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vaporware explained
October 27, 2023

Plainly stated, vaporware is a new kind of peer-to-peer web application. It is a construction of the elements necessary for better user experience – or shall we say, operator experience – with crypto, and more broadly, a sovereign digital life. These applications offer similar functionality as existing websites and apps, but are served in a way that preserves the privacy of the operator and obviates the liability traps that drown developers in compliance policies and starve us of novel software experiences.

The Vaporware ecosystem is comprised of the following components:

  • Ethereum NFTs
  • Mobile PWAs (Progressive Web App) with Embedded Crypto Wallets
  • Token Bound Smart Contract Accounts
  • Urbit, a Solid-State Interpreter
  • Hosted Urbit Ship Onboarding
  • Web3 Native Sign-In
  • Vaporware Namespacing Protocol

Read on to learn more about how these systems work to deliver unique affordances to developers and novel experiences to the world.

NFTs as distribution channel and software ‘licensing’ scheme

Million dollar pictures of rocks or monkeys notwithstanding, Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) represent a particularly interesting technological affordance:

NFTs are a tamper-proof ledger of permissions to data and code.

As NFT skeptics love to remind us, tokens have tended to merely point to data or content that isn’t itself actually on-chain. As the use case for digital information rights expands to running software, the conception of what an NFT represents must expand beyond the limitations of degen token trading.

Of course, we thank the degens for forging the path. For building the marketplaces that allow capital to flow towards this new technology. But, we now aim to turn these marketplaces not only into places for status signaling and financial games (although we like those too), but into channels for monetizing and distributing free and open source technology – including as a secondary market for used cloud software. Ever buy a subscription to Adobe Creative Cloud, not use it for three months, and wish you could recoup some of that sunk cost? Us too.

Vaporware always comes as an operator-ownable NFT with all of the on-chain affordances of that digital asset class: provenance, cryptographic ownership, composability, etc. The main differentiator for Vaporware NFTs from the current landscape is the mechanism of access to off-chain resources and the way that they are linked to digital identities. Specifically, Vaporware gives sovereign access to running code and p2p data transfer which provides for decentralized local consensus about application state. This enables a mechanism for taking the ‘programmability’ of crypto asset ownership, to use as a licensing layer for cloud software, linked to on-chain identity.

In our initial implementation of “NFTs as programmable identity-linked licenses”, with MiladyOS we are taking a three part approach:

  • Privileged mint access to current holders of the Milady Maker PFP ERC-721 to receive a sovereign cloud computer, utilizing the PFP as the actual profile access token
  • Open Edition MiladyOS (mOS) ERC-721 NFT mint for purchasing a software license to receive ongoing updates to the miladyOS application
  • Token gated content access via ERC-1155 tokens that can be bought from and sold into a bonding curve and staking mechanics for earning yield.

Each token in the system is a license for specific software features, a proof of ownership, and an access point for off-chain data & compute. While MiladyOS uses these tokens for content access, we envision future applications making use of NFTs for dependency management, open-source library monetization, and even access to computational resources.

End-running centralized app stores

As crypto gives software developers a more direct path to customers, the current Megacorps are trying to protect their domain. Google and Apple’s app store duopoly is effectively a cartel, with very high taxes and restrictive terms of service that stifle innovation. This pushes developers towards the narrow set of software experiences that support the duopoly’s existing business models (spying on you for advertisers and selling you expensive closed-source hardware, respectively, among other ills).

Although desktop OSes still retain their original open-by-default marketplaces, with so much of the world trending towards mobile-first computing the App Stores’ defacto ban on crypto restricts people to an increasingly anachronistic desktop paradigm, hamstringing the utility of an otherwise device-agnostic network.

In other words, the App Store cartel effectively controls far too much of the practically-available application space.

The upshot: each new technical feature these giants implement exposes new cracks in the monopoly. One such crack is the UX affordances of the Progressive Web App (PWA). For Megacorps, the goal of PWAs is to combine the reach and accessibility of the web with the engaging and feature-rich experience of native apps. Of course, with new functionality comes new opportunities and vaporware is designed to expand into the gaps created by these implementations.

Key characteristics of PWAs include:

  • “Installation” of the app on the operator’s home screen, for accessibility akin to a native app
  • Host OS-level mobile push notifications
  • Improved performance and functionality, even in offline or low-connectivity scenarios
  • Persistent application state

This last characteristic is deceptively subtle, yet extremely high-leverage. By pairing persistent local state on mobile, and persistent urbit state in the cloud, we can embed Multi-Party Computation (MPC) wallets like Privy (or an Urbit Native wallet) into these PWAs to broaden the set of possible crypto apps otherwise disallowed by centralized app stores which are at risk of regulatory capture.

