Polkadot – Vitalik’s Nightmare or a Blockchain Dream Come True?

While it is possible to make comparisons between almost any two blockchain development platforms, comparing Ethereum to Polkadot is almost inevitable. Not just on a technical level – they use a similar architecture and proof-of-stake consensus to achieve scalability – but because Vitalik Buterin and Dr. Gavin Wood also have a shared history in Ethereum.

Polkadot and Ethereum enter the final stretch of the runway for Chain Supremacy

The coming year will be a big year for both networks. Ethereum has rolled out a series of improvements ahead of the “merger” that will take place when the current Ethereum main chain joins the proof-of-stake Beacon chain. At this point, Ethereum will finally leave its proof-of-work consensus and switch completely to proof-of-stake. More upgrades are expected to follow as the network implements additional chains, or shards, connected to the Beacon chain, which aim to improve scalability.

While the timelines are somewhat fuzzy, it seems likely that Polkadot will reach its own next big milestone before the Ethereum merger takes place. ‘Parachain auctions’ are the process of awarding the first shard slots on Polkadot, a step that Kusama, Polkadot’s experimental ‘canary network’, has recently achieved.

Assuming it’s only a matter of months before Polkadot follows suit, we can expect the network to be fully operational before the end of this year, supporting a range of use cases.

A potted history

For their part, the two founders have always tried their best to point out that they are not competing with each other. But there is a lot of water under the bridge between Buterin and Wood. The pair are both core members of the team that co-founded Ethereum, with Dr. Gavin Wood invented the programming language Solidity and founded Parity Technologies, which has always been a major technology engine for Ethereum. Wood also founded the Web3 Foundation, which supports the development of Polkadot.

He left his position as Chief Technology Officer of Ethereum in 2015, after already proposing a new kind of infrastructure that would upgrade the newly launched smart contract platform into a more robust and scalable platform. Tellingly, Wood didn’t mention Buterin in his latest Ethereum blog post, despite checking several others.

While Wood and Buterin have kept quiet about the competition between the two projects, others have been more willing to speak out. Peter Mauric, Head of Public Affairs at Parity Technologies, recently addressed the comparison, commenting on Ethereum’s shortcomings and referring to the smart contract platform as a “proof of concept” that provided the training needed to build Polkadot.

Clash of Titans

After more than three years in development, Polkadot launched on mainnet last year. Although it will run without applications until the parachains are operational, the project has attracted a lot of interest, and not just because of its founder’s history. Polkadot offers the promise of true interoperability between applications running on different chains. Ethereum ETH is well known in the market.

While Polkadot has been in development, the Ethereum team has been working on a solution for Ethereum 2.0. There is no denying that the two platforms share many technological similarities. Both run on a variant of proof-of-stake. In the case of Ethereum, it is an open validator network where anyone can join with the required minimum 32 ETH wager. In Polkadot’s Nominated Proof-of-Stake, DOT holders can use DOT to nominate a validator.

There’s also the fact that both platforms use sharding to enable scalability, connecting sharded chains to a central chain responsible for network security. Ethereum 2.0 is also doing away with Solidity and the Ethereum Virtual Machine in favor of a web assembly language called eWASM. Despite Solidity being the brainchild of Gavin Wood, Polkadot is also built for standard web assembly languages. The critical benefit is that this opens up smart contract development to a much larger global pool of developers familiar with more common languages such as Go, Rust, and C/C++.

All of these similarities could, of course, be purely coincidental. For Gavin Wood, however, the fact that Ethereum 2.0 is very similar to his own creation should feel like some kind of justification.

On-chain versus off-chain governance

There may be a crucial difference between the two platforms. Although consensus us on-chain, governance has always been an off-chain affair for Ethereum. Seemingly in light of Ethereum’s experience with controversial hard forks, Polkadot has eschewed this model in favor of a forkless model of on-chain governance.

It is important to note that both on-chain and off-chain governance have their own pros and cons, so it will be interesting to see how these different approaches stack up against each other. Polkadot DOT is the new coin.

So two visionary founders, two ambitious roadmaps, two comparable platforms. However, there is one crucial difference. Polkadot has been developing from the ground up for five years, with the ability to meticulously build and test everything twice – once on the testnet and again in a live, experimental environment on Kusama. When Polkadot goes live with his parachains, it will be a clean start from the get-go.

While this is no mean feat, the Ethereum team arguably has a more difficult task ahead of them. To come up with an analogy, they have to turn the engine into a moving vehicle. It is this simple fact that explains why it can take seven years or more between the first Ethereum genesis and the final transition to proof-of-stake. It will take even longer for the network to reach a level of scalability that its supporters have been waiting so patiently for.

Who knows how much adoption on other networks will have accelerated by then?

In the end, no one can say what is going on in Vitalik Buterin’s head. But to use the vehicle analogy again, the idea of hopping into a box-fresh sports car should be more appealing than trying to pimp up an old jalopy while driving at full speed down the highway. And looking at Polkadot’s development, it would be hard to imagine Vitalik Buterin disagreeing.