Six months ago, we tested the Lightning Network, the network on top of Bitcoin, which may realize the dream of Bitcoin as digital cash. In April, there were just over 1,000 nodes connected, and the network had a total capacity of 66,000 dollars. Now, the network is estimated to have a capacity of about $ 2 million, so confidence in the network, which, nevertheless, still is considered to be in a testing stage, has undoubtedly increased.
A limitation with Lightning Network that makes it a bit difficult to access for ordinary users so far is that people must run their own Bitcoin node in order to be able to use the network fully, i.e. both send and receive payments. There are a few different initiatives to make this easier, one of which is simply to make it easy to run their own full node. Casa recently released the Casa Node, a small plug & play device that runs your own Bitcoin and Lightning node without requiring the operator to possess any technical knowledge at all.
One of the first reviews showed some early weaknesses with the product. Despite being a suppressed node, it took a long time, and it was difficult to understand what the unit was doing while waiting. The fact that you have to connect a cord from one side of the box to the other tells you that this is a fairly simple construction. Casa Node simply consists of a Raspberry Pi and an external hard drive in a fairly simple construction. Anyway, this is a great initiative and future versions will surely be easier to use. A web interface is used to view the status of the device, which means that you never need to plug in a screen or a keyboard for your Casa Node.
Casa Node costs $ 300, but if you want to build the same thing yourself, then you can get away with just $ 100 by buying a Raspberry Pi package and supplement with an external hard drive of 1 TB. If you choose this path I recommend this guide that will take you through how you get started with Bitcoin + Lightning, but I also want to add that you can gain a lot of time by starting off with syncing a Bitcoin node on a considerably faster computer (simply plug in an external hard drive to your regular computer) because Rasberry Pi has limited resources and can take a very long time if you start from scratch.
We shall return to what you should do if you cannot or do not want to set up your own full node, but let us assume for the time being that we have one to check out another exciting project that can give a small glimpse of how the future looks. Earlier this month, Will O’Beirne presented the Joule Chrome Extension. With this plugin for your browser, you get a wallet for micro-transactions directly in your browser. If Lightning Network becomes what actually gets micropayments on the net to break through, this gives a taste of how it will look. In Will’s example, he uses something he calls WebLN, a way to integrate websites with Lightning Network. First, a “relationship” is created with the user, in a similar way as when you give a site the right to display notices. After this, the site can, for example, ask the user for a payment that is confirmed by a push of a button. Will demonstrates by purchasing access to an article on yalls.org, and you can do the same by installing Lightning Joule from lightningjoule.com.
OK, but what if you do not have or do not believe that you can set up your own full node? First and foremost, it is worth noticing that there is a lot of work going on to develop solutions to easily use Lightning Network, even without a full node.
- An example of this is so-called watchtowers which will be able to monitor the network for you without you having to be constantly online.
- Another example is to use thin s.k. SPV clients similarly, made by many mobile apps in the regular Bitcoin network.
The details differ slightly in the way that instead of checking whether a particular transaction exists in a block, it must be possible to check that a transaction is NOT in a block (namely a transaction that closes your channel). All this is work-in-progress, and if you want to follow the development in detail, there are lots of information on dev.lightning.community.
What you can do right now without setting up your own Bitcoin Node is to download an app that allows you to send payments on the Lightning network but not receive any. An example of such an app is Eclair for Android. For iOS, such wallets seem to be only available for the test network, but keep yourself updated through this list of wallets as it can be changed soon.
In other words, Lightning Network is still primarily something for early enthusiasts and tech geeks, but the pace of development is high, so it will be exciting to see where we are in another six months.