Urbit, an audacious and idiosyncratic project to rebuild the internet computing stack from top to bottom, is throwing a coming-out party, and it’s invited the cryptocurrency industry.
Developers are finally shipping usable apps, including mobile apps, on the peer-to-peer computing network nearly a decade after it was launched. In addition to San Francisco-based Tlon, the company that has led core development for most of Urbit’s existence, there are now a handful of other startups building software on top of the protocol.
“This is the year where we focus less on Urbit, and more on what’s built using it,” said Josh Lehman, executive director of the Urbit Foundation, speaking of the community broadly. The nonprofit was spun out of Tlon a year ago to foment community growth and write grants to developers.
According to Lehman, about 500 people are expected to attend Urbit Assembly 2022, the community’s second annual gathering, which kicks off Saturday in Miami. While that’s small by crypto industry standards (Messari’s Mainnet conference in New York drew more than 3,000 this week), it’s nearly double last year’s attendance. Reflecting the technology’s cachet among the online intelligentsia, the technical talks will be accompanied by a poetry reading and a panel discussion featuring novelist Walter Kirn, internet historian Katherine Dee, filmmaker Alex Lee Moyer and podcaster Anna Khachiyan.
The new startups have raised millions of dollars, which again might sound like chump change from a crypto perspective, but was “unthinkable until about a year ago,” said Tim Galebach, founder of Uqbar Network, one of the newer players on the scene. The number of developers in the ecosystem is now in the “low hundreds,” Galebach estimated, up from dozens a year ago and “less than a dozen, if that” in mid-2020.
Urbit, which has its own programming languages and operating systems, was conceived more than a decade ago by an engineer named Curtis Yarvin, who is better known for his controversial political blogging. (The relevance of those writings – or lack thereof – will be discussed in a separate article to be published shortly after this one.)
One of Urbit’s defining features is data portability. Rather than entrusting their data to faceless unaccountable corporations, users store it on a personal server that also supports the apps they use and serves as their digital identity. Technically savvy users can run their Urbit virtual machines on their own hardware, and the less sophisticated can pay third-party providers to host their “ships,” as these servers are called.
The big idea is to claw back power for individuals who have increasingly relied on the likes of Google, Facebook and Twitter to mediate their online interactions.
If present trends continue, "we end up in a future where companies control everything about the way we compute," said Galen Wolfe-Pauly, CEO of Tlon, in his prepared remarks for a keynote address to be delivered Saturday morning at Assembly. “This just doesn’t make any sense.”
He offered an alternative vision for the next 50 years. “We're going to enter into an era where computers are something we can trust completely.” For example, one day, it may be possible to upload your genome to a computer and to not worry about the security of your personal information because the app analyzing the genome is on the machine, not some faraway server. It’s a concept “to actually be excited about it … and think ‘wow, I’m going to learn something from this,’ rather than sending my genetic material to a company and not knowing what's going to happen to it,” he said.
But Urbit has to start somewhere. That somewhere appears to be crypto, where the Urbit community finds a lot of kindred spirits.
Urbit’s pitch to DAOs
These two worlds have collided before.
"Urbit was the first use case of Ethereum to do something that the network couldn't have done before," Michelle Lai, one of the first hires at crypto custodian Anchorage, said in an interview. It was a point echoed by Lane Rettig, someone who spends most of his time in the world of Ethereum but has been following Urbit for the past couple of years.
Before Urbit IDs were tracked on Ethereum through the Azimuth smart contracts, Urbit names were kept "on a spreadsheet on Galen's computer," Rettig said.
Now, to varying degrees, Urbit’s startups are courting decentralized autonomous organizations (DAO) – nominally leaderless online investment collectives – along with other crypto teams, to be early adopters of their products.
They’re framing Urbit as a platform that can host interoperable applications to replace products like Discord, Telegram and Signal – a collaboration platform tailor-made for the blockchain industry’s innovators and tinkerers.
While Tlon is best known for having built most of Urbit’s core, the company has branched out into user-facing products and plans to unveil at Assembly an upgraded version of Landscape, its user interface, which it refers to as an operating system (OS) comparable to MacOS or Windows.
In an interview, Wolfe-Pauly gave several reasons why a crypto team in particular would appreciate sovereignty over data that would otherwise be exposed to a centralized provider. These include the risks of front-running by platform employees and removal of a project by the company.
“If there’s a lot of money involved, do I want to be sharing alpha on a platform [where] I know someone could read my messages?” he said. “Do I want to be putting a lot of energy into the research that I share there, knowing that my Discord might go away?”
Another pitch is that Urbit software can coordinate this confusing patchwork of tools relied on by DAOs and like-minded groups within a one-stop shop.
“The DAO problem is that you have all these different services, all these different UXs all across the internet and you have to have a dozen browser tabs open and flip between all these things,” said Trent Gillham, founder of an Austin, Texas-based startup called Holium, which will announce its own Urbit-based OS at Assembly.
