14th November 2018

Public Smart Contract Platforms: Ethereum, but what else?

Hi, I’m Colin Platt, co-host of the Blockchain Insider podcast, and a cryptocurrency and distributed ledger researcher and specialist. This is the third in a series of cryptocurrency/blockchain posts that explore some of the topics that Zeth, Shaun and I found interesting and worth exploring further. As always we hope that you enjoy this series of fortnightly posts, and welcome your feedback.

Note: Nothing in this post should be construed as investment advice, or a recommendation of any particular project or crypto-asset.

Having checked out the world of enterprise DLT platforms in our last post, we now shift back to public blockchains, and more specifically those which focus on smart contracting. If you are reading this, chances are that you have heard about Ethereum, it is –by many measures– the most widely used smart contract-focussed blockchain and cryptocurrency.  Speaking with many firms working in this space, however, it is becoming increasingly clear that there are interests in other competing platforms.  The natural questions that arise are, which ones? and what do they look like?

In our typical style, it is worth making a quick stop to explain what smart contracts are, and what we mean when we say “smart contract-focussed blockchains”. The term “smart contract” originates from a 1997 paper published by Nick Szabo, entitled: Smart Contracts: Formalizing and Securing Relationships on Public Networks. In this paper, Szabo concluded that:

“Smart contracts combine protocols, users interfaces, and promises expressed via those interfaces, to formalize and secure relationships over public networks. This gives us new ways to formalize the digital relationships which are far more functional than their inanimate paper-based ancestors. Smart contracts reduce mental and computational transaction costs, imposed by either principals, third parties, or their tools.”

While looking at these digital functions between multiple parties on a blockchain which can automate the movement of something of value (e.g., cryptographic tokens), brings a load of functionality, things become more complicated when one considers the legal implications of these tools.  The result is that it is likely a misnomer to call these tools “contracts”, and when compared with other “smart” things out there, that may also be an inappropriate terms.

That said, these are cool, especially when integrated closely to a blockchain protocol.  We refer to these married concepts of smart contracts and blockchains as “smart contract-focussed blockchains”.  The architecture and implementation is wide enough to skipper a couple of oil tankers through comfortably, however.

At their base these platforms integrate, at the protocol level, a wider set of scripts than “transaction-focussed blockchains” such as Bitcoin.  Of course adding new functionality than originally intended to Bitcoin is completely possible, either on vertical layers, or through the use of cryptographic primitives, there is little evidence to suggest that these uses were part of the original intention.  Ethereum, EOS, Lisk –and to an extent Stellar– on the other hand come from very different roots, seeking to offer a level of abstraction for developers allowing relatively easy coding of functionality directly into a live network.

Ok, enough with the background. Make with the details!

In the style of the last post, we line up some of the various aspects of these platforms below:

1: Ethereum forks, which closely mirror aspects of the Ethereum project include Ethereum Classic (ETC) and Ubiq (UBQ)

2: Source: https://bitinfocharts.com; Cost of a simple send transaction as at 9 Nov 2018

3: Code compiles down to Web Assembly (WASM), currently the C++ tools are the most mature

4: Lisk, while technically not a smart contracts-focussed platform, works to interface other blockchains and run smart contracts in dedicated side chains

5: Cost of “outgoing transaction”, transactions within a sidechain are free

(https://lisk.io/help-center/getting-started/does-lisk-have-transaction-fees)

There are of course, many other platforms, more or less in current use, including NEO, Cardano, Tezos, and more. What continually amazes us is that ability for the community to keep bringing new ideas and ways to tackle problems, and thereby increasing the number of options and tools available to developers. As these platforms grow and evolve, we are starting to see projects move away from some of the earlier more well known options, to newer platforms. However, don’t forget that like in every technology, not every platform will survive, and those that do may not be recognizable in the future.

Due to the open source nature of most, if not all, public blockchains and with an increasing amount of resources available it has never been easier to get involved.

As we asked with permissioned DLT, we love hearing from you about how you look at these platforms, or which platforms you find interesting.