Bitcoin takes an important step toward becoming part of every web browser on the planet

Click here to pay me irreversibly and hope your goods arrive.
Click here to pay me irreversibly and hope your goods arrive.
Image: AP/Rick Bowmer
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A funny thing just happened: virtual currency bitcoin has now passed the first round of approval required to become a standard for the web, alongside other familiar “schemes” which allow elements on a webpage to, for example, open your email application when you click on an email address on a webpage. This is the first time a payment system has ever been legitimized in this way.

The web—and more specifically HTML5, the language which web browsers understand—works because everyone who makes websites and builds web browsers has agreed on a common standard. It’s just like a regular language—if I say “chair” and you think “pants,” we have a problem. The same goes for the grammar in which vocabulary is embedded.

One piece of the language of HTML5 is “schemes,” which allow websites or apps to designate themselves as the “handler” of the content located at a particular address on the internet. These schemes include, as I noted, one called “mailto:” that, when used as a link in a webpage, tells your browser to automatically email an address after you click on it, by whatever means you have previously specified.

So this is where things get interesting: With a bitcoin-specific “scheme,” any link on a webpage becomes a one-click route to instantaneously transmitting money—or at least bitcoin. Imagine you’re buying socks or more likely, since this is bitcoin, assault rifles stuffed with heroin. On the checkout webpage, the “buy” button could use the “bitcoin:” link, which would automatically pop open your bitcoin wallet, which might reside in an external application, on another website, or even in your browser itself. In any event, it would make paying with bitcoin dead easy and absolutely universal.

The “bitcoin:” scheme has at this point, in technical parlance, merely been “whitelisted.” That means it’s OK, in the eyes of at least one web standards body, to start incorporating it into web pages—but it’s not mandatory, yet. This is a sign that the powers that be—i.e. the folks who administer the HTML5 standard—take bitcoin seriously. And it also means that some day “bitcoin:” might become part of the universal standard (administered by the W3C) that virtually guarantees that an HTML5 standard will make it into every web browser on the planet.

It’s all terribly complicated, and I invite you to read the thread on Hacker News or a similar one on Reddit if you want to confuse yourself further. But here’s the bottom line: bitcoin just took an important step closer to becoming the universal, open, distributed payments glue that binds the world of digital money, anonymous transactions, and extra-governmental currencies together. And if some day it’s a part of HTML5, or HTML6 or 7 or what have you, and federated across every web-connected device on the planet, well, you can say you read about it here first.