ETH: Littered with Kitties!

Ethereum isn’t yet purrfect. Neither is Bitcoin. In fact, they suffer from a similar ailment – albeit to varying degrees and in different use-cases. The ailment is easy to diagnose and tricky to resolve: it’s a lack of throughput.

Neither network can speedily handle the number of transactions that they are sometimes called upon to process. In this way, they are – and will continue to be – victims of their own success. Awareness is spreading, the numbers of users is growing, and so too will the number of transactions these networks need to process.

We can measure the transaction backlog easily enough – because when the networks can’t deal with transactions… they do not simply disappear.  Rather, they are stored in the network’s “transaction pool” or “mempool”. Readily view-able graphical representations of these transaction ques for Ethereum and Bitcoin are worth looking at – if just to get a feel for the issue.

Bitcoin has been struggling with the scaling issue for years. The scaling solutions imagined thus far are both technologically and ideologically complex. Luckily, for Bitcoin, switching away from the old narrative of “a peer to peer digital cash system” to the new, less transaction-demanding narrative of “digital gold” has allowed the issue to become less critical to its success.

(Notice: this re-framing didn’t make the problem go away. It simply made transaction speed less central to the concept of Bitcoin. Clearly, the Bitcoin Cash fork community, at a minimum, felt that sidestepping the issue wasn’t appropriate and didn’t agree, ideological, with the proposed scaling solutions in development.)

Ethereum does not have this re-framing option, even if its community wished it had (no reason to think they do, btw). The Ethereum community has set it sights on bold and ambitious use-cases that are far beyond simply storing and transferring value. They can shuffle around value, sure – but they also want to create new possibilities. They hope to achieve this by empowering developers to build things that could never have existed without a blockchain based computing platform and by reorganizing existing social structures including governments and businesses.

With that ambition comes some serious scaling pains. If Bitcoin’s content with a single “killer app” or use-case (ie: being “digital gold”) and it has a hard time keeping up… imagine the difficulties Ethereum will encounter hoping to facilitate all of the worlds other “killer apps”.

If the first mainstream Ethereum “killer app” was the ICO concept, then the second is apparently CryptoKitties. This is a digital asset trading game that uses the Ethereum platform to facilitate trading verifiably unique digital cats on a blockchain. By all measures, it’s a phenomenal success. The first of many more successful dApps, no doubt.

And the Ethereum network can’t handle the success. The transaction backlog is growing, fees are increasing, and some people are getting frustrated with the network. CryptoKitties is affecting user interactions with other dApps on the network. The game is simultaneously illustrating the possibilities and the current limitations of the tech.

Scaling is Coming

The CryptoKitty dApp implementation itself can and will be refined to lessen the load on the network. Instead of sending each and every transaction individually, for instance, transaction batching would immediately lessen the number of transactions required to play the game. The developers are aware of this and clearly want the game to scale as well as possible to avoid user frustration.

Network scaling hopefully won’t be too far behind. Off-chain 2nd layer scaling solutions are in the works. Even more advanced scaling solutions are in various stages of development and conception. (I’ll be going over them all in another article shortly.)

The bad news is this: Ethereum needs scaling right now. It certainly needs it before the dApp explosion takes the world by storm and never relents.

The good news is: there are more killer dApps on Ethereum than any other platform – not just in the wild, but in development as well. Smart, creative, motivated people have ever-growing incentives to scale this platform – and they will… because being digital gold simply isn’t ambitious enough for them.