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Alternative touch screen device input methods

Alternative touch screen device input methods

smartphone

I am not a big fan of touch screen devices for input. I may be old school, but I think touch should not be a primary mode of input for any reasonably complex computer with a small display area (which most smart phones/tablets are). Touch input is best used for simple menu based information retrieval systems where the screen has a grid of large icons and at best, require simple numeric input occasionally. Unfortunately the smart phone revolution has ensured that touch input has become the norm on mobile devices. On-screen text entry methods are not ergonomic and quite inefficient for typing large amounts of text by design, because these devices are primarily meant for voice/video communication, portability, and consumption of information and entertainment, not content creation.

But using a powerful smartphone/tablet just for communication, information or entertainment consumption seems to be a gross under-utilization of their computing power. As I pointed out in an earlier post, apps like Collabora Office allow mobile devices to become reasonable productivity devices. Both Android and iOS have a wide variety of productivity apps for note taking, photo-editing, digital painting, music composition and much more.

There are, of course, some common alternatives to touch input on mobile devices. In this article, I’ll explore some of their advantages and limitations.

Passive styluses

Passive styluses are simple, cheap alternatives to using a stubby finger on small screens. But they are just that: finger substitutes. They need a reasonable contact area with the screen which makes them not quite accurate for touching an exact point on the screen. Besides, stylus touch is not recognized as any different from using bare finger/hand touch, so if you plan to draw or write using a stylus, then you have to make sure your palm and fingers are off the device surface to avoid unwanted input. To me, styluses are a fairly comfortable alternative to using bare fingers for basic user-interface functions like swiping, scrolling, mark-making and on-screen keyboard input on smaller screens for fat-fingered folk.

Advantages: very cheap and usable on all capacitive touch screen devices.

Disadvantages: almost as inaccurate as using finger for touch input; not distinguished as a distinct input type by the device.

Active pens

“Active” pens are a more recent technology as far as touchscreen mobile devices are concerned. The most famous examples are the Apple Pencil (1st and 2nd generation) and the Samsung Galaxy S-Pen. Of course, there are quite a few third party active pens for supported Android tablets and Apple iPads. The distinguishing feature of active pens are that their input is treated as distinct from actual touch input thus allowing for touch rejection/palm rejection when they are in use. They are usually battery powered and use bluetooth/NFC technology to communicate with the devices. Their biggest advantage is that they are small-tipped and allow accurate and smooth writing on the screen, meaning that they are practical for note-taking and also doodling/drawing.

Of course, with some active styluses like the Apple Pencil and Samsung’s S-Pen you get extra features like pressure-sensitivity and tilt-sensitivity, making these pens useful for digital painting and artwork with apps like Procreate[1] and AutoDesk SketchBook[2].

Advantages: very accurate, allowing for short note taking and doodling/drawing apart from substituting for the basic touch operated functions; treated as distinct input from touch allowing for additional features like touch/palm rejection while in use and pressure sensitivity and tilt sensitivity.

Disadvantages: usually expensive; specific to devices that support them only; battery operated and thus require recharging from time to time; pen tips are subject to wear and tear and may require replacement after prolonged usage.

External Keyboards

External keyboards for mobile devices fall into three categories: wireless (bluetooth), wired and proprietary. Bluetooth keyboards are less expensive, more common and made by numerous third parties and work with Android, iOS and even Windows devices. Compact wired USB keyboards that can be plugged into Android devices with USB ports are available, but these are rarer these days. Specialized keyboards with proprietary connectors made for specific hardware like the Apple Smart Keyboard which work only for Apple iPads are quite expensive. The best choice in my opinion is bluetooth, since bluetooth works with most devices. In this segment, there are quite a few external keyboards which come with integrated protective cases for specific model of tablets which make them convenient to put away safely with the device when not in use.

Advantages: allow for more comfortable typing than on-screen keyboards, making longer text entry more ergonomic and efficient for things like e-mail composition and shorter documents.

Disadvantages: are quite cramped compared to full sized desktop or laptop keyboards; bluetooth keyboards require pairing and consume battery power, so require regular recharging; external keyboards, however small or lightweight, make mobile devices just a bit less portable.

