Six months ago, the pundits were predicting that, by now, downloading a decentralized application, or dapp, on a smartphone would be as easy as downloading a standard app. Dapps offer similar functionality but are run on a peer-to-peer network, such as a blockchain, and so provide additional and enticing features, such as the ability to pay with cryptocurrencies on your mobile. They’ve been touted as a disruptor of everything from play games to exchanging money.
But popular dapps, such as CryptoKitties, still aren’t on mobile. And that’s a problem because over half the world’s internet traffic is through mobile phones. In developing economies, it’s even more. Easily accessible mobile dapps would be a boon for getting new users on board. So where are all the mobile dapps? Below we try and piece together what’s taking so long.
1. The killer wallet hasn't arrived
When using dapps, your wallet is not just where you store your money, it’s your online identity. Essentially, you can’t really use a dapp without one.
Recently, there’s a trend towards wallets that also contain dapp browsers, so that you can surf a catalog of dapps and interact with them. Mobile wallets that already have their own dapp browsers include Coinbase and Opera.
Mobile wallets certainly promise to be useful, but they also present security issues—users may get hacked or have their wallets stolen. Wallet makers have had plenty of opportunity to study these issues. So, it’s no surprise that they’re at the vanguard of development when it comes to mobile dapps. Many of the mobile dapps that do exist are wallets or are linked to crypto asset trading because, up to now, dapp developers that aren’t already wallets need to either access one or build one in.
2. The ecosystem is still too green
The next stage of development is wallets that provide a suite of features and dapps. The wallet is becoming to Web 3.0. what browsers such as Chrome and Mozilla were for the internet.
James Sangalli, co-founder at AlphaWallet, believes that a wallet should be able to perform crucial functions including proving identity, interacting with dapps, trading tokens, buying tickets, unlocking your car and logging into Facebook—all without ever leaving the app.
With so many dapps built on the Ethereum blockchain, a popular way to access them is MetaMask. It serves as a wallet for Ethereum-based tokens and also a bridge from today’s internet to the decentralized one of tomorrow. Expected within months, a mobile MetaMask will open the door to a multitude of dapps on mobile: digital art, auctions, the ability to buy and sell unique collectibles and, of course, gaming.
Developers have also been working to simplify a convoluted onboarding process that's putting many users off. But they disagree on the fundamental form the mobile dapps of the future will take. So things are dragging somewhat.
3. We still don't know the form future dapps will take
Native apps use the developer tools provided by the device’s operating system to access its functionality and are made especially for one platform, such as Android, iOS, or Windows Phone. This can provide seamless experience but they are expensive to develop, particularly if—as is the case with dapps—they need to contain or access a wallet.
Trust wallet founder and CEO Viktor Radchenko has been exploring a way for Ethereum-based dapps, like social media platform Peepeth, to more easily launch native, mobile apps. But it hasn’t been easy. “The closest we got to the native dapps is an SDK [software development kit] to sign transactions [and] messages via deep links,” said Radchenko, in a recent tweet. He believes it was a good experiment that will be relevant a few years down the line.
Meanwhile, Chicago-based Tasit Labs is still optimistic about the prospect for native dapps. The startup makes third-party mobile dapps for Ethereum and is currently developing a Tasit SDK, so that new mobile dapps can be built more quickly. Founder Paul Cowgill believes that making it simple to create native mobile dapps is critical for mainstream adoption.
However, web-based apps are improving. Coined by Google designers in 2015, the term "progressive web apps" (PWA) describes apps which take advantage of new features supported by modern browsers. Easier and cheaper to develop, they can be coded for use in a browser. Some examples are Slack, Trello, Google Docs, Gmail and Twitter.
PWAs behave very much like native apps but aren’t in control of the device’s hardware. They can be fast, can work with a poor internet connection and, compared to native dapps, are relatively cheap to develop. The potential for increased security is what’s attracted My Ether Wallet, co-founder Kosala Hemachandra.
PWAs are also more censorship resistant and so offer greater decentralization—the ethos of Web 3.0. In theory, a native dapp can be pulled from an app store at the whim of Apple or Google.
Others, such as decentralized Ethereum wallet, Argent, see the benefits of both PWA and native dapps. Argent’s Matt Marshall argues that, while native dapps are not as censorship resistant, they still provide many of the benefits of Web 3.0.
4. Gaming dapps are leading the field
Until developers sort out native versus PWA, find crafty ways to scale more rapidly and wallets become more fully-formed and address mobile-related security issues, there’s likely to be a dearth of really compelling, standalone mobile dapps. But there are a couple worthy of attention.
Built on the EOS blockchain platform, EOS Knights had around 5,600 users in the last 24 hours at the time of writing, and is one of the top five apps on performance tracker DappRadar. A stand-alone dapp, it “deep links” into a wallet app for each transaction. But you do need an EOS account to play and it’s currently only available on Android.
Meanwhile, developers at Loom have bypassed scalability issues by effectively enabling dapps to run on their own sidechains, built on top of the Ethereum blockchain.
Last month saw the alpha release of their Zombie Battleground trading card game (TCG), on both iOS and Google Play. Ethereum-compatible and secure, the game promises to provide the same high scalability and throughput as alternative platforms like EOS.
“Even though the game data is stored on the blockchain — everything looks and feels EXACTLY like a regular mobile game,” a Loom blog post enthuses. “In other words, if you were to play Battleground without knowing it was a blockchain game — you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.”
And that, surely, is what it’s all about.