[SINGAPORE] In a thoroughly unexpected series of events, Asia's first Bitcoin vending machine was launched in Singapore yesterday, in a Boat Quay pub on the second storey of a row of shophouses.
Its creators, Tembusu Terminals, stole a march on everyone in the region - including two other future players here, as well as Hong Kong, which only sees its first Bitcoin retail outlet opening today. Now, Singapore joins the handful of places in the world where Bitcoin has a tangible presence, alongside Vancouver, New Mexico and Massachusetts.
Tembusu's first terminal - made in Singapore - is technically a vending machine and not an ATM (automated teller machine) as it accepts fiat currency in exchange for Bitcoins, but does not dispense cash in return for the cryptocurrency. The company is working on an upgraded version that has both features.
Called the "Tembusu", the machine sits in the unlikeliest of places - adjacent to shelves of alcohol at a pub called The Spiffy Dapper, which one accesses by climbing a flight of stairs, some of which are missing small chunks of concrete.
"(The Tembusu) makes it easy for anybody to obtain Bitcoins . . . until now, you had to open a bank account, open an account with a (Bitcoin) exchange, transfer your money, get the Bitcoins and transfer it back," said Andras Kristof, 44, the firm's chief technical officer who designed the machine.
It is disarmingly easy to use. Cash is inserted - it accepts denominations as small as $2 - and moments later, a chit with a QR code pops out. This code is scanned into a Bitcoin wallet app, transferring the value to it.
Each transaction has a 5 per cent fee, which might come down with greater adoption and lower costs, the firm said.
Its novelty was clear, even in a city on the forefront of Bitcoin adoption. As The Business Times bought $5 worth of Bitcoins, a photographer nearby nervously asked: "Is the company going to reimburse you?"
The Bitcoin community, however, took to it wholeheartedly. One executive with a local Bitcoin outfit stepped up to buy $50 worth of Bitcoin (he was later seen patting down his pockets, looking for the chit).
While territories such as Taiwan have been hostile to Bitcoin terminals, the Tembusu faces few regulatory hurdles for now. The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) told BT yesterday: "MAS does not regulate Bitcoin, including its purchase, sale or use, whether online or via other means such as physical vending machines."
If or when such regulation happens, Tembusu Terminals is prepared for it. "We are open to doing everything we can to make sure that the Tembusu is legal. If we need to implement know-your-customer features, that is coming in the next version," Mr Kristof said.
As much as the Tembusu is novel, the three-man team behind it is an enigma. Apart from Mr Kristof, Tembusu Terminals (no relation to investment firm Tembusu Partners) is backed by Peter Peh, 25, and Jarrod Luo, 29. At one point, Mr Peh carried 15 Bitcoins in his iPhone's virtual wallet when they were worth US$1,000 apiece, and paid for everything with Bitcoin for a month.
Little else is known about this fledgling outfit which is funded out of the three men's pockets. "We've been working together for a long time, and we have common interests," Mr Kristof said.
Adding to its mystique, Tembusu Terminals designs its machines in-house and makes them here. It took two months to develop, and the hardware alone costs less than $3,000.
"We can make it better; we have a couple of ideas which nobody has done yet," said Mr Kristof.
Tembusu is in talks with a food stall at the Nanyang Technological University's canteen as its next machine's location. While the firm declined to elaborate on revenue share, it offers the option to install the machine for no downpayment.
It will have two future competitors - Canada- based Bitconiacs that is bringing in an ATM made by Robocoin, and Bitcoin Exchange, a local firm that is importing a vending machine from manufacturer Lamassu.
Neither was daunted by the news. Bitcoin Exchange's founder, Zann Kwan, is launching the Lamassu-made machine today, ahead of its original launch date in mid-March, she told BT.
Bitcoiniacs' co-founder, Mitchell Demeter, also welcomed Tembusu Terminals' move, saying: "We're always trying to make it easier for people to buy and sell Bitcoin."
His machine, which will both sell Bitcoin and dispense cash, will be set up here within the next few weeks and charge a 5 per cent fee.
Against the tumult from the shutdown of Japan- based Bitcoin exchange Mt.Gox this week, the vending machine will be seen as the currency's clean-shaven face.
"It's really easy - how to control cryptocurrency? Have companies like us that are acting in good faith . . . and follow the law. And if someone does something wrong, just subpoena them," Tembusu Terminals' Mr Peh said.