Bitcoin at the Pub: Notes from the Real World

Posted on February 4, 2014

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The heavy jangle of a solo electric guitar being thrashed rings out behind me. I’m alone at the bar of the Blind Tiger club in Brighton, staring at my phone, hoping my elbow isn’t sitting in a puddle of iced water. The barman is helping out a new customer, and I’m staring through the gloom to enter a password into my phone’s tiny onscreen keyboard. This is how you buy beer in the 21st century.

Or whisky, in fact. After a few rounds of drinks at last Wednesday’s Brighton Bitcoin meetup, the excitement of connecting to a bunch of really smart and enthusiastic people, combined with Brighton’s first real-world Bitcoin bar transaction, has pushed me into the hard stuff.

That’s right. For one whole evening, our group of a dozen-strong members conversed, colluded and collided over drinks all paid for with a magical cryptocurrency. And it was … kind of weird?

Brighton's first Bitcoin Beer Buy

Brighton’s first Bitcoin Beer Buy

Not the people. Well, as much as weird as you might expect. But this was the first time I’d used Bitcoin in a face-to-face transaction (not counting exchanging). In the dark. Slightly drunk. What follows is a quick sum-up of stuff what I noticed as a customer, and thoughts on how things could improve if The Real World [tm] is to be tackled with cypherpunk aplomb.

1. Cash is Fast

I mean – Bitcoin is quick, assuming you trust zero-confirmations and have a decent network connection. But end-to-end purchases, it’s nowhere near as quick as hard money. Consider Bitcoin: Get phone, find app, start app, enter PIN maybe, scan QR (after turning on light), enter amount maybe, enter second password maybe, hit send, wait for confirmation maybe.

Now consider cash: Find wallet, get cash, check cash amount, give cash, get change, put change in pocket.

That’s a lot of speed right there. The paranoia of Bitcoin gets in the way of that.

A possible improvement is to move “fluid” Bitcoins into a “fast wallet”, ie. one without password. A bit like taking cash out, but you don’t need to find a cash machine. But even that’s just a tweak to a small part of the process. NFC could make it faster as well, especially if that NFC could be programmed with a value at time of transaction. (I wonder if something like the EoID project could help here.)

2. Wallets are just that little bit more Public

More than once, in my security-conscious state, I was aware just how bright my screen was in the dark of the bar. We’re used to hiding our actions when entering a card PIN to pay (I hope), but the brightness of the phone screen, plus the fact that your “full” balance tends to be displayed, made me a little edgy. I don’t want onlookers knowing how many coins I have, just like I quite like them not knowing I have 50 quid in my pocket. Even if my phone is locked tight, the idea of being targeted isn’t hugely appealing.

Maybe I’ll just remember to turn the brightness down, or maybe the idea above of a small, fast wallet would mitigate the effect of this as well. Found it interesting though.

3. Mobile payment is Fun

Forget running to a cash machine to find out it’s broken. Forget wondering how much cash is on your card before you hand it over. Forget asking for cashbacks. Forget having a pocket full of loose change shrapnel. The idea that you can just use your phone to purchase something there and then is, above everything else, fun. It is also something that feels obvious, in a day that we use our phones for everything, all the time.

With the open transactions of Bitcoin, one phone can quickly show that the payment from another has gone through. You can see how much other people paid (if the payment address is known, obviously). You can even see how much your group spent in the evening, if you’re that way inclined. (Yeah, maybe I am.)

It’s more of a challenge when you’ve had a few beers and everything goes a bit woozy. Maybe entering your 12-character password when you can see the keyboard twice makes it harder to carry on drinking. The acute embarrassment of trying to get it right is certainly something you don’t feel with other payment methods.

And going through your emails in the morning to see what you spent? Priceless.

On the whole, there’s room for improvement on the Bitcoin PoS. I think a few small tech tweaks could go a long way, like EoID mentioned above, or CoinKite’s PoS plug-in terminal. There are some (surmountable) challenges on the vendor’s side of things too, which I’m slowly getting to grips with. But for now, I can see some success in certain, specific situations – cafes, for example, are untapped golden territory.

There’s a lot of interest and potential for Bitcoins at a local scale here. And there’s a lot of enthusiasm and interest in making it happen. Getting everyone to work something out together will be fun. Getting something that “just works” will be … world-changing.

 

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