Is it all just hype with blockchain and cryptocurrencies? Or are we truly at the cusp of a revolution that can fundamentally change the way we use technology in our everyday lives?
The answer might not be as simple as the next "decentralized this" or "decentralized that" that a blockchain startup founder might want us to think. While most of these companies aim to convince us that their utility or security tokens would be the next de facto dollar, in reality it is difficult to back that claim unless one has already achieved bitcoin or Ether status in terms of usage, volume and fame. So this leaves consumers and investors wondering about the viability of these technologies in the first place.
In a Medium article published in June last year, KJ Erickson wrote that decentralized applications (dApps) will be considered mainstream when they become invisible and inherently better than the applications and services they set out to replace. This is true not only for software and services, he opines quite correctly: This has been the case for just about any technological innovation we have encountered in modern times. (For more on blockchain, see Energy (In)Efficiency In Blockchain Consensus.)
A Better Horse?
Think of the car, for example. Today we take automobiles and other similar vehicles for granted, but this wasn’t the case in the late 1800s when Henry Ford was still iterating and testing what would become the first commercially viable mass-market automobile. Back then, it was supposedly an argument of finding a faster horse – or so the anecdote goes. Ford supposedly did not care whether consumers were interested in automobiles or not – they simply wanted the best iteration of what was working well for them at the time.
When we apply this analogy to technology, particularly software and services, people do not necessarily care if your product was made from some newfangled cryptographic technology. If the applications they are using serve them well, they see no need to shift to the next big thing, without some compelling reason to do so.
People are not about to leave Gmail, Facebook, Spotify, Netflix or any of their favorite apps just because there is an up-and-coming, blockchain-powered, decentralized version promising more bells and whistles.
Which brings me to my next point. What exactly did these services like Gmail, Facebook, Spotify and Netflix (just to give a few examples) do in order to achieve their mainstream status? Admittedly, at the start, these applications were shiny new alternatives to then-industry stalwarts like Hotmail, Friendster, iTunes, and Blockbuster. They offered something new and exciting that the incumbents did not give.
Gmail offered a ton of storage and a snazzy interface. Facebook offered more interactivity than previous social networks. Spotify introduced a viable streaming service to the masses. Netflix – upon mastering its current streaming business model – changed the way we consumed and even produced movies and television shows.
Now, these apps are practically invisible. We use them without batting an eyelid. They have become the de facto app or the gold standard for their industry. Somehow, decentralized and blockchain-powered applications are trying to trump that. But even with the promise of better security, decentralized ownership, and token rewards, convincing people to make the shift is proving difficult.
This is why the next logical step with blockchain app development is to focus on platform thinking, instead of developers just conceptualizing and building single-purpose applications or sets of apps for users.
The Platform Approach with Decentralized Apps
When you use a web service such as Gmail, or when you use a smartphone app, you don't necessarily think of the back-end processes that run behind the scenes. You browse via Chrome or your favorite browser. You interface with apps through your smartphone's touchscreen.
This is called the user experience layer. To you, as a user, all that really matters is that the thing just works. And you don't have to jump from one platform to another to enjoy these apps. They're either on your browser or on your smartphone.
In this case, whatever technology is working behind the scenes is doing so in an invisible manner. The most elegant of solutions is the one that is painless and frictionless. You don't notice it's there at all!
Crypto assets and blockchain apps initially proved to be the opposite. Before crypto exchanges became mainstream, for example, users needed to have a grasp of cryptography in order to store and exchange cryptocurrencies. Now, we can do that with simple apps on the web or on our smartphones.
Blockchain apps are now gearing toward being mainstream, and platforms that run decentralized applications will be the place to be for developers, publishers and users. This becomes especially relevant in ecosystems where users derive value from the apps. (To learn about how blockchain is being used in data science, see Why Data Scientists Are Falling in Love with Blockchain Technology.)
The gaming industry is one standout example of this. This game developer talks about how TRON is making it easier to exchange value and carry out microtransactions across multiple different gaming apps.
By using platforms like TRON as a place to publish dApps, it becomes much easier and safer to make transactions between them. This makes engagement in the blockchain and dApp ecosystem much more accessible and rewarding for users of all levels.
Allowing mainstream users to experience dApps without friction or over complication, they aim to drive the mainstream uptake of this technology. Platforms like TRON strive to deliver a decentralized web to everyone, by making the experience layer of the underpinning technology available to everyday users.
It's developments like this that push blockchain and dApps into our everyday lives and allow us to experience them seamlessly, that will drive the mainstream uptake of this technology.
We should note at this point that the blockchain approach to building applications might be a contradiction to what we know as the platform approach. After all, in a platform economy, the power belongs to the owner of the platform. Blockchain technology decentralized all that, meaning power is now distributed in a new way. What's important here is to evolve platforms so they are owned by all stakeholders involved, not just a single entity.
Given this view, blockchains could then be the considered the next iteration of the internet. Developers and users would congregate around the platforms that support development of dApps, where tokens and smart contracts can be utilized across these apps. Only time will tell just when blockchains will become the next platforms for mainstream app development and usage, but it seems we are on our way there.