DWeb Camp Profile: Ripple’s Former CTO Stefan Thomas loves the open web and is changing the payments game with Coil
The man behind Ripple, Interledger, and the famous “What is Bitcoin” video is back for an encore with his latest creation, Coil.
We sat down with Stefan Thomas to determine exactly what it takes to scale technological innovations, the ethos of the open web, and how Coil arms content creators with new methods of monetization.
Perhaps best known as the early CTO of Ripple, Stefan Thomas’s contributions to the decentralized web extend long before his rise to fame. With years of significant contributions to the open source, blockchain, and development communities, his vision for scaling open technology sets him apart. Stefan perfectly embodies the values of the Decentralized Web Summit and we’re excited to share the background and history behind one of the web’s brilliant minds.
On His Early Years
Stefan is living proof that on the internet, age is just a number and the world is at your fingertips.
Now a long-time web developer, Stefan got his early start at the age of 10 building his first website, which he was delighted to be compensated for with Magic the Gathering trading cards. He quickly fell in love with the internet, drawn to the open web for it’s special allure. Later on, working at a small web agency, he encountered the inefficiencies of paying a global network of contractors online.
His early experiences set the stage for his love of the web, as well as his interest in payments.
In 2010, after years of web development projects and entrepreneurial forrays, Stefan sold his previous company and was looking for something new to dive deep into. He stumbled upon Bitcoin at a time it needed him most.
Plagued with misunderstandings and a lack of good PR, Bitcoin’s uncertain early years needed a friendly voice. Stefan spotted this hole and helped usher in an era of global blockchain understanding with the production of the now famous “What is Bitcoin?” video that introduced millions of people to Bitcoin. Hailed as a milestone in crypto adoption, Bitcoin was transformed from a scarcely known developer anarchist tool to a global finance phenomenon.
At the heart of Stefan’s innovation is community. Conversations with the early community deeply inspired him, through which he learned how people were thinking about cryptocurrency and specifically, the problems they were facing. Catalyzed by these insights, Stefan spent the next year and half creating BitcoinJS, the first implementation of Bitcoin cryptography in the browser, making it exponentially easier for people to engage. Through his research, he got deeper into the protocol-level work.
Contributing to the community through development, he encountered inefficiencies that would require changes to Bitcoin’s core protocol to fix. Most of these were already captured on a Bitcoin Wiki page that detailed a wishlist of updates. While contributing to one of the simplest of these changes, Pay-to-script-hash (P2SH), he experienced first-hand the challenges that it would take to scale a cryptocurrency, especially one that had goals of completely changing the financial landscape.
Stefan learned that in a system that manages billions of dollars worth of digital currency, even a small change takes many months and a lot of political maneuvering to make happen. Giving the slow pace of development, Bitcoin may have been an important innovation as a currency but it wasn’t going to be the solution to the world’s payments woes.
On Joining Ripple
Inspired by the founding team and their practical vision of building a technology that had a need from financial institutions, Stefan joined Ripple. Initially joining as a developer, he quickly became Ripple’s early CTO and helped build the technology that would launch Ripple and it’s underlying cryptocurrency, XRP, into the mainstream.
While at Ripple, Stefan’s thoughts started to become clear. Blockchain was a promising technology, but faster development cycles and mainstream adoption were critical to its success.
Looking Forward to Scaling
This thought process soon brought him to co-create Interledger in 2015, a new kind of payment protocol not based on blockchain but rather taking inspiration from the Internet Protocol (IP) itself. Interledger is able to process transactions faster and on a larger scale than any blockchain and can integrate with traditional payment systems, blockchains, even future payments technology that hasn’t been invented yet. Similar to how IP passes around packets of data, Interledger has no global state and passes around packets of money.
This distinction is critical to Interledger’s success and technological fundamentals.
After spending four years contributing to the development of Interledger, Stefan left Ripple to create the first business built entirely on Interledger: Coil, a new subscription service designed to support creators on the web. An efficient, and open payment protocol is a prerequisite for a native method of monetization that could be broadly supported by browsers and websites.
To date, it’s challenging for people to do very small payments. Micropayments is an unsolved problem that is holding back content creators, news, media and monetization, and ultimately prevents the web from reaching its true potential.
For payments of less than 50 cents, credit cards are prohibitively expensive. As a result, two models of monetization dominate online content today: ads and subscription models, both of which only work for large-scale websites.
However, what about small to medium sized sites? Ads and subscriptions fall short. The only way to monetize is to give a large portion of your revenue to Google by hosting ads on your site. Coil gives content creators a new way to monetize independent of ads and without asking users to sign up for each and every website they want to access.
A big takeaway in his contributions to decentralized technology has been an understanding in how complexity can creep up on well-intentioned software architects and make a project increasing difficult to manage. Many developers will happily build complex technology as long as they feel they have a good handle on it. But this often makes it very difficult to predict how the system will behave under load, for instance when a lot of money is added into the equation — a recipe for disaster.
Stefan contends that developers should be more humble in the ambition of what they are trying to build, and not push things to the absolute maximum, but build in a “complexity safety margin” that avoids them getting overwhelmed as the system grows.
On DWeb Summit
One of the biggest benefits of DWeb that Stefan is drawn to is the diverse community. A big supporter of the web, Stefan is passionate about how open it is and how anyone can participate.
He notes his favorite elements of the Summit. People come from all backgrounds, working on many different kinds of decentralized tech. The differences in ideology enable new learnings from folks who are tackling various parts of the internet. This may be other protocols or academia, the unique combination of people produce really good insights and certainly very good discussion.
DWeb isn’t just about debating which technology we should all use, but more fruitful discussions about the end goal of decentralization at large, leaving the door open for new approaches.
With humble beginnings, Stefan is living proof that on the internet, anything is possible. There’s always a big idea waiting for your input, and a community in need of your support. Technology can’t reach it’s true potential without open innovation and mainstream appeal.
We embody these themes of community, discovery, and technology at Dweb and we are excited to join Stefan and other innovators in building the future.