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One of the big selling points for Bitcoin is that transactions are frictionless. I understand this to mean that there is no middleman to take a cut. However, there are 2 major frictions I see.

1) Clients are difficult to use for "non-techies". This can easily be solved with better clients.

2) Transaction confirmation times can take 10 to 60 minutes. This seems like major "friction" in that it prevents fast transactions - something most people are really used to with cash and plastic.

So is Bitcoin really frictionless?

  • Given that Bitcoin does have transaction fees (a middleman taking a cut), it certainly seems odd to call it frictionless. Who's saying it is? – Nate Eldredge Feb 19 '14 at 7:24
  • 2
    related: How secure is zero confirmations? – Murch Feb 19 '14 at 9:03
  • Maybe because I'm a techie ... but i.e. mycellium seems very easy to use to me, I don't understand how it can be considered difficult to use for a non-techie. – tobixen Oct 9 '15 at 20:10
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I agree that better client software will inevitably emerge with broader adoption.

Concerning the amount of time it takes for a transaction to confirm, I think that you have to distinguish different scenarios in which Bitcoin is taking the place of the previous solution:

  1. Payment in a store:
    • 0-confirmation is acceptable for tiny payments like getting a sandwich/coffee.
    • Shops offering bigger purchases, say a jewellery shop or car dealership would probably use a payment processor that assumes the double-spend risk or wait for the first confirmation, not a big issue as there is more stuff to talk about anyway.
  2. Webshopping (some examples)
    • To read an article for five cents or to pay to watch a movie ~> 0-confirmation is not an issue
    • Ordering food: Delivery will probably take longer than confirmation time anyway, so they will be sure you paid by the time they hand over the food.
    • Ordering physical goods: It's asynchronous anyway, a 10 minute confirmation time is irrelevant. So, you'll receive a confirmation of your order after ten minutes instead of immediately.

Then one should also mention other applications like (international) wire transfers, where 10 minutes for the first confirmation is magnitudes faster than current systems.

Altogether, the only point where I see any friction at all is "big purchases in a physical store", but even for most of those I would assess the friction to be negligible by just shifting the payment a bit ahead in the whole process, or there being a contract which could be used to follow-up on a failed payment.

3

For small amounts it's fine to accept unconfirmed transactions. You must really understand how the protocol works to be able to double-spend an unconfirmed transaction. I'm sure in the future hackers will build tools to allow for these sort of scenarios to benefit them, but also bitcoin clients will grow more secure and be able to diminish the propagation of a double-spend in the network, perhaps using trusted central entities that can propagate your transaction much quicker than the attacker could propagate their double-spend.

If I'm selling something for lots of bitcoins, yes I'd wait at least 10 minutes. But if you compare this to selling something for cash, you'd still need the time to sit down and count the money and make sure it's real and that you're not being scammed. This could take you more than 10 minutes and you'd probably need to do it in a private area. With bitcoin you can do it in any public place using your phone, and instead of using the 10 minutes to check whether you're being scammed, you can have a friendly conversation with the person you're doing business with.

2

According to 2), you are correct: Bitcoin is not frictionless.

Confirmation times cost even if a transaction didn't occur because the time due to confirmation time is too high.

Low confirmation time coins in turn have less of this cost.

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I never think I heard "frictionless" - but I've heard "low friction" and "less friction". Of course, your mileage may vary, but compared i.e. to credit cards (typically 2% transaction fee, chargeback risk many months after the transaction) or remittance businesses charging up to 10%, wire transfers taking several days ...

Due to the scalability issues I'm quite concerned the level of friction will grow a lot in the not so far future. We're really privileged to be able to put a coffee transaction on the public blockchain, that probably won't make any sense in ten years time. Then again, I'm sure other technologies (most likely bitcoin-based) like the lightning network will fix those issues, so we'll have really low friction again.

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