On Leading Open Source Projects

OpenBazaar is now almost eight months old. We’ve grown from myself to over 58 contributors over the life of the project, with a community response that has been overwhelming at times.

One of the largest challenges of a project like this is building and maintaining a great team. Take an open source project, intentionally make it unfunded with no profit model, and now you have a much more difficult challenge. For the last eight months we have had little to no worries in this department as our core team has slowly grown. Unfortunately, that could not last forever. Since our team is contributing in their spare hours and have families, jobs, and other obligations, several particpants have had to reduce their contributions to the project.

We recently announced an approach to move to a team-based development structure where individuals would be responsible for different aspects of the project. This was in response to the team growing quickly and myself and the core devs feeling like this would be a better way to manage everything going on. I wondered if this might be a little premature to do so, but it felt right considering the team we had put together. Now we have recently lost a few team members due to several factors and who will now be serving in a diminished capacity as they tend to their other responsibilities. This change means we need to refocus our efforts and be realistic about how the project will progress.

To be clear, while the number of contributors has decreased, we still have a good team and we’re confident that we can deliver a full release in a reasonable amount of time. I’m making this post because we decided early on that the OpenBazaar project would be as transparent and honest with the community as possible, so when we have new developments we put that information out as soon as possible.

I am currently working with the core devs to distill down our future plans into critical areas that need to get done. We will be simplifying and stepping back to ensure we tackle only the most necessary pieces of our software. The first priority is the p2p network. Our second priority is the trading protocol. Finally we will continue to improve the user interface and push towards the vision of a standalone app that works across all platforms.

ben stiller animated GIF
This train keeps rolling.

As we rolled out our current solution we have run into several issues around our infrastructure that’s in place. One critical decision we made was that in order to support Tor we stuck with TCP-based connections between peers using ZeroMQ. We have tried many different approaches, but it seems like using ZeroMQ in this p2p capacity may be a tough road ahead. We are currently investigating several other approaches including moving to UDP-based networking and leveraging proven libraries like libtorrent who have solved many of the connectivity problems we are experiencing, while still allowing use of Tor. This should be exciting and we hope this work will bear fruit soon. If you have any p2p networking experience and would like to help us tackle this problem please reach out. We’d love to have your help.

Our next big focus area will be on the trading protocol, which we will be calling the OpenBazaar Marketplace Protocol (OBMP). There are many details of how this will work and what will be included, but we believe that by clearly defining the protocol and what is expected between nodes to communicate and peers to trade we will improve the stability and security of the network as a whole. More details to be released soon on this.

Finally we will continue to improve the user interface and push towards the vision of a standalone app that works across all platforms.

We showed off earlier this year a new interface we intended to have ready for the fourth beta release. We are still working towards it, but our lead designer is one of the members who has had to step back from the project for a while. We are regrouping and putting together a group of designers that will pick up the torch where it was left off and help us reach the original vision, but it will be delayed from the original timeline. Design by committee is not always the best solution, but placing eggs all in one basket and losing the basket can also be pretty devastating to progress and we will all have to be patient as we move forward.

As always we plan to be completely transparent and while it is disappointing to experience set backs like these we are happy to see our project alumni go on to work diligently at prominent companies, or continue their education. One of the best things about a project like this is to experience many different contributor viewpoints and to learn as we go on. This is something I am personally getting used to and hopefully you all continue to support our vision and are excited to see us keep moving towards a fully working OpenBazaar!

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Bitcoin, Free Trade, and Terrible Humans

There is something terrifying yet beautiful about the concept of a truly digital culture. As a father of two young boys I take a stab at guessing what life will be like in 20 years and it actually seems kind of scary. In the last several years we’ve seen selfies, multi-billion dollar companies run by early 20-somethings and despicable crimes and corruption by people we supposedly trusted in positions of authority throughout the political and financial community.

Out of all of this mess rose a dark horse underdog called Bitcoin. Created by an anonymous individual or individuals backed by a passionate community of developers, this promise of financial and electronic freedom has motivated a movement of hackers, nay people, who refuse to settle for the status quo and push the boundaries of what is possible with computing technology. They decided to stop building photo sharing apps or novel ways to sell mobile game in-app purchases with the promise of making it filthy rich. For those that want to change the world Bitcoin is supposedly the panacea.

Miguel Ruiz once said “People like to say that the conflict is between good and evil. The real conflict is between truth and lies.” In the world of Bitcoin we often fall into an oversimplified argument of what is good and what is evil on either side. Bitcoiners will describe bankers as “banksters” and point out their exploitation of consumers through sub-prime loans or just bad business practice. Banking elites will finger the opposite as drug dealers, child pornographers or havoc reekers focused on destroying the sanity of the financial industry. Who is right? Who will win in the end?

