Amid all the hype of bendable phones at this year's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, a much quieter smartphone revolution may be unfolding.
Led by peripheral phone maker HTC, this new wave of phones look much the same as those that have come before it – at least on the outside. Inside, however, they contain the software needed to transform the entire internet as we know it, and in doing so take the power back from the technology giants that dominate it.
They are the so-called blockchain smartphones. Built around the decentralised web – or Web 3.0 – they cut out the internet's middlemen by running off a peer-to-peer network to send and receive information. The idea is to give people back control of their data and end the exploitation and monetisation of people's private lives by the likes of Facebook and Google.
HTC describes its Exodus 1 as "the first smartphone built for this new internet" and it is the brainchild of Phil Chen, the appropriately-titled 'decentralized chief officer' of the Taiwanese firm.
"We're this far into the information age and there's barely any conversation about digital property," Chen tells The Independent. "All of our private data – from credit history to search data – is handled by third parties. We don't own or control any of it. Instead, it is just seven companies in the world that control almost all of the data. They have become more powerful than governments."
The way to get the power back, Chen says, is to introduce a paradigm shift to the big data business models of these large tech companies, from the apps we use, to the way we pay.
These blockchain phones operate on the same underlying technology that supports bitcoin, so it is no surprise that cryptocurrencies form a key role in their operation.
At MWC, HTC is also introducing a new range of decentralised apps – or dApps – that do not share or send data back to a centralised company or server. Some apps even allow people to monetise their own data, by selling it for cryptocurrency.
Payments can also go the other way, meaning users can make micropayments directly to websites and content creators without the need for transaction fees.
Even the phone's default browser, Opera, supports such functionality, describing itself as the world's first crypto-ready browser.
"We are at the dawn of a new generation of the Web, one where new decentralized services will challenge the status quo," says Charles Hamel, head of crypto at Opera. "HTC and Opera have both made the bold decision to be the first to step up and enable this transformation."
Like other blockchain phones, such as the Sirin Finney, the HTC Exodus 1 comes with an in-built cryptocurrency wallet that can store private keys for bitcoin, ether and litecoin offline. By not being connected to the internet, this cold-storage wallet protects the funds from hacking, as well as a person's private data.
Until now, the HTC Exodus has only been available to buy in cryptocurrency but from March people will be able to purchase it using traditional fiat currency, with the eventual hope that the phone and the decentralised web will make it into the mainstream.
"I don't like calling it a blockchain phone because it's not just for crypto geeks," Chen says. "It's about the internet."
It's been 10 years since the birth of bitcoin and blockchain technology but the industry is still very much in its infancy.
Interest in cryptocurrency and blockchain has been in decline ever since bitcoin's dramatic price crash, which saw the cryptocurrency lose more than three quarters of its value in 2018.
Online analytics show Google searches for both terms have been in free-fall during that time, and according to Gartner, the technology entered the so-called 'trough of disillusionment' phase in its 2018 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies report.
The leading market research firm says it may be another 10 years before it reaches the 'plateau of productivity' and begins to see widespread adoption.
For this to happen, Chen says, it will likely involve the very tech giants that this technology poses a threat to. Their considerable reach means their adoption of such technology would automatically push it into the mainstream. Another scenario would be that continued data breaches propel the conversation of digital property into the spotlight.
"People are becoming more aware of their data and will realise this is part of the solution," he says. "This could spread like wildfire. The tech giants may try to quell its spread, but ultimately they may have to choose between fuelling it or getting burnt and left behind."
The HTC Exodus 1 and Sirin Finney may be the first, but blockchain technology is already seeping into more mainstream devices. Earlier this month, Samsung announced its flagship Galaxy S10 range of smartphones, which came with a "Blockchain Keystore".
There are also rumours that Facebook is planning to launch its own cryptocurrency, which could facilitate payments across its range of messaging apps – from WhatsApp to Messenger. With close to 2 billion users worldwide, such a move could create a currency to rival the dominance of the US dollar almost overnight.
In a recent interview with Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain, Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg explained how blockchain-based authentication could make the social network more secure. But he added: "I haven't figured out a way to make this work out."
With the technological and financial resources at his disposal, it may just be that Zuckerberg simply hasn't figured out a way to implement the technology in a way that Facebook can still claim ownership to it.
The open, decentralised and borderless nature of blockchain is the reason blockchain remains the only technology vertical not dominated by the incumbents of the industry – it is antithetical to their current business model. The likes of Amazon and Google are leading the way in everything from fintech to artificial intelligence, as these are all technologies they can control and own.
The two largest smartphone makers, Samsung and Huawei, both profit from personal data through their cloud storage businesses. It could therefore fall to Apple to create that spark.
"Tim Cook keeps talking about privacy but can he take the next step? I'm hopeful and I would be their first cheerleader if they did," Chen says.
"This is a big, giant leap, but we are a David among Goliaths. It will take a giant company to start reversing this tide."
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