How Blockchain Might Revolutionize the Internet

Friendup Interview

Do you see blockchain as a networking technology revolution? Hogne Titlestad and Arne Peder Blix, founders of Friend Unifying Platform, are joining on an insightful interview about the future of blockchain technology and how it is to build a decentralized network as pioneers in the space. With years of experience in tech and a lot of passion for software development, their advice is essential for anyone who’s excited about the Internet’s future!

Hello Arne and Hogne! Can you both introduce yourselves and provide a bit of info about your background and previous projects?

Hogne: I’m Hogne Titlestad, Chief Technology Architect and co-founder of Friend Software Corp. My background is in world history and philosophy. Computers have been my hobby from when I was 6 years old, and I was always busy programming since getting my first computer. I started my career as a programmer in 2001 – building database back-ends as well as application front-ends for various companies in The Netherlands. From 2003-2010, I worked for various software development companies until founding Idéverket in 2010 with a couple of partners. I acted as a CEO until we created Friend Software Labs in 2014. This is when I met with Arne, and he took over as CEO of the company. The rest is history. Previous projects were AROS, Lunapaint, TuxPuck and ARENACM – a range of very different projects in the open source realm.

Arne: I’m a serial tech entrepreneur with several successful exits, particularly within SaaS fintech. In 2002, I co-founded and bootstrapped Accurate Equity, a fintech SaaS and professional services company within equity-based incentives design, accounting, valuation and disclosure, up until I sold it to a major PE in 2015. During the exit, I met Hogne and we started Friend – at the same time I made 9 other investments in deep-tech software; IOT, workflow platforms in film production, and several others. See my Linkedin for some more details. As we started on Friend, I was Chairman of MeaWallet 2015-16 and led the restructuring and sale of a fintech SaaS mobile payment infrastructure company to Seamless Distribution AB (Nasdaq; SEAM).  Now, as Friend is booming, my focus is more and more on Friend.   I have a Navy background and graduated from the Royal Norwegian Naval Academy in 1993. I spent most of my seagoing service on Norwegian attack submarines. Because of that, I started working for the Classification Society DNV-GL as a project manager and headed prestigious projects in the Philippines, Panama, and New York for these Flag States (crew production quality and certification as well as international safety management).  Thereafter, I was recruited as an international negotiator and lobbyist for the Norwegian Shipowners’ Association, representing them in the International Maritime Organization, the UN body for shipping. I later moved to Houston, Texas as chief commercial broker for one of its member companies.  Before founding Accurate Equity, I returned to Norway as a sales executive for a Norwegian IT company developing electronic log books.  I have an MBA in maritime law.

Can you both tell us about how you first became acquainted with the blockchain?

Hogne: Friend was always supposed to be decentralized. We were researching node networks even before the Friend code base was started – all the way back in 2013 when I met with Chris André Strømland. Treeroot, an experimental social networking platform used an early implementation of a node network to bind together servers in a mesh. Friend expanded on the ideas from this project to build up a decentralized cloud. During this time, we were thinking about building our own blockchain like network for distributed, encrypted user accounts, and we were working with a company called Synaptic, discussing ideas on how to properly engineer this network to be completely peer-to-peer based. When Ethereum launched back in 2014, our mindset changed somewhat, and we quickly signed on to their forums and read their material. Our focus at the time was to build our operating system and specifications, so it wasn’t until 2016 that we could truly start playing with the Ethereum blockchain for real. After having built a working beta version of Friend, we got acquainted with Golem and their key advisors. This led us to start redefining our specifications to align with the Ethereum blockchain, and further down the line it put us on our current track, as seen in our whitepaper.

Arne: In addition to what Hogne already said, we saw that we had to start centralized, get a commercial version up and running, and then decentralize it. That is what we have done and are still doing. In order to deliver FriendUp open source, we had to build a viable fiat business and get enterprise clients on it. In essence, we are building a normal fiat company – Friend Software Corporation, and the Friend Network is the ICO-financed project delivering the decentralized open source agnostic version – as described in the whitepaper.

