Opinion: Web3 is useless if it is not user-friendly

Seemingly out of nowhere, web3 has become one of the biggest tech trends of 2022. It has captivated investors, technorati and Paris Hilton. But the number of people who have heard of it far exceeds those who understand what it really is: essentially just a new image of blockchain, the software at its heart.

Blockchain was a super-hot investment sector that started to lose momentum with venture capitalists about three years ago. Then, last year, the idea of ​​”decentralized ledger technology” came back into popularity under a new name, claiming to be the next chapter in the whole internet. before, stay real and don’t leave.

Web3 enthusiasts claim that the Internet of websites and blogs dominated by a handful of trillion-dollar tech companies is a thing of the past: Web2. The future is a much more decentralized and equitable internet, backed by cryptocurrencies and tokens. How far is this future? Much further than the investments being made today in web3 assets and businesses warrant; Venture capitalists invested US$18 billion in web3 startups in 2021 alone, according to Crunchbase, a research firm that tracks the tech industry.

A Web3 Internet may never be adopted by the general public, because so far it has not been able to host user-friendly and developer-friendly applications and services. In short, web3 is clunky. Attempts to popularize decentralized applications, or dapps — software applications that run on blockchain-enabled smart contracts instead of current internet protocols — have struggled to gain traction.

An example is a Twitter clone called Peepeth, an app that attracted a few thousand users when it launched in 2018. Posting a “peep” (instead of a tweet) required paying a fraction of a penny in Ether – the cryptocurrency that underpins Ethereum – using a cryptocurrency wallet and browser plugin such as MetaMask. (Plugins or dedicated browsers, including Brave and Opera, are the primary means of interacting with the web3.) A few months after Peepeth’s launch, controversial American podcast host Joe Rogan spoke about the app on his show, praising it as a censorship-resistant tool because the data on the blockchain cannot be modified. Analysts that year also said mainstream adoption of dapps was only a year or two away.

Despite the fanfare, San Francisco-based Peepeth and other distributed apps have struggled to attract large audiences. The number of active users languished in the thousands, if not hundreds. One reason: the services were difficult to use. It took about a day to post a single glance, for example, versus a split second with Twitter, and buying and spending tokens with MetaMask was cumbersome. Peepeth creator Bevan Barton did not respond to a request for comment.

In 2018, the most popular dapps on Ethereum enabled speculative trading of crypto assets. CryptoKitties, for example, allowed you to collect and “breed” digital cats on the blockchain, sometimes at the cost of thousands of dollars. The number of dapps has grown from 1,500 in 2018 to nearly 10,000 today, but the most popular services are still limited to funding and trading, with a few games sprinkled into the mix. The most popular dapps are marketplaces for non-fungible tokens (NFTs) with names like OpenSea and PancakeSwap, according to DappRadar UAB, an online dapp store based in Lithuania.

Web3’s other challenge is actually living up to its decentralized ideals. So far, it’s not widely distributed.

With her dreadlocks and free-wheeling sailor lifestyle, Moxie Marlinspike is one of the world’s best-known cryptographers. Marlinspike, who once led Twitter’s security team, created the encrypted messaging app Signal and co-wrote the encryption protocol that underpins WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Google Messages and Skype. Marlinspike caused a stir when he wrote in a January blog post that the fundamentals of web3 had fallen apart in practice.

Web3 has, to begin with, surprisingly little crypto for a technology that is supposedly “built on ‘crypto,'” Marlinspike wrote. In fact, popular Web3 services, such as NFT marketplaces, still rely on Web2-like processes to connect to blockchains, he wrote.

APIs, or application programming interfaces, are the cornerstone of web2. They connect different software, allowing online businesses to communicate with each other. Amazon.com Inc, for example, charges customers of its cloud computing business, Amazon Web Services, by counting the number of times they “call” its APIs.

Marlinspike noted that popular Web3 services such as OpenSea and MetaMask, the browser plugin for accessing Web3 applications, use APIs to access the Ethereum blockchain through a third party. This means that people using these services do not directly access the blockchain either. Marlinspike, for example, created an NFT on Ethereum, which was stored in its MetaMask crypto wallet and displayed on the OpenSea marketplace. But when OpenSea pulled its NFT from its market, it also disappeared from its crypto wallet.

Imagine uploading a photo to Facebook and then discovering that the image has been deleted from your computer’s hard drive after being deleted from the social network. It’s similar to what happened to Marlinspike’s NFT. In theory, it should have continued to appear in its MetaMask crypto wallet, but MetaMask could not directly interact with the blockchain. It had to make API calls to at least one other company, essentially acting as a gatekeeper, to show the NFT.

It didn’t matter that Marlinspike’s NFT was indelible on the blockchain, because his crypto wallet had to use OpenSea’s API to display it. MetaMask acted more like a window than a wallet. (Dan Finlay, co-founder of MetaMask, confirms that his service relies on the OpenSea API to display NFTs in users’ MetaMask wallets.” he adds.)

The ideals of distributed and transparent data are moot when individuals with cellphones and computers are unable to connect directly to a blockchain, as these networks are connected by servers, powerful computers usually controlled by companies. By consolidating around platforms, web3 takes on the centralized aspect of web2, and far from disrupting the power of gatekeepers, web3 cultivates them.

It’s easy to take for granted the standardization that underpins the Internet today, based on 30 years of experimentation, implementation, and slow steps to consensus by organizations such as the World Wide Web Consortium or WC3 (not to be confused with web3). Today’s infrastructure is so well-oiled and interoperable that we hardly ever notice it. The exception may be when, for example, an Android phone can play high-quality video, but an iPhone cannot because its browser has not implemented a new standard.

The traditional Web operates at scale, on a global scale, as nearly all sites and services use TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol), an architecture derived from research conducted by the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. United States in the late 1960s. It also relies on HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol), another essential set of rules for transferring files, including text, images, and videos.

If the Internet is a landscape we all travel through, TCP/IP is a series of roads and HTTP is a special kind of truck on those roads. There are other protocols that act like HTTP – different cars and trucks – but HTTP “trucks” are the most popular and all drive on the same roads.

Blockchains like Bitcoin and Ethereum lack a unified “road system” and a similar series of “trucks” to handle data. Without unifying standards and obvious competitors in the pipeline, web3 is still a disjointed series of networks. As a result, services remain difficult to build, develop and interact with.

“It’s complicated for the developer, and it’s complicated for the user,” says Dan Hughes, founder of Radix Tokens Ltd, a UK company developing its own decentralized network technology. Hughes started designing his own distributed ledger system a decade ago, a few years after Bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto published the famous white paper.

He also investigated the possibility of designing a single protocol to host distributed finance, or DeFi services, to help solve the fragmentation problem. Hughes isn’t sure how long it will take to build a viable Web3 infrastructure, although he thinks the technology will be widely adopted within the next 10 years.

“If there is no feasible way for a single protocol to handle all of this data and transactions, [web3] take longer to mature,” he says. Without standardized protocols, the system is vulnerable to hacks and bugs. “Normal users will say, ‘It’s too complicated,'” he adds.

Blockchain already has a reputation for confusing even experienced technologists. The web3 rebranding has helped people outside the crypto world grasp the ramifications of distributed technology for the internet. But if its disjointed infrastructure continues to hamper developers and users, the main beneficiaries will be a few big companies that have stepped in as early gatekeepers. For everyone else, web3 will be a faded promise. –Bloomberg

(Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist in London covering technology.)

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