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Bitcoin’s Four Hurdles: Part One – Usability

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Swarm Economy

Swarm Economy

Bitcoin is an amazing technology with an insane potential. But there are four things that must appear for that potential to materialize. This is the first in a series of four articles, where we address usability.

Bitcoin has been quoted as being to legal tender what BitTorrent was to the copyright monopoly. I believe it has that potential. But it is far from there today. The wild rally in Bitcoin value, the way I see it, is speculation that the potential will materialize. But I will draw on 25 years’ professional experience in software development here and add a few opinions about probable blind spots in the project.

BITCOIN’S FOUR HURDLES
This is an article in a series on what Falkvinge identifies as Bitcoin’s four hurdles, which will be followed by a series on Bitcoin’s four drivers. This is the first article on usability. The others are transactions, escrow, and exchanges.

The current developers are, I believe, very technically skilled. And that is also their Achilles’ heel. A person who is great at making complex logic work flawlessly is never great at making that logic easy to use and understand. It’s two completely different skill sets that don’t — can’t — exist in the same person. And most technical people don’t realize this, as they are building stuff that they understand themselves.

Let’s take the BitTorrent analogy again. Bram Cohen created the technology. How many here have used Bram Cohen’s BitTorrent client? Nobody? Not one? Thought so. Everybody is using Transmission, Deluge, µTorrent, Azureus… other clients built by people who took the working technology and made it usable. Case in point: Nobody is using Bram Cohen’s BitTorrent client.


This is how you send money. I mean, come on.

It may be theoretically possible that a person skilled in crafting logic can also be skilled in usability, but I haven’t encountered one in 25 years. However, I have met scores of deepcore coders who thought they were.

The current Bitcoin client can’t be regarded as more than a proof-of-concept prototype. What the coders need to do to make the ecosystem pick up steam is to hand over the usability tasks to other people. Create libraries! Template code! PHP libraries, .Net assemblies, Windows DLLs, WordPress plugins!

When this happens, the people who love usability but don’t grok cryptoplumbing will start to create a real ecosystem.

Just to name a few use cases that need to be solved as a minimum to make the Bitcoin ecosystem succeed on its potential scale:

  • Why can’t I combine two wallets easily?
  • …or partition the one I have?
  • Why can’t I subscribe to a service, which may change its pricing enroute (think electricity bill), with just one confirmation action?
  • …or create a service that others can subscribe to?
  • …and bill them for one-click confirmations?
  • Why can’t I add more bitcoins with a single button in the client and a credit card number?
  • Why can’t I create a shared wallet for a workgroup with individual spending limits?
  • Why can’t I write server-side code for my WordPress blog that accepts bitcoin?
  • Why can’t I pay with my phone without risking loss of my money through theft or loss of my phone?
  • Why can’t I easily integrate bitcoin acceptance into my commerce website?
  • Why can’t I write server-side code in my organization management program that accepts and sends bitcoin?

The list goes on and on. What is direly needed right now is not solutions to the problems above, but the enabling of other, new people to solve them. And to do that, the developers need to limit and clarify their role in the ecosystem: they need to be maintainers of the technology and libraries, but not gatekeepers of the end-user experience. There is so much value invested into Bitcoin already, there is no shortage of people who have a vested interest in seeing it succeed and who want to add to the ecosystem.

The proof-of-concept is here, and it works fine, but we need to move on towards a full ecosystem to realize Bitcoin’s potential.

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About The Author: Rick Falkvinge

Rick is the founder of the first Pirate Party and is a political evangelist, traveling around Europe and the world to talk and write about ideas of a sensible information policy. He has a tech entrepreneur background and loves whisky.

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By participating in the discussion and posting here, you are placing your contribution in the public domain (CC0). If you are quoting somebody else, credit them.

Contributors take own responsibility for their comments.

64

  1. 1

    Just out of curiosity, how much bitcoin have you spent so far? On what things?

  2. 2

    *applause*

    This is what I was waiting for from you instead of the “BTC is now at $X!” tweets ;)

    (I’m quite sure it’s one of your coming arguments, but in any case I believe the next explosion in Bitcoin uptake will come when QR/NFC Android/iPhone wallets graduate from prototype stage)

  3. 3
    ANNM

    To be fair to the Bitcoin hackers, the current client _is_ just a proof-of-concept. It does the minimum required to let the user post transactions and mine, and as such it doesn’t really say anything about its creators’ ability to write usable programs.

    • 3.1

      But it does say quite a lot about their interest in doing so :-)
      Leave that to us by focusing a little on making APIs

      • 3.1.1
        greg

        Well, Gavin has also created ClearCoin, which in my view is a very usable site.

