Could consumers learn to love a virtual currency favored mostly by venture capitalists, the black market, libertarians, and engineers? An increasing number of businesses, from restaurants and bars to WordPress and OKCupid, are betting that the answer is “yes” by announcing that they will allow customers to pay using bitcoin, the ever-scandalous virtual currency that has yet to cede the hype cycle to a new topic du jour. Now the only problem is figuring out how to get bitcoin into the hands of the masses.
The saying “money doesn’t grow on trees” is especially applicable to bitcoin. Anyone wishing to use the virtual currency must either “mine” their own — which can take quite a while, and is likely beyond the average person’s technological capabilities — or purchase bitcoins from an exchange service. That can be expensive and, as regulators start to examine these exchanges, increasingly frustrating.
Perk, a loyalty and rewards startup that launched its own, custom-built Web browser in April, wants to make it easier for the average person to experiment with bitcoin by offering the virtual currency to users as part of its rewards platform. The feature, developed in partnership with “bitcoin made easy” startup Coinbase, will put bitcoin on the same level as Starbucks gift cards, iPads, and other mainstream products. Welcome to the consumerization of bitcoin.
Other companies are “accepting bitcoin for a service,” says Perk co-founder and COO Adam Salamon. “We want to flip the coin — literally –and do it the other way around, where instead of accepting bitcoin for a service we’re rewarding bitcoin for an action.” (Ah, bitcoin humor.) This, Salamon says, should allow people interested in bitcoin who are unwilling to purchase their own bitcoins due to the currency’s boom-and-bust nature to at least experience bitcoin for themselves.
Bitcoin’s expansion from the insular network of technologically-savvy early adopters who see the currency almost as some form of religion into the consumer realm is less exciting than its constant value change, the scandals and schemes of some of its supporting companies and users, or the potential regulatory crackdown on a currency designed specifically to evade any single entity’s control. But it’s probably going to be good for the currency in the long-term. What good is a coin, virtual or otherwise, if only a tiny number of people are willing to spend or accept it?