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The App That Aims to Let Anyone Put Bitcoin in Their Wallet

A new Bitcoin wallet wants to be like Dark Wallet, but with mass appeal.
October 6, 2014, 6:20pm
Screenshot: Airbitz/YouTube

The world of Bitcoin is split in two. On one side, we have venture capitalists investing heavily in the currency and policymakers trying to figure out how to regulate it, both of which have the potential to make cryptocurrencies more palatable for the mainstream.

On the other side, some tech enthusiasts and activists are trying to keep Bitcoin rooted in its anarchistic origins, with an emphasis on privacy and breaking away from conventional financial structures.

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A new company is attempting to bridge these seemingly dichotomous paths, or at least appeal to both of them. Airbitz, a Bitcoin wallet that runs on Android and iOS phones, aims to provide an easy-to-use service but also stay true to the initial Bitcoin community's values.

"We have a core focus on incredibly high user privacy and financial autonomy," Paul Puey, CEO and cofounder of Airbitz, told me in an email. "Yet at the same time we're trying to deliver a product for the masses with very strong user experience and ease of use. Consider us the Dark Wallet for everyone."

That comparison with Dark Wallet may conjure up an image at odds with the happy-go-lucky promo material that Airbitz has on its website, complete with jaunty guitar jingle.

Dark Wallet, after all, is the brain child of Cody Wilson, harbinger of the home-printing gun movement, and Amir Taaki, a computer programmer with radical blockchain-based projects. Their wallet, which comes in the form of a browser plug-in, is designed explicitly to keep Bitcoin transactions completely anonymous, and is motivated by a decidedly libertarian ideology.

Dark Wallet was recently featured in a BBC article that pegged the technology as a tool for terrorist organisations. The BBC's Jen Copestake suggested that Dark Wallet creator Amir Taaki was "comfortable with the possibility of his software being used by extremists in conflicts in Iraq and Syria."

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Airbitz, which launches as a fully-functioning app today, has a much friendlier approach, though its similarities to projects like Dark Wallet will no doubt raise questions over the potential for criminal use. "But a hammer can also be an effective tool for a criminal," Puey said.

A key selling point of the app is accessibility: There's a directory for finding local establishments that accept Bitcoin, and local trading can be done via Bluetooth, rather than relying on scanning a QR code like other wallets.

Data is automatically synced to the company's servers, meaning that you don't have to manually back up your bitcoins to protect against loss or damage; and instead of the long, complex public addresses typically associated with Bitcoin, users can attribute (encrypted) photos and a name to the address.

It's much harder to bring the value of Bitcoin to the masses if you don't first make it presentable and user-friendly.

Nevertheless, Airbitz clearly shares some of the values of initiatives like Dark Wallet. "People should have control over their own money," Puey told me. "Why should my expenditures be public to anybody, including my employer, friends and family, or to a bank?"

In fact, two of Airbitz's designers, Damian Cutillo and William Swanson, worked with Amir Taaki on another project: DarkMarket, a prototype of a decentralised marketplace along the lines of Silk Road that the designers suggested could never be seized.

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Unsurprisingly, privacy is also high on the agenda for Airbitz. Unlike a hosted wallet, in which bitcoins are stored elsewhere—and where control is therefore ultimately with the company providing the service—the Airbitz app handles everything on on your device. Your private keys are created and encrypted on the device, and then backed up on peer-to-peer servers.

Because of this separation between the company and its customers' data, "We have no idea in the world what is going on with our users," Puey said. "How much money they're spending or what their public addresses are." Additionally, he claimed that Airbitz cannot see the transactions that hit a user's account.

This is similar to Dark Wallet. Its wiki states, "We cannot view your transactions, and do not have access to your Bitcoins."

Puey said this is all done without the user noticing—crucial if the wallet is to be used en masse. "It feels like what people are accustomed to, but at the same time, underneath the covers you have a very different product than online banking: it's pure, at its heart, Bitcoin," he explained.

Ultimately, the idea is essentially to straddle the boundary between Bitcoin and the mainstream, and draw more people into the cryptocurrency following via this mainstream appeal. As Puey said, "It's much harder to bring the value of Bitcoin to the masses if you don't first make it presentable and user-friendly."