Voice input/dictation

Voice input/dictation mode has become popular with the increasing computing power of mobile devices. But having used voice input a few times, I can say that voice recognition is still a bit faulty and voice input is unsuitable in noisy environments and also environments where you are not expected to disturb those around you, like open office environments. I personally haven’t much use for voice input, but I think it’s a convenient method both for recording short snippets of information in the form of voice memos or for dictating short e-mail messages or SMSes. A third common use for voice input is voice commands using tools like Siri and Google Assistant for common tasks.

Advantages: No external physical device required, hence zero cost; convenient for voice commands for common device actions and dictation of short e-mails/messages.

Disadvantages: Unsuitable in noisy environments and in environments where speaking aloud will cause disturbance to others.

Final thoughts

While I’ve covered the common methods of input in mobile devices, I believe heavy-duty input is still a big issue in mobile devices, with or without external accessories. Long form text entry is the biggest issue and only external keyboards resolve the issue to some extent. While text input through touch can be slightly improved using third party apps to replace the in-built traditional QWERTY layout on-screen keyboards, having to use touch itself is an ergonomic problem that cannot be resolved in software.

If at all you plan to use a tablet or mobile device for regular long form text entry, the best choice remains a cheap external bluetooth keyboard. Passive styluses are best for fat-fingered people who just want a more elegant touch input method. Specialized and more expensive devices such as active pens make no sense for long form text entry despite text-recognition technologies like Apple Scribble. Their use case is taking short handwritten notes, marking up PDF documents and doodling/painting.

  1. paid software, iOS/iPadOS only[]
  2. free, available for both Android and iOS/iPadOS[]
Pre social-media online presence and disappearance

Pre social-media online presence and disappearance

A recent blog post from my brother on social media led me to think of online networking before social media giants like FaceBook and Twitter became popular. In those days, the main source of online networking was through blogging, internet forums and sites like Flickr which catered to a fairly niche audience (in Flickr’s case, photography). And those days, people rarely used their real names online. Most people went under a pseudonym, also called a “handle”. While in the case of blogging many chose to blog under their real names, on web-based forums and pre social-media networking sites, people usually chose a pseudonymous handle. There was basically no compulsion to reveal your real name or identity unlike on modern social media which strongly encourages you to link you to identifiable details like mobile number, your first name, middle name and surname and also associate your identity with all mutual friends, friends of friends and so on. All this contributed to something of a mystique around an online identity without any revealed real-world connections.

The point of this post is that pre social-media online identities made it almost impossible to find out why a person suddenly disappeared from an online existence, which is disconcerting especially if you have interacted with that person a lot. I had a lot of blogging friends back in the day who simply stopped blogging and disappeared after a few years, completely removing themselves from any traceable online presence. Even those with real names are near impossible to trace if they have no social media presence. I don’t think a lot of the old-school bloggers and those who were prominent on internet forums have a social media presence these days, at least on the popular mainstream ones. I think I am one of the few rare bloggers who maintain an online presence from 2005 till date. I am not sure of percentages but I would hazard a guess that around 90% of the blogs/forums I used to follow back in 2005 have disappeared, either completely or probably resurfaced on social media without any connection to their earlier online presence. And of the people I knew who stopped blogging, very few recognizably resurfaced on social media.

I am not sure of the reasons for sudden online disappearance, which could be varied. Maybe people chose to remove themselves from the virtual world for privacy reasons, maybe they lost interest, their life situation changed, career pressures took over, family responsibilities came in the way or (sadly) just passed away. Such is life.

In so far as the internet is concerned, the disappearance of a person from online activity does not always mean complete removal of all traces of the person — it’s not rare to find long-dead blogs/websites still preserved on free services like Blogspot or WordPress and in the case of paid domain names which have expired, it’s even possible to retrieve an archived copy from services like the Wayback Machine.

From another angle, it may actually be a good thing to have the option to totally and completely wipe out an online identity and associated content permanently. As of today, I doubt whether this is technologically feasible, what with all the massive archiving of content by different web services and providers. As they say, once it’s on the internet, it’s probably there forever, even if the creator has long since disappeared, mysteriously or otherwise.

