When Bitcoin broke into public consciousness in 2013, it couldn’t have been sexier: a digital currency being used to buy everything from drugs to cupcakes. Bitcoin's wild price ride — soaring up in late 2017 only to fall steadily back down this year — was also pretty exciting, even if the swings made its use as an everyday currency seem less plausible. Another aspect of Bitcoin that’s a bit less scintillating has generated almost as much enthusiasm: public online ledgers. Blockchain — the technology used for verifying and recording transactions that’s at the heart of Bitcoin — is seen as having the potential to reshape the global financial system and possibly other industries. Yet five years after Bitcoin's emergence, blockchain remains more of a tantalizing concept than a tool that's actually used — kind of like Bitcoin.
The total value of Bitcoin, which neared $300 billion in late 2017, stood at $112 billion in late October. Some in the industry thought the introduction of Bitcoin futures contracts by Cboe Global Markets, CME Group Inc. and Nasdaq in late 2017 would help build legitimacy, but trading on both exchanges was minimal. Bitcoin's rollercoaster ride was replicated by a raft of new cryptocurrencies that have raised more than $21.5 billion through initial coin offerings. Their explosive growth drew warnings from regulators around the globe even before hackers stole almost $500 million worth of a digital token called NEM from a Japanese cryptocurrency exchange. The vast majority of ICOs lost substantial value in 2018. Blockchain also had a number of setbacks, as several high-profile initiatives were dropped or put on hold, including a plan by Australia's stock exchange to start using the technology to process equity transactions. But Wal-Mart Stores Inc. announced in September that starting in 2019, it will require suppliers of fresh, leafy greens to track their products using a digital ledger developed by International Business Machines Corp., which has spent heavily on developing blockchain tools for business.