Crypto 2018 = Mobile Phones 1991

I, like many others, often liken the nascent cryptocurrency market to the early days of the internet and I do, sincerely, believe that it is both fair and real comparison, although I ultimately believe that the impact on human lives across the globe will be far greater this time round.

However, I had forgotten about another equally valid comparison until I was reminded of it whilst dealing with Gumtree on an issue to do with accepting cryptocurrencies for an ad I’d placed. In short, my ads had been taken down because I wanted to accept payment in Bitcoin or Litecoin rather than cash, and this had been considered fraudulent by the powers at Gumtree. The funny thing was that 26 years earlier, my ads in the weekly classified newspaper, Exchange & Mart, had also been rejected because I wanted to list them with a mobile phone number. As incredible as it may now seem, this was also considered an activity consistent with fraud at the time. That part of the full story is here.

But as I thought about this and typed the story, I realized it was not the only time that crypto-mobile phone comparisons could be made, and so this second blog article was born. If you weren’t there, in those heady, phone-box-dependent-pre-mobile days, this will sound bizarre, but I assure you, it is all quite true. And if you were also an early adopter, this may well spark some distant memories.

It was 1991 when I got my first mobile phone. It was a Motorola 4500X, and it was a beast. It had four hours of standby time (if you were lucky), 45 minutes of talk time, and required two hands to use when walking along; one to hold the battery pack and one to hold the receiver to your ear with a thick curly cord to connect the two. I looked ridiculous of course, especially when walking down the street, but I was sold instantly on the technology and could see it’s use on a large scale.

mobile phone
The Motorola 4500X, the very model I owned. You could keep in touch and use it as a defensive weapon at the same time.

The trouble was, not everyone agreed with me. According to most people at the time, mobile phones were only used by two groups of people, people trading in the markets and criminals, and since I was quite obviously not the former, I must, by definition, be the latter.

This is both a crazy and truthful statement simultaneously. It was entirely true that traders in particular were using them, partly because they were so exclusively expensive and therefore the ultimate accessory, but mostly because it gave them an edge that their competitors may not have had. That part makes sense. The criminal part, less so. (You will note I have resisted the temptation to paint the two as the same anyway)

At that time, ‘pay as you go’ didn’t exist. To own a phone, you’d have to buy it, get a shop to connect it to a network, sign up for a long contract, provide ID and proof of address and then you could get going. It didn’t seem like something criminals would do. That said, they were hugely expensive, so the feeling that ‘you need to be a criminal to buy one’ was probably the basis of this assumption.

Fast forward a few years and we have a new technology that is, according to the masses, being used only by traders and criminals. The traders though, are retail rather than institutional thus far (they’re working on it, do not doubt it for a second), and the criminal part has already been proven. Therefore, case closed. Unless you consider there may actually be genuine uses out there as well, like there may be for, say, mobile phones which, we can safely say, are no longer the exclusive domain of traders and bad guys.

Early adopters of this technology will also remember the comments and the stares. I was called a ‘geek’, ‘show off’, ‘rich kid’ and many more far unkinder terms that I don’t need to repeat here. It seemed like not only was the technology itself being rejected, but also my use – and therefore endorsement – of it. More than once, my phone was hijacked mid call by people who shouted ‘hello mum!’ down the handset and then given back with a grin that said “See, phones are useless for anything except mucking about with”. Sounds amazingly close to “See, cryptos are useless for anything except mucking about with.” In both cases, I strongly disagree.

And let’s not forget how bad the tech was at the time. There was no 4G, 3G or even GPRS back then – these babies ran on analogue radio signals and had all kinds of security implications as they could be picked up by anyone, allegedly. The calls would often drop out, mobile masts were few and far between meaning that getting a signal bar anywhere at all was an achievement by itself and you had no way or storing numbers or knowing who had called you. By today’s standards it was, frankly, rubbish. In point of fact, it’s probably as rubbish as making and integrating crypto payments today is compared to how it will be in a few years’ time.

But it was also exciting to be part of the unfolding story and when it did work, it never failed to amaze people like some kind of well practiced magic trick. Some of those people wanted one as a result, some couldn’t see the point beyond a novelty, some were actually scared in case it make them a target for crime, and some were vehemently opposed for different reasons, but often to do with privacy and the fear of being called when they were somewhere they weren’t supposed to be, usually the pub.

Some or many of these excuses exist now as reasons why people won’t yet adopt cryptocurrencies, yet they seem (mostly) laughable now in the context of mobile phones. We saw the same with the adoption of the internet of course, another area that I had first hand experience of when setting up one of the UKs very first internet cafes in Guildford in early 1996. Opposition to this was also quite emotionally charged – even aggressive – to start with, but that adoption cycle came fast and, once again, the realm of specialist field or criminal use has been reduced to a minority percentage in today’s digital world.

It’s also interesting to note that people who were pro-internet or pro-mobile at the time of their early adoption, are not necessarily pro-crypto now, or, even more interestingly, vice versa. For me, as an early adopter of all these technologies (and many others) I know from experience and gut feel that you simply cannot stop an idea whose time has come – and you look a bit daft if you try. With the developments that are going on around the world right now, it’s already too late to stop it, so it becomes merely a question of an adoption cycle, driven by many factors such as ease of use, availability, and a global change in attitude that once would take many years, but now happens very quickly as new tech builds on old tech at an exponential rate.

A bit like mobile phones. Or the internet. Or even DVDs when they replaced VCRs (and have since been replaced themselves).

But then again, I never did work out how to programme the clock on my early adopted VCR, so perhaps you should take all of this with a pinch of salt.

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