What it is: A software wallet
What it does: Securely stores Ether and ERC-20 token. It is both an app and an in-browser extension.
Where you get it: Available for download at Gnosis.
What it costs: Free to download; 0.005 ETH ($0.42) to open an account.
The world needs an easy-to-use place to store one’s crypto, but thus far, we’ve had no luck.
Hardware wallets are especially complicated to set up and use. And they’re finicky—some can appear to delete your coins, which will freak out the uninitiated, even though the coins can be restored. Ease of use aside, one liability all physical wallets share is that they can malfunction or be lost.
Gnosis is a Gibraltar-based company that created a decentralized application–Gnosis Olympia–which is a platform for prediction markets, where users can bet on just about anything. (It’s still in alpha at the moment.) In order for people to use it, they need to have a wallet that can interact with the Ethereum blockchain, which the dapp is built on. For Ethereum-based dapps, user numbers are low and one of the key reasons is the lack of a user-friendly wallet.
Software wallets, usually offered by exchanges such as Coinbase or via crypto-enabled browsers such as Metamask, are cheap, or free, but are just as problematic. Coinbase takes control of your funds, meaning that if it is hacked, your funds could be stolen. MetaMask, meanwhile, has made the user-experience too complicated. So there’s plenty of market share for anyone who can solve the usability issue. And that’s where the Gnosis Safe comes in: It wants to be as intuitive a place to stash your digital cash as your back-pocket billfold.
But it also has lofty aims. It is one of the first smart-contract-based wallets in the market. This means it exists as a series of smart-contracts on the Ethereum network. Smart contracts are pieces of code that can verify or enforce contracts and are secured by cryptography. This means the wallet isn’t a place where the funds are stored as such, but contains rules for moving the coins around by anyone who has the right private key–basically a complicated password. This could result in a much safer wallet as funds are not all held in one place, and despite the complex smart contracts in the background, Gnosis aims to make the wallet simple to use.
Sadly, however, it has a long way to go.
Installation was relatively painless—I downloaded the mobile app and installed it as I would any other piece of software. But that’s when things got complicated.
First, I had to write down a 12-word mnemonic, and take a test to check that I’d got it down correctly.
Next, I was asked to send 0.05 ETH to my account as a sort of in-app purchase. This is the fee for using the app. The tricky thing there is, if you don’t already have a mobile software wallet–which might well be the case since you’re downloading one–then you need to send it from your laptop, computer or whatever else you’ve already stored your ETH on. Yet Ethereum addresses aren’t easy to manually enter, so you have to get the address from your mobile to your computer. This involves either messaging a friend with your address and telling them to ignore the message, opening up a slack channel with yourself or sending yourself an email. Either way, it’s messy.
Once you’ve managed to pay for the wallet, it then does some background wizardry in setting up your account. This takes about five minutes—far longer than hardware wallets or even in-app browser extensions such as MetaMask. Once that’s sorted and the account is open, the app is ready.
The app can send transactions to other addresses—people, exchanges or businesses—but it misses a key feature that most wallets offer: it doesn’t show transactions in fiat. Given how volatile prices are, I like to know, in coin of the realm, how much I’m sending off into the, er, ether, before I push SEND. It works both ways, too: If I want to pay someone $10 in ETH via the Gnosis wallet, I’d need to do some research on the exchange rate at this moment—on another site. It’s clumsy and ought to be easily addressed by Gnosis.
Another trying aspect is that when you try to make a payment with your phone, you need to confirm the transaction on your laptop too. This means downloading the Gnosis Safe in-app browser extension and linking the two up. It’s not very clear that you have to confirm the transaction on your laptop when you make the payment and I was left wondering why it kept failing until I realized. But the main problem is that you can’t make payments on the go—unless you carry your laptop around.
One thing the app does get right: It hides the messy part of Ethereum—”gas fees.” Gas is a separate cryptocurrency used on the Ethereum network to pay transaction fees. When you use MetaMask, for instance, you have to deal with pop-ups asking you to select the “gas price” and “gas limit.” This might make sense to sophisticated engineers, but it’s baffling to the rest of us. Gnosis Safe hides it under the hood, by automatically selecting the options on behalf of the user, creating a more streamlined way to send money.
Creating a simple Ethereum wallet right is difficult, which is why no one has yet done it. Some of the problems are caused by the way cryptocurrencies operate. Ethereum addresses, for instance, require users to deal with long, alphanumeric strings of numbers or 12-word mnemonic phrases. Wallets can’t get around this fact.
There are some solutions in the pipeline, such as the Ethereum Name Service which uses easy to read names, such as “Decrypt.eth.” It uses smart contracts on the Ethereum network to ensure that no third party is able to control these addresses and divert users’ funds. But it is not widely adopted, and it is still struggling with getting people to purchase addresses. The Gnosis Safe is fine for the initiated, but it still has a ways to go before I can recommend it for less-sophisticated users.