"Blockchain": a word in evolution

One of the initial hurdles encountered when seeking information about blockchain is the difficulty in precisely defining this technology. Researching the subject means coming across articles upon articles with descriptions, concepts, and definitions often conflicting even in their basic principles. This is when they are not too superficial, too technical, or restricted to cryptocurrency support. This lack of definition can quickly become a nightmare for those seeking a deeper understanding of the subject.

The fact is that there is no universally accepted definition for the word "blockchain" today.. There are historical reasons for this: the first applications to use blockchain technology (explicitly, the bitcoin platform, whose primacy in the field is one of the few facts accepted almost universally) were only recognized as such much later, since the term blockchain was coined years later.

Meanwhile, its innovative potential has been recognized, and the different social and economic views on how this potential should be directed, conflicting interests, and speculations about its application have diversified the understanding of what should be called blockchain.

Researching the subject means coming across articles upon articles with descriptions, explanations, concepts, and definitions often conflicting even when listing what the basic principles of this technology would be.

Origins of the term "Blockchain"

The most ubiquitous phrases when it comes to blockchain are variants of 'blockchain it's the technology behind cryptocurrency. bitcoin'. Although true, they have the effect of strongly linking this technology, and for many people strictly, to the cryptocurrency universe, which is far from reality. In fact, much of the research seeks to create versions that are more adapted for use in other areas. However, among the applications of this technology, bitcoin is, so far and with little dispute, the oldest, the most successful, and the most widely publicized for the general public; hence the use of this reference even in more technical documents.

The bitcoin platform did not start as a 'proposal to revolutionize information technology and society'. Its original white paper, dated October 2008, has a very specific objective: to create a digital token meeting criteria of security, decentralization, reliability, and anonymity sufficient to be used as digital currency. The word blockchain is never used: there are several references to the words 'block' and 'chain' in the same context, and the expression 'chain of blocks' is used only once. To be fair, the term bitcoin itself appears only twice in the document: in the title and as part of an internet address.

All movement of tokens on the bitcoin network is recorded in a single data file, with copies spread across all nodes of the network. It presents the mentioned block chaining structure and over time has come to be referred to as 'the bitcoin blockchain'. And since maintaining the integrity, reliability, and immutability of this file is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, key points of the bitcoin platform, the word 'blockchain' ended up being used to refer to the data file, the modeling of its internal structure, and also the technology of the platform as a whole.

Beyond cryptocurrencies

In the meantime, the bitcoin platform attracted attention to its potential, especially from developers. The fact is that in its original conception, the bitcoin platform is composed of series of other technologies that had already been studied for years or decades, and its originality lay in how these technologies were articulated to work together in a decentralized network. Could these same ideas be applied in other business areas?

Initially, the bitcoin platform proved inadequate for applications other than the one it originally proposed. The long time required to confirm a transaction, the large energy expenditures, the emergence of specialized (and costly) hardware that ended up dominating the mining scene are criticized characteristics that did not prevent bitcoin from slowly spreading, but led to technological alternative research. Some of these studies inspired new cryptocurrency platforms.

Some options in bitcoin's work philosophy are also unusual for the traditional business and market vision. For example, the anonymity of operators and the publicity of operations are opposed to the most common formats in private enterprise, which usually require identification among operators and secrecy about operations performed. Another point is the restricted set of possible operations, which makes bitcoin simpler and more robust, but less adaptable for applications in other areas.

It is worth remembering that the design characteristics of bitcoin mentioned are fully integrated into its work proposal, often being necessary or resulting from that same proposal. Trying to change them means bringing other problems whose solution often requires extensive changes in the way of working in relation to the original inspiration.

The question is: how far can one deviate from the ideas of the first implementation and still be dealing with blockchain?

Changing concepts

Apparently, 'quite' is the answer to the last question. At least for some groups. In search of a blockchain implementation applicable beyond the world of cryptocurrencies, many platforms have emerged ranging from 'based' and 'derived' to 'marginally inspired' by the original concepts of bitcoin. However, as this happened in parallel with the adoption of the term blockchain, many of these initiatives continued to present themselves this way.

Different business areas are interested in different characteristics of blockchain, according to their own needs. Hence came the practice of experimenting, rearranging, adding, adapting, and changing its component technologies to achieve a platform suitable for each case, and still consider the result as 'blockchain technology'.

This distancing is such that some implementations are preferring the expression Distributed Ledger Tecnology (DLT) when describing themselves; however, the term blockchain still carries significant commercial weight to be ignored.

Thus, several groups have formed, each defining blockchain in the most consistent way for their needs. And the lack of a common definition, although seemingly innocuous, comes at a cost when it prevents companies from clearly seeing the benefits they can obtain from adopting blockchain, as well as which processes it will be advantageous to use it in. There are losses for the formation of new developers and for collaboration among them. And it raises questions as these conflicting definitions are included in new legislation that seeks to provide legal support for digital contracts.

Different business areas are interested in different characteristics of blockchain, according to their own needs. Hence came the practice of experimenting, rearranging, adding, adapting, and changing its component technologies to achieve a platform suitable for each case.

Efforts to standardize the vocabulary on blockchain have emerged, accompanying the increase in investment in the area. Notably, the ISO/TC307 committee of the International Organization for Standardization works to produce a standardization that can be used as a reference by the industry. And the Chinese government has established a technical committee aiming at the establishment of national standards in blockchain by the end of 2019. In this scenario, defining needs and objectives to, from there, determine the 'type' of blockchain to be adopted is one of the most important points for companies and sectors seeking the benefits of this new technology.

Author: Márcio Marcelo Pelícia - Jun/2018

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