This article aims to introduce the concept of Web3, sometimes presented as the next evolution of the Internet. We will review the ins and outs of this concept, exploring its implications and how it could reshape our interaction with the digital world. In doing so, we will try to give a glimpse of what the future of the Internet could be.
At the heart of this introduction, we will deconstruct some key terms often mentioned in the field of decentralized technologies. We will go beyond trends and controversies to truly understand the concepts underlying these technological innovations.
It is important to clarify that I am not trying to “sell” the concept of Web3, but rather to offer an introduction to a very broad field and focus on the technical aspects. Indeed, discussions on the application of these technologies can quickly become controversial and cause us to lose sight of the technical aspect. It is therefore essential not to ignore these technical details.
In fact, this article is one I wish I had read when I first became interested in the Web3 domain, a domain that can quickly make you dizzy. In this article, we will unpack Web3 from various perspectives to provide a comprehensive understanding of this next-generation internet concept.
What is Web3?
It could be the next evolution of the Internet
Web3 is an important topic because it could mark the next step in the evolution of the Internet. During the 70s and 80s, we built the Internet together, supported by a series of protocols that allowed the interconnection of pre-existing networks, thus forming a global network.
Web1 made it possible to share content statically, while Web2 centralized a large part of this content on specific platforms, making the content more interactive. Today, Web3 seeks to give back ownership of their content to users and allow programs to run in a decentralized way. This is made possible thanks to tokens and blockchain technology.
Thus, Web3 is envisioned as a decentralized platform that promises to change current online interactions. While Web2 has allowed us to become active consumers of content, sharing and producing content, Web3 promises to take us to the next level, allowing us to interact with decentralized applications powered by the blockchain.
So Internet 3 rather than Web3!
The name “Web3” can actually be confusing. In reality, it would be more accurate to talk about Internet 3, because the changes involved go beyond the simple framework of the Web.
Internet 1 has enabled the creation of a decentralized global infrastructure. With Internet 2, we have seen the recentralization of certain business rules and values. The challenge of Internet 3 is to redecentralize these rules and values by integrating them into the basic protocols.
It is therefore the entire infrastructure of the Internet that is concerned, with the appearance of decentralized protocols. These protocols establish explicit and known consensus mechanisms, incentive rules that are not centrally controlled by actors who could modify these rules as they see fit.
The rest of this article aims to demonstrate how the technologies often grouped under the term Web3 (a term I will still use sometimes for clarity), are actually related to the entire Internet and not only to the Web. Moreover, most of these technologies are closer to backend technologies than frontend technologies.
Link between Web3 and Metaverse
In the discourse on the next evolution of the Internet, there is a tendency to confuse or interweave the notions of Web3 and Metaverse. First of all, it should be noted that we should rather speak of “Metaverses” in the plural, because they do not constitute a single world but a multitude of virtual worlds.
A Metaverse is a 3D virtual world, immersive, based on virtual or augmented reality technologies, and often enriched by artificial intelligence. These are usually social platforms or interactive games. Unlike the Internet, which is a tool, the Metaverse is a space where we live, through avatars that represent us, and tokens that carry value and organize our exchanges with other avatars. Examples of contemporary Metaverses include Sandbox, Somnium Space, Decentraland, and many others.
The relationship between Web3 and Metaverses is actually complementary. Web3, or Internet 3, focuses on setting up protocols to manage users’ data and assets, giving them back ownership of what originally belongs to them. It represents a possible evolution of Internet governance.
Metaverses, on the other hand, require Web3 technologies to handle these same aspects. However, one of the big issues – and we are not there yet – is the interconnection of Metaverses. Just as the Internet interconnected separate networks in the 70s and 90s, the idea would be to create a “Multiverse”, i.e. the interconnection of the different Metaverses. This would represent an evolution of the Internet experience rather than its governance.
Already, initiatives are beginning to lay the groundwork for this interconnection. For example, projects like MetaLinq seek to allow users to transfer objects or digital assets between different Metaverses. The Metaverse Standards Forum is another effort to create standards to facilitate this interoperability.
In this context, Web3 and Metaverses are two complementary facets of the future evolution of the Internet, each with its specific role and revolutionary potential.
Rise of an entire Ecosystem
The rise of Web3 has enabled the growth of a dynamic ecosystem of applications and services. This has led to the emergence of a new digital economy, offering opportunities for investors, entrepreneurs and innovators.
And to fully understand Web3, it’s essential to look back and examine its historical evolution. Bitcoin, the major precursor to this evolution, was introduced in 2008 by a mysterious entity known as Satoshi Nakamoto. The publication of his white paper was a direct reaction to the global financial crisis, with a clear objective: to get rid of the banking intermediary and create a decentralized system where exchanges are controlled by the participants themselves, not by a central entity.
