Web 3.0 Revisited — Part One: “Across Chains and Across Protocols”

This is the first of a series on the set of technologies loosely referenced as “Web 3.0”. In particular, it takes a deep dive into the often overlooked multichain Polkadot paper released back in late 2016, highlighting its significance within an increasingly complex set of heterogenous environments.

UPDATE: we now operate a popular chat room on Web 3 at http://tiny.cc/web3chat — join us there! :)

The Web 3.0 Stack, hugely simplified (believe it or not).

Blockchain 2017: A Confusing Mess

While taking part in various blockchain-related enterprise working groups, I often get the chance to observe many new entrants exhorting the virtues of their wares to a relatively non-technical, corporate audience. Putting myself in the shoes of such high-flying decision-makers, I can only imagine how utterly bemused I would be by the dizzying array of acronyms, promises and variety of software on display (anyone up for some buzzword bingo?).

Dozens of implementations of enterprise chains, public chains, private/permissioned chains, state channels all battle it out, backed by a flurry of consensus protocols including PoA, PoS, PoW, PoET over SGX, and many, many others. Colossal numbers of transactions per second are allegedly promised over byzantine fault-tolerant networks, ‘new’ blockchains are introduced as having neither blocks nor chains, while some less than ingenuous players come dangerously close to describing the CAP theorem as having been relegated to something of a bygone era.

And I have only touched on the consensus/state machine providers. To this menagerie of protocols, you also need to add every single decentralized file system, every decentralized messaging layer and yes, even the six or seven Dapp browsing options, all with their own quirks, proprietary integrations and sometimes even underlying cryptocurrencies.

The Near Future: Fragmentation… and more Fragmentation

In this post, I put forward that even the topmost expert in the field of blockchains simply cannot with 100% certainty define the stack of protocols that will form the future “Web 3.0”. For those not yet familiar with “Web 3.0”, it’s fair to say that for most of us who became passionate about Ethereum did so because of its promising vision of a truly decentralized Web, one of a massively multi-user application platform that has no need for centralized services such as Amazon or Google. It was, in fact, Gavin Wood’s seminal post in April 2014 (later followed by a less technical version) that built the movement leading to protocols such as Shh (Whisper), Bzz (Swarm) and today’s ever-accelerating formation of companies around such a stack (Status.im, Etherisc, etc.)

But just like it took 20 years to settle on an HTML/JavaScript/CSS presentation layer over HTTP to form ‘Web 2.0’, it might (and certainly will) take a significant amount of time to define the optimal Dapp distribution mechanism for ‘Web 3.0’. In fact, I foresee very significant fragmentation amongst so-called ‘decentralized technologies’ all pointlessly vying to take the crown in the coming three years, underpinned by rabid speculation around their underlying crypto-tokens.

Web 3 as I used to present it in 2014 as part of my Ethereum slides. Graphic courtesy of Ian Meikle as conceptualised by Parity Technologies’ Gavin Wood

Of course, a lot of maximalists solely interested in the price of their favorite ‘crypto’ will react to this post with skepticism. They should perhaps stop getting their news from the self-titled ‘gurus’ and instead talk to the guys who actually write the code. Indeed, if you were to go check out the GitHub repositories of actual Dapps, you would find very few developers that are genuinely developing 100% on the EVM, or 100% on bitcoin, Zcash, etc.

My company, Slock.it, like so many other blockchain startups, are for example already looking into state channels quite closely, as running everything on the Ethereum chain would be impractical for three very logical reasons:

  • The first, but it is only temporary, is that it has gotten quite expensive to operate 100% on Ethereum due to a recently discovered oversight in the dynamic pricing of gas. As it stands, while the Ethereum theoretical gas price floor is its smallest denomination, or 1 Wei (well, technically 0), there is a hidden but very real economic floor, meaning the higher the price of Ether, the higher the opportunity cost of transactions. Admittedly, this can and will be sorted via a hard fork in the future, but it highlights that putting all your eggs in one basket may not be the wisest option.
  • The second is that Ethereum never made the claim that their blockchain was to be a perfect, cheap, structured decentralized binary data container, or a scalable messaging layer, for that matter. To the contrary, the presence of a 3rd party decentralized storage system and messaging queue mechanism somewhere ‘in the stack’ was always part of its marketing materials that I helped evangelize during my time in the organization. That message of at least three protocols working in unison to deliver a revolutionary web experience still resonates just as well as it did back then. It is indeed hard to believe that the extraordinary sneak peak at Mist, the Dapp browser by Alex van de Sande already dates back to November 2014.
  • Finally, the third reason is that as of today, like it or not, there is actual value in so-called ‘consortium’ or ‘theme’ chains. These provide both scalability and privacy options where public chains provide neither. Yes, it is true that I’m the first one to argue that ultimately, public chain solutions will ultimately ‘win’. And yes, I’m also the first one to encourage our corporate clients to make use of the public chain whenever possible. And yes, I have even been seen calling out corporates on their ‘embrace, extend and extinguish’ strategies demonstrated as part of some but not all enterprise blockchain initiatives. However, the fact remains: if we want privacy on a public chain where encrypted data can be processed by an autonomous smart contract, we’re going to need something like homomorphic encryption or true, scalable zero knowledge solutions. Unfortunately, these technologies are not just years, but in fact potentially dozens of years away from becoming ‘mainstream’.

Sticking to the Pragmatic.

At the end of the day, even the largest enterprise understands they will need to link back to public chains and open platforms if they wish to survive in the long run. And ultimately, a common set of standards will form.

In the meantime, the need for multichain/multiprotocol networks that divorce consensus engines from their state machine may appear ‘unnecessary’ to some, just like Ethereum’s Turing completeness appeared ‘unnecessary’ to so many bitcoin maximalists at the time.

Yet, every time a future Dapp announces its support for state channels, every time a hackathon entry decides to use Zcash to protect their users privacy, and every time a middle manager decides to build on top of Hyperledger because ‘no one ever got fired for hiring IBM’ — each of these scenarios increases the need for a multiprotocol layer and inches us towards a truly multichain future.

The Polkadot project offers such a cross-chain communication layer which, just like Ethereum back in the days, has tremendous potential but carries a technical complexity which unfortunately detracts from its significance. In my next post, I will go through the whitepaper and transcribe some of its ‘technobabble’ to plain English so you can form your own opinion on its value proposition.

Update: you now can read the next part of this series, “Web Three Revisited — Part Two: “Introduction to Polkadot: what it is, what it ain’t”.

About the Author

Stephan Tual is the Founder and COO of Slock.it.

Previously CCO for the Ethereum project, Stephan has three startups under his belt and brings 20 years of enterprise IT experience to the Slock .it project.

Before discovering the Blockchain, Stephan held CTO positions at leading data analytics companies in London with clients including VISA Europe and BP.

His current focus is on the intersection of blockchain technology and embedded hardware, where autonomous agents can transact as part of an optimal “Economy of Things”.

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Twitter: @stephantual
Contact:
stephan@slock.it

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Epigenomics, Blockchain, Smart Contracts

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Stephan Tual

Stephan Tual

Stephan Tual, former CCO Ethereum, passionate Communicator and recognized Innovator with nearly 30 years of IT expertise.

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