The next step to take crypto mainstream is protocol mobile apps.
Crypto protocols are developer platforms; open source, permissionless, and community-governed APIs anyone can mix and match to build novel products or other protocols. Most protocols also offer first-party web apps to give users a basic interface to interact with the protocol. These apps have played a significant role in getting protocols where they are today, yet oddly enough, no major protocol has a mobile app. In a mobile-first world, this has to change.
The role of third-party apps
Like their web counterparts, first-party mobile apps are not about competing with third-party products. Independent wallets and applications — like Argent, Rainbow, and Dharma — are essential to the ecosystem, as they can do things first-party ones will never be able to: aggregate competing protocols, bundle complementary products, address niche or alternate use-cases, connect through brand, and more. They are simply more complete, and most users will likely fulfill their needs through them in the long term.
Benefits of first-party apps
Even if most people end up using protocols through third-party products, web apps have shown that first-party interfaces are an important step. To understand the potential benefits of mobile apps, it’s useful to look at the ones partially delivered by web apps today:
1. Enable launches. Protocols face a cold start problem. Instead of waiting for developers to integrate them, founding teams can release basic first-party apps to prove user demand, learn, and kick off any flywheels required. Historically, this has been mostly relevant for new protocol launches, but could help in major upgrades.
2. Set a product baseline. First-party apps are an opportunity to showcase the protocol’s capabilities, and share a vision of how products built with it can work. This sets the bar for minimum acceptable UX, which developers can later improve in their own products.
3. Better protocols. First-party apps enhances core team’s empathy in two ways: 1) it brings them closer to end users, exposing them to their true needs, feedback, and requests; and 2) it forces them to build on top of their own API, exposing them to the bugs, limitations, and documentation developers face. These enhanced feedback loops result in a platform that is more useful for end users, and delightful for developers.
4. Educate users. First-party apps help educate users about the protocol by having an interface that tells a hyper-focused story, and even open the door for features like onboarding tutorials, detailed guides, and dedicated support channels.
5. Onboard new users to crypto. Many people's first step after using crypto to speculate is to try specific protocols. First-party apps capture this interest by offering an explicit first stop, and when they retain users, it's not only to the protocol but to the larger crypto ecosystem. In the near future, we’ll likely see DAOs invest treasury funds to onboard users to the protocol — and crypto in the process — through referral programs and campaigns that point back to first-party apps.
6. Increase and defend volume. Protocols are in the business of building infrastructure and coordination tools, not consumer products. Yet, network effects mean that protocols with more usage are better protocols; more stable, liquid, and reliable. In a world of competing protocols and aggregators, protocols can’t completely defer to third-parties to fulfill their adoption and retention needs, and first-party apps are the way to take action.
7. Build trust and brand. Protocols are trustless in theory, but brands have proven to be crucial; they inspire the community, provide an edge over competitors, and store customer’s trust. So much so, that many third-party products opt to display protocol brands to leverage the headspace and reputation accrued through first-party apps.
8. A community-aligned option. First-party apps guarantee the existence of a free way to use the protocol, offer a vanilla version, and decisions are made with the protocol’s ultimate best interest in mind — which is usually aligned with the value of the token.
Web vs Mobile Apps
Web apps have been an enormous first step, and will continue to be essential for new and existing protocols. We are however at a point of maturity in the ecosystem where major protocols can take things to the next level by also offering mobile apps.
Mobile apps are easy to discover through app stores, where they benefit from the social proof of customer reviews; they provide clear, permanent, and quick access to the protocol; they live in user’s pockets, and can be used anytime anywhere; they are visited more often than websites, are better at building habits, and home screen icons keep them top of mind; their experience is superior with hyper-fluid interfaces and animations; state persists better through sessions, even enabling offline features; they can serve push and local notifications, which is significant given it’s practically impossible to communicate with protocol users today; and they can leverage OS-level functionality like widgets, secure local storage, and biometric authentication.
Mobile apps will put protocols closer to users by being more digestible, more intimate, better integrated with digital life, and more fun — which will turbocharge the benefits partially obtained from web apps today.
Two approaches for the wallet question
A natural question with protocol mobile apps is how they should relate with wallets. The simple approach is to structure them as dapps just as web apps today, prompting users to connect pre-existing wallets. While not ideal, this alone would be a win for users, but there is another option worth considering.
Given their organic exposure, protocol apps are a common entry point to crypto, yet the first time experience remains jarring. New users have to download a wallet app, create an account, add funds, go to the protocol app, connect their new wallet, jump back and forward to initiate and approve operations, and know they have to do these things in the first place. This process can be significantly improved by building basic wallet functionality and on ramps directly into protocol mobile apps. These self-sufficient applications would make crypto dramatically more accessible and empower a lot more people to try protocols. Thanks to the portability of crypto accounts, users have the option to import a pre-existing one, or create a new one which they can later add to other protocol apps or third-party wallets. We might even see some protocols recommend trusted and protocol-friendly independent wallets inside their apps.
Building the apps
I’m not the first to talk about the need for protocol mobile apps, and some have even suggested that a way to make them a reality might be to pay external teams using DAO funds to build them. While the intention and direction of the idea is the right one, incentives will always be misaligned, and many of the benefits of having a first-party app would be diluted.
Instead, mobile apps development should be led by protocol’s core teams, and ultimately owned by the community.
Crypto protocols are changing the way we interact with money. As we think about how to scale them to billions around the world, we should draw inspiration from how web apps currently help protocols launch, welcome new users, and set up for success, and double down on these benefits through friendly, personal, and accessible mobile apps.
🦄 See an example of what a Uniswap app could work and look like here.