In 2013, the notion of blockchain was distinguished from that of Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies. Bitcoin’s blockchain was actually just a specific use of blockchain technology, and with the introduction of Ethereum, the first programmable blockchain, blockchain has found new applications beyond mere currency.
From 2017, we witnessed a veritable explosion of alternative blockchains and technological innovations. An increasing number of layers began to overlap, contributing to the complexity and richness of the ecosystem. At the same time, Web3 has gained visibility, fueled by speculative bubbles around cryptocurrencies and NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens), which have made headlines and led to many controversies.
In essence, Web3 represents a decentralized evolution of the Internet, transcending mere web frameworks, closely intertwined with Metaverses, and enabled by groundbreaking blockchain innovations, ultimately shifting power and ownership back to individual users.
But beyond these buzzwords and controversies, it’s crucial to focus on the technology itself to truly understand what it entails.
An Architecture model of the Web3
As an architect organizes and classifies the different elements of a construction to better understand them, I adopt an architectural view to analyze and explore this abundant and complex ecosystem.
Thus, I propose to represent the Web3 ecosystem in 4 layers, each contributing to a specific part of the whole:
- Decentralized Infrastructure
- Decentralized Applications (dApps)
- Interfaces and Access points
- Web2 Applications
To fully understand how Web3 works, it is essential to familiarize ourselves with these different layers and to present the most structuring principles and concepts.
Layer 1: Decentralized Infrastructure
The first layer of the Web3 architecture is the Decentralized Infrastructure. It is the foundation of this possible new Internet, a technological base on which all other layers are based.
Like any IT infrastructure, it can be divided into three fundamental elements: networking, execution, and storage.
The network in this context refers to a decentralized network, based on a peer-to-peer model. As in the case of the Internet, the nodes of the network are interconnected and communicate with each other, ensuring complete decentralization.
Storage is where the notion of blockchain comes into play. Classified as distributed technologies, blockchain functions as a distributed ledger and shared across multiple entities. Its goal is to guarantee a single version of the truth that cannot be controlled by anyone, through its decentralization and various mechanisms that we will explore later. Essentially, blockchain stores transactions in a decentralized manner, which can include user data, thus acting as a method of storing information. However, this storage can be expensive, due to blockchain’s own mechanisms. This is why there are also other decentralized storage solutions, such as distributed file systems, which allow off-chain storage but remain decentralized, operating on the same general principles as blockchain.
Beyond its role as a repository, blockchain has another essential characteristic: it also functions as a decentralized execution environment. In fact, as soon as a future transaction is validated by consensus, it is executed on each node of the blockchain. This makes the blockchain a true virtual machine capable of executing processes. In the Ethereum ecosystem, this concept is referred to as the Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM).
Above these basic elements is what I call the protocol layer. It defines the interaction patterns within these decentralized mechanisms, and it is these rules that differentiate one blockchain from the other. Two of the main mechanisms are consensus and incentive. Consensus is essential in decentralized systems because it establishes the rules by which nodes agree on the truth (with mechanisms like proof-of-work or proof-of-stake for example). Incentives, on the other hand, encourage those who operate the nodes to maintain the immutability of what is stored and executed on the blockchain. They are based on the notion of native token, which represents the value of exchanges and flows within these interaction models.
Examples of this decentralized infrastructure include various blockchains like Ethereum, Arbitrum, Polygon, Optimism, and Concordium, distributed storage solutions like IPFS (InterPlanetary File System) and Swarm, as well as network libraries like libp2p or devp2p and virtual machines like EVM.
Since 2016-2017, many blockchains have emerged, some based on other blockchains, optimizing different aspects and offering more efficient ways of doing things. These are called Layer 2 blockchains.
In summary, decentralized infrastructure is the pillar on which Web3 is built. It is this that allows the emergence of decentralized services, capable of functioning without the intervention of a central authority. This feature is fundamental to ensuring the transparency, security and fairness of the Web3.
Layer 2: Decentralized Applications (dApps)
The second layer of our model is based on decentralized applications, commonly known as dApps.
A key concept in this category are Smart Contracts. In the conventional world, a contract is a document detailing a set of rules, signed by all parties involved. Once the contract is signed, certain actions specified in it are then implemented.
The concept of Smart Contract takes up this idea, but transposes it into the digital world. These contracts codify the rules, and once the parties involved have agreed on them, the Smart Contract is stored and deployed on a blockchain. Once on the blockchain, the contract is immutable and no longer requires any central authority to manage its execution. It is executed automatically, and it is then said that “the code is law”. Of course, human interactions may be necessary to trigger the execution of the contract or to interact with certain actions, but the course of the contract itself is entirely autonomous.
