Why Web3 Needs Urbit
Urbit has gained some renown among crypto enthusiasts in recent years as an ambitious and compelling use case of NFTs to power a novel computing system and network. The technical stack that Urbit has developed is impressive and far-reaching, but some criticize its perceived opacity and lack of a precise use-case. If your first impression of Urbit came from a deep-dive into the intricacies of the OS, network, and identity system, you might be left wondering what Urbit’s specific use case even is. Is there a problem Urbit is trying to solve, or is it all just a severe case of NIH syndrome?
The reality is that there is a problem that Urbit solves, and it’s a complex enough problem that it won’t be obvious to most people, but it’s a deep and pernicious enough problem that it affects everyone using the internet. A rudimentary understanding of Urbit’s problem space can be gained from this tweet from Philip Monk, CTO of Tlon, the primary company driving Urbit development. Urbit is a solution to deep technical limitations of the internet that prevent it from being used the way it should: as a permissionless peer-to-peer network that gives freedom and responsibility to its users.
If this explanation feels under-explored, read on for a deep dive into the core value proposition from Urbit to users and developers alike. But before we begin, we should clarify a basic philosophical understanding of Web3.
Decentralization vs. Ownership
“Decentralization” is a commonly used buzzword in Web3 and elsewhere, with much said about new companies whose product is to decentralize some aspect of digital experience. Because of the enormous financial success of Bitcoin and other DeFi technologies, a case can be made that merely decentralizing a product is a sufficient advantage that consumers will flock to it. But this is a poor understanding of what consumers value in crypto, and thereby a flawed approach to Web3’s path to victory.
Bitcoin was, of course, not the first decentralized digital currency ever invented. E-Cash and Bit Gold were predecessors to Bitcoin in this domain, and they each used cryptography-powered precursors to blockchains to make digital payments permissionless. What made Bitcoin more successful than its predecessors is not solely that it was more decentralized (although in some cases it was), but that it was much more secure. The combination of decentralization and security gave Bitcoin holders ownership that they could rely on, and that went on to make it a successful product.
Decentralization is best understood as a special case of ownership, where trusted third parties in central control of a product reduce the user’s intuition that they own the product they use. Merely decentralizing a component of a product does not necessarily compel an end-user to use it, but to some degree, every end-user wants to own their tools if they can.
That’s all to say that Web3’s critics are correct that decentralization itself is not a product. However, decentralization can be a critical component of ownership, and ownership is a critical component of what makes Urbit a compelling product to end-users. Urbit is decentralized, but not for decentralization’s sake. Urbit is “yours forever” and that requires it to have many attributes, including permanence, security, and of course, decentralization.
The Value Proposition of Web3
The story and namesake of “Web3” is perhaps best summarized by this article on Ethereum’s website, which goes through the stages of the internet’s development and shows how a new, blockchain-powered paradigm can shift the balance of power and take ownership from giant tech corporations and give it back to users.
As is well understood by visionaries of a decentralized web, the internet of the early 1990’s was idealized as a permissionless space in which everyone had a voice and could make their own mark on the world by learning and using a set of open protocols that did not discriminate on who could operate them. The early internet was a pluralistic “Wild West” of custom-built websites and services, and while the distribution of activity was anything but equal, there was little resembling a monopoly on most use cases. Idealists saw this web as the beginning of a new flowering of culture and technology, where mass media would become obsolete in comparison to an open field where undiscovered talent could win hearts and minds by their own bootstraps.
As the internet’s ecosystem developed, the idealists only partially got their wish. The internet did become a phenomenal landscape for small contributors to make a big impact, but only under the patronage of monolithic platforms. Somewhere along the way, the expectation that users would have actually owned their means of communication was subverted. As it turned out, running infrastructure and operating servers is boring and hard. End-users needed powerful platforms to obfuscate the complexity of the tech stack, and were willing to give up their ownership in exchange for an approachable user interface.
Detractors and sympathizers alike refer to the early, pluralistic internet as “Web1” and the modern, centralized internet as “Web2”. In accordance with this scheme, the hypothesized successor paradigm of the Internet is called “Web3”.
Proponents of Web3 see in blockchain technology an opportunity for a new phase of development that corrects this flaw by taking the responsibilities of Web2 infrastructure and offloading them to consensus networks that are owned by everyone and no-one. Rather than private infrastructure managed by giant corporations, web services can use public infrastructure managed by the community, and the power structure of the internet can thereby resemble the same fair and open field that the Web1 idealists envisioned, while offering an equal or better user experience to Web2.
The Advantages and Limitations of Blockchains
Blockchains are a promising technology for secure digital ownership by providing one immeasurably valuable feature to its users: trustless consensus on data. By nature, applications must rely on a single source of truth for a dataset in order to be sensible to the developer and the user. In order to obviate the need for a trusted third party to secure and manage this data, consensus must be reached across a network on what is true. This problem is best summarized by the infamous Byzantine generals problem, to which blockchains offer a reasonable solution.
