IBM’s TradeLens Highlights Blockchain Ecosystem Challenges

In the early 2000s, there was a lot of hype around B2B portals that would replace expensive EDI (electronic data interchange) infrastructure. I worked on three of them: one in aerospace, another for a specific airline and a third that was meant to be general purpose. The idea was the same: a centralized platform, owned either by a consortium of participants or operated by some third party, would replace EDI with a bunch of XML messages. Sprinkle in some Enterprise Java Beans and let the cash roll in.

Today’s blockchain platforms are telling basically the same story, minus the EJBs. the 2000s-era B2B portals had massive challenges and complexity around technologies, data standards and integration. These are the same technical head winds slowing deployment of blockchain platforms. From a business perspective, those B2B portals also had problems getting other companies to participate. After all, why would I work with a competitor? As recent news for TradeLens (the aspirational IBM/Maersk blockchain product) indicates, ecosystem development remains a core dilemma for blockchain adoption.

Maersk’s competitors don’t want to use a platform that they don’t own, either from a platform or intellectual property perspective. They also don’t want to undertake massive investment over several years for a project that may not work in the end. Lastly, how these platforms will be governed is still an open question.

Ultimately, I believe these grand blockchain platforms meant to unify industries will go the same way as those 2000s-era B2B portals. Some will succeed in extremely limited fashion but most will fail with a whimper. The most common scenario is that large companies, like WalMart or Toyota, will create and operate their own blockchain-based platforms and smaller competitors will create their own centralized consortiums to realize the same benefits. Rather than industry-wide unification, it’s much more likely the status quo will be maintained because the business challenges can’t be resolved.

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