What’s your opinion on the future of the blockchain?

Hogne: The blockchain is the closest thing we have come to a networking technology revolution in the last decade. It allows developers to create applications and platforms that are close to achieving permanence through autonomy in user generated networks. The future of this technology is interesting to ponder because part of it will be due to government regulations, and part of it will be the result of heavy iterations in the hacker and open source developer communities. But it is clear that commercial entities and big corporations will not be the defining entities for the technology at large. The blockchain is and will remain a significant part of the open source movement. This is my opinion anyway. Corporations are not especially interested in autonomous software that is controlled by user networks. And because of their different perspective on what constitutes an incentive for building this technology, their alternative blockchains will go in a completely different direction – missing goal of blockchain technology altogether.

The blockchain is the closest thing we have come to a networking technology revolution in the last decade – Hogne Titlestad Click To Tweet

Arne: Yes, the blockchain is here to stay and has great potential for uses where it can play to its strengths. Clearly, no technology is a cure for all pains, and there are many areas where the blockchain is not the answer.  Sorry to disappoint some readers, but I don’t think it is a revolution – it is an evolution. We will still be using old, centralized, and dated applications and platforms for a long time to come.

Therefore, the Friend Network and the Friend Store is a way for the two “realms” (blockchain-decentralized and centralized non-blockchain/legacy) to coexist. We “blend” DLT technology with conventional technology, and “blend” the digital assets (tokens) to interact with fiat currencies in the Friend Store -in the same Unified User Experience – Friend Unifying Platform.

Can you tell us about your current project and explain to us the concept of Friend Unifying Platform? What novelties does it bring to the cloud market?

Hogne: We often times compare FriendUP to Chrome OS and Google Cloud. This is because the Friend Workspace and the Friend Network together form both a “Chrome OS” and network based “Chromebook” on a user owned cloud infrastructure – where Chrome OS and Google Cloud is a proprietary and controlled walled garden owned by a huge international corporation with their own profit-based goals. Friend’s vision is much more aligned with the user’s own interests – let me refer to our five pillars; Freedom, Empowerment, Privacy, Intelligence, and Integration. Our project aims to build a permanent operating system on user-owned networking infrastructure complete with a distribution solution – the Friend Store – that allows all Friend users and developers to trade and interact without a middle man. This gives users an “always on” cloud computer where they can access all of their apps, services, and digital resources, on any device, anywhere, at any time. And there’s no company that owns the off-switch – which is the entire point of blockchain-based platforms like FriendUP.

Why “Friend Unifying Platform?” How did you choose this name? What does it symbolize?

Hogne: The Friend name has a lot of positive connotations. And it establishes a kind of social contract right in the name. Arne has an excellent speech that elaborates on this point. But in essence, the Friend technology aims to work as a digital friend for the user, helping to make life simpler.

FriendUP is the short abbreviation for the Friend Unifying Platform – which reflects on our mission to unify technologies and data formats so that the user is free to interact with these in a simple and predictable manner while still remaining in control.

Arne: Well, it’s rather logic.

We believe that in the future of the digital ecosystem, anyone’s ability to partner and coexist is going to be a determining factor. Therefore, the Ultimate Digital Ecosystem Platform needs to be friendly, agnostic, and fair, This is where the Five Pillars of Friend are so important.

Any person knows how it feels to lose a friendship. It’s painful. Most even know how to maintain a friendship, but it demands something from both parties and there has to be a balance with that.  Therefore, we chose our standard to be “Friend”, rather than a binary “don’t do evil.” The binary leaves no room for granularity or shades of grey. If someone does something slightly bad, are they evil? Friend is a dynamic standard that most people, companies, suppliers, users, clients, and partners can understand. If Friend is to take the role as the agnostic open source operating environment, like an “Uber” for operating systems and silos, it will become powerful. Such power needs to be distributed and made autonomous as far as is possible. It just makes sense to call such a unifying platform Friend

What are you trying to achieve in both the short and long-term at Friend UP?

