A new test version of the Lightning Network is launching in the coming days, marking its latest step toward a long-awaited live debut.
But, what's most notable about the news isn't that it's occurring (the idea has, after all, been in the works since 2015), it's where the technology will be deployed.
First envisioned as a way to expand bitcoin, Lightning has yet to go live on the world's largest cryptocurrency. And as attempts to enact the necessary upgrade have stalled there, some of Lightning's developers are taking action by moving work elsewhere – to the litecoin blockchain.
This is now possible largely because last week the network passed a technical upgrade called Segregated Witness (SegWit), making it the first major blockchain network to adopt the upgrade since it was proposed back in December 2015. (Other smaller cryptocurrencies, such as Syscoin, have also implemented SegWit.)
Now, just a few days after this milestone, San Francisco startup Lightning Labs is releasing a version of its software for litecoin's testnet.
In interview, Lightning Labs co-founder Elizabeth Stark noted that the software will initially be available only for developers. Though, with SegWit locked in, the hope is that users will be able to use it to move real money for the first time once sufficient testing has been carried out.
Stark told CoinDesk:
"It's a great example of Segregated Witness in action, right? The litecoin community worked together to activate it, and I think we’ll see the benefits, including those that we're building out on Lightning.”
In this way, Stark now expects that the activation will help demonstrate why SegWit's fix to transaction malleability is believed to be so important for bitcoin.
As such, the news is the latest to advance a larger narrative that finds litecoin seeking a value proposition amid bitcoin's scaling debate. The move is also the latest for Lightning Labs, the startup originally co-founded by the authors of the Lightning white paper, Joseph Poon and Tadge Dryja, though both have now moved on to other opportunities.
Among a handful of Lightning Network implementations running on the bitcoin testnet, one, known as lnd (for Lightning Network Daemon), has now been made compatible with both bitcoin and litecoin.
"We're enabling litecoin to hook into it," Stark explained.
Lightning Labs developer Olaoluwa Osuntokun noted that on bitcoin, lnd is compatible with one of a few alternative bitcoin implementations, btcd, which is written in Go. So, in addition to making litecoin-specific additions to the lnd software, the team ported over a version of this software to litecoin.
But just because developers can easily shift over their work, that doesn't mean a live Lightning will be up and running on litecoin soon. There's still a little over a week to go, or roughly 6,000 blocks at time of reporting, before SegWit will activate on the network.
Indeed, Stark doesn't expect that a version will be ready for the main litecoin network that soon, although she said Lighting Labs is working toward that goal.
Litecoin creator Charlie Lee, on other hand, was highly optimistic about the timeline for the upgrade.
"Soon after SegWit activates on Litecoin, I expect people will be able to send real value over the Lightning Network on Litecoin. This will motivate developers to build out the Lightning infrastructure and wallets," he said, adding:
"So by the time SegWit is activated on Bitcoin, Lightning Network will be ready for mainstream adoption!"
Osuntokun further mentioned that, in addition to improving the Lightning protocol, there are a number of features that he would like to add to litecoin, including a block explorer.
Testbed for bitcoin?
Still, in technology, there's always a long to-do list.
At least one other Lightning Network startup, ACINQ, has also tested Lightning Network on litecoin. Later, it revealed its finding that since bitcoin and litecoin are so similar, the shift doesn't require very many changes.
Still, Pierre-Marie Padiou, CEO of Lightning Network startup ACINQ, also argued that it could still take some time to deploy on the main litecoin network.
"The results are very encouraging, but it doesn't mean that Lightning Network is ready for prime time on litecoin," he said. "It isn't on bitcoin, either, even if we are close."
Because of that, the team is focused on finishing a version of the Lightning Network for bitcoin, he said.
"Our immediate goal is still to finalize a first version, and to achieve full compatibility with other implementations. We believe this is the best way to build a high quality, safe and usable Lightning Network,” Padiou said.
That's not to say litecoin couldn't play a role here.
”Once this is done, litecoin could serve as a realistic testbed for Lightning Network until SegWit activates on bitcoin.”
Stark seemed agnostic on the point of litecoin solely offering a testbed for bitcoin, noting that some in the community have expressed that sentiment.
"We'll see if that happens," she said.
Disclosure: CoinDesk is a subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which has an ownership stake in Lightning Labs.
Correction: Lightning Labs has postponed launch. The article has been corrected accordingly.
Lightning image via Shutterstock