        FWIW, bitcoind has a remote procedure call interface that lets you implement your own interface easily, so part of the list which involves centralized services is a burden on the second tier of coders and not the core development team. We already have multiple shopping cart interfaces developed in this manner and I’m sure more are being worked on. Not to disagree with the argument, but to clarify.

        There is also BitcoinJ, which also serves as a complete foundation to build on. So I think there is enough in the sense of APIs to keep us busy for some time. I think we are already in the beautification phase (as opposed to “need APIs” phase).

        However, there are things that everyone would be happier about if they were possible in a decentralized manner. IMHO, these are the concerns of the core developers, and they will take their time to implement these features which will hopefully replace centralized solutions.

  4. 4

    Isn’t the “Headless” client a pretty good base to build upon for many of the above issues? I mean, from what I can see, it can be addressed with/by scripts with arguments, and I’m sure it can give outputs, so why not assemble a new GUI around that core that addresses more use-cases, or black-boxes more of the workings?

    • 4.1
      greg

      +1

      There are already many alternative interfaces taking different approaches, some of them very innovative and useful. They just didn’t have enough time to mature.

  5. 5
    John Smith

    I’m all for this. I now have a vested interest and have the ability to write code. Let’s get this party started.

  6. 6

    Saying what should be done is one thing. Making it happen is another. Do you have any concrete plans?

    Being an usability specialist myself, I think exactly the same since I first discovered Bitcoin. And I even have precise plans on how to solve that problem. But I’m blocked. If only I add 128hours a days or a team of 5 engineers working for me ;-)

  7. 7
    John Smith

    Imagine if Ebay was willing and able to integrate bitcoin into their platform. That alone would send it mainstream.

    • 7.1
      Jerker Montelius

      Imagine if Itunes/spotify/Minecraft/WoW was willing and able to integrate bitcoin into their platform. _That_ would send it mainstream.

      • 7.1.1

        Itunes even refuses to integrate Ogg Vorbis (audio format free from patents and with better quality than MP3). Spotify and WOW are owned by record companies that hate privacy. (WOW is owned by Vivendi.)

      • 7.1.2
        Don Kongo

        Minecraft would probably be possible, since it’s run and operated by a gigantic nerd that seems to think geeky stuff is cool – somebody should give him a solid pitch!

  8. 8

    Bitcoin is curently not scalable, and there seems to be no plan to make it scalable. I think that would deserve to be mentioned in the list of hurdles.

  9. 9

    You haven’t addressed the biggest hurdle, which is sovereign risk. If governments don’t allow it to be used, then the legitimate market dries up and the while thing disappears.

    There’s also the risk of better-marketed copies. There’s really nothing stopping bitkoin or echips or transact-u-flash from taking off or at least stealing bitcoin’s thunder, or just undermining it’s legitimacy with a poor clone.

    I think you’re doing a great job promoting this potentially-revolutionary currency, but before out can really succeed, there have to be convincing reasons or evidence why these creatures won’t be blockers.

  10. 11

    “Why can’t I add more bitcoins with a single button in the client and a credit card number?”

    Because credit cards have exactly those problems that we want to avoid by using Bitcoin instead. If credit cards worked so well so they could be used with just a single button in a program then we would not need Bitcoin.

    • 11.1
      Rick Falkvinge

      If you want to move from the present to the future, it helps if you build bridges.

      • 11.1.1

        So far all the credit card payment processors have refused merchant accounts to businesses wanting to set up BItcoin exchanges, citing unacceptably high risk. (The real risk, of course, being that Bitcoin will put them out of business…)

  11. 12
    John Smith

    Fredrik, What do you mean it’s not scalable? In what way does it need to be scalable that it currently isn’t?

    • 12.1

      See the comment by Freek to the previous post about Bitcoin: http://falkvinge.net/2011/05/29/why-im-putting-all-my-savings-into-bitcoin/#comment-84457

      That comment links to that page: https://en.bitcoin.it/wiki/Scalability

      The current software for Bitcoin downloads and verifies the entire history of the entire Bitcoin network with no limit. Think about what would happen if Paypal or Visa relocated their datacenters into your desktop computer and sent all transactions in the world through your internet connection. Scalable software splits the load so that each computer only handles part of the total work. Bitcoin would need to be modified to be scalable to be able to handle more transactions. The page linked to shows a way to increase performance to roughly the double, but not how to make it scalable.

  12. 13
    John Smith

    Jerker, I hardly think getting WoW integration would send it mainstream, unless by mainstream you mean hardcore geeks :) It would be cool though.