Hogne: In the short term, we aim to bring a new operating system and desktop environment available to the world. Linux has had an excellent run, and it has empowered millions of people all over the world. But the paradigm is changing, and we are running multiple devices during a single day. Linux doesn’t move like liquid between these devices, and it is very difficult to set up for average users. Friend, as a system, aims to be an “easy Linux” without compromising on power and versatility. This will allow users to be able to access their Friend machine everywhere, under any circumstance.

Friend aims to be an “easy Linux” without compromising on power and versatility – Hogne Titlestad Click To Tweet

In the long run, we aim to expand what you can use Friend for. As a global service and resource network, it can form a user-owned infrastructure for people to rely on worldwide. We can imagine other Blockchain projects being seriously amplified through Friend, and you will be able to do everything from managing your own family economy to ordering tickets and transportation – even getting a job, all through the Friend Network. What Linux does for your computing needs on a Notebook, Friend aims to do for your entire life – long term. Because as a conduit, or a hub, it will be able to connect to everything using your personal user account.

Can you tell us about some of your potential partners as well as about existing partnerships?

Arne: In the fiat realm, we started out small and have already partnered with Hove Medical AS – helping their System X evolve to “Hove Total,” where we have “softmerged.”

We have an early-stage cooperation with a lot of different players such as Huawei and Alere (distributor of Welsh-Allyn Abbot medical equipment). The fiat business is growing fast and as the word is getting out now, we get invited to a lot of interesting PoC discussions with the biggest companies.

What is the Friend Store and how does it enhance the abilities provided by various cloud services?

Hogne: The Friend Store is a pivot point in the Friend user experience. It is where you find new services and applications in the Friend Network, and where you connect with other users and developers all over the world. Most users will access the Friend Store multiple times a week to check on their subscriptions, manage their applications, and read news and updates about the items available there.

In the Friend Store, you will be able to add storage space, computing power and digital services to your user account. This could be commercial, proprietary cloud services too, from companies like IBM or Amazon – where the user could be in a position where he or she would be required to use such services for their Terms of Use and warranties. On the other hand, the Friend Store will allow the user to pick and choose between all competing technologies. We believe it will be a huge repository of great blockchain technologies which may soon be more than viable to replace proprietary cloud technologies in many fields.

Arne: The Friend Store, together with the Friend Network, will form a digital ecosystem marketplace that “blends” technology and “blends” digital assets (tokens- crypto currencies) with fiat currencies. As you go to the checkout counter, you can decide how to pay. If you have a Friend Account/wallet (the setup of which is part of the project), you can pay with fiat or even an invoice, and if you hold FRND tokens you can use them. We will also work with token-to-token exchanges such as Omisego and others like it.

Friend Studios has a history of more than 7 years of development. What did you do prior to cloud platforms?

Hogne: Friend Studios used to be called Idéverket. It was a Norwegian company that focused on advertisement, design, web and server software development, websites, and widgets. Idéverket is a Norwegian word and translates to something like “the idea factory.”. We had a strong focus on innovation, and we built several new technologies over the four years of activity as a company. We had a wide span, developing a syringe container at the same time as we maintained a content management system called ARENACM. We even created hardware and software that backed an entire Viking museum and exhibition in Stavanger, Norway. A lot of the innovation came from our close work with many different companies and organizations operating on the west coast of Norway.

Why did you decide to make an ICO, and why in Norway?

Arne: After having worked in fintech for over 15 years, I am familiar with Finma and the fiat side of the Swiss fintech ecosystem, as well as most other hubs around the world.  As we started our learning with Golem, we got introduced to a lot of very knowledgeable people and were all preparing for doing our ICO from a Swiss entity. As we got to September, after a very fast learning curve, we saw that we had the competence to consider doing this from and in Norway. It occurred to me that the values inherent in the decentralized technology ecosystem are values which are abundant in Norway:

• Norway is one of the most transparent countries in the world. A private company needs to disclose more than a public company has to disclose in the US or UK. This is very good for token-holders as they will, by default, have access to more information. This is great for everyone.
• Norwegian infrastructure is quite digitally advanced and friendly. This makes for a great “test lab” for PoC’s and small-scale live testing before global deployment. Many of our own products and services will be rolled out locally first, before we deploy them globally.
Norway has a lot of trust capital. The social democratic legacy and our climate and remote location has helped  the Norwegian society retain its positive, somewhat naive, and austere nature.
• Norway has the lowest inequality index score of the western world. People are happy (highest score over many years), we have no foreign debt and our society “works” (sure it’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good).

