The advent of the Internet fundamentally changed the way we get / transmit information. Many of you might have forgotten that there was a time before the Internet. There was a time in which technologies such as Radio/TV, etc. were the main mass communication media. Of course, the communication via such older channels was (even now it is) entirely one-way – no means for you to give your feedback or express your views. In addition, you get little chance to connect with other fellow listeners/viewers.
The radio/TV systems require you to be present at a specific place (the place where the communication device is kept) at a certain time. In the past (to some extent perhaps even now in some parts of the world) this constraint had a social advantage- it could bring the whole family together (to view its drama serials, film-based programs etc.).
The advent of the Web has removed many constraints. Unlike in the older communication systems, to access the information we don’t need to be present at a specific location at a specific time. The information is quite persistent, always available to anyone who wants to read so long as she has access to a computing device connected to the Net. The information is kept on some remote server; you send a request and receive some text or some image. The technology allowed us to share documents and images with anyone in the world from anywhere anytime. Of course, it is still one-way communication, read-only and meant for a mass audience; but the audience can access the content whenever they want to. This web with static content is generally known as Web 1.0.
But over time our requirements grew; we wanted to send messages to our friends; we wanted to upload documents/images ourselves and create social networks. That is where Web 2.0 emerged. In this phase of the Web, users of the technology got transformed into content producers too. The right to create/distribute content is no longer restricted to big publishers. Along with them, ordinary folks on the Net can also now generate their own content. It could be a blog post or a Facebook post or a comment on a news story from a big news agency or YouTube video. Users not only create information, but the technology allows them to collaborate on information- Wikipedia is an apt example.
One issue with the Web 2.0 is the accumulation of power in the hands of a handful of big companies. Once you let your data get out, it is lost from your control. In Web 2.0 if one wants to send a message to a friend she has to send it to a central entity such as Skype and then Skype, in turn, sends the message to the friend. If you send a mail via Gmail, it could be monitored by Google. If you compose an article via Google Docs, technically it can be scanned by Google. If we use Uber, a centralised riding app, our travel requests, decisions, etc. goes through its central server. Here, Uber decides how much riders get paid and see where you are going whenever it wants to.
In the current Internet, which is entirely dominated by centralising apps, you don’t own your own data. Instead, big companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon own your data. This means we need a different type of application design to protect our data and privacy. To regain our lost freedom and take the Net back to its good old days, we need to move away from building apps on a centralised infrastructure. The answer is to build a new Internet around decentralisation- applications built around a decentralised identity system, decentralised storage etc. This is where the concept of blockchain-based decentralised apps (DApps) chips in. Some people call this new realm of the Net as Web 3.0. In this regard, you may note: This kind of versioning of the Web does not seem to have any unanimity. Till a few years back, Web 3.0 was viewed as a personalised version of Web 2.0!
The distinct feature of the blockchain technology is that it helps us create a trust system without the intervention of an intermediary. The blockchain technology lets us remove the middlemen from the equation. It is a tamper-resistant distributed database and once something enters the blockchain it is there forever. So it is a perfect place to put identities, agreements, property rights, credentials, etc. In addition, it is totally censorship free. An application that runs on a blockchain infrastructure does not need a separate authentication system. Further, it does not use a central storage; instead, it runs on different nodes of the blockchain network. An open source application that runs autonomously on a public blockchain is called a DApp (short for decentralised application).
Many decentralised applications that run on blockchain infrastructure are being tried out. Think of any centralised online service (eBay, Google Docs, Dropbox etc), you can build a decentralised equivalent. The Graphite Docs, a decentralised alternative to Google’s Office suite, is an example.
Graphite Docs runs on the Blockstack blockchain infrastructure and to get started with the system you need to download the Blockstack client. Once installed, create an account (identity) with it. Here, the identity you create is owned entirely by you as it is encrypted and not stored in any central database. Once the setup is ready, you can access the Graphitapp using this account and log-in to the system (screenshot below).
Once the authentication is successful, you will be presented with Graphite’s dashboard (screenshot below) from which you can access the relevant app.
If you wish to create a Word type document, access the ‘Documents’ icon and start typing down the text. Like other online office suites, one can access the app from anywhere on the Net and invite collaborators and edit the document along with them. As the data is stored in the different nodes of the network, the system will continue to run even if some nodes are removed from the network. Moreover, as the data is stored in encrypted form, nobody can peep into it without the owner’s consent.
The application is just a proof of concept. To be frank, it simply pales in comparison with other established word processing applications like Google Docs or MS-Word. In terms of features, it has to go a long way.
The DApp technology is in its infancy and will certainly improve in the coming days. Graphite Docs is one of the several DApps out there; in fact, we have just touched upon the surface of DApps, a booming segment of the Net. In another edition of this column, we will take a closer look at what is forthcoming in this space.