Unitalk with Andy Tudhope: A World Computer in Your Pocket
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How did you get involved in the blockchain field?
My father was working as an accountant at a big bank in South Africa and introduced me to Bitcoin pretty early on. At the time — and after studying accounting myself — I told him I wanted nothing to do with financial tools of any kind and would he please keep his fancy money stuff to himself. It was only a few years later when completing my Masters and running into a whole bunch of politics’ students, philosophers, an anthropologist and some more liberal economics’ students, who were all really interested in “this Bitcoin thing”, that I sat up and took notice. The usual three months reading binge accompanied by almost no sleep then took over.
I was part of the team that put together the first legal paper on what we then called DCOs (Distributed Collaborative Organisations) and slowly fell further down the rabbit hole, until reaching Status at the bottom, where there are a bunch of crazy people trying to make Ethereum work properly in your pocket.
You graduated from Oxford University in literature, and you did your undergraduate degree in mathematics. When did you actually start coding? How did you learn programming?
We did some very basic programming in both the Maths and Physics courses I completed in my undergraduate degree, mostly in R. However, it was only once I had been involved with some Bitcoin stuff for a few months that I came to realize that the most interesting people to talk to and work with were always the most technically capable ones. I then committed to learning how to code, took a bunch of fairly average online courses — mostly from freecodecamp.org — and then landed myself a job as a junior web developer at a small financial services company in South Africa. I built websites, apps, reports, and helped manage the proxy voting system for corporate actions there. Having actual jobs with tight deadlines and unforgiving bosses is the single best crucible I know to teach someone how to code quickly.
I still don’t consider myself anywhere near proficient — and am likely too verbose to ever be a great programmer — but that’s fine because we need people capable of acting as the bridge between technical developers and excited users too.
How did you join Status team?Why did you join Status?
Having been involved in a series of really interesting and idealistic projects that seemed prone to fail on technical delivery of their ideas, I was immediately struck by the quality of the people Jarrad and Carl had already gathered around them when I heard Jarrad talk at DevCon 1. Moreover, my dad and I had been sold on this idea of a “totally peer-to-peer electronic system for payments” and had talked often (after I admitted he was right, again) about how this might be used to redress economic inequality, which is rampant in South Africa and a major cause of both political upheaval and interpersonal violence.
However, Bitcoin has failed to deliver fully on this vision (so far). It has replaced some governance and bureaucratic barriers with technical ones, but these remain too high for most users and the network has been hampered severely by the community’s inability to make technical decisions effectively.
The promise of putting the power of decentralized, user-owned networks that are censorship-resistant into every person’s pocket is the single most compelling idea I have yet come across in the “blockchain” space. It harks back to that original sentence in the Bitcoin whitepaper, but we can now also do this for more than just payments since the advent of Ethereum, and that is genuinely exciting. Status has the expertise, the funding, and the vision required to build a product that can really revolutionize the way we organize by changing how we communicate and who can control the information we exchange.
Status initially wanted to be a mobile DApp browser that allows users to easily access Ethereum DApp. With the popularity of DApp on mobile and the emergence of more and more similar competitors, what do you think of your competitive advantages? How do you feel about these competitions?
Status is a decentralized platform, other messengers are not — be it Toshi, Telegram, WeChat or WhatsApp. Putin cannot demand keys to our databases because there are none. Amazon cannot prevent us from operating in Iran by blocking domain fronting. Unlike Toshi, there are no servers between you and the transaction you are broadcasting so, short of your phone being physically disconnected (for which we are also considering solutions like mesh networking and 802.11ax), no-one can censor your transactions.
We also make use of the whole Ethereum stack, and this comes with a full implementation of Whisper, the “dark”, peer-to-peer, end-to-end encrypted gossip protocol; and research and development of Swarm, the distributed file storage system. Whisper, in particular, makes possible things like plausible deniability of messages, which no other services can provide. It is really the combination of private messaging with a public, immutable ledger, all based on the same technology stack that we think is really exciting and will lead to conversational commerce on steroids.
How do you/your team choose which project to display on DApp as a recommended token?
Right now, by testing them ourselves and including the ones that actually work on mobile and don’t leave our users in UXR sessions confused. In the future, as we build out Status extensions, we will be using a Token Curated Registry to handle which DApps appear top of the list. Just one more use case for SNT.
