At this early stage of its development, blockchain technology undoubtedly has a long way to go before it can be considered truly ‘mainstream’. As for what its adoption curve might look like, it’s unlikely to resemble the rapid embrace given to – for instance – smartphones.
Smartphones raced into the mainstream compared to many other technologies, but their adoption was built on top of some of those previous technologies, in particular, regular phones and earlier mobile phones that took much longer to penetrate consumer markets.
In a similar way, today's blockchain applications are building on the technology first envisioned by Bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto. But Bitcoin itself is just 10 years old. And no one could make the case that Bitcoin or any other cryptocurrency has hit the mainstream yet.
So when – if ever – might blockchain see widespread adoption by consumers? And what hurdles will it need to clear along the way?
The first is simple awareness. As of early 2018, the analyst IDC reported, “as much as 80 per cent of European enterprises have never heard of blockchain or distributed ledger technologies, or do not have a clear understanding of the impact it could have on their organisations”. Within the tech industry itself, of course, awareness is much higher – SAP in October reported that 99.5 per cent of its customer/partner community “view blockchain as an opportunity”. But it’s likely to take a while yet before ordinary consumers are talking about, and using, blockchain.
For example, while a YouGov survey last year found that 79 per cent of Americans are “familiar with at least one kind of cryptocurrency”, most of the respondents who knew what Bitcoin was had never bought, sold or mined it.
Beyond awareness, blockchain technology also needs to become far more user friendly if it is to have a chance of widespread usage.
“No one has come up yet with a… blockchain-based product that is so easy to use that you can stick it on your phone and start using it immediately and not even think about it,” Wall Street Journal markets reporter Paul Vigna says in an Investopedia interview. He compares the situation to previous technologies like ATMs or mobile phones, which many people today have a hard time imagining living without.
“The person who makes a blockchain-based system that, when people use it they say that, that will be the person who wins,” Vigna says.
Other obstacles to wider blockchain usage that need to be resolved include security concerns, private-key recovery worries and throughput and performance issues, not to mention overhype, regulatory matters, and standards and interoperability.
Still, blockchain advocates tend to believe in its revolutionary potential. They express confidence that the technology will overcome these hurdles and go on to reshape how business works in the future. Blockchain, Deloitte noted in its 2018 global blockchain survey is “getting closer to its breakout moment every day”. But even that doesn’t necessarily mean it will become mainstream for the average consumer in a typical way.
It’s entirely possible that blockchain could become mainstream without most consumers even realising it. Consider, for instance, how many people today regularly use cloud-based services without necessarily understanding what the cloud is… or even realising that’s what they’re using.
In the same way, blockchain could become mainstream if it could be basically made invisible for people who use it, Jay Chang, a product marketer for EOS and Block.one, said at a recent event.
“The key to mainstream blockchain technology adoption is to remove ‘Blockchain’ from the consumers’ experience,” Chang said.