Ethereum, the largest blockchain network for decentralized applications, and home to the second-largest cryptocurrency by market cap, is turning five. Since its launch in 2015, Ethereum has attracted some of the largest companies in the world. Countless multinationals, Fortune 100 companies—pick your benchmark of prestige—are building on it.
Many companies started looking into Ethereum at the height of the 2017 ICO boom, when Bitcoin spiked to near $20,000 (and Ethereum didn’t fare too badly, peaking at $1,432, according to CoinMarketCap). But now the dust has settled, what’s happened to these companies? Have they abandoned ship or kept plugging away on the network?
To mark Ethereum’s fifth anniversary, Decrypt spoke to some of the largest companies in the world to hear what they’re building on Ethereum.
Ubisoft: The video game giant
French video game publisher Ubisoft is responsible for some of the biggest triple-A games franchises in the world, including Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry and Watch Dogs. It’s embraced blockchain in a big way, backing eight blockchain startups for its Entrepreneur Lab and partnering with blockchain games developer Planetarium on its game Nine Chronicles.
No surprise, then, that Ubisoft is also building on Ethereum. A few months ago it launched Rabbids Tokens, based on its popular Raving Rabbids series. Rabbids Tokens are built on Ethereum’s ERC-721 token standard, the token standard invented by the team behind CryptoKitties; each non-fungible token (NFT) represents one of Ubisoft’s terrifying cartoon rabbits.
The tokens were part of a game that worked as follows: put some money into an Ethereum wallet, use it to “nab” (buy) a Rabbid from another user. Upon purchase, that token will start to represent another character from the Rabbids world, with the whole exchange documented in your virtual log book.
Hi Friends, happy to share our contribution to the ecosystem! Our Proof of Plausible Ownership! btw, UNICEF will be grateful for your obsessive quest to collect them all!https://t.co/G08T3rg9JJ@BGameAlliance @VitalikButerin @ethereumJoseph @borgetsebastien @samenglebardt
— Nicolas Pouard (@Ni_ko_lah) June 17, 2020
That new character remains in your possession until another user “nabs” (buys) the token. Then, all you’ll have left in your wallet is the proof that you, once, were lucky enough to own one of these NFTs yourself. The project is for charity, and all funds raised from the sales go straight to UNICEF, the UN’s children's charity.
Alongside those altruistic ambitions, the project was “an opportunity for Ubisoft to go mainnet and experiment further with blockchain technology,” Nicolas Pouard, Ubisoft’s blockchain initiative director, told Decrypt. Pouard’s team was interested in working out how Ethereum could be used for gaming.
“Rabbids Tokens were a first step,” said Pouard, though he declined to share any other information about the next ones. “Other projects will hopefully follow,” he added, saying that Ubisoft “would like to continue to explore its potential as well its growing ecosystem.”
So, why did Pouard and his group of engineers build on Ethereum? “The Ethereum ecosystem is by far the most mature and it has been explored and challenged extensively,” he said. “No other blockchain network has been as ‘beta tested’ as Ethereum.”
Still, there are issues with Ethereum, Pouard said. First, its user experience. “As of today, wallets and mnemonics are not user-friendly as they do not meet web 2.0 usability standards,” he said. “The interface between the technology and users still needs to improve–it has to adapt to them, not the other way around.”
Pouard added that Ethereum is still struggling with the issue of scalability; gas prices have spiked in recent months due to the boom in decentralized finance (DeFi). That means that games that rely on micro-transactions, like Rabbids Tokens, struggle. “It is not sustainable for small volume businesses and hardly makes sense for users to purchase digital assets while paying twice their price in gas,” he said.
To compensate, Ubisoft is exploring areas such as sidechains, layer two and other blockchain protocols, and user design. “Ultimately, though, we’re convinced that those challenges will only be overcome through collective efforts, and that the whole ecosystem needs to work together in that sense,” he said.
ING: The bank
ING, a Dutch bank, has worked on Ethereum for years. Why Ethereum? Simple: When it started back in 2017, “there were not a lot of platforms out there at that time,” said Mariana Gomez de la Villa, the Distributed Ledger Technology Program Director at ING.
ING is part of several Ethereum initiatives. Gomez de la Villa mentioned three projects: First, Komgo, a project designed to streamline trading documents that is “already commercially live at ING”. It’s also part of Fnality, an Ethereum-based payments settlement consortium that is planned to be tested by the end of the year. Finally, there’s Bamboo, a bilateral letter of credit. The bank has also made much of its work, particularly around Zero-Knowledge Proofs, available as an open source project.
There are early signs that ING’s technology, generally produced alongside other banks and blockchain developer shops, works. The bank says the transactions executed through Komgo increased efficiency by 33%, cutting down the transaction time from three hours to 25 minutes.
Several of these projects have been in the works for three or four years, said Gomez de la Villa, but they’ve taken so long to come out because Ethereum had a few quirks that needed to be ironed out to become enterprise-ready. Most importantly, the tech needed to be private, confidential, scalable and vetted with clients, she said. All this took time, and that's why they're finally “seeing the light in production.”
Ethereum, now five years old, is among the older blockchain networks. But ING is sticking with it. Why? “There's a large developer base,” said Cees van Wijk, IT chapter lead in the global ING DLT-team. “It’s battle-tested,” he said, adding, “there's a huge ecosystem around it.”
Interoperability is another reason: “Applications become really powerful once they start to interoperate,” he said. “If you have a payments system, an identity management system, and yet another trade finance system, and they can all interoperate, and use each other's features and guarantees, then [the technology] becomes much stronger.”
ING is staying off public chains since the bank still wants to retain some control over the network. “We as an institution need to be really careful to comply with some of the regulation requests that we have from our central bank,” said Gomez de la Villa. So, “we are pretty much not allowed [to use public chains],” she said, because it’s impossible to source the identities of everyone on the network.
Instead of a distributed network of anonymous miners, ING uses a distributed network of verified network participants. The benefit? “You can trust that the Ethereum blockchain will only contain valid transactions and you know with whom you are interacting,” said van Wijk.
Ameritrade: The broker
TD Ameritrade, a broker founded in 1975, is big into crypto. Qualified customers can already trade Bitcoin futures (though they’ll need $25,000 in their account to do so) but the firm has invested in ErisX, a CFTC-regulated spot exchange that uses Ethereum smart contracts to facilitate its trades, and joined the Chicago DeFi Alliance, a business advisory service for DeFi startups.
In May, ErisX started letting US customers trade Ethereum futures; it was the first US exchange to do so. That said, volumes are... slow. Its Bitcoin futures product usually trades between just one and two contracts each day, and nobody has invested in an Ethereum futures contract in the past week.
“We always look to implement products our clients have demand for,” said Sunayna Tuteja, TD Ameritrade’s Head of Digital Assets & DLT, adding that “recent macro events have demonstrated how quickly something deemed nice-to-have can become a need-to-have.” TD Ameritrade, she said, has a responsibility to “lean into the emerging capabilities of the Ethereum network and commercialize the opportunity in a way that solves gnarly problems.”
Are there problems? Of course! “As with the Cambrian explosion of any new technology, there are growing pains," she said. "The community will need to continue to pay attention to aspects of security, scale, liquidity, and ongoing education that empowers the new wave of market participants.”
But who said things were going to be easy?
“Onwards!” said Tuteja.