, what would be the point in forcing an extra computational cost on their selves? As noted in the report, ‘In 2014 the Bitcoin blockchain was responsible for electricity consumption comparable to that of Ireland, and has only grown since.’ The inherit benefits of using a shared ledger provide more than sufficient incentive for participants to run their own nodes on the network without any additional reward.

Bitcoin is the simplest use case of Blockchain technology. It tracks one asset, a currency. It has one attribute, an owner. And it has one action or method, change owner. That’s not to disparage the Bitcoin implementation of Blockchain. That’s just all a currency needs. Blockchain defines this abstractly as any asset, with any attributes and any actions.

The report also generally assumes the Blockchain network is open and anyone can participate, or the network is closed and centrally managed. It is Bitcoin that requires the first and “‘mainstream’ actors such as banks and governments” attempting the latter. There are arguments for both use cases, but Blockchain does not require an either / or proposition as stated. Any network may utilize a Blockchain among its participants that is closed and permissioned, yet still not centrally managed and controlled except by consensus of all of the participants.

We at Belltane think it dangerous to mistake many of the assumptions of the specific implementation by Bitcoin as required or appropriate for many Blockchain use cases. We are convinced the Hyperledger Project delivers the appropriate abstractions that allow specific Blockchain implementations to utilize the most beneficial aspects of different approaches for its use case without requiring any one in particular.

The Hyperledger Project even includes an implementation mechanism where the consensus mechanism is hardware based (Sawtooth) and the recent addition of the Indy Identity Management project under the Hyperledger umbrella offers a solution to many of the identity concerns cited in the report.

I strongly encourage anyone interested in the best Blockchain overview I have read to date to check out the excellent EU Blockchain report, while noting Belltane and Hyperledger believe some portions to confuse Bitcoin the specific implementation with Blockchain in the abstract.


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