ethereum world

Ethereum designer Alex Van de Sande began his talk on the Mist browser project with an apology for "outlandish" claims on the Foundation's website, such as its statement of intent to "build unstoppable apps".

Perhaps there is a veiled reference here to the painful hard fork decision that was taken in the wake of the DAO debacle. But there was a subtler theme invoked by Van de Sande in his presentation on improvements to Mist, the wallet/browser and user interface for the world of non-developers into Ethereum.

Van de Sande pointed out that the internet we know and love is built on the server-client model. If you have too many clients the system can crash, data can be compromised and if you were doing anything good it would just be lost.

Another approach is to look for lots of funding to make this model more robust. "There is a bunch of super-servers out there. But VCs are not dumb; when they give you a million dollars they expect a million dollars back," he said.

The result is lots of centralisation, the sale of advertising and monetisation of private data. This gets weirder, he said, when you consider the division of labour; as well as the server guys there are all these people in the equation to just "show you stuff". This means Facebook and Airbnb control the reputation you have built up online. These big commercially driven, centralised players are siloed, so they can't work with each other.

Van de Sande said the cheapest and easiest currency we can use in this respect is "eyeballs". Just the one device you have in your pocket is more powerful than servers as they were original built.

"The way Ethereum tries to solve these problems is to decentralise all tasks. It was launched with developer only tools. It's like the DOS era. Before DOS came along whenever you wanted to build new software, you had to build a new computer. DOS came along and as a developer you can build software for all computers.

"The same thing with Ethereum too. You can build blockchain apps, you don't need to build your own blockchain."

To this end Ethereum launched the wallet as a tool for advanced specialists, noted Van de Sande. He compared it to an accountant using Excel – you didn't have to be a developer but you still had to be someone who wanted to use specialised software.

"The wallet builds dramatic interfaces for the contracts that you want to use. But still requires a full blockchain to use it – and that is how we get to Mist at DevCon2."

Mist, he said, is meant for "enthusiastic users"; the idea is to bring the full power of web interfaces to smart contracts. It has a light client so it doesn't require full blockchain upload. Van de Sande showed how to launch the light client, create an account and start funding it, with bitcoin or any cryptocurrency – at some point with a credit card.

"Meanwhile, while you are doing this, it has already downloaded more than half the chain. You close it and it's there – it has already synched. In less than one minute and 30 seconds from scratch and you can start using Ethereum right now."

Switching to testnet, he pointed out some other features, such as decoding bytecode and showing users what it is doing i.e. a transfer function or transaction. In addition, Mist can easily connect with Swarm, Ethereum's decentralised file sharing app, once you have identified yourself.

Van de Sande showed this capability using a voting app, adding: "Think about this. We have just run an app without servers, using swarm, a peer-to-peer network running on your machine. All your log-in and account information is kept by you. It is safe. And all the information you need to be public is kept on the blockchain."

"That is the kind of architecture we want moving forward for all Dapps to think about. All the private information is kept by the user and managed by himself – there is no central server."

The next steps are to get rid of hashes which are not good for users. Another thing being worked on is easier installers, plus a drive to be on app stores soon.

An interesting point is changing the route into the ecosystem; everyone who does, has to have gone to an exchange and bought ether. Soon users will be able to earn ether by storing chunks of files on Swarm.

"By just sharing your internet connection with Swarm you can get a little ether. If you have a file that is popular because everyone is using that application, you will be paid a tiny amount of ether, which is not a big amount, but it's enough to start playing around with smart contracts, without having to buy it on an exchange."

He said another exciting thing to be working on is swappable backends – Parity, Blockapps Strato, EtherCamp. "There are other people doing some very nice work – so we are trying to work with everyone.

Summing up, Van de Sande used the analogy of roads and railways. "Roads are still usable after the empires that built them are gone because the people who came after could just do their own road maintenance. But railroads are different; you can find railroads that are 30 years old but because a certain company has gone bankrupt, or the government lost interest, it just lies there abandoned.

"So let's try and build the internet like they built roads, not railroads. Think of Twitter, think of WeChat; think of all those apps we use today. They could all simply go away tomorrow if they were blocked by a government or if their board made a bad decision. So let's build apps that are truly unstoppable."