While the recent rise in Bitcoin has been grabbing headlines, it’s been Ethereum, the worlds’s second largest cryptocurrency that’s been quietly gaining traction.
Ata noisy and cigarette-smoke filled blackjack table at the Marina Bay Sands casino in downtown Singapore, David Chang is having a fabulous day.
He’s playing flawless basic strategy and making a killing at the tables, when his phone suddenly alerts him that there’s just been a sizable transaction on his credit card for air tickets made from London, United Kingdom.
Stepping away from the table, Chang is irritated.
Clearly his credit card has been compromised and he needs to call in the bank to freeze the card and void the transaction as soon as possible.
Fifteen minutes later, Chang’s credit card company assures him that it can confirm he is indeed in Singapore and not London and that the transactions will be voided — problem solved — Chang can return to his seat at the blackjack table.
Q.E.D. — quite easily done.
For the millions of credit card customers across the globe, having your credit card at risk of being compromised is a part of the price that is paid for having the convenience of not having to carry cash.
But more importantly, there is the comfort as well of knowing that should anything happen, banks can work with merchants to void sales, reverse charges or take any manner of recuperative measures at their disposal to make things right again.
Not so with the blockchain.
One of the value propositions of the blockchain is that transactions, once recorded on the blocks are immutable — there’s no way to artificially reach back in time to undo any fraudulent or poorly thought-out transactions.
But that immutability, while it lends certainty to transactions and contracts can also be harsh and unforgiving.
Because life, is anything but straightforward and there will always be mistakes and regrets, exigencies and exceptions, which the harsh and sometimes punishing finality of the blockchain is not equipped to handle.
When one of the world’s first Bitcoin exchanges Mt. Gox was hacked, there was never a question about reverting to a “new reality” where the addresses of the stolen Bitcoins was to be ignored in some alternate reality.
Which is why The DAO hack of 2016 was a particularly divisive time for the Ethereum network.
For the uninitiated, one of the most incredible concepts to be successfully implemented through blockchain technology was The DAO — a decentralized autonomous organization.
Decentralized autonomous organizations are entities that operate through smart contracts — one of the key functionalities of the Ethereum blockchain.
Financial transactions and rules are encoded on a blockchain, in this case the Ethereum blockchain, effectively removing the need for a central governing authority to determine if the contracts are valid or if the conditions have been satisfied — hence “autonomous.”
The Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO) was meant to operate like a venture capital fund for the cryptocurrency and blockchain space.
The lack of a centralized authority was touted to reduce costs and in theory provide more control and access to investors through a voting system.
At the beginning of May 2016, a few members of the Ethereum community announced the inception of The DAO, which was also known as Genesis DAO.
The DAO had a creation period during which anyone was allowed to send Ethereum (the token of the Etheruem blockchain is strictly speaking called “Ether,” but I use Ethereum interchangeably with the token for simplicity) to a unique wallet address in exchange for DAO tokens on a 1:100 scale.
The creation period was an unexpected success as it managed to gather 12.7 million Ethereum (or Ether if you like) worth some US$150 million at the time, making it the biggest and most successful crowdfund ever.
And given that the rest of the world hadn’t yet caught on to cryptocurrencies, the achievement of The DAO was no mean feat.
However, on June 17, 2016, a hacker found a loophole in the coding of The DAO allowing Ethereum to be stolen.
In the first few hours of the hacker’s attack, 3.6 million Ethereum were stolen, the equivalent of US$70 million at the time. Once the hacker had done the damage intended, the attack was withdrawn.
In this exploit, the attacker was able to “ask” the smart contract to give Ethereum back multiple times before the smart contract could update its balance on the blockchain.
But the bug in the code did not come from Ethereum itself, instead it came from this one application that was built on top of the Ethereum network.
The code written for The DAO had multiple flaws and the hacker had exploited one of them.
But the blockchain itself, Ethereum, had remained unmolested and uncompromised.
The only issue was that because The DAO now accounted for roughly 15% of all Ethereum, a failure of The DAO would have had a negative impact on the Ethereum network and its cryptocurrency.
All eyes were on The DAO and the Ethereum Foundation (responsible for managing Ethereum), hoping for a resolution that would allow the Ethereum ecosystem to continue to develop as it had before.
