Today we had the chance to speak to Phil Chen—founder of HTC Vive and currently HTC’s Decentralization Chief Officer working on the brand new blockchain-powered phone called Exodus that the company announced today.
CV: What made you decide to return to HTC?
PC: I think it’s just the timing of everything… I think I was in a really privileged position as an investor to look at all that’s going on in the crypto space [...] and I myself, I was just really excited about its potential in the next-generation protocols, the potential for decentralizing the internet, pretty much “re-architecting” the internet. This was more like a six- to eight-month process.
Even though I was an investor in Horizons and Presence Capital, I was still advising HTC, and I kind of threw this idea at them sometime last year and earlier this year. My intent was to find someone at HTC to run this. But as time wore on, it became clear that people with knowledge of this space were few and far between.
On the high level, there’s this belief coming from my experience building products that we’re in what you would call the “Internet 2.0.” We live in a world dominated by a handful of companies that “own” the cloud. And I think this time around, we have an opportunity because consumers are a little more educated about their digital identities, their data, the recent hacks...
Every person seems to be treated as a piece of data or statistic on the cloud just to be advertised to. You know, I think that with this new information age, people are generally more conscious about their data, and it’s just a great opportunity to empower the user to start owning their digital identity.
I can’t see a better place to start this than with phones, because the phone is one of the most prevalent devices; it’s the most personal device, and it is also the place where all your data originates from.
CV: Virtual reality and now blockchain… That was an interesting move. Perhaps we’ll be seeing a mix of both some day?
PC: I think so. I think, more particularly, we’ll be seeing more in the augmented reality space. I’m a huge believer in the next generation AR cloud. And I believe the AR cloud is fundamentally location-specific. I think there’s something about the blockchain along with AR technology that could yield something interesting [... like] the combination of digital scarcity with location-based persistent virtual interactions.
CV: So, this phone… Why name it Exodus?
PC: Well, HTC has a long history, you know? It’s been manufacturing smartphones since at least 2007. It’s shipped over 100 million phones, it shipped the first Windows Mobile platform, the first Android… The idea [for Exodus] actually came from the Genesis block. And I thought it was a really cool idea to have the “Genesis block” and the “Exodus phone”. I still believe that the phone is the hub for Web 3.0, and the phone is where the data originates.
But this idea of “Exodus” also plays to the Biblical phrase, “Let my people go.” In this case, though, it’s more like, “Let my data go.”
I think people need to wake up to this new digital world. They need to wake up to see that you’re not really using these services for free. You’re giving up your whole digital identity. You’re basically a nobody in the digital world because you have no control of your identity.
If today you decided that you want to exit Facebook, all your social graph, all the pictures you posted, all the relationships you built… You don’t own them. It’s not portable. It’s not your data. It is their data to mine; it is their data to monetize. And I find companies like Facebook, especially, more disturbing because it’s unlike Amazon or Apple where even though they are also big cloud businesses, they have other business models. Facebook, on the other hand, only makes money by mining data.
CV: Well, there is this meme circulating all the time that says that if you use a service for free, you’re the product…
PC: I think that’s a very profound point. We’ve made ourselves into tools and products and I think that’s dehumanizing.
CV: But how many people feel that way?
PC: I don’t know… I think it’s still a minority. I think it’s early adopters. I think it will take a lot of education. But I think there are more and more of these hacks, and there’s more of this news about manipulations. More of this will happen because centralized internet is inherently insecure.
CV: What about the applications that surround blockchains? They can still be vulnerable. For example, MyEtherWallet just recently suffered a hack because of DNS poisoning.
PC: Well, let’s be realistic. The space is still in its early stages. The threat is absolutely real and there are infrastructure problems. But I think Bitcoin is great example that hasn’t been hacked yet. And, of course, people are trying to figure out new types of consensus algorithms, new types of proofs that potentially won’t use as much computation. But we’ll make a lot of mistakes and we’ll learn from them. I think the general ideal is to have this permissionless [...] sort of ledger if we want to provide this kind of security and privacy.
