Monero is gearing up to decentralize all over again.
Since the cryptocurrency launched in 2014, its gregarious South African project lead, Riccardo "Fluffypony" Spagni, has become the project's unofficial figurehead, in part because of lack of competition. Famed for its privacy, monero has attracted contributors who prefer anonymity. Yet Spagni's business ventures, which include three crypto startups, have pushed him into the limelight.
But Spagni is also starkly different from other developers that have become synonymous with cryptocurrencies, like ethereum creator Vitalik Buterin or Zcash CEO Zooko Wilcox, in that he does not influence monero's technical development and has little interest in doing so in the future.
"I was the lead maintainer across all the projects, and at some point last year I was like: I can't do this," Spagni said.
This decision in mind, Spagni told CoinDesk he intends to slowly step back from other community leadership roles throughout 2018. An anonymous monero user called "Luigi1111" now handles the monero website and graphical user interface, while rotating volunteers routinely host the weekly IRC chats for monero developers.
"I will always be an advocate for privacy, and for monero, a part of the monero community, but my actual responsibilities by definition need to be reduced," Spagni continued, speaking to why he plans to step away from moderating the platform's Reddit and Telegram groups.
Spagni's move is actually part of a broader shift in the monero community to balance business adoption with the cypherpunk ethos of decentralization. Open-source community veteran Felix Honigwachs became CEO of Spagni's startup GloBee in May, promptly followed by Paul Shapiro taking the reigns of Spagni's second crypto startup, MyMonero.
Shapiro aims to drive more mainstream, commercial usage rather than mostly speculative trading. "It isn't really even a good idea for the lead maintainer of a project to run a web wallet that he's profiting from," Shapiro said.
On the other hand, Spagni is focused on fostering the type of open-source lab modeled by ChainCode Labs in New York, where bitcoin developers work on free software tools, through his seventh startup Tari Labs. This new company is developing a monero-based protocol for trading digital assets like concert tickets or customer loyalty points.
As Spagni pivots, Tari Labs co-founders Dan Teree and Naveen Jain are in charge of business development.
If all goes according to plan, Spagni will become less influential on the broader community as monero simultaneously boosts its value and use as a medium of exchange. Diverse users and use cases, the thinking goes, make for a healthier currency.
Tari Labs meets lightning
Meanwhile in Johannesburg, Spagni aims to hire roughly 20 South African developers and researchers for Tari Labs who will also contribute to scaling solutions like the lightning network, which aims to make cryptocurrency transactions cheaper and faster.
This team will build a lightning router for instant transaction across a wide range of blockchain-based assets, including commodities such as custom gear for video game characters.
"You'll be able to run our lighting router and connect it to a bitcoin node, a litecoin node, a monero node, a Tari node, full-on interoperability," Spagni said. "And you will be plugging in to the regular lightning network. So you'll be able to perform atomic swaps through Tari, over our router, to another lightning node."
According to Terree and Jain, Tari Labs will take at least two years to launch the full Tari network with distributed tokens because they want time for continuous feedback as developers build the new protocol.
Jain said they will release the first use case this year, then encourage "a tight feedback loop" with the broader monero community.
"We're here to show you can build second layer things on top of monero," he said.
Once layered scaling solutions become more popular, they could help offer cheaper options for MyMonero users as well. Plus, offering sustainable job opportunities outside of fintech hubs like San Francisco and New York are a part of the monero community's push for greater inclusivity.
The next step toward greater decentralization includes reducing any specific individual's influence over a multitude of community media channels. Although the idea is to make the ecosystem more resilient and remove any single point of failure, the shift may also help preserve Spagni's sanity.
But that's not to say monero won't have leaders, it will. The hope, however, is that there are more, and that they are all working on common goals.
MyMonero's Shapiro is an early candidate, given his attempts to work out a business model for MyMonero that doesn't rely exclusively on investors or advisors like Spagni. Indeed, this entrepreneur has an ambitious monetization plan for MyMonero, including everything from fintech partnerships to subscription wallet services for merchants.
Yet a big problem he sees for the technology is that transaction fees present a huge hurdle for his target customers.
According to monero.how, monero transaction fees typically range from a few cents to $2. Converting monero into bitcoin for vendors that only accept the latter can accrue even higher fees. That's where a scaling solution like lightning, which enables swaps between blockchains, would be particularly handy.
The examples show how scaling monero will take a combined effort of developers and entrepreneurs.
In the meantime, Shapiro is relaunching free MyMonero wallet apps, which already have roughly 500,000 users, while hiring new staff and opening an office in either North Carolina or Tennessee. An updated MyMonero desktop app is already on Github, while the revised iOS wallet was just approved by Apple for imminent release.
Next, Shapiro will team up with Honigwachs for a partnership that allows users to buy monero directly through MyMonero wallets and automatically convert monero into bitcoin when sending payments to a bitcoin wallet.
"We want people to be able to buy monero with a credit card, without leaving the app at all," Shapiro said. "That way if they are on the go, at a coffee shop, but don't have enough monero [to transact], they can just get it immediately."
These features all aim to reduce the friction keeping users from spending their cryptocurrency, a goal that now appears to be at the fore for the project as a whole.
Image of GloBee and MyMonero head of support Patrizio Spitalieri (L), GloBee operations director Raymond Prince, MyMonero CEO Paul Shapiro, and GloBee CEO Felix Honigswach (R) via MyMonero
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