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When is “Good” Good Enough for Bitcoin?

This morning, StumbleUpon brought me to this truly excellent post about solar cell efficiency over at the University of California, San Diego’s Do the Math blog. Author TMurphy makes some excellent points and I’ll leave it to you to read the entire post – it certainly deserves the attention – but the primary argument, the one thing the entire article boils down to is that, while research on more efficient solar energy is certainly worthwhile, what we have now is good enough and we should start focusing on cost rather than efficiency.

It’s a sensible argument. When the average home’s power needs can be met with a merely 15% efficient solar cell covering one-sixth of its roof surface, efficiency should be a secondary concern. When just the sunlight hitting your garage can power your whole home, does it matter that much if you could do it with half your garage? Or a third? Not really – what matters is that the current cost of putting up such a photovoltaic (PV) array, divided by its theoretical lifespan, is greater than or equal to the cost of merely buying that same electricity from traditional (fossil) sources. What those of us pushing for a renewable solar-powered future need to focus on isn’t the size of the array – it’s the cost.

Shortly after finishing the article, it occurred to me that many of the same things can be said of another project I’ve got a deep interest in: Bitcoin. I wrote an article a while back about some exotic new transaction types clever folks were coming up with – ways to use Bitcoin that hadn’t really been considered before. At the time it seemed impressive and awe inspiring all these crazy things clever people were doing with the technology – but now it’s beginning to feel like we’re trying to push PV past 15% efficiency. Sure, some of the transaction types would be immensely useful, and perhaps they don’t represent the “step too far” where we’ve begun wasting resources – Dispute mediation, micropayments and assurance contracts are adequately common in daily life that it’s absolutely worth implementing them and there are plenty of talking points for the other exotic transaction types mentioned in the article as well, I’m sure, as many transaction types yet to be pondered – but the question remains: When is Bitcoin “good enough?”

It seems obvious to argue that there’s a tipping point in play here. There is undoubtedly a certain point beyond which Bitcoin would benefit more from a push for increased adoption than from shiny new features. While there is a whole demographic who argues against their mere existence, I personally believe that answering this question would be an excellent question for the newly-created Bitcoin Foundation to investigate and answer – though perhaps the foundation’s very existence suggests that they, at least, think we’ve reached that tipping point.

By now, many of you have already made up your minds. You’ve had a knee-jerk reaction to my words and decided based on gut instinct alone whether or not Bitcoin is ready for prime time. I’d encourage you to stop and rethink, however. PV efficiency is a highly trivial example comparatively speaking – you only need to answer the one question:

  • Is the current tech adequate to provide for average needs with average available space?

Yes? Good, done. It’s good enough, let’s make it cheaper.

Bitcoin is a much more complex system with far more questions to be answered:

  • Is it secure enough?
  • Is it easy enough?
  • Is the extra-Bitcoin infrastructure stable enough?
  • Are there adequate resources for average people to fill in the gaps on their own?
  • Is the current Bitcoin community ready, able and agile enough to respond to all the bullet points I’ve missed when they pop up out of nowhere?

Economies are a tangled hierarchy, connecting things in surprising and unpredictable ways that we’ll never be ready for and seldom expect. It’s likely that Bitcoin will never be “finished” by any proper standard, but it’s important that we decide when to call it “good enough.” Work on the codebase can and likely will continue well into the foreseeable future. New transaction types will almost certainly arise and the use of the protocol for unintended purposes isn’t just a possibility but has been an implemented reality since the advent of NameCoin. We geeks will keep playing in our shiny new sandbox for as long as you’ll let us, but it’s important to know when our sandbox is ready to invite the rest of the class.

Personally, I think we’re close – not quite there, but close – and what separates us from our goal is ease of use. But hey, I’m just one guy with one voice and it’d be downright criminal to not hear other voices on this most important of issues so…

Is Bitcoin "Good Enough?"

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  • Gary Rowe

    Many of Bitcoin's major use cases rely on transfer to fiat and back again. This incurs a significant cost which pretty much negates any savings on the transaction processing costs of rival payment systems online. However, the advantage of an irreversible payment is very attractive to online merchants.

    Thus what is needed is an end-to-end Bitcoin supply chain. As anyone in the online retail trade can testify, building a reliable supply chain is no easy thing – even with a smooth payment process. The more tools we as a community can offer merchants seeking to trade in bitcoins the better off the economy as a whole will be.

  • Drugged Thug

    Three words: Merkle tree pruning. The blockchain takes up gigabytes and will only get bigger, and the need to download it after every install is a barrier to adoption.

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  • Paul

    A good read as usual. May I suggest that future surveys are placed before the article. Some might say that most readers were primed by your views to vote for the "Almost ready" option;)

    • David Perry

      One of my favorite complaints about the typical implementations of democracy and voting systems is the idea that, prior to any education or investment of time and effort, everyone's vote counts equally. I'd rather people actually read the background behind the question, read what I have to say (which is usually pretty fair and balanced, I try at least) and then make up their mind on the topic with some background and education instead of a gut feeling and likely little comprehension of what I'm even asking.

  • Raize

    We either need Merkle tree pruning or a way to run a server with the blockchain and have POS clients that connect to that server only to verify the transactions. Basically, think Electrum, but with the ability to easily run your own server in Windows or POSIX-compatible OS. Focusing on the "easily" part.

    If it could all be TOR-based that'd be even better.

  • cunicula

    Myspace was good enough for general use, but it still got facebooked. It doesn't need to be just good enough to be used.

    The standard should be. Could a competing currency be designed that it far superior to bitcoin (i.e. far more secure at the aggregate level, offering far lower txn fees, far safer from theft at the individual user level)?

    The answer to these questions is obviously yes, yes, yes.

    Then, is bitcoin good enough?

    No, No, No.

    Scalability is a programming issue. Programmers don't know how to look past programming issues.