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What Web 3 Can Learn From Steve Jobs
Three ways to "think different" about smart contract design.
Hey, friends—welcome back to online/offline, a weekly newsletter about technology, culture, and the future. This week, I share my first OpEd for CoinDesk (original publication). This newsletter is meant to be a conversation, so do reply/DM me with your thoughts/questions. And if you haven’t already, make sure to subscribe below.
Legendary technologist and Apple (AAPL) CEO Steve Jobs may have been better with words than he was with design. He recognized that “every once in a while, a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything.” From the printing press to the telegram to the iPhone – these products not only changed entire industries, they changed the world and the way we interact with it.
When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007, he emphasized its innovative user interface that replaced the typical smartphone keyboard with a wide, multi-touch screen. As he predicted, this breakthrough product decision created a new standard for consumer hardware and led to competitive innovations. There likely would be no Snapchat or WhatsApp without the iPhone.
Today, enthusiasts hope that Web 3 changes everything. Its differentiating technology, smart contracts made up of immutable code and data on the blockchain, aims to cut out the need for middlemen in finance to help creators retain ownership and more. Similar to the iPhone’s trajectory, enthusiasts posit that smart contracts innovation will create new and improved industries and behaviors.
However, products built using smart contracts are more analogous to early smartphones than the iPhone. They are miles away from decentralization, aggressively technical and composed of discordant user interfaces.
First, you have to research and choose the right wallet for the blockchain(s) you intend to use.
Second, you must write down your 12- to 24-word seed phrase (password) and keep it somewhere safe and never lose it. Then you must on-ramp fiat currency into cryptocurrency – mind the regulatory gaps, depending on your domicile.
You may or may not succeed. If you don’t give up you have to learn about gas fees, swaps, slippage, bridges and other concepts to buy or trade tokens. The reality is that people are accustomed to beautifully designed, frictionless products. Most will give up.
Simply put, Web 3 products today are not so smart and hard to use. There will be no widespread adoption until builders rethink everything and create with consumers in mind.
This is where I expect enthusiasts to point out upcoming technical updates that will make Web 3 cheaper and simpler. I’m optimistic, but those updates remain in progress. In the meantime, builders should rethink three key things: language, custody and utility.
Rethink language: The crypto-to-Web 3 rebrand did wonders for how we talk about Ethereum innovation. However, the language that builders use remains inaccessible to most people. What exactly do we mean by composable? Permissionless? Trustless? These terms sound more complex than they are. One of my favorite crypto wallets, a considerably consumer-friendly one, labels Polygon as a “sidechain with its own consensus mechanisms.” This means nothing to the everyday person without a deep knowledge of Ethereum networks. In fact, that language can be considered hostile and inscrutable. We need to change the way we talk about Web 3 products and technology, lest we discourage curious newcomers.
Rethink custody: 75% of respondents in a 2019 Google study expressed frustration in keeping track of their passwords, which tend to be basic. How does Web 3 expect people to secure and remember 12 or more random words that make up seed phrases? In the short term, builders should explore creative, custodial solutions that accommodate and incrementally change consumer behaviors. For example, an internet leisure organization called Poolsuite launched membership non-fungible tokens (NFT) last year with a key benefit: mobile wallet integration. iPhone users can add their Poolsuite NFT to their Apple Wallet and use the app to unlock future experiences. This approach shows how Web 3 can meet people where they are today while working toward a decentralized future.
Rethink utility: Several Web 3 protocols and products introduced in the last few months mimic existing platforms and features. Why? We don’t really need another Twitter, skeuomorphic wallet, or Bored Ape Yacht Club NFT derivative. Instead, builders should leverage novel technologies at their disposal to create new experiences for consumers. We’ve just begun to scratch the surface of generative artificial intelligence (AI) NFTs for storytelling and identity, the bridge between online and physical goods, and tokenized economies. How these ideas manifest will depend on builders pushing the limit of what’s possible with both software and hardware.
One could argue that friction is good for innovation. However, there’s entirely too much friction in Web 3 today and it’s detrimental to widespread adoption. Ultimately, Web 3 should feel like an iPhone – an intuitive and essential part of life. Changes in how we communicate, how people hold and use products, and Web 3’s realized value will make this reality possible.