Making Blockchain for the Masses

Editor

Some people like to talk about where the next billion internet users will be found. But when it comes to blockchain, the goals tend to be more modest. For Alex Lee, the Chief Strategy Officer of BitCV, speaking on Sunday in Mountain View, California at the PingWest SYNC Conference, the goal is to find the next 10 million blockchain users. 

That might sound like a low figure to some. But as Lee himself pointed out, there’s been plenty of “sensationalized journalism” around blockchain and cryptocurrencies over the past year and more, largely driven by the mad growth in cryptocurrency values. “In just the past four years, the total global market value of blockchain based assets has increased more than 350 times,” Lee noted. And of course there are plenty of stories of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum being used in an ever growing list of places, from shops in San Francisco to communities in rural regions of Africa.


But even for all the hype-powered growth rates, blockchain is still in its early days, and Lee is looking to how what began as a niche field based around some arcane operations involving distributed ledgers and hash functions can be made to work for the masses. Or to put it another way: blockchain needs more than just a boom, lest that be followed with a bust. Lee believes that for real, sustainable growth, and to create a global base of users that could eventually number in the hundreds of millions, the designs around blockchain technology and the tools for using it need a little more refinement.

Lee breaks down the blockchain ecosystem into four parts. There are miners, but in spite of some recent efforts to democratize the process, Lee believes that the barriers and knowledge required for mining will keep out most users. Then there’s the media, including the general and tech industry media that have reported on blockchain as well specialized blogs and publications dedicated to blockchain itself. Third, there are exchanges. These are best known as places where people trade cryptocurrencies, although they can also do a bit more than that.

But lastly, there are cryptocurrency or digital asset wallets, and it’s here that Lee sees one of the biggest needs for improving usability. Wallets are, as the name would suggest, where people store whatever it is they happen to have on a blockchain—again, usually, but not necessarily limited to, cryptocurrencies. That also means that they are the part of the blockchain ecosystem that has the greatest everyday, practical utility for users. If people backing cryptocurrencies and other blockchain assets ever want them to be genuinely usable among non-technical people, then users need a way of making and receiving payments from peers and businesses, and they need it to be dead simple and work smoothly with existing habits around money and payments. 

But the wallets that exist today could use an upgrade or two. Lee outlined four areas where he sees room for improvement. One is the technical backend, enhancing speed and security, two things users can never have enough of. Wallets also need to open, in the same way that blockchains themselves are meant to be, allowing for freer development. But the other two objectives may be less obvious. Lee wants wallets to “foster human interactions drawing on practical research in areas such as game theory and crowd play,” and to both build and build from communities. Transactions are inherently social, and wallets have to be designed to fit.

Which is why BitCV is exploring methods of making wallets more social. For instance, Lee made note of what the company is calling Candy Packs, a deliberate riff on the “red packets” feature in WeChat, which in turn are a digital recreation of a longstanding, realworld custom. These Candy Packs integrate with messaging apps, allowing users to send and receive cryptocurrencies from their wallets along what is an already familiar and easy-to-use channel.

That might just be the sort of thing that’s needed to make digital asset wallets really work for people. And that might then be just what’s needed to make more people get onboard with blockchain. “It won’t be the mining sector, the media sector, or the trading exchanges that bring together and serve global communities, it will be the wallet. And so it’s in the wallet that we believe … we’ll see the next 10 million users.”