February 27, 2024

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I will be honest with you. I’m still not sure if cryptocurrencies like bitcoin are useful. But they’re huge business and they’re having their greatest moment yet.

Coinbase, which helps people buy and sell cryptocurrencies, publicly listed its stock for the first time on Wednesday. Coinbase is like a bank, but not one, and it’s designed to trade money that only exists as lines of computer code. And as of Thursday, that non-money bank was worth more than $ 85 billion – about the same as General Motors.

My colleague Erin Griffith told me that Coinbase’s public debut both validates cryptocurrencies and shows how far they have to go to achieve the high-minded vision of an upward movement in the global financial system. Investing in cryptocurrency is no longer just for real believers. It’s (relatively) mainstream, like investing in stocks or gold, which is both a success and not exactly what cryptocurrency die-hard people had in mind.

Shira: Let’s start with the basics. What is Coinbase? And how does it make money?

Erin: It is a cryptocurrency exchange where people and businesses can buy, sell, and trade various cryptocurrencies, including Bitcoin. Coinbase handles the entire process, much like Robinhood or Schwab handle people’s stock trades. And then Coinbase stores your cryptocurrency in a digital wallet so you don’t have to think about the technical complexities of storing and using the cryptocurrency.

Coinbase makes money mainly by charging fees for transactions, as it does with banks. Unlike many startups of similar size and size, Coinbase is profitable.

Understand why Coinbase is important to people who don’t live and breathe Bitcoin.

Coinbase is a blatant signal that cryptocurrency is becoming very big business and a significant asset – despite being risky and volatile. And Coinbase is a way for people who may be curious about cryptocurrencies but can’t stand the risk of buying them outright to dive into the market.

The listing of Coinbase shares on a US stock exchange is a big confirmation moment for cryptocurrencies, even if you don’t believe in the big idea behind it.

What’s the big idea?

The original vision of cryptocurrencies was this idealistic, maybe even anarchic notion that everyone was their own state bank. Believers envisioned that cryptocurrencies would be the future of money that didn’t require centralized authorities like banks and the foundation for a better, fairer global financial system.

That didn’t really happen, at least not yet. The prices of currencies are so volatile that it is impractical to use them to buy a cup of coffee or most things. Instead, for now, cryptocurrency is primarily a vehicle for financial speculation and trading.

Let’s say cryptocurrencies never meet this ideal, but remain a thing that people buy in the hope that the price will go up – like classic cars. Would that be a victory or a failure?

That’s a good question. There is no doubt that Coinbase’s success to date is a win for people who have been supporting cryptocurrencies for years. Cryptocurrencies are a bit like the cannabis industry. Some people see it just as a business opportunity, others as part of a mission to legalize marijuana and make the world a better place.

If the principle behind cryptocurrencies is to create a new global financial system, crypto believers see Coinbase as the first building block.

further reading::

  • Concrete also needs computer chips: My colleague Don Clark wrote about under-noticed businesses affected by a global shortage of computer chips, including a company that sells temperature sensors placed where concrete is poured on construction sites. “It’s hell on earth right now,” another chip buyer told Don.

  • A look into scary corners of the internet: Bloomberg News wrote about the 23 year old software coder who helps keep fringe websites like 8kun going when most ISPs stay away from them.

  • Jeff Bezos’ final word as CEO (I think?): The Amazon CEO’s annual letter to shareholders is widespread in Silicon Valley and beyond. In his last tenure as managing director, Bezos stood behind his company’s contributions to customers, other companies and employees – even though he said Amazon had to do more to become “the best employer on earth and the safest workplace on earth”.

I featured Rico, the Brazilian porcupine, in the very first issue of On Tech. Rico recently celebrated his fifth birthday with a “cake” with favorite treats like fruit and a peanut butter pop.

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