    The main problem with adoption is bitcoin is a threat to other payment processors. It may have to be driven by consumer demand. We could start by asking ebay and any other sites we transact with regularly “when” (rather than “if”) they are going to begin to allow bitcoin as a payment method.

  13. 14
    John Smith

    I didn’t mean to say “other” payment processors since bitcoin is just a form of payment.

  14. 15
    John Smith2

    Just my 2c- when you add ease of use to one of the most complex systems the internet has ever seen, you are going to wind up with a lot of people realizing accidental loss.

    Knowing how a transmission works probably won’t help you not wreck your car, but that’s not the case for BTC- IMO. Just a word of caution :)

  15. 16

    +1 from me, too– nice article!

    I believe that the future of bitcoin isn’t the traditional “download and run this software on your (probably virus-infested) personal computer.” It is web-based and mobile-device-based applications.

    So I’ve personally invested almost no effort in making the GUI better. I’m not against making the GUI better, I just don’t think that’s critical to bitcoin’s long-term success, and I think the BitTorrent analogy is absolutely correct– there will be lots of interfaces for Bitcoin, and the safest, easiest-to-use, most reliable ones will ‘win.

  16. 17
    Balthazar

    Great article. Looking forward for the next parts too.

  17. 18
    Ruslan

    Sir, Yes, Sir!

    http://bit.ly/mEytUJ

    http://bit.ly/lQNMqT

    Bitcoin app for iPhone/iPad

    2.99 Euro

    Category: Finance
    Released: 02 June 2011
    Version: 1.0
    1.0
    Size: 10.8 MB
    Language: English
    Developer: Portable Axxelerated Media Sweden AB
    © Paxx Media AB, Sweden
    Rated 4+
    Requirements: Compatible with iPhone, iPod touch and iPad. Requires iOS 3.1 or later.

  18. 19

    To show how creating subscriptions and invoices confirmed with one click could be done quite easily, I wrote a technical suggestion on Pirate Pad. The suggestion can be edited by anyone who wishes to contribute. http://piratepad.net/bitinvoice

  19. 20

    I’m looking forward to the 4th part or whichever one will happen to address the issue of real-world utility versus governmental crackdown.

    It doesn’t matter that bitcoins themselves are untraceable (assuming that, in fact, they are or will be) – or that the bitcoin network can’t be disabled – if the real-world goods and services you’ll want to buy with them can’t be hidden from the governments. You will still be vulnerable to prosecution if cryptocurrency is outlawed and you can’t hide what you’re buying with it.

    • 20.1

      So when do we see a p2p web, with untraceable pages that can not be taken down?

      • 20.1.2

        Freenet is slow. You’ll be relying on people to remain interested enough in your freesite to keep clicking it and making sure some part of Freenet continues to store it other than your own machine, otherwise access to it will be vvveeerrrryyyy ssssllllloooowwww.

        I prefer I2P, though it requires you to use a dedicated machine to host a website, just like the open Internet. But then a dedicated machine is what gives you control on your uptime. And anyway, I2P communication is fully encrypted, so it should be very hard to find out who exactly is hosting a given website, or at least it should be very hard (next to impossible?) after I2P development is over and the client reaches a stable and trustworthy version. (Plus I2P already has decent torrents. :D)

  20. 21

    Why do you think any of your “Why’s” have anything to do with Bitcoin? (as in protocol)

  21. 22
    Bitman

    Great article. I wonder if you would cover topic of “trust” in commercial transactions. This will become important issues if the bitcoin economy goes beyond micro-transactions and move into the main stream economy. Moreover, if it cannot be legal tendered in any country, bitcoins future would be confined to the grey economy, just like bit-torrent.

    • 22.1
      Rick Falkvinge

      Yes, this is one of the topics I will cover, under part 3 – Escrow.

      The legal tender is not so much of a problem — people already use USD for international transactions, which is only legal tender in a small part of the world.

  22. 23

    Bitcoin’s Four Hurdles Part One – Usability Falkvinge on Infopolicy http://bit.ly/joFWpn #Usability

  23. 25
    Peter Andersson

    I have a different kind of question for you Rick. How will it be possible for you to continue as a GENERAL evangelist for technological change/implement on society now that you’ve gone and put all your savings in one basket?

    Let’s say someone comes up with another concept tomorrow. Ten times better and more effective and with more general appeal than BitCoin. How will it be possible for you to transfer to that bandwagon if doing so means losing all your savings?

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of what you’ve done since starting the party, but I think you need to adress this, how can we trust you to still have an open mind on possible other new techs not that you’ve put all your money on one particular horse, one particul path to the future?

    • 25.1

      A better concept would not be one that makes people lose all their savings.

    • 25.2
      Rick Falkvinge

      It is a relevant question. I think one of the key drivers of trust is transparency.

