Initial coin offerings as an early blockchain use case

Raising money by offering part of your equity and/or profits through ‘initial coin offerings’ is gaining momentum. Companies raised over 600 million dollars through ICOs in June alone:

Here’s a primer on this:

Such a purchase of digital tokens only has value if such a token is central to the company’s business model, else it is little more than toy currency. In other words, the company much be built on the blockchain on which this currency is issued:

“Chasing Digital Payments in Retail”

This is a draft of an article I’d been invited to write for a magazine:


The experience of shopping is the best part of retail, isn’t it? Shelves of attractive packaged goods; rich photographs online; the joy of home delivery (which every e-commerce ad makes sure to include).

Retail’s least desirable part, though, is the experience of actually paying for stuff. If you’ve waited in queue while the guy ahead fumbles for change, or at the petrol pump while the attendant walks all the way to the ‘card machine’, or gotten up to fetch your credit card so you can peck sixteen digits (and an OTP!) online, you know. Clearly, there are strong incentives to make this part easier – or even get rid of it.

The Holy Grail of retail payments is elusive: (a) easy to adopt for people and retailers, (b) quicker, cheaper than cash and cards, and (c) works in-store, online, at cash-on-delivery, and between retailers & suppliers. What’s taking so long, and what can we look forward to?

Well, the Japanese have long bought from their ubiquitous vending machines by scanning a bar-code on their phones, charged to their cell bill. China’s retailers, large and small, also use QR codes in the wildly popular WeChat and Alipay apps. Sweden’s Klarna made buying online from a retailer instant, by simply having customers pay them (Klarna) later instead. Uber charges your card silently so you simply walk out of a cab at your destination. Amazon’s prototype store uses cameras and artificial intelligence to identify & bill your purchases; you just leave.

This is the stuff of magic. All of it headed here.

An exploding number of stores, kiranawallas, even toll booths in glitzy cities and tatty towns accept wallets via QR codes, especially after November’s Giant Currency Crunch. Starbucks’ India app uses a bar code linked to your prepaid card. Online cab companies (Uber, Ola) also use prepaid wallets for instant payment. Online, a handful of startups are building Klarna-like experiences (including EMIs). Bajaj Electricals & Yes Bank have trialled automating supplier payments using a blockchain, the cryptographic transaction-logging ledger, bringing payment down from four days to instantaneous – something retailers are likely to explore with their suppliers.

So. What more before you confidently shop at a store with only a phone (without being embarrassed at the register?)

A payment system spans identification (“it’s definitely me”), authorization (“it’s ok to pay this guy”), and moving money (from customer account to retailer). Elements at each step limit an elegant experience.

Take identification. Scanning a QR code is fast, but you still need a specific app, linked to a wallet, and topped up. Retailers display QR codes for multiple wallets, making accounting tedious. Customers lock up money in multiple wallets because they aren’t sure which a store (online or real-world) will take. Think Europe before the euro and way less fun.

Authorizing a card payment is an elaborate process of swiping a card, dialing the network over a land line, a PIN and two paper receipts. Wallet authorization is simple because only the amount in that wallet is at risk. But you can only topup 20,000 rupees monthly (before KYC). Barely enough for bills, fees and groceries, leave alone the good stuff. Oh, and repaying instant credit? Welcome to the nightmare that is NetBanking on a payment gateway.

Finally, moving money routinely takes a day or more, winding through card networks, intermediary accounts, end-of-day NEFT transfers and excel sheets. It works, but so does driving a bullock cart down the highway.

As it turns out, in 2016 the RBI and the National Payments Corporation (NPCI) introduced solid bank-wide standards for digital payments that rival or outdo the best in the world. Yep. For real.

UPI, a digital-only payment system that makes identifying, authorizing and instantly moving money easy, if done right. That last is a big caveat, but UPI improves so many things that banks will compete to make super-simple UPI kits for retailers and startups. It works across banks, like sending an SMS from Airtel to Idea (wallets can’t interoperate – think WhatsApp to Hike). UPI IDs can also be displayed as QR codes in-store, as buttons in-app, and even just typed into a UPI payment app – most bank apps, or Flipkart’s PhonePe, or NPCI’s BHIM (send me $$ at rahulgaitonde@ybl, people!) You authorize with a PIN set once (unlike waiting for an OTP). UPI’ll get standing instructions in a few weeks, for truly silent payments (you set limits for specific retailers though). Finally, UPI moves money via India’s Immediate Payment System, IMPS. At typically under 5 seconds, immediate is right.

Now that (1) most retailers and customers have smartphones (2) mobile data speeds have improved manifold and (3) one doesn’t need to build around hobbled payment instruments, the ecosystem is free to experiment. Wave and pay with one ID, at the register, at delivery and in-app without picking one of a dozen ways. Pay back credit automatically, without paper and signatures. Make automated, instant, paperless, trackable supplier payments.

And hey, simple payments means undiluted shopping pleasure, no? It’s going to be a fun next couple of years!

Blending paper and screen

We now have a set of tools with us which blend typing and handwriting, paper and screen. It’s chaotic but quite effective.

