RSK is launching its bitcoin smart contracts platform in beta today.
Formerly known as Rootstock, the startup has long been lauded for its potential to pave the way for the implementation of ethereum-style smart contracts on bitcoin, something enthusiasts believe will keep the world's largest cryptocurrency competitive with the platform that arguably pioneered the idea that more complex self-executing code could be run on a blockchain.
But while it would be easy enough for bitcoin users that want more complex smart contracts to merely make the switch, some users believe that, as bitcoin is the largest and most secure cryptocurrency, more experimental features that debut on other networks will eventually make their way to its network. The idea is that in doing so, they can capitalize on bitcoin's impressive startup infrastructure and serve different users.
Yet, RSK's version of the functionality doesn't quite upgrade the bitcoin blockchain itself. The capability will rather be brought to bitcoin via a sidechain, which moves tokens from the main bitcoin blockchain to a compatible network operated with the help of 25 companies.
Still, RSK CEO Diego Gutierrez Zaldivar believes the advance will effectively provide the same level of utility to potential users.
He told CoinDesk:
"This is the first time that there's going to be a smart contract platform powered by the bitcoin network."
Like ethereum's implementation, RSK's sidechain will use a Turing-complete language and issue blocks roughly every 10 seconds.
A controlled sidechain
In this way, RSK's "federated" sidechain is also a notable workaround to the difficult process of changing bitcoin's code (most recently seen during bitcoin's scaling debates).
But that difficulty comes because one small change can have technical repercussions on other parts of the system, so much so, that changing a blockchain's rules is often compared to tearing out and repairing the engine of an airplane while it's flying. Because of this, developers have long sought to make it easier to use more experimental technologies on bitcoin with so-called "sidechains," which pin newer blockchains with innovative technical features to bitcoin.
Users can then test and try these new features by moving money onto the sidechain.
Yet, because merge-mined sidechains, at a technical level, are not ready for primetime, RSK developers are relying on a group of companies – known as a "federation" – who collectively control the money put into the sidechain (the original dream of sidechains is moving money back and forth between the main bitcoin network and the sidechain without trusting anyone).
RSK developers and business partners have been running experimental smart contracts on the testnet for some time. And currently, they are the only ones who can access the so-called "smart bitcoin" (SBTC) needed to run smart contracts on the sidechain.
According to RSK co-founder Gabriel Kurman, this is for security purposes.
"The network will still have limited access until we finalize the onboarding on most of the bitcoin miners and federation members," he said.
And adding to that, RSK head of business development Henry Sraigman, said, "We expect to open the access to the general public as soon as we complete the onboarding of the RSK Federation members and we add more hashing power to the network in the coming weeks."
That said, the mainnet launch is still a big step for bitcoin and one that many in the community will likely greet with enthusiasm.
In addition to the 25 companies that are part of RSK's federation, Zaldivar said that bitcoin's miners have "expressed interest" in being involved. More than half, he claims, are working with RSK right now.
"The idea is to start on the mainnet, strengthening the security of the platform, and hopefully by May, we can announce the production version of the mainnet," he said.
According to RSK executives, they're hoping the company's previously-announced bug bounty program, which rewards developers in cash prizes of up to $5000, could be a part of driving better security on the platform. And as an open-source project, a "global community" will be able to vet and test the platform.
And while no one knows how long it will take for trustless sidechains to be implemented on bitcoin, Zaldivar, for one, is optimistic, telling CoinDesk:
"It's already solved. We hope to have it by 2018 – the sooner the better – but, as everything in bitcoin, security should be first."
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