My writing with ETHLend often has me diving in uncharted technology. Often I’m doing things that have never been done before on the planet, such as connecting ETHLend to uPort for example. This gives me a unique perspective into the daily lives of decentralized developers. At the same time I work for a very large and customer centric tech company. The mesh of these two perspectives has led me to ponder the following question: Is the first to market advantage of centralized user experience too powerful for decentralized tech to overcome?
Ethereum is often touted as “web3.0”. It’s true that what decentralized technologies are trying to accomplish are magnificent and gargantuan tasks. It’s also true that using ethereum and other decentralized software feels like using the internet in the early days of the web. Back then you often had to do what seemed like mysterious incantations, without much idea as to what they were actually doing. Obviously most cryptocurrency feels very much the same way, with things like the iota wallet showing no balance (1,2,3,4,5,6) and the DAO hack. This makes for an easy comparison to the early web, however, I argue that the comparison is a bit too easy.
User experience on the centralized web is miles ahead of where it was originally, which makes it miles ahead of its decentralized counterparts. I don’t see regular users leaving the comforts of their Mercedes to jump back on the horse and buggy of decentralized user experience. And, more importantly, I believe that this analogue will always be valid.
This is not to say that evangelists and technocrats won’t fully embrace this tech in much the same way as the early internet was embraced. This is because most of us understand what’s happening behind the mask of UI and are much more willing to forgive technical mistakes or ineptitudes than the average user. My concern is not that the tech won’t be adopted, but that the adoption will never grow above a certain percentage of the population.
The Internet vs Itself
As stated above, it’s easy to look to the technological growth of the internet as an example for decentralized tech to emulate. The problem with this perspective is, the internet didn’t have to compete with itself. The internet competed with print, and I would argue, until the user experience felt effortless, it fought an uphill battle in much the same say decentralized tech is fighting now. The problem is, the current state of user experience on the internet is so far ahead of its decentralized counterparts, and will continue to outpace the growth of its decentralized counterparts.
Does UX matter?
One could argue that user experience isn’t everything. The needs decentralized technologies are attempting to fill are not necessarily motivated by user experience (although, I would argue the motivations of a technology should always be driven by user experience, but that’s a different discussion for a different day). However, in order to achieve mass adoption, a superior, or at least equal, decentralized user experience must be achieved.
Put yourself in a layman’s shoes. They don’t understand what the decentralized tech is trying to achieve, they just know it is or isn’t working as well as the centralized version, and will therefore go back to the centralized alternative in the case when it isn’t. Take the case of steemit. They’re paying people to use the platform, but the UX is lagging so far behind that of reddit that it doesn’t matter. People still continue to stay on reddit, and, even after trying steemit will return to reddit.
Engineers Are Users Too
This leads me to my final point. Engineers are users too. Building good, clean, maintainable software, such as reddit, is a difficult enough job as it is. Software developers don’t need to make their difficult jobs any more difficult than they already are. This is exactly what they’d be doing by opting for decentralized tooling. The current state of affairs with respect to infrastructure surrounding the modern web makes software development a pleasant experience. The same cannot be said for the decentralized tool kit. I hope this changes in the future, but I fear that much like user experience, the tooling of the modern web is also so far ahead, and will continue to outpace its decentralized counterparts, that this will never happen.
This is in large part due to the Pareto Law nature of technology. The decentralized web must compete with the centralized web. The centralized web is an internet of billions of dollars in capital, allowing it to hire hundreds of millions of software engineers to work on even the most minute detail of its infrastructure. While the decentralized alternatives have a hundred thousand at most scattered about the globe working for less, and often for free. Don’t get me wrong, I commend their efforts, and count myself as one, considering I spend my weekends writing about this tech.
With cryptocurrency, however, more and more funding is being poured into the decentralized alternatives, which is why it’s even possible to argue against centralization right now. This is actually my main motivation for investing in cryptocurrency. I invest not because I’m interested in buying a lambo, but because I know the only way to spearhead this technology is to put capital into it and see where that takes us. It remains to be seen if this funding can ever eclipse the centralized counterparts, however.
This is why I won’t be quitting my day job any time soon to join the decentralized army full time. As an engineer I firmly believe that decentralized technology is a more robust design than the centralized alternatives, but the cat is out of the bag. Users have grown too accustomed to having their data now. Don’t get me wrong, the engineering involved in bringing centralized software to fruition is absolutely brilliant, and has taken decades to perfect. I believe decentralized tech will get there one day. But when that day comes, the bar for user experience will be moved still higher by centralized technology.