The buzzword of the moment in the frothier portions of the technology press is inescapable: “Web 3”. This is a collective word for a new generation of decentralised online applications using blockchain technologies, and it follows on from a similar excitement in the mid-2000s surrounding so-called “Web 2” websites that broke away from the static pages of the early Internet.
It’s very evident reading up on Web 3, that there is a huge quantity of hype involved in talking about this Next Big Thing. If this were April 1st it would be tempting to pen a lengthy piece sending up the coverage, but here in January that just won’t do. Instead it’s time to peer under the hype and attempt to discern what Web 3 really is from a technology standpoint. Sure, a Web 3 application uses blockchain technology, often reported breathlessly as “the Blockchain” as though there were only one, but how? What is the real technology beneath it all?
Where Did All This Web 3 Stuff Come From Anyway?
In its earliest days, the web could be found only in academia, from Tim Berners-Lee at CERN, and then from others such as the National Center For Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois. In the mid-1990s the vast majority of web sites were served by the NCSA’s HTTPD server software, which served as the basis for the later hugely popular Apache project. Sites from this era were later dubbed Web 1.0, and operated as static HTML pages which could be refreshed only by reloading a page.
And so we come to Web 3, and here we have a problem when it comes to understanding the technology of it all. Blockchain technologies lie at at its very root, but there’s precious little to be said about how this happens. We’re told that this will decentralise the holding of data as practiced by traditional monolithic web app providers such as Facebook or Twitter who store everything on their own servers into new Web 3 providers who instead store it through so-called Decentralized Autonomous Organizations on a distributed blockchain. The processing of the blockchain will result in a digital currency, which will provide a monetary incentive for the miners who keep the application running by processing the blockchain, and presumably make a tidy profit for the owners of the DAO.
We Need A Bit More Than “It Uses A Blockchain”.
It’s in that last sentence that we find the problem with Web 3 as it’s portrayed, because while there are doubtless online applications that could use a blockchain for storage, the inclusion of a cryptocurrency sprinkles it with pixie dust and the real story becomes obscured by a cloud of hype from people with a swarm of little Bitcoin symbols buzzing around their vision. Everything becomes a potential vehicle for a Web 3 DAO, even if there’s little information as to what benefits this could confer.
Of course, while for those who’ve drunk enough Kool-Aid it’s obvious that all currently operating websites should move immediately to a blockchain, it’s difficult to see why it would be of any benefit at all to for example a site like Hackaday.
Digging a little further though, we encounter smart contracts. A smart contract is a piece of code which once enacted is executed only when a defined set of conditions are present. They are built into the fabric of some blockchain implementations, and since Ethereum is a well-known example it’s that blockchain which underpins may Web 3 proposals.
As a very simple example, Alice might sell an item to Bob for 1 CryptoUnit to be paid when the item is delivered, and encode the transasction as a smart contract that forms an entry in a block on the CryptoUnit blockchain. When Bob receives the item he places a fresh entry saying so and specifying the contract in the previous entry, and in mining the block containing the fresh entry the code is executed and the required amount is automatically transferred to Alice.
If your comment is that Alice and Bob’s example is a little staged you would of course be correct, but there are plenty of real-world places in which a transaction currently done online via a privately-held centralised service might be done in this way using a blockchain. Perhaps a crowdfunding site could use a smart contract to trigger payments once a campaign had been funded, for example.
Just Because you Can, Should You?
So we’ve taken a stab at finding where the tech lies in Web 3, and come up with a few pointers. The question then is now not what applications might be placed on a blockchain, but whether indeed they should be. It’s one that will be answered by a host of Web 3 startups, but we’d expect the process not to be without bumps in the road.
Questions of energy consumption in blockchain processing will not prove easy to bypass, nor will those of vulnerability in what will become a whole new arena for attack vectors. Then there’s the interesting prospect that a much-used blockchain will eventually grow to the point at which its sheer unwieldiness brings its own problems when using it to underpin applications.
At the time of writing the Ethereum blockchain size is still measured (just) in hundreds of gigabytes, but what challenges will be faced in processing smart contracts when it inevitably reaches the hundreds of terabytes, or even petabytes? Even then, technical concerns aside, there’s the evergreen question of what it will mean for blockchain-based services when market fluctuations mean that their cryptocurrencies fall to the point of unprofitability for miners?
It’s clear that while the technical underpinnings for Web 3 are definitely real despite the sometimes overwhelming hype, their immediate benefit from the point of view of an end user is not as clear-cut as AJAX was for Web 2. We don’t want to shoot the idea down in flames, but neither are we quite ready to take a long pull on that Kool-Aid. It will be interesting to be observers over the coming years, and see what the real world makes of services using the technology.