Love or hate blockchain and cryptocurrencies, you can’t deny they’ve made a big impact on the Web’s evolution over the past several years. I don’t necessarily believe there are “versions” of the Web, but I’m going to appropriate the term Web 3.0 anyway. Mainly because it helps try and identify what’s changed on the Web; especially compared to the Web 2.0 era. Bear with me, and I welcome your feedback.
Web 3.0 is a term that has been bandied about for years now; most notably by Semantic Web proponents in the middle of Web 2.0. The moniker failed to gain traction back then, much like the Semantic Web itself. But lately some blockchain and cryptocurrency people have tried to define Web 3.0 in their context. Most notably, co-creator of Ethereum Gavin Wood, who deployed the term in 2014. His post is overly complicated, in the best traditions of the still young crypto community. But he hit on some key concepts, some of which are just now becoming reality.
As for my own sense of what blockchain and cryptocurrencies bring to the Web, in the process of writing Blocksplain this year I’ve come to realise they’re useful tools that are helping take the Web to the next level. In particular, to address some of the societal problems that Web 2.0 brought us. With that said, Web 3.0 does not equal The Blockchain Web. I’ve also learnt there are some things blockchain isn’t ideal for (more on that below).
Ultimately, if Web 3.0 has any meaning at all, then it’s in trying to define what the latest wave of Web developers and entrepreneurs are building – and why. So let’s firstly identify what’s important in the post-Web 2.0 era.
I’ve been thinking about some of the problems of blockchain startups and what (if anything) can be done to address them. The fact is, this “Web 3” revolution has been very slow to get going. I had expected it to ramp up faster, but instead the industry is still overly focused on cryptocurrency speculation and promoting new protocols (such as the various Ethereum killers). The speculation won’t stop until there’s a market crash, but it’s the lack of progress on the product side that most concerns me. It’s not protocols we need now, it’s products! Where are the betas of the Web 3 products that consumers will eventually use?
This concern has led me to identify three key challenges with the blockchain startup ecosystem. If we can make progress on each one before the year is out, I think the industry will be in a much better place.
It’s currently a barren landscape for DApps, with CryptoKitties still the most high profile decentralized app to have been built on a blockchain. As Chris McCann from the VC firm Greylock Partners put it, “we are orders of magnitudes away from consumer adoption of DApps.” He went on to say that “no killer app (outside of tokens and trading) have been created.”
All that is true, but there are interesting experiments happening. One of my regular lazy web requests from the blockchain developer community is a DApp version of Twitter. As I’ve pointed out before, Twitter is the quintessential Web 2.0 company – in that at first Twitter welcomed third party developers, then royally screwed them. A decentralized version of Twitter would prevent a centralized company, like Twitter Corp, from treating developers and users with such disdain again.
Enter Peepeth, which went live at the end of last month as a “decentralized microblogging site.” I signed up and became user #833. Here’s what I’ve discovered so far…
In my post yesterday bemoaning the slow progress of Ethereum’s scaling solution, Pete Abilla tweeted this response at me:
Sharding is a way to divide up a large database – such as a public blockchain – into smaller chunks, a.k.a. “shards.” The reason it’s important is that (provided the technology works) it’ll enable a blockchain project to process thousands of transactions per second; similar to Visa’s centralized databases.
Curious about Pete’s claim, I clicked through to check out Singapore-based Zilliqa.
It’s been an ongoing bear market for cryptocurrencies in 2018, including for the top two coins: Bitcoin and Ethereum. The main causes of bear sentiment seem to be worldwide regulation issues and other concerns around legitimisation (for example the blanket ban on crypto ads by Facebook, Google and Twitter). But another factor is the continuing uncertainty over the technical foundation of the main cryptocurrency platforms. In particular: can they scale as development platforms? This issue is especially important for Ethereum, because its grand plan to be a “world computer” relies on its DApp platform successfully scaling. Which, so far, it has conspicuously failed to do.
Even Ethereum’s creator and most influential spokesperson, Vitalik Buterin, has now expressed frustration over Ethereum’s scalability problems. “If you want to build a decentralized Uber and Lyft on top of an unscalable ethereum, you are screwed,” he told attendees of a Seoul conference this week.
After Facebook’s sudden fall in popularity this month, people have begun to talk more seriously about creating decentralized versions of various Web 2.0 mainstays.
Matteo Gianpietro Zago, whose company Essentia runs a decentralized developer platform, went so far as to create a large map of “Web 3.0” startups. Here, for example, is how he compares the main Web 2.0 search products (by which he means Google and Bing) with some up-and-coming distributed search engines:
The initial wave of Bitcoin interest came from people who wanted to spend it. That, after all, was what Bitcoin was designed for. The title of Satoshi Nakamoto’s 2008 white paper was “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System.” So Satoshi’s goal from day one was for Bitcoin to be a medium of exchange.
Fast forward ten years and Bitcoin is now commonly viewed as a “store of value,” rather than a medium of exchange. Bitcoin = digital gold is the mantra of crypto enthusiasts. But while Bitcoin is no longer viewed as electronic cash, two of the top five cryptocurrencies in CoinMarketCap are staking a claim to be exactly that: Bitcoin Cash and Litecoin. The question is, when can we buy a cup of coffee with either one?
Interest in blockchain and cryptocurrency continues to surge, which makes comparisons to the mid-to-late 1990s all the more relevant. That was a period when we were all trying to figure out how to use the Web – or “surf” it, using the lingo of that time.
We’re at a similar point with blockchain. I call it the “Geocities era,” because the user interfaces are ugly and not very user friendly. Digital wallets are the best example. Right now it’s difficult to store and transfer your cryptocurrencies, because you have to learn how to safely use private keys, what recovery seeds are (that list of 12–24 randomized words you’re asked to write down and hide somewhere), when and how to back up your wallet, what the heck MyEtherWallet is and why it’s needed when you transfer Ether, and so on. In short: it takes a while to learn how to use crypto wallets.
Over the weekend I had a rare experience: one my tweets went viral. It was an off-the-cuff and slightly pompous tweet about the role of white papers in the cryptocurrency ecosystem:
I’d tweeted that in response to a blockchain bro at South By Southwest, who had opined: “Read the white papers. Everyone and their mom is just pumped up about the wrong thing. It’s not my personal passion to educate people’s aunts who don’t understand math.”
That quote riled me up because the type of mathematics common in ICO white papers is beyond the grasp of anyone who isn’t a mathematician or a skilled blockchain programmer. For example, in my review of Filecoin I highlighted the complex mathematical formulas in their white paper. I would challenge anyone – let alone a SXSW bro – to explain to me what those formulas mean.
Loom Network, a startup from the TechStars incubator, has just launched a new development platform for DApps (distributed apps). When the company reached out to me, it described the platform as “new tech that allows developers to easily build highly scalable blockchain applications, with a focus on games and social — think World of Warcraft or Twitter on the blockchain.”
My ears pricked up when I heard “Twitter on the blockchain,” since that’s the example I’ve been using to explain why we need decentralized apps. What’s also intriguing about Loom Network is that it may encourage the development of apps that aren’t just exchanges or wallets. Put another way: if the blockchain ecosystem is to ever reach the level of app development that Web 2.0 (the Web as platform) attained, it needs development platforms that enable apps with real world utility to be built.