For any project, it is vital to have sufficient trust and frequent iterations as well as interactions with legislators, tax authorities, great advisors, and cooperating banks. – Arne Peder Blix Click To Tweet

We believe these values are fully compatible with the shift that people see and want. By doing our ICO in Norway, we will set a standard “benchmark” on how to carry out an ICO in a safe and controlled fashion, and work with the regulators and banks in evolving the Friend project and the FRND token as an example (hopefully) for others to follow.

It is obvious that we are all still in a very early stage of the next phase of “evolution” in the digital ecosystem. It is therefore vital to have sufficient trust and frequent iterations as well as interactions with legislators, tax authorities, great advisors (we use EY), and cooperating banks.  All with the same intent to learn fast and get good at this.

You claim Ethereum to be the “standard for global scalable blockchains.” Do you think that Ethereum will stay as the uncontested leader in this space? Or does it have highly perspective competitors? Which ones?

Hogne: Ethereum has many competitors. And it’s the nature of the beast – the free marketplace of ideas has a space for innovators from all over the world. But Ethereum has a headstart on competing technologies, and it has a worldwide movement and lots of financial backing. It will be hard to match – but in this domain, things move quickly, and it is hard to predict.

Like I’ve said before, I think the main players will stay in the open source realm. I do not think IBM or Microsoft will disrupt the popularity of open source blockchains.

We do have to keep an eye out for other contenders. I just looked over Universa, which looks very interesting. New projects keep popping up.

Hogne, you have a degree in world history and philosophy. How did you become a software architect? Did you attend some extra courses or was it mostly self-education? Can you recommend any?

Hogne: Well, I started programming when I was six years old. Using Basic, which was how most 80’s kids got into the field. As I grew older, I started playing around with various other languages. Basic can be very limited, as most of its functionality is traditionally tied in a closed loop. I learned some Pascal and JavaScript, and then the Internet exploded. After this, I got into various new scripting languages, like PHP and Ruby. But all this time, I still preferred to write code in plain C, which was my main hobby after coming home from work as a web developer. So in short, most of my knowledge about programming came from working with other coders and reading the odd “Programming for Dummies” book picked up in a kiosk or at an airport bookstore.

I’ve always been creative, and one of my great passions is painting and drawing using a pencil. Being in this state of mind, creating and building architecture for software was always a strong driving force that pushed me to learn more about software technology.

For new would-be programmers, I would say this: Experiment as much as possible. Learn from reading other people’s code and spend your time memorizing routines and algorithms. And start some projects – build your own game or app. Different books read differently to different people, but a strong and consistent effort always pays back in droves.

Arne, you have an extremely wide management experience. Can you tell us about some of the projects that you are most proud of?

Arne: In 1996 I started in Det Norske Veritas (DNV) – today it is known as DNV-GL – a classification society, where I worked as a project manager getting the Philippines and Panama on the so-called “White List” for Standards for Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping (STCW), by the deadline of August 1st, 1998. I led both of these major projects to success in an extremely complex regulatory, political, and corruption-prone environment. A lot of unlawful operations were shut down as a consequence, and procedures for proper certification of seafarers and ships were installed. This work led me to being offered a job as lead negotiator and lobbyist on behalf of the Norwegian Shipowners’ Association for all technical, safety, and environmental matters in the UN body for shipping, IMO (International Maritime Organization).  I later started working with international shipping and IT, building and delivering the world’s first electronic log books for Kongsberg Maritime.

