Developing for bitcoin can be a bit of a slog. The protocol was designed with transactions, not applications, in mind, and getting to grips with the technology can be intimidating, not only for the general public, but for developers too.
All of that may be about to change thanks to Chain, a new bitcoin infrastructure that could make it easier than ever for developers to build on top of the technology.
Enthusiasts often dream of the applications that could be created with bitcoin’s technology; Chain could finally attract the critical mass of developers needed to turn that dream into reality.
The company was born partly out of frustration, said Chain’s Matt Matteson, whose resume includes being the Path’s first employee:
“I felt like I’d enter the weekend with a really great idea [for an application] but I’d spend three weekends just trying to get these [bitcoin] nodes running in a way that was useful for my application.”
Bitcoin is often talked about it near-messianic terms as a technology. Much of it is deserved: bitcoin really is an incredible innovation in terms of creating decentralized digital infrastructure and, for the first time ever, we are able to have a decentralized digital form of money, for example.
When it comes to the code itself, however, bitcoin developers are more sober.
At the Bitcoin2014 conference, the Bitcoin Foundation’s Lead Scientist Gavin Andresen quipped that “Satoshi gave us a bit of hairball”, and later said that “the very first version of bitcoin was horribly unsecure [sic]”.
Even downloading the block chain, the ledger of all transacations, can be a painful task, as lead developer Wladimir van der Laan told CoinDesk in April:
“The reason for this is that it downloads from one node at a time. If this is a slow node, too bad.”
Although the code is constantly being improved, Andresen is clear that the focus will continue be to ensure “the core bitcoin network processes transactions as reliably as possible.”
That leaves the door open for someone else to instead focus on making the core bitcoin network as easily accessible to developers as possible.
“There’s nothing broken per se about running your own bitcoin infrastructure. It’s just very time consuming, very cumbersome and very expensive” said Chain’s Adam Ludwin, who is perhaps most well-known for being an early investor in Vine. “That has limited the number of developers who are willing to jump in and build something on nights and weekends.”
Instead of each developer having to start from scratch, Chain will do a lot of the heavy lifting for them. In effect, Chain is a copy of the data on the block chain that is organized and saved in a way that’s less optimised for processing transactions and more optimised for building applications.
“The [bitcoin] community is better served, in our opinion, by having one company that’s well understood, trusted, open source and who does nothing but focus on the reliability and strength of this [new data] layer,” argues Ludwin.
Developers can expect over a dozen more functions and support for litecoin, dogecoin and namecoin in the future, said Ludwin:
“Developers should expect to see a lot of features – don’t even think a year, think 60 days.”
To ensure that it will be as secure as possible, and to give the community confidence about that security, Chain will be entirely open source.
“We’re not fans of centralizing a service and introducing new risks to the ecosystem,” Ludwin said.
Chain is currently free, but business applications of the API will be charged for in future. The team is also building SDKs (software development kits) for bitcoin developers on Android.
Currently comprising eight members, including an alumni of cloud platform Heroku, Chain was formerly the team behind Albumatic – a photo sharing app that attracted a lot of coverage, but failed to reach critical mass.
It then morphed into Koa.la last November and began building apps for messaging platform Kik, on whose board of directors Ludwin serves.
Around January this year, however, the team was expanded as part of a hard pivot to Chain, which has carried forward Albumatic’s $4.2 million series-A funding from investors including Thrive, SV Angel and RRE Ventures, where Ludwin is a venture partner.
Later this year, the Chain team will be heading to bitcoin conferences and university campuses to demonstrate the potential of their API. With Chain, student developers will be able to build bitcoin applications over a single weekend, said Ludwin:
“You can be a 19-year-old first year computer science student and you can do that because we’ve added this layer above the infrastructure that allows people to build quickly.”
If Chain is successful in encouraging more and more developers to start working with bitcoin, maybe we’ll really start to see what’s possible with this technology.