Blockchains also offer another potential way to revolutionize software by offering developers the ability to create new, scarce assets ex nihilo. By allowing investors to speculate on these spawned assets, free and open source software finds a new financial model where code can be given away to the community without thankless developers having nothing to show for their contributions. Given the scope of work required to make systems that are sensible to everyday users, this advantage is truly invaluable.
However, the aforementioned Byzantine fault tolerance comes at a cost in blockchains. Consensus over a network offers a better assurance of ownership to users, but duplicates work that, in the centralized case, only needs to be performed once. The inevitable tradeoff between ownership and efficiency in blockchain networks is best summarized by Vitalik Buterin’s scalability trilemma, which shows that the two most valuable components of blockchains are fundamentally at odds with a third attribute that powerful systems seek to maximize, which is efficiency.
Solutions exist which extend blockchain capabilities in all three domains, so the trilemma is not completely binding. But to the degree that the trilemma is unsolved, scalability constraints manifest themselves in gas fees, which make it costly to write transactions to any chain that is uncompromising on secure decentralization. Costly writes are an anti-feature that make it difficult to excite end-users, and so this limitation threatens the ability of blockchains to obviate monopolies powered by Web2 infrastructure.
Privacy and latency are also notable challenges in a blockchain environment. Infrastructure that, by default, gives read access to everyone and only adds new data at set intervals, forms a limiting use case for many applications that are expected to be responsive and permissioned. Like the scalability problem, these problems have prospective solutions, but still represent technical hurdles for developers to grapple with, that Web2 solutions can simply centralize away. There are several other hurdles of this type that would deserve exploration in deeper dive.
These limitations to blockchain-based infrastructure have, to some degree, already been explored in other places, and may one day each find satisfactory solutions. But one under-explored limitation is the repeated reliance of Web3 applications on trust in order to access blockchain data. This isn’t even necessarily a hard limitation in blockchains as a tool, but can be observed as a pattern in the industry.
Uniswap, for example, is served from a specific domain name, and consumers implicitly trust that domain name with their tokens. MetaMask is a ubiquitous non-custodial Ethereum wallet, but uses hard-coded proprietary endpoints to access on-chain data. OpenSea, despite its name, does not even claim to be permissionless — it’s explicitly a custodial service with administrators to intervene if something goes wrong.
These hallmarks of the Web3 ecosystem are all fueled by a cultural environment that eschews centralization and prioritizes ownership, and yet find themselves making similar compromises to Web2 companies that promise to democratize the ability for people to express themselves. Rather than creating a system that is thoroughly trustless, some trust is inserted into the equation in order to iron out the difficulties of operating permissionless systems, whether blockchain networks or other peer-to-peer protocols.
Again in Web3 as in Web2, complexity is hidden from the user by an interface that achieves a level of human-comprehensibility by offloading user choice to the provider. There are many exceptions, just as in the Web2 era there were alternatives to centralized services that could be used, but were not mainstream. But there is a reason why the choices that make compromises to user ownership tend to win in this environment, and it’s clear that the reason is not lack of access to blockchains as a tool.
It’s The Servers, Stupid
Despite countless efforts to make user-owned applications and networks reliant solely on peers, the role of nodes in any solution is costly to discount. Solutions that give primacy to peers still run nodes to pick up the slack caused by the intermittency of peers. In the Web3 world, offloading all node work to blockchains manifests itself in the cost of writes and the need to obfuscate the gas expense. The need for servers did not go away with blockchains, but only made itself manifest in new ways. Knowing this, the question of a user-owned internet returns to its old question: how can we create a world where each user runs a node?
The underlying need for user-owned servers is not breaking news to those familiar with the history of the internet. In the idealistic days of the early web, user-owned servers were simply a given — as applications became easier to use, always-connected services would follow suit, and the internet of the future would be a patchwork of independent personal servers hosting whichever services were important to the user. In this way, the developments of both Web2 and Web3 technologies can be seen as an adjustment made in response to the failure of personal servers to thrive in the consumer market.
This creates an ugly combination of two hard facts that are discouraging to reconcile, yet both so powerfully true that all previous attempts to engineer around them have failed:
- You cannot have a user-owned internet without personal servers.
- Consumers do not want personal servers.
We have made a case for why blockchains cannot provide an answer to the former problem. But do blockchains, and other advancements in computing, have anything to say about the latter?