      It would have been bad if I had a vested interest but didn’t disclose it. This way, at least people can make an informed decision for themselves whether I have a bias, perhaps even an unconscious one.

      But then again, I tend to go to lengths to practice what I preach. In this case, “I like Bitcoin for political reasons” became “I’m going to provoke the world and put my savings in Bitcoin just to do my part to stir things up”.

      Of course, it doesn’t make me sad that it’s an investment going well, but I could also have lived without that part.

  24. 26

    It trails the RPC API a bit, but my bitcoin-php library addresses one of your bullet points: https://github.com/mikegogulski/bitcoin-php

  25. 27
    Reddit Commie

    Are you aware of the fact that most of the items on your list are incoherent, as in completely devoid of any discernible meaning?

    * Why can’t I combine two wallets easily?

    What do you mean by “combine”? For example, you can send money from one wallet to another very easily, and that could be considered a form of “combining”. Perhaps you mean something else?

    * Why can’t I subscribe to a service, which may change its pricing enroute (think electricity bill), with just one confirmation action?

    WTF does this even mean? My electric bill doesn’t change “enroute”, such that I send them $200 but end up owing them $230 by the time the check arrives because the price changed en route. And what does “subscribing” to something have to do with paying for it?

    * …or create a service that others can subscribe to?

    Translation: “Bibble bibble bibble.”

    * …and bill them for one-click confirmations?

    WTF? Colorless green ideas sleep furiously?

    • 27.1
      AndersH

      Subscribing to something = paying for it each month, quarter, year or whatever. I sign up for letting them take a fixed amount every time.

      Subscribing to a service, which may change its pricing = paying different amounts each time. This month, the electricity bill is $20, next month it is $23, next moth again it is $19. I want to sign up for letting them take the appropriate amount each time.

    • 27.2

      The colorless green ideas are devoid of discernible meaning, but with a bit of imagination, you can put any meaning you like into them. You are right that we should be aware of this so we don’t take ambiguous statements to far.

      • Why can’t I combine two wallets easily?

      The original wallet software doesn’t even allow accessing more than one wallet, unless you kill it and rename the files, which is not something I think most people would consider convenient. I interpreted the question as “Why can’t I combine two wallet[ file]s easily?”.

      • Why can’t I subscribe to a service, which may change its pricing enroute (think electricity bill), with just one confirmation action?

      I interpret this as “Why can’t I subscribe to a service, which may demand payments of different prices from time to time, with just one confirmation action?”
      To me it’s so obvious what was asked for so I wrote a suggestion to show how easily it can be done: http://piratepad.net/bitinvoice

  26. 28

    #Bitcoin’s Four Hurdles: Part One » http://ur1.ca/4cu2d & Two http://ur1.ca/4cu2c v @glynmoody & @hook

  27. 29

    Bitcoin’s Four Hurdles: Part One, Usability – http://bit.ly/mK7Acf

  28. 31

    I have two main question regarding bitcoin.First,I am concern with the exchange rate between the dollar and the BTC which I am attributing to speculation of the currency and this act is part of the reason why existing currency are falling in real value and we want to switch.
    Secondly,about the usability issue I think is worth mentioning and the community at large should think about it.The concept is great but needs more work and thing will have to be forced like having an official escrow service tied into the system against fraud because one of the fears of people is losing their money.

  29. 32

    Less I forget the developers should try and get in contact with people with deep economic background on how to back the currency and it might in other popular themes like those advocating for the elimination of fiat currency.People need confidence that the currency there have will be of use in the future and with current currency issues I think is wise to back your currency against something that gives confidence to people like gold or mixture of it with other physical goods.

  30. 37

    Bitcoin’s Four Hurdles: Part One – Usability http://j.mp/mpweGu #usability #ux #bitcoin #design

  31. 38

    Bitcoin’s Four Hurdles: Part One – Usability – Falkvinge on Infopolicy http://t.co/5tNVIjy <good points, ze early days

  32. [...] support for bitcoin, nor a prediction that it will ultimately succeed. At the very least, there are 4 hurdles which bitcoin needs to overcome. I think that it is an interesting idea that has the capacity to change the way the world [...]

  33. [...] via Bitcoin’s Four Hurdles: Part One – Usability – Falkvinge on Infopolicy [...]

  34. [...] é um artigo traduzido de uma série em que Falkvinge identifica como os quatro obstáculos para as Bitcoins. O primeiro artigo é sobre a usabilidade. [...]

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Rick is the founder of the first Pirate Party and is a political evangelist, traveling around Europe and the world to talk and write about ideas of a sensible information policy. He has a tech entrepreneur background and loves whisky.

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