On June 17, 2016, Vitalik Buterin of the Ethereum Foundation issued a critical update, saying that The DAO was under attack and that he had worked out a solution,
A software fork has been proposed, (with NO ROLLBACK; no transactions or blocks will be “reversed”) which will make any transactions that make any calls/callcodes/delegatecalls that reduce the balance of an account with code hash0x7278d050619a624f84f51987149ddb439cdaadfba5966f7cfaea7ad44340a4ba (i.e. the DAO and children) lead to the transaction (not just the call, the transaction) being invalid …
To simplify, Buterin specifically states that he isn’t proposing to rewrite any blocks on the Ethereum blockchain, but just to install a “switch” in the basic Ethereum code that prevents moving any Ethereum out of The DAO or its children (apps being developed on The DAO).
Effectively, this was a one-time fix (called a “soft fork”) for a one-time event that would seal specific Ethereum in that Ethereum address for all time — making the “stolen” Ethereum marked and unusable.
But the soft fork would have huge ideological ramifications for the future, splitting Ethereum supporters from the hardcore purists to the more pragmatic.
In a nutshell, although the Ethereum blockchain itself was never compromised, because someone had stolen Ethereum, the developers were proposing to “not recognize” those stolen tokens and “soft fork” in a parallel time dimension as if the Ethereum had never been stolen.
As long as more than 51% of the miners of Ethereum agreed to the soft fork, it could be done.
And it was done.
Perhaps driven by pragmatism, or recognizing the inherent value of the Ethereum protocol, a majority of miners of Ethereum (who secure the Ethereum blockchain) backed the soft fork.
But another group of purists decided to hard fork and break off the original Ethereum protocol, creating a rival protocol called Ethereum Classic — one that recognized the stolen Ethereum.
Those who backed Ethereum Classic argued that not recognizing the Ethereum stolen in the hack, undermined the immutability of the blockchain and created a moral hazard.
The DAO hack and the events afterwards brought about heated debates across the globe, from computer labs in Singapore to coding meetups in Toronto, everyone had a different view.
Some thought that the move was the only logical one for the survival of Ethereum, especially since it was still in its early days of development.
Yet others argued that the soft fork violated one of the key tenets of the blockchain — immutability.
Purists would argue that if tokens are stolen, the blockchain needs to recognize the theft, otherwise a moral hazard is created, where if there were ever an entity deemed “too big to fail,” the immutability of the blockchain would be called into question.
Fast forward to 2019 and it may appear that that the mainstream has spoken when it comes to Ethereum’s decision to soft fork and not recognize the effects of The DAO hack.
Today, Ethereum (the original) is the world’s second largest cryptocurrency and trades around US$260 with a market cap of almost US$28 billion, whereas Ethereum Classic, backed by the hardcore purists, which recognized the aftermath of The DAO hack, trades at US$9.40 with a market capitalization of 28 times less than that of Ethereum, at just over US$1 billion.
The reason this history lesson into Ethereum is necessary is to help in some way understand why despite the vagaries of The DAO hack, so many companies are adopting the Ethereum protocol to pursue what has been termed the “enterprise blockchain.”
From Tel Aviv to Toronto, Seattle to South Africa, companies are experimenting with blockchain for their businesses and many have adopted either Ethereum or their own version of a blockchain based on Ethereum.
In Taipei, Foxconn, the electronics giant best known as a manufacturer of iPhones has launched a startup based in Shanghai called Chained Finance, with a Chinese peer-to-peer lender — and they will be utilizing an Ethereum-based blockchain.
Chained Finance will soon connect Foxconn and its many small suppliers (and their suppliers’ suppliers) on an Ethereum-based blockchain that will use its own token and smart contracts to make payments and provide financing in near-real time, eliminating the cumbersome daisy chain of paperwork.
According to Jack Lee, the founder of Foxconn’s venture capital arm, which has invested US$40 million in six blockchain startups,
“We view blockchain as the skeleton of our work.”
“Smart contracts that automatically execute transactions are the muscles and tokens are the blood.”
And Chained Finance is not alone. It is one of an ever-growing list of companies building next-generation decentralized applications based on the Ethereum blockchain.
Enterprise blockchain as it has been called, has the potential to speed up business processes, increase transparency and potentially save billions of dollars for companies.
To be sure, companies are already using blockchain technology to track fresh-caught tuna from fishing hooks in the South Pacific to grocery shelves, to speed up insurance claims and to manage medical records.
Total corporate and government spending on blockchain should hit US$2.9 billion in 2019, an increase of 89% over the previous year, eventually rising to US$12.4 billion by 2022, according to market resarch firm IDC.
When PwC surveyed 600 “blockchain-savvy” executives last year, 84% said their companies were already involved with the technology.
And many of these corporate-led blockchain projects have seemed to favor the Ethereum network as the protocol of choice upon which to build their applications atop of.