The Marketplace of User-Owned Infrastructure
One interesting case to consider in the landscape of user-owned servers is the omnipresence of personal routers. A router has much in common with a server from a consumer’s point of view: it’s a black box that sits somewhere out of the way. It needs to always be powered on and connected to a network, and you will find out quickly if it’s been unplugged. If it malfunctions, getting it working again is a top priority. In order to do your business, you have to connect to it — what exactly it’s doing is not always clear to the end-user, but that it’s important is well-understood.
The personal router is a successful consumer product because it satisfies three basic conditions:
- It’s valuable. It is needed in order to access a network, and that network has value.
- It’s low maintenance. A reboot is required once or twice a year at most.
- It’s opaque. A user does not need to understand it in order to use it proficiently.
Find a personal server that meets all three of these conditions, and we can begin to imagine a new computing paradigm. In practice, Unix servers typically fail on all three, and where they succeed in one domain, they typically compromise on at least one of the others.
A general study of successful consumer products is also helpful in understanding how and why personal servers failed in the market. This article by Lane Rettig makes a concise case for the viability of tools in the marketplace:
“What the tools we rely on the most heavily have in common is that they’re all simple, durable, and ours.” ~ Lane Rettig
While personal routers do not always satisfy the property of ownership, one can see how their value proposition fits neatly into this model. Unix servers, on the other hand, have only ownership to offer. While they are arguably simple from a highly technical point of view, none of this simplicity is legible to the non-technical user. And their durability is certainly not under question by professionals who rely on them, but non-professionals are almost universally unable to replicate that impression.
But why is Unix in particular under question? The answer is, there is not much else to offer consumers in the way of personal servers. Other solutions exist or have existed, but mostly in the business domain, and mostly targeted at professionals. Servers targeted at tinkerers and privacy advocates have seen some success, but even in that market, Unix is almost always the backbone of their software stack. This may shed significant light on the failure of personal servers in the marketplace: no fully capable operating system has been constructed with the personal server use-case in mind, except for various implementations of Unix. Unix, of course, was never designed for everyday consumers.
Urbit is a novel software stack, with its own OS, network, and identity system, built de nihilo from elementary primitives. The OS, as the centerpiece of the system, aims to fulfill the use case of a personal server that is simple, durable, and yours. Urbit uses many theoretical advancements in software engineering to achieve this outcome, most notably determinism, referential transparency, and cryptography.
At the risk of oversimplifying, these advancements can be said to roughly map to the qualities needed to meet the expectations of consumers:
- Determinism makes Urbit simple. It is always computing one function, no matter the case.
- Referential transparency makes Urbit durable. All erroneous behavior can and should be tracked down and eliminated by its developers.
- Cryptography makes Urbit yours. Your ownership of your Urbit is as secure as your private key, no more and no less.
Much remains to be said about the innovations made to create a general purpose server that feels more like a mechanical clock than a fighter jet cockpit, and a deep dive into Urbit’s architecture is recommended to engineers who want to understand the system at more than a superficial level. But for our purposes, it’s also worth taking a glance at our earlier example of the personal router to examine how Urbit compares.
Urbit is as valuable as the personal router. The end-user’s access to the internet is mediated by their router, and the internet is an invaluable ecosystem of force-multiplying services. The Urbit network, similarly, can fulfill the same potential. By adding powerful primitives and a unified back-end to the protocol by which individual Urbit nodes communicate, Urbit’s network promises to lay the foundation for networked applications that can compete with, and even exceed, the services provided on the modern internet.
Urbit is as low maintenance as the personal router. It is designed to never reach an unrecoverable state, and even reboots should never be necessary. The commitment to minimalism and determinism at every turn has paid dividends for Urbit’s developers, and while it cannot be called “zero maintenance” yet, the path to that milestone today yields more known unknowns than unknown unknowns.
Urbit is as opaque as the personal router. The underlying architecture never shows itself to the end-user. To the degree that it has an interface, this interface is a friendly webpage that mirrors the homepage of a mobile OS. Developers can fork its code or play with the internals however they please, but should never need to look at the terminal to use it or its applications. Just like in the case of the router, a connection needs to be established so that services can be made available, and this intuition will be all the end-user needs to know to proficiently use their Urbit.
While serving primarily as a gateway into Urbit’s network, an Urbit server can do much more than merely route packets. As a general-purpose computer on a peer-to-peer network, Urbit can act as a much-needed backbone to user-owned applications that demand nothing more than code from developers. The guarantees of Urbit’s networking primitives, combined with the assumption that all peers run nodes, makes it possible to deliver cutting edge social applications consisting of only two elements: a protocol and an interface. This leads to limitless possibilities for developers, who previously needed to duplicate massive amounts of work and run their own servers in order to deliver software that satisfies users.
Urbit also benefits both users and developers by consolidating data to where it belongs: in a unified environment that the user owns. Developers need not assume the liability of user data residing on their own infrastructure, and users need not trust developers with their private information. And in the case of creating integrations between services, there is no chasm of APIs and terms of service to bridge between: all of the user’s data is in the same place, speaking the same language. The only chasm between two services is the user’s permission to share data between them.
