Imagine a world where your credit card is a distant memory, where all of your accounts are stored in your phone instead of a bank, and where everyone pays for their purchases with a new global currency that was designed exclusively for the digital age. According to the developers of Bitcoin, this future is no fantasy.
Over the past few years, the peer-to-peer currency theyve created has gained a surprising foothold in the global market. There are now multiple Bitcoin processing apps for Android and the iPhone as well as an online payment system similar to PayPal. At least one Forbes columnist seems to applaud Bitcoins separation of money from the state. But does the ambitious new project really have what it takes to change the world?
Its fun to hope so, but dont bank on it. Heres why.
For small businesses, Bitcoin seems like the solution to household credit card woes. Instead of enabling merchants to process credit card payments from Visa or MasterCard, Bitcoin bypasses the system entirely in favor of device-to-device transactions using near-field communications technology. Bitcoin’s new currency doesnt require a third-party processor or a plug-in dongle. Because of this, Bitcoin can afford to charge users much less per transaction. At the moment, the average Bitcoin transaction fee is .99%, while Square and PayPals processing apps charge 2.75% and 2.7% per swipe of your credit card.
Like any currency, bitcoins can also be exchanged for U.S. dollars through a processing service. The current rate is $4.904 per 1 bitcoin. But thats not saying it has to be exchanged in order to be successful. In Africa, where inflation is out of control, many merchants are choosing to hang onto their bitcoins so that they don’t have to push around wheelbarrows full of $100 trillion notes. Additionally, Bitcoin is poised to take over the black market, and for the obvious reason: it offers shady merchants a way to earn their living completely off the government radar.
So whats holding Bitcoin back from shaking up the global economy? Well, security for starters. Unlike your credit card, Bitcoin currently provides no protection or compensation in the event of fraud. Recently, a hacker managed to raid several Bitcoin bank accounts the credit and debit accounts of rich Bitcoin users around the world and got away with $228,845. Now that money is gone. In theory, security analysts should be able to trace IP activity while the raids happen, thereby snaring the thieves. But masking programs have enabled this particular thief to remain anonymous so far.
Its not just safety that has us concerned about Bitcoin, though. Were also skeptical about how decentralized this digital currency can really be. Though the official wiki claims that the protocol is now mandated by community consensus, its impossible to ignore the power that the original developers have over the system. They have a skeleton key that gives them control of the whole machine, any time they want.
Additionally, theres the problem of balancing the economy. In the U.S., the Federal Reserve handles the printing and regulation of the dollar. If the bitcoin is to become a widely accepted global currency, a regulating agency more complex and thorough than the Fed is required. From the looks of it, there isnt one yet. In fact, the market price for Bitcoin has been plummeting since 2011.
All this adds up to a currency that, while undeniably innovative, has too many flaws to make a lasting impact on the global economy. Its easy to see how Bitcoin might remain a fixture on the black market and within the larger shadow economy for years to come. But as for your mobile phone? You might as well pass now and save yourself the trouble. Visa and MasterCard are still going to hold the reigns for a while.