Bitcoin’s Messy Push for Innovation is Winning Over Payments Developers

chaos, wires

A recent dispute within the W3C’s Web Payments groups has given skeptics of bitcoin’s sometimes chaotic development process “cause for pause” when thinking about the best way to deploy new financial technology.

The dichotomy between W3C and the bitcoin community’s approach to technology gained prominence in February, when a few members of W3C’s web payments groups were first vocal about what they deemed a lack of participation from blockchain innovators, specifically those in the bitcoin community.

That call for participation led Blockstream to join the group’s efforts, which might spur other bitcoin companies to come onboard as well.

However, a notable rift has now divided the W3C Web Payments Working Group after the perceived influence of browser vendors on the process prompted questions about the overall model. During a February decision centered on determining which specifications to work towards, Google and Microsoft seemed to garner too much control over the web payments standard, according to several individuals involved.

Manu Sporny, chairman of the W3C’s Web Payments Community Group, has now been faced with a key question – is it better to lead with code, or is having a more formal process like the W3C’s a better model?

Both have benefits and drawbacks, but right now, he’s less enamored with the W3C process.

Sporny told CoinDesk:

“It looks like two of the largest companies have undue influence over the process.”

Just last month, Sporny came under fire for expressing concern that the bitcoin ecosystem hasn’t joined the W3C web payments work because they’re emboldened by hype.

The W3C was coming at standards from a legacy institution’s viewpoint – that there was a more professional process in place that, while slow, has proven successful for web standards since its creation in 1994.

The dispute

The Web Payments work was focused around a browser-based API that would streamline and standardize the process of paying online in an effort to decrease shopping cart abandonment.

Since October 2015, the W3C has been incubating two different web payments specifications towards this goal – one built by the Web Payments Community Group and the other being developed by the browser vendors. This was a strange move, but the groups were assured both specifications would be merged together, rather than one being elected over the other.

Sporny has blogged about the W3C’s work and the issue, detailed here.

But that didn’t happen. The work the Web Payments Community Group put into a specification was scrapped for the spec the browser vendors introduced, and on 21st April, the first public working draft was published for feedback from the Web Payments Working Group.

According to Ian Jacobs, the W3C’s payments activity lead, there was significant support for the documents the group published. Out of the 22 member groups that voted, 15 members supported all four documents that make up the spec. There are 42 member groups altogether.

“A lot of people were fine with it, but I think a lot of us just wanted the bickering to stop,” said Shane McCarron, projects manager at Spec-Ops.io, a group that identifies critical open standards and helps to move those along and the company’s liason to the web payments work.

While McCarron thinks the decision was short-sighted, he remains optimistic. Currently the group is integrating concepts from the community group’s spec into that of the browser vendor’s where there are weaknesses.

Internet pioneer Pindar Wong has been surveying the situation in a similar way as Sporny.

The question, for him, becomes whether the fast and messy open-source development that blockchain protocols like bitcoin and Ethereum use is better than the slow and steady – and maybe financially conflicted – professional standards work.

Wong, chairman of Hong Kong-based FinTech infrastructure consultancy VeriFi Inc, has been active in the bitcoin community and is also a member of the W3C Web Payments Community Group. He’s straddled both the open-source community and professional standards world for some time.

Sure, Wong admits, the progress in the bitcoin community has been chaotic, most recently as it relates to proposed increases to the network’s block sizeand those impassioned arguments all happen in the public eye.

But that passion in an open environment is why so many people are drawn to the bitcoin space.

Control and conflict

Sporny asserts some members of the web payments working group have been able to exert more control over the process – and this cat-and-mouse game could have something to do with relevancy.

The W3C stays relevant because of the participation from large, professional businesses such as Google and Microsoft. Plus, large enterprises pay substantial membership fees, upwards of $80,000 a year.

To avoid the conflicts of interest that may arise, the W3C has set up a transparent process, recording and transcribing group phone calls. But there have been workarounds, including Web Payments meetings that have been closed to reporters and members taking measures to sometimes go off the record.

While Sporny and Wong are rethinking whether the W3C is the best place to develop an open and free Internet of value, the two men also worry that the bitcoin community is headed in the same direction, with venture capitalists and large companies enjoying more say in debates. And this centralizing tendency can often lead to monopolies or oligopolies.

Such meetings are borne out of a desire to make consensus easier to reach, Wong said, but they run the risk of giving more say to those who may put their business models before the network itself.

Full circle

In this way, recent developments in both the web payments and bitcoin communities seem to mirror each other. And such a development is not without historical precedent.

When the Internet was young, developers were largely in favor of a technology open for everyone to use. But as the industry has grown, creating billion-dollar companies along the way, it looks like it’s moving towards ossification – the tendency toward rigid, conventional and unimaginative states of being, said Wong.

In the W3C’s case, the group’s initial declaration nearly four years ago was to build technological web infrastructure for open financial services, allowing more people to pay in the way they were comfortable with online.

It was an ambitious and idealistic goal.

But out of this came a new objective, one that’s arguably more realistic – the desire to build an API that focused on eliminating shopping cart abandonment by standardizing the online checkout experience.

Sporny wondered where this “first-world problem” came from, but decided it was all just baby steps in the process to democractize payments online.

It is not that shopping cart abandonment isn’t a problem for online retailers, it’s just that the razor-focus on the issue seems too narrow for the project’s original priority of leveling the playing field and creating a fair market.  

Given this focus, as well as the browser vendor spec, Sporny worries other stakeholders will be at a disadvantage.

The current spec doesn’t take into account third party applications like bitcoin wallets, bank-branded payment apps or merchant loyalty cards because that work could take a while to complete and could stall the ability to deploy the API and get early feedback from developers.

By rushing the spec through that only the browser vendors can implement and get people accustomed to, that could make it a struggle to add-on other applications in the future since consumers would have to readjust to a new process.

This isn’t necessarily the browser vendor’s evil little plan; instead, Sporny thinks the representatives that Google and Microsoft have sent to the W3C don’t have the time or support from their parent companies to work long hours ironing out the kinks. Most of the representatives work with the W3C as a side project.

Google representatives have said that third party applications are important but haven’t prioritized that, instead looking to ship something fast and iterate later.

But leveling the playing field is becoming an increasingly pressing issue as the next billion people – those in developing countries – gear up to come online, said Wong. He wants a web experience that’s empowering, “where people don’t have to wait for the banks or the telephone companies or the Internet companies to reach out to them and their geographic areas”.

This example is analogous to bitcoin, where the conversation several years ago focused on allowing consumers and merchants to take commerce into their own hands with the ability to pay quickly and securely without getting gouged by fees from the various intermediaries.

But as more money was invested and technical details were hashed out, particularly on the regulation front, the dialogue has shifted to defining bitcoin as a censorship-resistant payment mechanism, not necessarily one that equalizes payments.

“It raises the question around who’s beholden to who when developing technology on an international scale,” Sporny said. “The blockchain stuff for all its messiness is not seeing the potential for two companies to take over the development of the work, yet.”

Chaotic wires image via Shutterstock

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