In the never-ending cycle of bear and bull, boom and bust, it’s easy to get lost in detail and lose track of the foundational thesis of web3: the promise and potential this technology holds, not just for a small community of enthusiasts, but for the world at large.
On Nov. 13, Ian Rogers, Chief Experience Officer at Ledger, took the long view about what we call “mainstream adoption” in a post on X. “When will digital ownership reach the average consumer? If history is our guide, we have 10-15 years of slow growth before broad adoption,” he posted.
Rogers—who has a decades-long background in digital innovation, from working with the top luxury brands at LVMH to delivering cutting-edge digital music with Winamp, Beats, and Apple—went on to draw parallels between the global adoption of the internet and our space.
His post, which is very much worth a full read, along with its addenda and postscripts, takes us back to the mid-1990s, when the internet was seen as “a niche toy for rather technical people,” then tracks through the tech bubble around the millennium, the advent of iPod in 2001, through MySpace, and to Facebook’s opening to the public in 2006; “Again, many of my (very smart and historically correct!) colleagues at Yahoo! dismissed it as ‘the next Friendster,’” he continued.
In all of these milestone moments, skepticism prevailed. “The pessimist view was, ‘The iPhone won’t succeed. Nice for rich people, but average people will never pay $500 for a smartphone.’ Apple shares fell on iPhone’s initial announcement,” said Rogers in the post.
According to Rogers, the skepticism continued, with Uber being seen as a “nice trick for rich people to get a black car, but this will never scale.” The tipping point, according to him, was that smartphone and broadband penetration reached critical mass in 2012. Then, “we start to see the impact in all kinds of societal numbers,” he wrote.
What’s the point of this history lesson? Rogers believes that we are somewhere at the 2002 mark on the timeline. “Let’s say (roughly speaking) 2021 was the dot-com hype cycle of 1999, and SBF 2022 was the embarrassing crash of 2000. That means we still have 12 years to the consumer adoption tipping point,” he wrote.
Continuing, he distilled the learnings from his ongoing conversations with brands and builders in web3—or, as he calls it, the world of “wallet-connected apps.” They believe in digital ownership, but they are facing the challenge of poor user experience in most dApps and a community focused more on making money than solving real-life problems.
He wrapped up with a compelling call to action. “Each of us can decide when we want to start paying attention. Do you prefer to be the person who started using the Internet in 1995? 1999? 2005? 2010? Are you an iPod/iPhone version 1 person or a version 4 person? No judgment! Whatever you choose is OK! Remember: ‘Being early is often the same as being wrong,’” he concluded.
We caught up with Rogers last week to hear more about his intriguing argument.
nft now: You are drawing a comparison between the development of the modern internet and the current development of web3 (or, as you call it, wallet-connected apps). Why would history necessarily repeat itself? It’s a compelling, powerful piece of storytelling, but is there any reason why one cycle would inform the next?
Ian Rogers: I agree. I’m not sure that the physics says that they map necessarily—but I think there’s a lot of supporting evidence. If you look at the number of people from an internet adoption perspective versus crypto, the lines line up. I linked to a piece about the growth of internet usage because I was curious—checking my memory—if there are 425 million people in crypto now when we’re there 425 million internet users. And I looked, and it does line up pretty damn square—it lines up to 2000, 2001, which was when that number was. And if you look at the curve, the line of adoption is the same slope. It looks like that pace is about the same.
I think the other thing is we DO go in big cycles. And this is why I don’t like the term “web3,” because crypto is not like a continuation of the web. I don’t think that’s accurate at all. The internet was a revolution of information. And we’re talking about a revolution of value. So, a revolution of value is a separate revolution—a technological revolution. There’s a book by Carlota Perez called Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital, written in 2002. So it was after the dotcom boom and bust. And her point was—she’s an economist—that any time there’s a technological revolution, you have a boom, you have a bust. And then you have 30 years of sustained growth.
Crypto moves in boom and bust cycles, and I think that that’s due to the fact that it is a revolution of value and not a revolution of information. You’re going to get those natural cycles. What’s incredible about those cycles is that they keep coming, and the audience keeps growing over time. It doesn’t shrink over time.
The question I got most was, “Yeah, but we’ve already got 7 billion internet-connected smartphones. So shouldn’t the adoption happen faster, because—isn’t it easier to onboard people once they’re already connected?” I don’t know. I mean, you’ve tried to onboard your friends to crypto. Is it easy? Is it easier than onboarding them to the Internet? Like, I don’t really think so. I mean, it will, ultimately, be as easy as, “Hey, get an iPhone,” right? But it’s definitely not today. You have to get a Ledger, get a Metamask—come on! We’re nowhere close. If a billion people walked into web3 tomorrow? We’re not ready. We’re nowhere close to being ready. The biggest exchanges on the planet have poor security. Like, please don’t bring a billion people into this world tomorrow! We’ve got a lot of work to do first.
nft now: Conversely, when I think back to these formative years of the internet—I grew up on the internet, and just thinking of the world, in terms of macro factors, there are a lot of differences between then and now, like geopolitics, the risk of climate change, pandemic risks, economic factors like inflation, and disruptive tech like LLMs. In terms of forecasting, we’re not comparing apples to apples, right? So, how do these differences impact your forecast?
