A bitcoin.
Photograph by Karen Bleier — AFP/Getty Images
By Kia Kokalitcheva
September 21, 2015

Will Bitcoin go away?

That’s the question that digital currency experts debated Monday at a conference in San Francisco hosted by tech news site TechCrunch. The digital currency, which first began to gain attention in 2009, has been called both a fad and the next big thing to happen to money and finance.

“I think it could,” Nathaniel Popper, a New York Times reporter and author of the recently published Bitcoin book, Digital Gold, said about Bitcoin’s potential demise.

Wences Casares, co-founder and CEO of Bitcoin wallet and vault service Xapo, agreed, adding: “I can imagine a couple of ways in which Bitcoin might fail.”

But Bobby Lee, co-founder and CEO of China-based Bitcoin exchange BTCC, talked up Bitcoin as being nearly immortal. He pointed to only one scenario under which it could die.

“If any of you think the Internet might go away, then Bitcoin might go away,” he said, emphasizing the digital currency’s independence from centralized powers. Of course, as the owner of an exchange for the currency, Lee has a huge stake in Bitcoin’s longevity.

And in some ways, Lee is right. Bitcoin is a database processing technology that only needs computers to run its software and to communicate with each other to keep it alive. As long as there are Internet connections and a desire to use Bitcoin, it will be around.

And yet, for Popper, the real question is a bit different, and one the Bitcoin industry has been grappling with for some time.

“To me this debate that we’re having right here is the debate of whether Bitcoin matters or whether the technology that Bitcoin introduced is going to matter,” Popper said.

Here, Popper is referring to the block chain, the shared ledger of transactions all computers use to mark Bitcoin transactions they make. Several companies, and now even major banks, are looking at ways to harness the block chain outside of Bitcoin. Many are looking at how it can help with escrow by, for example, holding and disbursing funds only when certain conditions are fulfilled. Many in the finance sector have been weary of Bitcoin’s price volatility, but see the block chain as a promising technology.

But this brought out the final question of the day, about whether the block chain, not Bitcoin, will have the biggest impact on financial services. Unconvinced, Casares was quick to point out that shared databases—what he says the block chain really is—have long existed. Yet Popper argued that block chain is still the first shared database that is truly open and free for anybody to join, unlike shared systems that organizations have used in the past. Moreover, as a ledger of all transactions, it holds participants accountable because it publicly tracks all users’ activities.

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