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Blockchain needs a black box

A key theme at the Consensus 2018 conference was that even though many attendees might understand the minutiae of sidechains and zero-knowledge proofs, end users do not — and that's a good thing. What developers need to do, according to multiple speakers, is come up with easy-to-use applications for deploying and using distributed ledger technology.

Case in point: Amber Baldet's highly anticipated startup Clovyr LLC. Along with co-founder Patrick Nielsen, Baldet unveiled the new platform, which allows enterprises to create decentralized applications, or dapps, in an interface where they can mix and match different components, like Quorum or Parity for the network and Thomson Reuters for data. Dubbing it "simply an open ecosystem" and "not another blockchain," Baldet said Clovyr seeks to solve the problem that "it's really hard [for enterprises] to explore and experiment." Baldet and Nielsen both formerly worked on blockchain initiatives for JPMorgan Chase & Co., then left to start Clovyr.

A survey from consulting firm Deloitte LLP supported Baldet's assessment. Among the results, which were discussed at the conference, was that the second-highest barrier to companies using the technology is implementation. The biggest hurdle was regulatory issues, and the third-highest was security threats.

Another platform announcement came from technology provider ConsenSys LLC. Steve Cerveny introduced Kaleido, a ConsenSys business that he founded and for which he serves as CEO. Kaleido is aimed at helping enterprises build blockchains and has, among other features, the ability to link private networks to Ethereum, a popular platform for building decentralized applications. "What [Salesforce.com Inc.] did for [customer relationship management], Kaleido is doing for blockchains," Cerveny said. Kaleido has partnered with Union Bank of the Philippines to test the technology, and one of the goals of the project is addressing the unbanked population in the country.

Jack Dorsey, chairman and CEO of Square Inc., also spoke to the need for simpler apps. This is a driving force behind Square's products, he said, including its Cash app, which has a feature that allows users to buy and sell bitcoin. The primary use of the Cash app, however, is peer-to-peer payments, similar to PayPal Holdings Inc.'s Venmo LLC. Dorsey also notably voiced his support for a native, digital currency for the internet. While he is not sure what it will ultimately be, he made clear his preference: "I hope it's bitcoin," he said.

If these chains could talk

But as more companies build their own blockchains, the issue arises of how to reconcile transactions across multiple chains, often referred to as interoperability. On top of the complexity of having different chains operated by different organizations, some developers have also created what are known as sidechains, which are like child chains that can be used to process transactions off of the parent chain.

As with other areas of the blockchain world, some solutions have emerged. SALT Lending Holdings Inc. CEO Shawn Owen expressed support for efforts the Aion Foundation has made in the "multichain" area. In April, Aion announced the release of its Kilimanjaro network, which is aimed at blockchain interoperability. SALT provides loans backed by cryptocurrency assets. At the Consensus conference, Axoni also unveiled a project in collaboration with Clearmatics Technologies LTD., where a derivative contract was created on one chain and settled on another. Axoni and Clearmatics are both firms focused on applying distributed ledger technology to financial applications.

On the lighter side…

* Crypto Jewelry had a booth and, as its name implies, showcased a series of rings and coins inspired by cryptocurrency.

SNL Image

Bitcoin jewelry at the Consensus 2018 conference
hosted by CoinDesk on May 15.
Source: S&P Global Market Intelligence

* The blockchain-enabled beer vending machine was dispensing suds. The machine anonymously verified the user's age using an app created by Civic Technologies Inc., a company that specializes in blockchain-based identity verification.

* Long Island ICX Ice Tea was served during cocktail hour. ICX is the digital currency created by the ICON Foundation and the choice of drink might have just been due to the location of the conference in New York. But we wonder if it was a subtle nod to Long Island Iced Tea Corp., which made headlines for changing its name to Long Blockchain Corp. (and seeing its shares skyrocket as a result).

* The relatively obscure programming language Haskell was a common punch line. Clovyr will help users write smart contracts in "languages they are used to," said Nielsen, "...even Haskell."