And, with the advent of Token Bound Accounts (such as those defined in EIP-6551), having an ecosystem of NFTs that represent your software and individual features affords both developers and software operators capabilities not previously possible in crypto or the broader software world.

Token Gated Accounts grow the design space

Stand-alone NFTs have support from marketplaces and decent adoption among crypto operators, but once you try using them for anything more than monkey pictures it gets tricky. You can’t sell a classical crypto address (e.g an Externally Owned Account or EOA) and the variety of assets or permissions that it controls. But by building on the EIP6551 Token Bound Account (TBA) standard, Vaporware’s Token Gated Accounts (TGA) give you a programmable container with a cryptographically-unique identity that can be part of a digital agent that is plugged into the broader financial system.

“Crypto” as a technology is still in it’s nascent stage, loved by early adopters for certain unique features (sovereignty, censorship resistance, separation of state and money), but lacking the decades of ‘user experience design’ that has gone into the fiat money networks. Forward progress demands that we improve these experiences in order to achieve the other promises of digital money: programmable financial instruments, autonomous AI agents taking economic action on your behalf, and fully global peer-to-peer networks.

Vaporware offers two main affordances for improving UX:

  • Token Gated Accounts
  • Permissioned mobile wallets for select function calls on those Token Gated Accounts

But how does this improve usability? Your Milady Maker PFP remains in your top-level EOA, potentially secured via a hardware wallet, and has “admin privileges” to control all the other accounts in the system. This is fairly standard for Token Bound Accounts based on the EIP6551 Standard.

But here is where things get interesting… For Vaporware Token Gated Accounts we have added a specific functionality: The ability to “bond” your in-app, mobile wallet to the top level NFT - in the case of MiladyOS, the Milady Maker token.

This “bonded address” can perform certain on-chain actions within the MiladyOS system on behalf of your Milady - while the Milady itself never moves from where the user had it originally (Metamask, ledger, whatever). This bond can be removed or modified by the Milady holder at any point, and expires if the Milady moves. In the end, this means that the security of the underlying asset is not impacted, and yet the mobile app is released from the awkward flow of signing transactions outside the app. Want to buy a new hat and equip it? You can do this right from your phone, in four taps, without leaving the app.

We can now bring the longstanding ‘principle of least permissions’ into the crypto software world – instead of all access defacto running as root. Or, a particularly security conscious user could choose to skip the mobile wallet bonding entirely, and execute contract actions directly with their top-level keys. In short, they retain the optionality to meet their appetite for security and UX tradeoffs (#friendtechbtfo).

Hosted Urbit ships for streamlined onboarding with a “right to exit”

Partnering with Red Horizon, we offer web3 native onboarding to sovereign Urbit applications. Given the early adopters of vaporware are crypto operators, onboarding is driven by a smart contract ecosystem that holds and distributes Urbit IDs linked to running Urbit instances. When an operator buys vaporware, they are also airdropped an Urbit ID which gives their software a self-sovereign cloud in which to run.

“Wait, I thought this was sovereign? But someone else is running it for me!?”

This is another UX tradeoff. But where cloud technology like facebook or friend.tech make that decision for you (“you may only access your application and data through our servers, and it must be hosted on our hardware”), vaporware offers optionality. If ever you want to take your urbit and run it yourself – you can.

This mechanism works by using Urbit ID’s nature as a cryptographically owned digital asset to:

  • Enable hosting service providers to place running ships into a coordination contract
  • Allow developers to set up a link between the NFT that represents their software and a set of ships within the coordination contract
  • And then programmatically sell them to vaporware minters, splitting revenue either on chain or via a separate agreement with each other.

At this stage, the vaporware operator now cryptographically owns their Urbit and thus has a inarguable “right to exit” (via breaching, revoking management keys, and taking their identity elsewhere), and the software running on it, without having to touch a command line – or an email and password registration form.

Experienced Urbiters will look at this and ask, “but, how do they get their +code to sign in?”

Our answer? They don’t.

Crypto wallets as the authentication mechanism to sovereign digital identities and cloud computers

Web3 users are accustomed to signing in to “dApps” using a crypto wallet and signed messages (Not going to litigate the case here for how these aren’t actually decentralized. That’s a story for another day). What we are doing with vaporware is extending that functionality from signing in to an application on someone else’s cloud computer, to signing in to your own sovereign cloud computer.

How does vaporware do this? Every urbit instance is fundamentally linked to an Urbit ID. Unlike your macBook, your urbit understands its own identity and tracks the ownership of that identity on Ethereum. It can then grant access to the owner from any browser or mobile device in the world – assuming a valid signed message is provided.