The limitations of mobile photography

The limitations of mobile photography

Of late, I’ve been doing quite a bit of photography with my mobile, earlier on my old iPhone 5s and now on my new Samsung Galaxy M31s, a decent mid-range Android phone. Though I appreciate the advances in mobile photography in recent times, it’s obvious that there are quite a few limitations with mobile devices, some of them practically impossible to overcome. But before getting into the article, here are a couple of photos I’ve recently taken with my Samsung M31s from which it’s obvious that mobile photography has come a long way in terms of photographic quality as well as creative control.

Solanum Torvum
Macro mode on the Samsung Galaxy M31s – a dedicated macro lens allows for some creative control otherwise not possible on mobile cameras
From the terrace
64 MP primary camera test – the ability to capture so many pixels allows for a fair bit of cropping

As you can see, mobile phones these days come with extra lenses (and sensors) for additional creative control, like dedicated macro and wide angle lenses. With increasingly higher megapixels, techniques like pixel-binning are being used to increase image quality. Some years ago, such features would be almost unimaginable from a mid-range mobile phone. With effects like artificial blurring of backgrounds for the (not quite as natural) bokeh effect, auto-HDR, and creative instant filters and you’ve got a pretty decent package.

But coming to the main point of this article: what are the limitations of a mobile camera as a photography device; or to put it differently, under what circumstances would I not consider using a mobile camera?

Lack of optical zoom

This is the most obvious drawback of mobile devices — lack of (optical) zoom[1]. While a few very rare mobile models with an optical zoom barrel do exist, the fixed wide-angle lens on most mobile cameras makes it almost impossible to get clear and well framed shots of distant subjects. While prime-lens enthusiasts may disagree, zoom is a versatile photographic technique, the lack of which cuts out a whole range of subjects and creative control.

Poor low light performance

Despite so many advancements in image processing technology, one cannot get past the fact that minuscule sensors paired with tiny lenses can only capture so many photons. It’s obvious that mobile cameras, even the high end ones, struggle with low light performance because of this factor, the two biggest problems being high-ISO noise or softening of detail due to aggressive noise reduction applied by the camera processor and blur caused by camera shake due to slow shutter speeds. While it’s possible to get decent night shots with some mobiles, the quality is nowhere close to those captured with an APS-C DSLR/mirrorless camera, let alone full-frame ones. For people who love to photograph indoors or in low natural light, particularly past sunset, mobile cameras can seem very limiting.

Lack of manual controls

I know that there are camera apps which expose some manual settings in device cameras, but this is the second biggest limitation in mobile photography. While it’s nice to be able to shoot in Auto mode occasionally with a proper camera, what really makes photography interesting is the ability to experiment with settings like manual focus, aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, ISO sensitivity etc[2]. With the small-sized sensors and fixed lenses, mobiles cannot do much even with such control of settings, but the lack of control takes away quite a bit of experimentation with, for example, depth of field, slow shutter speed, long exposures and so on. And even with mobile camera apps that offer manual control over settings, touch screen controls are just not ergonomic enough to use quickly and effectively.

Other drawbacks

There are other significant requirements which only proper (SLR-like) cameras can fulfill, like the ability to accurately track focus on moving subjects (for example, in Sports and wildlife photography), a much higher dynamic range, fast burst mode, ability to shoot RAW, using external flash, the versatility of being able to use different lenses for different purposes, using physical filters and so on. Of course, not everybody requires all features of a full-featured SLR-like camera, but most enthusiast photographers appreciate quite a large subset of the available features, even if they don’t reach out to use them all the time.

For the reasons I’ve mentioned, particularly the physical limitation of small sensor-lens combinations, I think it’s next to impossible that mobile photography will significantly affect the popularity of advanced point-and-shoot and SLR-like cameras among the enthusiast crowd who find these limitations unacceptable.

The one significant reason for me to cheer the advancement of mobile photography technology is that mobiles are almost always with us while we cannot always carry along a camera wherever we go, and this allows us to take photos that we would otherwise miss. Capturing those moments in super-high quality is icing on the cake.

