The privacy-focused document editor Skiff believes it’s found a better way to protect your files.
Instead of stashing your documents with a major cloud storage provider such as Amazon Web Services, Skiff is letting its users choose a decentralized alternative called Interplanetary File System, or IPFS. For users who opt in, Skiff will encrypt their documents, split them into pieces, and distribute them across a network of potential hosts, keeping them out of the hands of big tech companies. Doing so would protect against government requests for data, and because the documents are end-to-end encrypted, only the actual user would be able to see their contents.
“It’s just perfectly aligned with the privacy proposition,” says Andrew Milich, Skiff’s cofounder and CEO. “There’s no reason why, if you publish your own work or web page, it should be stored on an Amazon server.”
The potential for a distributed file system goes beyond just pandering to big tech skeptics. Proponents of IPFS say that it could make services like Skiff more resilient to server downtime such as the doozy of an outage that AWS suffered a year ago,because documents would no longer have a single point of failure. It may also eventually reduce the cost of backing up your photos, videos, and other data.
Many of those benefits are theoretical for now, but Skiff, which is launching out of beta today, is taking a modest step toward realizing them. It’s an early example of how a decentralized internet—increasingly a talking point for the NFT and cryptocurrency crowd—could have actual consumer applications.
How IPFS works
A fundamental principle of the internet today is that everything’s addressed by location. When you clicked on this article, your web browser looked up the address for the server that hosts this page, then retrieved whatever data was hosted there.
IPFS flips the internet’s organizing principle around so that the content comes first. Instead of seeking out a specific location on a remote server, users request data from a network of potential hosts based on the content’s unique properties. Anyone with a computer and hard drive space can host an IPFS node, and any host whose data matches the request can deliver the content.
Dietrich Ayala, the ecosystem growth engineer at IPFS developer Protocol Labs, says the concept is similar to how peer-to-peer file sharing works in applications such as BitTorrent. This content is not encrypted by default, but individual applications, such as Skiff, can apply end-to-end encryption so that node operators can’t see the content of what they’re hosting.
“You’re basically broadcasting a request to a network, saying, ‘Hey, does anybody have this?'” Ayala says. “That signature is unique. It also serves as a way to verify that what you get in return is actually that data.”
Ayala points to numerous potential use cases for such a system. It could, for instance, help form a decentralized alternative to The Internet Archive, with users preserving copies of web pages or files that are at risk of being removed or replaced. It could also attract NFT enthusiasts by making purchases less dependent on static web links to view artwork and its associated metadata.
And for an application like Skiff, IPFS could be more resilient than traditional online storage. Milich hopes to eventually offer a version of Skiff in which users download the software to their computers and send encrypted edits through IPFS, thereby maintaining access to the service even if Skiff’s own servers are down. Ayala notes that the system could also serve as a hedge against Skiff having more permanent problems.
“If Skiff goes out of business, you still have this set of providers that have archived that data, and you still have the keys to decrypt that data,” he says.
IPFS could even become a cheaper way to back up files online. To encourage node operators to host other users’ data, Protocol Labs has created a cryptocurrency called Filecoin, which it distributes to users who rent out unused storage space. Ayala says this creates a competitive marketplace for storage and undercuts major cloud storage providers such as Amazon. (According to the website File.app, Filecoin’s storage costs are currently 0.02% of what Amazon charges for its “infrequent access” tier.)
Retrieving data from a collection of distant nodes may still be slower than, say, looking up pictures on Google Photos, but it could also be cheaper and more resilient than just stashing your image library on a local hard drive.
“Personal photo storage is a fantastic use case, because it is the kind of thing where you don’t need real-time access to most of that data, but you want to sleep at night with the assurance that that data is going to be there,” Ayala says.
Early days for decentralized storage
IPFS still has a long way to go before it can realize most of those benefits. While anyone can currently host a node by downloading the IPFS Desktop software, being able to read data from those nodes depends on support from applications and web browsers.
On the browser side, only Opera and the desktop version of Brave can read web pages or standalone files on the IPFS network. Brave’s desktop browser can also serve as an IPFS node, allowing users to “pin” files and web pages that they want to keep on the network. Ayala says Protocol Labs is pushing for structural changes in web rendering engines such as Chromium and WebKit, which would make broader IPFS support easier.
Application support is even scarcer, with IPFS’s ecosystem directory mostly limited to developer tools and cryptocurrency-related uses. In terms of consumer applications that have clear counterparts on the non-decentralized web, Skiff stands alone, competing with the likes of Google Docs, Microsoft Word, and Notion.
To break the chicken-and-egg scenario, Protocol Labs is plying app developers with the promise of free file storage. Milich acknowledges that was one reason that Skiff decided to use IPFS in the first place. (The two startups also have a shared investor in Sequoia Capital.)
“Today, there’s a real deep need to build applications on it, so they give grants, they support projects, all this stuff,” Milich says.
But even with greater buy-in from developers, the system invites new concerns that didn’t exist under the non-decentralized web. IPFS nodes are public, for instance, so anyone who knows the unique identifier for a node operator can see a record of all the metadata they’ve stored. Brave has an option to cycle through identifiers as a workaround, but IPFS has no standard way to protect operators’ privacy.
Those who want to access IPFS without running their own node can alternatively use a gateway that hides their activity from the public—Skiff, for instance, operates its own gateway for users—but then you’re entrusting the gateway with a full record of your browsing activity. It’s akin to how using a VPN for privacy requires you to trust the VPN provider with your data.
Even if we do starting seeing more consumer IPFS applications around cloud storage, such as a photo backup system, it’s unclear how users would pay for it. Buying and selling goods with cryptocurrency is still a fringe concept, and Ayala acknowledges that it’ll take a lot of work to make it more user-friendly.
“End users interacting with open markets is still pretty new,” he says. “As a user, do I want to manage the relationship with 16 different Filecoin storage providers? Nuh-uh.”
All of which underscores why Skiff’s IPFS support is so interesting. Strictly as a document editor, it’s fast and lightweight, it supports Notion-like subpages and checkboxes, and it makes private collaboration simple. The fact that all documents are end-to-end encrypted doesn’t compromise the software in any noticeable way, and switching to IPFS storage is as simple as clicking a checkbox. Applications like Skiff, rather than NFTs or cryptocurrency, are exactly what the decentralized web needs to prove its worth.
“Products like Skiff are really at the forefront of addressing problems that everybody’s complaining about on the web,” Ayala says. “Seeing a world-class authoring experience, like you get in Skiff, combined with an assurance of privacy when I communicate with the people that matter most to me, is really powerful.”