Ian Rogers: I don’t really know! I actually think that’s the part that I like. That’s why what I’m really doing is only talking about timescales. I don’t think [the forecast] tells us anything about content. I think if anything, like you should be, you should expect more surprise than anything else.
What I mean by that is they always say that people overestimate the impact of technology in the short term, and they underestimate the impact of technology in the long term. And that, I think, is always true, right? I mean, you and I grew up on the Internet, and, you know, we believed in the power of the Internet early. At the same time, like, if you’d have told me in 1998, “Yeah, and the internet is going to lead to Donald Trump being President of the United States…” I’d have been like, well, you’re fucking crazy. Like, that’s insanity, like, come on. The internet’s not going to change things like that. I always use this as an example: I talked about this in that podcast with Rick Rubin, where, you know, in 2002, I knew that streaming music was the future. But if you’d have told me that the company that leads it was going to come from Sweden and start with Europe—I’d have been like, “No, that’s insane.”
I think that that’s what I like about this idea, actually. I always say—in 2007, most people were betting against Apple on the iPhone for a whole bunch of reasons. But my point is it’s just not that clear. So what I like is that we know the direction of travel, and we know that [mass adoption] is inevitable, but the specifics are really elusive.
If they weren’t, we’d all be millionaires!
Yeah, exactly. If we had crystal balls, we’d all be Warren Buffett. That’s why I’m at Ledger. It’s because I feel like—what do I know? Can I tell you which narrative is gonna come true? No, I can’t. Can I tell you that there will be more digital assets in the future in America? Yes. For sure. No question—but the specifics, I can promise you, I’ll get wrong because there are just so many things that will surprise you. They’ll surprise all of us.
Absolutely. And anyone who says differently is pumping their bags, to be honest.
Yeah, exactly. Everyone wants to pump their own bags.
nft now: One of the things you’re talking about in your writeup is that 2012 is a tipping point for internet adoption, with the advent of the contemporary smartphone. This is crystal ball stuff, I’m afraid—but what do you imagine that kind of tipping point would look like today for mass adoption of crypto and wallet-connected apps? What would be our iPhone moment?
Ian Rogers: It’s a world where you have non-abstracted wallets, and you have easy-to-use personal governance with a piece of hardware. When you pay at a local bodega, you’re paying with digital cash and not using credit rails. Your paycheck goes into your Ledger, your self-custody, with an IBAN instead of going into my useless HSBC bank account. To me, when I see it coming together, that’s what it really means. All of those things have come together.
In 2012, we didn’t have anything technically that you and I didn’t have in 1998, except this phone in our pockets. The portability of the internet was a big thing—but technically, it was still TCP/IP and HTTP. There was nothing new in that regard. It was just that you had a critical mass of consumers, which meant something like Uber could actually work.
If you think about it as a supply and demand equation, you had suppressed the supply of empty cars and drivers and suppressed the demand of people who wanted taxis and couldn’t get them, and, boom, this whole new thing appears, and you had the same thing with AirBnB.
That’s also why I think the timescale is so long. I think some people will say, “Oh, man, technology’s moving so quickly.” And I’m like, “Man, think about all the work that we have to do. Think about how long it’s really going to be before your paycheck goes into your crypto account. There’s nothing difficult about it—technically, it could happen today. But massive societal changes have to happen, and things that just take a long time have to change.
nft now: You worked at the forefront of digital music, building with conviction for many years. How does your own career inform your analysis?
Ian Rogers: One thing I find interesting—and I think this is relevant to those of us who care about digital art—there’s this thing where digital music was always kind of the first application [for the modern internet], even post-dotcom boom. In the same way, post-NFT boom, digital art really didn’t slow down. I mean, sales slowed down, but I was at Marfa this year, and it didn’t feel like people had lost interest. I think that there are some interesting parallels there, and that gives me a little bit of perspective and confidence.
Mostly, I just remember—because I was standing with my face in the wind for 20 fucking years, with people telling me that, oh, the internet is never going to scale because everyone’s never going to have broadband. All the things I included in the piece were the things I heard from people every single day. People forget that Apple’s stock price fell on the announcement of the iPhone 1—it didn’t skyrocket, it actually declined—because the prevailing thought was that everyone would never pay $500 for a smartphone.
What’s interesting about those two things—very smart people saying everyone will never have broadband and very smart people saying everyone will never pay $500 for a smartphone—is the order of magnitude of how wrong they were. Right? We’re not talking about dummies! I had a senior AT&T executive in 2002 tell me that I’ll never be able to do video on the internet. So that’s something that gives me confidence to say that, ultimately, technology wins.
