This week, HTC announced something unexpected: a smartphone powered by blockchain. Overseeing this project is Phil Chen, who is HTC’s “Decentralized Chief Officer” and focused primarily on blockchain and cryptocurrency initiatives.
“The HTC Exodus is the first native blockchain phone dedicated to bringing end consumers the best decentralized application (DApp) experiences,” Chen, who previously worked on the HTC Vive virtual reality headset, wrote in a posting on Medium, “including a built-in secure hardware enclave, and helping underlying protocols expand their base of dedicated nodes, thus expanding the total blockchain ecosystem.”
The HTC Exodus will supposedly support “the entire blockchain ecosystem,” he added, including “protocols such as Bitcoin, Lightning Networks, Ethereum, Dfinity, and more.” However, the posting doesn’t go into detail about how blockchain will measurably improve smartphone users’ day-to-day workflow. (You can also check out the phone’s schematic above, if you’re interested.)
It’s also questionable how much value blockchain will actually add to the smartphone experience. The dedicated HTC Exodus website boasts that blockchain will enable users “to have your identity and data on the phone rather [than] in a centralized cloud,” as well as “a trusted hardware stack with APIs that connect to wallets,” but the functionality that stems from these features—device-based security and cardless payments—is already available on mature smartphone platforms such as iOS and Android.
If you wanted to be cynical, you could argue that HTC is attempting to ride the hype around blockchain in order to claw back some of the mind- and market-share it has lost over the past few years. It’s not the first firm to follow blockchain’s yellow brick road: earlier this year, for example, Kodak deviated from its decades-long focus on photography and released the “KashMiner” cryptocurrency miner. Although that announcement temporarily boosted Kodak’s stock price, the company remains in existential trouble.
The buzz even extends beyond the tech industry. Who could forget Long Island Iced Tea’s decision to change its name to “Long Blockchain,” which also spiked the stock before an inevitable crash?
For all the confusion and excitement surrounding it, blockchain is actually a straightforward concept. In simplest terms, it’s a distributed database that maintains a chain of “blocks,” or records with a timestamp and a link to the previous block. It’s extremely difficult (if not impossible) for a user to retroactively alter the data within a block without someone noticing.
That functionality is great if you want to build something resistant to fraud, such as a cryptocurrency or an online-contracting system. But it’s harder to see how it aligns with iced tea, most smartphone functions, or any of the other hundred uses that random companies and governments have proposed for it over the past several months.
In such an environment, it behooves tech pros to exhibit a little bit of caution whenever a company approaches them about a blockchain-related “opportunity.” Executives (who may or may not understand the underlying technology) are clearly interested in leveraging the hype in order to profit, even if they don’t really understand what a victory condition actually looks like. As a tech pro, you could take such an opportunity purely for the chance to work on an interesting technical problem—only to have the whole initiative flame out around you.