On November 18, 1883 time got organized. Or rather time was standardized across America. Before 1883 every town had it’s own clock with it’s own time. Following the sun in one county would differ slightly from another. Towns could arbitrarily set their clocktower as they liked. Different trains followed different clocks which naturally made it difficult to prevent them from colliding. So in 1883 a standard time was instituted by all railroads across North America. Factories followed suit, using train-time to monitor and schedule work. A few decades later, the federal government began to enforce this standard time throughout the United States.
Without an agreed way of doing things it makes it hard to organize and collaborate. Drive on the left vs right? 110v vs 240v? Socket Type A vs Socket C or D, E, F, G, H..? Inches vs Centimeters? GSM vs CDMA? Standards in industry became highly important with the onset of the Industrial Revolution and the need for high-precision machine tools and interchangeable parts. Henry Maudslay developed the first industrially practical screw-cutting lathe in 1800, which allowed for the standardization of screw thread sizes for the first time.
With modern technologies we are very aware of the need for standardization. From internet protocols, wireless communication, to operating systems, we need standardization more than ever to make these products practical. This led to the proliferation of standards organizations such as ITU, IEEE-ISO, ANSI and thousands of others. Without such organizations we would see a fracturing of technology into a myriad directions making them far less useful and even dangerous.
How are blockchains standardized? Right now the situation is bad. There is a proliferation of blockchain systems, and even efforts to make them interoperable has resulted in multiple solutions, such as Cosmos, Polkadot and Aion.
With most blockchains it’s very difficult to introduce changes, because there’s no formal mechanism for such changes to be incorporated. Generally, updates result in a fork, where two versions emerge, with the expectation that one of them will be dropped. But that is not always the case, as it’s happened with Bitcoin forking into Bitcoin Cash, and then Bitcoin Cash forking again into Bitcoin SV. The same goes for Ethereum which forked into Ethereum Classic. Even in cases where one fork is dropped there is no guarantee that the better of the 2 forks emerge. The incentives for the network operators (or miners) may not be aligned with the interests of everyday users, leaving users with the inferior option.
Since blockchains are normally open source, anyone is free to make a tweak and release a new version. In fact many early blockchains such as Litecoin and Dogecoin were essentially the bitcoin codebase with a few tweaks.
Having two blockchains emerge from one is a problem, since each time a blockchain forks it reduces its network effect. If you’re making a payment you only need do it on one. If you’re deploying a smart contract you only need to host it on one.
The solution to this mess is to introduce rules for upgrading the blockchain within the blockchain itself. Participants in the network vote on which new features they want to include. When a majority is reached those changes are activated. The effect is the blockchain today morphs into the blockchain of tomorrow. There is only one version. Even the rules on how to upgrade can be changed.
Tezos is a blockchain that has this capability. Of course, this doesn’t preclude someone from creating their own version of the blockchain and launching it, but no one has to decide for themselves whether to go with version A or version B whenever there's a change. No one has to wonder which of two possible versions will get majority support. The blockchain itself is making the choice based on the input of all users.
Now nearly every blockchain project recognizes the importance of a good governance model to handle upgrades. Those that get it right are likely to be the ones that survive.
Dr. Lederer has over 15 years of technical experience in computer system design and programming. He has been teaching about blockchain and Ethereum for 3 years and recently co-authored Blockchain: A Practical Guide to Developing Business, Law, and Technology Solutions. Prior to working on blockchain technology, he worked at The Wall Street Journal, Morgan Stanley and BAE Systems, where he held a DoD TS (top secret) clearance to develop a novel mobile ad-hoc network for the US Air Force.