Who will win the Smart Contracts race?

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Vitalik Buterin’s Ethereum is widely known as the ‘go to’ blockchain technology for smart contracts. But, this week, Ripple’s former CTO Stefan Thomas has thrown down the gauntlet to challenge the leader with a new smart contracts platform.

Thomas left Ripple in May and now he is launching Codius, an open- source project designed by Ripple and released in a beta version back in 2014. So, it isn’t exactly new, but Thomas is positioning it as the core product of his new company Coil.

Coil’s ambition is to change the way websites monetise their content.

Monetising web content is clumsy

According to Thomas, the current way in which web content is monetised is a clumsy workaround that uses adverts, paywalls and data harvesting. His concept uses an interledger. This is an open-source protocol that allows payments to be sent across different ledgers. Basically, it allows users’ browsers to make micropayments to the websites they visit.

How Codius works

How will that work, and how will it affect consumers? Codius allows the use of a “revenue disbursement contract” that will collect revenues when consumers watch a movie, for example. The collected revenue will be paid to all the parties involved in putting that movie online, but it won’t be made in “batch payments’, it will be paid out in a stream of smaller amounts. And, those people who read newspapers with a paywall will make payments via a smart contract that manages payment authorisations and the subscriptions.

Codius has already released an instruction manual for uploading Codius in an effort to get developers to start using the platform immediately, and it seems that the call has been heard.

Who is using Codius?

Telindus, the IT solutions subsidiary of the Belgian telecoms group Proximus has said it will be using Codius to “push forward novel direct e-commerce models.”

Game platforms, Unity, Zynga and Kabam also plan to use it for new gaming platforms. Josh Williams, who invested in Unity et al, and is now creating his own gaming platforms said: “Teams in games and elsewhere are building on Ethereum and running into the cost and scalability issues we’re all familiar with. Codius has great potential in addressing these concerns, and we are eager to work with it.”

Codius offers better scalability

And there is the dreaded word that Ethereum’s team will fear most: scalability. We all know that Ethereum is still working on resolving its scaling issues. It looks like Codius is offering a solution that neatly bypasses that problem. Thomas said: “The people that are reaching out to us are saying, ‘Hey, we’re experimenting on Ethereum. We’re running into scalability issues. It’s too expensive, too slow. It’s not flexible enough. We don’t like writing in this awkward language.’”

It isn’t the only challenger to take on Ethereum, but it looks like it might be one of the strongest contenders to win the race to bring smart contracts into mainstream use.

The latest Ethereum roadmap

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I’ve been heavily invested in Ethereum since it appeared, so I was very interested in Vitalik Buterin’s recent talk at Devcon (he’s the creator of Ethereum), which he called “a modest proposal.” He told his audience that he has been “quietly working on a new long-term plan for the future of the blockchain network.” It is a essentially a three to four year roadmap outlining his vision of the potential technical developments that Ethereum can achieve, and as anyone who owns ETH will have noted, the value of the coins showed some upwards movement after his speech.

Enter ‘sharding’

What does his vision include? At the heart of it is something called ‘sharding’.  Without getting too technical, this is defined as: “A database shard is a horizontal partition of data in a database or search engine. Each individual partition is referred to as a shard or database shard. Each shard is held on a separate database server instance, to spread load.” This was something that Ethereum watchers had expected to happen, but Bueterin finally solidified his strategy for using the shard technique.

Expanding Ethereum’s scalability

His roadmap points to problems with the platform and solutions for fixing them. His focus in the talk was on scalability, as Ethereum nodes need to store everything that ever happened on the network. Buterin emphasised the need for solutions that mitigate expensive storage costs that could escalate exponentially as the system expands.

It was clear from his presentation that he wanted to encourage Ethereum developers to think about this aspect when he said: “The amount of activity on the blockchain is orders of magnitude larger than it was just a couple of years ago,” and pointed to daily transaction rates and the 20,000 nodes plus that are now part of the network.

Buterin’s view of sharding

Buterin seems to see ‘sharding’ as the most probable solution to the problem. This way of partitioning data into subsets means that each node would only have to store a small amount of data from the entire network. But, Buterin wants a system where “the underlying math would hold the system accountable, and if they need it, nodes could rely on other nodes for data.” How to execute this in practice and ensure security, i.e. no nodes sending other nodes false information, is something that researchers have been looking into.

From the talk we now know that Buterin has a less conventional approach to using sharding. He is proposing to split Ethereum into different types of shards- there will be a main shard comprising the current Ethereum network, and there would be other shards, which Buterin calls other “universes.”

Most importantly, Buterin believes the partitioning would allow for more aggressive changes on the smaller shards, and more cautious changes on the main blockchain. This will ensure Ethereum’s platform maintains stability while developers can test new changes.

Other announcements included upgrading the smart contract technology and progress on eWASM, his project for running Ethereum on a web browser. He also hinted that a lot of the work in progress is much more advanced than anyone guessed when he finished hi stalk by saying, “Basically we’re just inches away from a proof of concept in python.”