I purposely leave that question for you to answer. I lead a project called OpenBazaar. Our goal is to revolutionize commerce and trade across the globe leveraging freedom supporting and privacy enabling technologies like Bittorrent, Tor and Bitcoin. My family, both my immediate and in-laws, understand what it means to run local businesses. food_truck_greenwheelsMy in-laws run a local deli and food truck while my mother and sister run an Etsy and eBay store selling girl’s hair bows.  These are modest businesses, but they know just as well as anyone the ins and outs of running a business and interacting with strangers. Other members of our team are familiar with the struggles of other types of individuals, whether it’s family in Guatemala that could benefit from freedom of trade or suppressed women in oppressive countries hoping to bring a little extra income to their families. Regardless of where in the world you hail from there are true benefits from opening up global trade and loosening the restrictions on interacting with your fellow world citizens.

When I hear people criticize our mission or compare our efforts as “yet another attempt at providing protection to drug dealers, human traffickers or child pornographers” it hurts. For those of us who contribute our spare time and pour our souls into this project we don’t relate to this mischaracterization. Many of us have kids and families. Some of us are doctors, work at prestigious companies, are students. We come from all areas of the world. Why does this happen? How does that work? How do that many individuals across the world come together to dedicate so much time and emotion into something that purely elicits illegal behavior? It’s simply not true. We are here because we believe that people deserve to be free. We deserve to take our God-given talents and share them with the world and in return be rewarded for that hard work. We deserve the right to sell our homemade goods, to sell our eBooks, to loan money to less fortunate or to start crowd funding campaigns aimed at helping the homeless. 

Some call us naive to think that what we’re building won’t become the “next Silk Road” or the “hydra whose head cannot be cut off by law enforcement”.
While a network protocol such as the one we’re developing could facilitate these types of activities we invite you to open your mind and think bigger. Besides there are plenty of other technologies, which make illegal activities easier: telephones, cash, the Internet as a whole, forum boards. Even today Andy Greenberg wrote an interesting piece about the RAMP marketplace in Russia that has been operating longer than Silk Road and is more effectively evading law enforcement.9.-Nicolas-Cage-resizeThose individuals who need this type of online capability will seek it and build it with or without OpenBazaar and what we are doing is not aiming to provide those folks with such a niche solution. OpenBazaar can be so much more. To limit it’s potential to that single use case is to waste the brain power of all involved. It would be akin to me inventing the writing instrument and for the rest of time only using it to draw bad sketches of Nicholas Cage. We feel it’s worth the effort to fight this stigma in order to realize our goal of freedom in trade for all not some.

Another aspect of our project is that we are self-sustaining. We are not taking this idea and wrapping it in fees and ads or monetizing your identity data to buy a Ferrari (no offense to Ferrari I love those things). This is not a pump and dump. This is not a hustle. We are transparent and open. If you feel we aren’t being transparent enough we’ll fix it and be glad to answer all your questions (please note Washington does have an early bed time). Technology can be enabling and empowering, but when others take advantage of that allure of a “free lunch” it often becomes problematic. Too many times you see a mom and pop type startup win over the public with their down to earth approach, free product and small man viewpoint and then all of a sudden some venture capitalists come in with their funding, the original founders cash out and we are left with a shell of the original idea plus exorbitant fees and restrictions. Before you realize it, you are the product. We choose to respect the user. You are not a product.  

You are not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You are not your fucking khakis. – Fight Club

Our project team is striving towards a completely open protocol and technology stack that focuses on security, privacy and usability. We have not conducted an elaborate fundraising scheme or garnered multi-million dollar investment rounds or issues crypto assets. This is because the most valuable asset to a project of our position is people and you can’t ask for donations of people. The reason why we exist is because smart, interesting and brilliant people have decided to help us bring Amir Taaki’s original vision to fruition. It may not be quite as anarchistic or devious as he planned originally, but it is freedom. It is another step towards a global community. A place we can all agree is better for our children and our grandchildren so that someday they won’t have to worry about exorbitant college educations, unfair taxes or oppressive rules that limit their ability to be who they truly want to be. This is why we stay up until 4am each night hacking away at lines of code that most people will never see.

This is OpenBazaar.

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OpenBazaar State of the Code; September 2014

Note: This blog post is outdated. Read this article for the latest code.

OpenBazaar was started in early April of this year as a proof of concept. The first few months were a small experiment to see how it could work. A month ago, we released the first beta, and it’s grown to a platform that people are beginning to test and use. You can check out what the network looks like in the video below. Today, beta 2.0 goes live.

For a project of this magnitude to succeed it takes more than just a little elbow grease on the weekends. To build a world-class, production ready piece of software that passes security audits and can claim features like censorship-resistance, resilience, and pseudo-anonymity we must have considerable contributions in terms of people, finances and interest. We’ve been pleasantly surprised at the interest we’ve received, and we’re finally starting to nail down the people aspect as well.