Since the announcement of the Alpha version, user’s feedbacks have made a great contribution to the improvement of Status. From your perspective, which sections of Status need to improve most urgent? What are your current challenges?
Current challenges revolve around a number of things. We need to implement support for ERC721 and some other more widely adopted standards in our wallet. We also need to build some alternative ways to sign transactions and log into DApps securely, most likely using HD keys and different accounts.
With regards to chat, we need to work out how to do group chat securely. We can do 1–1 and public chat well using Whisper, but group chat is more complicated because the key exchange is difficult to scale and make work in a way that doesn’t violate user expectations.
We also need to figure out how best to include DApps in Status, how the TCR will work, and what extensions will truly look like. All of this is already well in motion, but there are some unanswered questions in each aspect I have highlighted. There are also a number of active areas of research into performance improvements, Ultra Light Clients, and different means of getting the whole Ethereum stack to work together on your phone.
Since the 1st of June 2018, Status Alpha 0.9.19 has been released, and Status has improved a lot of functions related to wallets, such as the linkage with exchange prices. Are you concerned that multi-functions (wallets, chats, interactions with other Ethereum projects) will weaken the uniqueness of Status itself?
Not at all — the cross-functionality, the bringing together of private chats with public, decentralized ledgers, all while offering people an easy means to explore and discover interesting distributed applications on Ethereum, is exactly what makes Status unique, and what will enable new kinds of conversational commerce.
The goal is actually to make transactions as frictionless and easy as possible (without compromising on decentralization) by covering as many functions and standards as possible. We also do not think wallets are the future of Ethereum. If you look at successful platforms like Uber or AirBnB, the payments are hidden far behind the actual functionality and utility of their product. They are merely an enabling aspect, not the thing itself. It is important for crypto to reach this same kind of background acceptance for any number of reasons. My favorite one is that, by building only wallets and exchange websites, we attract only certain kinds of people with certain interpretations and understandings of “value”.
While there is nothing wrong with this per se, we need to make sure we build as many different gateways into using decentralized networks and cryptocurrency as possible so as to attract as diverse a set of participants to our communities as we can. We see the improvements to the wallet enabling us to build better DApp and chat experiences, to make the sensation of using decentralized tools as easy — and far more delightful and surprising — than current systems.
Status Uses Swarm, Whisper, and Ethereum technologies to ensure functionality. Can these technologies currently support all the features that status requires? Will Status adopt other series of technologies in the future, such as IPFS?
Yes, they can for now, but not — perhaps — for the features we want to implement in the future. The technology is still nascent and has some stark tradeoffs. We have spent the better part of a year getting Whisper to actually work in a way that it can be run reliably on mobile phones without consuming all of your mobile data or battery power. It will likely not be able to handle images, voice or video, and this means it remains limited to text-based chat for the foreseeable future.
We are actively researching Swarm and PSS (which is the “Postal Service on Swarm”), a gossip system very similar to Whisper, differing mostly in the fact that it trades off better and more efficient routing for more potential metadata leaks. We are also interested in the Swap, Swear and Swindle incentive system being developed by Swarm, and thinking about different ways of doing messaging in general (i.e. database replication, rather than via gossip through a Distributed Hash Table). It would also be possible to handle images, voice and video by implementing Swarm support, whatever that ends up looking like.
IPFS is interesting, but integrating Swarm — seeing as it is also a native part of the Ethereum stack and has some really interesting properties for a project like ours in particular — is where our research in this area is currently focused.
If there are more innovative competitors of mobile DApp appearing in the market in the future, what will Status do to be sustainable?
You’ve got to remember that all of our code, ideas, discussions, data and documents are open source. So, we are not the sort of people who operate with traditional notions of competitiveness or, therefore, sustainability. In open source communities that share even the data they gather, the moat is not “Intellectual Property” (a term people like Richard Stallman have repeatedly ridiculed) or even proprietary data — it is the community itself and its ability to self-organize (often called ‘governance’).
There are products out there that choose different tradeoffs that we have chosen, but no-one has quite as awesome and committed a community of people who believe not only in the technology but in the intention and reasoning behind building it in a certain way, according to certain principles (like decentralization and censorship-resistance). That’s difficult to beat, and if we can live up to each other’s expectations of building the world’s most secure decentralized messenger linked to a light Ethereum node running right there, on your phone, I have little doubt it will be sustainable.
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