E*Trade is reportedly undertaking an aggressive campaign to bring its tech into the 21st century. From AI chatbots to automation, the online stock brokerage platform is determined to revitalize its image.
Blockchain technology, which has become a hot buzzword for corporate innovators, is part of that strategy. E*Trade's innovation group is considering whether the framework (which has historically been associated with cryptocurrencies) could be used to streamline wire transfers, among other payment channels.
However, the company's chief information officer, Lance Braunstein, is not convinced of blockchain's alleged utility. "For me right now it feels more like a solution waiting for tangible problems to emerge," he said. More directly, Braunstein added, "We don't have a dying need to use blockchain."
One factor complicating the CIO's analysis could be that blockchain technology exists in many forms. There are public and private chains. There are systems that utilize PoW (e.g., bitcoin), and projects that plan on altering the consensus and mining mechanism through PoS (e.g., Ethereum). Apart from the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance's recently released Architecture Stack, there isn't an industry (let alone global) standard for the size of blocks or minimum throughput. And well, the biggest challenge of all is that blockchains inherently might not be scalable.
Although blockchain has obviously enabled the rise of cryptocurrencies, conventional corporations might struggle to reposition themselves for a decentralized shift (that is, if one becomes necessary). Blockchain believers often tout the "tech" for its potential to cut costs and enable "trustless" environments, but these supposed benefits are not obvious to folks like Braunstein.
To be clear, this is not a critique of the E*Trade CIO. He has expressed reasonable doubt, and he deserves answers.
For an online brokerage platform, is a blockchain solution preferable to existing systems? How? What are the quantifiable advantages? Are the operational costs of a blockchain-based system lower? Are the compliance costs of a blockchain-based system lower?
How much would it cost E*Trade to research and develop a blockchain alternative? If the company is interested, could an acquisition make sense? How long would it take to implement the new system?
There are more questions.
What are the risks of making a switch? Would the customer experience change? Would insurance contracts be impacted? If E*Trade determined that a change was worthwhile, when could it expect to break even on the investment? Mr. Braunstein might also want to find out if competitors have investigated similar solutions, and how they could impact his company's business model.
Altogether, as you can see, a blockchain isn't a panacea. The questions are many, the answers few. While companies like Coinbase have expressed interest in hosting the trade of blockchain-based securities, that's quite a bit different than transferring existing (and functional) solutions to a blockchain-based alternative. All of this is to say, the next time you hear an executive proclaiming the "benefits of blockchain," pause for a moment and think about all the business processes that could be altered, and whether a blockchain makes sense.