What is the difference between Blockchain and Dropbox?

Working as a Blockchain architect I often hear this:
“We used Blockchain to share XXX information between XXX and XXX.”
Sounds like a Dropbox style use-case, right? Do you really need to use Blockchain to share information?
Those who are in the Blockchain space know that Blockchain isn’t ideal for information sharing use-cases. The most quoted answer is:
“Blockchain has very low bandwidth and storing information on it would be too expensive.”
That is true, but I prefer to point out that the system to share information already exists — it’s not Blockchcain; it’s called The Internet. The system to share information between organisations also exists, it’s called Email. Dropbox even outperformed Email for a pre-arranged consortium of organisations at the cost of additional requirements of centralisation.
We don’t need Blockchain to share information
I chose to explain it in this way so that I can open the conversation about what do we need Blockchain for.
Blockchain — and smart-contracts — are process oriented. It’s about conditional chain of events: something that happened so that something else can happen. Internet and Email are both about Information, not process.
Let’s take Bitcoin Blockchain for example. It is made of transactions. The “Something happens” is Alice giving money to Bob. The “Something else can happen” is Bob giving money to anyone he wants.
Hitchhikers Guide to Galaxy offered an explanation of the universe which applies well for Blockchain:
Anything that, in happening, causes something else to happen, causes something else to happen.
By explaining that “something happened”, I orient the conversation from “What needs to be shared and do we trust them to share it” to “What needs to happen (for the interest of everyone) and what needs to happen as a condition of it”.
As an imagined example, let’s say fake Chinese driver licences were used to acquire real Australian driver’s licences. To solve the problem, one may, in vain, ask the Chinese driver licence issuer to share all driver licences realtime to Australia. The Chinese authority would, however, be convinced to attest a driver licence if and when it is used to acquire an Australian driver licence. Think process, not information. (The example is imagined because in reality the “fake Chinese driver licences” are actually authentic documents and can be attested — only that the drivers didn’t take road tests to get them).
The focus on information leads to the discussion like “what can we share with x and y”, in such discussions, we are starting with zero. By talking about process, we can stick to want we want to achieve. “We want to go to the dreamland but we need a safe passage.”
Blockchain is about process
I will use a simple example to elaborate the difference between information sharing and process: an airline wants to buy an engine from another airline, for that, they need the maintenance log, which could be fabricated.
If you look at information sharing perspective, you may build a common Dropbox and require airlines to share their maintenance log, which of course won’t happen.
If we orient ourselves to process, then what happened — the maintenance — has influences on what will happen. A cryptographic commit/open protocol would help an engine’s owner to prove the log is authentic, without having to share it beforehand. This can be built using the Blockchain and a smart contract can set up the condition requiring authentic log for the sales.
Silly consultants will go with the information sharing
However, there is an incentive for Blockchain consultant not to tell the truth, despite the whole point of Blockchain being seeking truth. If you hire a Blockchain consultant, chances are he will second you on your opinion that Blockchain is excellent for sharing information. There are a few reasons:
First, we are in the very early stage and nothing is easy to build on blockchain. The tools are lacking as well as the awareness. Let’s say for example that your business problems relate to “Invoices”. A Dropbox for sharing invoices are a lot easier to build than an invoice financing Blockchain. A consultant wants to offer something they can deliver. I have been known as a naysayer because I often say this and that can’t be done yet on the blockchain, only to have other consultants saying after me that these can be done, and have them delivered — without using blockchain and its advantages. I observed that these contenders, despite wily, didn’t end up too badly either, since there are still some values to be gained by simple information sharing projects. If blockchain is the magic word that can move the stagnated MIS systems, why not? They are useful on their merits.
Second, Blockchain consultant works for their employer, not for technology. Many of them learned that if there is a misconception, it’s better to leverage on it. Today’s customers, inspired by Internet, imagine the Internet of Value is just like Internet — sharing valuable information. To leverage on the misconception, Blockchain consultants sell MIS again, but MIS systems for valuableinformation with sharing features. If you want magic beans, there will be sellers of magic beans. I’ve heard TCS, for example, has 300 blockchain developers in Indian ready for outsourcing projects. With today’s lack of tools and know-how, these blockchain developers are shoehorning blockchain parts into MIS, which would hardly deliver more value than what MIS could.
Third, integration of information systems means less organisational change than integration of processes, hence, customers need to touch more departments of their partner organisations in order to use Blockchain. This makes a Blockchain project harder to bootstrap. Consultants may sell information integration as a 1st step of process integration. Although this thinking makes sense, the unwillingness of sharing important information actually cuts in the corners of sharing a process. Besides, most of the code is practically not reusable between those two purposes.
There are two tools I can provide to combat the “dropbox” thinking.

  1. If one thinks of Blockchain as Internet of Value, and compares it with Internet, just do this thinking experiment: From “Internet of Value” v.s. “Internet of Information”, think what Internet of Information does. (It shares information.) What Internet of Value does? Share value? No, Transferring Value. The verb of information is sharing and the verb for value is transferring. Once the customer builds the picture of value transferring, it will be easier to discuss around processes and hard to imagine it as a Dropbox.
  2. Call Dropbox. They have an enterprise service department. If they can solve the problem, it’s not a blockchain problem.