“What is Bitcoin? Can I buy, like, pizza with it?” Read on to discover the answer to this question and more importantly, the Lightning Network.
Dave Portnov, a sports blogger and Bitcoin investor asked this question during his inaugural video. Portnov’s question simply echoes what has been an obvious perception about Bitcoin: even as a popular digital currency, it is still not practicable for all payments across the board.
However, that does not rule out the effort that engineers are making to address the issue. Against that backdrop is the creation of Lightning Network—the technology that is set to redefine Bitcoin transactions. Instead of updating the primary software of Bitcoin, Lightning seeks to improve it by adding an additional layer of technology that will lead to cheap and faster transactions. This will happen with the same assurance of utmost security that blockchain provides.
The ideation of the Lightning Network dates back to 2015. It has evolved from one stage to another, to more advanced prototype. In its current stage, the technology promises a bright future for Bitcoin usage and seeks to remove the guesswork and criticism that surrounds the currency.
“It’s fairly close to working to the point where the public can test with real money, but not necessarily to the point where people can operate a business on it quite yet.” This is according to Jack Mallers, the creator of Lightning Network app for desktop, Zap.
The First Step—The Technology
How long will it be before the Lightning Network can become practical? Lightning engineers offer some thoughts. While the network took a big leap just recently, the engineers are yet to release software that will lead to actual Lightning transactions. Therefore, the first step is to release the Lightning Network to the public and to find out whether there are any issues arising from the initial stage. According to Conrad Burchet, a Swiss university ETH researcher, “In the near future, most problems will be about getting Lightning to work in practice.”
In addition, once Lightning Network becomes effective, engineers anticipate other delicate technical challenges. They still have to get the ‘network structure’ right, according to Burchert. Additionally, bad players in the network may halt transactions and some users may want to exercise more control over their transactions.
In the words of Elizabeth Stark, co-founder and CEO of Lightning Labs, “ Whenever you’re building a new financial protocol, you want to ensure it’s secure as possible, so we’re working on various security-related efforts.”
On the same note, Mallers agrees that engineers need to address the technical hurdles before the Lightning Network becomes operational. He says, “All of that will need to get ironed out before I would advise a company to start to rely on the Lightning Network for business or money that they can’t afford to lose.”
Stark concurs, adding that even with the promises of the network, there is a need for more developers. “The only thing that could speed it up is more engineers…we need more hours in the day. There are 10 or fewer full-time developers working across all implementations of Lightning. Getting more contributors and people building out the protocol would certainly help move things along.”
Another puzzle to solve in the Lightning Network is launching the apps and making them easy to use. While many apps that support the network are on the rise, so far they are not easy to use for the vast majority. There are still several wires popping that need to be hidden. Users of Zap, the desktop app for the network, still have difficulties in configuring the nodes and plugging it in the IP address.
According to Mallers, Zap will soon become wireless and seamless, just as Venmo, one of the apps you can use to send small amounts of money to friends. “Eventually, peers on the network will just look like contacts on your phone,” he said.
Mallers explains that this is already taking place on the network. For instance, LND recently included an automation feature that creates a channel between the sender and the receiver when they deposit money. Mallers says this happens, “so that users don’t have to understand what all that means.” However, he is quick to say that it’s not the right way, though.
The Lightning Network is currently in its “baby steps” and just suitable for technical users. However, the team is committed to erasing the challenges. As Mallers put it, “…surely we’ll abstract a lot of this stuff away, so it’s just about paying and receiving money.”
Even so, users will have to wait a little more to reach that level. “As far as Lightning Network changing the world – where I can wave my phone and pay for things and stuff will show up—I’d say It’ll take a year or two,” Mallers says
After addressing all issues, there’s still the concern of whether people will use Bitcoin even after Lightning Network is operational. According to Bitcoin developer Alphonse Pace, Lightning might experience challenges of “network effect” in which users are motivated to use the network because other people use it.
But who will take up the challenge first?
Pace says, “ It’s a chicken-and-egg issue… Wallets will want people wanting to use it to support it, and people will want wallets to support using it.”
Alex Bosworth, a developer of Lightning apps HTC.me and Yalls agrees to a similar situation:
“There is somewhat of a bootstrapping issue. We need to have apps to encourage wallets and wallets to encourage apps.” Even with the efficiency of Lightning, other familiar payment apps such as Apple Pay will have reservations at first.
Bosworth says, “If you ask a normal person what they want to pay with, they would probably go with Apple Pay because that’s what they are used to.”
While Lightning engineers are committed to overcoming these hurdles, they believe it will take time.
While the public may have to wait a little longer before they can use the Lightning Network effectively, developers are optimistic that the network will eventually transform Bitcoin into a practical payment system. Mallers says that Lightning “will change the way that we send money to each other on a day-to-day basis.” However, he leaves it to the engineers to accomplish their part before the public can start enjoying the benefits of the technology.
To the engineers, Mallers urges them to take their time to ensure that everything is in place for the successful implementation of the network. While the users are quite optimistic, he thinks, “…users over-estimated Lightning’s deadlines.”
Bosworth offers a similarly positive take: “The Lightning Network could be like the World Wide Web was to e-mail. It might take a while to grow, but the more it grows the better it will get.”
In addition, Bosworth said that his father, Adam Bosworth, steered the tech team that worked on web browsers in 1995 when the internet was transitioning from research laboratories to public use.
In the words of Bosworth, “I remember that time as being pretty exciting because of all of the opportunities that were going to fall out of web browsers. This reminds me a lot of that.”
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