Data Sheet—How Ripple Wants to Enhance, Not Kill, the Global Payments System
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If you’re more like me and less like the authors of Fortune’s outstanding blockchain and cryptocurrency site The Ledger, this newfangled stuff is more often than not clear as mud.
I don’t intend to completely elucidate it for you in one day. But to move myself along a bit, on Tuesday I visited with Chris Larsen, founder of Ripple, a company with its own cryptocurrency, called XRP. More importantly, Ripple sells software that allows financial institutions to trade its cryptocurrency, among other things. If this whole trend works out—and it’s still a big if—the software angle will be remembered as Ripple’s special commercial sauce.
I always start these conversations by trying to get to the heart of the matter. Though it has been explained to me many times, I asked Larsen to walk me through what the blockchain and cryptocurrencies are. (Bitcoin is a competitor to XRP.) Larsen patiently explained that the blockchain is just another network, in this case a network of ledgers, a concept familiar to accountants. The Internet as we know it was a data network, made up of databases. What Ripple believes it is contributing to is an “Internet of value,” says Larsen.
As a business, Ripple is focused exclusively on cross-border money transfers. That might not be something the average person dwells on. But businesses do. Sending money internationally is time-consuming and expensive. If money could move across networks the way email does—you don’t stop to ask someone what email network they use—there would be, says Larsen, “a Cambrian explosion of new businesses.”
In Larsen’s vision, existing banks and payment services like Citi and JPMorgan Chase and PayPal and Alipay all will continue to exist. But his “Internet of value” will be the system they use to talk to each other, just as the protocols of Internet interoperability currently stitch together the world’s email networks. It’s a plan for collaboration rather than zero-sum-game competition.
And it applies to individuals, too. Farmers in Tanzania can do all the Google searches they like right now, he says, but buying Google ads to sell their crops is a challenge because of currency translation issues.
Currency that moves as freely as email and converts into local currency just as emails convert into words on a page: That makes sense to me. It’s all becoming a bit clearer.
Originally conceived. Blackberry sued Facebook for patent infringement, saying the social network's messaging apps infringed on the former phone maker's intellectual property related to such innovations as showing an unread message indicator on top of an icon and showing multiple incoming messages in an inbox. Facebook shot back: "Having abandoned its efforts to innovate, Blackberry is now looking to tax the innovation of others. We intend to fight."
Not so hot. Amid some debate, it has become increasingly clear that Apple's $999 iPhone X didn't sell as well as many analysts expected. What kept owners of earlier models from buying the new flagship? A plurality, 44%, said their current iPhone worked fine, according to a survey of non-upgrading owners by Piper Jaffray. Another 31% said the new device was too expensive and 8% wanted a larger screen.
Shipping out. The former head of Amazon Prime, Greg Greeley, joined Airbnb to run its "Homes" unit, including overseeing the company's new Airbnb Plus and Airbnb Collections efforts.
Define it for me again. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission's authority to take enforcement actions against firms dealing in digital currencies was upheld in court. U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein ruled on Tuesday that the agency's pursuit of "Coin Drop Markets" for fraud and misappropriation was valid. "Until Congress clarifies the matter, the CFTC has concurrent authority, along with other state and federal administrative agencies, and civil and criminal courts, over dealings in virtual currency," Weinstein wrote. Separately, the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network said its anti-money laundering rules apply to purveyors of initial coin offerings.
Ex post facto. The FBI's relationship with Best Buy's Geek Squad was deeper and longer lasting than previously known, according to documents disclosed under a Freedom of Information Act request by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Agents paid several Geek Squad members hundreds of dollars for tips when customers brought in computers for repair that contained illegal material and then used the materials to justify search warrants after the fact.
Not so simple. Microsoft's simplified and locked down Windows 10 S operating system is morphing into a mode of the regular Windows 10 software, instead of remaining as a stand-alone product. The limited version could only run apps from the Windows App Store and was seen as a competitor to Google's Chrome OS.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
The North Korean malware program WannaCry did serious damage to computers around the world last year, but it would have been much worse if not for the rapid discovery of a flaw in the attack found by young British security researcher Marcus Hutchins. Hutchins became a cybersecurity celebrity, at least until last August, when he was arrested in Nevada while attending the DefCon hacking and security conference. Prosecutors alleged that Hutchins was the author of a password-stealing program called Kronos. Reeves Wiedeman digs into the fascinating saga for New York magazine, including an interview with Hutchins.
Hutchins is a self-described introvert and pessimist. (“I don’t really like people,” he deadpanned.) But he also has the youthful confidence that comes with knowing he possesses one of the world’s most in-demand skills: By his own estimate, there are only five people in the world — “I know of three, but five is a round number” — with his particular expertise. When I asked about his post-WannaCry life as a “mini-celebrity,” he objected to the modifier. He was annoyed at those who defended him by saying he wasn’t skilled enough to have made Kronos in the first place. “I don’t know what hurts more,” Hutchins said. “That people think I’m a shitty person or that people think I’m that bad at programming.”
One of the few bits of solace Hutchins had found in L.A., once a judge removed his ankle bracelet, and he was surfing, which he had learned to do growing up in Ilfracombe, a town of 11,000 on the southwestern coast of England. Hutchins was a competitive swimmer and excelled at “Surf Life Saving” — lifeguarding as a sport, essentially — but he was now out of shape compared with a shirtless photo he’d recently seen from those days, which he described as “biceps for days.” I asked what had happened in the intervening years. “Computers,” he said. “Computers and weed.”
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BEFORE YOU GO
The simple mobile game Alto's Adventure provided an almost meditative experience, especially after the developers introduced the non-competitive Zen Mode. Now they're back with a sequel called Alto's Odyssey. It's the same, but different, and still highly recommended.