Blockchain is today what XML was in 1998

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05 April 2017

It seems to me that blockchain today is where XML was at the beginning. A low level building block on which people are constructing massive hopes and dreams, mentally bypassing the massive amounts of work necessary to get from there to the goals. What I mean by this is perhaps best illustrated by a work environment I was in just prior to XML coming on the scene.

The business was in the bio-chemical agriculture sector, so they dealt with all the major chemical manufacturer/providers in the world. They’d been part of an industry working group composed of these manufacturers and various competitors for many years at that point. The purpose of the working group was to develop a standard way of describing the products, components, parts, and other aspects of the various “products” being manufactured, purchased, resold, and applied to farm fields.

You’ll note that I used the word “product” twice, and put it in quotes. This is because, after all those years, the working group never did figure out a common definition for the word “product”.

One more detail that’s relevant, which is that everyone had agreed to transfer data via COBOL-defined file structures. I suppose that dated back to when they traded reels of magnetic tape, but carried forward to transferring files via ftp, and subsequently the web.

Along comes XML, offering (to some) a miracle solution. Of course XML only solved the part of the problem that these people had already solved, which was how to devise a common data transfer language. Was XML better than COBOL headers? Probably. Did it solve the actual problem of what the word “product” meant? Not at all.

I think blockchain is in the same position today. It is a distributed, append-only, reliable database. It doesn’t define what goes in the database, just that whatever you put in there can’t be altered or removed. So in that regard it is a lot like XML, which defined an encoding structure for data, but didn’t define any semantics around that data.

The concept of XML then, and blockchain today, is enough to inspire people’s imaginations in some amazing ways.

Given amazing amounts of work (mostly not technical work either, but at a business level) over many, many years XML became something useful via various XML languages (e.g. XAML). And a lot of the low-level technical benefits of XML have been superseded by JSON, but that’s really kind of irrelevant, since all the hard work of devising standardized data definitions applies to JSON as well as XML.

I won’t be at all surprised if the same general path isn’t followed by blockchain. We’re at the start of years and years of hard non-technical work to devise ways to use the concept of a distributed, append-only, reliable database. Along the way the underlying technology will become standardized and will merge into existing platforms like .NET, Java, AWS, Azure, etc. And I won’t be surprised if some better technical solution is discovered (like JSON was) along the way, but that better technical solution probably won’t really matter because the hard work is in figuring out the business-level models and data structures necessary to make use of this underlying database concept.