Though the Bitcoin protocol has been described as an elegant solution to problems that have long plagued both digital currencies and the traditional monetary system, aspects of its construction violate one of the central tenets of tech design: ‘keep it simple, stupid’ (often abbreviated to KISS).
Arguably, nowhere is this more apparent than in the design of bitcoin addresses, strings of 27 to 34 alphanumeric characters that, while providing privacy and security, don’t easily allow users to exchange payment information, except via sometimes cumbersome QR code technology.
However, OneName is looking to remove this pain point, replacing lengthy bitcoin payment addresses with sleek, social handles. Once registered with OneName, asking for payment becomes as easy as adding a plus sign to your username (+pete_rizzo_, for example).
All users need to do is enter their email on the OneName website, and “claim their name”. Many already have. The OneName website boasts that notable digital currency figures, such as Coinbase co-founder Fred Ehrsam and Dogecoin Foundation shibe Ben Doernberg, are already registered too.
However, while OneName’s pitch is simple, it’s more sophisticated than it may seem at first glance. OneName is not a bitcoin application or company, but rather an open-source protocol built on top of the Namecoin protocol that seeks to enable new, innovative applications of its own.
According to core developers Muneeb Ali and Ryan Shea, OneName’s goal is to allow the Internet community to take back control of its data from centralised institutions, like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, which right now have a monopoly that they say is stifling innovation.
“If you’re using the bitcoin analogy, right now people keep their money in banks. With data, these banks or third parties are companies like Facebook and LinkedIn. App developers that want to use this data now have to deal with [these companies].”
OneName, it seems, does have one thing in common with most bitcoin startups: it’s looking to replace powerful and entrenched middlemen.
The big picture
With OneName, Shea indicates that users will be able to regain control of their personal information, sharing it with any app developers that they wish, without the approval of a third party.
Shea says OneName has already been contacted by developers that want to use the its technology to build open-source alternatives to payment solutions like Venmo and instant messaging services.
“Any application that can built on an application like Facebook can be built on top of OneName, but it would be decentralized in nature. There really is no limit, it’s up to the imagination of the developers.”
Today, developers are restricted from easily building these apps, Shea said, as big conglomerates monopolize user data. Companies like Whatsapp and Snapchat, he argues, were able to grow more quickly by having unrestricted access to cellphone technology and its ability to generate picture data.
Shea indicates that this use case is the best example of what allowing unfettered access to user data can allow entrepreneurs to achieve. Whatsapp, it should be noted, was recently sold to Facebook for $19bn.
How OneName works
Unlike with centralized applications, where data is stored by a single entity, Muneeb says that OneName profile data goes directly into the namecoin block chain, meaning OneName does not directly store any data.
Usernames are sent to account holders on the blockchain, and they can in turn put their private keys in cold storage or share them as desired. In this way, profiles are like coins on the system, allowing users to transfer them from one account to another.
Since OneName is using the Namecoin protocol, it also fronts a cost to register users (about 7 US cents for the purchase of the namecoin). Users must then issue a name update within 250 days.
“We do the first update and transfer the profile to the user. This expires in approximately eight months. The user would then have to fire up the Namecoin client and issue a name update, the cost could be zero or just a transaction fee.”
To avoid this potentially cumbersome task, OneName has since added a feature that allows users to update their accounts on its site, as it was heavily requested in initial feedback.
Further, OneName keeps a backup system that uses Shamir’s secret sharing. The developers explained via reddit that this means OneName keeps no information about users’ private keys, but should users lose this information, it can be recovered.
For now, the emphasis is on showing how this innovation can be applied to a simple use case: payments. However, in the long term, Muneeb said OneName will emphasize the non-financial implications of its protocol.
“Right now, our goal is to help people. If you’ve ever seen people put bitcoin addresses on their website or twitter profiles, it’s kind of cumbersome, and we want to make this easier.”
Results so far
The initial launch was not without challenges. Interest was high on reddit, as were critiques of the OneName service, which the developers stressed was still a work in progress.
For example, one user quickly took the username +gavin, which prompted a question about verification from bitcoin core developer Gavin Andresen himself. The team later reserved +gavinandresen for Andresen’s use.
OneName notes it is working on a system that would seek to confirm whether OneName users are who they claim to be using Twitter accounts, Github accounts and more, thereby reducing username squatting.
“Basically, users would tweet out a message that links back to their profile to verify that they are the same person.”
Profile updating was also limited at the time of launch, though there is a workaround for tech-savvy people who are able to download the Namecoin-Qt to perform a name update.
Despite all this, the future is looking bright for OneName, given its easy-to-understand value proposition.
The developers revealed via reddit that a few wallets are working on implementing OneName features. Details, they say, are still forthcoming.