The crypto industry is still waiting for its ‘iPhone moment’

The crypto industry is still waiting for its ‘iPhone moment’


This year, a great crypto cycle has played out with new all-time highs, euphoria and mainstream media paying lip service to the crypto trend du jour. However, the uncomfortable truth for us in the industry is that crypto is no more present in most people’s daily lives than it was in 2017. Four years have passed — what stalled its progress?

2017 marked my first professional foray into the blockchain space when I joined (then known as Monaco) as its first chief marketing officer. The company grew to become one of the largest crypto service providers and fiat-to-crypto gateways in the world.

During that time, the crypto space changed. Payments are much less of a focus and many of the projects aimed at crypto adoption have been sidelined. Decentralized finance (DeFi) and nonfungible tokens (NFTs) have taken the spotlight, but they’re ultimately focused on crypto trading and unable to help the real world in any meaningful way — at least, for now.

Related: Is crypto approaching its ‘Netscape moment’?

The situation reminds me of the mobile industry before the advent of the iPhone and the revolution spearheaded by Steve Jobs. Technology and features were being stacked on top of each other but with no additional impact for the end-user, even though there was plenty of buzz.

A mobile marketing pioneer, I worked with the Mobile Marketing Association for more than ten years in Asia (served as chair during 2009–10) and saw firsthand the development of the industry. One thing that people misunderstand about that revolution is that Apple did not “invent” the smartphone to any meaningful extent.

From zero to hero with just one innovation

If you ask someone on the street what made the iPhone so successful, you’ll get at least half a dozen different answers. It was apps and the App Store, some people say. For others, it was Gorilla glass and the touchscreen. It was 3G (actually, the first iPhone did not even have it), the Wi-Fi connection, the camera, the comfortable size, the sleek design…

Of course, all of these factors contributed. But consider that, in some form, all of those features already existed in other phones. Nokia had the Symbian OS and it featured a quite rich ecosystem of apps. The same thing goes for BlackBerry, which was quite advanced for its time in terms of hardware and software — for example, in 2005, it released BBM, the proto-WhatsApp/iMessages. Palm and plenty of other companies were making “pocket computers” with stylus touchscreens. Nokia excelled with camera phones and predictive text, Motorola dazzled everyone with the Razr’s design, and so on.

The only independent innovation that the iPhone brought was the user experience (UX), and more specifically, the multi-touch capacitive screen. It introduced gestures, on-screen QWERTY keyboards, and the basic smartphone design we know today, but nothing else in the iPhone was, by itself, new. It simply was the ultimate phone — as Steve Jobs said at the time, “An iPod, a phone, and an internet communicator… not three separate devices. This is one device,” — which offered a simple to use, sleek and good-looking device, packed with features. The rest, as they say, is history.

Crypto has yet to have its iPhone moment.

Reframing crypto as the means, not the end

When we talk about crypto adoption, we need to recognize the utilitarian considerations of the average person. The vast majority think about cost and utility well before any idealistic concern. Organic food has its place, but it’s a small niche — most people buy food based on its taste and cost. Electric cars struggle because they offer a significant number of practical disadvantages and because they’re generally much more expensive.

Positioning crypto as an amazing tool for financial freedom and decentralization will ring hollow to most people. By far, the most significant reason why people get into crypto now is price gains, not its utility. Crypto is useful in certain applications, such as cheap global transfer of value. But there are many practical disadvantages to using crypto for payments, which mostly have to do with the integration with existing financial rails. The user experience of using crypto to pay for stuff has been, frankly, atrocious — with complicated fees, confirmation times and difficult units compounding the adoption struggle.

Related: Mass adoption of blockchain tech is possible, and education is the key

There are no perfect analogies but I think that the “multi-touch capacitive screen” of crypto is reframing it as a means, and not the end. The average person does not care about crypto, itself, they care about what it gives them. If you promise them Lambos and moons, they will listen but that only gets you so far.

What if you used crypto to cut out the middleman between you and your money to deliver (nearly) free transfers of money, foreign exchange, interest rates that a normal person can only hope to pay, not receive, and other benefits that would make Black Cardholders jealous?

You can bet the average person would be interested.

This is the strategy we adopted: a redeemable membership fee granting access to a suite of useful financial, travel and lifestyle services, which are easily accessible from both mobile and web apps, and even chat services like WhatsApp or Telegram. We acted in two directions: removing any friction of using our product and making it immensely useful to everyone. Just like the iPhone back in the day.

Of course, there is a long journey ahead. But if more projects in crypto operated outside of the box and focused on utility and not just crypto for speculation’s sake, it just might bring us back onto the path of mainstream adoption we embarked on in 2017.

This article does not contain investment advice or recommendations. Every investment and trading move involves risk, and readers should conduct their own research when making a decision.

The views, thoughts and opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of Cointelegraph.

Sean Rach is the co-founder of hi, a not-for-profit blockchain-based financial platform. Sean was the founding chief marketing officer of, the crypto exchange and card provider. He also served in senior roles at Prudential Corporation Asia, Ogilvy Hong Kong and Mobile Marketing Association. A Business Administration doctoral candidate at the Warwick Business School, Sean has overseen the development of several innovative digital platforms, like Safe Steps (with NatGeo and Red Cross) and Cha-Ching Money Smart Kids (with Cartoon Network), and earlier helped to launch


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