“It was awkward and it was a viral loop. People tipped $150,000 in 10 days, and then a lot of people who got bitcoin... it sat there and they didn’t do anything with it, ever.”
Blockai CEO Nathan Lands is referring to the spike in interest in first bitcoin project, QuickCoin, a Facebook-integrated wallet that sought to entice new users. That project has now evolved into Blockai (pronounced 'block-i'), which takes a similar approach to spreading bitcoin, although it places more emphasis on the capabilities of its blockchain rather than its use as a digital currency.
While resembling a social stream – more of a “frontpage for the blockchain” according to Lands – Blockai is a single application that seeks to merge a traditional Internet browser with a publishing tool. Using Blockai, users can read and comment on messages embedded into bitcoin blockchain metadata and also write and share their own creations.
The end result, according to Lands, is that Blockai will help people find the blockchain, while allowing them to easily visualize its capabilities beyond bitcoin as a currency.
To start, users will be able to post permanent messages, sign and timestamp documents and declare their love on the blockchain using Blockai’s tools. Once users create an account they select a username and add a profile photo, before adding funds to their wallet address.
Perhaps most critically, it also includes a social sharing button and 'love button' that enables content creators to reward each other with tweets and micropayments.
Lands went on to describe the project as one that could become a “trojan horse for bitcoin”, solving issues that led to difficulties with his first venture.
“QuickCoin was amazing at getting bitcoin to people, but then there was nothing, it would die right there. You have to do something that’s a lot more meaningful,” Lands said.
On a technical level, Blockai is a fully functioning bitcoin web wallet that is also used for reading and interpreting confirmed bitcoin blocks. This means that what users see on its colorful screen is a stream of the bitcoin network’s metadata.
Blockai’s wallet software then runs in the browser and posts via a third-party blockchain API. Transactions are scanned and confirmed by its servers.
“Everything you read or write on Blockai are full on-chain bitcoin transactions and we hold no privileged position. Anyone could create their own software that reads and writes the same data,” explained Blockai CTO William Cotton.
As for how much control users have over the wallet, Cotton indicated it is now not possible for users to import or export private keys to another application, though he said such functionality could be added this year.
“We'd rather not give our users the option to import keys until we're assured that we've got a secure solution in place,” Cotton added.
Visualizing the blockchain
Lands is keen to position Blockai as a Netscape-type breakthrough, referring to the pioneering browser that is credited with helping the world discover the potential of the Internet.
“We want to show the world how to use the blockchain,” Lands said of the beta version of Blockai. “Obviously it’s a browser in terms of we’re digitizing the blockchain as a stream.”
Over time, Lands sees Blockai evolving into more of an app store, allowing users to potentially discover other bitcoin applications and more easily understand how they are used with the help of a visual aid.
“If your idea is you want to submit a document, maybe that’s how you’re going to use it. But different people are going to use it in different ways, the same way people are going to use the iPhone in different ways for different applications that are relevant to them,” Lands added.
The Blockai team intend to keep their approach to the project open, and while they have ideas for new applications, Lands indicated they would be keen to respond to user feedback so that the service could evolve organically.
Throughout the interview, Lands stressed that Blockai is only in beta, meaning that the initial set of capabilities it enables are more novelties, examples of how the service could evolve, and thus not indicative of its potential usefulness.
For example, Lands noted his background at gamification startup Gamify, as well as Cotton’s prior experience in the music industry as factors that would influence how Blockai intends to diversify in the coming months.
Regardless of the service, however, the intent is that Blockai enables content creators to use the blockchain as a means of publishing, so that the viral growth that propels social platforms can bring added attention to the blockchain.
“We don’t have a lot of viral features in there yet, but obviously it’s going to be improved,” Lands said, arguing that, whatever the service adds, these tools will at least appeal to users who may not have been persuaded to investigate bitcoin as a currency.
“I really think that not everyone is going to get into bitcoin because of speculation,” he explained. "You can send bitcoin to someone with no purpose, but I think those things are going to result in bitcoin spreading at an OK rate, versus if you try to give people interesting things to do with bitcoin and then invite them to spread it.”
'Drop in the pond'
Given that Blockai is seeking to take advantage of bitcoin’s metadata, however, the service is likely to stir up debate regarding whether the blockchain should be used principally for financial use cases.
For instance, critics have long argued that non-financial uses 'bloat' or spam the blockchain with unnecessary transactions. However, Cotton and Lands don’t see their service as one that will be problematic for the network as a whole.
“We're currently not doing anything to prevent either spam or bloat, as neither have really become an issue just yet,” Cotton said. “There are only around 17,400 total transactions with OP_RETURN data. These transactions account for around 700kb of data embedded in 16mb of transactions. This is a drop in the pond compared to the rest of the blockchain.”
Nonetheless, they acknowledged their methods might be controversial, adding that they’ll be “actively monitoring” the effects of their service on the blockchain when such issues “become more than just speculation”.
Of course, given that Blockai is making metadata visible in the blockchain, there arises concerns about whether bitcoin users would be unknowingly making certain materials discoverable to the tool’s users.
Lands said that while, in theory, users could have the option to hide metadata transactions from Blockai, such a capability is not yet on the horizon for the product. First, the project will look to implement filtering features for users, so they can uncover more relevant information on the blockchain.
“They'll start off with simple filters, which we'll be implementing pretty soon,” Lands said. He added that, as with Internet browsers before it: "Over time we'll want to give you better ways to see more relevant data."
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