In the past year, the electronic payment system called Bitcoin has reached a certain level of ubiquity in national and international conversation.
Its intersection in the tech and finance worlds has piqued the interest of various groups and governments, but the “crypto-currency” remains somewhat mysterious.
After two Senate informational panels, Bitcoin was deemed legal although understanding of its staying power remains clouded. Its value in U.S. dollars tends to rise and fall, but all the recent attention it has garnered created a spike in price above $1,000 before another drop in recent weeks.
Many know Bitcoin as the currency used for purchases on the now-defunct Silk Road, an online black market where users used it mainly to buy illegal drugs. It was shut down by the FBI in October, but since then it’s started to be accepted for all kinds of online purchases: plastic surgery, gift cards and even Black Friday shopping.
It’s even being used locally at places like Planet Linux Caffe in Coral Gables. Daniel Mery, the cafe’s co-owner, says customers can simply walk up and use their phone to purchase a cup of coffee or anything else in the store with Bitcoin.
“We want to promote Bitcoin like we promote new technologies,” Mery says. “Bitcoin is a universal currency, it’s a currency that no government controls.”
Planet Linux is a space for hackers and members of the open-source community, like Hack Miami’s vice president Christopher Snyder. He says he’s glad for the cafe’s acceptance of Bitcoin and the tech community as a whole in South Florida.
“This is one of the few places in Florida, especially Dade and Broward, that does anything like this,” Snyder says. “They support growth and development.”
Mery hopes to encourage other store owners -- not just those appealing to techies -- to follow his lead.
And the meetup group Miami International Bitcoin hopes to encourage new business with the currency, in South Florida and beyond. It started a few years ago and has a little under 200 members.
Kenneth Metral, CEO of Coingig, an online marketplace that accepts the currency, is a member of the group and says he wants his site to become the “Amazon of Bitcoin” and avoid the fates of marketplaces like Silk Road.
“The majority of our customers now are people who already know about Bitcoin. They’ve kinda been involved in the whole scene,” Metral says. “But [with] people who have no idea about Bitcoin, it’s kind of like you’ve gotta teach them step-by-step: What is Bitcoin, what does it do, what does our site do?”
Coingig’s homepage is refreshed in real time to reflect the current price of Bitcoin and translates a customer’s local fiat currency into the Bitcoin equivalent.
Metral says the site is getting customers every day, because people are attracted to the idea of shopping with anonymity. Bitcoin isn’t regulated by banks or tied to an online account in the way Google Wallet and other similar apps are.
Another founder of the group, Charles Evans, a business professor at Florida Atlantic University, says Bitcoin use in South Florida has much more potential for international finance than just buying drugs or collectible dolls.
“The thing that’s really exciting about Bitcoin is here in South Florida we are closer to dozens of foreign capitals than we are to Washington, D.C.,” said Evans.
He and others will be able to share their opinions with a larger audience at the North American Bitcoin Conference in January on Miami Beach. And even if Bitcoin plummets in value (even before you finish reading this) Evans thinks it has already made an impact.
“This is about being able to do business with people outside the U.S. who currently are very poorly served by existing financial infrastructure,” Evans said. “People who don’t have access to capital markets, who don’t have access to credit, who don’t have access to an efficient banking system.”