Know your customer

When Satoshi released the first windows-only Bitcoin binaries to the world, it had to do everything. It was a wallet and a miner and every running node was precious, because with only a handful of nodes the network was fragile.

While I was lead developer even more functionality was added– mostly developer-friendly hooks (additions to the JSON-RPC programming interface) to make it easier for people to build stuff for what was then a tiny community.

I was the only full-time Bitcoin developer for a couple of years, and I tried to write code for things I thought would have the highest impact that other people weren’t already doing. Usually that was something boring but really important (like the testnet, the unit testing framework, or the regression testing framework; my last major code contribution was a performance benchmarking framework). But sometimes I had time to work on new stuff, and I always started by thinking about what was the most likely path to Bitcoin’s success.

I didn’t always make the right choice. Before I chose to add functionality to the wallet programming interface (the infamous “accounts” feature that everybody, including me, came to hate) I remember asking myself if I thought Bitcoin should first be used mostly be used as a store of value or a means of exchange. In hindsight, I should have spent more time working on the secure store of value problem; maybe Core would have great support for creating paper wallets and sweeping funds from them if I’d chosen differently. Maybe Instawallet wouldn’t have been built… although I think it is debatable whether Instawallet was positive or negative for Bitcoin’s growth (it was certainly positive until it got shut down and its users had to jump through hoops to get their BTC back).

The Bitcoin ecosystem is incredibly rich and robust these days. I can’t keep track of all the development that is being done, and I’m excited to see multiple implementations of the Bitcoin protocol slowly starting to gain acceptance. It will be a long process, but moving away from One True Implementation will be very good for Bitcoin in the long run.

My advice to anybody leading an open source Bitcoin implementation project is to keep it as simple as possible and know your customer. These days there is no reason to do it all; figure out who your customer is and then build exactly what they need that they can’t already get from somewhere else.

For example, if your customer is big mining pools and miners, talk to them. Find out what they’re running and figure out what they need. If your software will be running on Internet-facing machines then it shouldn’t be storing private keys at all – it is really bad security practice to keep private keys on the same machine that is talking to the rest of the world.

If your customer is techno-weenies who love to tinker with stuff, then distribute a Docker image with some geek-friendly (non-GUI) interface.

If I was still lead developer for Bitcoin Core… I don’t know what I’d do. I don’t think there would be consensus for “who is the Bitcoin Core customer” and any proposal for major changes like “get rid of the wallet code, it is a terrible idea to keep private keys protecting potentially millions of dollars on a machine that is accepting connections from the Internet” or “drop support for Windows and OSX, all the active developers are Linux geeks” would be painfully controversial.


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