This post is part of CoinDesk’s 2019 Year in Review, a collection of 100 op-eds, interviews and takes on the state of blockchain and the world. Jake Brukhman is the founder and managing director of CoinFund.
After a partial recovery in the first half of 2019, the crypto markets were thrown to international government scrutiny and regulatory uncertainty mid-year, a phase marked by Facebook’s public launch of Libra in June. Far from the market recovery investors had hoped for following the 2018 crypto bear market, the blockchain space progressed in technological maturity while seemingly underperforming “crypto-focused” expectations. Nevertheless, digital assets have added 63% to their aggregate market capitalization so far in 2019 (as of writing in November). Even if 2019 wasn’t characterized by frothy speculative trading and dramatic highs as in previous years, it was a year of infrastructural progress.
Despite having operable smart contract blockchains like Ethereum in production, projects have struggled with product-market fit for decentralized applications in recent years. The industry might simply be too early. If we look back to how “mobile applications” progressed, they didn’t really solidify into a multi-billion dollar business until their infrastructure — smartphones like iPhone and mobile operating systems like Android — became extremely accessible, usable, and affordable. In the same way, blockchain infrastructure in the form of scalable blockchains, user-friendly wallet experiences, node and data services, and financial industry support for digital assets, might be a prerequisite to building decentralized applications at a rate which produces mainstream market fit. This kind of infrastructural progress was the subject of 2019.
Down in the lower layers of the decentralization stack, several second-generation smart contract platforms — notably Polkadot, Cosmos, Tezos, and NEAR — provided innovations in throughput, interoperability, network governance, and usability, and are challenging Ethereum’s market share and winding 2.0 roadmap. Additionally, Dapper Labs announced Flow, a base layer dedicated to mainstream-facing usability of games and their non-fungible tokens and digital assets, while simultaneously announcing a major partnership, NBA Top Shot.
If critics like Nouriel Roubini could claim uncertain scalability prospects for blockchain before, 2019 proved them wrong. The next order of blockchain scalability magnitude is here. First, new base layers have become faster by virtue of employing advanced consensus algorithms, sharding, and parallelism. Coda, a cryptocurrency that uses zero-knowledge proofs to shrink the storage footprint of its blockchain, went into testnet and kicked off a new variety of base layer that can run on a mobile phone. Finally, a number of “layer 2” technologies — such as Connext’s state channels or Matter Labs’ ZK rollup technologies — have made progress in enabling fast payments and cheaper, scalable, and privacy-preserving smart contracts. At the same time, technologies like GEO Protocol have put an emphasis on cross-chain interoperability for instant exchange across distinct blockchains, networks, and even traditional fiat payment rails.
Much of the traction that does not come from exchanges or trading has been generated decidedly in infrastructure layers in 2019. Node infrastructure provider Blockdaemon, having recognized the market’s propensity to proliferate new decentralized networks, is generating revenue across an impressive 22 such networks today and continues to grow month over month. The Graph is serving over 400 public smart contract subgraphs, with request volume clocking millions of daily data queries. Meanwhile, 3Box’s self-sovereign identity and data solution is rapidly integrating across the Ethereum ecosystem, within wallets like MetaMask and many of the new user onboarding solutions, like Portis and Authereum, and even governance experiment MolochDAO.
Blockchain’s road to mainstream adoption depends on institutional backing of businesses that support blockchain infrastructure and enable traditional investors both to capitalize and participate in digital asset networks. As such, the compliance levels of exchanges have been increasing to support institutional clients. Fidelity, ErisX, Ledger, and ICE have all launched digital asset custody products eyeing institutions who have custodial requirements and are considering digital asset exposure. Finally, more than 20 blockchain-focused analytics firms are on the market, and some have been gradually honing their offerings for enterprise-grade customers.
From legal DAO wrappers to fiat on-ramps to zero knowledge proof systems, the breadth of 2019’s infrastructural innovations doesn’t fit into a single article. But this improved infrastructure will power the next generation of blockchain products for investors, institutions, enterprises, and mainstream customers in 2020. As the lower levels of the blockchain technology stack mature, we’ll look back on 2019 as the start of the blockchain adoption journey.