"It's a really different feeling."
That was the sentiment of Rebecca Migirov, one of many ethereum startup employees gathered in Shanghai for the blockchain platform’s second annual conference, and she was not alone in her assessment. If last year's Devcon1 was characterized by a lightning-strike excitement, the sophomore follow-up, attendees said, was less a celebration of "underdogs" and more of an acceptance of its limitations, a chance to refine its goals.
Still, present at Devcon2 was the ambitious vision, the affirmation of the community's belief that the blockchain can provide the Internet with a new and more radical architecture. Expressions of these aspirations, however, were more subdued, more apt to be abutted by the acceptance that in the heart of a zeitgeist, work must go on.
On stage, this could be heard in presentations by developers like Alex Van de Sande, lead UX designer for the project. In a talk on Wednesday, Van de Sande referenced his role in the creation of the official ethereum website, apologizing (if only slightly) for his now controversial description of the group’s creations as "unstoppable applications".
Van de Sande told the audience:
"We do have some outrageous claims... I’m sorry, I put them there. [But] I'm here to explain why we still stand for every word."
The statement cuts to the heart of the three-day conference and its events, which were colored in no small part by this summer's high-profile collapse of The DAO. Ethereum, a project that can be loosely defined as an open-source blockchain effort inspired by (but that is arguably more ambitious than) bitcoin, has seen its reputation suffer amid setbacks and in-fighting.
This year's Devcon2 offered proof that the impact has been felt, and that not only investors lost.
"Everyone was a bit down after The DAO," Pelle Braendgaard, lead developer at blockchain identity project uPort, explained. "For a couple months, a lot of productivity stopped."
But as it has resumed, Braendgaard asserted that there have been positive advancements. In interviews with attendees, most reported that this loss of momentum is best seen as a pause for reflection, a sign that, despite the negative headlines, the community is capable of moving on, of achieving renewed direction and purpose.
"In the first year, everything was just smoke," technology consultant Carlos Buendia Gallego said. "Now we’re building real things."
Developers, developers, developers
And in a market that needs buildings, there is perhaps no more prized commodity than the builders, as the conference provided evidence that a key element fueling ethereum is its emphasis on appealing to developers.
Whereas early bitcoin conferences were dominated by CEOs, VCs and regulators, Devcon2 placed a firm emphasis on technology that was all but missing accompanying propaganda, think 'What can ethereum do for you?'
Ample time was given to deep dives into base-level components of the network, such as the ethereum virtual machine and its smart contracting language, Solidity. In many, there was scarcely an explanation of the concepts.
Marco Streng, CEO of Genesis Mining, noted that he was struck by the conference's focus on development, as well as the sheer number of coders that attended.
"Developers, normally, it's not like they have the highest budgets, but they commit themselves because they’re convinced and they're fascinated by the project. Seeing such a big conference gives me a great optimism," he said.
SmartContract CEO Sergey Nazarov, an entrepreneur in the ecosystem since the early days of "blockchain", reported that he was left with the feeling that there is something special about to project, something that makes it unique among the increasing number of blockchain initiatives offering similar sales pitches.
"I am starting to appreciate how developer-centric all these guys are. It filters down into people who make things. It attracts a certain mindset from all these other folks trying to make easier development tools," Nazarov said.
That ethereum’s momentum is helping it retain a growing developer pool is not unnoticed by representatives of the conference’s sponsors, who were quick to note that they see this as a key advantage for their business, as well as their clients.
Marley Gray, director of technical strategy and business development at Microsoft, for instance, cited ethereum's open-source community as a reason the tech giant remains committed to supporting public blockchain projects.
"You have the developer resource pool and that's a big pain point in industries," he told CoinDesk.
Additional statements revealed he has a strong personal alignment with the project’s larger vision.
"The Internet still functions on 1970s technology. You send an email, it’s in plain text. You access a web page, it’s plain text. Our data is leaked by companies all the time, our identities are stolen by hackers, our behavior is monetized by advertisers," he continued, adding:
"I think it’s our job to help build a better Internet."
'Church of Vitalik'
In many ways, the event was evidence that, despite the rhetoric about divisions in the community, ethereum remains oddly united in the face of obstacles. This sentiment was perhaps most visible in references to ethereum creator Vitalik Buterin, with many developers (even insiders) jokingly calling the community the "church of Vitalik".
But every religion has its dissenters, and the conference began with a not insignificant network issue whereby all of the nodes running ethereum’s most popular client (go ethereum) suddenly crashed upon executing a smart contract.
