In last week’s “Thick Clients, Thin Servers” piece, the actual role of distributed ledgers wasn’t covered in enough depth. This sentence was thrown in at the end:
“All the digital tools being built today, including blockchains, are a part of this computing shift. Blockchains with a shared state can give web services persistence across the Web like cookies but without the abuses of privacy.”
The core thrust of the piece was that the computing industry goes through cycles between thick and thin servers and clients. In some eras the core (server) is the dominant innovation platform such as the 60s with the mainframe and the 10s with The Cloud. At other times, the edge (client) is more important such as the 90s with the PC. If Web3 is the next phase in computing, it will reduce the importance of the server and increase the importance of the edge devices. In that piece, we didn’t take the next logical leap. Blockchains are a peer-to-peer technology, not the first one by any stretch, but arguably the Bitcoin network is the first technically and economically sustainable P2P service. So Web3 is a break with the past. It isn’t a continuation of the client-server model, but the beginning of a new peer-to-peer model. It’s not so much “Thick Clients, Thin Servers” rather “Thick Clients, No Servers”.
But let’s back up, to get to that conclusion, we need to address a few assumptions.
We know we are nearing the end of the smartphone curve of adoption with 4 billion people having one. We also know that the smartphone follows a predictable pattern of a new computing platform every 15 years or so: the mainframe, the PC, the Web, the smartphone. The smartphone era began with the iPhone in 2007, so if the pattern continues, we should be able to start to piece together the elements of the new computing platform whatever we decide to call it.
For years, it has been reasonably clear that blockchain technology will play *some* role in the future computing infrastructure. The debate is one of size. The tech might end up just advancing the field of cryptography and distributed systems, but not resulting in any useful applications. It might support the Bitcoin network and provide a digital store of value. Or go even further and underpin a new global payment network. It might underpin new peer-to-peer applications, including things like self-sovereign identity. But fundamentally, blockchain technologies contains unique and valuable characteristics such as the ability to share state and logic providing persistence that is useful for some applications today, and potentially a lot more applications tomorrow.
The use of blockchain technology assumes future engineering improvements. Protocols will get faster and easier to use for developers. Applications will get faster, cheaper and easier to use. Innovations in cryptography like zero-knowledge will filter through the industry. Distributed system innovations like novel consensus algorithms will be tested at scale. New business models like staking and continuous organisations will be deployed. It will be trivial to build services using peer-to-peer infrastructure instead of client-server infrastructure.
The “Thick Clients, No Servers” concept can be broken down into 6 assumptions:
- The smartphone era is coming to an end as innovation slows down
- A new era will begin which will shift the centre of innovation from the smartphone to “Web3/Untitled New Era”
- Blockchain technology will play some role at the very least kickstarting innovation in cryptography, distributed systems and peer-to-peer designs
- Blockchain technology proves p2p services can technically and economically scale
- More P2P infrastructure and services will be built, scale and compete with previous era services
- Client-server (Web/Smartphone Era) and P2P (Web3/Untitled New Era) infrastructure and services will co-exist until P2P outcompetes previous era services because they are cheaper, more convenient and empower individuals rather than enriching server-side monopolies
So we need to address each of these assumptions in turn. Especially assumption 4. We will continue to explore what comes after the smartphone era and the role of blockchains and peer-to-peer systems in the coming weeks.