The many uses of blockchains

A quick association test: When you hear “blockchain,” what word immediately comes to mind? “Bitcoin,” of course. For many people, the two are one and the same. They aren’t aware of the many other uses for the technology, probably because they don’t actually know what it consists of. It’s not easy to understand, but once you do, a huge range of applications opens up.

What is a blockchain? It’s a distributed, cryptographically verified ledger of transactions. With Bitcoin, the transactions represent payments. Ethereum is using it as a platform for contracts.

A “contract” is a program in the Solidity language, which is similar to JavaScript. The contract is with the code, not with people; the code will perform certain actions when contracting parties (people or other code) provide authorization. Solidity supports inheritance, so new contracts can inherit characteristics from existing ones. Ethereum suggests applications such as crowdfunding and organizational management. Others are looking into identity management and controlled sharing of information.

All parties need to understand what the contract does, and it had better be bug-free. A bug in the contract could change its outcome, which might delight one party but ruin the other.

Blockchain contracts can’t handle all kinds of agreements. Interactions with the real world are difficult. The only way the blockchain can enforce payment is to keep it in escrow, which isn’t always desirable. Gideon Greenspan discusses some of blockchain tech’s limitations on coindesk.com. (You can find more of his measured blockchain skepticism on the MultiChain blog.)

TechCrunch talks about the possibilities of blockchain for musicians. There’s some hand-waving in the explanation; a blockchain can certainly hold claims of ownership of a song, but how will it authenticate them? Tying cryptocurrencies to micropayments has promise, though. The existing system doesn’t work at all for composers and performers who aren’t famous.

People keep discovering uses for blockchain technology. There’s also a lot of nonsense and overblown claims. I’ll be getting back to the topic as new applications and issues turn up.

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Gary McGath

I am a freelance writer, author of the books _Files that Last_ and _Tomorrow's Songs Today_, with a strong background in software development, file formats, and digital preservation.

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