HTC hasn’t been doing so well lately, at least not in the smartphone market. A large chunk of its mobile team have been shuffled over to Google. The company mostly remains afloat thanks to its VIVE VR platform. Still, there are some in the company that strongly believe that HTC still has something to offer that no one else can, starting with ambition and audacity. The newly revealed HTC Exodus concept phone is being called as the way of the future, just as the blockchain and cryptocurrency on which it revolves around has been called similarly. But just like blockchains and cryptocurrency, it might be a technology too far into the future and too ahead of its time.
Truth be told, there is practically nothing known about the HTC Exodus as far as traditional smartphone features go. Some report it will be running Android, which isn’t impossible but almost antithetical to its mission. If the vague images on its website is to be taken as a reference, it will have at least one camera on its back. It will have space for a microSD card, a conventional notchless and probably not bezel-less screen, and other common hardware of smartphones.
Suffice it to say, it might not be an impressive kit as far as modern smartphones go. On the one hand, it doesn’t need as much hardware if a lot of its operations will be decentralized. But, on the other hand, it will still need to be powerful enough to support encryption and processing of transactions. HTC is hopefully no fool. This isn’t going mainstream and will most likely try to keep build costs very low.
Blockchains and Cryptocurrencies
The HTC Exodus is poised to be the agent of decentralization and the phone that will expand the blockchain ecosystem. Most will probably jump to thinking about Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies from that. It doesn’t necessarily follow but you can’t blame them. Blockchains are what make cryptocurrencies work. But, yes, the HTC Exodus can also be used for cryptocurrencies.
In a nutshell, blockchains are a series (chain) of records (blocks). What makes them special is that each block has a unique identifier pointing to the previous block as well as its own timestamp and data. That identifier typical contains a cryptographic hash (like a fingerprint) which is often calculated based on the block’s contents. This gives blockchains an innate security feature. You can’t modify a block without breaking the chain or causing a chain reaction that will notify everyone that’s part of that network. In other words, you can’t get away with modifying a record once it has been written.
Image courtesy of Blockgeeks.
Blockchains, however, have one more feature that enhances that sense of security. Blockchains are, more often than not, decentralized. There is no one single authority or source or server from which all other nodes (in this case, users) get records from. It’s a bit more complicated, looking like a messy mesh, but from a practical point of view, every node/user has a copy of the chain and any addition to the chain has to be “agreed upon” by the network. This makes it harder to modify any recorded block without having to get all users on that network to agree to the revision.
That is why blockchains have become the backbone of cryptocurrencies. The distributed ledger system is technically secure and trustworthy, and it is that sense of trust that the HTC Exodus is hoping to use to sell the idea and the phone.
DApps and The Man
Recent events have made not a few people worried about their data stored on one company’s servers. There’s the matter of privacy for one and the matter of control and oversight for another. And just as important, as seen in several high-profile hacking cases, they also represent a single point of failure where personal data can be conveniently harvested by criminals.
The blockchain solution to that is DApps, short for decentralized apps. On the surface, at least as far as UI is concerned, a DApp may look like any other mobile app, be it a social network feed like Twitter, a news app, or, of course, a crytpocurrency app. Underneath, however, there is no central server that runs operations or stores data.
The decentralized nature of DApps means that no server is necessary for serving up data. Being based on blockchains also means that once data has been added to the chain, it can no longer be modified behind people’s backs. At least not without their knowledge and consent. This practically solves users’ concerns about how companies will handle their data once they’ve been uploaded to servers. On the other hand, it also opens up other questions and concerns.
Security and Privacy
The focus of blockchains is mostly on security and, by extension, trust. Its features make it nearly impossible to hack or modify data without raising red flags all over the network. It is also virtually impossible to hold data hostage because everyone in the network has a copy.
Blockchains, however, are still trying to figure out the other side of the coin: privacy. It has mostly been used for cryptocurrencies and, until recently, hasn’t had much concern for keeping content completely private. But once you deal with personal data on smartphones, you cannot but face privacy concerns.
There are already some methods to maintain a level of privacy, very few of them are ideal or scalable to a large number of users. By convention, data in a blockchain is open and visible, if not to the public then at least those in the network. So while blockchains ensure no one can alter your medical records without creating an anomaly or alerting others in the network, it might also make it impossible to take back that incriminating photo you sent over a DApp.
It’s probably a good thing that the HTC Exodus is pretty much a concept phone for now. Its goals of security and decentralization are definitely ideal, especially in a world where data is pretty much controlled by a few powerful companies. But as demonstrated by cryptocurrencies, blockchains aren’t yet ready for mass consumption. At least not in the way that the HTC Exodus seems to be selling it. It definitely needs to improve and improve fast if blockchain phones like these are to save us from a dystopian future of corporate overlords.