21 Inc., a bitcoin startup backed by venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, is releasing its first product, a computer that seeks to make bitcoin a standard feature of web services and encourage developers to build products that integrate the digital currency.
The 21 Bitcoin Computer, which goes on sale Monday, is a small, bare bones, Linux-based piece of hardware in which the bitcoin protocol is a feature of the operating system. Any products or services built with it – games or music or any online content – would have bitcoin built in as a component.
“I’m very excited about it,” said Ben Horowitz, a co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz, which led the startup’s funding earlier this year. “The thing that’s completely missing that I think would make the Internet better would be machine-to-machine payments. It’s just amazingly hard to do right now.”
The 21 is aimed at developers rather than consumers, and is part of the company’s wider goal of turning bitcoin into an Internet protocol, a common language shared between connected devices. The computer will sell for about $400 and will be available to order beginning on Monday, and will ship in November.
The computer’s operating system will include a full copy of bitcoin’s code and related software that will allow developers to make bitcoin a core feature of the products they build. It also uses a chip 21 unveiled earlier this year that is linked to 21’s mining pool and provide a steady stream of bitcoin for the user.
With this computer, 21 CEO Balaji Srinivasan explained, users can build a service or site in which conceivably every page view can be monetized. “The utility of bitcoin up until this point has been the speculation value,” Mr. Srinivasan said. “We have a new, pretty strong use case for bitcoin.”
Mr. Horowitz compared the potential of this computer to early web browsers and his time helping build Netscape back in the 1990s. They were creating a platform, but couldn’t know what would be built on top of it. “The first website we got excited about at Netscape was this guy who built a webcam to monitor his coffee pot,” he said. It may seem frivolous, but it showed that people would actually use the browser in creative and new ways, and it was a small sign of what was coming. “These things can’t happen without some enabling technology.”
Machine-to-machine payments could be a solution to any number of problems today, Mr. Horowitz said. He mentioned services like Netflix, or media companies. “If I could read stuff on the web for a small amount of money, and didn’t have to open myself up for repeated charging or subscriptions I didn’t want? That’s a relatively straightforward application if you have machine-to-machine payments.”
Bitcoin rose to prominence as an alternative currency, but more recently its core technology has gained attention for its potential to modernize the financial system. 21’s vision involves creating a network of machines that could essentially talk to each other across the bitcoin network, creating a platform for machine-to-machine payments. It’s similar to an idea floated by IBM researchers that bitcoin could be a key feature of the “Internet of Things,” a common language connected devices could use to exchange value automatically.