09 Feb

A Beginner’s Guide to Decentralized Finance (DeFi)

This is now possible on smart contract blockchains, like Ethereum. “Smart contracts” are programs running on the blockchain that can execute automatically when certain conditions are met. These smart contracts enable developers to build far more sophisticated functionality than simply sending and receiving cryptocurrency. These programs are what we now call decentralized apps, or dapps.

You can think of a dapp as an app that is built on decentralized technology, rather than being built and controlled by a single, centralized entity or company. (Get used to this word, dapp, you’ll be seeing it a lot from here on out.)

While some of these concepts might sound futuristic–automated loans negotiated directly between two strangers in different parts of the world, without a bank in the middle– many of these dapps are already live today. There are DeFi dapps that allow you to create stablecoins (cryptocurrency whose value is pegged to the US dollar), lend out money and earn interest on your crypto, take out a loan, exchange one asset for another, go long or short assets, and implement automated, advanced investment strategies.

What differentiates these DeFi dapps from their traditional bank or Wall Street counterparts?

  • At their core, the operations of these businesses are not managed by an institution and its employees — instead the rules are written in code (or smart contract, as mentioned above). Once the smart contract is deployed to the blockchain, DeFi dapps can run themselves with little to no human intervention (although in practice developers often do maintain the dapps with upgrades or bug fixes).
  • The code is transparent on the blockchain for anyone to audit. This builds a different kind of trust with users, because anyone has the opportunity to understand the contract’s functionality or find bugs. All transaction activity is also public for anyone to view. While this may raise privacy questions, transactions are pseudonymous by default, i.e. not tied directly to your real-life identity.
  • Dapps are designed to be global from day one — Whether you’re in Texas or Tanzania, you have access to the same DeFi services and networks. Of course, local regulations may apply but, technically speaking, most DeFi apps are available to anyone with an internet connection.
  • “Permissionless” to create, “permissionless” to participate — anyone can create DeFi apps, and anyone can use them. Unlike finance today, there are no gatekeepers or accounts with lengthy forms. Users interact directly with the smart contracts from their crypto wallets.
  • Flexible user experience — don’t like the interface to a certain dapp? No problem — you can use a third party interface, or build your own. Smart contracts are like an open API that anyone can build an app for.
  • Interoperable — new DeFi applications can be built or composed by combining other DeFi products like Lego pieces — e.g. stablecoins, decentralized exchanges, and prediction markets can be combined to form entirely new products.

DeFi is now one of the fastest growing sectors in crypto. Industry observers measure traction with a unique new metric — “ETH locked in DeFi”. At the time of writing, users have deposited over $600 million worth of crypto into these smart contracts.

Intrigued? Let’s take a closer look at just a few of the popular DeFi dapps out there that you can try today. You’ll need a cryptocurrency wallet with a built-in dapp browser (like Coinbase Wallet) to connect to these dapps. You can also use most of these dapps on desktop by selecting the Coinbase Wallet option and scanning a QR code.

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