Founders’ Fork: The Ethereum Architects Now Locked in Battle

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Seven years ago, eight brainiacs with diverse talents and lofty ambitions broke bread in Zug, Switzerland, and hashed out the future of what would become the world’s busiest blockchain.

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With Ethereum, the enterprising octad sought to overcome Bitcoin’s limitations by creating a community-driven, open-source project capable of supporting decentralized applications (dApps). Today, the smart contract platform has made good on many of its goals, facilitating value transfer on an eye-watering scale. Its native cryptocurrency ETH, meanwhile, is the second-largest digital asset by market cap.

Ethereum’s major London upgrade – which slashes the supply of new tokens hitting the market by a third – seems like as good a time as any to focus on the co-founders whose ideologies and aspirations took them in different directions. And specifically on the four figures who remain involved in blockchain on a day-to-day basis: Vitalik Buterin, Joseph Lubin, Gavin Wood, and Charles Hoskinson.

What Became of the Likely Lads?

Russian-Canadian computer programmer Buterin remains Ethereum’s figurehead, the name and face of the platform for all intents and purposes. Boasting a Twitter following of 2.2 million, the 27-year-old author of the Ethereum whitepaper often appears at conferences to discuss the future direction of the network, and he’s hard at work on Ethereum 2.0, its vaunted proof-of-stake overhaul.

By transitioning away from proof-of-work, the energy-intensive consensus mechanism favored by Bitcoin, Buterin believes Ethereum will reduce its energy consumption by between 1,000 and 10,000x. “We go from consuming the same energy as a medium-sized country to consuming the same energy as a village,” he says.

Improvements overseen by Buterin also include stability features such as rollups and sharding, which are intended to vastly improve Ethereum’s scalability. Last month, while appearing at Hong Kong’s Startmeup HK Festival, Buterin emphasized the importance of such upgrades: “Once you have rollups and sharding, Ethereum and things on top of Ethereum will actually be able to have the kind of scalability that the large scale enterprise applications are expecting.”

Buterin also conceded that building Ethereum’s successor had taken much longer than anticipated. Interestingly, he cited “internal team conflicts” as an explanation for the sluggish transition rather than technical difficulties. Internal team conflicts, of course, led to the departures of the aforementioned co-founders Wood and Hoskinson, both of whom started blockchains of their own.

Buterin has been ably assisted by a small army of Ethereum developers – around 2,300 per month according to Electric Capital’s latest Developer Report. He’s also been able to rely on the counsel of co-founder Joseph Lubin, a serial investor and seasoned tech developer who has brought commercial partners (JPMorgan, BNY Mellon, Credit Suisse) and developer talent into Ethereum’s orbit.

Much of the platform’s recent-years success can be traced back to Lubin, whose Ethereum-focused startup studio ConsenSys raised $65 million in funding from the likes of UBS and Mastercard back in April. ConsenSys has also partnered with China’s Blockchain-based Service Network to accelerate the enterprise adoption of Ethereum apps in the region.

Polkadot and Cardano: Upstart Challengers or Ethereum Killers?

Charles Hoskinson was once the CEO of Ethereum; Gavin Wood, meanwhile, wrote the technical specification of Buterin’s whitepaper and pioneered its programming language Solidity. Despite their influential roles in the project’s formative years, both have since departed to found alternative blockchain platforms.

Hoskinson’s desire to make Ethereum a commercial (rather than nonprofit) enterprise ultimately caused a schism that led to his withdrawal. ‘Leaving under a cloud’ would be putting it mildly – Joseph Lubin referred to Hoskinson as a pathological liar, prone to telling people he was Satoshi Nakamoto, the shadowy figure who created Bitcoin. In any case, Hoskinson’s departure led him to found Cardano, an open-source, proof-of-stake platform launched in 2017. In the four years since its release, Cardano has established itself as a major player. Not only is its native asset, ADA, the fifth biggest cryptocurrency by market cap, but the platform supports almost 7,000 assets following its Mary hard fork.

The upcoming Alonzo upgrade will finally bring smart contract functionality to Cardano, enabling defi applications to be deployed on it for the first time. While this milestone is loudly trumpeted by Cardano and its supporters, its delayed implementation has made the project the butt of many jokes. More than once, Hoskinson has touted a smart contract launch – only to kick the can further down the road.

Whether Hoskinson will make good on his promise this time is anyone’s guess. In any case, Cardano has made an impact beyond the world of speculation: earlier this year, it secured a deal with the Ethiopian government, enabling students to create a digital identity recorded on the Cardano blockchain.

Hoskinson is vocal about Cardano’s commitment to Africa, referencing “new voting systems, new property systems, new payment systems, new ways of identifying people, new ways of trading securities” and pitching Cardano’s blockchain infrastructure as a key cog in such transformation: “All of these things are possible with the technology we've constructed, built with formal methods and advanced programming languages like Haskell, and validated by peer review.”

It’s fair to say that while Hoskinson has built Cardano into a formidable beast, he remains a polarizing figure. Last month, the outspoken CEO caught flak for an old tweet in which he predicted Cardano would by now support “thousands of dApps.” Of the almost 7,000 assets built on Cardano, a mere two log over 10,000 transactions per month. Hoskinson also raised eyebrows after conceding that Cardano engaged in analyzing code from rivals such as Polkadot to borrow concepts.

Ethereum’s ex-Chief Technology Officer Gavin Wood has been every bit as busy as Hoskinson, with his sharded blockchain platform Polkadot launching on mainnet last year. Polkadot was created to connect disparate blockchains into one interconnected network, known as the Relay Chain, and to solve the sector’s long-standing interoperability problem.

As Wood framed it while attending CoinDesk’s Consensus: Distributed virtual conference in May, “Ethereum can do 25 transactions per second (TPS), but, of course, the more you use it, the worse it gets. Polkadot uses parachains [parallel processing chains] and can go from 100K TPS to up to 1 million TPS.”

The aforementioned Developer Report showed that Polkadot doubled its developer count last year, with almost 400 active devs getting the platform ready for the introduction of parachains, layer-1 blockchains that bolt onto Polkadot and run in parallel to it. Distinct from Ethereum, Polkadot has its own system for implementing upgrades on-chain, and these changes occur a level up from the base protocol.

Unlike Cardano, Polkadot already supports a burgeoning defi ecosystem complete with stablecoins, staking protocols, and cross-chain money markets. Wood and his supporters are convinced that Polkadot’s vision of parachains will usher in the next generation of blockchain innovation and value transfer, with consumers benefiting from reduced fees, faster confirmation times, and cross-chain interaction. As it stands, Polkadot seems likely to realize parachain auctions (and thus full operationality) before Ethereum debuts 2.0. Its usage of a live experimental ‘canary network’, Kusama, also means it’s likely to hit the ground running and capture the interest of those sick and tired of waiting for Ethereum to haul itself across the finish line.

Three of Ethereum’s co-founders now preside over altogether rivalrous empires, and at this juncture there’s no telling who will make the greatest long-term impact. One thing’s for sure, we’ll be in a better position to judge by the time Eth2 makes its way into the world – although Hoskinson and Wood aren’t the type to go quietly into the night. However their careers play out, their shared history is likely to remain a topic of intense debate and speculation for years to come.

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