Three-month-old Elph wants to make it easier for you to find and use blockchain-based apps. How? Through a portal that’s promising to enable users to click through to see how their crypto holdings are faring, to buy and sell CryptoKitties, or to find and use other decentralized apps. Its cofounder and CEO, Ritik Malhotra, says it will eventually be the “Netscape for crypto.”
If it sounds outlandish, that’s mostly because there are still so few blockchain apps from which to choose. Malhotra and team trust that this will change over time, however, and investors seem to trust them, including Coinbase, The House Fund, and numerous individual investors who just provided the company with a little less than a million dollars in pre-seed funding.
A large part of the appeal is the founders’ pedigree. Malhotra was a Thiel fellow, for example, stepping away from UC Berkeley in order to make the requisite two-year commitment demanded of the prestigious program. Malhotra and Tanooj Luthra, Elph’s cofounder and CTO, had also previously cofounded and led a YC-backed startup, Streem, that sold to Box in 2014. Afterward, Luthra joined Coinbase as a senior engineer on Coinbase’s crypto team, learning the ins and outs of the nascent but fast-growing industry.
But the company’s premise is compelling, too. Most crypto outfits today require users to walk through numerous manual steps to create and store their wallet, and authenticate that they are who they say before they can start actively engaging with the service. With Elph, users simply sign up with an email and password, says Malhotra,; Elph then handles account management across apps based on the unique ID that it assigns them.
“It’s an app store,” explains Luthra. “You log in, you see a bunch of decentralized apps, you click them, and they open up. We’ve handled all the interfacing with the blockchain and done the heavy lifting in the background for you.”
These decentralized app developers don’t need to buy into Elph’s vision; they all respond to open web3 protocols that allow them to interact with the Ethereum blockchain and Ethereum smart contracts. Elph has been able to implement the web3 APIs in its app, meaning everyone is talking the same language. They’re also working on a developer SDK to make it even easier for developers to build blockchain-based apps.
Indeed, Malhotra and Luthra seem to be carving their careers out of abstracting away the complexity of highly technical things, and that they see a prime opportunity again today. Streem built desktop software for cloud storage services, for example, enabling customers to stream files to their desktop environments. Notably, it also raised just $875,000 from investors to build out its product.
More recently, while working at Coinbase, Luthra realized he was witnessing “this huge boom of new, decentralized apps coming out that are hard for anyone to access or use who isn’t fairly technical.” It’s “kind of like the Internet in 1994 right now,” he says. “So we decided to simply it.”
The company is opening up its public beta launch today, which you can check out here. Because most users need to be educated about which apps are being built, the portal today allows them to browse apps by category — much like sites like Netscape and Yahoo once did when the Internet was still young and its content a confusing morass for web surfers.
The team has also plainly paid attention to creating an engaging experience that aims to make finding and using these apps fun.
As for where Elph accrues value for itself and its investors, the idea is employ token mechanics, meaning that new features will be added over time by “maintainers” or people who work on the app store and either jazz it up or else rank apps for Elph and receive tokens as rewards in exchange for their efforts. (These tokens, presumably, will be available to trade over time on cryptocurrency exchanges that are easily accessed through Elph.)
Asked whether Elph could ever make money off ads as have its “portal” predecessors in the internet world, Malhotra says ads are entirely beside the point. “The reason we made the app store decentralized is that it prevents us from actors who’d cut deals” with companies in exchange for premium placement. “It’s crucial that users trust these ratings.”
Elph isn’t the only outfit to identify this same opportunity. Coinbase, for example, last year rolled out Toshi, a browser for the Ethereum network that aims to provide universal access to financial services.
Still, it’s early days, obviously, and momentum appears to be building slowly. Today, there are roughly 3,000 decentralized apps up and running, roughly four times more than there were a year ago. Some day, believes Malhotra, there will be millions.
If Malhotra and Luthra play their cards right, Elph may help you find them.