The uses of these Smart Contracts are multiple.
In particular, specific tokens can be created through these contracts. A specific token is a type of Smart Contract that meets certain criteria and standards. With this capability, a second level of decentralization and incentive can be created, similar to that of the previous layer.
There are different standardized uses of such tokens. For example, a token can represent a property, as in the case of Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs). An NFT represents a unique property and can be used to prove ownership of a digital asset. These tokens have been used in particular in the field of art, with the sale of digital works of art. However, the uses of NFTs are not limited to art or digital assets. For example, a major retailer recently launched a project where customers can buy a bottle of wine and receive an NFT proving ownership. The wine remains kept at the retailer’s premises, but the NFT can be exchanged or sold.
Another type of token, called Soulbound Tokens, represents non-transferable proof, such as a diploma. These tokens are attached to the identity of the individual and cannot be lent or sold.
Tokens can also have financial value, as in the case of Security Tokens. These tokens represent an investment in a company and give the holder the right to be involved and affected by the company’s results.
Finally, the use of tokens is also essential in DAOs (Decentralized Autonomous Organizations). These organizations use Smart Contracts to manage their governance explicitly. Members of the organization can collectively vote and decide on the organization’s strategy based on the number of tokens they hold. The DAO field is currently booming, with many successes and failures that help us discover new uses for these types of tokens.
Smart Contracts can of course be used to create specific dApps with their own business rules and not just tokens. These dApps have profound implications in various areas. For example, in finance, we have seen the rise of DeFi (Decentralized Finance) which offers financial services based on Smart Contracts, replacing traditional intermediaries.
In social networks and content platforms, dApps allow users to control their own data, share content in a decentralized way and monetize their contributions without the intervention of a centralized platform. Examples of these types of dApps are Steemit, a blockchain social network, and LBRY, a decentralized content sharing platform.
It’s important to note that the maturity of dApps varies wildly, with some still in the experimental stage while others, like some DeFi platforms, already manage billions of dollars in value.
Layer 3: Interfaces and Access points
After exploring the underlying infrastructure and decentralized applications in previous chapters, our attention now turns to the third layer of the Web3 architecture that includes Interfaces and Access points.
The interfaces act as a bridge between users and the complex technologies of previous layers and allow them to interact with decentralized systems.
There are two main approaches to interacting with decentralized systems.
First, a user can choose to actively participate in the system by running nodes and contributing to the consensus mechanism. This participation may be motivated by infrastructural or application incentives.
Second, if a user is unwilling or unable to contribute directly, he can delegate this task to a dedicated Access Provider. These providers, comparable to Internet Service Providers, run one or more nodes for the user, thus offering node-as-a-service.
Well-known specialized players like Alchemy and Infura offer these services. They offer access not only to blockchains, but also to decentralized storage systems like IPFS. Blockchains manage transactions and tokens, while distributed file systems manage documents and data.
Interestingly, cloud giants like AWS and Google are starting to position themselves in this market. They offer either access to their own cloud-hosted blockchain solution or access to public blockchains like Ethereum or Solana.
In the other direction, Oracles allow decentralized systems to access off-chain information. These systems “push” information to Smart Contracts on a public blockchain. This information can then be accessed by other Smart Contracts, acting as a proxy for accessing off-chain information. This can include data such as stock prices, exchange rates, weather forecasts, and more, depending on the needs of the business rules implemented in Smart Contracts.
It is important to note that some areas that are still maturing, such as indexing and searching for data on the blockchain. Although this data is public and accessible to everyone, indexing and searching are not easy tasks. Projects like The Graph aim to facilitate this access by offering a token-based system and consensus mechanisms similar to what we have already discussed.
Overall, these Interfaces and Access points democratize access to Web3 by facilitating interaction with complex technologies. They are essential to ensure the widespread adoption of Web3, making it accessible and usable for the general public.
However, just like dApps, the maturity of these Interfaces and Access points varies. Some are well established and widely used, while others are still in their infancy.
Layer 4: Web2 Applications
The fourth and final layer of our Web3 architecture is for existing Web2 applications. These are the online applications and platforms we use every day that could potentially be reinvented as part of the Web3.
This layer plays a crucial role because it embodies the meeting point between the traditional digital world and the new decentralized universe of the Web3. In this layer, emerging Web3 technologies can be integrated into existing structures and processes to create new user experiences and disrupt traditional business models.
Think social networks, video streaming platforms, online marketplaces, financial services, and many other traditional Web services. All of these services are being reimagined in the context of Web3, using decentralization, blockchain, and other technologies to create new forms of value and to give more power and control to users.
