21 Bitcoin Computer: Not Very Transparent

I’m sure we will be hearing a lot about the 21 Bitcoin Computer, which, if nothing else, has buzz out the wazoo.

This is a strange hybrid, including a custom ASIC to make it a small mining rig, but also including a full Linux operating system with web server and capabilities to buy and sell via Internet APIs. It can theoretically be free standing, but more likely will be a coprocessor USBed to another computer. The intention is for it to be embedded in other products and/or pave the way to easy digital commerce.

The company makes clear that, while the 21 will deliver a “stream” of Bitcoin (obviously a tiny trickle), the real profits lie in using the APIs to buy and sell stuff. I.e., the Linux/Web stuff is the really important stuff, the ASIC is almost just decoration. If so, it is clever PR to use the ASIC as bait.

They make some iffy claims about power consumption, siting the spec for the ASIC while neglecting the attached computer and network. For that matter, they don’t comment on the Linux side of the picture. I don’t know how to account for those costs, but I know they are non zero.

The company is not especially clear about the software stack. Notably, it is definitely not open source, which means that we have no idea at all what modifications have been made to Linux or what the APIs and mining stuff actually do. You may have confidence in Andreessen Horowitz, Qualcomm, Cisco, and Peter Thiel, but forgive me if I don’t.

My misgivings were increased by their handwaving comments about security:

“What about security?

As we have noted above: this is a machine built for developers and early adopters. Both Bitcoin itself and peer-to-peer commerce of the kind enabled by the 21 Bitcoin Computer are new technologies — and as we’ve seen in the past, there is going to be a long burn-in period before we fully understand all the security considerations that will arise in production deployments. We are working with some of the best folks in the business on this – but the freedom to sell code to anyone comes with risk.

“Nevertheless, we side with freedom. The web browser has shown that with the use of techniques like sandboxing one can execute arbitrarily complex code from remote machines while maintaining an acceptable level of security. We are optimistic that the use of similar techniques can comparably limit, if not completely eliminate, the security issues around peer-to-peer commerce.”

Oy! Close our eyes, cross our fingers, and full speed ahead! We’ll discover the security holes later!

A lot of this sounds like a good idea, especially the software stack. If it was open source, I’d grab it in a flash.  I don’t mind paying roughly their price, but I want to have a much better idea what is in the code.

I do have to wonder about the mining features. The product is partly based on the hope that Bitcoin is standard and stable enough to justify this level of integrated product. Just how wired-in is the current Bitcoin protocol? How is it dealing with the possibility of forking? How will it deal with the inevitable changes to support scaling up? What effect will such scaling have on their “stream” of Bitcoin?

For that matter, can I use this for blockchain things other than payments?  Depending on how the APIs work, that could be easy or difficult.  If this opens the door to messing around with blockchains, then it would be an even better product.

(I’m still not likely to buy it without source code.)


Cryptocurrency Thursday

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