It’s Browser World War II! A half dozen crypto companies, ranging from giants such as Coinbase and Binance, to smaller startups such as AlphaWallet, are competing for market share in the growing cryptoverse. The battleground? An application—call it a “browlett”—that integrates a wallet, to safely store crypto, with a browser that connects to dapp marketplaces, services, exchanges and much more.
Just as Netscape and Internet Explorer—during the so-called Browser Wars—made Web 1.0 accessible for the first time to millions of people 25 years ago, the browlett is both the on ramp to Web 3.0, and its defining application. It adds the money layer to the social layer (Web 2.0.) to the Web 1.0 browser itself. And it’s set to be huge.
Coinbase, Binance, MetaMask, Brave are working on, or have released, new and improved mobile wallets that integrate dapp browsers. (See our round-up, here.) With the ability to surf a catalog of dapps, buy and sell tokens, manage collectibles, pay for services and tickets and access social media, the browlett could end up being at least as important as the browser was to Web 2.0: The wallet-browsers will also control your identity, too.
“Wallets integrating with browsers (or vice versa) could do the same thing for crypto as Netscape did for the early web,” says Evgeny Ponomarev, co-founder & CEO at Fluence Labs, which is working on the infrastructure for Web 3.0. “However, the devil is in details and the delivery matters.”
Just yesterday, Coinbase announced that Coinbase Wallet users can now begin to store bitcoin directly in their wallet apps—a huge steps towards creating “the world’s leading user-custodied crypto wallet,” the company said in a statement. Previously, the app only supported Ethereum, Ethereum Classic, and Ethereum-based tokens, and Coinbase says it plans to add support for Bitcoin Cash and Litecoin in the near future as well.
And early today, the OG browser company, Opera, released a beta version of its popular Android browser-wallet, which will allow users in Norway, Denmark and Sweden to buy Ether. Its older wallet has already been downloaded over 100 million times around the world.
For Ponomarev, whose firm analyzed the performance of 100’s of dapps, “the obstacle for the wallets which integrate dapp browsers is that they are limited by the current crypto user base.” He believes that Web 3.0. browsers, such as Opera, will provide new users with more freedom to explore dapps, without forcing them to jump in headfirst. “It looks for me like a smoother transition to dapp usage,” he says.
Opera project lead Charles Hamel believes every web browser will “eventually integrate some kind of [crypto] wallet,” allowing for a new infrastructure for the web and new business models to emerge.
The biggest browser wallets
Software firm and incubator Consensys [which funds Decrypt] has been banking on MetaMask, the primary route to accessing Ethereum-based dapps, since 2016. A mobile version is anticipated soon.
Metamask serves as a wallet for Ethereum-based tokens and also a bridge from today’s internet to the decentralized one of tomorrow. “The team is focusing on ‘not being ‘just a wallet,’ but a portal to the world of all things blockchain,” said Ethereum co-founder and Consensys CEO, Joseph Lubin, announcing the mobile release.
Dan Finlay, Metamask’s lead developer, cavilled a bit with the “browser-wars” metaphor, saying that Web3 is more of an open community than the old, Silicon Valley-startup-competitive days of Web1. But he agreed that a lot of the action in the coming months would center on the browser: “In the near term, the browser has proven to be one of the most secure environments on a user’s computer, and so being a browser extension has allowed our users to browse a somewhat sanitized selection of interfaces. But eventually, it will be clear that even the browser is betraying user trust, and we will need to provide something better.”
Finlay said his team has “some increasingly specific ideas about what this means, and we’re planning to share them in the next few months, and added: “I used to think that eventually the account manager would need to be built into the operating system, but I increasingly think the account manager may actually replace the operating system as we know it today.”
For his part, Lubin told Decrypt he believes it “might end up being a competitive space. [But] it might be the case that some group builds an open source version that ends up being a standard. It is very early days, so there will be lots of opportunities for differentiation.”
Browletts also promise to simplify the convoluted onboarding process that’s been thwarting so many potential Web 3.0. users.
Crypto’s wallet makers are in position to shape the design of the gateway to the decentralized web because they are the ones with most opportunity to study all the usability challenges and security issues that arise when a browser is paired with a wallet and permanently online. Users may get hacked or have their wallets stolen.
“For security, assurance that one is connecting with the blockchain is valuable, [but] having to download a plugin for that is not optimal,” says Lubin.
The next stage of development is wallets that provide a suite of features and dapps; a wallet that will be able to perform crucial functions: proving identity, interacting with dapps, trading tokens, buying tickets, unlocking your car and logging into Facebook—all without ever leaving the app.
For these reasons, everyone is racing to build bigger, better, more versatile browletts. Coinbase, the first to develop a one, is busy finessing its product.
“One of Web3’s defining characteristics is that it builds upon today’s internet of information with a new internet of value. Just like the internet made it easy to transfer data around the world, crypto makes it easy to transfer value around the world,” says Sid Coelho-Prabhu, product lead for the Coinbase Wallet. “That’s why we believe that the browsers of the future will make accessing your funds and using applications powered by crypto a seamless, integrated experience.”
Most of the big cryptocurrencies have their own browser wallets in production or under development. NEO, for instance, is working on the Teemo;Tron’s browser wallet, TronLink, is currently in beta and so on.
The nascent wallet makers are currently ascendant, having amassed insights and experience aplenty. But don’t expect it to stay that way.
Already, huge multinationals are moving into position. Leaked photos of Samsung’s latest smartphone, the Galaxy S10 suggest it will feature a built-in cryptocurrency wallet. Samsung joins HTC and several other startups in introducing smartphones with wallets. (Browser-linked wallets are less an issue with hardware manufacturers since phone operating systems are like browsers on steroids. Manufacturers have complete control over what apps to put in their apps stores. Thus they have “ownership” of the user via what the default apps are.)
Regardless of who gets there first, the possibilities for the future are intriguing. ”Eventually, I think we will see less interactive user pull as intelligent agents do our bidding, acquiring info and items for us that they know we will be interested in,” says Lubin. “Conversational interfaces with dapps and user agents will likely be a major next interface.”
But for now, the shift to a more decentralized world, complete with autonomous intelligent agents and other mind-boggling innovations, will see browletts become critical in the scheme of things—the next stage in the battle for technical dominance.
Lubin hopes that “empowering the user and enabling fluid choice rather than [a] lock-in” will win out in the era of the decentralized web.
But if past experience is a clue, the battle will be fierce, and the prize will be a multitude of spoils.
Additional reporting by Guillermo Jimenez.