People don’t care about the ins and outs of the power generation industry; they just want to be able to plug their smartphone or laptop into the power socket and get juiced up. The same is true for Bitcoin and the cryptocurrency space in general.
More and more developers in Southeast Asia are now leveraging Bitcoin in a whole range of practical use cases, perhaps most powerfully in the remittance (sending money as a gift) space. People working abroad can now send money to loved ones back home at a fraction of the cost imposed by banks thanks to Bitcoin.
But someone has to be there in the background making sure the power stations are maintained and working properly so that the devices you increasingly rely on can work. Similarly, in order for Bitcoin to become more widely adopted so that the end user can benefit from these great use cases on a day-to-day level, someone has to be there making sure it all runs smoothly behind the scenes.
One of the main ways an early technology like Bitcoin — and cryptocurrencies in general — can be made to run smoother is by making life easier for the developers who are trying to offer a service or exchange based on the underlying technology.
That technology (or platform, or framework) is known as blockchain, and it’s here where you will find Adam Giles, Mark Smalley and Johnny Mayo of Blockstrap whiling away all their hours. They want to make it easier for developers to build on blockchain, so that those same developers can then in turn make it easier for the world to benefit from real-life applications of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.
Blockstrap sells itself as a ‘complete cryptocurrency development stack for Bitcoin, Litecoin, and Dogecoin’, but don’t let your eyes glaze over just yet. You don’t have to be a developer to appreciate the importance of what they’re doing for the industry — as already validated by Sean Percival of 500 Startups, who invited Blockstrap to take part in their four-month accelerator programme out in Mountain View, California earlier this year.
500 Startups gave Blockstrap US$100,000 in seed funding for a seven per cent share of its company — as is standard with its investment model — but what wasn’t so standard was that 500 Startups almost never invests in startups at the ideas stage. Rui Ma, a mentor at the accelerator speaking at Asia Beat Taiwan 2014 this week, said the exact same thing. It almost always wants to see a product already available.
But 500 Startups broke its own rules in the case of Blockstrap by investing that sizeable figure at the ideas stage, before it even had a real product to offer. There were only two other startups (notably both in the Bitcoin space) that were similarly invested in at the ideas stage in the batch of 28, and Blockstrap has since further raised US$50,000 from angels — and is looking to raise US$100,000 more in an extension of its original seed round.
Here is an accepted definition for blockchain:
A blockchain is a public ledger of all Bitcoin transactions that have ever been executed. It is constantly growing as ‘completed’ blocks are added to it with a new set of recordings. The blocks are added to the blockchain in a linear, chronological order.
Even a definition like this that seems to be simple and coherent will go over most non-technical (and technical!) people’s heads, so Giles attempted to put it in layman’s terms in his interview with e27.
“The underlying technology that powers Bitcoin is called the blockchain. There’s lots of different blockchains for different cryptocurrencies. So Bitcoin runs on one blockchain and Dogecoin runs on another blockchain, but the underlying technology is the same. It’s a distributed ledger that’s made for consensus decision making, so understanding how that works to represent units of value — which is Bitcoin money — is quite complicated. Then interfacing within the network itself is quite complicated,” he said.
“So if you are a hardcore engineering graduate with lots of experience, you’re the sort of person that could read up on it and pick it up relatively quickly. But that means in the ecosystem the number of developers able to deliver Bitcoin projects are far and few between, and that makes them very expensive. At the same time, we have a huge community of mid-level developers who have enough skill sets to understand API documentation and tutorials, but aren’t necessarily going to want to start decoding hex as it comes across a network,” he added.
Blockstrap wants to provide tools and infrastructure that remove all the complicated blockchain technology, and instead provide developers with a standard API and framework to help them achieve what they want to do more easily. WordPress similarly allowed people to build websites without having to understand HTML (though comparisons between Blockstrap and WordPress only work to a point, because they are two very different beasts).
Giles said that it wasn’t an unreasonable estimate to say that Blockstrap’s technology would allow the remaining 90 per cent of developers to start building on blockchain, whereas before it was only the hardcore 10 per cent that could really take a shot at it. It’s not that the mid-level developers (or the 90 per cent) couldn’t do it, but they would have had to commit a lot of additional time and resources to learning it all.
“Do you want to spend four months learning stuff when you can just access it through an API and get stuff done?” he said. This really sums up in a nutshell the startup’s proposition to developers in the cryptocurrency space around the world.
Giles added that ecosystems that are still a few years ahead of Bitcoin, such as the mobile app development space, already have established standards and APIs, meaning mobile developers no longer have to reinvent back-end services for each new app. There are also many mobile-infrastructure-as-a-service companies catering to developers. Ultimately it allows them to get to market much quicker.
“We’re hoping that we become a de facto standard platform on which blockchain developers can build,” he said. There are several other API companies around doing similar things to Blockstrap, including Chain (providing access to blockchain for developers), SoChain, BlockCypher (proving infrastructure for enterprises), and Hello, block.
But unlike the others, Blockstrap is currently the only one offering developers an HTML 5 framework stack to make their lives easier — without having to trust Blockstrap with their ‘private keys’.
Giles and Smalley have been based in Malaysia for nine and 18 years respectively, and were recently a sponsor at Echelon Malaysia 2014 organised by e27, which conveniently took place just a week after they went open beta and started their initial marketing push post-graduation from 500 Startups. They also held a soft launch at TechCrunch Disrupt Europe in London earlier this year between October 20 and 21.
The advent of programmable and digital money means new developers are going to pop up all the time looking to find ways to tap an emerging market area. We are already seeing this with remittances, as mentioned before. The world is becoming digitised, and while currency has for a long time managed to resist the change, it is now giving in.
What all this means is that startups like Blockstrap, operating quietly but powerfully in the background, are not going to go away any time soon. In fact, if anything they are likely to become more relied upon than ever going forward as the cryptocurrency space continues to grow.
“With our framework and our API, suddenly we’ve empowered all of these developers that can go off and do creative and exciting things, and use the blockchain in ways we haven’t even thought of yet. It’s always going to be the unusual uses that take us by surprise,” Giles said.
A future blockchain 2.0 could take things to the next level, representing not only money being sent, but ‘stuff’ in a broader term — a gold bar in a depository or the rights to a dividend payment by a company, for example.
It’s all still very new, but it’s all growing very, very quickly. While it’s still mostly bleeding-edge and far from becoming mainstream, Blockstrap is enabling experimentation on the developer side so that one day the ‘bleeding-edge’ can become a reality — at least in the cryptocurrency space.