  1. The so-called digital zoom offered by many phone cameras is not zoom at all[]
  2. Even most budget point and shoot cameras lack fine grained control like aperture priority, shutter priority and full manual modes[]
Static vs dynamic personal blogs and interacting with readers

Static vs dynamic personal blogs and interacting with readers

In this day and age when the average internet user’s online presence is mostly restricted to social media sites where the main form of interaction is clicking/tapping on “like” and “fave” buttons on a mobile screen, having an online identity like your own website seems like an extravagance, particularly when you choose to own a domain name and pay for hosting. But there are still many of us who remember a time before social media took over the online landscape and personal sites/blogs were still in vogue. There are a surprising number of people who still blog regularly, though the visibility of the blogging landscape has shrunk, mainly due to the focus on big-brand social platforms.

One of the fundamental decisions when you decide to create a website is whether to make it a static content site[1] or a dynamic site[2]. My brother has written a good article on this subject, in which he explains the pros and cons of each approach. He himself chose to create a static website which is generated offline through a website generation tool.

For this website, I chose to use WordPress, a popular dynamic blogging platform rather than create or generate a site with static pages. Why? Because I think interacting with readers is a big deal and having the ability to receive and record comments on-site is a better way to engage with readers than through social media. I understand that the modern approach to user interactivity is to outsource comments and likes to social media and going with the flow, but I feel that there is some value in having comments and interaction on the site itself. Not only is it easier to follow the discussion which is on the same page as the content, but it also preserves and focuses the discussion in a way that social media cannot. And this way, the website or blog owner has full editorial and moderation control which is lost when the discussion is moved off-site.

I know it’s hard to get readers to engage in this way these days and it does feel like an uphill battle having to maintain a commenting system, especially when it comes to fighting spam. But still, for whatever it is worth, I choose to keep that option open and encourage readers to comment on this blog. Good, thoughtful comments add immense value to content and I would prefer such feedback to a hundred likes on FaceBook any day.

  1. pure static content, no server side scripting or interaction with the user[]
  2. pages are dynamically generated and served on request, and allows user interactivity[]
The non-content of the Internet

The non-content of the Internet

Beware, this is a bit of a rant.

Today I clicked on “Pocket”, Mozilla’s built-in content aggregator and offline reader which is sneakily advertised in Firefox. Then found this apparently “Pocket-worthy” article among others. From its very title, I knew that it was one of those empty “non-content” articles — where a bunch of inane, rehashed, impracticable, theoretical, unoriginal, insipid and clichéd ideas written in an impersonal, often corporatey style are presented as fresh, thought-provoking, intelligent and original.

This is not about Mozilla Pocket. It’s not even about that particular article that I linked to which seems to be a bit more intelligently written than your average click-bait spam. It’s about that kind of article with that kind of title. Here are a couple of paragraphs from the linked article I’ll leave you with, to illustrate my point:

Everyone is different: not better, not worse, just different. Appreciate the differences instead of the shortcomings and you’ll see people—and yourself—in a better light.

Don’t let your fears hold you back. Whatever you’ve been planning, whatever you’ve imagined, whatever you’ve dreamed of, get started on it today.

Source: https://getpocket.com/explore/item/10-things-incredibly-likable-people-never-ever-do-and-why-you-love-them-for-it

So deep, original, thought-provoking and inspirational! 😮 Sarcasm aside, those vacuous sentences tell you nothing about the author’s personal experience, has no unique perspective or viewpoint, nothing that shows that the author cared much about the topic except to make up yet another top ten list. Typical of the kind of non-content I’m talking about.

Don’t get me wrong: I have no problem with low quality content however badly presented provided at least a bit of the author’s personality and originally comes through. I don’t even have a problem with bland generic stuff like the content linked above.

Seriously, what’s annoying is that this kind of rich-on-keyword non-content is still quite popular with search engines and often takes precedence over real worthwhile, quality material. Let’s say for example that I really wanted to research how successful and likeable people behave. Instead of getting linked to actual, objective research on the subject, an expert opinion or even a more thoughtful and original take on the subject, I am forced to wade through several such spammy click-bait links before coming across something of value.