Take for instance Anheuser-Busch Inbev (AB Inbev), the Belgian brewing giant involved in a pilot program in the San Francisco Bay Area where consumers can upload their driver’s license information to an Ethereum-based blockchain, which will enable them to buy beer from a vending machine by simply scanning their smartphone.
In Africa, AB Inbev is working in partnership with BanQu to use an Ethereum-based blockchain to provide pricing and payments information to farmers who lack bank accounts, making it possible for the company to work faster and with more farmers, in order to ramp up its African operations.
BBVA, Spain’s second-largest bank announced its first Ethereum blockchain-based syndicated loan worth US$170 million for Red Eléctrica Corporación, Spain’s electrical grid operator.
And with nearly US$5 trillion in loans being syndicated worldwide each year, the transparency, security and efficiency of the blockchain could make a huge impact on the industry.
French lender BNP Paribas is trying to move letters of credit from their current paper form to a secure distributed ledger. Last November, the bank worked with HSBC Singapore, to complete the world’s first fully digitized letter of credit transaction, one that was based on the Ethereum blockchain.
Over in London, energy giant BP, has invested in several blockchain projects, including Ethereum-based attempts to improve the efficiency of commodities trade finance, pouring over US$20 million into various initiatives.
Ciox Health, the biggest manager of medical records in the United States has been studying the use of the Ethereum blockchain to cut paperwork redundancies, reduce medical mistakes and provide a new source of subscription income.
While in New York city, banking behemoth Citigroup, has invested in half a dozen startups, primarily working off the Ethereum blockchain, to develop applications for securities settlement, credit derivative swaps and insurance payments.
Last year, Citigroup teamed up with British bank Barclays and software provider CLS to launch LedgerConnect, an app store for companies to shop for blockchain tools, including tools to build Ethereum-based applications.
Comcast, the owner of MState, a venture capital firm, has invested in no less than seven enterprise blockchain startups, including Blockdaemon, which builds software to help enterprises build applications that use Bitcoin and Ethereum and comply with current regulations, for instance protecting the privacy of health records.
Fund giant Fidelity launched a custody service this year for institutional investors who want to store their cryptocurrencies safely and it’s also building a trading platform that allows a large block of cryptocurrency to be purchased by executing orders across multiple exchanges. Some of its key digital assets include Bitcoin and Ethereum.
Having missed the ETF boom, 73-year-old Fidelity wants to be at the forefront of cryptocurrency assets going mainstream and has devoted no less than 100 employees to the cause.
Search giant Google has also thrown its hat into the ring, making numerous investments in blockchain, creating a suite of tools that make it easier to search and analyze cryptocurrency transactions, including for Ethereum, allowing users to essentially “Google” public blockchains.
HPE, the US$31 billion (by revenue) enterprise technology spin-off from Hewlett Packard, is hoping to make a splash with blockchain services.
Leveraging the Ethereum blockchain, HPE already counts more than a dozen customers, including car parts maker Continental, which will use HPE’s Ethereum-based blockchain technology to track a vehicle’s location and a driver’s license and insurance.
HTC, another Taiwanese company has just launched the Exodus 1, a new smartphone that provides a safer way for users to store and recover lost cryptocurrencies including Ethereum.
The Exodus 1 also has a special web browser designed for sites built on the blockchain — a version of the decentralized web, which some Ethereum-based projects are currently developing.
Software giant Microsoft’s cloud unit Azure, has launched Azure Blockchain Workbench, a tool for developing blockhain apps, including for the Ethereum blockchain.
Many of Azure Blockchain Workbench’s templates are available for free, but if an organization builds or runs an app or network on Azure, Microsoft charges for the underlying cloud services.
Northern Trust, which manages US$1.1 trillion worth of assets, helped the World Bank execute a US$79 million bond issue last year via the Ethereum blockchain. The asset manager is also working with the Australian Securities Exchange on a Ethereum blockchain-based equities clearing, settlement and custody platform.
Online discount store Overstock, which was one of the first online retailers to accept cryptocurrencies is convinced that blockchain technology will change the world.
Founder and CEO Patrick Byrne, is already remaking Overstock into something of a cryptocurrency-focused company and Ethereum is one of the platforms that they are channeling their attention and investments to.
South Korean electronics giant and smartphone maker Samsung built its own blockchain Nexledger atop the Ethereum blockchain, to overhaul how its battery-manufacturing subsidiary manages contracts and the execution of those contracts.
The massive German multinational Siemens, which manufactures everything from solar panels to dishwashers has been using the Ethereum blockchain to power initiatives to decentralize and democratize power generation.
