What is a blockchain smartphone and do you need it? The release of HTC Exodus 1, the long-awaited and anticipated blockchain of the Taiwanese manufacturer, perhaps answered the first of those questions; the jury is still out of the second.
The tech press discovered for the first time that Exodus was in production in May, when the "Chief Decentralized" of HTC Phil Chen made it clear that he was working on a smartphone oriented towards people who possess cryptocurrency – like bitcoin, ether or one of the thousands of new coins that have multiplied in the last two years. In October, the "early access version" of Exodus was finally made available for purchase, at a cryptocurrency price of only 0.15 bitcoins or 4.78 ethers – equivalent to £ 750 at the time of writing. The handset will be available in 34 countries, with the notable exception of China, which has recently cracked cryptocurrency trading.
At first glance, Exodus looks like an offer for a niche market – while HTC feels the pressure of its competitors Juggernaut Apple and Samsung – complete with a nice buzz PR. As such, the crypto-sale alone is a gimmick and one with the probable effect of making Exodus purchase more difficult. At the same time, however, HTC views the move as a deliberate policy to keep amateurs and non-tokens (internet-jargon for people who do not possess cryptocurrency) within reach. As things stand, Chen explains that Exodus should only provide for the blockchain and cryptocurrency community.
This does not mean that – the blockchain element apart – the handset is not a good model: it boasts impressive features like 6-inch Quad HD display, 6 GB of RAM, Snapdragon 845 processor, 3.500 mAh battery, IP68 waterproof rating and dual cameras both on the front and back. The only Exodus store, however, is something called "secure enclave".
This is essentially a section of the hardware that is isolated from the main processor and the Android operating system. The technology is not particularly new: Apple has used a similar architecture to protect biometric data on its iPhone – fingerprints and, later, Face ID information – since 2013. But HTC Exodus will use that part locked to store the wallet cryptocurrency of the keys users – the numerical codes needed to spend their cryptocurrency.
Having the keys stolen is the worst fear of the cryptocurrency holder and constant source of anguish and antics. At the moment, many cryptocurrency owners are content with software portfolios: mobile apps or portable and easy-to-use desktops. These apps store keys or entrust them to third-party servers, such as an exchange or app developer. Like everything connected to the Internet, however, software portfolios are potentially vulnerable to hacking, which – given some recent cryptocurrency peaks – can lead to seven-digit losses.
Hence the crypto-super-rich preference for hardware portfolios, which stores keys on a USB drive kept offline most of the time, although it still needs to be connected to a device connected to the Internet to make transactions .
Crypto-hardcore fans sometimes make a decision, using paper wallets, such as a sheet of paper printed with a series of digits or an equivalent QR code, which can be typed or scanned at the time of payment. It is not uncommon for these offline – or "cold rooms" – wallets to be kept in extravagant ways, including Faraday cage-powered safes, or padlocked suitcases worn perpetually by their owners. Needless to say, cold storage portfolios have a high security rating, but are much less usable than smartphone wallets.
What HTC aims to do with Exodus is providing a mid-level solution. Even if the secure enclave is not totally unattainable (nothing is), keeping your keys on a quarantined chip is safer than storing them on a software portfolio, completely linked to the smartphone operating system. At the same time, Exodus promises to be less manageable to use on a frequent basis than most cold storage portfolios – perhaps a desirable feature in countries, such as Japan, where cryptocurrency payments are accepted in several stores.
With Exodus HTC also hopes to fix another typical crypto-nightmare: losing the keys to cryptocurrency – through oblivion, the theft or destruction of a telephone or a hardware portfolio. A mechanism dubbed Social Key Recovery will allow users to select certain trusted contacts and give each of them a package of their key, so that the code can be reassembled if necessary.
The HTC Exodus website is crammed with quotes from great cryptocurrencies – including the co-founder of Ethereum Vitalik Buterin and the creator of Litecoin Charlie Lee – enthusiastic about the device. Chen says that more than 30 space leaders have advised the Exodus development team "at critical points".
Will it be enough to conquer the cryptocurrency ecosystem, characterized by an impulsive hostility towards the historical operators and the corporations? Not everyone is convinced. Lawrence Lundy, head of research at the blockbuster-focused VC Outlier Ventures company, says that while Exodus technical innovations are "a step in the right direction", people with a large investment in cryptography will likely remain loyal to their projected project portfolios from the cryptocurrency industry, like Sirin Labs' smartphone Finney.
Andy Bryant, chief operating officer at the European branch of the cryptocurrency exchange bitFlyer, echoes a similar line of thought. "Serious investors continue [their bitcoin] in cold rooms, possibly in a safe; less sophisticated owners, usually have daily-use software portfolios. So who will use it? ", Says Bryant." A lot of people in space will think, "Will you trust a phone manufacturer?"
He adds that since most cryptocurrency holders currently hold rather than spend their own funds, this is not the perfect time to launch a product that can only be purchased in a crypto. "It is not a very large market".
Chen of HTC contests that the safe enclave of Exodus is "almost on par with the cold". The company will also release APIs to allow cryptocurrency developers to build on Exodus hardware and further improve its security. "We're not perfect, but we went out and we said," Hey, help us improve it, "says Chen.
He endeavors to emphasize that Exodus is not just about bitcoin. Following the recent Facebook privacy scandal, several scrambled developers have proposed exploiting blockchain technology to give users more control over their personal data. HTC Exodus could be the first mainstream step in that direction. "The cryptocurrency is part of [HTC Exodus], but not the most important part, "says Chen.
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