David Irvine lives in a tiny beach town called Troon on the West Coast of Scotland. He describes it as a place where old people go to retire, with a population of 15,000, a thriving golf community and views of the cliffs of Ireland on a clear day. It’s a surprising place from which to launch a product that he hopes will transform the way the Internet works.
Irvine is a mechanical engineer who taught himself about computers when he “realized they would be big.” He went on to manage oil company Saudi Aramco’s computer network before founding his own network consulting company, Alba, in the UK. After realizing that “the way the Internet is designed is insane,” he unplugged and started sailing, eventually becoming a yachtmaster who would pick up newly bought boats, say in the south of France, and sail them home to their owners in the UK. In 2006, he moved to a place where no English was spoken (so he could concentrate) to write the white paper for “MaidSafe“: a network for crypto-ownership and storage that does for data what Bitcoin does for value. Over the last eight years, he’s gotten $5 million in funding from family and friends to hire 14 people and try to make his product a reality. This month, the company is doing its first public funding round. Highly non-traditional, it plans to raise funds by issuing “Safecoins” on a cryptocurrency protocol called Mastercoin, which itself is built on top of Bitcoin.
Confused yet? Welcome to the age of crypto-ownership, where any kind of data can be encrypted and managed by a decentralized network of computers. It’s a concept that’s been around for years as readers of sci-fi authors like Neal Stephenson know, but now that Bitcoin has managed to permeate the public consciousness and introduce people to the concept of a decentralized, crypto-managed network in a tangible, money-generating way, other crypto-entrepeneurs are hoping to move beyond just decentralizing payment. Their models look a lot like Bitcoin, but instead of eliminating banks and the Federal Reserve, they have other service providers in their targets. A company called Ethereum headed by a lanky Canadian named Vitalik Buterin, 20, wants to decentralize contracts, allowing deeds, car titles, or even something like Social Security numbers to be stored in a network, where one person crypto-owns the contract with a private key until they choose to pass it along to someone else (like you would pass along a Bitcoin). “It’s the sharing economy for your hard drive,” he says.
Bitshares and MasterCoin want to decentralize the stock market and the IPO process, so that a company can issue shares or raise money on a decentralized network by issuing crypto-tokens that investors can later cash in, trade, or use to participate in a company’s services. (This idea is already geeting a close look from the SEC, which has voiced concerns about bitcoin stock exchanges.) And MaidShare wants a network of user who will download software that will cause their computers to give up to 90% of the unused storage, CPU and bandwidth on their computers to help maintain a decentralized storage network. It’s like a botnet, but one where the bots get paid for their troubles. The leasing of their computer power will result in the generation of SafeCoins, just like Bitcoin “miners” who keep track of the Bitcoin network get rewarded with the generation of Bitcoin, except Irvine calls his participants “farmers.”