People who think they know—people who can’t see how the technology of tomorrow will be different from the technology of today—are always proven to be fools. And so, that really is the thing from my career. There are like a thousand micro examples of that—when I started at LVMH, people told me not to bother having my own website in China because you’ll never get people to go to louisvuitton.com or dior.com. And that’s totally wrong like louisvuitton.com and dior.com are incredibly successful in China today.
I think that you know, whenever someone tells you “never,” you’ve got to examine the fundamentals and say—if the fundamentals make sense, then it’s a matter of time. The other thing is also true, though—it’s not true that bad ideas suddenly become good ideas simply because technology has marched on! There are no new human problems; we just hire new technologies to solve old problems.
So, I actually think it’s somewhat more predictable than people give it credit for. Because if it looks like it solves a real problem. This is why the next piece that I’m gonna write is about digital music because I don’t think digital ownership solves digital music streaming.
nft now: That is really, really important. Because everyone’s saying, “Oh, well, you should buy this thing now; it’s a new primitive.” And you know, after the underpants gnomes have their way with it, everyone’s gonna want it. It’s like, no, if it’s not something that people want now, it’s not something they’re going to want to have when the infrastructure is there.
That goes to my next question—this space is full of economic speculation at every level, all the way from tiny little micro-cap meme tokens to VC fundraisers of tens of millions and more. This kind of wrecks stuff sometimes; it distorts innovation in so many ways. I’m wondering, how do you think that kind of speculation played a role in the advent of the modern internet? And what can we learn from that as we grow our own space?
Ian Rogers: That’s a great question. I was talking to someone about this the other night—I remember San Francisco in 1998, 99. There was all this .com hype, and everybody was going to get their stock options and then go public and get rich, so it’s just a different version of the same thing, right? “I’m speculating with my time by getting this job. And then I’m gonna work my ass off, and the company’s gonna go public, a bunch of other people are gonna speculate on my company. And then I’m going to be really rich because I was there really early.”
It’s the same thing now, with a different construct. I think one big difference, of course, is that the SEC was already involved back then: it was generally public company speculation. There was certainly plenty of other kinds of speculation; you can find those stories everywhere, whether it’s like, you know, Digital Entertainment Network, which ended with white tigers and pedophilia. And someone on the lam. You know what I mean? Like, there was lots of stuff in those .com days that was incredibly salacious—it would rival any of the stories that we have in crypto today. I think the difference is that in the dotcom era, building a straight-up Ponzi scheme was much harder. We really effectively couldn’t, like, build a meme coin and get retail investors to pile into it. That wasn’t really possible, right?
So sure, there were big, big blow-ups from, for instance, pets.com. I’m pretty sure that Amazon lost 99% of its value between 1999 and 2002. Big companies that were not scams at all lost lots and lots and lots of money for people, and people sold. If you sold Netflix at the wrong time, you made a bad trade. So, I think there are a lot of similarities. But I think the main difference is that I think it’s definitely much more difficult to go totally rogue in the dotcom world because the way that you made money was through stock options and IPOs.
nft now: Yeah, and now, here we are sitting, having a fight with the SEC, with the CFTC, with all these different regulators, and not remembering those days. So should we be taking on that lesson that, hey, maybe regulation isn’t so bad, maybe we can, you know, have some regulation? You know, a guy just got convicted in the first US court case prosecuting an NFT rogue! He pled guilty. That’s bullish, to me, to have that regulation.
Ian Rogers: I would agree—I think Sam Bankman-Fried going to jail is bullish, right? Because Sam Bankman-Fried was not crypto, it was a fraud. It was numbers in a spreadsheet. What’s also interesting about it is that FTX was also a pretty good business. If he hadn’t been trading customer funds, then FTX really could have been a powerhouse.
If you look at it, the problem of [FTX’s] business was not that it was in crypto. I’m sure that everybody looks at what happened; if you’re the CEO of any crypto company, you paid attention to FTX and went, “Okay, I don’t want to do that.”
I remember my boss at Yahoo, Terry Semmel, who was the CEO once upon a time, saying, “I’m not going to jail for anybody.” You know, that was his job. Part of his job as CEO was to make sure he didn’t go to jail, which meant he was gonna play it really safe. He wasn’t going to play cowboy. If a choice was to break the law or lose the fight with a competitor, he was gonna lose the fight.
I think that’s healthy. I think the challenge with regulation is that you’ve got to ask, “Okay, what is the regulation saying,” because regulation in the US, for example, asks self-hosted wallets or self-custody wallets like Ledger to report to the IRS! Well, that makes no sense. That’s an invasion of privacy. And that’s not good regulation.
So, I think that a playing field that is fair and protects consumers is a good thing, but regulation doesn’t necessarily mean that, unfortunately. Bad guys going to jail is good, but we need to be careful what we wish for.