SEARCHING FOR THE KILLER APP: DISCOVERING THE PROBLEMS DECENTRALIZED TECHNOLOGIES CAN SOLVE
Where we’ve been and where we’re going next
In 2017, concepts like decentralized technologies, blockchain, cryptocurrencies, and data privacy entered the collective public consciousness on a level that far surpassed any previous year. While to much of the public these concepts remain ephemeral, they’re no longer foreign. Even if they can’t explain what blockchain means, they know it’s coming.
For those of us in the tech space, it’s been a decade building up to this point — working on decentralization and data and privacy protection. In 2017 and early 2018, we saw unprecedented amounts of capital flow into the decentralized tech space, spawning a race to create the first technology that would be widely adopted and utilized by everyday Internet users.
So, how many people are using technologies based on these ideas? The answer is, right now, not many. According to stateofthedapps.com, there are currently just over 2,300 DApps publicly available, with about 55,200 daily users. Obviously, those numbers show DApps are far from achieving widespread usage. While public consciousness surrounding online privacy and decentralized solutions has been raised, ease of use, accessibility, and design issues have, until now, sequestered its usage into the subcultures of rebels and enthusiasts.
The difference decentralized is making
From some on the outside, there’s a sense that despite its potential, blockchain hasn’t really changed anything yet, that it hasn’t realized its promise as a disruptive technology that will take us to the future.
While it’s true that hegemonistic adaptation of the technology hasn’t happened yet, it’s equally true that, yes, blockchain has been incredibly disruptive and revolutionary in some interesting ways. The two best examples of killer apps from this new world are Bitcoin and Ethereum — particularly when viewed from outside the peak hype financial speculations of 2017.
Bitcoin did this by routing around a specific control problem — basically giving us the ability to access banking without banks. By creating a system that enables users to store value and hold liquid currency, cryptocurrencies have the capacity to both operate outside of the traditional banking system and mitigate the effects of governmental interference into currency value.
Ethereum routes around the idea that there should be special club of investors, that only the chosen few can fund a company. Now people can have a great idea, run experiments, and take it to the public. Via the model that Ethereum created, they can have this idea funded on a global level. Basically, it has democratized the way in which a company can raise money, which opens up a myriad of different kind of projects that we can fund with this model. And it’s massively disrupted the venture capital space.
Bitcoin and Ethereum are the killer use cases of these new decentralized technologies. They’ve disrupted both traditional banking and venture capital systems. They’ve opened up the world of crowdsourcing, banking without banks, and routes around investor control. We’re now in the world of ICOs, SAFTs, and cryptocurrencies. And it’s a world that this new technology created.
Has the bubble burst?
Both Bitcoin and Ethereum were also successful in generating interest and investment in decentralized technologies. In 2017, we watched as all of this came to a crescendo. Now, as investment recedes from 2017’s high water mark, we’re left asking questions about what it means for the future of decentralized tech.
Some are wondering if the bubble has burst. If blockchain and DApps are a bust. The answer, in short, is no. The race is still on to create the killer app, it’s just entered a new phase.
We’re past the frenzy. Now it’s time for deployment and adaptation. In 2019, I think we’ll see this starting to happen.
If we zoom out and think of decentralized technologies in terms of an S curve, like Carlota Perez, a British-Venezuelan scholar specializing in technology and socio-economic development, I’d argue that we’ve just passed the “installation period,” which is defined by irruption and frenzy. When that period of frenzy ends, which in many cases means that the investment bubble has burst, we enter a turning point, which is where we are now. This transition period is when an industry moves towards what Perez calls the “deployment period,” which she describes as synergy and maturity, and is marked by production capital, rather than speculative investment based on unsustainable return rates.
Five years ago, I don’t think that many ordinary Internet users in countries like the U.S. realized a need for decentralized technologies or data protection. In countries where there was pervasive monitoring and blocking of access to information, there was more consciousness of this need, but is still wasn’t widespread. As data harvesting has become more aggressive, government interference more sophisticated, and breaches exposing Internet users to potential harm more common, worldwide recognition that the current system is not simply unpreferable, but untenable, is growing.
The need for technologies that address these issues is clear. The Internet, which should be a universal platform for the free exchange of ideas and information, is currently in danger of splintering into three different branches.
The splintered Internet
In countries like China, the zeitgeist for online technology is moving towards a tightly controlled system focused on digital surveillance and sophisticated firewalls to block information. In the U.S., we’ve more or less turned over control of the Internet to “corporate custodians,” who monitor our every click, harvest our personal data, and then sell it to the highest bidder. Europe, for their part, is pursuing a strict system that allows the free exchange of ideas while protecting data privacy.
With these three separate competing ideologies taking shape, the fractionalization of the Internet will increasingly hinder people’s ability to communicate, find information, and protect their private data. As the New York Times editorial board said in October 2018, “The power of a handful of platforms and services combined with the dismal state of international cooperation across the world pushes us closer and closer to a splintered internet.”
But, there is an answer, and it’s what the “deployment period” is attempting to make. By creating decentralized platforms and applications, we can reunite the Internet from its schismatic present and return it to its original intentions of information sharing, communication, and collaboration. We can make the Internet work for all users again and create a world that’s more open and free.
The questions is: what’s next?
Although there are many things that work very well with centralization, they require an immense amount of trust in a system. New, decentralized technologies are looking at systems that have betrayed that trust and are attempting to create something better. When searching for the next killer app, we need to identify spaces where there is a trust gap and work to create a solution for users. As a community, communications is is an incredibly rich space for us to explore in this regard.
Who controls communications? First, you need an identity to communicate. Whether that comes in the form of a phone number that you verify with your identity, or in a profile created by one of the big 5, you have to be given an identity to access the current system. Next, once we have that identity, who filters or sends us the information that we receive? Wherever you live on Earth, some entity decides this for you. Is it a corporation? A government? As controls around communication tighten around the world, we’re starting to see a system ripe for disruption.
For all of the above reasons, communications is an area where decentralized technology can take the current system of centralized control and broken trust and create a more democratic platform and narrative.
Creating technologies to build a future of inclusivity and trust
As Wendy Hanamura from the Internet Archive Blog puts it, “The way we code the Web shapes how we live our lives online. Ideally, that code should protect user privacy, freedom of expression, and universal access to all knowledge.”
In large part, that means repairing a system of broken trust in online technologies. Trust in government and private institutions that control or manipulate our online interactions either completely, or through large market shares, is starting to disintegrate. People around the world are starting to show a desire for unfettered, private access to the Internet and Internet-connected applications.
By creating decentralized technologies that protect security and privacy via distributed, anonymous systems, we can turn a system of centralized control into a platform for egalitarian incentivization. The most effective way to do this is to route around singular points of control and instead use many nodes to keep the network operational and secure.
At Orchid, that’s what we’re working towards — creating space for the ideals of our future Internet and returning to its founding principles of inclusivity, accessibility, privacy, and trustworthiness. It’s an Internet that works for the many instead of the few.