Mike Hearn: How Bitcoin’s Technology Advanced in 2014

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Bitcoin and code

In just a few days, bitcoin will have been in development for five years.

For those of us who watched it grow from a humble Windows-only desktop application to today’s global infrastructure, bitcoin’s technology is simultaneously astonishing and frustrating. We marvel at how far it’s come, and yet are impatient with how far it still has to go.

Most media stories reviewing bitcoin’s 2014 focus exclusively on the price. So, instead, let’s take a look at what we achieved as a community this year, and take a look ahead at where things might go in 2015.

Nailing the basics

Bitcoin 0.1 was a prototype designed to show Satoshi’s new algorithm could work. It didn’t have any security features, there wasn’t any convenient way to back up your wallet and, even though preventing double spends was fundamental to what bitcoin did, the app wouldn’t actually tell you if a double spend had occurred.

A lot of the time since has been spent on making the basics of being your own bank easy and safe. An attack on the peer-to-peer network in February prompted wallet developers to upgrade their support for showing double spends in their user interfaces.

Mainstream wallets significantly reduced the quantity of random numbers they need – although this change may seem obscure, such wallets are easier to back up, safer and tend to give users better privacy.

This year also saw massive progress on one of the most pressing issues facing bitcoin technology: security. Seeds planted in previous years started to bear fruit.

SatoshiLabs successfully launched the ambitious Trezor project, bringing better-than-banking-grade security to bitcoiners who are willing to buy the keyring-attachable device. Wider support from more wallet apps should arrive in 2015.

Bitpay’s Copay project developed a multisig wallet for desktop, web and mobile that supports money controlled by social groups, like a board of directors, or parties in a dispute mediated transaction.

And a new wallet simply called Bitcoin Authenticator entered developer testing; it provides decentralised two-factor authentication between desktops/laptops and Android smartphones.

Reinforcing the core

One theme I’ve talked about constantly in the last 18 months was the lack of resources being put into development of Bitcoin Core, and shared infrastructure more generally. Luckily the community rallied around, and in 2014 things got significantly better.

The Bitcoin Foundation announced a pivot towards core development and hired two extra developers who now handle the daily tasks of running the Core project. This allows Gavin Andresen to focus on longer-term planning and research.

The foundation is funding Sergio Damien Lerner to do security audits, Saïvann Carignan to continue his independent development of bitcoin.org and Addy Yeow to run a network metrics service. And most of the remaining core developers who weren’t already working on bitcoin full time joined Blockstream, a company that raised $21 million from investors with an explicit mandate to focus on building the ecosystem and infrastructure.

At the start of 2014, our problem was that we were running a multi-billion dollar financial infrastructure on top of software that had fewer full time developers than Google’s April Fool jokes. The Foundation was (very reasonably) splitting its effort between development and defending bitcoin in Washington. At the end of 2014, there are now dedicated groups lobbying for us all around the world, and all the people who worked on the protocol and software in previous years can keep doing so.

Our challenge now is using our newfound resources wisely. Most Silicon Valley companies have product managers: people who tell the developers what to do and (in theory) ensure they focus on the real needs of real users instead of things that are fun to implement. Bitcoin doesn’t have anything like that – so we’ll have to make sure we stay focused on mainstream success ourselves.

Getting ready for a great 2015

Bitcoin is a long-term project, so the theme of plans being laid years in advance is common. What might we see next year? Here are a few things already in development that I’m hoping to see in the next 12 months (though I can offer no guarantees):

  • New cross-platform and decentralised wallets
    • Bitcoin Authenticator with Android-based two-factor authentication
    • MultiBit HD, the followup to the popular MultiBit Classic. A new UI, wallet words, Trezor support and fully deterministic.
  • A better core protocol: more scalable and with the annoying malleability quirks finally removed.
  • StrawPay, a new 'hub and spoke' method of routing micropayments that builds on the payment channel implementation work done in 2013 by myself and Matt Corallo. Payment channel networks provide a way to rapidly route tiny micropayments around in a fast and secure way that is off the blockchain, but still uses the bitcoin protocol.
  • … and finally, of course, the launch of my own project for the last eight months: Lighthouse, an open-source app for all-or-nothing bitcoin crowdfunding.

Ultimately, people will buy bitcoins for the useful things they can do. If the last five years were about putting the basics in place, let’s make the next five about solving real problems for the person on the street.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, CoinDesk.

For those of us who watched it grow from a humble Windows-only desktop application to today’s global infrastructure, bitcoin’s technology is simultaneously astonishing and frustrating. We marvel at how far it’s come, and yet are impatient with how far it still has to go.

Most media stories reviewing bitcoin’s 2014 focus exclusively on the price . So, instead, let’s take a […]


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