We’ve had several great additions to the team and the impact it has made is jarring. Our codebase is currently going through a cleansing process and being poked and prodded from all angles to ensure we are delivering quality source code. Our development methodology is getting a thorough adjustment to simplify the contribution model, but at the same time provide additional structure and organization to the project. This has been a frustrating but fruitful process as we shift from a one man coding show to a team of professional individuals working together. This shift may slow down the roll-out of new features, but long-term it makes the code much more secure, easier to understand and contribute to, and will prevent growing pains down the road.

As such, we are shifting away from rolling out a full release at the end of the year, and moving instead to release new betas each month until we feel the code is worthy of being called a full release. Because this is a security product, we are slowing down the additions of new features until we have implemented full unit testing and a significant refactoring of the code. Once these have been achieved we will then build new features on the proper foundation.

One other really exciting aspect of the project in my eyes is the future of our user interface. Anyone with development experience can see that our current UI is mostly based off of the Bootstrap style. While great for bootstrapping an application, it doesn’t have its own personality and soon will we start to shed that exterior. We have a very talented set of designers and can’t wait to reveal more about what this will look like. The product will be much more intuitive, which is one of our primary goals as we roll this product out to the larger community.

To sum it all up we are making great progress and you the community are truly stepping up to support us whether through Reddit posts, bug reports, code contributions, donations or any of the other myriad ways to help us out. We feel the love and we are doing our best to return it to you. We do this for the betterment of our fellow global citizens, not to become millionaires. We call on you to help us make OpenBazaar the most exciting project on Internet!

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OpenBazaar State of the Code; August 2014

To help keep the community aware of OpenBazaar’s progress, I will occasionally publish an overview of where we are at in the project. Here’s our first “State of the Code”.

Beta Release

Two months ago at the Bitcoin in the Beltway Conference I stood in front of the audience and presented our development roadmap for OpenBazaar. The first major milestone was an ambitious one: Beta Release at the end of August.

Brian presenting at Bitcoin Beltway - Image: Magnus
Brian presenting at Bitcoin Beltway – Image: Magnus

When I announced we would be releasing the first beta version of the product I envisioned a fairly small scope and was leveraging the teamwork of just a few individuals. Fortunately, since then our team has grown in size and expertise and that scope has grown. This will make OpenBazaar much more viable as a scalable and powerful solution. Therefore, we have decided to migrate from a simplified Beta then Full Release schedule to a much more nimble and continuous development process. This means that instead of simply launching a product and hoping the community finds it valuable, we are now able to continually work on the development and incorporate feedback from the community as we move forward.

If you’ve been looking forward to testing OpenBazaar out, don’t worry: we will be releasing a version of the software that can be installed on Mac OSX, Linux and Windows on August 31st. As it’s the first Beta, it will be fairly limited in functionality and Sam Patterson will be posting a more detailed outline of this when we release.

Other updates

I won’t even try to list all the developments and progress we’ve made since this project began. To summarize, we have been encouraged by the community support displayed, which has increased our appetite for making this project succeed.

Team Member Updates

OpenBazaar Team Members
OpenBazaar Team Members

We are so excited to have so many great people helping out the project, and to see the number of contributors continue to increase. All of our team members participate for no payment and have contributed a massive amount of personal effort and time to get us where we are now, and for that I know I am grateful and I am pledging as much as I can to the project as well. If you know of others who are interested in assisting, please get in touch with us at project@openbazaar.org so that we can help you figure out where it would be possible.

Formalizing the Organization

Our team is currently looking at different ways to legitimize the project in ways that would benefit the community as a whole. We are not quite sure how this will happen, but rest assured our principles of zero fee operation and openness will remain. That being said, we are considering ways to bolster development and operational support in ways other than a funding address. We will let everyone know if any decisions are made one way or another.

Partnerships

Over the last few months we have received many emails and messages from businesses small and large, who want to start using OpenBazaar as soon as possible.

As we approach the Public Release of OpenBazaar at the end of the year (notional), we will be working with groups to line up some Day 1 merchants, notaries, and arbitration participants. If you are interested in this process please contact us at project@openbazaar.org so that we can get you on our follow up list and help you find out more about how this will work.

We have also been approached daily by almost every altcoin outside of Doge to incorporate it into the project. For the record, we aim to support altcoins capable of multisignature transactions. However, we have no definite timeline for altcoin support to give at this time.

Many of you have donated to the cause (over 5 BTC raised), contributed to our development or written articles or tweets about us and we thank you graciously for all of that.

Final Comments

Overall, the project is heading in a great direction. With the Bitcoin community’s help (and patience), we can deliver a product that will change how we use our Bitcoin for the better. Our goal remains simple: provide an easy to use application that anyone in the world can use to spend Bitcoin (or other crypto-currencies) on goods and services without an intermediary. There is no one way to accomplish this goal. We hope to innovate and inspire others to follow our lead in creating more decentralized services so that we can one day live and interact with each other with true freedom.

Brian Hoffman
Project Lead

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