One of the main memes that has been repeated in the Bitcoin community for many years is that the digital cash system will eventually replace the need for banks. While the general public still seems content with using Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and other traditional providers for their digital finance needs, there are plenty of Bitcoin proponents out there who plan to replace their bank account with a Bitcoin wallet as soon as possible. One such individual is Mastering Bitcoin Author Andreas Antonopoulos, and he recently discussed what Bitcoin companies need to do in order to defeat the legacy banking system in a talk he gave at the Harvard i-lab.
Don’t Try to Be a Bank
One of the main issues that Antonopoulos has seen with a variety of Bitcoin companies over the past few years is that too many of them try to be like the banks they’re trying to replace. Instead of creating metaphors related to the legacy banking system, Antonopoulos believes that Bitcoin service providers should be designing entirely new experiences:
“Part of the trick is not trying to be a bank. Do not try to do anything related to traditional banking because all that does is pollute their minds. You want new users to have a brand new experience with Bitcoin that is unlike any banking they will ever see. You don’t want it to look like a checking account. God forbid you use the word checking. Open any one of the exchanges right now — Circle, Coinbase open them up. What is the name of your account on Coinbase? It is the checking account, and it has a balance. And it shows you a statement. Who the hell did they hire for this design?”
The idea that Antonopoulos is hitting here is that people should not be trying to compare Bitcoin to anything else that has existed in the past. It is something completely new, so developers and entrepreneurs should be starting from scratch rather than using designs that are seemingly based on traditional banking applications.
Banks Will Sell Bitcoin for You
After offering some advice on what not to do as a Bitcoin company, Antonopoulos took the presentation in a more positive direction. In his eyes, businesses built around Bitcoin should not worry too much about having to sell the technology because banks will be able to sell it for them:
“We don’t really need a hard sell to make Bitcoin win on the banks. All you need in order for Bitcoin to win against banks is for a person to use Bitcoin for a week and then the bank will take care of the rest. They’ll freeze their account. They’ll tell them they’re closed. They’ll hold their [money] for three to five business days, and you just sold Bitcoin. Banks will sell [it] for you.”
Antonopoulos then shared a personal story to make his point on how Bitcoin can easily outcompete the legacy banking system in certain areas:
“I was invited to do a talk at the Bundesbank . . . the German federal bank. They were paying me for this speaking engagement, but they don’t know how to do Bitcoin, which is a real problem because I usually get paid in bitcoin. So, we agreed to do a wire transfer. It took sixteen days. I sent them the details — actually no, first they asked for my account number. I gave them my account number. Then, the next day they came back and they said they need the SWIFT number. By that time, my bank was closed, so I couldn’t get the SWIFT number. The next morning I got the SWIFT number, and I sent it to the Germans. But by that time, their bank was closed. The next morning they used the SWIFT number and discovered it was the wrong SWIFT number. It was the SWIFT number for US dollars, not for foreign currency. So, they sent me an email, but by that time my bank was closed. So, the next day I got the other SWIFT number, and I sent it to the Germans. But by that time their bank was closed. They sent me the wire. My bank took one look at this wire and said, ‘Bundesbank? Never heard of them. Sounds dodgy. Let’s freeze this for fourteen days just in case they bounce.’ This is the third largest central bank in the world. This is the German Federal Bank. They do not bounce checks. So, fourteen days later — and this is the great part . . . They released $80 of the total amount, which was a four figure amount. $80. Why 80? What the hell is that? What am I going to do with — I mean, just hold all of it. Are you teasing me? This makes no sense. This is what we’re addressing with Bitcoin.”
Bitcoin Needs Better Designers
Although Antonopoulos seems convinced that Bitcoin will be able to outcompete the banks, he did admit that the technology needs better designs and applications that offer a better user experience. He briefly touched on this point near the end of his comparison between Bitcoin and the banks:
“It doesn’t have any of the good parts of a bank, like the ability to easily reverse transactions [or] get a refund if you lose your private key . . . It also doesn’t have any of the bad parts of banks, but we don’t pay attention to that. And so, we’ve created expectations that are entirely misleading. Bitcoin desperately needs design . . . It’s been created by engineers and is absolutely inscrutable, but I have hope. I have hope because we’ve done this before.”
When Antonopoulos mentioned the hope that he has for better user interfaces in Bitcoin, he was basing that hope on the history of the Internet. Although the Internet was impossible for the average person to use in the early days, the right designers were eventually able to create apps like Facebook, YouTube, and Gmail. Bitcoin has a long road ahead when it comes to general usability, but many companies in the space view this time as nothing more than an opportunity to help solve those design problems and bring this new technology to the masses.
Kyle Torpey is a freelance journalist who has been following Bitcoin since 2011. His work has been featured on VICE Motherboard, Business Insider, RT’s Keiser Report, and many other media outlets. You can follow @kyletorpey on Twitter.