One year and nearly $3 billion later, the Tron blockchain is set to finally put its much-debated technology to the test.
At least, that’s what should happen Monday, when Tron completes the token swap it began last week, migrating the last of its users’ funds from ethereum to a new proprietary blockchain. For investors, the moment marks a historic “independence day” of sorts, but it could more broadly become a make-or-break moment for the project, which though controversial, already finds itself among the top cryptocurrencies globally.
Founded last July, Tron has set out to “decentralize the internet.” However, the project has yet to rigorously define what this means in practice.
And while Tron’s rhetoric may seemingly resemble that of many cryptocurrencies that emerged from 2017’s token boom, the project is distinguished by the size of its funding and the outspokenness of its founder, former Ripple representative Justin Sun, who last week caused a stir in the tech world by purchasing the company behind file-sharing service BitTorrent.
Some onlookers speculated that Sun made the acquisition to lend legitimacy to his project – something it has been accused of lacking on more than one occasion.
More specifically, while Tron has positioned itself as a competitor to ethereum and decided to launch its own protocol to address ethereum’s “inefficiencies”, the project was rebuked earlier this year for using code from the protocol without providing an attribution. These allegations were closely followed by claims that project leaders had plagiarized Tron’s white paper.
Despite the gravity of these claims, Tron has done little to dispel concerns. On the contrary, the significant alteration of its roadmap, specifically its decision to abandon its original plan to develop on ethereum in favor of creating its own mainnet and its decision to use a delegated proof-of-stake system, further exacerbated them.
For his part, however, Sun remains confident that past allegations are little cause for concern.
He told CoinDesk in an interview that these decisions were necessary to achieve his vision of leading the blockchain industry away from its emphasis on R&D and toward a new focus on user experience and “consumer-facing products.”
“Ethereum is like IBM back in the day, making those big supercomputers. And I’m not saying that ethereum does not have robust technology, but I’m saying that ethereum is just like IBM. They only focus on tech, they don’t focus on user experience.”
Sun, on the other hand, is attempting to position his project as the “Microsoft of the blockchain,” which he says succeeded “because they were able to take the computer and make it into a PC, making it into a consumer good.”
Despite the appeal of this vision, Tron has a complex launch ahead and concerns are unlikely to be abated quickly. As with the recent EOS blockchain launch, which saw the $4 billion blockchain go live in an elaborate global process that dragged on for days, Tron will need to navigate similar complexities ahead.
On Tuesday, Tron is expected to follow its token swap with a “super representative election,” in which token holders will select the block producer delegates that will approve transactions, after which the technology will finally be live.
‘The Frankenstein of crypto’
But launching may be only part of the battle ahead for Tron.
For one, there remain unanswered questions about the strength of its technology. According to Lucas Nuzzi, director of research at Digital Asset Research, which recently analyzed Tron’s code, the project may inherit issues from the codebases that its developers have sought to copy.
He told CoinDesk that ethereumJ suffers from issues like memory leakage, a problem related to the buffering of incoming blocks. Further, he explained that he believes these issues could be exacerbated in Tron’s protocol because it combines ethereumJ with other relatively new technologies (like the delegated proof-of-stake consensus mechanism (DPoS) in which various entities compete to act as transaction validators).
Because of this melange of technologies in the Tron protocol, Nuzzi has dubbed the project the “Frankenstein of crypto.”
“The project has this history of repurposing technologies and gluing them together and calling it unique,” he told CoinDesk in an interview. “When you put all these things together, it is very unlikely that you’re not going to encounter severe failures.”
Sun dismissed the allegations of code plagiarism and said the Tron team takes “security issues very seriously,” citing as proof the millions of dollars it offers for bug bounties.
“Yes, one of our programmers did forget a very small thing that he didn’t put on, however, it was so long ago and it was a very minor issue at the time. It’s kind of like saying, I’m 27 now and when you were 4 you messed up with this one goal kick. It doesn’t really make sense because it’s very insignificant in the bigger picture.”
But in interview, Sun couldn’t seem to attest to the extent of Tron’s use of ethereumJ previously or currently. He initially indicated that Tron previously used “a small portion” of ethereumJ and said, “but it was also six months ago.”
When asked if Tron was no longer using ethereumJ, Sun wavered and eventually said he was unsure and referred CoinDesk to the Tron development team.
The team also failed to provide clarity in an email to CoinDesk:
“We referenced ethereum’s code in our P2P network while keeping all licenses. We have made many changes, optimizing functions like node discovery and node blocking. We’ve also made some improvements that are more suitable to the Tron DPoS use case…adding functions like [high availability] on the P2P network to prevent unexpected [super representative] disconnections; adding trusted nodes and active nodes.”
According to Nuzzi, these changes are “very small,” some being “the bare minimum changes to support a DPoS system.” Likewise, a search in Tron’s code repository for the terms “ethereum” and “ethereumJ” yields 76 and 73 references, respectively.
Implications for network activation
One practical implication of these technical concerns is that the software is “unpredictable,” Nuzzi explained. However, those seeking to leverage the tech appear to be prepared for a bumpy launch.
Dean Zaremba, whose IT networking company Free Space is a Tron super representative candidate, echoed Nuzzi’s contention, though for different reasons (super representatives run nodes in the protocol in a bid to earn its rewards).
“It’s a new software being released to the wild, you can only test so much in a testing environment until the public gets their hands on it and you know, tries to crack it in different ways. You just never know.”
Meanwhile, cybersecurity company and super representative candidate Infinity Stone expressed confidence in the Tron project and the amount of testing it has conducted thus far.
“We are optimistic about Tron… People always keep improving their codebase and in terms of Tron, the good thing is they started their testnet last month. So, some bugs should have been caught already, and they have a dress rehearsal for all the super representative candidates,” the company told CoinDesk.
For his part, Sun dismissed those who have expressed concerns about the protocol’s security as “random people who didn’t really know what they were talking about.” Likewise, he sought to emphasize that the project has carried out “two rounds of successful rehearsals for the official launch.”
But if the Tron blockchain is merely the first step in Sun’s vision of a decentralized internet, he seemed to hint at what that could mean, describing a strategy in which Tron’s tech is even ported to other blockchains and beyond.
“If we are able to successfully launch a voting system and have it be really robust, I really think that bitcoin and ethereum should add a voting mechanism into their governance. Because for me personally,” he added, “I’m not just the founder of Tron, I have a lot of ethereum and a lot of bitcoin, and I really want to vote.”
For now, though, it remains to be seen if Sun’s project will work, much less spread, or merely cause fireworks.
“This is just the beginning of the decentralized internet – it’s not the end…For right now we don’t have a full picture.”