Nathaniel Popper and Steve Lohr of the NYTimes provide a clear example of how blockchain could be used outside of financial transactions - and illustrates why IBM has been so excited about this technology.
Like Walmart, Maersk had already been looking for years for a better way to trace the goods it ships around the globe.
For Maersk, the problem was not tracking the familiar rectangular shipping containers that sail the world aboard its cargo ships — instead, it was the mountains of paperwork that go with each container. Maersk had found that a single container could require stamps and approvals from as many as 30 people, including customs, tax officials and health authorities.
While the containers themselves can be loaded on a ship in a matter of minutes, a container can be held up in port for days because a piece of paper goes missing, while the goods inside spoil. The cost of moving and keeping track of all this paperwork often equals the cost of physically moving the container around the world.
What’s more, the system is rife with fraud. The valuable bill of lading is often tampered with or copied to let criminals siphon off goods or circulate counterfeit products, leading to billions of dollars in maritime fraud each year.
In the past, I've always thought first of the decentralized nature of blockchain - and dismissed it because we often live in a world of centralized systems. But, when you're working with disparate organizations (even governments) and need to ensure all transactions are valid, then blockchain is compelling. Of course, everyone still has to use a system, but now it's closer to a shared protocol versus a required, perhaps single-company-controlled, software package.