FaceBook and other social media sites are already full of non-content pages, memes, images and videos. But far too often, web pages with click-baity titles looking to generate ad-revenue, sell you an e-book and/or make you subscribe for premium content appear too high on search results.

It’s not a coincidence that such (non-)content is usually created or copied by persons or entities in the business of “making money online” for as long as I can remember. I can well understand why: it is cheap, easy, low effort investment — a website with basic SEO, the right keywords for search engines to pick up and index, click-bait titles and you’ve got a steady stream of traffic and potential ad revenue. If it didn’t work, obviously the Internet wouldn’t be full of them, hogging precious search engine visibility.

WordGrinder – a distraction free open source word processor

WordGrinder – a distraction free open source word processor

A long time back, when I was writing a novel[1], I discovered WordGrinder, a console word processor that’s designed to string prose together without any distraction. In the creator’s own words:

WordGrinder is a word processor for processing words. It is not WYSIWYG. It is not point and click. It is not a desktop publisher. It is not a text editor. It does not do fonts and it barely does styles. What it does do is words. It’s designed for writing text. It gets out of your way and lets you type.

The author wrote it to have something to write novels on.

Source: http://cowlark.com/wordgrinder/index.html

In my experience WordGrinder is quite as effective as advertised. I certainly managed to grind out many more chapters using WordGrinder than using LibreOffice Writer. There’s something strangely relaxing about typing away into a black console screen without menus, toolbars, widgets, context menus and other GUI distractions. Sadly my novel remains incomplete to this day, but that’s my own fault, not WordGrinder’s.

A screenshot of XWordGrinder on my Debian system

While WordGrinder is deceptively simple to use, just below the surface tucked away in a useful menu, it does expose features like semantic markup[2] and basic character styles[3]. Though WordGrinder uses a native format which cannot be opened by normal text editors, you can export your document to a bunch of useful formats for further processing, formatting or printing. In a way, WordGrinder is reminiscent of old DOS-based word processors like WordStar, but with modern semantic markup to allow clean document structuring. The best part is that, there’s really no learning curve — WordGrinder’s entire feature list is accessible from the menu and can be explored within a few minutes.

WordGrinder is still actively developed — the first release was in 2007 — thirteen years ago! The latest version, 0.8, released on 13th October 2020, not only has bug fixes, but new features as well. There is also a Windows version, though the application was originally developed on Linux. For a one-man open source project, that is quite impressive.

  1. sadly incomplete, long abandoned now[]
  2. heading levels, lists, paragraphs and more[]
  3. bold, italic and underline[]
Collabora Office – a full fledged LibreOffice port for mobile devices

Collabora Office – a full fledged LibreOffice port for mobile devices

A while back, I searched for a decent Office suite for opening and editing documents on my iPad and found Collabora Office, a full-fledged port of LibreOffice for Android and iOS / iPadOS. This is one of the few Open Source office suites for mobile devices around and one of the few that are almost as functional as desktop equivalents — most mobile office suites I’ve found are (a) not open source, (b) feature-limited, (c) not free and/or (d) ad-supported in their free avatars.

You can see from the screenshot that Collabora is LibreOffice, with minor caveats[1] and tweaks for the touch screen. In fact, it features the traditional desktop UI, complete with menubar and toolbar rather than a mobile-centric one, making it highly familiar for experienced LibreOffice users.

A screenshot of Collabora Office running on my iPad

I often make slight edits/modifications to documents within Collabora on my iPad when I cannot be bothered to open my laptop. One minor issue that I found is that the on-screen iPadOS keyboard doesn’t seem as full featured as with native Apple software[2]. With a compatible physical bluetooth keyboard, it might be possible to compose longer documents conveniently.

I’m surprised that Collabora Office doesn’t appear to be popular enough to merit an entry in most top-10 office suite lists for mobile devices that you can find with a simple internet search.

