The Next Phase Of The Internet: Joining The Dots
Since its initial release in July 2015, the rate of development seen by Ethereum has been nothing short of incredible. The Ethereum value exchange network outperforms Bitcoin in terms of speed, cost, reliability, and energy efficiency and its smart contract platform for programming is gaining traction as the de facto platform for building distributed applications. Very soon, all of the dots for the next phase of the internet will be in place for Dapp developers and users to join together. The internet of tomorrow will be an internet of value and those who participate in it will be able to seamlessly make exchanges using programmable digital currencies, such as Ethereum.
The history of the internet began with a basic, yet highly functional, closed academic and military network, which soon found widespread use in homes and businesses all over the world. From there we saw the rise of high-speed connections, advanced search engines, and mobile cloud computing. But while the rate of progress has been staggering, there have also been challenges ranging from centralization and fraud to establishing convenience of use. While Ethereum may not be the cure-all solution, it has the benefit of being able to stand on the shoulders of giants and develop solutions in a first principles way.
From a primitive point of view, Ethereum's technology can be thought of as a way to manage value in a manner that is cheap, efficient, and secure. However, the most valuable aspect of Ethereum is the potential for developers to build on top of its platform, led by their imaginations and the needs and wants of their users. Here we will explore some interesting projects that could go on to improve the internet of tomorrow.
Ethereum Name System
Just like the Internet Domain Name System (DNS), the Ethereum Name System (ENS) allows users to interact with Ethereum addresses by way of user-friendly names rather than raw, 160-bit hashes that are almost impossible to remember or manually dictate/transcribe without error. Imagine trying to remember and type in the IP address of your favorite website every time you wanted to visit. This is currently how one interacts with a contract or sends tokens, which leads to a lot of copying and pasting. This is OK if you have time to check or you're a computer, but it's not very human-friendly and not conducive to the mass rollout of Ethereum in the real world.
ENS is currently live on testnet, where you can register names and see how the process works.ENS will go live on the mainnet on “Pi Day” (March 14th) and another .com-style gold rush may be expected. ENS is designed to be as flexible as possible and allows for non-ASCII characters, but the minimum domain name length will be seven characters. That means no apple.eth or google.eth, though this could change in the future, as it is hoped that the major internet browsers will soon support the .eth domain name.
The registration of .eth names is straightforward and fair – involving an auction process that discourages domain name squatting. Full details can be found on the official Ethereum ENS GitHub page. The main Ethereum clients (e.g. geth) have supported name registration commands for several months now and there's an easy-to-use plugin for Mist available that allows people to comfortably register a .eth domain name using a GUI.
Ethereum is a fundamentally distributed protocol in terms of its architecture, where all accounts and addresses are treated equally. But what if authorized and/or identified addresses are required for a particular business use-case? That's where identity providers can come in to accredit an account or contract address so that participants can trust that the entity they're doing business with is who they say they are. The Ethereum Foundation doesn't get involved in identity directly, however, there are a number of very interesting projects underway that allow users to identify themselves. The possibilities of an identified/authorized/compliant Ethereum are endless but include compatibility with today's banking rules, secure voting, and anti-fraud and anti-terrorism regulations. One of the most exciting identity projects currently underway is uPort. Its presentation was very well received at last year's DevCon2 in Shanghai and a huge amount of work has taken place since then. uPort describes itself as a "decentralized identity system for decentralized applications" and a "secure, easy-to-use system for self-sovereign identity, built on Ethereum.” uPort is currently in alpha development and already there are developer tools, smart contract codes, and iPhone/Android codes available for the development of next-generation identity-enabled Dapps. Other identity platforms of note include Thompson Reuters' BlockOne - an enterprise-grade identity mapping service for Ethereum. It allows developers to map real-world identities (e.g. identities from Twitter, Facebook, Google, etc.) to a blockchain-based identity service underpinned by Thompson Reuters. Another identity service is keybase.io, which is gaining traction and adding support for Ethereum. It's unclear if one identity platform will win out in the end or if there will be several platforms to cater to the specific needs of particular use cases.
