We went to Amsterdam from 15 to 18 May to cover one of the most important events of the year for the digital economy: the European Bitcoin Conference 2014. And it seemed like we had been transported to the U.S.
Sparkling presentations, drum rolls, and the winner is… The conference was an event full of competitions and awards peppered throughout with handshakes and lots of networking, expositions, talks, miniskirts that were really mini and designer brand suits (while, on a funny side note, the credit card giants of the world were meeting for a vaguely defined payment encounter in the hotel next door).
Jumping from corporate to “kids looking for the next big thing” was reminiscent of Smau ten years ago when white collar businessmen were pleasantly surprised by the invasion of young “techies”, or, the next generation. This time, though, this had been calculated and hoped for.
The host of the event was definitely Gavin Andresen, who, with his recent step back from the dev team seems only to have passed the “Bitcoin King scepter” on but has not lost any of his interest: “sharing responsibilities” was his response when we, inevitably, asked him for his reasons behind the act.
There were many talks during the three days in Amsterdam. The technicians were the most followed by those who weren’t wearing suits, by curious crowds, and the most resistant techno-anarchists, while the legal track attracted more suits with pen and pad in hand and assistants waiting. Two worlds that were watching each other with respective interest and who often met together in the sumptuous passenger terminal, exchanging opinions over pretentious fashion-packed shrimp salads while sipping white wine or non-alcoholic drinks that were available in numerous refrigerators that were open to the public, and that definitely did not accept coins.
From the large number of business cards I collected over 24 hours and the fact that I returned exhausted from this trip makes it clear to me that there is still a lot to do and that there are also a lot of new people joining along.
Some of the most interesting novelties that stood out are Icevault.ch, cold wallet in a safe, located in a caveau fifty meters below ground as Swiss traditions dictates, as well as MePin, the Finnish startup that is reinventing the 2FA to improve security applications through push systems.
Lamassu was unforgettable – it won, moreover, the Blockchain Awards, 10,000 euros worth in bitcoins for improving ATM Design – with the presentation of its two-way apparatus going for about 16,000 euros (VAT excluded), with which it becomes possible to sell one’s bitcoins and not just buy them.
There were many miners, the most noted Cointerra, the less happily noted Butterfly Labs, for SHA256, and, above-all GridSeed, which sells sCrypt miners, and who was also one of the event’s sponsors. Still, it was not mining that was the top theme of this conference.
The main absentees were Andreas Antonopoulos and Marc Andreessen, who were still largely discussed (Andreas even won a Blockchain award). Roger Ver did make an appearance though he was evasive, most probably because he did not want to confront difficult questions about the MtGox disaster.
There was a huge presence, as well, for BitPay, which was the main sponsor and organizer of the event along with the Bitcoin Foundation. The reason for this is clear and understandable: BitPay is opening its European branch precisely in Amsterdam, with a team that will grow from 40 to 70 people, new impulses from new gray matter brought in to cover the market in the Old Country, starting, not by chance, in one of the most progressive capitals. The largest payment processor for Bitcoin continues to maintain a sort of monopoly in Europe managing to offer the most reliable and functional services for those who want to use Bitcoin.
There were many Italians present, at least 30 of us at The Rock Trading Headliner, where everyone was invited to the luxurious Westcord Fashion Hotel for an appetizer. This is a significant presence, a sign that Italy is interested, even companies like BancaIMI that sat at the same table as Bitboat (maybe even something already came out of this encounter).
If I was asked what struck me the most about the event, it would be hard to answer but possibly the presence of so many ATMs might be my first response. I did not expect it. Among the products that were presented, maybe the most interesting was Circle, which must obviously be mentioned.
A U.S. made wallet whose innovation is the possibility of having the account remain in dollars, recharging the account without any fees (truly 0 fees), and then paying in bitcoins while still maintaining one’s balance in the local currency. The interaction with credit cards, for both credit and debit, is a characteristic that has still not quite been understood (the problem of the irreversibility of Bitcoin transactions versus the reversibility of credit card transactions, which creates friction in the management of flow and fraud, has been noted), but has been presented as totally implemented, and surely the promise will be maintained. Why does Circle arouse all of this interest? It’s easy to use: the key term for the 2014 conference, along with “mainstream”. Register, connect your credit card data, pay: as easy as “one, two, three”. This is a novelty in the world of Bitcoin, until today operated only by sector experts. Making it easier to use is something that other exhibiting companies, like Ripple Labs, did not quite manage to do.
Made in Italy at the Bitcoin Conference? Some, but not many. Among the exhibitors that we met was BSideBTC, an Srl that manages mining contracts, merchandise, hosting, tourism, all rigorously payable in bitcoins. While in China containers and containers of Bitcoin miners are being made, the rest of the world is dedicating itself to services, Italy included. China as the world’s factory seems to be a model that persists into the new economy.
So, while Italy – in full election mode – is still dreaming up ways to re-launch its stagnant economy, a few hundred kilometers north of the Alps, the same questions were being asked but with real answers also offered. Something really big, that might not be able to totally re-launch an economy that is over 2000 billion in debt, but that could at least help. It is a world that is growing, which could possibly set the foundation for a new productive revolution, but which Italians don’t want to see or maybe just can’t focus on, apart from many young people. A different approach, with Bitcoin in Italy, has been promoted by Franco Cimatti of the Bitcoin Foundation Italia (he was, obviously, also present at the conference in Amsterdam), a cultural association that includes a group of enthusiasts and a link with the American foundation that includes investors, business angels, venture capitalists, service suppliers, researchers, and so on. The people, that is, who can change the world from one day to the next.
The conference was not just about Bitcoin, however, but also about a lot of instruments that orbit within the same galaxy, though in different solar systems. Like Jumio, for example, which is a user identification system (that we will undoubtedly hear a lot about in the next few years) that has offered an answer to an increasingly insistent question in a world where identifying the user is mandatory while maintaining the immediate and free line of the bureaucracy that defines Bitcoin: KYC, Know Your Customer. All of the “regulated” transactions must be attributed, inevitably, to subjects that are legally identifiable, whether they are private or businesses. Today, it is necessary to send dozens of documents, which is not only a hassle for the user, but even more so for the service providers, who find themselves spending a lot in KYC training. Jumio answers this need: it is a reading, identification, and authorization system for documents via webcam, with fraud recognition and facial comparisons. It is a new way to confront user recognition that is entirely digital and far from current methods that require the mailing off of bills, paychecks, and proof of residency.
There is also GreenAddress, which offers one of the best multi-Sig wallets present on the market (Made in Italy, among other things). Though it didn’t have an exhibition stand at the event, it did have a CEO who was lightning quick in making networking connections and cultivating new partnerships. The prompt response from Lamassu when we asked how they intended to confront the problem about their Bitcoin acquisition platform was interesting: “there are solutions for this, like GreenAddress”. Could there be a partnership on the horizon?
So, after three days of smiles and friendship, the Bitcoin conference came to an end again this year. Three days that were well spent: a lot of material, ideas, and innovation.
What will actually come out of it will soon be seen, or, maybe, we are already seeing it. For sure, all of those who attended went away with new ideas. Because the Bitcoin Conference, before being an expo of what the world of Bitcoin has to offer, is, above all, an informal meeting between those who inhabit this galaxy, which can spark new ideas and new projects. The open source legacy remains, because though there may be a lot of business, there is still a lot of humanity, and this is important in an economic world that is usually just black and white.