Blockchain of the Vanities? Sibos, Swell and Stellar Troll in Toronto

So much for collaboration…

In the latest sign that the blockchain sector has reached peak hubris, two much-anticipated conferences devolved this week into what can only be described as elaborate trolling.

But for those following the run-up to the events, the result is unlikely to be a surprise. When distributed ledger startup Ripple announced it would host an event called Swell, aimed at uniting financial leaders to discuss trends and strategies, it was hardly coy about its intent.

What might have seemed pretty innocent on the surface showed its true colors when Ripple decided to have the event in the same city, on the same days as Sibos, the flagship annual conference that its incumbent competitor has been putting on since 1978.

As a result, the city of Toronto played host to an all-out grab for attention, one where none of the players involved were willing to let the others have their day. But, the publicity did have its benefits, and it does seem to have favored the startups if attendees are any indication.

“It’s more fun over here,” one Swell attendee said to another, both of whom had passes to attend Sibos.

Even onstage attendees and online commentators were forced to recognize the situation.

When Swift CEO Gottfried Leibbrandt poked fun at Ripple, describing one of his initiatives as “not a swell, but a tsunami,” Ripple’s chief technology officer Stefan Thomas sent it right back on Twitter, retorting:

“To the future victims of @SWIFT’s ‘tsunami’ – @Ripple will be here to help rebuild.”

But in other ways, Ripple’s PR offensive didn’t work.

For one, big-budget keynotes, such as those for the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee didn’t fill the room (former Fed chief Ben Bernanke’s keynote was standing room only, though). Of course, that may be because speakers didn’t exactly choose sides (prior to his appearance at Swell, Berners-Lee had been reportedly spotted at Sibos).

If all that wasn’t enough, the move also sparked another form of boycott, with one of Ripple’s own industry-specific competitors using the event as a platform for attention-seeking.

On Monday, Stellar came out of hiding, announcing a partnership with IBM in which the incumbent tech company revealed it is settling real transactions with Stellar’s native cryptocurrency.

Not to stop there, on Tuesday night, Stellar founder Jed McCaleb (who has had a longstanding beef with Ripple executives) spoke about his protocol to about 100 people at a local bitcoin enthusiast group Bitcoin Bay’s MeetUp.

A game of trolls?

If you’re looking for winners, though, the sad truth is no one wins in a game of trolling at this scale. Rather attendees were perhaps given more one-sided content in two (or three) different ways.

Protest events notwithstanding, financial incumbent Swift remains a powerhouse, and it used its event to herald its own blockchain solution for moving money in nostro-vostro accounts.

The same could largely be said about Swell – where panels mainly focused on enterprise use cases for Ripple tech. Swell may have been unique, however, in the sheer emphasis it put on the idea that there is a competition to be had between the two camps.

For example, a number of financial institutions used the Swell stage to laud blockchain (and Ripple’s platform specifically) for being an easier way to transact cross-border than Swift.

On day one, Marwan Forzley, CEO and co-founder of business-to-business payments provider Veem, was keen to stress that blockchain allows cross-border transactions to move in real-time (unlike the incumbent’s generally slower payment mechanisms).

“The [blockchain] environment is very useful in markets like the Philippines,” he said, pointing to the currencies outside the G10 (those that are the most liquid and heavily-traded).

Day two of Swell was more of the same, with a handful of Ripple’s clients – including Banco Santander, SBI Remit, Nordic bank SEB and India’s Yes Bank – speaking about the protocol’s benefits.

For instance, Banco Santander’s blockchain innovation lead Richard Bell talked about his company’s pilot Ripple iOS app, which allowed the bank’s employees to pay in British pounds when the merchant wanted to accept euros or U.S. dollars.

“Very quickly our employees were using this application for mission-critical things, like mortgages on homes in other countries and … speeding fines,” Bell said.

The catch

Of course, all of this actually ended up exposing similarities between the providers.

With more than 100 clients, Ripple may be well on its way toward becoming a competitor to the legacy financial payments system, but it also must work with it to get there.

Even Stellar’s McCaleb acknowledged the importance of getting legacy partners to the effort of growing the use of distributed ledger systems, telling his meetup attendees:

“Everytime we get a financial institution to use the network, it’s easier to get more financial institutions to use it too.”

This line of thinking was perhaps best on display during the last panel at Swell, which likely packed the room because ethereum creator Vitalik Buterin was onstage (also speaking were Hyperledger executive director Brian Behlendorf, Chain president Tom Jessop and Ripple’s Thomas).

But, all the panelists conceded that right now, it’s too early to compete to the death.

While Buterin built (and continues to build) what he calls a general-purpose blockchain, he also said that there’s no right answer for every use case. Sometimes private blockchains work best, other times a public blockchain is necessary, and in other cases, a hybrid approach is the only route, he said.

“We are building the new financial world and some parts of the new internet,” Buterin said, adding in that way, it’s more about competing over ideas, instead of with people and companies.

Plus, sometimes, it’s hard to tell whether blockchain companies know who their competition really is.

In response to a question about Swift, Behlendorf came to the incumbent’s aid, saying, “Well first, you have to understand what Swift is. They’re a co-op … and they don’t help their shareholders by charging exorbitant rent. It’s pretty cheap.”

He continued:

“For [Swift] it’s about getting payments down from T-2 days to T-5 minutes … so they’re in a perfect position to adopt blockchain.”

Even Thomas, taking inspiration from the blockchain interoperability play Interledger Protocol where he devotes much of his time, was more reserved during the panel when it came to dissing the competition.

This was true for other Ripple executives as well. On Wednesday, the last day of Swell, Ripple CEO Brad Garlinghouse reflected on Tuesday’s closing panel, clarifying that what’s good for his company, is generally good for everyone in the ecosystem.

He concluded:

“I want all boats to rise.”

Disclosure: CoinDesk is a subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which has ownership stakes in Chain and Ripple. 

Panel image via Bailey Reutzel

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