Prior examples show that this level of added value is necessary to put ownership in the hands of users: a sensible, lightweight product that asks no compromises in terms of UX, while giving full control to the owner.
While it is difficult to overstate the centrality of personal servers to the problems Web3 aims to remediate, there remains a need for applications that interface between end-users and blockchains. Even more than this, a growing industry is responsible for developing middleware in Web3, both between different blockchains and between a given blockchain and the real world. Urbit offers solutions in both of these domains, in the bleeding edge industry of blockchain development on Urbit.
Some aspects of Urbit’s natural affinity for blockchains are already well-understood. Azimuth, for example, which serves as Urbit’s identity system and PKI, is implemented as a Solidity contract on Ethereum. Furthermore, the basic problem of association between names and public keys can be considered solved on Urbit, as name-key associations are already an assumed part of the system, and already integrated into Urbit’s Bitcoin application. Already on Urbit, you can natively send and receive BTC with other Urbit users with no need to keep records of their addresses.
Other faults in Web3 are addressed by the mere lack of any need to compromise on user-owned architecture. dApps on Urbit, for example, are truly dApps — they are sent to the user’s server upon installation, and run locally. API layers and trust bottlenecks between Web3 applications and blockchains are not needed if blockchains are built on Urbit, as the network provides a sensible common language for all applications, even if they are hosted on different servers. And above all, the most important factor in keeping blockchains decentralized is user-run validators, which can be considered no different from any other application on a robust and user-friendly personal server.
Even beyond this, Urbit promises to add even more value to Web3 in the domain of global integration. The need for middleware to connect components on-and-off the chain is said by some in the Urbit community to be a symptom of a deeper problem: the lack of a sensible, unified execution environment shared between applications. In summary, crypto needs an OS, and Urbit can be that OS.
The accelerating power of crypto on an OS that speaks its native tongue is much discussed and speculated on in the Urbit community. Uqbar, the first blockchain native to Urbit’s network, aims to obviate any need for middleware by using Urbit as a general purpose orchestrator to synchronize data between disparate components, whether blockchains or ordinary local state. Their solution uses zero-knowledge proofs, sharding, and other bleeding edge technologies to create a crypto ecosystem on Urbit that can not only compete with the best of the L1s elsewhere, but add features that prove indisputably that Urbit is the true home of Web3.
Uqbar is hard at work developing their tooling and plans to release a public testnet in the very near future. Will it revolutionize the industry the way its developers claim? In that domain, only theories and speculation can provide an answer. But their argument is worth a glance for anyone interested in emerging technologies in crypto.
Urbit Now and in the Future
Much is promised here and elsewhere about the potential for Urbit to take the world by storm and bring about a new era of user-owned computing. Nevertheless, if you try Urbit today, you will see a friendly, somewhat minimal interface for text chat and an ecosystem of experimental applications. You may find Urbit’s promises wanting, in the domains of zero-maintenance servers, competitive UX, and perhaps even avoidance of sysadminship. Regrettably, it is not yet even possible to run a Bitcoin node on Urbit in the one-click way that it should.
Urbit is exciting to early adopters not because of what you can do with it right now, but because of what it can enable after the necessary steps are taken. And in contrast to the Urbit of even two or three years ago, the necessary steps are well-understood and waiting in queue. The revolution in computing is no longer “how?” but “when?” for the Urbit community.
Today, Urbit is a simple and clean tool for chatting with friends, playing games, and experimenting with new ideas. More than anything else, the Urbit of today is a tool for doing what its users care about most: building Urbit. If you’d like to get involved, the community would love to have you. If you’d rather observe from the outside, keep a keen eye out. Big things are coming in the near future for Urbit and Web3, and you don’t want to miss out.
Urbit’s value proposition is long-winded enough that it won’t fit into a tweet or a TV commercial, but it’s promising enough to excite developers who share our vision of the future and want to play a part in building it. When it matures as a product, rethinking Unix and the internet won’t be included in the pitch. Urbit will be a service you can buy, either as a subscription or a physical product, that enables you to use apps that are just plain better than the ones you used to use.
Much remains unclear about what happens between now and then, but crypto and Web3 enthusiasts will have many reasons to get involved before you start seeing ads on the television to buy an Urbit planet. Urbit offers a comfortable home to idealists who believe in cryptographic ownership and share a concern about the future of humans and technology, and the next generation of early adopters is sure to include a wide cohort from that audience.
Now that you understand Urbit’s core value proposition, stay tuned for an exposition into the details of Urbit’s capabilities as a platform, its integrations with crypto, and a deeper dive into the promise of Uqbar to reshape the landscape of blockchain development.