Bitcoin Hasn’t Replaced Cash, but Investors Don’t Care

Steve Lee of San Francisco, an investor in virtual currencies, said he considered Bitcoin more useful as a means of banking than as a form of payment. Jason Henry for The New York Times

SAN FRANCISCO — When Bitcoin first entered the public consciousness a few years back, a handful of large companies like Dell and Expedia announced that they would begin accepting the virtual currency. But there weren’t many takers.

This failure hasn’t bothered many of the people buying up Bitcoins in recent months, pushing the price to new highs — above $13,000 for one Bitcoin on Wednesday.

These investors aren’t using their tokens to buy computers or to book trips. Instead, they are hoarding Bitcoins as if it were virtual gold, a new way to store money outside the control of any government or company.

“I’ve always been skeptical of directly competing with and replacing existing forms of payment,” said Steve Lee, a longtime Google employee from San Francisco who is investing in virtual currencies. “Today what Bitcoin is excellent at, and has mostly solved, is being your own bank.”

The argument about what Bitcoin does well and not so well can seem like a semantic debate for computer nerds, with little relevance to the outside world.

But disagreements within the Bitcoin community are being watched closely by central bankers and financial industry executives. The titans of finance are monitoring Bitcoin’s successes and failures as they experiment with its technological concepts, like the ledger for recording virtual currency transactions, known as the blockchain.

The price of Bitcoin has risen sharply in recent months.


Many large institutions have said they hope to integrate blockchain technology into their designs for the world’s future financial infrastructure, and those designs are likely to be influenced by what is learned from Bitcoin.

“People are looking at this in part because they see the beginnings of a new financial system — a financial system that has a very different structure than the one we have right now,” said Neha Narula, the director of the Digital Currency Initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Mr. Lee and others hope Bitcoin can be used for payments someday, but he thinks that will most likely come from software that is built on top of Bitcoin, not the Bitcoin network itself.

Not everyone agrees with Mr. Lee’s position. Many entrepreneurs and academics think virtual currencies will gain traction only if they are easy and cheap to send around. The disagreement has given rise to a host of Bitcoin competitors — including a separate virtual currency known as Bitcoin Cash…

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