Just in the last couple of days:
– I imported parts of a pitch deck to review, into Notability on the iPad – I screenshotted specific slides and sent them to the app, then commented on the slides using Notability’s excellent support for the Apple Pencil: annotations, circles, colors, sketches. Finally exported to PDF and emailed it.

– Today I reviewed a document sent over WhatsApp by taking notes on a paper notebook while looking at the document on my iPad (iCloud Photo Library syncs pictures pretty much instantly between the iPhone and iPad). I scanned to PDF via CamScanner and replied on the same WhatsApp thread.

– Finally, more conventionally, I’m writing this draft on pen and paper (I still prefer hand-writing first drafts). I’ll then transcribe this on the iPad, editing as I do so, and post it to WordPress from there.

It’s very liberating to be able to use both whatever is at hand OR whatever is the right tool for what you want to do – brainstorm, annotate, draft, edit – knowing that you’ll be able to publish/message whenever you want at the end of the pipe. There are many factors – technically and culturally – that have come together to make this happen. I’m thinking about this and maybe write about it.

Noise

There are some things physical you can never get used to, I heard or read someplace. You can get used to smell and to sights – the brain will soon filter them out – but you can never get used to noise. And pain.

I remember chronic pain. For a period in 2012 I had migraines twice a week for 48 hour stretches. A dose of pills for three months got rid of it, mostly, something I’ll be ever thankful to the neurologist I saw.

Noise, though, is a constant. I’ve always been sensitive to sounds but this is different. The utter pervasiveness of noise pollution in this country hit me at some point a few years ago. At home. On our streets. On the highway. In public spaces and private Day and night. Weekday or weekend. Rain or shine. Bombay or Bengal.

I am, at this moment, in my living room, subjected to trains and traffic, each honking on either side of the building, the constant rattle of passing rickshaws, a community celebration blaring from loudspeakers from the hall across the street, kids paying cricket with a plastic ball, sometimes yelling in celebration, sometimes contentiously, but always yelling. This is an average evening. A sound measurement app shows the following:

100dB, in context:

I bought a few types of earplugs and settled on one, of which I now have several pairs. I wear them at home. I wear them when out walking. I wear them in cafés. I wear them to bed. I wear them in cabs, in trains, in rickshaws.

But it’s a poor compromise. No, acquiescence. I can’t wear them when in company of course. I can’t wear them when driving. It’s dangerous to wear them on the streets because the pedestrian is at the very bottom of the safety chain. It isn’t hygienic to wear them for extended periods – nor are they comfortable for that long. And no earplugs can drown out all sound across all frequencies: from the rumble of passing trains and trucks and processions to the whine of drills to the angry screech of horns, unwelcome sound has encroached on the entire aural spectrum.

I think it has a very real and substantial impact on my quality of life in ways bith physiological and psychological. I suppose there are many studies that have shown the correlation between physically measurable stress and noise levels.

But I also feel trapped because of the realisation that there truly is no other escape than to create my own, even louder sound balloon of music or white noise, pumped directly into my ears. Knowing that the only artificial respite is in the centre of some large high end urban housing complex, dozens of meters away from the nearest public space, shielded by rows of dampening trees, which also means disengaging from all society but that which lives within this sound fortress. There is no bucolic ideal in this country that is quiet; traffic, loudspeakers and generators are as much a part of rural life as it is here.

Perhaps this seems like a #upperclassproblems rant, I having the luxury of comparing from a privileged flat in an upscale area of Bombay. But that is also my point. If those with means (earplugs, soundproof panes, AC cars with sealed windows) in some of our most expensive urban places suffer so, what do those not so fortunate go through? What is the collective Indian population, across place, across class doing to itself.

An email I wrote on Oct 6 2011…

… after Steve.

Curiously enough, there was no sense of sadness. That emotion was for when he resigned as CEO. The end-of-an-era sadness.

But there was a rush of rudderlessness. Perhaps this is what Nehru felt when he said ‘the light has gone out of our lives‘.

Who will take the floppy drive out of the flagship computer in fucking 1999? Who will convince all major labels to sell their songs for never-before-imaginable 99cents? Who will no longer offer his flagship operating system on a CD/DVD? Who will refuse USB ports on any of his mobile devices? Who will refuse to display the filesystem on those mobile devices? Who will drop wired Ethernet ports on his flagship computer? Who will, in other words, in a world of obfuscation, equivocation, careful risk-free hedging, will refuse bullshit in all its forms? Who will build something he himself truly wants? Who will say ‘We can’t ship junk’ to his customers and walk that talk?

Saying no has become a rare trait today, one to be admired. Still, you could make a case that he has built Apple in his own image, one that does refuse bullshit, that does say no straight up and unapologetically.

But that’s just one half. The easier half.

Who will say ‘this is what a computer will be’ and build the Macintosh, the NeXTStation, the iMac, the Macbook Air and the iPad, say ‘this is what a phone will be’, ‘this is what a music player will be’, ‘this is how we will experience music/movies/TV/games’ and build iPhone, iPod, iTunes, say ‘this is what computer programs will be’ and inaugurate the app era?

You can’t do that by saying no. You can only do that if you’re someone who ‘does his market research by looking at himself in the mirror every morning’.

Who will do that now? And deliver?