When an operator visits their urbit on the clearweb, they are served a page to which they can connect their wallet. After connecting their wallet, they are prompted to sign a message with their ownership keys. This message is passed into their urbit, validated to come from the owner, and then the urbit provides a cookie back to the browser which allows the browser an authenticated session to the visitor.

What does this let you do? Aside from not needing to provide an email, manage passwords, or somehow use out-of-band communications channels to share an urbit +code to an operator, web3 users can sign-in once, and use any app running on their sovereign cloud computer without needing to sign in again.

For existing Urbiters, this functionality is available from %mask; |install ~ligbel %mask

Urbit: A Solid State Interpreter for magic and arbitrage.

What makes this sovereignty in cloud computing possible? Vaporware is built on top of Urbit, the first-of-it’s-kind Solid State Interpreter, as a technology infrastructure for the network age. It bundles identity, networking, databases and other tools (like a webserver) into a single, portable, cryptographically-owned state machine.

By having data and compute mapped to the operator – instead of the current model of data and compute mapped to the application – vaporware changes the opportunities and liability landscape for the development, monetization, distribution, and computation of open-source software. When all user data lives on one logical machine, magical app experiences become eminently more possible.

Some of the affordances of a solid state interpreter with cryptographically-linked identity:

  • Software is run by individual “operators” instead of consumer “users”.
  • Communication and application distribution is directly peer-to-peer
  • Data and code are trivially portable between physical machines
  • Developers don’t need to worry about the liability of hosting front ends to blockchain networks
  • Operators control their own data and it all lives in one place, instead of disjointed across multiple service providers.

The big takeaway here for application creators it that they get to give up control of user data. This is, in some sense, anathema to current application monetization practices, but for new entrants into the software industry it offers a crack in the armor to the technology landscape. Without vaporware, successfully launching a software application is an arms race of collecting every possible piece of data about a user and trying to do a better job at it than Google or Facebook. By extracting the liability of collecting and handling user data (see: GDPR, CCPA, etc), vaporware creates an arbitrage opportunity to developers who can now create a whole new class of applications that are impossible in the world of centralized SaaS computing due to regulatory compliance requirements.

Vaporware Namespacing Protocol for sharing data and code

Of course, Web3 native sign-in and smooth Urbit onboarding flows are table stakes to deliver a robust customer experience, but if we believe NFTs are the tamper-proof ledger of data and code permissions, there needs to be an off-chain mechanism for programmatic actions taken on those permissions. Vaporware aims to further improve the lives of software operators by creating a set of Urbit infrastructure applications that watch chain state and support the distribution of data and code based on that state.

The first iteration of this vision appears in MiladyOS where our chain watcher, %make, watches pre-specified contracts for the movement of relevant tokens and their relationships to other addresses – particularly those relating to an Urbit ID – tracking them in a structured namespace and sharing a subscription of this data to all MiladyOS holders. Based on the relationship of an Urbit ID to specific tokens in the collection, an urbit can modify the way it shares or receives messages from other miladyOS instances.

This understanding of chain state is shared between permissioned provider nodes, but as the product evolves, these permissioned nodes will merely be a default option. By giving every vaporware operators an always-running cloud computer it becomes possible to receive and verify the state of global consensus through a larger multitude of options:

  • Trust a developer to provide an accurate preset
  • Provide your own API keys from a service like Infura or Alchemy
  • Run your own blockchain node and connect directly to it from your Urbit
  • Trust a friendly node to share accurate chain state to you
  • Share your understanding of chain state out to your friends

This frees the average crypto network participant from the restraints of publicly served front ends and centralized and predetermined data sources. In the current paradigm, practically speaking, they have neither the option to check veracity of their blockchain state data source, nor to switch providers if they become unreliable. With vaporware, it becomes as simple as flipping a switch.

Vaporware as hyperstition

Vaporware is all of these things and none of these things. In its full form, all of these elements will be composable with one another. Developers may utilize some portions and eschew others. Don’t want to use TBAs and just want to use the crypto-native hosted onboarding flow? Go for it. Want to self-host? Go for it. Hell, maybe you’ll even bring a different Solid-State Interpreter into the mix. Go for it.

These aren’t the tightly-ordered departments of a strict joint-stock company with corporate VP roles, they are the emergent elements of a new system for human organization and coordination. We are building them from within our corporate cathedral, but to truly succeed we need to evolve past legalistic fiction. To ensure a sovereign digital life, the technology we build must itself become vaporware.

programmable identity-linked licenses for monetization of open-source software on distributed networks.
dm ~sarlev-sarsen if you find this