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Bigger than bitcoin? Enterprise Ethereum Alliance grows in size

Corporate support for the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance (EEA) is growing after 86 firms including State Street, Toyota, Merck, ING, Broadridge and Rabobank joined the collective that is seeking to use blockchain technology to run smart contracts at Fortune 500 companies.

Ethereum is an open-source, public, blockchain that anyone can use as a decentralized ledger. It has its own cryptocurrency called ether on the front-end, which is similar to Bitcoin, but the underlying Ethereum network is what is attracting companies' interest.

While the original Bitcoin blockchain has tended to be used for consumer payment transactions, the adoption of Ethereum blockchain technology by the corporate world means it could eventually be bigger than its early stage rival.

Ethereum technology is specifically intended to support smart contract applications that can automate complex physical and financial supply chain procedures and compliance processes involving multiple parties. It has numerous potential internal end uses such as reconciliation.

A smart contract on the Ethereum network is merely a way for people to make agreements and automate enforcement, all on a distributed network of computers. The contract is essentially an operating procedure that aids efficient management.

John Hancock Financial, for example, is experimenting with a tailored version of Ethereum to keep track of compliance with know your customer (KYC) and anti-money laundering (AML) regulations in its wealth management unit.

Meanwhile, European aircraft maker Airbus is testing to see if its supply chain management can be shifted to a blockchain that relies on Ethereum.

JPMorgan Chase, Microsoft, CME Group, BNY Mellon and other large multinationals are already EEA members, having joined when it was established in February 2017.

In a statement, Julio Faura, chairman of the EEA and head of blockchain innovation at Banco Santander, said, "the enthusiasm around EEA is remarkable".

He added: "Our new members come from varying industries such as pharma, mobile, banking, automotive, management consulting, and hardware."

Rival networks

The EEA is not alone in seeking to create standards for blockchain systems. Rivals include the R3 consortium, Digital Asset Holdings and the Hyperledger Project.

The latter is being used by the SWIFT global payment and securities messaging network for the third stage of its global payments innovation (gpi) project which seeks to make international payments as fast and easy to track as logistics deliveries. It is in the early stages of a distributed ledger technology (DLT), aka blockchain, proof of concept (PoC) that is not expected to come to fruition for many years yet.

In the meantime, Ripple has its own rival protocol for correspondent banks using Interledger that it hopes to attract volume to before SWIFT's PoC gains traction.

Challenges

As with any new technology a number of caveats apply to blockchain technology, principally that it is yet to be proven by anything other than small scale or pilot applications to date. Regulators will also need convincing that the networks are safe.

Convincing competitors to work together in a network that shares market information may also prove difficult. For instance, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley left the R3 consortium last year to pursue their own blockchain projects and alternative collaborations, potentially harming its prospects of producing useful real-world applications of the still experimental blockchain technology.

If a chain or end use application offers a massive competitive advantage then certain groups may seek to hive off their own separate 'chains' to which they will control access, which is another destabilizing factor.

Permissioned vs. permissionless chains

Arguments are raging over the degree to which public or closed access should be allowed on different blockchains, which are commonly referred to as permissionless or permissioned 'chains'.

Most corporates and banks favor permissioned chains as they can apply minimum security, compliance and other standards, while technology evangelists and fintech disruptors tend to favor the more open permissionless model as they believe the full network benefits of the technology accrue this way.

In the same way that the internet and specifically the later world wide web works so well because everyone has access to it – and protocols such as the SSL security layer are shared – the tech evangelists argue that the blockchain should be maintained as a public project for the benefit of all.

Only time will tell who wins the debate. But the net itself has already gone through numerous iterations and the public vs. private discussion is a constant theme in that field, as much as it is in the blockchain arena.

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