“All the tools are so disjointed. The context-switching is just too much,” Gillham went on. “Being able to have one common foundation for the entire DAO … is going to be the thing that makes DAOs more effective.”
Julie Fredrickson, a managing partner at Chaotic Capital, a VC firm that invests in DAOs, confirmed that fragmentation is a pain point. “DAO tooling is a hodgepodge mess of workflows,” she said. “There’s no ‘one ring to rule them all.’”
Beyond communication, Uqbar Network is trying to position Urbit as a locus of smart contract development. At Assembly, it will announce a testnet (an experimental environment for unfinished software) of its execution engine, which Galebach describes as a "couple-click experience." Uqbar's offering will also include a ZK-rollup, a mechanism for running smart contracts on Ethereum in a way that strengthens privacy and cuts the time and cost of transactions.
“We’re going for a very user-friendly type thing,” Galebach said, “which in a crypto context is something Urbit makes it easier to provide. … You’re sort of operating in one world, for both us designing the system [and] people programming on it.”
Galebach was quick to acknowledge the irony of his statement. “It’s kind of funny because I think people think of Urbit as being somewhat hard from a UX perspective.”
They certainly do.
‘Still pretty janky’
Justin Murphy’s passion for Urbit stems from his own experience building a small business selling online courses over the last three years using disjointed Web2 technology.
“Why do I need 10 different SaaS [software-as-a-service] apps that I pay $30 a month to just to glue these different data sources together in a smooth way?” the podcaster and writer said. “It was this absolutely painful morass that was really expensive and just mentally torturous, trying to connect these things through these third-party providers.”
After doing some research, Murphy said, in March 2021 he had an epiphany. “If Urbit wins, if Urbit becomes what it wants to be, everything I’m doing with my community and my content would be 100x easier and faster and more powerful. And once it integrates with crypto, there’s going to be financial liquidity on top of it all.”
“If” is an important word, however. Apart from being far from a household name, the Urbit network faces a challenge familiar to many crypto applications: an often clumsy and frustrating user experience. Messages sent through the network can take as long as 30 seconds to post, for instance.
“It’s still pretty janky,” Murphy said. When asked what he saw as the biggest risk to the project, he said, “My number one fear is that forever Urbit is always just a little too janky. You can't set the probability of that to zero.”
According to Galebach, ease of use is closer than many Urbit participants realize.
“The stuff that you would see as clunky as a user is often [there] because the core base isn’t fully ready to support making an easy UX,” he said. Urbit “just needs that little bit of extra work so that people can make these very smooth user experiences that are very stable.”
Nevertheless, he called that work urgent.
“The risk is a timeline risk,” Galebach said. His concern is that “stuff that should take one and a half years takes five. Even that might not be existentially threatening to Urbit. But whenever you extend those timeframes, pretty much only bad things can happen.”
Wolfe-Pauly at Tlon sounded a bit more Zen about the matter, but acknowledged the need to improve runtime.
“We're working on it,” he said. “There's literally one person that we fund who works on that stuff. I would love for it to be five people. We can't afford to do that.” He noted that the Urbit Foundation has existed for only a year, and said its task in coming years is to find ways to fund more infrastructural work while the ecosystem’s companies focus on making money.
Lehman, at the nonprofit, agreed that core development, traditionally Tlon’s bailiwick, is “looking like it’s going to be the foundation’s next challenge.
“Starting next quarter, we'll be figuring it out and having a lot of discussions … and throughout next year, figuring out how we can coordinate the ecosystem to tackle projects on the kernel,” he said.
As that happens, developers continue to expand Urbit's functionality. This week, an early Urbit adopter known as ~doplur unveiled an Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM) on Urbit that uses its ID system like blockchain wallets, with the aim of courting DeFi users to the platform by distributing $URBIT tokens to all Metamask users.
"There is a lot of capital on Ethereum," doplur said. "If Urbit is going to be a serious player in crypto" then it's going to have to learn to speak "the language of DeFi." Not everyone involved in Urbit liked the idea, however, which was unfinished at launch and harkened back to the scam-filled days of initial coin offerings in 2017 with its white paper and airdrop.
This only goes to show some of the growing pains Urbit will go through as it continues to expand and gain adoption. Not everyone will like what ends up being built on or using Urbit, as is the nature of "open source, public infrastructure," Wolfe-Pauly said.
In the meantime, the next version of Landscape that premieres at Assembly will be much easier to use, with a front-end interface “comparable to a centralized experience,” said Marisa Rowland, Tlon’s head of product.
“Urbit and Tlon are about to be widely accessible to all,” she said. “We’re about to be able to onboard many, many more. It’s definitely a turning point.”
UPDATE (Sept. 24, 2022 16:15 UTC) – Corrects description of Uqbar testnet and Galebach's first name.
UPDATE (Sept. 27, 2022, 01:12 UTC) – Adds clarifying language to description of Tlon's Landscape.
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