“Digital currency right now is having its Netscape moment” declared Coinbase chief executive Brian Armstrong at the Ethereal Summit, in Brooklyn, in a presentation about the cryptocurrency company’s most recent product, Token, “a messaging app with money baked in.”
Speaking at the Ethereum-focused day-long conference featuring players in the decentralized web, Armstrong said that the Ethereum-based Token, in developer preview and unveiled a month ago, has four main features that show off the potential for innovation in blockchain-based products. First, it enables payments “in every country in the world from day 1,” he said. Plus, the payments are international. The users themselves, as opposed to financial institutions, are in control of the money they put in it. And the platform has its own reputation system, which Armstrong compared to a FICO score, “so you know who and which applications and people you can trust.”
Finally, Token can be used to make payments to apps. For instance, a Mechanical Turk-type app could enable users to do discrete tasks for small payments, but the workers could then be paid in actual money instead of in Amazon gift cards, which is how non-U.S. workers on Mechanical Turk are paid.
Armstrong also envisions that Token, which is based on Ethereum, will host apps ranging from currency exchanges to marketplaces, remittance services to lenders, advice services to cell phone top up providers.
Armstrong’s bold comparison of Token to Netscape, the first widely popular web browser, indicates the company’s hope that Token gains widespread consumer adoption. To begin, Coinbase, which so far has offered its services in developed countries such as the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia and Singapore, plans to promote Token in the developing world. Later this year, Armstrong will travel to Nigeria to foster development on the platform.
The comparison to Netscape also suggests Armstrong’s hope that Token ushers in a new stage of evolution in the industry, to a phase in which more consumers interact with blockchains and cryptocurrency but are not necessarily aware that they are doing so.
Coinbase’s timing has historically been right. The startup began attracting a following in 2012 in what was then the tiny bitcoin community for making it safe and simple to buy bitcoin with your bank account. In 2015, responding to growing institutional interest in cryptocurrency, it launched Coinbase Exchange, since renamedGlobal Digital Asset Exchange (GDAX), for professional traders.
Now the company is trying to help the industry mature beyond these basic building blocks of a blockchain-based world to have more consumer-facing offerings. In its development of Token, the company created a new protocol called Simple Open Financial Application that makes it easier for developers to build apps for a platform such as Token. In the past, a well-known bitcoin developer who attempted to build a simple bitcoin app spent eight months to get it to work, whereas a developer using SOFA got an app up and running in eight hours.
Because Token is more like a web browser than an app store, Armstrong says Coinbase will not be vetting apps that list on Token, though it will be choosing which ones to feature. When asked how the company would deal with apps that are, say, stealing people’s money, he compared it to how the web browser Google Chrome will warn a user if it thinks a site they’re trying to visit has malware or otherwise looks suspicious.
“I’m not saying we have zero responsibility,” he told Forbes, adding that Token is not like an app store. “We want to educate users about what they’re using, and if they’re going to do something dangerous, make sure they really know what they’re doing.”
The company, which has raised $110 million from investors incumbents such as the New York Stock Exchange, USAA and BBVA, does not currently have plans to make money from Token though Armstrong said it could lend itself to some possible business models down the line, such as charging for pro features or for usage above a certain number of transactions a month.
In his presentation, referring to a popular Chinese messaging app, he called Token “a WeChat for the other 180 countries in the world” and said that it would be like putting a bank in the pockets of every person in the world, which, according to McKinsey, said that financial services on mobile phones could add $3.7 trillion to the GDP of emerging economies within a decade.
It’s an ambitious goal, but a fitting one for a company whose mission is to “create an open financial system for the world.”