We're well used to storing data in the cloud - access speed, latency, and geographical content delivery has improved tremendously in recent years. Ethereum-incentivized distributed filesystems aren't seeking to replace the cloud offerings of Microsoft, Amazon, Google, etc., but to offer options, new tools, and new technologies to application developers so that they can potentially serve their content more efficiently than by using a global cloud provider.
Two of the most well-known distributed file storage projects nearing release are InterPlanetary Filesystem (IPFS) and Swarm. Both are very similar technologies in that they store files on an economically incentivized network of peer-to-peer distributed computers. But while Swarm uses raw Ethereum tokens as its incentive system, IPFS will use its own token called "Filecoin." Payment is used to prevent files from being tampered with and to ensure that files are served on demand with low latency and high bandwidth. At this point, it's too early to tell if one storage system will obviate the other, but this technology has the potential to revolutionize many application areas with cheap, uninterruptable, and secure storage.
Swarm is currently undergoing testing, and the public can upload files to it free of charge. However, files uploaded to Swarm are regularly purged and it's not quite clear how storage node operators can protect themselves from storing and serving unwanted, objectionable, or even illegal content. The legalities of such file storage systems could prove to be an area of contention, but technical steps can be taken to give node operators a degree of plausible deniability. Regardless, the project's development continues full steam ahead as these details are worked out.
As of this publication, it's possible to open files from Swarm directly in your web browser by using the Swarm gateway (http://swarm-gateways.net). Once ENS is live and web browsers start supporting the bzz: protocol, interacting with Swarm will be as seamless as serving files from any of the major cloud providers.
Smart Contract Platform and PoS
Ethereum's smart contract platform is at the heart of the internet of the future. The Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM) is the world's most advanced and battle-tested platform for the deployment of smart contract-based applications and the number of Ethereum nodes online is increasing all the time (there are almost 7000, globally, as of this writing); with most nodes currently located in Europe, Asia, and North America. The upgrade release schedule presents new features every couple of weeks. The next major milestone for Ethereum's development is the transition to proof-of-stake (PoS), which will vastly improve Ethereum’s energy efficiency, but more importantly, will improve Ethereum’s scalability and ensure that it is even more resistant to centralization attempts. When we observe the current state of Bitcoin, we see what can happen if mining power is controlled by a handful of mining farm operators, many of whom do business with each other inside the same jurisdiction. These kinds of risks could lead to much bigger problems but Ethereum is taking active steps to shift the focus from mining to validation, hoping to meet these challenges head on.
Availability of Advanced Development Tools
The core development effort is focused on protocol - ensuring that the demands of performance are met before anything else can happen. But most developers and business analysts don't operate at this level - they want an EVM that works, want to be able to build applications yesterday, and have access to the tools they need to make it happen as fast as possible. The availability of such tools will accelerate the deployment of Ethereum in the real world - that means real businesses and real people using Ethereum in everyday situations. One project of note, Truffle, is from ConsenSys and is currently the most popular Ethereum development framework. The availability of Truffle is a tremendous gift to the Ethereum community, in that it guides application developers in a systematic way and forces them to be more aware of security.
A lot of recent media focus has been on high dollar value ICO token sales and upcoming Dapps, but perhaps much of the work that's been going on behind the scenes has been missed. It's impatient to demand a series of "unicorn" Dapps at this early stage of smart contract technology - the first "killer app" may not be in the form of an ICO'd Dapp but could instead present itself as something much more primitive, with immediate practical benefits. Once this base infrastructure is set in place over the coming months, the core foundation will be there for developers to build more advanced Dapps that solve real world problems, without having to build from scratch and/or reinvent the wheel. Q1 2017 has been a very exciting time - Ethereum has fully recovered from last year's DAO set-back and resolved a few security quibbles that occurred during DevCon. This is reflected in the healthy exchange rate and an impressive pace of new user adoption. As we look further into 2017 and beyond, it's clear that the bigger picture is emerging and the transformational effect of Ethereum's advanced value exchange network and smart contract platform will be at the heart of the internet of tomorrow.