Called "Fahrt nach Hause" (German for 'Go Home', the contract was widely seen as a purposeful way to sour the proceedings, a way to voice the still-lingering discontent many have about The DAO and its demise.
Indeed, the event kickoff was delayed by 30 minutes, and rumors suggest that this was a last-minute plan by conference organizers to begin the show with the announcement that a fix had been implement. Early on, the issue was discussed in fits and whispers, spreading from peer to peer like transactions on the network itself.
Still, the quick resolution appeared effective, both at rectifying an issue on the platform and in quelling concerns.
"What impressed me was how almost nobody was phased by this whole geth client thing," Nazarov told CoinDesk.
Yet, there was a sense of unease about the event under the surface, and signs that it exposed just how precarious the experimental features that unite the technical features are today.
Ethcore chief financial officer TJ Shaw, who was there to debut an alternative client called Parity, suggested that while his startup's latest work helped stem the damage, any lesser efforts could have risked coloring the conference.
"We are happy that the network didn't go down. Shanghai Devcon would be completely destroyed if the network went down," he said.
'Let's invent it' syndrome
In this light, the issue with the go ethereum client can be seen as evidence that ethereum is still striving to reach its ambitions. While this perhaps can't be described as a fake-it-until-you-make-it ethos, there's a sense that issues can only be solved slowly and with time.
But for IBM’s Henning Diedrich, Devcon2 showcased how the community is becoming more aware and understanding of where its limitations lie. He said the geth incident was “no surprise” given his own experience with ethereum.
"At IBM, I’ve been debugging the go client. You have to wonder, anyone who really tries to use it, or 50% of projects that try to do something with it, should have run into this bug. I’ve been asking around and other people know about them, too," he said.
Everywhere you look, similar “issues” could be found, but a closer inspection perhaps reveals this as a limited way to look at the ecosystem. What can appear from afar like bad management may be better described as a culture that promotes competing ideas.
Developer Viktor Tron, for instance, has been working for months on a distributed file sharing system called Swarm that was envisioned as an integral part of the network. But as it approaches its testnet, even he remains uncertain how to read the growing enthusiasm for the Inter-Planetary File System (IPFS), a project developed outside the community and backed by VCs like Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss.
Tron acknowledged that the Ethereum Foundation, the non-profit that promotes development, may have a "let’s invent it" syndrome.
"Why do we have [recursive length prefix] RIP. It’s a serialization format that Vitalk [Buterin] came up with, and a lot of people asked, 'Why did we need a serialization format?' It’s already done by everyone," he said.
As for how this relates to his own project, he's less sure, though he said that competition is perhaps the best way to ensure the strongest ideas win out in a real marketplace.
"At this stage, this is such a new area, there’s lots of research and it’s probably healthy for the ecosystem for these creative groups to be separate," he said.
From here to somewhere
But if ethereum remains a bleeding-edge technology, there were also signs that, far from stagnating, its message is attracting new blood.
Freelance developers could be found in attendance, drawn by what they said was a vision for a "Web 3.0" that extends beyond how other cryptocurrency efforts have sought to apply innovations in blockchain technology.
"The ethereum community is good at envisioning these future applications," developer Cameron Voell said, explaining his own interest. "Maybe in other groups they focus too much on trading and stuff like that."
This appeal extends even to China, where a local ethereum group “Ethfans” was well represented, as were college graduates like Yating Shu, there to check out the next big thing.
But if amidst the swirl of lights and ideas the conference seemed to be veering too far into the surreal, there were moments that validated the strengths that in-person meetups provide to even distributed communities.
Whether it was learning that the ethereum virtual machine is being rebuilt by someone who lives in an old camper van or meeting executives from some of the world’s largest banks who are betting that these same individuals will create a structure for the future of finance, the event seemed at times an elaborate reminder of how technologies are still created by humans.
In a rare instance, this reporter met the father of Vitalik Buterin himself, a muscular Russian who would look more at home in wrestling ring than in the halls of a Hyatt on the Shanghai waterfront.
In the moments that followed, words seemed lost as he showed pictures of a baby with blue eyes in cell phone pictures, the eyes looking the same locked on a 1990s desktop computer as they did onstage.
"I’m sorry, I said. "It’s hard to believe he came from anywhere."
Buterin smiled and answered: "Well, he had to come from somewhere."
It may be a testament to where the project is headed that such a simple truth could seem the hardest thing to believe of all.
Image via Pete Rizzo for CoinDesk