Clearly, before getting to know Hogne and starting my journey with Friend, building Accurate Equity (formerly Norse Solutions) has been the biggest accomplishment. We were four guys setting out in 2002, betting our own money and careers on the International Financial Reporting Standard (IFRS) and US GAAP (accounting standard) – focusing on equity-based incentives accounting, valuation, and disclosure. Later, we expanded the service to include the entire “value chain” including option exercises, equity plan designs, and valuations of very complex derivatives. I bootstrapped this as CEO for 13 years and it became one of the very few providers of a global SaaS and Service in this very heavy regulated environment.  I sold this company in 2015 to a major PE and it is now called Equatex.

Blockchain, decentralized ledger tech, and digital assets are all about incentives – Arne Peder Blix Click To Tweet

I think it is important for the readers to understand the “nature of this beast,” because blockchain, decentralized ledger tech (in general), and digital assets (in essence) are all about incentives. It is funny how I have been “groomed” for working with Hogne and the other fantastic people in Friend over the many years, as I have in essence been working with incentives, complex deep tech, global legislation, and taxes for almost two decades.

How did you form the team? What are some competencies and skills that you search for when hiring a blockchain developer?

Hogne: I had a network of past colleagues from work and a few online friends who I had worked with on other open source projects. We were never really hunting down blockchain developers specifically, as we aren’t blockchain engineers specifically – we’re blockchain users. As our projects expands, though, we will certainly hire blockchain experts as part of our tech team. But the most important talent we seek is in security. We will need rapid iterations on security as this project is proliferated and spread throughout developer and user communities.

The most important skill we seek in a developer is versatility and practicality. At the same time, the individual should be open minded and not too rigid about his or her preferred toolset. We must accept that frameworks and preferred libraries change all the time, so having the ability to work out of a bare bones environment is highly favourable to us.

Arne: I have met a lot of talented people on my path. Some of these have decided to work with me again in new endeavours. As Friend grows, we tap into this and other networks, always in search of the best talent with the right attitude.  In my experience, it always boils down to the quality of the people and the teams. Good teams attract great talent, and I feel like I’m back where I started, on submarines with great people, great tech, a lot of risk, and a lot of action and fun!

When hiring, did you notice the lack of specialists in some areas of knowledge? What were those?

Hogne: I think the experience in creating low-level code is rare overall. Most low-level programmers who know Assembly or plain C have jobs, and good ones at that. These guys often live in their codes and immerse themselves in algorithms. When finding such a developer, it’s hard not to try and stand on a limb to do everything possible to catch them.

Finally, finding developers with a good and thorough understanding of security may be harder than it ought to be. Security is a huge field, and finding the right person for the field you’re in can be a difficult task. This is also why we seek to partner with specialists in this field and other fields which may not be at the core of our expertise.

Arne: In this “new” space, there is a great mix of talent. There is some of the brightest, for sure, but also some of the more complex people. This makes it very interesting, but also demanding, when building teams and seeking talent that fits with the Friend Ethos. I am a true believer of diversity, as it is in my experience of handling binary risk (safe-unsafe, accurate-inaccurate) bodes for the best insurance premium. Within Friend, we operate as an efficient meritocracy with an unusually “loose” style. Some areas of the business requires more rigid structures, but we endeavour to keep it fun and easy-going.  

Hogne, in your opinion, what makes a “good” developer? How can someone improve their skills to become a successful developer?

Hogne: A good developer has his or her own projects. That’s my personal opinion. If you’re not driven to put your own ideas into code, or if you prefer to participate in other people’s projects instead of making your own, you’re evidently not very passionate about the field. I think you need that passion, as a creative developer, to be really “good.” A good developer is almost obsessed with code and occupied with writing programs as often as possible.

Another thing that’s required to be a successful developer is the ability to work in a structured environment. But honestly, unstructured programmers mostly won’t complete their own projects, so again, I usually judge developers based on how many of their own projects they have completed. It doesn’t have to be a whole lot, but they should at least have a few good ones that work as intended.