  1. Collabora features the equivalent ports of LibreOffice Writer, Calc and Impress, which I guess is enough for most of us. LibreOffice Base and a few other components of the full LibreOffice desktop suite are conspicuously missing.[]
  2. for example, missing auto-capitalization of the first word in a sentence, unable to type full-stop with two spaces and not working properly with some language keyboards like Tamil Anjal[]
My fascination with the Civ-style 4X genre has waned

My fascination with the Civ-style 4X genre has waned

I have always been a big fan of Civ-style 4X games. I’ve played Civilization III, V, VI and FreeCiv for countless hours in the past, roleplaying historical national leaders trying to build that supreme civilization to dominate all other civilizations and the ultimate empire to conquer and destroy all other empires. If you’ve never played 4X games before and you’re tempted to start now, be warned that they can be extraordinarily addicting and can eat up your life without your realizing it.

For more, search for “why Civilization games are addicting” on the internet. There’s plenty written on that subject.

A screenshot from one of my games in Civilization V

However, over the last few years, my interest in 4X games (and gaming in general) has actually diminished mainly because there is something vaguely repetitive about them. These days, after an initial burst of enthusiasm, I find plodding through “one more turn” more of a chore. Since the set of technologies to be researched, units and buildings to be built and paths to win tend to be more or less fixed, any new element of gameplay doesn’t seem to add enough depth to relieve the tedium — there is nothing really new to discover when playing the same game as a different civilization. Also beyond a point in any particular game (mostly after the exploration stage where discovering the map is a big motivation), it becomes quite impersonal and boring because your “Civilization” is ultimately nothing more than grinding a bunch of stats with pretty graphics. Yes, you can go to war with enemies, there is diplomacy which adds some interest, you can explore multiple paths to victory, but even those aspects becomes boring and repetitive after a while[1]. In short, I rarely find any motivation to play through a full game and increasingly find myself playing less and less.

Having said all that, do bear in mind that even during the peak of my interest I was not really more than a casual gamer; never a deliberate, calculative player in the mould of a hardcore fan; rarely experimented with fine-tuning game settings; never played multi-player against human opponents and rarely played at higher difficulty settings against the AI to challenge myself.

I don’t know, maybe I’m rationalizing my loss of interest in computer games in general though strategy and simulation games have always interested me more than any other genre. Ultimately it’s probably a good thing that I don’t feel like wasting several hours a day on Civilization any more.

  1. Yes, over the years Civilization games have found a bunch of new ways to keep players engaged, but ultimately it boils down to grinding stats[]
The era of use and throw

The era of use and throw

In the last twenty or so years, things have changed a lot when it comes to consumer durable goods, particularly electronics. We’ve seen the transition from the fat CRT television sets to ultra-thin LED TVs. From analog to digital. From metal to plastic (and increasingly cheaper plastic at that). Even in the last decade or so, a lot has changed. For example, smartphones no longer come with removable/replaceable batteries — they are soldered into the devices, making it much harder to get battery replacements. The shift from desktop PCs to laptops to smartphones (and tablets) is a case in point. Even earlier in the day of analog electronics, repairing devices was the norm. Over time, it has become an increasingly rare exception.

In the past, when a component of your desktop system failed, you simply replaced that part alone[1]. There was a thriving market for replacement parts. Laptop parts aren’t so easy to replace, and with mobile phones and tablets it’s almost impossible to repair or replace individual components. Well, it is possible to “repair”, but the cost of the replacement components makes it a better (wiser?) option to buy a new device. You can see the same trend in almost every other household gadget. Things aren’t being made to last — they’re being made to be replaced once every few years and the environmental and social costs are heavy. Notice how most electronic gadgets, even the more expensive ones, come with a measly one year or, at best two years of warranty. And there is almost no incentive to repair old devices out of warranty — just chuck them away and “upgrade”. I notice that there are fewer and fewer technicians who offer repair services at reasonable prices — maybe it’s just not a profitable business any more or maybe the products aren’t designed to be repaired[2].

It’s not that technological advancements have made repair harder than replacement as much as the manufacturers would like us to believe. There appears to be a deliberate movement away from reliability, repairability and build quality:

That scarcity is by design. Manufacturers don’t want you to fix that broken microwave or air conditioner; they want you to buy a new one. Some even send cease-and-desist letters to people who post repair information online. Back in 2012, Toshiba told laptop repair tech Tim Hicks that he needed to remove 300 PDFs of Toshiba’s official repair manuals from his website, where he was offering the information for free. To avoid being sued, Hicks complied, and now fewer people have the guidance they need to repair Toshiba laptops.

