Next-generation blockchain platform Ethereum has released 'Homestead' the first production release of its software, which was implemented at block 1,150,000 today.
The introduction follows Frontier, Ethereum's inaugural release, which was released to developers in July 2015. Further, it comes on the heels of escalating interest in the open, public platform, which is attracting the interest of major financial institutions, in part due to its support for self-executing smart contracts.
For example, a private version of the Ethereum network served as the platform for the first major test conducted by blockchain consortium startup R3CEV in January, with the trial uniting 11 major banks in a high-profile proof-of-concept.
Andrew Keys, co-founder of decentralized application development firm ConsenSys Enterprise, explained that whereas Frontier featured only command-line interfaces, Homestead will expand what users will be able to build on the platform and the ease with which they'll be able to build proof-of-concepts and minimum viable products.
Keys told CoinDesk:
"Homestead's arrival will begin to demonstrate the next generation of blockchain technology, whereby anything we can dream of, can be accomplished in a decentralized manner using Ethereum."
Elsewhere, early members of the platform sought to stress the recent benchmarks that they believe point to the success of the project at a time when financial incumbents are increasingly focused on alternatives to the bitcoin network.
"We've seen Microsoft and IBM doing projects on Ethereum. There's a lot of coders. It's exciting to see something you were in on in the early stages growing and bearing fruit," Anthony Di Iorio, one of Ethereum's founders and a Chief Digital Officer at the Toronto Stock Exchange, said in an interview.
In a Google Hangout hosted by Ethereum community members, there was celebration as the software was implemented at roughly 18:50 UTC.
"That was the most anti-climactic event I've ever hosted," Alex Van de Sande, lead designer at the Ethereum Foundation, commented in the channel.
Growth of Ethereum
Announced in January 2014 by inventor and project leader Vitalik Buterin, Ethereum raised some $18m in a crowdsale of the tokens that help power its platform later that year.
Since then, those close to the project's development believe its network health is now comparable to that of the long-running bitcoin network on which it was inspired.
"You need to look at the growth of the Ethereum network via the growth of its nodes, sitting at 5,100 versus bitcoin's about 6,000 roughly. That's quite significant and shows the stability and global nature of the Ethereum network," William Mougayar, a special advisor for the Ethereum Foundation, the non-profit that supports its development, told CoinDesk.
Mougayar indicated that Ethereum is now processing around 25,000 transactions a day, or about 10% of the number currently supported by the bitcoin network.
Since the beginning of February, Ethereum has also seen strong growth in the value of its token, ether, which users need to convert into 'gas' in order to run its applications. Ether's valuation has increased to more than $1bn, nearly five-fold annual growth, though how much of this total is fueled by use as opposed to speculation, is unclear.
While Ethereum has seen such a significant rise, there are not many easy ways for the average user to buy ETH. The most popular exchanges are Poloniex, Kraken and Shapeshift, and most recently, Bitfinex.
Still, those close to the project believe this will change as interest grows.
"We are seeing major interest from cryptocurrency exchanges. We can expect to see many US and foreign exchanges adding ether to their trading pairs," Keys suggested.
Notably, Bitfinex said the high trading volumes of ether at other exchanges had become "hard to ignore", citing demand was a key reason for its support.
Hard fork upgrade
The Homestead launch is also notably for the development effort behind the upgrade, as Ethereum underwent a hard fork, a fundamental change in the protocol that makes older versions incompatible.
The decision to implement through a hard fork comes at a time when the bitcoin community has been ensnared in a months-long debate over how its network could be upgraded in a similar fashion.
As such, Ethereum stakeholders sought to highlight this choice in contrast to bitcoin, framing the network as perhaps more adaptable to development needs.
"Interestingly, in comparison to the governance problems in the bitcoin community, the Ethereum community has supported the changes and achieved consensus on the upgrade to Homestead," Keys noted.
In a FAQ published on the platform's growing Reddit community, Taylor Gerring, director of technology at the Ethereum Project, outlined potential issues users may experience in the transition process.
He noted that upgrading is not necessary and that an user tokens would be safe so long as they owned their private keys, but that they would be unable to reconnect to the network until they upgrade their software.
In the bitcoin community, there is still continuous debate on how to achieve a hard fork, with two competing development teams pursuing alternative strategies.
The Bitcoin Classic team, for instance, has been advocating for 75% of bitcoin's transaction validators to approve the measure, a decision that would be followed by a 28-day grace period. On the other side, the Bitcoin Core team, the network's longest-serving team of developers, has argued that hard forks should be done very slowly, arguing for code to be submitted this year that wouldn't go into effect until July 2017.
In an interview with CoinDesk, Gerring went on to explain further differences between how the Ethereum developers are working differently than bitcoin developers, stating that the platform's community is shouldering the burden of supporting user needs.
"[Our approach] stands in stark contrast to what we're seeing in the bitcoin community where an intermediate block scaling solution is being shuttered for something the community isn't necessarily clamouring for," he said.
These upgrades, Ethereum's developers contend, will now allow the network to be competitive among private and public blockchain softwares. On a more specific level, however, Homestead will see Ethereum introduce three Ethereum Improvement Proposals (EIPs) as part of the upgrade: EIP-2, EIP-7, and EIP-8.
Stephan Tual, founder of Slock.it and the former CCO of Ethereum, explained that with these technical improvements, "the training wheels are off" for developers.
One of the big changes is what Tual referred to as the removal of canary contracts. In essence, if a form had occurred to a consensus bug, members of the Ethereum team could have stepped in with the Frontier software.
"Activating these contracts would have triggered a 'stop' call for mining in the official clients in order to regain control of the situation and hard fork properly," Tual said to CoinDesk. "With these contracts gone, the Ethereum network is now fully launched and completely autonomous."
The other major change he discussed was the introduction of new codes in Solidity, the language used to compile for the Ethereum Virtual Machine, the part of the protocol that handles the internal state of the network.
"Being able to hard fork at anytime, and more importantly, getting the support from the miners (who will vote by updating the software or not) is a big, big differentiator from other blockchains, paving the way for major features upgrades in the future," Tual said.
Along with the upgrade to the protocol, the developers introduced a wallet product called Mist, which will allow users to write and deploy smart contracts in addition to serving as a place to hold ethers. Mougayar explained that, while this is taken for granted in the bitcoin world, it is "a big deal" for Ethereum given it has not had such an offering.
With the software forked and Homestead the new predominant protocol, there is an expectation that more decentralized applications will be introduced.
Keys explained that some of the applications he's most looking forward to now that Homestead is out are a prediction market, a decentralized music platform, a tokenized gold custodian and asset tracking system, and an easy way for users to convert bitcoin to Ether.
Supporters like Keys believe the combination of these upgrades will find more large institutions accepting Ethereum alongside bitcoin as a blockchain technology that will be integral to future financial products.
"Fortune 500s are learning Ethereum's Turing-complete virtual machine and smart contracting language are necessary to create enterprise applications."
Images via Ethereum