Crypto start-up Dfinity set to launch blockchain rival to AWS

One of the most ambitious and long-delayed cryptocurrency projects is finally ready to see the light of day, amid signs that it could add a new twist to the speculative frenzy in digital assets when trading officially starts on Monday.

Dfinity is set to release what it calls “the internet computer”, a group of technologies intended to support a new generation of decentralised applications and services that are being developed in the blockchain world.

Even before its launch this week, futures trading in the digital tokens that will be used to grease the wheels of its internal digital economy suggested it could claim a place among the handful of most highly valued cryptocurrencies. The highly volatile and thin trading at one point put the aggregate value of its tokens at more than $100bn.

“A lot of people are looking for the next, best thing — what is the newest, shiniest token on the market,” said Wilson Withiam, an analyst at Messari, a crypto research firm. “It seems absurd for a network that’s just launched. But on the other hand, it’s a high-profile project.”

However, despite the frothy advanced trading, he and other crypto experts warned that Dfinity could struggle to differentiate itself in an increasingly crowded market of “smart contract” operators and distributed computing networks that have emerged in the blockchain world.

Work on Dfinity began in 2017, just as the first cryptocurrency boom was taking off. It raised more than $120m from a wide group of venture capital firms and hedge funds, led by Andreessen Horowitz and Polychain Capital. Since then, the project’s core software code has been completely rewritten once as its engineering complexity multiplied and its goals shifted.

Dfinity set out to build a faster, cheaper alternative to Ethereum, the blockchain that introduced “smart contracts”, or software code that automatically executes when certain conditions are met — considered a key building block for the next generation of apps.

In the years since, it has also evolved into an alternative to Amazon Web Services and other cloud computing companies, devising software that could replace their centralised networks with a set of distributed data centres run by independent operators.

“It does not seem they are doing anything new,” said David Nage, a principal at Arca Funds, which invests in digital assets. “The market has already matured and produced real applications that have uses today.”

These include other Ethereum rivals such as Polkadot, Solana and Flow, which have carved out positions in distinct markets such as gaming and a class of digital assets known as NFTs, Nage said. There has also been a wave of new ventures designed to promote distributed computing resources, such as storage services Filecoin and Storj.

Dfinity’s “internet computer” amounts to a full set of technologies that replicate what these and other crypto projects are doing. Dominic Williams, the project’s founder, cast it as the single platform for what has come to be known as Web 3.0 — a decentralised set of services that could challenge the power of companies such as Facebook and Google.

But he also tried to depict it as a complement to other blockchain projects, for instance allowing other crypto participants to move their computing out of Amazon’s data centres and move it into the Dfinity network.

Williams compared the craze in cryptocurrencies to the dotcom bubble of the late 1990s, when the vast majority of speculative ventures imploded, but a handful of survivors went on to become internet giants.

“It’s very speculative, it’s very crazy,” he said. “We think in terms of five, ten, twenty-year milestones.”