A few of them promptly snapped back at him, snarling from their seats in the audience.
Those snarls are quieter today. Versions of Linux are commonplace in enterprise technology systems, and the Linux kernel sits at the very heart of Android, which runs hundreds of millions of smartphones around the world.
Bitcoin is currently undergoing a similar transition. Long regarded by much of the public as little more than a subversive digital currency for radical Libertarians, covert drug deals and tech-utopians, bitcoin and its underlying “blockchain” technology took a turn toward the mainstream at this year’s South by Southwest Interactive festival.
“Linux did take over the world,” said Patrick Murck, executive director of the Bitcoin Foundation. “It just didn’t do it the way people thought it was going to. It would not surprise me to see bitcoin take that path.”
Its advancements will come in fits and starts, Murck said. But in a dozen or so SXSW sessions focused on bitcoin over the past week, speakers said the platform will deliver some remarkable mainstream applications in the years to come.
To get a sense for those possibilities, panelists said, it’s important to remember that bitcoin is very early in its formation. Speakers regularly compared it to the Internet’s early days, before Web browsers and search engines came along to simplify the user experience.
“For bitcoin to go mainstream, it has to disappear,” said Jeremy Allaire, CEO of Circle Internet Financial, which helps users store and exchange the digital currency.
Internet use became ubiquitous when it became just a search box, Allaire said. Likewise, he and many others expect the technical complexity of bitcoin and its underlying blockchain — which acts as a sort of public ledger, recording every bitcoin transaction — will drop further into the background.
Eventually, bitcoin applications might act more like Apple Pay, only without an attached bank account or credit card and with sharply lower transaction fees, said Charlie Lee, a former Google engineer and a creator of Litecoin, another cryptocurrency.
“Right now, because bitcoin is so young, there’s not a lot of stuff built on top of it,” said Lee, now an engineer at Coinbase, which provides digital “wallets” for cryptocurrencies. “So you kind of have to understand a little bit to use it.”
Much like Google has continued developing Android around the Linux kernel, and developers have layered popular phone apps atop it, developers will build out more on bitcoin and its blockchain platform.
Lee pointed to the possibilities that could emerge with driverless cars. For example, you hop in the car for your morning commute and download a few songs or articles — instantly paid for by a bitcoin-backed micropayments system. Along the way, you pull up to a coffee shop window, where the barista hands you a latte, already ordered, brewed and paid for. And after the car drops you at the office, it goes off to park itself — with the payment preprogrammed and the space reserved.