(Disclaimer: Author holds investments in bitcoin and Ethereum.) We’ve been told again and again how cryptocurrencies are going to change the world. They’ll end the power of national banks, break down financial barriers and ease international trade. It hasn’t quite happened yet, but once bitcoin settles down and loses its volatility, the world will have a whole new currency. And, in the meantime, there could be plenty of money to be made on cryptocurrency movements.
But, while all the attention has been on the price of bitcoin, a quieter blockchain revolution is already underway, and it’s likely to impact businesses far sooner and far faster.
Smart contracts are computer programs built on a blockchain -- most often, on the infrastructure created by Ethereum. While cryptocurrencies simply tell users that an address has received a particular value, a smart contract takes that confirmation and then performs a series of actions as a result. It might issue a receipt, release a password or do anything else that can be written into the code. The blockchain, with its security and reliability, makes sure that a transaction has happened and can’t be changed. The code automates the next steps in that transaction.
Even for small businesses, that automation can make life a great deal easier. Escrow is a service worth billions of dollars; real estate escrow services, for example, charge as much as 1-2% of the value of a property to hold onto purchase funds until a deal’s conditions have been met. Those services can easily be replaced by smart contracts. A property buyer would purchase tokens and send them to an address on the blockchain. The funds stay at that address until a computer program acknowledges that all the required steps in the purchase process have been completed: entering a code on a title deed, for example, or uploading a house inspection certificate or a signed copy of the contract. Once the transaction has met all its requirements, the tokens would automatically be released to the seller, who could convert them back into fiat currency. The entire purchase process becomes automated.
For dealers who want the added security of a third party, smart contracts can also be multisignature.
Some businesses are already delivering their services through a blockchain. Slock , for example, is using the blockchain to simplify and broaden the sharing economy. It’s creating a blockchain-connected lock that can be attached to any device: a bike, a car or an apartment, for example. Once a transaction has been confirmed on the blockchain, a user can unlock the device and use that object. For renters using Airbnb, or for firms running city-bike schemes, it’s a very simple way to manage rentals. The company is already working on a smart contract-based system to simplify the charging of electric vehicles, as well .
As businesses experiment with smart contracts, those sorts of products are going to become both more common and more creative. We won’t see all of them. Modern manufacturing processes are a series of actions that take place around the world, each of which has to be confirmed before the next stage can begin. As the i nternet of things embeds chips in products and even parts , each movement in the production process can be written into the blockchain, increasing transparency and efficiency.
But some smart contracts may well be more visible. The owner of a series of websites, for example, could use a smart contract to automatically pay affiliate marketers. The publisher would create a cryptocurrency account with a certain amount of funds and attach it to a smart contract made up of IF/THEN conditions: IF an affiliate sends a click that results in a sale, THEN the cryptocurrency account would release a set fee to that affiliate’s account. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see how that process can be expanded to other businesses and other transactions, from wholesale deliveries to the renting of equipment.
A bigger challenge is creating the blockchain and the smart contracts that businesses are going to use, but that’s now getting easier too. A number of companies are working on smart contract templates that businesses can easily adapt for their own needs. Slock runs an Alpha program to which companies can apply if they want to integrate its sharing economy solution. Jincor is just one of a number of companies working on templates, complete with legislation compliance and cryptocurrencies.
Businesses can also hire coders to create their own bespoke smart contract solutions. While traditional developer freelance sites like CodeMentor list coders who can write smart contracts, some sites are now specializing. Ethlance and Dream focus on developers who specialize in cryptocurrencies and the blockchain. It’s a new industry, so choices are relatively limited, but fees range from around $80 per hour to over $200. You’ll need to figure out what processes you want to automate in your business with a smart contract, calcula...