Composability has become a new buzzword in the Web3 world. “An application is composable if it can be used as a building block for another application”, wrote a Web3 infrastructure company called Syndica. In another definitiona16z VC Chris Dixon defined composability as “the ability to mix and match software components like lego bricks”.
If this concept sounds familiar to you, it’s because web developers have been creating applications from reusable components since the 1990s. In Web 2.0, composable applications were called “mashups”, “web services”, “widgets” and a number of similar terms. Even before the Web, software companies like Microsoft offered developers ways to reuse software objects – Microsoft’s system was called the Component object model (COM). You could even say that this concept dates back to the 1960s, when Doug Engelbart “primeThe philosophy helped his team develop the first networked computer system.
With all of this history behind us, why do we need to reinvent reusable components as “composability” in Web3?
Why Web3 is defending a new mandate
When I asked on Twitter what makes “composability” different from previous generations of reusable apps, Chris Dixon responded that “composability was a big part of the early days of web2 (remember ‘mashups’) but essentially disappeared when it became clear that web2’s winning strategy was not to interoperate and APIs were deprecated, etc.”
That’s a fair point. In the early days of Web 2.0, the potential for mashups was seen through rose-tinted glasses. In a blog post I wrote in March 2006, the younger self expressed excitement about the potential of mashups. “There are a number of ways mashup developers can monetize their products,” I wrote. As examples I have cited Simplyhired.coma “vertical job search” company that collected data from a variety of sources, and a site called Dude, where’s my used car?a mix of data from eBay Motors and Google Maps.
While some big companies actually started out as mashups (Simply Hired continued to grow and eventually was acquired in 2016), in the early 2010s, centralized platforms began to assert their control over the web. Some of these companies have limited or even shut down access to their APIs, which has jeopardized the mashup’s business model. A notable example in the technology industry was Twitter, which until 2011 openly encouraged mashup companies to use his data, but by 2012 severely limited developer access to its API.
The mashups were a peak of excitement for Web 2.0. And then centralized platforms shot it down.
— Lev Walkin (@levwalkin) January 9, 2022
So yes, the Web 2.0 dream of open APIs and an ecosystem of mashup companies fell apart during the 2010s. That was a shame, because much of the appeal of early Web 2.0 was the potential of a seamless data network.
Ceramics: Bringing data composability to Web3
Where Web 2.0 was in 2006, Web3 is in 2022. There is growing enthusiasm among developers – among believers, at least – and an expectation that the data will soon be freed from the clutches of Big Tech. Rose-tinted glasses are back, except this time they’re perched on the noses of NFT monkeys and punks.
— DAO Developer (🧱, 🚀) (@developer_dao) November 12, 2021
One of the most interesting composability projects to emerge in Web3 is Ceramic, which is called “a decentralized data network that brings unlimited data composability to Web3 applications”. It is essentially a data conduit between dApps (decentralized applications), blockchains, and different flavors of decentralized storage. The idea is that a dApp developer can use Ceramic to manage “streams” of data, which can then be repurposed or repurposed by other dApps through an open API.
Unlike most blockchains, Ceramic is also able to scale easily. A blog post on Ceramic’s website explains that “each Ceramic node acts as an individual execution environment to perform calculations and commit transactions on streams – there is no global ledger”.
It is also worth noting about ceramics its use of DID (Decentralized Identifiers), a W3C web standard for authentication that I wrote about last year. The DID standard allows Ceramic users to transact with streams using decentralized identities.
Web3 is more than DeFi and NFT. Blockchains have already demonstrated the value of composability for tokens. Ceramic brings that same composability to every piece of data on the internet. Think portable profiles, social graphs, blogs, identity, reputation, content, games, streams.
— Ceramics (@ceramicnetwork) February 16, 2022
The company behind Ceramic is 3Box Laboratorieswhich announced a $30 million investment round in Februaryled by Multicoin Capital and Union Square Ventures (USV). Kyle Samanimanaging partner at Multicoin Capital, wrote a support post explaining his enthusiasm for ceramics. “Building an app on Ceramic is like browsing through a marketplace of data models, connecting them to your app, and automatically accessing all of the network data stored in those models,” he wrote.
One potential use case cited by Samani was a decentralized version of Twitter, which would allow each user to control their own “flow” of data – and potentially bring that data to complementary or even competing dApps.
Let’s shoot this Twitter clone thread for a minute. From the developer’s perspective, the idea is that other dApps could use the same data model as the first Twitter clone built. Let’s say you’re an App developer and want to create a very niche version of Twitter (eg, for quilters). An easy way to do this would be to use the original Twitter clone’s data model for your dApp so that quilters using the original product can start using your product right away – and maybe even import all of their quilting-related content.
Solana Blockchain and Composability
While composability is a buzzword that can be applied to the Ethereum blockchain – in a blog post, VC Linda Xie argued that the ERC-20 standard is an example of composability – it is the Solana blockchain that has become most closely associated with the term. At its homepage, Solana says that its blockchain “provides composability across ecosystem projects.” The Ethereum homepage, on the other hand, makes no mention of the word.
The Ceramic project is careful to position itself as blockchain agnostic (in fact, Solana isn’t even mentioned on its homepage, but the Ethereum logo is present). Either way, Solana seems to be Ceramic’s most complementary blockchain. Solana’s main advantage over Ethereum is a much faster transaction rate for dApps. Kyle Samani, whose venture capital firm MultiCoin is also a big investor in Solana, believes “the next generation of apps are going to be lego castles built on top of Solana.”
I’ll end with my standard Web3 project disclaimer: let’s see what’s actually built with Ceramic before passing judgment. But in theory, I like the idea that composability in Web3 will bring mashups back to the web.
Image selected via photo by Ron Lach from Pexels.