At the technical level, Web2 remains of crucial importance in our current technological infrastructure. Indeed, Web3 is not there to eclipse Web2, but rather to complement it. We still need to interact and communicate with end users, which requires the development of traditional web applications. These applications, although often based on centralized platforms, serve as a frontend, offering services to end users.
These Web2 applications, through the Interfaces and Access points of the previous layer, access the real backend applications. These are managed and executed in a decentralized manner on the Decentralized Infrastructure, integrating perfectly with the overall vision of a version 3 of the Internet.
A concrete example of such an application is the digital wallet, even if this positioning is a simplification, because wallets can operate at different levels of the architecture model. Some wallets are entirely web2-based, others are Smart Contracts with some of their logic executed in a decentralized way. They can be mobile or embedded in browsers, some are physically stored in secure elements due to security considerations. Common examples of wallets include MetaMask, Ledger, and Gnosis (now rebranded Safe).
Ultimately, a wallet can be considered in many ways, but from this architectural perspective, it can be seen as a secure storage space for accounts. An account is a method of anonymous identification on a blockchain, usually performed through a pair of private and public cryptographic keys. These key pairs are essential for decentralization mechanisms, and allow an individual to interact with a blockchain.
A wallet can contain multiple pairs of keys, just like a keyring. In addition, the wallet can be used to determine and prove ownership of specific tokens, allowing tokens to be exchanged when Smart Contract transactions are executed on a blockchain. Therefore, tokens are also an integral part of the contents of a wallet.
Ultimately, it is this fourth layer of architecture that will largely determine the speed and scale of Web3 adoption. It is therefore essential to closely monitor how Web2 applications adapt and evolve in this new environment.
Synthesis of our Architecture Model
To summarize, we explored a four-layer architecture that describes how the Web3 ecosystem works and how it relates to the Web2 ecosystem.
The first and second layers, corresponding to the lowest levels of the architecture, are actually closer to Internet 3 than to Web3 because they encompass the whole Internet infrastructure with its decentralized protocols, consensus mechanisms, and incentive rules, extending beyond the web-centric scope of Web3. These layers operate mainly in the field of infrastructure. They implement decentralized protocols, establish explicitly defined consensus mechanisms, and govern clearly established business incentive rules. Unlike a centralized system, these rules are not controlled by individual actors who could modify these rules at will or according to their personal strategies.
The main characteristic of these two lower layers is that “code is law”. The focus is on the implementation of smart contracts and tokens. They also build trust through the use of cryptographic mechanisms and private and public key pairs.
On top of this infrastructure and decentralized applications, a third interface layer is set up. This layer makes it possible to interact with the decentralized world and provide access to these technologies to end users.
In the fourth and final layer, located at the top of the architecture, we return to the world of Web2 and in the field of centralized platforms and its service providers. These providers offer services that rely on decentralized applications and infrastructures. However, access to these services is essentially a gateway to the infrastructure that enables the construction of applications and services in this upper layer.
Thus, this four-layer architecture presents an integrated and interconnected model that allows interoperability between traditional Web2 and decentralized Web3.
Web3 may be the future of the Internet, not just the Web. This idea revolves around a notion of decentralization at a global level. Value streams, driven by tokens, are in the very DNA of these technologies. This value, especially monetary, has attracted a lot of visibility, speculation and investment with the emergence of crypto-currencies, and more recently, the NFT bubble.
This visibility has generated massive public awareness. Many people and organizations are realizing that they cannot afford to miss this bandwagon. In addition, this trend attracts attention and gives visibility to what I call “superheroes”. These are people who have managed to accumulate value, whether in terms of legitimacy, wealth, or both, and who inspire others to do the same. However, there are also “super villains” who seek to take advantage of the situation illegally, creating a significant nuisance.
All this noise also attracts the attention of central actors who look at this phenomenon with some caution. From banks to governments to Internet giants, everyone is keeping a close eye on these technologies, ready or trying to adopt them to avoid being overwhelmed.
However, despite all this potential, there is a serious possibility that these technologies will collapse under the weight of expectations. The technologies’ maturity is not homogeneous across the different layers. For example, identity is still an evolving field. With Web3, the idea is to manage identity in a totally decentralized way, which challenges the notion of identity as we know it today.
The Web3 ecosystem is extremely dynamic, with new concepts popping up almost every week. New actors are being created around these concepts, which can make it difficult to see clearly. This is why it is important to understand the architecture of Web3, to facilitate the reading of this new universe.
Eventually, we will see if these technologies will succeed in transforming our society, changing the way we interact and allowing us to reclaim the value we create and possess. These technologies have the potential to revolutionize the way we organize ourselves, with concepts such as DAOs (Decentralized Autonomous Organizations).
In conclusion, the world of Web3 is complex and constantly evolving, but with a good understanding of its architecture and potential, we can hope to navigate this fascinating universe effectively.