Blockstack Browser and Token

Today Muneeb and Ryan from Blockstack delivered the morning keynote at the Consensus 2017 conference here in New York. They made two important announcements: first the availability of the developer edition of the Blockstack Browser and second the news that there will be a Blockstack Token. To understand the importance of both of these announcements, it useful to look at some of the history of the Internet. 

The Internet got going in the early 1960s but for the first quarter century its usage grew slowly. Broad usage really didn’t take off until the creation of an easy to use consumer layer with the Web and the availability of developer tools in the mid 1990s. Now fast forward to today. We all use the Internet every day for nearly everything we do. But now we are seeing some critical problems that have emerged based on the basic architecture of the Internet. For instance there is a lot of blind trust into lower level infrastructure, such as certificate authorities that can result in large scale man-in-the-middle attacks (for example a recent event in Turkey which resulted in endusers believing they were connected directly to Google when they were not). Even more importantly, state in the current Internet is maintained in databases operated by companies such as Twitter, Facebook and Amazon which hold and control users’ data. 

Blockstack aims to resolve these problems using blockchain technology and by building the developer tools and consumer layer to make this new decentralized Internet broadly available. The Blockstack system has now been up and running for 3 years and has a community of over 5,000 members. 

How does Blockstack address these problems? With Blockstack endusers (individuals and companies) control their identities, storage and payment credentials directly. This is accomplished by keeping the namespaces — both enduser names and addresses for applications — in a blockchain. The blockchain here is a virtual chain that currently sits on top of the Bitcoin blockchain but could be migrated to another blockchain in the future. In fact the chain has been migrated once already as it started out on top of Namecoin. The virtual chain layer requires only minimal guarantees from the underlying layer and allows for separate scaling. 

The Blockstack blockchain itself in turn only contains keys and pointers. All the enduser data is stored in existing storage systems, such as S3, Dropbox, Google Drive etc. But the way it is stored there is fully encrypted and distributed across these systems. That way each underlying storage system is used like a dumb hard drive and the use of multiple systems provides resilience at high performance. This is provided by Blockstack’s Atlas Network and Gaia Storage components.

Now that all of these components are in place, how do consumers access these systems and how can developers build applications? This is where the Blockstack Browser comes in. By running a local application, consumers can use any existing web browser (Chrome, Firefox, etc) to access the new decentralized systems. Right from there they can do things like register names, make payments, configure their storage. This feels just like using an existing centralized system and requires no special skills or knowledge. Similarly, developers can now write decentralized applications without having to learn all the details of the underlying systems. Instead, they can write in Javascript and implement the authentication and data access APIs exposed by Blockstack. 

Finally, how does the Blockstack Token fit into all of this? For the Blockstack network to work there is some degree of scarcity that has to be maintained. For instance, there is a need for names to be unique. Whenever you have scarcity, you need an allocation mechanism. To that end Blockstack will introduce a token some time later this year. The Blockstack Token will be mined at the layer of the virtual chain and will power operations such as name registration. It will also be used to let Blockstack network participants vote on protocol changes, including a potential migration to another underlying blockchain in the future. 

So if you are a developer and want to start building apps for the Blockstack Network, head on over and download the developer preview.

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