Does the Original Bitcoin Wallet Still Matter?
When it comes to user experience, the longest-running bitcoin wallet is hardly an iPhone 7.
To use Bitcoin Core, users need to download a copy of the entire transaction history of the digital currency, a process that can take days and this is only becoming more burdensome as bitcoin's transaction history increases.
This means that unlike other, flashier, VC-funded consumer wallets (think Coinbase or Circle) or open-source efforts like Mycelium, Bitcoin Core doesn’t fit on a smartphone, but it's still used for essentially the same functions – sending and receiving bitcoins.
So, if bitcoin is already pretty difficult to use with these more user-friendly wallets, why use a wallet that only makes it more difficult? And why are developers still making updates when sleeker offerings are available?
For one, the Bitcoin Core wallet offers an alternative that's arguably similar to bitcoin's original value proposition, according to Bitcoin Core contributor Jonas Schnelli.
Since the wallet was first developed, many easier-to-use wallet programs emerged, many of which are packed with innovative features (think instant messaging add-ons or easy cold storage). But, none of them quite embody the principles of decentralization, security and privacy, he says.
To some, the modern-day version of the client designed by bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto remains just as relevant to the overall health and vitality of the network itself.
Schnelli told CoinDesk:
"No other wallet can give you that amount of privacy and security. That's why people still stick with Bitcoin Core."
Wallet developer and National University of Singapore computer science PhD student Loi Luu explained that what Bitcoin Core lacks in user experience, it makes up in utility.
Put another way, Luu said that the Bitcoin Core wallet "gives you optimal control over your money".
Less trust required
Like bitcoin itself, its original wallet is designed so that less trust is required for a third party to deliver on their end of the deal.
The worry is that when uploading other wallet apps to a third-party website (Schnelli offered Apple's app store as an example), the code might be tampered with before it's officially posted. Bitcoin has already seen its fair share of hacks and heists, which Schnelli pointed to in his argument.
"If you have $50,000 in bitcoin, would you really trust the vendor to upload the correct source code?” Schnelli asked.
"That’s going to be the next big problem in my opinion,” he continued.
With Bitcoin Core, users have the cryptographic tools to verify themselves if the correct software was uploaded to the website (at least in the unlikely event that they're tech-savvy enough to "verify release signatures"). So, users technically have more peace of mind about the software they’re using.
The trade-off is that it's not easy for normal people to verify cryptographically that their software comes from the right place.
"It's relatively complex. Just having the option to verify doesn’t mean that people will verify," said Schnelli.
But one reason the wallet should continue to be prioritized and developed, according to Schnelli, is that it offers more privacy than the popular alternatives.
There is merit to this assertion, as users of SPV wallets can spill a lot of information about their wallet structure to other parts of the network, like the nodes that validate transactions. For example, research has uncovered that by tapping bloom filtering, used in SPV nodes, it's possible to piece together "a graph of every transaction an address has ever made."
"That's a big privacy leak, in my opinion," Schnelli said.
In addition, the Bitcoin Core wallet automatically creates a new address for each new transaction (which means all of your transactions can't necessarily be linked together with one address), and it supports the use of Tor so that other users can't link payments to the IP address.
These are powerful tools, and they arguably could help protect consumers.
"I'm pretty sure there will be more problems with stolen funds if we don't increase privacy and security," Schnelli said.
Towards a foolproof version?
This is why there remains an interest in making Bitcoin Core a bit more friendly to new users.
The reason Bitcoin Core lacks many features, developers say, is because the wallets are expected to safeguard bitcoin on the bitcoin blockchain, not in a startup's private reserves. (Schnelli said that compared to other open-source projects he's worked on, including hardware wallet Digital Bitbox and libcurl, Bitcoin Core is "extremely restrictive about adding changes").
Not to mention, with so many projects related to the peer-to-peer network to work on, bitcoin's developers seem less interested in focusing their energy on the wallet.
But even if Bitcoin Core is behind other wallets in terms of features, it has seen some progress, including the latest software release's migration to a hierarchical deterministic wallet, which provides an easier way to backup private keys.
And although Schnelli said that Bitcoin Core probably won’t make it to smartphones everywhere (at least within the next couple of years), future updates may further help to bridge security and user-friendliness.
Schnelli mentioned that his latest proposed changes to bitcoin, BIPs (150 and 151), could set the stage for a mobile wallet that can connect to a Bitcoin Core wallet, so that users aren't forced to use it from their desktop or laptop.
All in all, BitGo platform lead Ben Chan offered a summary of why someone might use bitcoin's oldest wallet, despite its age.
"Other wallets may be open source, but in the end, if a user only needs basic features, then using Bitcoin Core would offer the peace of mind without having to review the code or reputation of alternative wallet software," Chan explained.
"A little strange how trust is still very much present in a trustless world, isn't it?"
Fossil image via Shutterstock
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