As Jeff Buck ordered his lunch on Tuesday, he had quite a bit to digest when it came to his form of payment. He's paying in "Bitcoins," but when asked what one is he answered, "That's a tricky question."
The Bitcoin is a little difficult to get one's head around. It is a digital currency created by an anonymous founder in 2009 who then essentially set it loose on the free market. It is tied to no central bank. It is self-regulated and essentially runs itself through powerful computer programs and on-line investors. Users buy Bitcoins on line and spend them digitally at a growing number of businesses around the world.
Among them is Seattle's "Cheese Wizards" food truck. Co-owner Bo Saxby said Bitcoins are great for business because the fees are a fraction of what credit card companies charge. "It's a very economical way to sell a sandwich."
Bitcoins are immediately converted to dollars and deposited in the business's bank account through an on-line currency exchange.
"It did take a leap of faith, but we've had no problems," said Saxby. "We're always happy to take money in whatever form it is."
The Department of Justice says Bitcoins are legal. Because there is no central bank linked to the currency, the Federal Reserve may not have the authority to regulate it.
Now, Bitcoins are making a major move into the American mainstream. ATMs will soon be launched here in Seattle where people will be able to buy, sell and cash in their Bitcoin stashes. Vancouver, B.C., San Diego and several European cities have done the same. The Seattle machines are expected to be installed over the next few weeks. Specific locations have not been announced.
For users it's no different than any currency.
"Gold is just a mineral you dig out of the ground," said Saxby. "We give it its value. It's kind of all in your head."
The price of a Bitcoin is determined by supply and demand. When demand for Bitcoins increases, the price increases. From the Bitcoin website: "There is a limited number of Bitcoins in circulation and new Bitcoins are created at a predictable and decreasing rate, which means that demand must follow this level of inflation to keep the price stable. Nobody owns the Bitcoin network much like no one owns the technology behind email. Bitcoin is controlled by all Bitcoin users around the world."
Right now, many people are simply buying Bitcoins as an investment -- which is why Jeff Buck is about to get as close to a free lunch as you'll ever find. He bought in when one Bitcoin was was worth less than 2-cents. Now a single unit is worth more than $600. The price for his lunch? "About a tenth of a cent," he said. "Not bad."
The question, though, will Bitcoin hold up, or will buyers end up eating their investment.