Ask any blockchain developer or crypto entrepreneur what keeps the industry from breaking through to the mainstream and most will tell you the same thing: dapps have a usability problem.
User interfaces are clunky, the underlying tech is too conspicuous and confusing, and barriers to entry—like the need to secure, fund, and store a cryptocurrency wallet before you can even think of using the app—are still far too onerous.
Roneil Rumburg, CEO of the blockchain-based SoundCloud competitor Audius, thinks his company might just have a solution—and its giving it away to the crypto world, free and open source.
Late last month, Audius, backed by powerhouse Silicon Valley VC firms General Catalyst and Lightspeed, released Hedgehog, a new “open-source, client-side Ethereum wallet” that requires nothing more from users than what they’re already accustomed to providing: a username and password. The idea is to allow new crypto-curious users to interact with a dapp without requiring additional extensions or other cumbersome hurdles—and without centralizing control of each users’ private keys.
In other words, if it works, it could be a way to get users through the door—and without sacrificing the benefits of decentralization and encryption.
“It really is an arduous step to ask a user to casually tryout your app and, ‘oh, by the way, you need to install a Chrome extension, you need to set it up, you need to write down this mnemonic passphrase and put it in a safety deposit box.’” Rumburg said. “It’s just not a reasonable thing to expect someone to do.”
Rumburg, a Stanford alum and self-described “distributed-systems nerd,” says Hedgehog will solve that. It creates a “familiar sign-up flow for an end user” while, in the background, generating a wallet on the user’s behalf, enabling a new user to immediately “interact with on-chain contracts directly without even knowing that that’s even happening under the hood,” he said.
That initial sign-up process is crucial, says Audius’s CEO, and it’s a big reason why dapps today struggle to onboard the average tech user. Rumburg says that he often hears from fellow crypto entrepreneurs who lament the fact that their prospective users frequently won’t complete the dapp onboarding process once prompted to install a third-party wallet.
That kind of drop-off rate is a killer, and for Audius to get off the ground, solving that onboarding problem became a must.
Music to crypto’s ears
Rumburg, a computer science major who began tinkering with crypto by GPU mining bitcoin from his dorm room in 2012, says that the idea for Audius has been years in the making, though only recently has the technology caught up to the vision. Audius, he said, is designed to “give artists and the rest of the music community the power to connect with one another and build that relationship directly.” The goal is to become a decentralized marketplace, built on open-source software, that aligns the incentives of content producers with that of both consumers and the platform on which the content is being shared.
In other words, Audius aims to be the opposite of platforms like Google, Facebook, or other “centralized content aggregators,” said Rumburg, in which the “the people using the thing are the product to be bought and sold.” If “Audius the company” were to ever go away, he explained, the artists who depend on Audius—the decentralized marketplace—could still continue to use it.
The company got a boost in mid-2018 when it raised $5.5 million in a Series A led by General Catalyst, Lightspeed, Kleiner Perkins and Pantera Capital, and has since released a private beta that makes use of a dual-token model to power its platform. But before Audius can be released broadly—a public launch expected later this year—Rumburg said several kinks had to be worked out. And Hedgehog has helped to move the project forward.
“We’re getting pretty close to the level of robustness and quality we feel we need to go public,” he said.
In developing Hedgehog for Audius, however, Rumburg says his team realized that its approach had wider implications for the industry. What Hedgehog does, essentially, is allow app developers to take a username and password and “use those two pieces of information to encrypt a locally generated wallet and store the encrypted wallet on a centralized server,” Rumburg explained.
“So, we run a server for Audius that stores everyone’s encrypted wallet, but we don’t actually have custody of, or access to, those keys, because they’re encrypted,” he said. “And then when a user goes and signs up on a new device, they can essentially put in that same username and password, their client can pull up that encrypted artifact from the server, decrypt it locally, and get back the wallet that they need to interact with the product.”
The tech “maps nicely” to several other use cases, Rumberg said, and is ideally suited for “low-financial value” applications, such as games.
And gaming, of course, has long been widely considered as the prime gateway for mass crypto adoption.
Crypto’s gaming trojan horse
Since Hedgehog is open source, its code freely available on GitHub, Rumberg said game developers could fork the code and tweak the project to fit their individual needs. “Game developers could allow folks to interact with and use their game,” said Rumberg, allow them to earn their first in-game, digital asset—something of real, financial value—and then prompt them with “how do you want to get it?”
“I think that feels a lot more compelling to me than to tell a user who’s signing up for your game: ‘Oh, you want to play Gods Unchained? Great. Go download MetaMask, go set it up, go through 15 hoops, and 20 minutes later when you get back, you can come play our game.’”
And whether its a game, a music app, or some other “broad consumer use case,” it all comes down to the same thing, said Rumburg: “People want to be able to show up and interact with the thing in a very low-commitment way.”
Blockchain developers would do well to find ways to ease users in, prove to them the value of the application, “before you prompt them to go down the crypto rabbit hole,” Rumburg said. And Hedgehog could be one of those ways.
But whatever tool ultimately does the trick, Audius’s co-founder is convinced that the crypto industry must “be able to compete with these larger tech incumbents on the same terms that they do from a usability standpoint.”
“Users aren’t going to use our things if they are so much harder to use than Google, Facebook, SoundCloud, Steam or whatever it is,” said Rumburg. “We now have the tools available for us to be able to do that. It’s just a question of doing it.”