New York-based Signature Bank, is the first FDIC-insured bank to develop a private Ethereum-based blockchain digital payments platform.
Known as SignetTM, the platform allows the bank’s commercial clients to send free, secure payments to other commercial clients of the bank at any time of day, with no transaction limit, in as little as 5 seconds.
Signature Bank has its own token Signet, which is backed by U.S. dollars and which was built atop the Ethereum blockchain.
American PowerNet, a Signature Bank customer, recently chose the Ethereum-based SignetTM to make real-time payments to renewable energy providers.
And there are many more Ethereum-based projects, too many to mention, in various stages of development.
But the bottom line is that Ethereum, despite the legacy of The DAO hack has shown that it can rise above the ashes of its early challenges — through a combination of versatility and pragmatism.
While many cryptocurrency and blockchain purists may deride Ethereum as not being true to the ethos of the blockchain and what it stands for, the reality is that its early ability to demonstrate adaptability and to make pragmatic choices, as well as its flexibility as a protocol probably contributed in no small way to its current status as the world’s number two cryptocurrency.
Speaking to Forbes, Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin probably summed up this pragmatism best when he said,
“I stopped viewing large corporations over the last few years as kind of singular evil behemoths.”
“As far as where big companies can fit in, I do think that they have a role and I do think the smart ones that take the first step and are willing to kind of play with the technology rather than against it can survive and even benefit from the whole process.”
While crypto-anarchists may decry cooperating with “the enemy,” it is perhaps Buterin’s far more pragmatic view of blockchain technology that puts Ethereum in good stead for future applications.
To be sure, Ethereum’s beauty is that hard forks of the Ethereum blockchain allow the relatively easy issuance of a company’s own tokens and because Ethereum caters for smart contracts, companies which would prefer to run either private or permissioned-blockchains (blockchains with restricted access rights) can do so relatively seamlessly as well.
In many ways, Ethereum could be thought of as Linux, with companies building software atop the operating system viewed as their own personal version of Windows or Mac OS.
This version of the future of blockchain technology that companies are building is, for the most part, the antithesis of what the early adopters of Bitcoin and cryptocurrency may have envisioned.
While many cryptocurrency purists fantasize about a global, public network of individuals connected directly and democratically, devoid of middlemen, many of these companies working atop the Ethereum blockchain are building private networks, specifically for use to profit from centralized management.
But it’s not the end of the cryptocurrency vision that purists may have in mind.
There will always be segments of the population that would prefer to interact and transact in a strictly decentralized arena and in some ways, the enterprise blockchain is a bridge between these two divided visions of blockchain technology.
Just as internal computer networks or intranets were adopted by companies long before the internet took off, these firms are starting by adopting distributed ledger technology, or blockchain technology at a small scale — and in this regard, Ethereum stands out for being their protocol of choice when building their projects and applications.
According to Bridget van Kralingen, senior vice president at IBM Global Industries,
“The era of blockchain tourism has ended.”
“We’ve really seen blockchain move from being overshadowed by cryptocurrency to focus on real business problems and complex processes.”
And while Bitcoin continues to take headlines, whether as a store of value or as an appreciating asset, Ethereum has quietly been forming the base from which companies have begun their exploration into blockchain technology — solving real problems for real companies.
While Bitcoin may one day solve some of the problems associated with fiat currencies, for now, those problems still lie in the somewhat uncertain future. Ethereum on the other hand is working to solve today’s problems today.
Patrick is an innovative entrepreneur and a lawyer passionate about cryptocurrencies and the business world. He is the CEO of Novum Global Technologies, a cryptocurrency quantitative trading firm. He understands the business concerns of founders and business people helping them to utilise the legal framework to structure their companies to take advantage of emerging technologies such as the blockchain in order to reach greater heights. His passion for travel, marketing and brand building has led him across careers and continents. He read law at the National University of Singapore and graduated with Honors in the Upper Division and joined one of Singapore’s top law firms, Allen & Gledhill where he was called to the Singapore Bar as an Advocate & Solicitor in 2005. He created Purer Skin, a skincare and inner beauty company which melds the traditional wisdom of ancient Asian ingredients such as Bird's Nest with modern technology. In 2010, his partner and himself successfully raised $589,000 from the National Research Foundation of Singapore under the Prime Minister’s Office. He has played a key role in the growth of Purer Skin from 11 retail points in Singapore to over 755 retail points in Singapore and 2 overseas in less than a year. He taught himself graphic design, coding, website design and video editing to create the Purer Skin brand and finished his training at a leading Digital Media Company.