That’s the cool part of it. People are working to solve these issues. Those issues are very real.
CV: I hope you don’t mind me interjecting with my own opinion… I think that the blockchain itself is neither a guarantor nor a detriment to security but I do think that it’s a vehicle for it... I believe that it could be a means to provide a secure way to access one’s data and take total ownership of it. The applications that are in its ecosystem, however, need to have a significant amount of sanitation, especially with their code.
PC: Yeah. So, you’re essentially saying that as a technology it is neutral.
CV: Yes. Security-neutral.
PC: Absolutely, and that’s true with any technology, any tool. But it’s up to people like us, and you, together to write about what we believe, at least, are the ideals and the ethics that we should build upon.
CV: So, back to HTC. Blockchain is quite ambitious! What made HTC want to pursue such a risky direction?
PC: Well, HTC is known for taking risks! HTC built the very first Android phone, after all. Back then, you could say it was risky, but it turned out very well. We also recently built the first VR that’s got room-scale tracking. It’s historically made these products that were sort of “the” product in different categories.
I think that that the promise, or vision, of blockchain is decentralized internet, fundamentally peer-to-peer. And given HTC’s expertise in building hardware, it has proven that it can build trusted hardware and a trusted user experience.
It’s a completely new paradigm. I don’t believe that a killer DApp that would emerge in the future would be like the Android apps that we see today. We’re excited about that. But if you ask us what that killer DApp is, we don’t know yet.
CV: But would the Exodus be attractive to people who currently make DApps on the Ethereum blockchain?
PC: Absolutely. That’s the whole point. We provide user experience expertise but we also want to expose the whole user base to Ethereum, ERC tokens, and all the DApps.
CV: So, you’re saying that HTC’s Exodus is going to work with, or take part in, the Ethereum blockchain?
PC: Absolutely. Yeah.
CV: That was something I was curious about.
PC: Yeah, and we want to help many of these Ethereum DApps to get on mobile and we want to help them provide a great mobile user experience.
CV: I know it might be too early to talk about specs, but what kind of performance would HTC be aiming for with this phone?
PC: Yeah, it is early, although I can at least reveal that we will provide a trusted hardware layer that integrates with a lot of these protocols. And that’s something that we want to be able to do well. We want to do key management, universal wallets… I think that this is one of the low-hanging-fruit applications right now. We’re aiming to provide a user-friendly crypto transaction or trading experience on mobile.
CV: Yeah, I’ll be sincere: Most mobile wallets are just outright disappointing.
PC: It’s difficult. We expect this kind of user experience because we’re so used to creating a mobile experience in our Android/iOS environments.
CV: Maybe we need to just get the word across that hot storage is unhygienic?
PC: Yeah. That too.
CV: What kind of price range are you shooting for with this phone?
PC: We’ll review that in the coming months. But I think what’s more interesting is the fact that we’ll be accepting Ether and Bitcoin for purchases.
CV: Have you heard of the Finney?
PC: Yes, I have.
CV: How would this phone compare to it? What would make it stand out?
PC: I don’t know what they do, really. I know that they built a $16,000 phone before.
CV: Yes, the Solaris, but this one’s going to cost about $1,000.
PC: It’s not easy to build a phone. Anybody who’s built phones knows that it’s not easy. And then it’s even harder when you need to go on a completely new ecosystem. I think HTC has a proven track record both in Windows Mobile and in Android. I’m curious to see how a startup will be able to navigate that.
Even when we built the first mobile on Windows and Android, we were far from being a startup. We’ve already shipped hundreds of thousands of phones. And then, by the time we built Android, we shipped over millions of phones. I think that this experience matters when it comes to hardware and when it comes to integrating very sophisticated software.
CV: So, can we expect to see an Exodus on time for Black Friday? Or is there another timeline for this release?
PC: We will be talking about timelines in the very near future.