Source: https://spectrum.ieee.org/green-tech/conservation/why-we-must-fight-for-the-right-to-repair-our-electronics

Not just in electronics: occasionally, when I get my hands on an old household item, even something as trivial as a plastic bucket made years ago, it seems almost amazing how the build quality has deteriorated in recent times. It seems that manufacturers now have made build quality and longevity a “premium feature”, to be paid for through the nose, rather than to be expected in any product.

  1. in fact, assembling a desktop computer was and still is an easy project[]
  2. I suspect that the latter has contributed to the former[]
Blockchain domains for a censorship resistant Internet?

Blockchain domains for a censorship resistant Internet?

Most of us associate blockchain technology with cryptocurrencies and I guess that’s the most visible use of that technology today. However, while doing some reading on cryptocurrency-related technologies, I found that blockchains can be used for a lot more than that. Wikipedia defines blockchain as

a growing list of records, called blocks, that are linked using cryptography. Each block contains a cryptographic hash of the previous block, a timestamp, and transaction data (generally represented as a Merkle tree).

Yes, records that can store any data, including cryptocurrency, so the potential is limitless. Since each record’s hash and timestamp is stored in the subsequent record, this makes tampering with records well nigh impossible. A distributed, public blockchain makes it impossible for any one entity to claim ownership or delete the blockchain. Anyway, a description of the full technology behind blockchain is available in many sources including Wikipedia, and this is not my place to elaborate on that. Do read this brief but non-techie introduction to blockchain for more.

What I did find interesting one extremely interesting application of blockchain technology – effectively permanent domain names that can be associated with a crypto wallet[1] serving websites that are stored permanently on the InterPlanetary File System or similar distributed peer-to-peer file storage protocols, effectively making censorship hard to impossible. Getting started seems to be easy – Unstoppable Domains, one such provider of blockchain domain names (with the .crypto and .zil domain extensions) has reasonably simple instructions on how to get started with hosting such websites. You can also use the Ethereum Name Service to purchase .eth domains[2]. I don’t claim to understand how all of this works, but I can sense the potential of such technologies.

The biggest downsides, as far I can understand, with this newly emerging technology are:

  1. Blockchain domains are independent of the regular DNS that powers the world wide web. Currently you cannot just type a blockchain domain name in any regular browser and expect it to resolve, the exception being Opera which can resolve .crypto names natively. Naturally your website will be unavailable for discovery on search engines and people will need to install a browser plugin to view your domain, effectively severely limiting your potential audience.
  2. Once you put content on IPFS, it cannot be deleted, ever. By its very nature, IPFS is about permanent storage. On the other hand, normal websites can be deleted from a single location (your web host), though search engines/archivers might have cached (portions of) your website. The legal and ethical challenges of such content permanency[3] is also huge.
  3. With current technology it appears that only static files can be served through the IPFS, and so naturally you cannot host dynamic sites like blogs or CMSes which run on PHP or host any web applications that require any dynamic server-side technologies.
  4. On a more non-technical note, the very legality of cryptocurrencies and cryptographic enabled blockchain technologies in many parts of the world is a huge grey area, especially with regulators keen to assert their authority over all content and transactions on the Internet. Now that is bound to have a more chilling effect on adoption than any technological hurdle. Governments hate strong cryptography because encryption effectively makes it harder to monitor and regulate online activities.

To my mind, the above limitations are quite non-trivial and it appears that, the main use of blockchain domains at present is providing simple human readable alternatives to long cryptocurrency wallet IDs.

  1. owned effectively for life by the person possessing the private key – these domains can also be used in place of the Wallet Id in cryptocurrency transactions, and in fact, this application seems to be the primary use case for blockchain domains[]
  2. note: I have not been paid for by anybody to post these links or advertise these services[]
  3. for example you cannot effectively take down websites infringing copyrights or containing illegal content[]