Do you know where your data is? Who can read it? Which apps are using it? If you’re using traditional web apps like Google Docs, Evernote, Slack, Dropbox, or WeTransfer, you can’t be sure. If you’re using the Blockstack versions of those apps, though, your data lives where you want it to. It’s encrypted for everyone except you, and apps only get temporary access to it.
What exactly is Blockstack?
This decentralized network gives developers an easy way to build decentralization and blockchain technology into their apps and makes it relatively simple for users to have full ownership of their data. The big takeaway here, though, is that there are already very functional alternatives to centralized apps on the blockchain platform. They’re not perfect, of course, and they lack some advanced features and integrations, but if you want to switch your online documents, photos, notes, chats, file storage, surveys, or even your web hosting over to Blockstack apps, you can do it with relatively little friction.
As far as users are concerned, Blockstack is primarily an identity manager. Much like “Sign in with Facebook” or “Sign in with Google,” apps that are built for Blockstack allow you to sign in with your Blockstack ID. The major difference is that these apps do not store your information on their own servers, nor do they have access to it at any point except when you’re logged in to the app. Instead, you store your data anywhere you like – a server, a decentralized file-storage system, or even your own computer.
Let’s say you want to use one of the note-taking apps on Blockstack. How would that work?
- Sign in with your Blockstack identity.
- All your data and application settings are saved on a server you’ve designated as your storage and encrypted so that neither the server owner nor the app developer can read them.
- Create a note. It’s also saved onto that server. Everything you write is processed and encrypted locally by your web browser and sent directly to your server, meaning the app developer never gets anywhere close to seeing what you write.
- When you log out of the app, it no longer has access to your data.
- Next time you log into the app, it finds the data it created the last time and “remembers” everything it needs to about you. Your notes are decrypted locally by your browser so you can read and edit them.
This system has a lot of advantages. For users, it means their data is private, secure, and portable. For developers, it means they don’t have to worry about user authentication, user data safety, or server space – they get the benefits of a blockchain-based system without needing to actually interact with the blockchain. Hacks, data breaches, privacy concerns, monopolies, and other issues that are at the forefront of the technical community’s concerns today are largely taken care of because sensitive data is usually encrypted and can be taken anywhere the user wants.
There are a few downsides, though. The largest one is probably that, like many things blockchain, losing your credentials is catastrophic. Blockstack and the associated DApps can’t decrypt your account without your private key, so if you lose your key or seed phrase, you’re effectively locked out. Even if you’re hosting the files on your own computer, they’ll be useless gibberish without your key.
Second, unless you have enough tech savvy to set up your own Gaia storage somewhere, you’ll be on the default Blockstack storage, which is fairly centralized (but still completely encrypted).
Finally, while there are dozens of very serviceable apps on the Blockstack platform, most of them are a bit underpowered compared to their centralized counterparts. Most of them reproduce basic functions very well but fall short when it comes to external app integrations, mobile apps, and more advanced features. Some of them can also be a bit glitchy, so you’ll either have to have the know-how to troubleshoot or the patience to beta-test.
With those downsides acknowledged, it’s fair to say that Blockstack is one of the most interesting, usable things happening in the world of modern app development, and it’s very much worth a look. You don’t have to switch over your entire online life to Blockstack, but there are so many apps on the platform at this point that you’re sure to find at least one you like.
Blockstack apps to check out
Arcane Office is an office suite that comes with Arcane Docs, Sheets, Photos, Maps, Books, Calculator, and more. This is pretty much a full-fledged replacement to the G-Suite/Microsoft Office. The apps lack a few functions that users might miss, like tracked changes and comments in Arcane Docs, but they’re free, private, and actively developed.
For a more Google Docs-like experience, Graphite is a clean, fast Blockstack-based word processor with pretty good collaboration capability baked in.
NoteRiot is a simple note-taking app, but in an elegant, functional way abd more than a “where are all the features?” way. That said, mobile apps would be nice.
Not a fan of Google having all your image-based memories locked up? Recall is free, open source, encrypted, and easy to use. No, it doesn’t automatically edit your photos, but it’s also definitely not doing anything else to them.
How many random files do you have lying around with cloud storage providers? How many of them have sensitive data in them? Envelop lets you choose where those files go and ensure that they’re safely encrypted – plus, they’ve developed browser extensions and mobile apps, so cross-platform sharing works smoothly and well.
Okay, maybe you’re not that worried about your bookmarks falling into the wrong hands, but even without the privacy angle, Trove is still a great bookmarks manager, and I’ve started using it as my default app just because it works
Looking for a Slack/Discord alternative? It doesn’t have all the bells, whistles, and integrations those platforms do, but for basic chatting and team management, Mumble works perfectly well.
While it may only appeal to web developers, this decentralized hosting solution is one of the most interesting projects currently on Blockstack. Unlike traditional hosting providers, Runkod is free, open source, and built on Blockstack, so your website’s assets can live wherever you want.
While it’s technically still in an alpha version, BlockVault is already a fairly functional password manager and should improve as it develops.
Don’t cut the cord just yet
Yes, Blockstack is very cool and has a lot of cool apps you can browse through. Keep in mind, though, that it hasn’t been around very long and most of the apps being developed are not currently very profitable for the developers, meaning many of them don’t have huge teams with lots of resources working full-time on them. Many work quite well, but some may have moments where you feel like they’re still in beta. If you’re at all interested in decentralized apps, though, it doesn’t get much easier to start than with Blockstack.
Image credits: Blockchain landscape